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UCMP expands its Homecoming Weekend program

In previous years, UCMP’s involvement with UC Berkeley’s Homecoming Weekend was limited to a single tour of the collections (normally closed to the public), but this year, the museum decided to expand on that and offer something a little different for its Friends and donors.

On Friday, October 10, Assistant Director for Collections and Research Mark Goodwin started things off with his annual tour of the collections, but that was followed by an afternoon lecture by UCMP Curator and Integrative Biology Professor Tony Barnosky on “Dodging Extinction,” based on his new book of the same name. Barnosky’s book addresses the looming Sixth Mass Extinction and what we can do to prevent it.

The big weekend event was an invitation-only “Night at the Museum” for Friends and donors organized by Assistant Director for Education and Outreach Lisa White. Guests enjoyed food, wine, and cocktails (with such names as “Mammoth Mojito” and “The Trilobite”) while listening to introductory comments by UCMP Director Charles Marshall, Vice Chancellor for Research Graham Fleming, and Dean of the College of Letters & Science G. Steven Martin in the Valley Life Sciences Building’s Wallace Atrium.

The guests were split into smaller groups and led into the museum’s collections where a number of stations were set up, each highlighting the research of select UCMP students, staff, and Curators. The plan was for each group to spend about eight minutes at each station before moving on to the next, but they became so absorbed with the presentations that they were reluctant to leave; therefore, the time spent at each station was extended to about 15 minutes. Because of this, the event, which should have ended shortly after 8:00, ran closer to 9:30 pm. But as far as we could tell, our guests thoroughly enjoyed themselves and UCMP intends to sponsor more special events during future Homecoming Weekends at Cal.

A few photos from the evening’s special event, all taken by Lucy Chang, follow.

charles

UCMP Director Charles Marshall (beneath the T. rex’s ribcage) addresses the gathered guests and members of the UCMP community.
 

Jeff

Grad student Jeff Benca explains how he’s looking at modern plants and pollen to answer questions about the end-Permian extinction, the largest mass extinction in the Earth’s history.
 

Mark

Assistant Director for Collections and Research Mark Goodwin discusses bone structure and growth in the horns and skull of Triceratops.
 

Sarah

Recent graduate Sarah Tulga describes her work with fossil vertebrates that lived alongside the earliest dinosaurs in the Triassic period.
 

Sara

Grad student Sara ElShafie is interested in documenting changes in the growth rates of both extinct and living herpetofaunas (reptiles & amphibians) in response to climate change.
 

Lindsey

Grad student Lindsey Dougherty explains her work with Ctenoides ales, the so-called “disco clam.” See the blog post about Lindsey and the clam’s flashing behavior.
 

Diane and Zixiang

On the left, Senior Museum Scientist Diane Erwin talks about a UCMP collection of fossil insects. At right, first-year grad student Zixiang Zhang discusses the differences between the skulls of saber-toothed cats and modern lions.

The 2015 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar now available

UCMP and the development of the ichthyosaur quarry at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

2015 calendar image

The focus for the 2015 calendar became Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park when a trove of 35 mm slides and black & white prints chronicling the development of the ichthyosaur quarry was found in the museum archives. These images, from the Charles L. Camp Papers, dominate the calendar, however, there are also slides from the collections of Sam Welles and Joe Gregory, images from the Huff family archives, newspaper clippings, printed materials, and scientific illustrations.

A short summary
In 1953, the bones of large ichthyosaurs found east of Gabbs, Nevada, were brought to the attention of UCMP’s Charles Camp. The following year, he began excavations that led to the discovery of bones representing some 37 individuals of a new kind of ichthyosaur that he later described and named Shonisaurus. From the beginning, Camp felt that the locality should be protected as a state park and, working with other interested parties in Nevada, he was successful in convincing the legislature to do this.

Camp turned one quarry containing the bones of several ichthyosaurs into a showcase for visitors, leaving the bones in situ and sandblasting them clean; this became the Visitors’ Quarry that people see at the park today.

Camp died before he was able to publish his description of the new species, but Joe Gregory saw that the manuscript was completed and published in 1980. UCMP’s Sam Welles, with the assistance of volunteers, spent three summers in the early 1980s at the Visitors’ Quarry cleaning and preserving the exposed bones and making a new map of the bonebed. Read more about the park.

Order now!
Contact Chris Mejia at cmejia@berkeley.edu or call 510-642-1821 to obtain your 2015 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar. They're only $10 each (plus postage) and all proceeds support museum research, education, and outreach.

And for you collectors, a few copies of both the 2013 and 2014 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar are still available for a mere $2.

Air-breathing snails, old and new

The UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) is home to more than five million invertebrate fossil specimens, a majority of them being marine in origin. While rehousing the US Geological Survey’s Menlo Park collections, I came across specimens of Actinella, a genus of terrestrial gastropod. The earliest known air-breathing gastropods in the fossil record appeared during the Carboniferous Period, Carboniferous being a reference to the abundant coal deposits formed at this time, 359 to 299 million years ago.

Actinella fossils

Actinella fossils from the US Geological Survey collection.

The name Actinella was established by the British naturalist Richard Thomas Lowe. While serving as a clergyman in the Madeira Islands — a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean — Lowe collected, studied, identified and named many different snail genera and subspecies between the 1830s and 1850s. Lowe’s work is still cited today and used in the identification of Actinella fossils. In 1892, the Scottish malacologist Robert Boog Watson described specimens of Actinella in the Journal of Conchology. Thirty years later, Watson’s work with Actinella was referred to and further expanded upon by then University of Colorado, Boulder, Professor T.D.A. Cockerell in a 1922 edition of the journal Nature.

Terrestrial snails evolved from marine snails, but some modern relatives, such as Ellobium aurismidae, the Midas ear snail, have characteristics of both. Certain parts of the world have terrestrial snails that prefer wet habitats, like Carychium minimum, the herald thorn snail. Other snail species, such as Myosotella myosotis, the mouse ear snail, have adapted to live near water with high salinity.

Air-breathing snails

From left to right are the air-breathing terrestrial snails Ellobium aurismidae, Myosotella myosotis, and Carychium minimum.

Studies of living specimens of Actinella and other gastropods continue to generate interesting information. For example, in a 2008 Nature article, UC Berkeley Professor Nipam Patel and UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Cristina Grande discovered that snails use the same genes as humans do for right-left determination of internal and external structures. With continuing investigations into gastropods, both extinct and living, marine and terrestrial, fossils from UCMP’s USGS Menlo Park invertebrate collection just might lead to another discovery!

 

Actinella photo by the UCMP Invertebrate Collection crew. Ellobium photo © 2012 Femorale (CC BY-NC 3.0); image has been modified. Myosotella photo by Malcolm Storey (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0); image has been cropped. Carychium photo by H. Zell (CC BY-SA 3.0); image has been modified.

New UCMP grant to curate the Pleistocene-Holocene McKittrick tarpit fossil collection

Sandy tar deposits at the McKittrick tar seeps in Kern County. Photo by Susumu Tomiya

Sandy tar deposits at the McKittrick tar seeps in Kern County. Photo by Susumu Tomiya

UCMP is pleased to announce the award of a new $149,713 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to curate, rehouse, and capture digital images of the important Pleistocene-Holocene McKittrick tarpit fossil collection from Kern County, California.

The McKittrick tarpits were excavated by Cal scientists in the 1930s and yielded thousands of bones of extinct and extant mammals, birds, and reptiles. The area was eventually designated a California State Historical Landmark due to the importance of these finds. These fossils span a key climatic transition and extinction event near the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary and have direct relevance to other UCMP and UC Berkeley research initiatives. Unfortunately, the fossils, many of which are housed in the Campanile, have never been fully curated, and few people know of their importance. This funding gives us the support to conserve these fossils properly and develop web content and digital learning materials to highlight McKittrick and contrast the site to the better-known La Brea tarpits. We are excited by and grateful for the support of IMLS in helping us to share this important part of the story of California. The one year project will kick off October 1, 2014.

Paleontological field work and nuclear testing

In the mid to late 1950s, Charles L. Camp, Professor in the Department of Paleontology and former Director of UCMP (1930-1949), spent his summers working at what would later become Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, about 55 miles north of Tonopah, Nevada, and 150 miles northwest of Yucca Flat at the Nevada Test Site.

Beginning in 1951 and ending in 1992, the United States did extensive nuclear testing at Yucca Flat. There were 739 tests conducted there, resulting in Yucca Flat being called “the most irradiated, nuclear-blasted spot on the face of the earth.”1 Large amounts of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere, and communities downwind of the test site, such as St. George, Utah, felt the effects of this. See this Journal of the American Medical Association article.

The government publicized the dates and times of scheduled tests so Camp was aware that they were going on while he worked at the ichthyosaur site. In his field notes from 1955 to 1957, he mentions three of these tests:

Apple-2 test

The Apple-2 atomic test conducted on May 5, 1955.


On May 6, 1955, Camp wrote “The atom went off yesterday morning and I didn’t hear or see it. Harold [Harold Newman, a local who assisted Camp] claims he did.”

This was “Apple-2,” the 13th atomic test in a series of 14 called Operation Teapot conducted at the Nevada Test Site. It’s yield was 29 kilotons.

A few days later, on May 15, Camp could not help noticing the atomic blast: “The 14th big atom went off this morning at 5 [5:00 am], 200 miles away. I sat up in bed and saw a violet-pink flash lasting a fraction of a second. About 15 min. later a low grumbling thunderous roar came in like thunder shaking the earth a little. This came in two or three crescendos. About 3-5 min. later a more subdued noise like far away growling of lions came through the air without quite so much force.”

This was “Zucchini,” the final test of Operation Teapot, with a yield of 28 kilotons. According to a 1997 National Cancer Institute report, civilian exposure to some 24,500 kilocuries of radioiodine that had been released into the atmosphere by the Teapot tests would eventually cause about 13,000 cases of thyroid cancer.

On July 5, 1957, Camp experienced another blast: “Big bomb from balloon went off at 5 am and rattled the windows, shook the cabin and growled like thunder. Flash very bright 20 seconds before blasts hit. Three blasts (one ‘aftershock’ I suppose).”

Hood test

The 74-kiloton Hood atomic test conducted on July 5, 1957.


This was the 74-kiloton “Hood” test, fourth in a series of 29 tests called Operation Plumbbob that were conducted from May through October of 1957. It was the largest atmospheric test ever conducted within the continental United States and it was almost five times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (15 kilotons). The device was carried aloft by a balloon and detonated at 460 meters above the ground. According to the same National Cancer Institute report mentioned above, the Plumbbob test series put more than twice as much radioiodine into the atmosphere as any other series, and about 38,000 eventual cases of thyroid cancer were expected to be the outcome.

Despite his proximity to the test site, Charles Camp lived to be 82, dying in 1975, albeit from cancer. The prevailing westerly winds that blew the radiation clouds towards Utah were probably his saving grace.

 

1Clarfield, G.H., and W.M. Wiecek. 1984. Nuclear America: Military and Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States 1940–1980. Harper & Row, New York. P. 202.

Photos are from http://nuclearweaponarchive.org; the images are believed to be in the public domain.

New fossil footprint exhibit debuts online

Fossil tracks logoVisit the new UCMP/University of Colorado online exhibit on fossil tracks! It is fascinating to consider that fossil footprints and trackways offer direct physical evidence that ancient animals passed through an area long ago. However, these trace fossils also provide important clues that shed light on several aspects of paleobiology, such as anatomy, locomotion patterns, behavior, and footprint preservation. The website provides basic information about the preservation of fossil tracks, how they are studied, and where they have been found. You can also test your fossil track expertise in the “Who made these fossil tracks?” section.

University of Colorado graduate student, Allison Vitkus is lead author on the exhibit, which was produced with funding from a National Science Foundation grant to Karen Chin and Martin Lockley. Martin Lockley spent his career at the University of Colorado Denver amassing one of the world’s most diverse collections of fossil tracks. This extensively-studied collection was held at the University of Colorado Dinosaur Tracks Museum in Denver but has now been moved to the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder. NSF provided funds to transfer the specimens, make curatorial improvements to the collection, develop a searchable online catalog of the collection, and share information about this exciting collection with the public in this new UCMP online exhibit!

Global change consensus statement having a global impact

Page from consensus statementOver a year ago in a May 30, 2013, blog post, we reported on Professor of Integrative Biology and UCMP curator Tony Barnosky’s presentation to Governor Jerry Brown of a statement about global environmental problems and what people must do to ensure the health of the planet. That statement was written at Brown’s request after the Governor had heard about a Nature paper that Barnosky had coauthored with his wife, Stanford professor of Biology and UCMP research associate Elizabeth Hadly, and several other scientists in June 2012 (Nature 486:52-58). Brown wanted to use the statement as a powerful tool with which to help him shape environmental policy, and it has done that. Furthermore, the statement which has now been endorsed by over 3,300 people (mostly researchers) around the world, has influenced environmental policy well beyond California’s borders. Read the complete statement on the ConsensusForAction website.

Governor Brown presented copies of the statement to President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since then, California and China have agreed to jointly develop green technologies and to reduce greenhouse gases. California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia have signed a pact to use ideas set forth in the statement as the basis for making energy and environmental decisions. The statement has been translated into several other languages and has found its way into the hands of politicians around the globe. Members of Nepal’s parliament have signed the statement and intend to address climate change when writing a draft for their new constitution. As Hadly put it, “We never could have guessed the reach this paper has had.”

In the July 24, 2014, issue of Nature (Nature 511:402-404), a news feature praises the work of “information advocates” Barnosky and Hadly.

Making the Earth sciences engaging and relevant for broader communities

Lisa at Cal Day

Lisa White at Cal Day, April 2014. Photo courtesy of Pat Holroyd.

Historically, paleontology has been a male-dominated field. Over the past few decades, more and more women have entered the field, but female African-American paleontologists remain a rarity. Lisa White, UCMP’s Assistant Director of Education and Public Programs, is one of these rare women. She spent 22 years as a faculty member at San Francisco State University and held the titles of Professor and Associate Dean when she came to Berkeley in 2012. White was profiled recently in California, UC Berkeley’s alumni magazine.

White has been involved in a variety of programs that introduce minority youth to the Earth sciences, providing them with hands-on experiences both in the lab and in the field to help make the subject engaging and relevant. Two of these programs are “Reaching Out to Communities and Kids with Science in San Francisco” (SF-ROCKS) and “Minority Education Through Traveling and Learning in the Sciences” (METALS).

White gets excited by science and she shares that enthusiasm, both with minorities and the general public as a whole. “We’re trying to reach entire communities that may never be able to access the collections at the museum [UCMP’s collections are closed to the public], but I think they can get excited about what those collections tell us about life in the past.”

Flash! Grad student discovers how Ctenoides ales, the “disco clam,” flashes

Back in 2010, while diving in Indonesia, Lindsey Dougherty first witnessed the flashing behavior of the so-called “electric clam” or “disco clam,” Ctenoides ales. She decided then and there that the focus of her Ph.D. would be the study of these fascinating bivalve mollusks.

Disco clam flashing

Ctenoides ales caught in the act of flashing. In the photo, it's the silvery white band along the lip of the mantle. Photo by Lindsey Dougherty.

Now, four years later, Dougherty reports in the British Journal of the Royal Society Interface just how the flashing works. A nice description of the mechanism and a video showing the flashing behavior is provided in Robert Sanders’ article on UC Berkeley’s News Center website. Also see The Royal Society’s news blurb (with more video footage) about the study, listen to Lindsey describe her research in a New York Times Science Times podcast on iTunes, or check out this ABC News video that aired on July 23.

Lindsey on Cal Day

Lindsey Dougherty describes her work with Ctenoides ales to a Cal Day audience. Cal Day is the annual campus-wide open house that takes place every April. Photo by Jenny Hofmeister.

Dougherty is now looking into the reasons for the flashing behavior. Perhaps it attracts prey or serves as a warning to potential predators; or maybe it’s a signal to juveniles of its own species that this is a good substrate on which to settle. We’ll have to wait and see what Dougherty finds out!

Here are some of the other news outlets and organizations that picked up the disco clam story:

75-year-old sculptures by William Gordon Huff relocated

For the past three years or so I have been researching the life of sculptor William Gordon Huff. Never heard of him? That’s not too surprising since he didn’t have gallery shows and, to my knowledge, no major museum has examples of his work. But, if you do any traveling in California, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen Huff’s work without even knowing it, because most of his sculpture was public art, primarily in the form of bronze bas reliefs for historical plaques. Huff’s plaques can be found in Hangtown, Camptonville, Columbia, Ukiah, Peña Adobe Park, Angels Camp, Murphys, Napa, Monterey, Stockton, Pt. Reyes, Benicia, Alameda, and the University of California’s Angelo Reserve, to name a few places. And then there are his ceramic plaques on The Wall of Comparative Ovations in the Sierra foothills town of Murphys, but that’s a whole story in itself.

Huff’s most notable works, and those that garnered the most media attention, were created back in the 1930s, beginning with his 12-foot bronze statue of Chief Solano. This piece, dating from 1934, can still be seen in Fairfield in front of the Solano County offices at the corner of West Texas Street and Union Avenue.

But Huff is probably best known for his work on the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) that was held on Treasure Island. He constructed four, 20-foot-tall, free-standing figures — two of each — representing "The Arts," "Industry," "Science," and "Agriculture" to fill eight archways in the octagonal Tower of the Sun, the central feature at the fair. He made 28 nine-foot-tall, free-standing female figures for buttresses surrounding the Court of Flowers, as well as two figures for the east side of the Arch of Triumph, which connected the Court of Flowers to the Court of Reflections.

Nimitz plaque, Chief Solano, The Arts

Top: Huff with a fine plaque that he made for the Alameda Naval Air Station. This plaque was unveiled in January, 1967, at the dedication of the station’s airfield as Nimitz Field. Photo from the Huff archives. Below left: Huff with his statue of Chief Solano in 1934. Below right: Huff working on one of his figures for the GGIE’s Tower of the Sun. This and the Chief Solano photo are courtesy of Kevin Phipps, Huff’s grandson.

At the same time as he was working on these monumental sculptures, he was preparing GGIE exhibits for the Department of Paleontology. With painter Ray Strong doing the backgrounds, Huff sculpted the animals and foregrounds for six 1/6th-scale dioramas, depicting scenes from different geologic time periods. Huff also made five life-size heads of Miocene and Pleistocene mammals as well as a 13-by-7-foot bas relief of two American Lions (Felis atrox) attacking a giant Ice Age bison (Bison latifrons). Huff helped with three or four smaller exhibits in addition to these but no sculptures were needed for them.

Permian and Pleistocene dioramas

Top: A portion of the Permian period diorama as it appeared in 1939. Bottom: The Pleistocene epoch diorama as it appeared in 1939. Both photos are from the UCMP archives.

The GGIE was intended to last only a single year, but because it didn’t make enough money, it ran for a second year. Huff made some new sculptural additions to the paleontology exhibit for 1940. He made 20 small plaques of prehistoric animals, a display of invertebrate fossils from Mt. Diablo, and perhaps more.

Since the GGIE exhibits were meant to be temporary, all of Huff’s sculptures were made of plaster. When I began my investigations into the life of William Gordon Huff, only two of his GGIE sculptures were known to still exist: (1) the large bas relief of the lions attacking the bison — this piece is in UCMP’s storage facility in Richmond — and (2) one of the five life-size heads, that of Synthetoceras (a Miocene deer-like mammal) that was restored and featured in UCMP’s Cal Day display two years ago. Nobody knew what had become of the six dioramas or the other four life-size heads; I assumed that they had fallen apart or had been destroyed. Who expected these temporary plaster sculptures to survive 75 years?

But in the span of one month, I have seen two of the six dioramas and two of the original five life-size heads — plus a completely unknown sixth head!

The dioramas
It took a while to track down the dioramas. Documents in the UCMP archives indicated that the six were brought back to Berkeley following the GGIE and were installed in Bacon Hall; they remained there through at least 1947. According to another archival document, the dioramas were transferred to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco at some point. Two of the dioramas were acquired by San Francisco’s Randall Museum; when that was is unknown and what became of the other four is still a mystery. But in the early 1980s, the Randall Museum gave their two dioramas back to UCMP. They were kept at the museum’s Clark-Kerr storage facility until around 1997 when Diane Blades, representing the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation, took them south, ostensibly for the Fossil Discovery Center in Chowchilla. But they did not end up there. It’s not clear where the dioramas were between 1997 and 2012, the year they were discovered in a Madera Library storage space. Lori Pond, president of the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation, rescued the dioramas just days before they were scheduled to be broken up and hauled off to the landfill. Today, the two dioramas, representing the Permian and Pleistocene, are sitting in Lori’s garage. She hopes to find funding to have the dioramas cleaned and restored, but more importantly, she’d like to find them a new home; a place where the public can view them as it once did 75 years ago on Treasure Island.

Permian and Pleistocene dioramas today

Top: Mark Humpal, Portland art galley owner and art historian, admires the Permian diorama. Note the collapsed fragments of a Dimetrodon sculpture at the center of the photo. Bottom: The Pleistocene diorama as it appeared in May 2014. Note that part of the mammoth’s tusk has fallen and that one Smilodon has broken off its supporting armature. Both photos by Dave Smith.

The life-size heads
The discovery of two of the original GGIE life-size heads and of a third new one (perhaps a 1940 addition to the GGIE paleontology exhibit) was serendipitous. In 2012, Senior Museum Scientist Pat Holroyd was talking with Sally Shelton, Associate Director of the Museum of Geology and Paleontology Research Laboratory, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, about collections issues when Pat happened to mention Huff’s name. Sally revealed that in moving to a new building, their museum discovered three sculpted heads by Huff for which they’d love to find a new home. Pat relayed this information to Associate Director for Collections and Research Mark Goodwin. Mark, who has a strong interest in UCMP’s history, said that he would gladly take the heads and pay for the shipping costs. It took a while, but this summer, a 450-pound crate containing the three heads arrived at the museum. The two heads that were made for the 1939 GGIE are (1) Paramylodon, a giant ground sloth, based on a skull from the Pleistocene Rancho La Brea asphalt pits of southern California; and (2) Hipparion, a three-toed Miocene horse, from a skull found at the Black Hawk Ranch Quarry near Danville. The new head is of Pliohippus, a one-toed Miocene horse.

The heads in 1957 and in 2012

Top: The Smilodon, Hipparion, Paramylodon, and Synthetoceras heads in the Hearst Memorial Mining Building circa 1957. Photo from the UCMP archives. Bottom: The heads of Hipparion, Pliohippus, and Paramylodon in South Dakota, 2012. They appear to have been painted at some point. Photo by Sally Shelton.

How did the heads end up in South Dakota? Both Professor Emeritus Bill Clemens and Sally Shelton believe that Reid Macdonald may have been responsible. Reid got his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1949 and took a job as curator at the Museum of Geology, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, that same year. But he left that position in 1957 and in the UCMP archives, there is a photo, circa 1957, that shows the heads still in Berkeley. Reid retired to Rapid City in 1980 and lived out the last 24 years of his life there. It’s still possible that he was behind the transfer of the heads to South Dakota but as yet, there is no hard evidence.

Dave Smith with heads

Dave Smith with the three Huff heads after removing the sides of the shipping crate and removing all the paper packed around them. Photo by Mark Goodwin.

Nevertheless, now only the heads of Bison latifrons and Smilodon are unaccounted for. Since they are arguably the finest heads in the bunch, it’s entirely possible that they still exist somewhere. Perhaps someday, they too will return home to UCMP.