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A Pleistocene pit-stop: the Barnosky lab excavates Natural Trap Cave, Wyoming

You might think that an 85-foot-deep hole where a bunch of horses, wolves, camels, elephants, and plenty of other animals accidentally plummeted to their death over tens of thousands of years would have enough red flags to make going into it yourself sound like a bad idea. But what if these unfortunate critters could tell you what their life was like and how they died? What if they could give you a warning about their death in a warming world after the last ice age and what it means for life in a warming world today? And, most importantly, what if you could fall and climb back out very slowly on a controlled rope system with an expert team of cavers and paleontologists? This past summer we decided to do just that: Barnosky lab members Eric Holt and Nick Spano with alums Susumu Tomiya and Jenny McGuire joined a crew led by Julie Meachen (Des Moines University) to descend into this “Natural Trap” Cave, excavate ice age mammal fossils, and help advance our understanding of how life responds to climate change, all without contributing any extra bones.

Natural Trap Cave is a 12-foot wide by 85-foot deep hole at the top of a hill in the Bighorn Mountains on the Wyoming side of the Montana border. The entrance to the cave is difficult to see coming down from the ridge of the hill behind it, so it’s not surprising that many Pleistocene ‘megafauna’ (animals bigger than 100 lb. or 45 kg)  accidentally fell to their demise here over tens of thousands of years ago. As they fell into Natural Trap Cave, their bones formed a well-stratified and mostly undisturbed pile that has become internationally renowned since the 1970s for its paleontological significance. The cave had been closed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for over 20 years to protect the fossils from theft. However advances in ancient DNA research and growing interests in what Pleistocene extinctions could tell us for conservation prompted it to be reopened by Julie Meachen’s group for further research. This site is ~42 °F at ~98% relative humidity year-round, making it an ideal refrigerator for extracting 30,000 year-old genetic material. Geographically, it is located just south of a gap that existed between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets in central North America at the last glacial maximum (LGM) ~22,000 years ago. The ice-free corridor extended all the way up to Alaska and provides a unique opportunity to investigate continental migration dynamics, population genetics with ancient DNA, and climate-driven community changes.

This past summer, Eric and I (Nick Spano) drove 18 hours from Berkeley, CA to join a volunteer crew of paleontologists and cavers led by Julie Meachen at Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming. To enter the cave, each person needs to rappel down a rope hanging 85 feet down into the cave. Even if you claim to be unafraid of heights, the first descent is still slightly nerve-wracking. Stepping backwards off of the cave’s rim into a black pit with only a constellation of faint headlamps at the bottom can be a little unsettling. Plus, easing your grip on the rope here to let out slack takes a couple days to become comfortable with.

 

Descending

Eric Holt descending down a ladder towards the ‘edge of no return’.

Once you start the descent through increasingly colder temperatures, a council of packrat (Neotoma) middens along an inner rim welcomes you to the cave. After the initial shock of dangling passes and your eyes adjust to the low light, you get a sense for just how open and surreal the bell-shaped chamber is. I could only imagine what it must have been like for whole bison, horses, and wolves to fall that far down as I gracefully descended to the cave floor. Because we were searching for fossils of all sizes--from bison to mice teeth--we had to look carefully while excavating. That said, a fossil would pop out of the sediment about every ten minutes, which kept things pretty exciting.

horse cannon bone

Horse cannon bone found by Nick Spano. Dental pick for scale.

excavation

Eric Holt carefully excavating a bison dentary to be field-jacketed.

Bison dentary up-close.

Bison dentary up-close.

Once discovered, each fossil needed to be tagged with information about which animal it came from, where in the cave it was found, and what kind of sediment it was found in. We then bagged the specimens and bulk sediments to be screen-washed for microfossils and hauled them back to the surface in a bucket on a rope. In that sense, we were lucky we didn’t find anything bigger than the bucket. Once the excavations were complete, the site was remediated to protect exposed sediments from further weathering and to leave the site in a pristine state for future paleontologists.

screen washing

Eric Holt with a set of drying screen-wash screens.

Now that the final and most recent field season has ended, Natural Trap Cave is closed again for the foreseeable future. Susumu is going through identifications and Jenny is analyzing microfossils from the site. This study will provide a greater understanding of how life was changing in a warming world at the end of the last ice age, with implications for how life might respond to current and projected warming. Eric and I are very thankful to have been volunteers involved with this project and are looking forward to some great results.

Banosky Lab at NTC

Barnosky lab members outside of Natural Trap Cave. From left to right: Nick Spano, Jenny McGuire, Eric Holt, and Susumu Tomiya.

Guest lecturing at Los Medanos Community College

UCMP graduate student Larry Taylor teaching at Los Medanos Community College. Photo courtesy of Briana McCarthy.

UCMP graduate student Larry Taylor teaching at Los Medanos Community College. Photo courtesy of Briana McCarthy.

Roughly 10 million students attend American community colleges each academic year, accounting for more than a third of all American undergraduates. Relative to their peers at four-year institutions, community college students are much more likely to come from lower income households, much more likely to be members of an underrepresented minority group, and much more likely to be a first-generation college student. I was lucky enough to spend three years as a faculty member of a Denver-area community college, and that experience left me with a desire to continue serving this group of students in whatever capacity I can. As a member of the UCMP community, I believe that community colleges provide the museum an opportunity for impactful educational outreach, and one that allows us to introduce paleobiology to students who are often still considering what they might study after transferring to a four-year institution (and paleobiology is a field that most haven’t been adequately exposed to). At a minimum, outreach to community college students is certainly a means by which the UCMP can form new and lasting partnerships that allow us to enrich the educational experiences of an incredible group of students.

Lecturing on the use of fossils to understand the process of science. Photo courtesy of Briana McCarthy.

Larry lecturing on the use of fossils to understand animal behavior, taxonomy and evolution. Photo courtesy of Briana McCarthy.

With the support of the UCMP staff, we successfully ran our first such outreach program by visiting two campuses of Los Medanos College in eastern Contra Costa County. I first contacted LMC last spring and stayed in contact through the summer in order to generate a program that would fit the learning objectives of the college’s introductory biology courses. We sent draft programs to the instructors for feedback and tweaked it as necessary. We eventually used about three dozen fossils and casts divided amongst eight laboratory stations, with each station asking a series of questions that students worked together to answer. Broadly, the stations were aimed at getting students introduced to a variety of fossil types and thinking about the process of preservation, getting them to think about how fossils can lend insight into animal behavior, and encouraging the students to use comparisons between taxa to understand how the fossil record is used to understand evolutionary relationships. The program took two hours to run, and we did this at the main LMC campus as well as their Brentwood Center. In the end, our program was integrated into the college’s course syllabus, and was treated as a normal laboratory meeting for the introductory biology course.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the enthusiasm from both the students and faculty was absolutely incredible! Students were eager when entering the lab room, were engaged and energetic throughout the session, and had enough questions to keep me constantly darting around the room to visit different groups. And their questions weren’t solely coming from the material, either – they were asking questions about the UCMP, about paleobiology in general, and about the variety of research that scientists in our field undertake. On the part of the LMC faculty, it’s difficult to adequately describe the appreciation that was shown for the UCMP and what we had put together for them. Each expressed their gratitude multiple times, reiterating time and again how rare of an experience this was for their students, one commenting that they feel community college students are all too often “overlooked” when it comes to such outreach.

Students appreciated working directly with the fossils. Photo courtesy of Briana McCarthy.

Students appreciated working directly with the fossils. Photo courtesy of Briana McCarthy.

Perhaps some of the community college students that the UCMP reaches will reconsider paleobiology as a field of study, or perhaps interaction with UC Berkeley researchers will simply stimulate some students to consider futures in scientific disciplines more broadly. In many cases, perhaps the extent of our impact is simply adding a unique experience to these students’ science education, and briefly engaging them in evolutionary history in a new and interactive way. At the end of my visit to Los Medanos College, one student stopped as she left for her next class to say “I used to love paleontology when I was a kid; thanks for reminding me why.” In my mind, that’s a successful day.

What do traces of predators tell about ancient marine ecosystems?

Reconstructing biotic interactions is crucial to understand the functioning and evolution of ecosystems through time, but this is notoriously difficult. Competition in deep time cannot be readily seen except for overgrowth of one organism by another under the assumption that both were alive at the same time. Parasites usually do not preserve because they are soft-bodied and tend to be small so that they are not spotted easily. The most abundant evidence of biotic interactions comes from the study of predators and the traces they leave. In the marine fossil record, drill holes in a variety of shelly organisms made, in part, by carnivorous snails are ubiquitous and become increasingly common toward the present. The oldest recognized predatory drill holes are as old as ~750 million years and found in micro-organisms. Some quarter billion years later in the early Phanerozoic, brachiopods and other small shells show some drill holes now and then. Starting in the Cretaceous and into the Cenozoic the percentage of shells, primarily mollusks then, with a predatory drill hole increases. This rise coincides with the appearance and diversification of snails such as members of the Naticidae and Muricidae families. Today, these snails use acids and enzymes to weaken and dissolve part of the shell followed by the removal of the affected part by many rows of razor-sharp teeth. This is a very laborious process because the drilling speed is only 0.01–0.02 mm/h!

Predatory drill holes in ~4 million-year-old bivalve and gastropod shells from the Netherlands. Not only mollusks, but also other organisms such as crabs can be victims of drilling predators. Check out this spectacular video! First and last image from Klompmaker (2009, PALAIOS). Scale bar width = 2.0 mm.

Predatory drill holes in ~4 million-year-old bivalve and gastropod shells from the Netherlands. Not only mollusks, but also other organisms such as crabs can be victims of drilling predators. Check out this spectacular video! First and last image from Klompmaker (2009, PALAIOS). Scale bar width = 2.0 mm.

These predatory drill holes, already recognized by the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle over 2300 years ago, have been studied by paleontologists for over 100 years, but an increasing number of studies have been published since the 1980s. One aspect that was completely unknown until recently is the size of these drill holes through time. From some individual modern driller species, it is known that larger specimens produce larger drill holes. This is no surprise because the drilling apparatus grows with age. However, whether this is true too when modern driller species are combined was an unresolved matter. Modern drillers are found among many families of gastropods, but some octopuses, insects, foraminifera, nematods, and other micro-organisms also can bore into their prey. It was very exciting to see that there is a significant positive relationship between driller size and drill-hole diameter. Why so? This relationship can now be leveraged to infer trends in the relative size of predators through time by studying the size of drill holes in shells. This is particularly useful because the identity of drillers is poorly known prior to 100 million years ago. Additionally, predator-prey size ratios can be estimated as well when both drill-hole diameter and prey size are measured.

The percentage of shell area that is drilled (a measure of predator-prey size ratios) throughout the Phanerozoic. Modified from Klompmaker, Kowalewski, Huntley & Finnegan (2017, Science).

The percentage of shell area that is drilled (a measure of predator-prey size ratios) throughout the Phanerozoic. Modified from Klompmaker, Kowalewski, Huntley & Finnegan (2017, Science).

Due to the increasing body of literature over the last ten years and renewed search into older literature, I expanded an existing database regarding data on drill-hole size by a factor nine and added prey size where possible. Finally, there was enough data to look at possible trends throughout the last 500 million years! But no trend showed up for the size of drilled prey shells, primarily brachiopods and mollusks. Conversely, an obvious rise is evident in the drill-hole diameter as the median hole increased as much as an order of magnitude from 0.35 to 3.25 mm. Combining these two metrics yields the percentage of the shell area that is drilled, which is a measure for predator-prey size ratios here. These ratios show a quite spectacular increase of medians from 0.05% to 3.5% over the last 500 million years. These results imply that predators became larger while their prey did not, which is further supported by the fact that putative early Phanerozoic drillers are statistically smaller than late Phanerozoic gastropods that have modern representatives that do drill. Furthermore, these results back an important tenet of the escalation hypothesis, that predators have become more powerful over evolutionary time.

We think that these increasing predator-prey size ratios can be explained by substantial changes on the sea floor. Although prey size did not change, the meat content of drilled shell did. Brachiopods were the dominant prey prior to 250 million years ago. These animals contained little meat in their shell, certainly much less than the mollusks, which became more abundant in the last quarter billion years and dominate drilled prey shells. Another major change is that the density of prey increased through time as suggested by independent studies. Thus, drillers did not only obtain more food per shell, but also may have encountered more prey items! Both factors may have contributed to the evolution of increasingly larger predatory drillers. A last factor that may be important is predation among predators, which can lead to higher predator-prey size ratios according to ecological models. Evidence for increased predation among predators is supported by the fossil record as drillers themselves become drilled more frequently starting in the Cretaceous - early Cenozoic. A larger size of drillers may have also helped as a defense against shell-breaking predators such as crabs and fish that became more common throughout the Phanerozoic. This study exemplifies that long-term biotic interactions can be reconstructed and highlights the importance of such interactions in ancient marine ecosystems.

Summary diagram. Credit: Karla Schaffer / AAAS

Summary diagram. Credit: Karla Schaffer / AAAS

This research would not have been possible without the many case studies of colleagues on which the database hinges and fruitful collaborations. This study was presented at the annual Geological Society of America meeting with financial support from the UCMP and was published this June.

Klompmaker, A. A., Kowalewski, M., Huntley, J. W., & Finnegan, S. (2017). Increase in predator-prey size ratios throughout the Phanerozoic history of marine ecosystemsScience 356 (6343): 1178–1180.

Understanding the evolutionary history of the cassiduloid echinoids

Photographs of Rhyncholampas gouldii (Bouve) (Cassidulidae) in aboral, oral and posterior view (from left to right).

Figure 1: Photographs of Rhyncholampas gouldii (Bouve) (Cassidulidae) in aboral, oral and posterior view (from left to right).

It is widely recognized that major groups evolve at different rates, in their own evolutionary trajectories. Some evolve fast and are very diversified while others evolve slowly and may never experience an explosion of diversity throughout their trajectory. One of my research interests is understanding the pace of morphological evolution through time, and the organisms selected to investigate this topic are the irregular echinoids.

Commonly known irregular echinoids include the sand dollars (clypeasteroids) and the heart urchins (spatangoids). They are called “irregular” because they evolved morphological innovations that depart from the “regular and pentaradial symmetric” type, seen in the sea urchins. Most of these innovations evolved convergently in different groups and are mostly adapted for their infaunal (i.e., burrowing) life style. For instance, irregular echinoids usually have a flattened test with thin spines that are more adapted for burrowing. They also evolved petals with specialized tube feet for breathing, their anus moved away from the apical disk possibly to avoid waste released near the petals, and they lost the Aristotle’s Lantern as adults and feed on the detritus in the sediment. Finally, irregular urchins have an anterior-posterior polarity and are said to have a secondary bilateral symmetry (the larvae has primary bilateral symmetry). Irregular echinoids evolved during the Mesozoic Marine Revolution and these morphological modifications are just a small part of their interesting evolutionary history! In addition, they live worldwide, their fossil record is excellent, and the major groups display very contrasting evolutionary histories.

Figure 2: Drawings of cassiduloid structures (on the left, the mouth and oral plates and phyllopores [i.e., pores where the tube feet specialized for feeding are found]; in the right, the oral ambulacrum II).

Figure 2: Drawings of cassiduloid structures (on the left, the mouth and oral plates and phyllopores [i.e., pores where the tube feet specialized for feeding are found]; in the right, the oral ambulacrum II).

Besides the sand dollars and heart urchins, there are three other groups of extant irregular echinoids: the holectypoids, echinoneoids and cassiduloids. One of the reasons you have probably never heard about them is that they are rare. My research focuses on the cassiduloids (Figure 1; some known as lamp urchins). Cassiduloids probably originated in the Cretaceous and reached a peak of diversity in the Eocene, when they composed about 40% of all echinoid genera. After the Eocene, their diversity declined sharply and today only about 30 species are known. Although their fossil record is very species rich, the cassiduloid morphology appears to be quite constrained. Few novelties evolved throughout their long evolutionary trajectory (as opposed to the heart urchins), and the species found today are mostly endemic and restricted to certain kinds of environments (e.g., mostly warm waters and with coarse grain sediments).

The classification of the cassiduloids is very controversial, and it has been shown that they may not compose a monophyletic group. Therefore, the first step of my research is reconstructing a time-calibrated phylogeny of the cassiduloid echinoids that will allow me not only test the relationship within the group but also to understand how the major cassiduloid groups relate to the other irregular echinoids. In addition, a phylogeny will allow me study the evolution of major innovations within the group, their rate of morphological change, and their patterns of biogeographic distribution through time. Because of the rarity and poor preservation of the cassiduloids in museum collections, I am focusing on the morphological data. Most of the characters analyzed focus on the plate patterns of the test, which can be seen in well preserved fossils, and I am also obtaining micro-computerized-tomography (i.e., 3D) images of extant specimens at the Lawrence National Berkeley Laboratory to find novel characters that are difficult to see with stereo-microscopes (Figure 2).

Many of the specimens included in my analyses are deposited at the UCMP and at the California Academy of Sciences. However, most of the extant cassiduloids are very rare and restricted to one or two scientific collections; and some are known only for their type specimens. To analyze such taxa I often have to visit these collections. After analyzing the specimens deposited in the Bay area museums, last summer I started exploring specimens deposited elsewhere.

Figure 3: Photographs of the Australian Museum building depicting a T-rex (head and tail can be seen coming out of the windows), of my Australian favorite terrestrial animals — the rainbow lorikeet and a kangaroo, and a record of my first time on the West Pacific ocean.

Figure 3: Photographs of the Australian Museum building depicting a T-rex (head and tail can be seen coming out of the windows), of my Australian favorite terrestrial animals — the rainbow lorikeet and a kangaroo, and a record of my first time on the West Pacific ocean.

My first stop was Australia (Figures 3–4). The Australian Museum in Sydney and the Melbourne Museum were chosen not because of the diversity of cassiduloids present but by the uniqueness of the species found there, both in the invertebrate and paleontological collections. One of advantages of visiting collections instead of asking for loans is the surprises we often find. For instance, I found a misidentified specimen in the Australian Museum whose species was known only by its two co-types. This specimen not only provided me with more information on the morphological variation of this species but also increased its known geographic range. I also had great surprises on the Melbourne Museum, where I could analyze two specimens that they had recently obtained and therefore were not present in their database. Besides analyzing cassiduloid species I had never seen before, I also met Frank Holmes, an amateur paleontologist who works in the Melbourne Museum and shares my passion for the cassiduloids. Frank has described cassiduloid species and we had great discussions over an undescribed Paleocene cassiduloid he is working on!

Figure 4: Photograph of the Melbourne Museum building (top left), of the Queen Victoria Market (a “must go” place in Melbourne according to the natives; bottom left), and of me and Frank Holmes in the paleontological collection (image on the table is of the new Paleocene cassiduloid) (right).

Figure 4: Photograph of the Melbourne Museum building (top left), of the Queen Victoria Market (a “must go” place in Melbourne according to the natives; bottom left), and of me and Frank Holmes in the paleontological collection (image on the table is of the new Paleocene cassiduloid) (right).

My next and final stop was the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington D.C. (Figure 5). Visiting their echinoderm collection was one of my dreams as an undergrad, not only because this collection houses the great majority of specimens I have always needed to analyze, but also because of the great researchers who have worked there, such as Theodore Mortensen, Elisabeth Deichmman, and Porter Kier. Their echinoderm collection is divided into three collections: the dry collection and the paleontological collection are housed in the main building in Washington D.C., and the wet collection is housed at their Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland (Figure 5). So I often travelled back and forth between these collections and focusing on the cassiduloid was not hard at all. There were just so many of them!!!

Figure 5: Photograph of the NMNH building (top left), of my workstation at the Museum Center in Suitland (bottom left), and of myself with the oversized echinoderms in the wet collection (right).

Figure 5: Photograph of the NMNH building (top left), of my workstation at the Museum Center in Suitland (bottom left), and of myself with the oversized echinoderms in the wet collection (right).

Figure 6: Book of the Springer room visitors; in detail, a record of the visit of the UCMP Director Charles Marshall in 1989 to analyze clypeasteroid echinoids (i.e., sand dollars)!!

Figure 6: Book of the Springer room visitors; in detail, a record of the visit of the UCMP Director Charles Marshall in 1989 to analyze clypeasteroid echinoids (i.e., sand dollars)!!

The NMNH echinoderm paleontological collection in particular surprised me for having its own room! The Springer room is dedicated to Frank Springer, an amateur paleontologist who donated a significant  echinoderm specimens (most of which are crinoids, Frank Springer’s favorites) and literature to the NMNH. The preservation of many fossils in the Springer room is superb and captures a great level of detail. The cassiduloid collection, for instance, is very diverse and is composed of fossil specimens from all over the world. This abundance is probably a result of Porter Kier’s work on the “Revision of the Cassiduloid Echinoids”. For most of the species, I could even choose five or more of its best specimens, a privilege I have never had in any other collection.

The Springer room also has one of the best libraries on echinoderm paleontology in the country, together with Porter Kier’s jacket, and a book of signatures which has recorded all history of visits in the room. Among these, I found the signature of the UCMP director Charles Marshall (Figure 6)!

At the end of my journey, I analyzed 47 cassiduloid species (eight extant and 39 fossils; about 150 specimens, including 13 type specimens). All this data was integrated into a morphological matrix, and the phylogenetic analyzes will be performed when I analyze all specimens chosen.

Surprising new finds in museum specimens

The author measuring lizard specimens at the AMNH in New York City.

Figure 1: The author measuring lizard specimens at the AMNH in New York City.

I am very grateful to have received a UCMP Graduate Student Research Award via the Barnosky Fund in April 2016. I used these funds to collect pilot data from major natural history museum collections around the country for my dissertation research.

My research investigates responses in fossil animal communities to climate change over long time intervals. We need historical data about the affects of climate change on animals in the past in order to anticipate these affects on animals in the future. I focus on reptiles because we already know that climate affects the appearance and habits of reptiles today. We do not yet understand how this relationship affects the evolution of reptiles over long periods of time. I am examining the fossil record of reptiles in North America through the Paleogene, a period that lasted from about 66 to 23 million years ago (Mya). The planet experienced major warming and cooling during this time, and North America has an excellent fossil record spanning the same interval.

Over the last year, with support from UCMP funds, I sampled fossil collections at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, IL; the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.; the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, CO; the Boulder Museum of Natural History in Boulder, CO; and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, NY (Fig. 1). I measured and photographed 330 fossil lizard and 150 fossil crocodylian specimens, representing over a dozen intermontane basins in the Western Interior of the U.S.

I also made a surprising discovery at the Denver Museum: a fossil lizard specimen showing distinctive signs that the tail broke off and had started to grow back. This is the earliest evidence of tail regeneration in a fossil lizard. It suggests that armored lizards were evading predators by dropping and re-growing their tails as early as 50 Mya.

Figure 2. Specimen DMNH 16950. Fossil lizard tail showing signs of regeneration. Scale bar = 1 cm.

Figure 2. Specimen DMNH 16950. Fossil lizard tail showing signs of regeneration. Scale bar = 1 cm.

Over the next year, I plan to sample several more museum collections to complete my dataset. I will run statistical analyses to examine patterns of response to climate change in reptile communities over a span of more than 40 million years, and compare these results to documented changes in reptile communities today.

Thank you to the UCMP for supporting my research!

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Pleistocene Sea

Using Fossil Whale Barnacles to Reconstruct Prehistoric Whale Migrations

A fossil humpback whale barnacle, Coronula diadema, that we recently found in Plio-Pleistocene deposits of Panama.

A fossil humpback whale barnacle, Coronula diadema, that we recently found in Plio-Pleistocene deposits of Panama.

Baleen whales, as we know them today, lead lives that are largely defined by their annual migrations. Every year, whales spend their winters breeding and reproducing in tropical waters, then travel to poleward feeding areas each summer. For North Pacific humpback whales, winter breeding areas cluster around Central America and Hawaii, and then they travel to the Gulf of Alaska to feed in the summer (small numbers also feed on the California coast). Likewise, gray whales travel from Baja California to the Bering Sea. These are the longest migrations made by any mammal, and they come at extreme energetic costs, as a whale will lose 25% of its body weight between summer feeding sessions.

Because of this cost, whales rely on taking in enormous amounts of food each summer, and thus they are tracking down the most productive areas of the ocean. In a sense, the migration routes of whales tell us something about ocean productivity and how it’s distributed, both in time and in space. This is where things get interesting: perhaps whale movements in the prehistoric past can yield clues about ocean productivity patterns millions of years ago. What’s more, being massive allows whales to afford this type of lifestyle: they have enough energy stores to last through the lean seasons, and their great size allows them to travel the thousands of miles necessary to reach their summer feeding areas. This link between body size and lifestyle has led some scientists to believe that it’s not just coincidence, and that perhaps whales are so big specifically because they evolved to better handle the demands of migration.

Larry Taylor in the field in Panama, getting ready to chisel a fossil whale barnacle out of the rocky outcrop he’s sitting on.

Larry Taylor in the field in Panama, getting ready to chisel a fossil whale barnacle out of the rocky outcrop he’s sitting on.

Can whale migrations of the past tell us something about productivity and nutrient distribution in the ancient oceans? Did whales really get so big because they evolved to migrate? Both of these questions rely on figuring out if whale were migrating in the past, and if so, how those migrations changed through time. My research seeks to answer these questions by taking advantage of fossil whale barnacles. Whale barnacles incorporate stable isotope signatures of the surrounding seawater into their shells, and as they grow, they continually deposit new shell beside older shell. That means that their shells end up with an isotopic signature of the water they’ve been growing in over their life. As it turns out, this signature can be decoded to give clues about where in the ocean each shell layer was formed. Thus, a whale barnacle acts like as a tracking mechanism, recording signatures of everywhere its host whale has been traveling.

My approach is relatively straightforward: I collect samples of shell powder from a barnacle by drilling into it, then these samples are isotopically analyzed by UC Berkeley’s Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry. I then use an equation derived by Killingley and Newman (1982) to help reconstruct where the barnacle (and the whale it was riding on) has been. I first tried this approach with modern barnacles to verify the technique, and found that barnacle isotope profiles accurately reconstructed the migration of humpback and gray whales, including humpbacks that take multiple different migratory routes. Now my advisor, Seth Finnegan, and I are working purely in the fossil record, using specimens that have been loaned by museums as well as fossils we recently discovered in Panama. Results thus far are promising, as some of the fossil isotope profiles retain basic patterns also seen in the modern barnacles. There is a lot of work left to do, but these preliminary results give me confidence that we can extract useful information from the fossil barnacles. With luck and proper analysis, this work will shed light on just how prehistoric whales were moving, and what that means for the evolution of the ocean and of the whales themselves.

This work is generously supported by grants from the UC Museum of Paleontology, National Sigma Xi, the Berkeley Chapter of Sigma Xi, the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and by collaborators from the NOAA, the San Diego Natural History Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the National Museum of Natural History.

Doing field work on the Panamanian coast yielded more benefits than just the exquisite fossils. Our field site was an eroded coastline, and we were awarded with incredible views.

Doing field work on the Panamanian coast yielded more benefits than just the exquisite fossils. Our field site was an eroded coastline, and we were awarded with incredible views.

Bringing the field to our users through EPICC’s Virtual Field Experiences

Ever wonder where fossils from the UCMP were collected or want to know more about the geological setting of UCMP field areas? Curious about why an area looks the way it does?

These questions and others are driving the development of Virtual Field Experiences (VFEs) associated with the EPICC project (Eastern Pacific Invertebrate Communities of the Cenozoic, http://epicc.berkeley.edu). Together with EPICC partners from the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI), UCMP Assistant Director Lisa White and Museum Scientist Erica Clites joined Robert Ross (PRI Associate Director for Outreach) and Don Duggan-Haas (PRI Director of Teacher Programming) to document field areas along the west coast serving as the basis for Cenozoic invertebrate fossil collections that are being digitized with support from the National Science Foundation (as part of the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program).

The EPICC partnership with nine natural history museums focuses on Cenozoic fossils found in the eastern Pacific. Within California, fossils from the Kettleman Hills in the Central Valley of California and fossils along the Pacific coast will be part of a series of VFEs designed to document and capture the field to museum connection. These connections provide an opportunity for our users to explore the geological backdrop of our Cenozoic invertebrate collections and learn how fossils are described and interpreted.

As a preview of the VFEs, which will go live in late spring, follow us into the field as we document fossils in context, highlight sedimentological features, and describe unique structures in the Purisima Formation along the California coast. During several days in March 2017, the UCMP and PRI team went to key locations along Capitola Beach (Santa Cruz County) and Moss Beach (San Mateo County) to photograph rocks and fossils, and videotape the team at work.

The primary goal of the VFEs is to show how paleontological field work and fossil data collection are done.

In these series of photographs taken at Moss Beach (the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve), view the team at work, capturing and documenting the source of some EPICC fossil collections.

 

EPICC_MossBeach_454

The team crosses a rocky stretch of beach in to inspect which sections of the Purisima Formation would be ideal for photography. At low tide, most visitors to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve go to enjoy the tide pools and the organisms of the rocky intertidal zone.

Purisima formation

The team begins setting up at one of the Purisima Formation outcrops.

Bivalves in outcrop

The Purisima Formation, between 3-7 million years old, contains an array of fossil bivalves and other invertebrates. Here, among the shell fragments, is a fossil bivalve shown in life position in this cross sectional view.

Set up for filming the videos

Videographer, John Tegan setting up the shot with Rob and Lisa to discuss key features of the landscape.

EPICC_MossBeach_518

Don scanning the outcrop and capturing images in 3D.

Erica, for scale, describing some different textural features in beds of the Purisima Formation.

Erica, for scale, describing some different textural features in beds of the Purisima Formation.

Beds of the Purisima Formation are folded into a plunging syncline. UCMP Staff Assistant Lillian Pearson hops across for a better view.

Beds of the Purisima Formation are folded into a plunging syncline. UCMP Staff Assistant Lillian Pearson hops across for a better view.

Some of the shells are concentrated into highly fossiliferous sandstone and conglomerate beds, dense with fragments of bivalve and gastropod shells, with occasional echinoids and other fossils. The shells are highly fragmented and are embedded in pebble conglomerate suggesting these may be storm beds.

Some of the shells are concentrated into highly fossiliferous sandstone and conglomerate beds, dense with fragments of bivalve and gastropod shells, with occasional echinoids and other fossils. The shells are highly fragmented and are embedded in pebble conglomerate suggesting these may be storm beds.

 

Making these experiences more accessible.

UCMP and the Paleontological Research Institute will keep working together with all the EPICC partners to bring paleontological and geological experiences to the classroom through these virtual field experiences. We are enthusiastic about offering these educational tools and sharing the stunning geology of California and the west coast. We think the VFE will be especially helpful for communities who don't have ready access to outdoor spaces.

Once these VFEs are completed, they will be shared on the EPICC website. www.epicc.berkeley.edu

 

A Successful Short Course

Pachycephalosaur Illustration

Pachycephalosaur illustration by Mark Simmons from the UCMP Short Course 2017

On March 4th the popular UCMP annual short course featured dinosaurs this year: "A new look at old bones: Insights into dinosaur growth, development and diversity." The short course is an ideal way to connect public audiences, particularly teachers and science educators, with current research in paleontology and Earth history. Past short courses have had regional environmental themes (SF Bay ecosystems) or focused on patterns of evolution and extinction.

After Lisa White kicked off the course with a welcome to the more than 150 attendees, UCMP’s very own Mark Goodwin took the stage to introduce the topic and the speakers who were invited from major institutions across the country and Canada.

Nathan Smith from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County began with a focus on dinosaurs in the Late Triassic and discussed multiple drivers that may have driven dinosaur diversity, including climatic changes in the early Mesozoic.

David Evans from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada presented his current research on late Cretaceous dinosaurs bonebeds in Alberta, Canada, and the existence of preservational biases and taphonomic factors that affect estimates of dinosaur diversity.

Holly Woodward from Oklahoma State University highlighted paleohistological techniques to infer growth rates of Maiasaura, the "Good Mother" dinosaurs named by Jack Horner, Maiasaura was the first dinosaur to show evidence of parental care of the nestings.

Dana Rashid, a developmental biologist from Montana State University uses genetics and embryological studies to further explore the connection between birds and dinosaurs.

Finally Mark Goodwin concluded the short course with new research on pachycephalosaurs and how they grew their unique cranial "dome" structure on top of their skulls. Mark revealed that the dome preserves an internal network of high vascular tissue, while the exterior displays horns, bumps and knobs that functioned in visual communication, signal changing sociobiological status, and allowed juveniles to recognize juveniles and adults to recognize other adults.

Photo of speakers David Evans, Nathan Smith, Holly Woodward, Lisa White, Dana Rashid and Mark Goodwin.

David Evans, Nathan Smith, Holly Woodward, Lisa White, Dana Rashid and Mark Goodwin.

All the while a talented artist was also in the audience. Illustrator Mark Simmons sketched a colorfully illustrated storyboard, containing his notes from each short course presenter. Note the incredible attention to detail, not only to the topics at hand, but the likenesses of the speakers as well. Mark's website is www.ultimatemark.com and his twitter handle @toysdream. Thanks Mark!

Short Course Illustration by Mark Simmons

Page 1 from Mark Simmons Sketchbook featuring speakers from the UCMP Short Course

Illustration from UCMP Short Course by Mark Simmons

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Illustrations by Mark Simmons

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Illustrations by Mark Simmons

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Support UCMP's See-Through Dinosaur Skull Project

Crowdfunding for See-Through Dinosaur Skull

Baby Triceratops skull next to a 3D printed subadult Triceratops rostral bone or "beak".

Through a crowdfunding initiative with UC Berkeley, the UCMP would like your support in creating the first ever "see-through" dinosaur skull!

UCMP is a leader in paleontological research and with your support of this project, museum paleontologists will further explore how dinosaur skulls grow and develop as they change size and shape.

With this crowdfunding project, UCMP hopes to raise enough funds to CT scan, volume render and 3D print the first ever see-through dinosaur skull, starting with our baby Triceratops, the smallest and youngest Triceratops skull ever found.

After CT scanning the bones, medical imaging software renders the internal vascular network and cranial sutures visible inside the bones. This kind of analysis will potentially help UCMP paleontologists better understand how our small baby Triceratops, the size of a dinner plate, expands to food-truck size of nearly 9-feet long as an adult! Once the CT scans of the bones are completed, we will 3D print and assemble the individual printed "bones" into a see-through baby Triceratops skull. This new skull will join our Triceratops growth series exhibit in the entrance of the Marian Koshland Bioscience Library, Valley Life Sciences Building, one floor above the UC Museum of Paleontology.

TrikeGrowthSeriesExhibit

Triceratops Growth Series exhibit in the Marian Koshland Biosciences Library, Valley Life Sciences Building, UC Berkeley.

Please consider donating! Visit our crowdfunding page, https://crowdfund.berkeley.edu/ucmp, where you will find more information about this research, more awesome photos of the Triceratops skull and 3D printed see-through casts.

Of course, with your donation comes perks: a Thank You Shout Out in our UCMP newsletter, Digital Poster of our Triceratops, special behind-the-scenes tours of UCMP and Sather Tower, an up-close look at the original baby Triceratops skull - plus a unique opportunity to join UCMP paleontologists on a dinosaur dig in Montana!

Again, thank you for your support and check back for project updates!

2017 Fossil Treasures Calendar Available Now!

2017 Fossil Treasures Calendar

2017 Fossil Treasures Calendar

Revealing the collections at Regatta

The 2017 Fossil Treasures Calendar is a bit of a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the work done at UCMP and celebrates some impressive fossil specimens we hold at the Regatta Facility in Richmond, CA. We have both fossils large in size and large in number and featured in this calendar are the large antlers from the giant elk, hundreds of vials of microfossils and even dinosaur fossils formerly on display at Cal Academy, namely the legs of the Allosaurus.

So get yours today!

Contact Chris Mejia at cmejia@berkeley.edu or call 510-642-1821 to get your 2017 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar. They're only $10 each (plus postage) and all proceeds support museum research, education, and outreach.

For the collectors out there, we also have UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendars from 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 available for $2. Each of the calendars are a wealth of knowledge and interesting facts about the history of UCMP.