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UCMP participates in the Bay Area Science Festival for fourth straight year

On November 1, UCMP participated in Discovery Days at AT&T Park, the closing event of the annual Bay Area Science Festival. The museum has been a Science@Cal exhibitor at the Festival for four years running. This year, over 30,000 people enjoyed 200 free activities and exhibits at the Festival, a “science extravaganza.” The Festival is meant to entertain and inspire; it’s where visitors can unleash their inner scientist.

BASF 2014 photo

Museum Scientist Erica Clites and undergraduate volunteer Dianne Quiroz (pictured) staffed the UCMP table during Discovery Days at AT&T Park. Photo by Erica Clites.

UCMP curator and Integrative Biology professor keeps attention focused on climate change and mass extinction

On November 30, the Smithsonian Channel will air the film Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink featuring UC Berkeley researchers Walter and Luis Alvarez, as well as UCMP’s Tony Barnosky; and Stanford University’s Elizabeth Hadly and Jon Payne. The film describes what we know about the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, how we know it, and how the Cretaceous-Paleogene and end-Permian mass extinctions relate to our present extinction crisis. Learn more at smithsonianchannel.com and tangledbankstudios.org.

Barnosky screen capture

Tony Barnosky in the HHMI video “Anthony Barnosky and Kaitlin Maguire Measure Mammal Extinctions at the John Day Fossil Beds.” Screen capture from the hhmi.org BioInteractive website.

Watch newscenter.berkeley.edu this week (November 24) for a news release about Tony Barnosky and his work regarding mass extinctions.

See Tony’s recent blog entitled “Preventing the Sixth Mass Extinction Requires Dealing With Climate Change” on The Huffington Post website.

Also see two free educational videos produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that are available on HHMI’s BioInteractive website as well as YouTube. One features Barnosky and UCMP alum Kaitlin Maguire measuring mammal extinctions in Oregon’s John Day Fossil Beds, and in the other, Stanford’s Elizabeth Hadly and biologist Sean Carroll track the effects of climate change in Yellowstone National Park.

• Measuring mammal extinctions at John Day: BioInteractive / YouTube

• Tracking climate change in Yellowstone: BioInteractive / YouTube

UCMP expertise tapped for new KQED e-book series on climate change

ebook selectionKQED partnered with UCMP and Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy to produce a four-part e-book series entitled Clue into Climate. Lisa White, UCMP’s Assistant Director for Education and Public Programs, says “These new e-books bring climate research to life and create greater access to information about climate and global environmental change in an easy to understand package.”

The e-books explore the topic through a blend of high-quality media, interactive graphics and real-world examples of the effects of climate change. Primarily developed for middle- and high-school students—but also relevant for lifelong learners—the series explores the causes of climate change, its impacts on freshwater and ecosystems, and innovative strategies for curbing and adapting to change.

Find links to download all four e-books on the KQED Education site.

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.