As an English major, I didn’t really know what to expect when I first started my URAP (Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program) appointment for the UC Museum of Paleontology Fossil Insect PEN (Partner to an Existing Network) funded by the National Science Foundation. All I knew was that I’d be handling fossils, and that struck the scientific chord in my imagination in perfect harmony.
Meschelle Thatcher (left) examining the uncatalogued McKittrick bulk asphalt samples for beetle remains and her finds (right).
The Pleistocene Rancho La Brea tar pits in southern California are best known for their extinct exotic animals. However, I’ve learned there is more life in these asphalt seeps than saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, sloths, mastodons and camels. As part of my URAP experience I’ve been sorting the remains of beetles from the asphalt seeps at Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles and those near McKittrick, CA, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Again, coming from a Humanities-oriented framework, I was slightly overwhelmed when my supervisor, Senior Museum Scientist, Diane Erwin, told me to pull out all the beetles I could find from bulk samples of asphalt recently discovered in the collection that had not yet been catalogued. Surely I was capable of spotting beetles, but I found myself wondering if I should also put aside things that look like legs, fragments of elytra and other beetle body parts? What if these beetle remnants should somehow alter the course of science forever? Ultimately, I found out that these anatomical fragments were indeed cute, but it wasn’t necessary to catalog them as individual specimens. Although not deserving of their own photo shoot, I learned they would be gathered for a group photo.
Meschelle carefully preparing type specimens for their photo session.
Fast forward to this lovely week in April, and I now have plenty of whole beetles really worth looking over. While most of them were easy to spot with the naked eye, I sometimes had to use a 10x magnifying glass to find the really small ones mixed in with the asphalt—the struggle with which I am positive any real paleontologist will identify. Undoubtedly, analyzing these fossils via zoomed in images of them will be particularly helpful. After all, the naked eye can only see so much. And when some of the beetle remains are just a few millimeters in size, we wholeheartedly welcome technology to swoop in and save the day . . . so long as we get the credit for our discoveries.
I have also helped with the imaging of the UCMP type specimens from Rancho La Brea and uploaded several dozen photos of the McKittrick beetles in the effort to digitize the diverse fossil insect collection at UCMP. By doing so, researchers, teachers, students, as well as citizen scientists and interested public all over the world will literally have accessible data at their fingertips to study. The Rancho La Brea type specimens, described and illustrated over 100 years ago, are a wonderful example of how the digitization age is allowing us to see these old collections in a new light.
As I move forward in this project, I will keep you updated about both my progress as an amateur paleontologist and my progress as a lifelong learner of interdisciplinary interests.
Mrs. Charles Camp and her son, Charles Camp Jr., in South Africa (1947-48).
At the time we got involved in what has now become for us - the South Africa project - one of us (Tesla) was soon-to-be a second year graduate student, and the other (Marianne) was about to start her senior year as an undergraduate student here at UC Berkeley.
We began working together in the UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) during the summer of 2013, making our way through a massive project and cataloguing exceptional fossil material collected during the UC Africa Expedition of 1947 and 1948. This is the story of that project and the journey that followed.
The UC Africa Expedition
A bit of background for those who may not be familiar with this aspect of UC Berkeley history… as World War II ended, a massive research expedition, dubbed The UC Africa Expedition (UCAE) was just beginning to pick up steam on Berkeley campus. From 1947-1948, the extensive research endeavor became an influential force across numerous fields of study.
During this time, the Expedition also attracted plenty of media attention, resulting in dozens of newspaper articles that were published while the expedition was underway. There were two separate branches of the expedition: the northern branch (led by Wendell Phillips) and the southern branch (led by our very own Charles Camp, director of the UCMP from 1930-49). In addition to all of the fossil material that is now housed in the UCMP, the UCAE brought back an enormous amount of material that, to this day, spans a wide range of libraries, museums, and other repositories on the UC Berkeley campus.
The list below gives you an idea of the amount and diversity of non-fossil materials collected by the expedition and stored outside of the UCMP:
The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology has many mammal specimens that were collected during the UCAE by Thomas Larson, ranging in size from bats and elephant shrews to large antelopes.
The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology has large amounts of archaeological and ethnographic material, ranging from stone tools to stools, many of which come from the Ovambo people in South Africa. Faunal and archaeological materials collected at the Middle and Late Stone age excavation sites are also stored at Hearst.
The Music Library has a series of recordings of local traditional music from South Africa, recorded by famed ethnomusicologists Laura Boulton and Hugh Tracey.
The Bancroft Library holds many photographs documenting the life of Charles Camp and his family during the expedition. The library also has many photos of local people and their traditions, as well as the landscapes on which they lived.
The UC Botanical Gardens received seeds and living plants that were collected by Robert Rodin, and some of those living plants perpetuate and can still be visited in the African section of the garden.
The University and Jepson Herbaria also have a considerable number of specimens, as well as Robert Rodin’s field notes and correspondences. A complete list of everything collected can be found in his preserved field notes.
Fossil primates at the Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Following our curatorial and historical work with this collection, we narrowed our focus to the Plio-Pleistocene fossil assemblage. For a more extensive historical account of the UCAE, and faunal and locality details for the Plio-Pleistocene fossil assemblage, see our recently published paper in PaleoBios (Monson TA et al. 2015).
As we turned our attention to the Plio-Pleistocene assemblage, two undergraduate students who were involved in the curatorial process took on independent projects. Sandy Gutierrez examined the ostrich eggshells and quantified interspecific variation in shell characteristics. And Bogart Marquez, emphasizing the bovids, studied the faunal composition of the different caves in order to make inferences about deposition, taphonomy, and predatory behavior in and around the caves. Both Sandy and Bogart presented their results at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference in Spring 2014.
We also dug into the primate material with the goal of assessing the alpha-taxonomy of the UCMP specimens. This part of the assemblage includes specimens that have been very influential throughout the historical course of monkey taxonomy, and many are still quite controversial. We tag-teamed the project, with Marianne working through the mandibular material as part of her honors thesis and Tesla examining the cranial material. Two then-undergraduates in the Hlusko Lab also worked with the primate material: Kevin Roth examined the juvenile craniodental specimens and Sandy Gutierrez looked at the postcranial material.
Tesla poses for a selfie with Sediba, a South African australopithecine.
The whole group (Tesla, Marianne, Sandy, Bogart, and Kevin) presented our results during a UCMP Fossil Coffee seminar back in Spring 2014 and at the American Association of Physical Anthropologist (AAPA) meeting in April 2014. Fortuitously, our Fossil Coffee presentation was attended by Dominic Stratford, a visiting South African geoarchaeologist from University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Dominic has become an invaluable collaborator on the multiple monkey projects that evolved out of our initial work in the UCMP and that are still ongoing. These projects led us (and our advisor – Leslea Hlusko) on the next leg of our journey. In summer of 2015, we journeyed to South Africa to collect more monkey data, a trip graciously funded by a grant from the Palaeontological Scientific Trust and two Desmond C. Clark fellowships from the Human Evolution Research Center at UC Berkeley.
The entrance to the hominid vault at the Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
During our time in South Africa, we studied monkey cranial and dental specimens at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and at the Ditsong Museum of Natural History in Pretoria. While it was an incredible experience and opportunity, we couldn’t help but feel like some of the days stretched on forever - we were in the museum for nine hours at a time, and some days it felt like all we had to eat was chicken, chicken, and more chicken.... which, according to Dominic, actually qualifies as a vegetable in South Africa. Tesla had to tape her thumbs, followed by her index fingers, followed by almost every other finger, to prevent caliper burn, and Marianne had to squint out of one eye for two weeks straight. (But we made sure to take semi-frequent jellybean breaks to preserve our sanity, thanks Leslea!) It may not have felt like it while we were squinting at calipers and working through the burn, but the amount of data collected made the long hours very worthwhile. Not to mention that we were in good company while at University of the Witwatersrand, since original South African hominid fossil material, including the Taung child, Malapa and Sediba, were displayed (complete with spotlights!) in the vault where we were working. Yes, that’s correct – a vault. We were stationed in the Hominid Vault at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, a very serious room fully equipped with a 6-foot vault door with rotating handle, locked by a 4-inch key that looked a hundred years old. Serious business indeed.
When we weren’t measuring and photographing monkeys, we got to take tours of some of the famous cave sites, and wow were they incredible! We also got to meet paleoanthropologist Ron Clarke and see the “Little Foot” hominid remains, which are still in the process of being prepared – an opportunity that has only been offered to only a handful of people in the world. Hey, it pays to be a paleontologist!
The surface layers at Sterkfontein Cave in the Cradle of Humankind, South Africa.
Marianne Brasil, Leslea Hlusko and Dominic Stratford underground in Sterkfontein Cave, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Marianne Brasil and Tesla Monson in Sterkfontein Cave. Photo by Leslea Hlusko.
Famed anthropologist Ron Clarke holding the cranium of “Littlefoot,” a recently discovered South African hominid.
In the evenings while we were in Pretoria, we ate our delivery dinners (mostly chicken) on the floor of Leslea’s room, and sometimes it was in candlelight because of this odd, but normal “it’s just a part of life here,” load-shedding phenomenon that causes small-scale city blackouts. This was only one of the quirks of South Africa that we encountered. Some others included…
No picture on a restaurant menu was ever actually replicated in person. Dishes served were a surprise every time!
The GPS had a fondness for telling us to “Turn left at unknown road”, as if that’s helpful.
On more than one occasion we had to let baby goats get out of the road before we could continue on our way. Ok, that last one wasn’t so bad… 🙂
Following all of the hard work of data collection, we finally got to explore South Africa. We set off - with Tesla driving on the wrong side of the road, in the wrong side of the car, and with the clutch on the left – to our rental at “Zonk Lake”, which was a lone cottage on a tiny lake. So, we basically rented a lake. It’s not often you get to take a romantic vacation with your labmate…
Giant’s Castle reserve in the Drakensberg. Photo by Tesla Monson
During the couple of days that we were in the Drakensberg region, we went out to enjoy the natural beauty of the landscape as well as the San petroglyphs of Giant’s Castle. We were also able to see our study organisms in their (not so) natural habitat when we ran into chacma baboons in a park area while out for a hike. On a more serious note, it was an honor and a privilege to tour the Apartheid Museum and the Nelson Mandela Memorial while we were in KwaZulu-Natal, and we highly recommend it to any visitors in the area.
San petroglyphs on the rocks at Giant’s Castle, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Chacma baboons (Papio hamadryas) eating grass at the Giant’s Castle resort in the Drakensberg. Photo by Tesla Monson
A panel from the Apartheid Museum at the Mandela Capture Site near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by Tesla Monson
Taking the kayak out on Zonk Lake. Photo by Tesla Monson
Marianne practices the art of braai, South African barbeque. Photo by Tesla Monson
During the evenings, we caught Marianne up on the childhood media she never had, pulling from the random assortment of VHS cassettes that someone left on the shelf of our Zonk cabin: Casper, Mask of Zorro, Daredevil – all the greats. We also went kayaking in the early morning, and had true South African “braai” (AKA barbeque) in the evenings. You know what they say — when in South Africa...
After Zonk Lake, we left early for the nine-hour drive to Kruger National Park. Luckily, awesome street signs and plenty of bad jokes from Tesla dotted our journey. When we finally made it to Kruger, we quickly loaded up on snacks, brewed our coffee at 5:30 in the morning, and set out to drive through the park. The first thing we saw was a rhino (spotted by Tesla). We had heard that some people never see anything, so the mood was gleeful right way.
Then, maybe 20 meters down the road past the rhino, we saw an elephant (spotted by Marianne). The day just got better after that. We saw giraffes, lions, hippo, impala, hyena, kudu, crocodiles, warthogs, TONS of birds, baboons, buffalo, zebra, mongoose, and many other cool critters – including loads and loads of baby animals. Oh the babies!
A white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Southern ground hornbills (Bucorvus leadbeateri) in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Giraffes, impala and warthogs at a watering hole in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
A baby spotted hyaena cub in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
A zebra in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
A warthog also known as “Radio Africa,” runs with its tail up. Photo by Tesla Monson
A vervet monkey hangs out near a rest area in Kruger Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Overall, our trip was really productive, and we had a really excellent time. We collected lots of data, generated many hypotheses we’re currently testing, and raised questions that we are working to answer. We will both be presenting at the AAPA meeting in April 2016 on some of our findings from the data collected on this trip. We also got to know each other really, really well and we’re both happy to say, we’d go on another data collection trip to Africa together anytime!
The sun sets over Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Tesla Monson
Assistant Director Mark Goodwin and his project collaborators (see Feb. 1 blog post) made a surprising discovery while collecting microvertebrates, turtles, and fish. Within a small area of exposure in the Late Jurassic Agula Shale in the Tigray Province, just south of Mekele, Ethiopia, were the first sauropod dinosaurs ever reported from Ethiopia!
The team found mostly partial bones and bone fragments, and the local school kids delighted in holding Ethiopia's first sauropod dinosaur bones.
Mark labeling some of the bones with Conny Rasmussen (Univ. of Utah) and local school kids looking on.
Million Alameyeho & Samuel Getachew (Addis Ababa U.) and Tadesse Berhanu (Oklahoma State U,) with local school kids
Close up of some of the many sauropod bones found by the field party.
The Fall 2015 issue of the Berkeley Science Review features an article by Sara ElShafie, a UCMP graduate student in the Padian Lab, on the McKittrick tar seep fossils that have been stored in the Campanile since the 1930s. The convergence of an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to the UCMP to clean and catalogue more the 12,000 specimens in the collection and the centennial celebration of the Campanile in 2015 shined a spotlight on these unique fossils.
In interviews with UCMP graduate students Eric Holt and Ashley Poust, and UCMP staff Lisa White and Pat Holroyd, Sara details the work performed to preserve history and scientific significance of the McKittrick collection. Over 3,000 collective hours spent by more than a dozen students will improve the accessibility to the collection for future research and a rich digital archive facilitates sharing with the education community.
The Berkeley Science Review is a graduate student-run magazine showcasing research conducted UC Berkeley in a variety of disciplines.
Assistant Director Mark Goodwin showing off the 2016 UCMP Calendar to an ammonite, a featured fossil.
Sharing the Collections at UCMP
The new year's calendar focuses on the collections and the unique specimens that can be found here. UCMP is a research museum, which means that access is limited to researchers, our students, and affiliates. The 2016 calendar allows us to bring the collections to our supporters and the general public.
Grants from the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences enabled us to restore, catalog and digitize new specimens more rapidly than ever before. The result was an increase in integration and accessibility of the collections for both research and educational purposes.
What’s inside the calendar?
The calendar showcases our fossils, diversity and volume of our collections, as well as the exciting activity happening inside the museum.
It features spectacular images of specimens representing each of our four collections supplemented with fun facts, such as the age of the fossils and where they were found! It also shows different ways of visualizing fossils. Apart from photographs, there are scanning electron micrographs of the microfossils and 3-D volume renderings of a pachycephalosaur dome fossil.
Get yours today!
Contact Chris Mejia at email@example.com or call 510-642-1821 to get your 2016 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 and 2015 available for $2.
UCMP volunteer Kathy Zoehfeld holds a tiny gastropod she and volunteer Don Pecko discovered in the former USGS Menlo Park collection.
UCMP volunteers Kathy Zoehfeld and Don Pecko recently discovered a type specimen from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History among the hundreds of thousands of fossils in the former USGS Menlo Park collection. This type specimen, a tiny gastropod called Ceratia nixilia, was discovered in a drawer of fossils they were rehousing into new archival boxes. Don and Kathy not only noticed the less than a centimeter long gastropod, but brought it to my attention because they noticed the number written on the specimen. Noticing the green diamond also affixed to the fossil, we looked it up in the National Museum of Natural History database and discovered that it was listed as a holotype specimen.
Holotypes are the most important examples of a species, and the specimen that future researchers always return to determine whether their fossil is indeed the named one. Although some type specimens are lost due to disasters like the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of the California Academy of Sciences collection, sometimes they are simply misplaced.
The U.S. Geological Survey had a close relationship with the National Museum of Natural History, and their offices housed in the same building for decades. Perhaps the specimen was accidentally transferred with the Pacific coast collections when the USGS Menlo Park office opened in the 1950s? Or perhaps it was sent out on loan to one of the paleontologists in the Menlo Park office and never returned?
Regardless of its journey, it eventually reached the UCMP, where my sharp-eyed volunteers signaled it out. The specimen will be returned to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. and again be made available for researchers. This discovery shows the true value of rehousing a collection because it requires handling every single specimen and often results in lost specimens being returned to their proper location.
We are grateful to the National Science Foundation for the funding to complete this worthwhile project. I am lucky to be working with volunteers as dedicated to returning every fossil to its proper place as I am.
Ceratia nixilia, a small gastropod or sea snail, was discovered mixed with other specimens as the volunteers were rehousing a drawer of fossils.
If you have taken the elevator to the top of Sather Tower, aka the Campanile, perhaps you've heard that some of the floors of the tower are filled with fossils. This is not a campus myth, it's fact!
The Campanile is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and its very first occupants moving in before the tower was even completed were fossils. At that time, the museum and Department of Paleontology were in Bacon Hall, just east of the Campanile, so as a storage facility, the tower was conveniently located. Although the museum has moved several times over the past century, the fossils in the Campanile have not.
Some of the first fossils to be moved into the tower were vertebrate bones from John C. Merriam's excavations at the Rancho La Brea tar pits. These bones, collected prior to 1914, occupy four of the five floors devoted to fossil storage. But the Campanile houses several other collections too. There are bones collected in the 1930s from asphalt deposits in McKittrick (about halfway between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield) and nearby Maricopa; mammoth bones, teeth, tusks, and other miscellaneous Pleistocene fossils; modern whale bones; a few blocks containing ribs of the plesiosaur Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae; crates containing plaster casts of dinosaur footprints and trackways that were made by Sam Welles while doing field work in the Kayenta Formation of Arizona; petrified wood from the Petrified Forest; fossil plants; invertebrate fossils, including collections moved to the Campanile from McCone Hall and some from Triassic rocks in Nevada; Upper Cretaceous leaves from Bryce Canyon, Utah; oil company collections of microfossils (bulk samples) and invertebrates; casts of mastodont skulls; an ichthyosaur skull; some sculptural reconstructions (including a glyptodont); and cases of reprints. A conservative estimate of the number of fossils stored in the Campanile, excluding the microfossils, is 300,000.
Mark Goodwin and Leslea Hlusko with drawers of vertebrate fossils collected in the 1930s from the McKittrick asphalt deposits. As Assistant Director for Collections and Research, Mark manages all the UCMP collections, including these in the Campanile. Leslea is a UCMP Curator and Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology; her lab has projects underway that involve some of the Campanile fossils. Photo by Kevin Ho Nguyen.
During this year-long celebration of the Campanile, it is only fitting that the fossils housed there receive some attention too. We will periodically post blogs throughout the year to discuss some of the ongoing research projects that involve the Campanile's fossils. For instance, UCMP Curator and Associate Professor of Integrative Biology Leslea Hlusko and her lab have two projects underway and Eric Holt, an undergrad in Tony Barnosky's lab, is looking at wolf morphometrics. And back in September we announced the grant award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to curate the Campanile's McKittrick fossils. To date, more than 2,500 specimens have been cleaned and cataloged, and more than 500 images of 273 specimens have been added to CalPhotos.
Just a few of the Canis dirus (dire wolf) skulls from the Rancho La Brea tar pits housed in the Campanile. Photo by Kevin Ho Nguyen.
Stay tuned for more about the Campanile's fossil treasures!
Buchia crassicollis specimens collected by J.S. Diller in 1899. Photo by Erica Clites.
Hundreds of specimens from the former USGS Menlo Park Collection, now housed in the UC Museum of Paleontology, were collected in the pioneering days of geological and paleontological exploration of California. This includes fossils collected by Charles A. White, Timothy W. Stanton, Joseph S. Diller and other legendary figures at the US Geological Survey. The newly founded Department of Paleontology at UC Berkeley also led numerous expeditions and excavations of vertebrates in California in the early 1900s; John C. Merriam and his crews discovered two hundred separate remains of Triassic reptiles in the Hosselkus Limestone, exposed in Plumas and Shasta Counties.1
In the summer of 1902, US Geological Survey and UC Berkeley paleontology crews had a chance meeting in the field near Redding. Along with Merriam, the Berkeley crew included preparator Eustace Furlong, as well as museum benefactress Annie Alexander and her traveling companion, Katherine Jones. Jones' diary recorded Alexander's encounter with Joseph Diller of the US Geological Survey while washing her hair in a stream. Diller asked "all sorts of leading questions as to the plans of our party and in fact knew our movements as well as we did." Alexander "gave as evasive answers as possible"1, not wanting Diller to co-opt their discoveries. Diller spent his career in the Pacific Northwest, and although not a paleontologist, he collected hundreds of fossils for the US Geological Survey. Despite the suspicion surrounding their initial meeting, Diller later referred Merriam to exposures of the Hosselkus Limestone in Cow Creek, where in 1910, Merriam and his crew discovered the skull and partial skeleton of the ichthyosaur, Shastasaurus.
Partial skull of Shastasaurus pacificus (UCMP 9017) collected by John C. Merriam from the Late Triassic of California. Figure by Sander et al. (CC BY 3.0).2
Working closely with the USGS and associated UCMP collections, it is clear that UCMP and US Geological Survey staff visited many of the same places. I enjoyed reading this confirmation of such encounters. It seems fitting that the fossils collected by these two storied institutions are now reunited in the UC Museum of Paleontology.
How do natural history museums build their collections? The UCMP's fossil collection is largely a product of decades of field work by past and present researchers. As the State's fossil repository, the museum also receives a large number of fossil finds from construction sites in California (for example, the Caldecott Tunnel). Another, perhaps less appreciated means of acquiring scientifically valuable specimens, is specimen exchange between institutions — it's a bit like a holiday gift exchange but without the surprise factor, and the gifts are appreciated by all participants.
If you have visited the Valley Life Sciences Building (VLSB) at Cal recently, you may have seen the skeleton of an ichthyosaur (Stenopterygius, UCMP specimen no. 116080) just down the hall from where the popular T. rex stands. It's a marine reptile that superficially looks like a big fish or dolphin; it lived during the Jurassic Period, about 180 million years ago.
Ichthyosaur skeleton on exhibit in VLSB today. Photo by S. Tomiya.
How did this skeleton, which was found in Germany, end up in the UCMP? You guessed it — specimen exchange! The story actually begins in the early 20th Century, before the museum was established. We know this because of an old letter found in the archival collections at The Bancroft Library on campus.
1912 letter from Friedrich von Huene to John C. Merriam. Reproduced with the permission of The Bancroft Library.
Written in 1912, this letter from German paleontologist Friedrich von Huene to John C. Merriam (who at the time was the Chair of the Department of Paleontology at Berkeley) describes ichthyosaur specimens that were being packed for shipment to California. Item No. 1 in von Huene's list ("big specimen, 3.50 m long: skeleton good, skull bad") is the skeleton on display today. In exchange, von Huene asks for specimens of the dire wolf (Canis dirus) and saber-toothed cat — two iconic carnivores from the Pleistocene "tar pits" of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, where their bones had been freshly dug out by Merriam and his crew. This exchange was presumably a win-win deal for the two researchers because Merriam had a strong interest in ichthyosaurs, and von Huene had just toured the United States, visiting museums and possibly collecting fossils at the La Brea tar pits1.
The ichthyosaur made it across the ocean. We don't know what shape the specimen was in when it arrived in the East Bay after what must have been a treacherous journey for heavy fossils. In the late 1970s, a dozen or so pieces of the skeleton were found (reportedly under the Hearst swimming pool) and given to the Senior Museum Preparator, Mark Goodwin, for repair. After exquisite restoration by Mark (who is now an Assistant Director of UCMP), the ichthyosaur was reborn and put on display in the Earth Sciences Building (now McCone Hall), where it remained until 1995.
Ichthyosaur skeleton being restored in 1979. Image courtesy of M. Goodwin.
That year, the museum moved from the Earth Sciences Building to VLSB, and the ichthyosaur went into storage at the Clark Kerr Campus. But in 2009, UCMP Director Roy Caldwell had the specimen retrieved and displayed in its current location, where it now catches the eye of building visitors and residents alike. Like ancient artifacts in art galleries, many specimens in natural history museums have long and complicated post-discovery histories of their own. And, of course, we would know very little of that history without the documents archived at The Bancroft Library and UCMP.
Ichthyosaur specimen in transit from Clark Kerr Campus to VLSB in 2009. Photo by M. Goodwin.
Finally, what happened to the exchange specimens from Berkeley? We have not found a record of shipment from California, but two mounted skeletons of dire wolf and saber-toothed cat in the Palaeontological Collection at the University of Tübingen (where von Huene worked) may be the gifts from Merriam to his colleague. Can you spot the carnivore skeletons in one of their exhibit halls?
1Unprepared Rancho La Brea fossil material in the Palaeontological Collection of University of Tübingen is associated with von Huene's field label dated as 1911 (P. Havlik, personal communication, 2013).
Special thanks to Susan Snyder of The Bancroft Library for permission to post von Huene's letter, Philipe Havlik of the University of Tübingen for information regarding La Brea carnivore specimens in their collection, and Mark Goodwin of the UCMP for information on, and images of, the Stenopterygius specimen on display.
Day after day, over the course of two years, the massive tunnel borer worked its way through the sedimentary rock layers of the Berkeley Hills during the construction of the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, grinding up the rocks in the process into fist-size pieces that were later deposited outside the entrance of the tunnel. At the end of each work day, paleontologists sifted through these piles, referred to as the day’s "spoils." They were not only on the lookout for fossils of plants and animals; each day they also collected samples of the rocks for later testing for microfossils.
These samples eventually made their way into one of the prep labs of the UC Museum of Paleontology, a room that has become my second home during the spring semester of 2013. One of my jobs as a graduate student researcher on the CalTrans project is to break down and process these rock samples to look for evidence of ancient microscopic life.
Here I am in the UCMP prep lab. In the foreground are some of the microfossil samples to be processed. Photo by Pat Holroyd.
Looking at forams
Microfossils are by definition too small to be studied with the naked eye. A group of microfossils that we are particularly interested in are the Foraminifera, commonly referred to as “forams.” These single-celled amoeboid-like organisms, which are usually about the size of a sand grain, have shells, known as “tests,” often consisting of multiple chambers, arranged in a myriad of configurations. Living specimens extend strands of protoplasm from their tests in order to “communicate” with their ambient environment. This enables benthic (bottom-dwelling) forms to crawl and the planktonic (floating) forms to remain in suspension, while providing both with a means of obtaining food. Forams are common in marine environments all over the world, and their tests are often a major component of marine sediments.
Foram tests are important fossils because they are paleoenvironmental indicators. As the tiny fossils accumulate in marine sediments they leave records that are often continuous for long geological stretches of time. By comparing the fossils to modern species, we can infer a great deal about the temperature, ocean depth, and depositional conditions that existed at the time that the organisms were living millions of years ago.
Processing the samples
In order to separate the microfossils from the shale and mudstone matrix, we first gently disaggregate the rocks by soaking them in water and adding Calgon water softener to prevent the finer sediments from clumping. If the rocks don’t readily start to disaggregate, heat and hydrogen peroxide are added. Because the shells of forams and other creatures often contain calcium carbonate we do not use acids to break down the rocks or we will dissolve the fossils at the same time!
Left: First stages of the process; Right: Some of the rocks in this sample are already starting to break down.
Once the rocks have completely broken down, the sediment is rinsed through a sieve with 63 micron (1 micron =0.001 mm) openings to remove silt and clay. After the residue is filtered and dried, it is ready to examine for forams under the stereomicroscope.
Left: Sieving to remove the smaller silt and clay particles; Right: Filtered samples drying in the oven.
So far the process sounds pretty straightforward, but the reality of doing science doesn’t always live up to our expectations. The first batch of samples were from the Orinda Formation; these broke down readily but revealed only a few charcoal fragments. The absence of forams was not surprising, as this unit was deposited in freshwater! I am hoping the Orinda will yield some ostracodes (another kind of microfossil), but none have been observed in the material processed thus far.
I next turned my attention to the samples collected from the definitely marine Sobrante Formation. While a few forams were noted on the surface of some partially broken-down rocks, most of the rocks did not break down at all. While experimenting with some alternative treatments on these samples, including soaking them in kerosene, I have begun to process the tunnel samples of the Claremont Formation, which is stratigraphically between the younger Orinda and older Sobrante formation, and represents the final sequence of marine deposition before emergence of the sea floor.
The first batch broke down readily with our gentle treatments and, when the results were viewed under the microscope, the sediment sample contained not only tiny pieces of coalified plants but a fair number of foraminifera shells.
Left: Examining the dried residue under the stereomicroscope; Right: The view through the eyepiece. Each square in the grid is about 4 mm wide.
UCMP’s foram expert Ken Finger identified the three most common taxa as Martinotiella communis, Pyramidulina acuminata, and Lenticulina sp. Today this benthic association occurs on the continental slope, no shallower than 500 meters. Try to identify the three genera in the close up of the microscope photo on the left, below, based on the reference drawings on the right.
Read other blog posts about the Caldecott Tunnel fossils: