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2018 Spring Break Field Trip

UCMP and Annie Alexander at PEFO

The UCMP Field Trip group at the Annie Alexander interpretive panel at Petrified Forest National Park. (Back row: Daniel de Latorre, Jaemin Lee, Sara Kahanamoku, Ben Mudduman, Josh Zimmt, Julia Sigwart. Front row: Helina Chin, Zev book Adiel Klompmaker, Mackenzie Kirchner Smith, Nick Spano, Sara ElShafie, Ivo Duijnstee, Seth Finnegan and Cindy Looy with the longest petrified conifer at Petrified Forest National Park. Photos and video by Helina Chin unless otherwise noted.)

Four states, nine days, 2,850 miles, 48 hours cumulative driving and enumerable sponges. The Field Methods in Paleobiology Course, also known as the 2018 Spring Break Field Trip, from March 24, 2018 to April 1, 2018, was a whirlwind tour of the Southwest with IB Faculty/UCMP Curators Cindy Looy, Ivo Duijnstee and Seth Finnegan leading a group of students, a professor on sabbatical and one staff member to West Texas to the explore the ancient Capitan Reef formation in and around Guadalupe Mountains National Park. This field trip would take the class to Petrified Forest National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument among other geologically interesting sites. The Field Methods in Paleobiology course started early in the semester with Cindy, Ivo and Seth facilitating presentations made by the students describing the paleogeography and paleobiology of the sites we planned to visit.


Video of group in Kinny Brick Quarry (taken with permission from the owner.)

 

map

Rough map of our trip (via Google Maps.)

Day 1: Leaving UC Berkeley

We began our journey with some long haul driving from UC Berkeley to Kingman AZ, a city on historic route 66 just 20 minutes from the border between California and Arizona and left bright and early the next morning towards our next stop: Petrified Forest National Park.

 

Day 2: Space Rocks and Petrified Forests

Span of the crater at Meteor Crater Natural

Span of the crater at Meteor Crater Natural

While making our way to Petrified Forest National Park, we stopped at Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, a place where rocks from space met rocks from Earth. The immense power from the impact of the meteor overturned the original layers of rock, leaving the oldest layer, the Cococino sandstone, at the top rim of the crater. The crater measures 1200 m (3,900 ft) in diameter and 120 m (560 ft) in depth.

Next, we drove out to Petrified Forest National Park and met with friend and NPS Ranger Charles (Chuck) Beightol who gave us a tour of the prep lab and paleontology collections. Along with the petrified conifers, PEFO also holds some amazing fossil reptiles. Crocodile-like phytosaurs and armored aetosaurs are among their most well-known fossils.

PEFO Prep lab

Chuck Beightol, on the left, describes their latest jacketed fossil, a phytosaur, to Ivo Duijnstee, Nick Spano and Daniel de Latorre.

Sara looks at a phytosaur

Sara ElShafie takes a closer look at a phytosaur

The signature feature of PEFO is the Painted Desert, a vast area filled with beautiful multi-colored rock formations. The colors come from the different stages of oxidation of minerals, mainly iron and manganese, mixed with volcanic ash that collected in the area many millions of years ago. Over time (geologic time), water repeatedly flooded and cut into the rock, further depositing minerals, and resulting in the brightly colored and contrasting layered bands seen in the Teepee and Butte geologic formations. The same process also gave the petrified conifers and fossils their unique color.

Painted Desert

View of the Painted Desert from Chinde Point

Close up of petrified wood

Close up of petrified wood

Ivo Blue Mesa

Ivo in front of the Blue Mesa member.

 

Historically important to the UCMP, we visited a spot near the Teepees where an interpretive panel celebrated “Pioneers of Paleontology,” namely UCMP founder Annie Alexander and paleontologist Charles Camp. Finally, we left for Arizona for Albuquerque NM, host city for the 2018 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference in October.

Geocache

A tiny guestbook at the Annie Alexander interpretive panel.

Day 3: Kinney Brick Quarry
Our next stop was an exciting one, visiting Kinney Brick Quarry to collect fossils! We were graciously invited to an offsite quarry owned by Kinney Brick Co., a clay brick manufacturer, with paleontologist Spencer Lucas of the University of New Mexico and owner, Ralph Hoffman. This site is unique in that it is an active quarry, and we were allowed to dig before the clay was trucked away for brick manufacturing. This area is known as a lagerstätte in the Pennsylvanian. This unique clay and lagoonal pool combination meant many different plants and animals washed into the area, creating a treasure trove of fossils. The fine clay was an ideal substrate to preserve the details of the fossils. Pteridophytes, lycopods, molluscs and even fish were found on our dig.

Nick Spano finding lycopod

Nick Spano finding lycopod

From left to right: Sara ElShafie, Adiel Klompmaker and Helina Chin splitting shale.

From left to right: Adiel Klompmaker, Sara ElShafie and Helina Chin splitting shale.

Jaemin Lee finds a leaf rib among some bivalves

Jaemin Lee finds a leaf rib among some bivalves

Day 4: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
A brief visit from a local road runner served as a good omen as we hit the ‘road running’ in the morning and made our way to Carlsbad Caverns National Park to trek into the largest cave system in North America. The Carlsbad Caverns is a system of caves that were once part of a Permian reef in the Delaware Basin of Texas and New Mexico. Over time, sulfuric acid dissolved most of the limestone, leaving incredibly vast cavities where one could readily imagine large prehistoric creatures swimming through, living their best prehistoric lives. These days, speleothems (cave formations) made of gypsum are present in this cave along with interesting stops like the “Bottomless Pit,” evidence of the cave’s early explorers still present today.

Road runner friend sending us off. Photo by Jaemin Lee

Road runner friend sending us off. Photo by Jaemin Lee

From left to right wearing backpacks: Ben Muddiman, Sara ElShafie, Sara Kahanamoku and Larry Taylor at the entrance of the cave

From left to right wearing backpacks: Ben Muddiman, Sara ElShafie, Sara Kahanamoku and Larry Taylor at the entrance of the cave

old rope ladder

Inside Carsblad Caverns, an old rope ladder left behind by previous explorers

Carlsbad_2018FieldTrip-9742

Gypsum flowstone

Back on the road, we stopped to explore another exposed outcrop in nearby Walnut Canyon and met up with a geology class taught by Seth Finnegan’s colleague and friend Professor Shanan Peters from University of Wisconsin, Madison. This was a first look at some nicely exposed marine invertebrate fossils, an indication of what we would see on our McKittrick Canyon hike the next day. Unfortunately, rain clouds interrupted our exploration of this part of the ancient reef system. We set off to our camp site right over the state line at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas. The rain was still coming down during our dinner prep and we tailgated to keep our food prep dry.

Day 5: Permian Reef Trail in McKittrick Canyon at GUMO

Panorama image of part of the exposed reef

Panorama image of part of the exposed reef

A drying creek running through the reef.

The group got up bright and early for our next adventure: hiking up Permian Reef Trail in McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GUMO). While the views of Texas and New Mexico from top of the trail were gorgeous, for our group the most interesting views were directly beneath our feet. Our time was spent hiking was easily 20% of the hike itself, the other 80% was spent with faces pressed the against the rock looking for more signs of prehistoric life. The rest of the reef patiently waited for us to climb.

The group at the bottom of the reef.

The group at the bottom of the reef.

McKittrickCanyon_2018FieldTrip-0190

The group hiking past a large chunk of limestone, photo credit Helina Chin

Fossilized marine invertebrates were easily found in the limestone right on the trail. Crinoids, corals and rugose sponges were plentiful lower in the canyon, but as we progressed up the trail we encountered more cellularly complex creatures. We saw net-shaped fenestrated bryozoans and eventually encountered a key fossil group of extinct foramifera called fusilinids. One of the largest microfossils, these cigar shaped forams are also rare in occurance, making them great index fossils. We also saw evidence of trilobites and nautiliods as we ascended. After a long trek up to the top, we saw the expansive views of Texas and New Mexico. If not for these exposures, it would be even more difficult to imagine the entire canyon including El Capitan, the second highest peak in Texas, being underwater nearly 300 million yearsago.

Fenestrated bryozoan

Fenestrated bryozoan

Rugose sponges

Rugose sponges (note the crepe-like texture)

Cross section of fusilinid at 10 x magnification.

Cross section of fusilinid at 10 x magnification.

IMG_3032

Cross section of fusilinid at 10x magnification.

Day 6: Science on the road and off the road.

Road cuts highlighted the interesting geology of the Brushy Canyon Formation. This area was paleogeographically further away from the reef, showing us the floor of the lower depth of the sea. Here the group observed a large scale flow deformation feature in the sandstone, with layers of siltstone in between. Looking behind us, we could see the edge of the reef we had explored the day before. We spent some time off-roading and spelunking at the Parks Ranch Campground.

El Capitan

El Capitan

Incredible sunset exposures at Guadalupe

Incredible sunset exposures at Guadalupe

Students discussing the paleoecology of the area.

Students discussing the paleoecology of the area.

Seth Finnegan balancing on the sloped exposure.

Seth Finnegan balancing on the sloped exposure.

An interesting fold in the sandstone. Graduate student Daniel de Latorre for scale.

An interesting fold in the sandstone. Graduate student Daniel de Latorre for scale.

 

Day 7: West of Texas

 

Stopping at a salt flat some ways away from the reef exposure.

Stopping at a salt flat some ways away from the reef exposure.

 

After 3 nights at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, we left to make another stop on our long haul loop back to Berkeley. After stopping briefly to view a salt flat and a few more road cuts, we headed west towards Arizona, this time on our way to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Due to the proximity to the US-Mexico border, there were four border patrol check points into the park. As we were a group traveling with many international students, it was important to address in the planning stages to bring all forms of official identification on this trip, double and triple checking that their official documentation was present and unexpired.

Once we got through the check points, we found our campsite and spent the evening cooking, getting stabbed by cacti, chasing lizards by the light of the full moon and making friends with local wildlife.

Gila woodpecker. Photo by Jaemin Lee

Gila woodpecker. Photo by Jaemin Lee

Sunrise at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Sunrise at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Day 8: From the Painted Desert in New Mexico to the Painted Canyon in California - Californian Geology

After a fun morning checking out the cacti at sunrise, we packed up again and made another long haul out to Mecca Hills Wilderness Area to check out the Painted Canyon, outside of Palm Springs. The relatively recent geologic activity of California is evident here, where we observed some large scale deformities along the San Andreas fault. Rock layers are upturned and exposure of rocks of all ages characterized by their different colors.

Painted Canyon at Mecca Hills Wilderness Area

Painted Canyon at Mecca Hills Wilderness Area

Mecca Hills-15

Cindy and Ivo preparing chili dinner at Mecca Hills

Mecca Hills-17

Climbing ladders on the river cut trail

Mecca Hills-26

Graduate students Ben Muddiman (left) and Daniel de Latorre (right) jumping to reach evidence of a fault.

Day 9: On our way home

Mecca Hills-20

The group at the top of the Painted Canyon hike.

Our Spring break ended in Mecca Hills as we got on the road for our final leg of back to UC Berkeley. It was a demanding driving schedule to get there and back again but it was well worth the effort. Next year’s location is to be determined, but should be filled with fun and fossils!

Russell Waines’ stromatoporoid collection

Waines’ stromatoporoid collection is housed in metal cabinets with wooden drawers at the UCMP. Photo courtesy of author.

Figure 1: Waines’ stromatoporoid collection is housed in metal cabinets with wooden drawers at the UCMP. Photo courtesy of author.

Russell H. Waines was a geologist who dedicated most of his life to ancient sponges, the stromatoporoids, which were one of the most important reef builders during the Paleozoic. When I was a graduate student researcher at the UCMP in 2013, I had the pleasure of organizing this collection (Figure 1), which includes approximately 2000 fossil specimens (566 of which are registered in the UCMP database) mainly from the Devonian of Nevada, but also from Alaska, Arizona, California, New York, Utah, Washington, the San Juan Islands, and Ontario. In addition to the fossil specimens, this collection has 910 slides (Figure 2) prepared by Waines during his dissertation work.

Russell Waines got his Ph.D. in Paleontology from UC Berkeley in 1965, under the supervision of J. Wyatt Durham. For his dissertation work, Waines performed a taxonomic study of the Devonian stromatoporoids from Nevada, which included four of the five stromatoporoid families: Labechiidae, Clathrodictyidae, Acrinostromatidae, and Idiostromatidae. He also revised the stratigraphic zones for the Upper Devonian and proposed a new zone using stromatoporoids as bioindicators.

Figure 2: This collection houses 16 boxes with the slides from cross sections of the specimens. On the right are images of some of these slides. Photo courtesy of author.

Figure 2: This collection houses 16 boxes with the slides from cross sections of the specimens. On the right are images of some of these slides. Photo courtesy of author.

Figure 3: Drawings of the cross-sections from four of his “new species”. Photo courtesy of author.

Figure 3: Drawings of the cross-sections from four of his “new species”. Photo courtesy of author.

Waines’ dissertation is a great monograph that includes a thorough morphological analysis of 30 stromatoporoid species with drawings of their cross-section (Figure 3). Impressively, 28 out of the 30 species analyzed by Waines were unknown to science and still are (Figure 4)! His dissertation was never published; therefore, the species described by him are not considered valid by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. This collection is a great resource for stromatoporoid workers and if his species analyses were accurate, there are 28 new species in the UCMP drawers just waiting to be properly formalized.

Following his Ph.D., Russell Waines was hired by the New Paltz State University of New York where he retired in 2006. During his career, he published 13 scientific papers and 24 conference abstracts. His stromatoporoid works include:

Fritz, M.A. & Waines, R.H. 1956. Stromatoporoids from the Upper Abitibi River Limestone. Proceedings of Geological Association of Canada 8:87–126.

Waines, R.H. 1960. Stromatoporoids of the Kennett Limestone, Shasta County, California. Geological Society of America Bulletin 71(12):2081.

Langenheim, R.L., Jr.; Carss, B.W.; Kennerly, J.B.; McCutcheon, V.A. & Waines, R.H. 1962. Paleozoic section in Arrow Canyon Range, Clark County, Nevada. AAPG Bulletin 46:592–609.

Wilson, E.C.; Waines, R.H.; Coogan, AH. 1963. A new species of Komia Korde and the systemic position of the genus. Paleontology 6(2):246–253.

Waines, R.H. 1964. Devonian stromatoporoid faunas of Nevada. Geological Society of America Special Paper 76:230–231.

Waines, R.H. 1965. Devonian stromatoporoids of Nevada. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley. 505 p.

Figure 4: Images of two “type” specimens described by Waines in his dissertation. He gave temporary UCMP numbers to all “new” specimens he described; the top image, for example, shows a “paratype” with the temporary number UCMP 11120, which has been now changed to UCMP 13982. Locality numbers (e.g. B9405) were not changed. Most of the specimens are also cut to make slides. The bottom image shows a “holotype” that has been cut: the code A-83-R refers to the slide with its cross-section (apparently A-83 refers to a group of specimens from the same locality, and R refers specifically to this specimen), and the number 10 refers to this taxon. Photo courtesy of author.

Figure 4: Images of two “type” specimens described by Waines in his dissertation. He gave temporary UCMP numbers to all “new” specimens he described; the top image, for example, shows a “paratype” with the temporary number UCMP 11120, which has been now changed to UCMP 13982. Locality numbers (e.g. B9405) were not changed. Most of the specimens are also cut to make slides. The bottom image shows a “holotype” that has been cut: the code A-83-R refers to the slide with its cross-section (apparently A-83 refers to a group of specimens from the same locality, and R refers specifically to this specimen), and the number 10 refers to this taxon. Photo courtesy of author.

EPICC Virtual Field Experiences

VFE-Logo-KHillsThe EPICC project (Eastern Pacific Invertebrate Communities of the Cenozoic) is pleased to launch the first suite of virtual fieldwork experience (VFE) modules set in the Kettleman Hills near Coalinga in Central California. Using high-resolution images, high quality panoramas, photographs, and video clips, supported by easy to understand text, we bring to life the field to museum connection for general and classroom audiences. There are five modules:

  • Explore Geology
  • Explore Sediments
  • Explore Fossils
  • Field to Museum
  • What is a Fossil?

These each can be explored in any order and with practically any level of background. Learning guides are provided for teacher and student use, and a glossary of terms helps to supplement basic geological and paleontological definitions. Bringing these unique and extraordinary places to life, create special opportunities to engage learners in the value of Earth science fieldwork and its connection to museum fossil collections, https://epiccvfe.berkeley.edu/.

Understanding Global Change Workshop, April 28-29

Microsoft Word - UGC_spring_workshop.docxUnderstanding Global Change
FREE Workshop and Materials for High School Science Educators
April 28 & 29, 2018, 10:00am – 4:00pm
Valley Life Sciences Hall, UC Berkeley

Space is limited! Registration closes April 20, 2018 or earlier if fills.

To register, please contact Jessica Bean jrbean@berkeley.edu.

The University of California Museum of Paleontology is hosting a teacher professional development program to support the teaching of the global change topics. We are recruiting 15 teacher leaders to implement the Understanding Global Change resources that support the integration of Earth systems into high school curricula, and disseminate these materials to local school districts. Teacher participants will be paid a $200.00 stipend for the weekend and for sharing resources with their colleagues during September-October, 2018. Topics will include climate change, sea level rise, local mitigation efforts, and human drivers of change.

Scientists and educators will introduce teachers to UCMP global change resources in development with Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) and the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), including materials from the California Academy of Sciences. There is no cost to attend the workshop and participating teachers will receive support materials and a $200.00 stipend.

Please bring your own lunch!

UCMP paleobiologists shed new light on ozone shield failure, forest sterility, and mass extinction

Conifers-under-UV-B-lampsMembers of the Looy Lab - Jeff Benca, Ivo Duijnstee, and Cindy Looy - co-authored a paper in the journal Science Advances.  It details exciting new findings from experimental research on the effects on UV-B induced stresses on forest decline during the end-Permian extinction.

Read more in the University press release.

View the video:

A new destination for disaster enthusiasts

The Deccan Traps today. Photo courtesy of Mark Richards

The Deccan Traps today. Photo courtesy of Mark Richards

The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg or K-T) mass extinction — the event in which the non-avian dinosaurs, along with about 70% of all species in the fossil record went extinct — was probably caused by the Chicxulub meteor impact in Yucatán, México. However, scientists have long wondered about the massive volcanic eruptions that were occurring in northwestern India at about the same time, the Deccan Traps. Volcanism is the likely cause of several prior mass extinctions, with no convincing evidence for impacts. Was the aligned timing of these events at K-T time (asteroid impact, extinction, and volcanism) pure coincidence? I am part of a diverse research team, which includes UCMP associates Paul Renne and Walter Alvarez, working on an NSF-funded project that seeks to answer this question using many different lines of evidence.

We are more precisely dating Deccan lavas, analyzing new rock samples from onshore field work and offshore drilling, and performing geophysical modeling in an effort to figure out how an asteroid impact, a mass extinction, and volcanism might or might not be tied together. Work so far suggests that the main phase of these volcanic eruptions, the largest of the past 100 million years of Earth history, correspond with ever-increasing precision in time with the Chicxulub meteor impact in Yucatán, México, and therefore also to the extermination of the non-avian dinosaurs and about 70% of all species in the fossil record 66.04 (+/-.03) million years ago. The tantalizing implication is that the meteor impact caused a factor of 2-3 increase in the lava flow rate, greatly increasing the likely environmental damage from release of volcanic gases and aerosols. Thus, the alignment of these disastrous events does not seem to be coincidental!

I’d like to invite the UCMP community to follow our ongoing research on our new websitewhere we will present the activities and scientific results of our project to explore the nature, physical mechanisms, and precise timing of the Deccan Traps flood basalts. There, we will keep you up to date with our fieldwork, geophysical modeling, geochemical and geochronological analyses, and our database and publications, as well as highlight the many individuals involved in the project, including graduate students, postdocs, and a number of distinguished international collaborators. Come visit us at disaster central: https://deccan.berkeley.edu/

Researchers Tushar Mittal, Courtney Sprain, Loÿc Vanderkluyson, Paul Renne, me (Mark Richards), and Kanchan Pande visiting a step well near our field site in Ahmedabad, Gujarat State, India. The carved stones behind us are not Deccan basalts, but they are very impressive!

Researchers Tushar Mittal, Courtney Sprain, Loÿc Vanderkluyson, Paul Renne, me (Mark Richards), and Kanchan Pande visiting a step well near our field site in Ahmedabad, Gujarat State, India. The carved stones behind us are not Deccan basalts, but they are very impressive!

Exploring Annie Alexander’s Saurian Expedition of 1905

Top: Annie Alexander watches Eustace Furlong in a quarry on the east slope of Saurian Hill. Bottom: The approximate location of the same quarry today. Top photo from Alexander’s Saurian Expedition of 1905 scrapbook, UCMP archives; bottom photo by David Smith.

Top: Annie Alexander watches Eustace Furlong in a quarry on the east slope of Saurian Hill. Bottom: The approximate location of the same quarry today. Top photo from Alexander’s Saurian Expedition of 1905 scrapbook, UCMP archives; bottom photo by David Smith.

In 1905 UCMP benefactress Annie Alexander financed and took part in an expedition to the West Humboldt Mountains of Nevada to collect vertebrate fossils in the Triassic limestones. The crew came home with portions of some 25 ichthyosaur skeletons. Alexander put together a scrapbook containing her chronicle of the trip and many photographs; the scrapbook was given to UCMP following Alexander’s death in 1950 and is one of the most treasured items in the museum’s archives.

Up until now, the scrapbook has only been accessible to a handful of researchers, but the text has been transcribed, the photographs scanned, and a pdf is now available online.

Earlier this year, UCMP retiree David Smith revisited the West Humboldt Mountains and successfully relocated some of the quarries where Alexander et al. collected their ichthyosaur fossils. His adventure, with several “then and now” photographs, has recently been posted.

Alexander was one of seven participants in the 1905 expedition. You can learn more about the lives of her companions in another new story.

Links to the scrapbook and associated stories can be found on The Saurian Expedition of 1905 page.

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.