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Surprising new finds in museum specimens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you to the UCMP for supporting my research!

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Pleistocene Sea

Using Fossil Whale Barnacles to Reconstruct Prehistoric Whale Migrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Purisima formation

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

Bivalves in outcrop

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

Set up for filming the videos

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


Don scanning the outcrop and capturing images in 3D.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Making these experiences more accessible.

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

Once these VFEs are completed, they will be shared on the EPICC website.


A Successful Short Course

Pachycephalosaur Illustration

Pachycephalosaur illustration by Mark Simmons from the UCMP Short Course 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Course Illustration by Mark Simmons

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

Illustration from UCMP Short Course by Mark Simmons

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Illustrations by Mark Simmons

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Illustrations by Mark Simmons

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Support UCMP's See-Through Dinosaur Skull Project

Crowdfunding for See-Through Dinosaur Skull

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

2017 Fossil Treasures Calendar Available Now!

2017 Fossil Treasures Calendar

2017 Fossil Treasures Calendar

Revealing the collections at Regatta

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

So get yours today!

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

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

Cryptic caves and paleoecology of crustaceans in Cenozoic coral reefs

Just some months ago on a Saturday in July, I had the pleasure of snorkeling above the only coral reefs in the continental Unites States. These reefs in southern Florida still harbor many species of corals, fish, and other animals including crustaceans such as crabs, shrimps, and lobsters. These decapods are difficult to spot while snorkeling, but that does not mean they are not there. Their usually small size in this landscape of incredibly variable topography ensure they are able to hide effectively from predators. As for many other animals, coral reefs are a hotspot for decapod biodiversity. This was by no means different in the distant past. The rapid diversification of crabs and squat lobsters in sponge and shallow-water coral reefs during Late Jurassic is one of the best examples. When many reefs vanished in the earliest Cretaceous so did many of these crustaceans, highlighting the need to protect corals and, in doing so, also the associated, often cryptic animals.

One example of these cryptic animals are crabs from the Cryptochiridae family. Today, over 50 species are known of these tiny animals that have a carapace of less than a centimeter long. They do not hide in the rubble or between coral branches, but they create their own homes within the corals. Their home is either a true gall or a tunnel that is either circular/oval or crescentic in cross-section. Despite their high biodiversity, no convincing cryptochirid fossils were known until very recently.

Figure 1 white v2 small

The modern cryptochirid crab Troglocarcinus corallicola sitting snugly in a crescentic home in the coral Manicina areolata. Scale bar width: 50 mm for a, 5.0 mm for b. Source: Klompmaker, Portell & Van der Meij, 2016, Scientific Reports

Earlier this year, an open access article together with Roger Portell and Sancia van der Meij was published showing superbly preserved crescentic-shaped holes in Plio- and Pleistocene corals from Florida and Cuba. No animals other than cryptochirids create such holes so the culprit of this trace fossil was easy to identify. Unfortunately, no crabs were found inside the holes because these relatively soft and tiny crabs do not preserve well. Such crescentic holes should be present in more fossil corals all over the world. Why? Cryptic crabs that make such holes are found in corals in nearly all (sub)tropical regions of the world today. Additional evidence would help tremendously in constraining the antiquity of this family and with getting a better sense about their past biodiversity. So check out your fossil corals at home or in a museum nearby! Some places in the world expose fossil coral reefs as a good third alternative.

Figure x jpg

Pleistocene corals from Florida: Solenastrea bournoni (a, b) and Solenastrea hyades (c˗e) with close-ups of crescentic cryptochirid holes. Photo d shows the holotype of the trace fossil named after this particular shape: Galacticus duerri. The genus name is derived from Battlestar Galactica because of the similar cross-sectional shape of this battleship to these crescentic holes. Scale bar width = 50 mm for complete corals; 10 mm for close-ups. Source: Klompmaker, Portell & Van der Meij, 2016, Scientific Reports

That's exactly what I did in the summer of 2014, but for different reasons. I was lucky to receive funds from the Paleontological Society (Arthur James Boucot Research Grant) and a COCARDE Workshop Grant (European Science Foundation) to travel to Denmark to a very special fossil coral reef in the famous Faxe Quarry. This quarry is accessible to everybody and it certainly is a great place to visit when you are in Denmark as is the Geomuseum Faxe right next to it! My Danish colleagues Bodil Lauridsen and Sten Jakobsen helped to find the right places for collecting. The exposed coral and bryozoan mounds were living at 200-400 m depth in dim light conditions in the earliest Cenozoic (~63 million years ago). Such deep-water coral reefs can still be found all over the world up to depths of 1000+ meters by the way.


The Faxe Quarry at dusk after a long field day.


Author (right) with colleague Sten Jakobsen (left)

This complex reef at Faxe also contains decapods, primarily crabs and squat lobsters. After more than a century of collecting, as many as 25 species are known. That’s a lot right? However, well-sampled, shallow-water fossil coral reefs from elsewhere in Europe contain even more decapods.  The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs, ammonites, and severely affected many other groups has apparently nothing to do with the lower decapod diversity at Faxe. Our analyses show that decapod diversity is not affected by this event. Instead, less food and perhaps fewer hiding places have contributed to this lower diversity. A comparatively low decapod diversity is also seen in today’s deep-water coral reefs.

These critters may differ also in body and eye size compared to their shallow-water friends in corals reefs. The crabs at Faxe tend to be larger for half of the analyses, whereas other results show no difference. Some ideas about the reasons include a lower number of predators, a delayed maturity, and an increased life span of these crustaceans in deeper, colder waters. Quite spectacular evidence was found when we compared the eye socket size (true eyes are not preserved) for crabs of the same size and genus from Faxe to those from a shallow-water reef. While initial results did not seem to show much, a closer look at the data and additional measurements did show a distinct difference. The eye sockets of the crabs at Faxe are larger than those from a shallow-water reef! Thus, these crabs evolved larger eyes to see better in the dim light conditions in Faxe ~63 million years ago.


Leftover rocks from a number of days of field work at one of the sites in the Faxe Quarry.

Some crabs can be readily seen in the wall of the quarry. Here an example of a partially exposed carapace of Dromiopsis rugosus.

Some crabs can be readily seen in the wall of the quarry. Here an example of a partially exposed carapace of Dromiopsis rugosus.


Carapaces of crabs and some squat lobsters (c, d) from the Faxe Quarry in Denmark and some crabs from Spain (g, h). a. Dromiopsis rugosus; b, Dromiopsis elegans; c, Protomunida munidoides; d, Galathea strigifera; e & f, Caloxanthus ornatus; g & h, Caloxanthus paraornatus. The eye socket height of many specimens of the two species of Caloxanthus was compared. Scale bar width: 5.0 mm for a & b; 2.0 mm for rest. Source: Klompmaker, Jakobsen & Lauridsen, 2016, BMC Evolutionary Biology (open access)

The incredible biodiversity of fossil decapod crustaceans with ~3500 known species, many of them known from reefs, still results in the description of tens of new taxa each year by professionals and avocational paleontologists, often during collaborative efforts. With such data becoming more and more available, studies on diversity and paleoecology have become more common in recent years. The collection of the UCMP also does hold many, yet to be studied fossil decapods. Research on this exciting group of crustaceans continues!

Cal Day 2016

Cal Day 2016 Title

Visiting Egyptian scholar Marwa W. Ibraheem sharing some info about fossil insects with visitors. Photo credit Lucy Chang. Museum scientist Diane Erwin and undergraduate Hiep Nguyen pose for the camera. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim. Bottom right graduate student Sara ElShafie answers questions at the “Ask a Climate Change Scientist” booth in the couryard. Photo Credit Helina Chin.


The 2016 Cal Day, held on April 16, 2016, was my first time experiencing Cal Day and I was also the one planning it. Cue scary music! Thanks to the UCMP community for pitching in their time and efforts, it went off without a hitch and was fun experience all around.

As a newer member of the UCMP community, I only knew about CalDay through photos and the well-documented newsletter postings by my predecessor Dave Smith. Annually on Calday, the campus opens up to the public and shares all the research and project activities being done by each department. The UCMP offered up many activities for UC Berkeley alumni, students and the Bay Area community gathered to enjoy a fun day of exploration and learning at the campus open house.

The science on display in the Valley Life Sciences Building is one of the biggest draws to visitors on campus. The unifying theme among the Berkeley Natural History Museums this year was “Our Changing Planet,” a theme that touches upon the concept of global climate change. Many wonder what studying fossils tells us about global climate change. Common questions include can unearthed fossils from rocks beneath our feet really tell us anything about why rain and snow is still showing up in present day April? The answer is yes! And was the focal point of many of the activities and presentations put on by UCMP staff and students - how fossils and deep time inform the future.

At the UCMP on Cal Day, we offer a limited number of exclusive tours of our collections to visitors who arrive early enough to get the coveted tour tickets. Because of the nature of collections, only small groups can be taken through the stacks. The tours were lead by the museum scientists, and they discussed everything from giant ammonites to 3-D printed models of fossil skulls.

Tour through UCMP

At left: UCMP Assistant Director Mark Goodwin leads a group through tours of the museum. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim. Top right: Museum scientist Erica Clites talks about a fossil ammonite. Photo credit Renske Kirscholtes. Bottom right: a young visitor is enamored by baby triceratops skull. Photo credit Renske Kircholtes.

In front of T. rex and friends, UCMP debuted new shirt designs for the year with T. rex rocking sunglasses as well as Bothriocidaris eichwaldi, an echinoid beautifully illustrated by May Blos, a staff illustrator of UCMP between 1965 - 1973. Also available were tote bags featuring images of the Pleistocene McKittrick Fossil Collection! New this year was the debuted selfie booth. Please check out our t-shirt page to get yours! ( We also had visiting Children’s Book Author Illustrator Hannah Bonner come and sign copies of her book “When Fish got Feet, When Bugs got Big and When Dinos Dawned” after her talk.

UCMP Shirts and Selfie booth

At left, visiting Children’s book Author-Illustrator Hannah Bonner adds some prehistoric life to the chalkboard. Photo credit Helina Chin. At right. Renske Kircholtes modeling the new T. rex shirt design. Photo credit Renske Kircholtes. Assistant Director Lisa White and her young friend pose with dinos at the Selfie Booth. Photo credit Lisa White.

Fun with Fossils was held on the 3rd floor of Valley Life Sciences and still sparks the magic of discovery with children (and their parents too!). While digging through small sections of matrix, they encountered shark teeth and tiny bones or larger animals. The icing on the cake is a receipt of their very own Junior Paleontologist certificate!

Fun with Fossils at UCMP

At left, Fun with Fossils activity is enjoyed by the whole family. At right, graduate student Lucy Chang sharing the story of the scale fish with young visitors. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim.

In the VLSB Courtyard, UCMP shared an array of fossils illustrating evidence of changes in taxa over time. The fossils on display include species living at a time when changing climate events lead to an extended ice age and eventually extinction. Also on display were marine fossil invertebrates that matched with the live marine invertebrates on display with the live kelp forest display put on by Integrative Biology. Fossils we featured included giant barnacles, brittle sea stars, sea urchins and corals. On the megafauna side, we had a casts of proboscideans, ancestors to our modern day elephants. In addition, we had the top half of a mastodon skull as well as a cast of a baby mammoth, with UCMP grad students discussing how studying their teeth tell us about the what food was available at the time.

UCMP in the courtyard

Top left: Ashley Poust and Natalia Villavicencio pose with mammoth fossils. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim Right: Daniel LaTorre discusses a giant fossil barnacle. Photo credit Helina Chin. Bottom left: Camila Souto engaging with visitors about fossils in climate change. Photo credit Renske Kircholtes.


UCMP Cal Day speakers

UCMP Director Charles Marshalls speaking about effects of global climate change on California fauna and flora

Past the courtyard, we had a variety of speakers from the UCMP and IB communities who shared their how their research relates to global climate change in the lecture halls. UCMP museum scientist Pat Holroyd and UCMP Director Charles Marshalls presented as well as visiting professor Julia Sigwart.

Fishbowl activity at UCMP

Graduate student Eric Holt, undergraduate Armita Manazadefah and Post Doctorial Candidate Brian Rankin engaging visitors in the story of McKittrick Fossils. Photo credit Lucy Chang. At right, a young visitor takes a look at tiny marine invertebrate fossils presented by the Finnegan Lab. Photo credit Jun Ying Lim.

Finally in our “Fishbowl” meeting room, UCMP staff and students shared fossils from the ongoing McKittrick restoration project, the digitizing fossilized insects from the Stewart Valley and research regarding the mass extinction of plants at the end of the Permian done by the Looy Lab; all that speak to “Our Changing Planet."

Cal Day at UCMP would not have been possible without the help of the UCMP community! Thank you!

Fishbowl activity

Activity in the Fishbowl at UCMP on CalDay 2016. Photo/gif credit Renske Kircholtes.


A photo essay: Death Valley Field Trip, Spring Break 2016

Group Photo

2016 Field trip: Ivo Duijnstee, Adiel Klompmaker, Daniel Latorre, Jeff Benca, Sara ElShafie, Niek Willems, Emily Orzechowski, Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Seth Finnegan, Nick Spano, Ben Muddiman, Cindy Looy, James Saulsbury, Erica Clites and Zixiang Zhang. Photo by Helina Chin

Learning in the Field

Map of field trip stops

Map of our round trip adventure

The 2016 UCMP Spring Field Trip was my first foray into exploring the world of paleontology in the field. Curators/professors Seth Finnegan and Cindy Looy brought 10 graduate students, postdocs, and a few beguiled tag-alongs like myself to various localities throughout central and southern California and Nevada. Field trips like these are important learning opportunities for future paleontologists and geologists, and a way to use practical skills in the field and see fossils in a greater geological context. The group engaged in a number of data collection and field measuring exercises such as noting the thickness of strata and various stratigraphic and lithologic changes

While reflecting on the trip, graduate student Nick Spano said, “It was super fun and from the perspective of future paleontologists it’s always good to go out into the field, and it was definitely a transformative experience. The fieldwork aspect gives us a hands-on opportunity to see where the stories in the textbook come from and it’s a humbling experience.”

This simple map shows our trip itinerary where we logged about 1,115 miles. Trip stops included the Kettleman Hills, Furnace Creek, Ibex Hills and Sperry Wash, Camp Wash, Chicago Pass, Emigrant Pass, China Ranch, Noonday Mine, Bat Mountain (southern Funeral Mountains), Rowland’s Reef (near Lida, NV), Owens River Gorge, Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab, Convict Lake and Mono Lake.

Field Trip Starts:

Saturday: We drove through the Coast Ranges via the US-101 South to Los Gatos Creek County Park (Fresno County) where we set up camp.

Sunday: The Kettleman Hills

The next morning we set out to explore the Kettleman Hills together with professor Nick Swanson-Hysell's (Earth and Planetary Sciences) Stratigraphy and Earth History class. The sediments that form the hills are Pliocene to Pleistocene in age. During the Pliocene the San Joaquin Basin was a narrow marginal marine basin with a narrow connection with the Pacific Ocean in the north. Sea level fluctuations and tectonic activity resulted in major changes in salinity and temperature, resulting in extinctions of marine invertebrates, and a stepwise transition from shallow marine to fluvial depositional environments. Later that day the Tehachapi Pass took us to other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where we camped in Red Rock Canyon State Park.

Monday: Death Valley here we come!

Furnace Creek, lenticular clouds, Zabrieski point.

Jeff Benca wandering through Furnace Creek, photo by Niek Willems; lenticular clouds photo credit Seth Finnegan; Mud cracks, Seth for scale and mud layers by Erica Clites; a great wind at Zabriskie Point,photo credit Ivo Duijnstee.

The third day we drove north on Hwy 395 north via Olancha in Owens Valley and across the Darwin Plateau, into Death Valley National Park. Overlooking Panamint Valley, we made a stop at the spectacular Father Crowley Vista Point, before crossing over via Towne Pass to Death Valley – not the park, but the Valley proper. After some time at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, we met up with Torrey Nyborg from Loma Linda University. Torrey took us nearby into an eroded gully that cut through Pliocene-age fluvial-lacustrine deposits. Besides well-preserved bedding surfaces, including ripples and mud cracks (Jeff for scale), we also saw several fossilized tracks of camels, large cats, and birds. After a short visit to a very windy Zabriskie Point, we set-up camp just southeast of the park in Shoshone were we witnessed an incredible sunset with lenticular-shaped clouds.

Tuesday: The Meso- and Neoproterozoic Ibex Hills

Saratoga Springs

Clockwise from top: Saratoga Springs Photo credit James Saulsbury; Strata layers at Saratoga Springs photo credit Ivo Duijnstee; Invertebrate fossils of large ooids and a stromatolite, photos by Erica Clites; Trilobite fossil in the Carrara Formation, photo by Ivo Duijnstee

The next morning we reunited with Nick's group for a joint exploration of the southern part of the Ibex Hills. The four formations visible there are Mesoproterozoic to Neoproterozoic in age, and data collected in these formations figure prominently in Snowball Earth models. Our six-truck caravan kicked up a large dust cloud on the ten miles of dirt roads to Saratoga Spring where we dismounted for our hike from old to younger sediments – starting in the Crystal Spring Formation (older than 1080 Ma). This first section includes various types of stromatolites, and has volcanic intrusions near the top. It is unconformably overlain by the Horse Thief Springs Formation (~770-740 Ma). Next on our menu was the Beck Spring Dolomite Formation with sediments that alternate between carbonate and sililiclastic sediments, packed with interesting features including microbial mats, large ooids, breccias and rip-off clasts. The Kingston Peak Formation that followed is siliciclastic-dominated, and includes sediments that indicate the low-latitude Snowball Earth glaciation (breccias) and tell-tales of conditions that caused the ensuing rapid deglaciation (cap carbonates). Just before sunset, on the way back to our campsite, we jumped 600 million years ahead in time and concluded the day with a visit to the Pleistocene Lake Tecopa that boasts spectacular yet puzzling soft-sediment deformations.

Wednesday: Pahrump-a-pump pump and the Carbonate Factory


Death Valley Flora and Fauna

Making friends with the local wildlife and the closest we got to the Super Bloom in Death Valley: Joshua tree, photo credit Niek Willems; Rattlesnake, photo credit Seth Finnegan; Desert Gold flower (Geraea canescens), photo credit Helina Chin, Chuckwalla, photo credit Niek Willems; Horned lizard, photo credit Ivo Duijnstee

The formation had many marine invertebrate fossils embedded in the mudstone. Common interpretations for these Neoproterozoic sections demonstrated by the carbonate sediments with algal features and Kingston Peak suggested extensive glaciation of tropical carbonate platform as part of significant and repeated climate events.

We end the warm day with well-deserved date shakes at a China Ranch, a hidden oasis in the Mojave Desert.

Thursday: Bat Mountain and the Lost Burro Formation

Bat mountain, Seth leading discussion

From the top: tabulate coral syringoporoid, fossil crinoids and Seth discussing somthing fossily at Bat Mountain, Erica Clites in a Depression Era dugout in Pliocene lake beds, Mackenzie Kirchner-Smith, Cindy Looy, Daniel LaTorre, Nick Spano, Ben Muddiman and James Saulsbury heading to check out some camel footprints, Seth Finnegan photographs Cindy with the tabulate coral. Photos by Helina Chin

We drove along highway Location?? to get to our next destination: The Lost Burro formation in Bat Mountain, the southern range of the Funeral Mountains in Death Valley. The day starts with Seth and Cindy described the task of measuring the changes between strata going up the outcrop. The students devide into teams and log the fossil-rich section which shows a transition of carbonate reefs to more open marine settings.

I joined the field trip in hopes of seeing the super bloom in Death Valley. Super bloom refers to the massive blooming of flowers occurring in spring 2016 due to the excess water associated with El Nino weather patterns. Wild flowers basically carpet the valley and add bright and beautiful yellows, pinks and purples to the otherwise green to red colored rock formations and alluvial flood plains that make up the valley. At every locality we visit there are different plant blooming; we counted more than 40 species.

Friday: We officially left the desert.

Photo above: Checking out more fossils in Bat mountain, photo credit Helina Chin; Archaeocyathids in the field phtos by Ivo Duijnstee and Erica Clites, stromatolite, photo credit Helina Chin, brancing archaeocyathid, photo credit Ivo Duijnstee

Photo above: Checking out more fossils in Bat mountain, photo credit Helina Chin; Archaeocyathids in the field phtos by Ivo Duijnstee and Erica Clites, stromatolite, photo credit Helina Chin, brancing archaeocyathid, photo credit Ivo Duijnstee

We headed to a little place, Rowland’s Reef, surrounded by some short shrubs, wildflowers and Joshua trees in different states of bloom. Seth and Cindy discussed the rock formations and the occurrence of archaeocyathids, cup-shaped marine invertebrates related to sponges. Their presence indicated we were in the Late Cambrian. We also happened upon a rascal stromatolite, likely left behind from another trip as Bureau of Land Management locations do not allow for fossil collecting without a permit. As the day grew warmer, we encountered some local wildlife, rattlesnakes, who readily let us know we were treading on their turf.

Next we visited the Owens River Gorge, a formation of compelling and incredible beauty created by a river downcutting through a tuff, a layer of compressed ash. The ash was deposited after one giant volcanic eruption about 760 thousand years ago (check date) We then made our way to our next location SNARL, the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab. SNARL is located in the Long Valley Caldera at the base of some moraines - rocks and land pushed out of place by glaciers. In addition to the breathtaking scenic views, it also offered another treat: natural hot springs. After so many days of hiking exposed outcrops, the hot water collected in the springs was a nice respite.

Saturday: Soda water and Sea Monkeys at Mono Lake

Mono Lake

Daniel LaTorre birding and view of Mono Lake, photo credit Helina Chin; Mono Lake, photo credit Cindy Looy; Tufa towers photo credit Ivo Duinjstee

Our last and final day together we ventured out to see the other bodies of water in the Mammoth Lake area. First was Convict Lake and followed by Mono Lake, a highly interesting body of highly alkaline water salted soda water. When snow and ice melt, the run off and dissolved minerals from the Sierras collects at Mono Lake and have contributed to the formation of Tufa towers in the water. Not having a natural outlet, the water itself is salty and full of minerals. This allows only certain types of organisms to live there, including planktonic algae, brine shrimp (also known as Sea monkeys) and alkali flies.

After a delicious lunch at the Burger Barn in Bridgeport, CA, everyone headed back towards the temperate Bay Area. Next year, we head south again towards Anza Borrego near San Diego. See you then!


Daniel LaTorre, Ivo Dunste and Cindy Looy preparing dinner at dusk

Hiep Nguyen's UCMP undergraduate research experience: "Scentless in Nevada"

This past year, I’ve been working with UCMP Senior Museum Scientist Diane M. Erwin to identify a new fossil species of scentless plant bug (family Rhopalidae) from a Miocene lakebed deposit in Stewart Valley, Nevada. The study developed as a result of my participation as an Undergraduate Research Apprentice (URAP) in UC Berkeley’s Fossil Insect Digitization PEN project (BFIP) funded by the National Science Foundation. The BFIP project is part of the Fossil Insect Collaborative Thematic Collections Network, a group of seven institutions that house our nation’s largest fossil insect collections. Their charge is to database and image these collections for public access online through the iDigBio and iDigPaleo web portals.

Hiep measuring specimens using BFIP images and computer-based analytical software

Hiep measuring specimens using BFIP images and computer-based analytical software.

Hiep using the microscope camera-lucida setup to make tracings of his specimens.

Hiep using the microscope camera-lucida setup to make tracings of his specimens.

The Stewart Valley rhopalid is brown-bodied, 6.5-7.5 mm long from head to the tip of the abdomen, has numerous dark spots covering the legs, and the femur of its two back legs is noticeably wider than the others, but shows no evidence of spines. The feature that stands out most however is the striking set of dorsal markings on the insect’s abdomen. In the pictures below, you will notice a figure-8 shaped crest accompanied by four similarly-sized semicircular dots beneath it.

Stewart Valley rhopalid in dorsal view showing the distinctive abdominal markings

Stewart Valley rhopalid in dorsal view showing the distinctive abdominal markings. Image courtesy of Iyawnna Hazzard.

Stewart Valley rhopalid in side view where one can see similar markings, an enlarged back femur (f) and the long beak (b) typical of hemipteran insects. Image courtesy of Iyawnna Hazzard.

Stewart Valley rhopalid in side view where one can see similar markings, an enlarged back femur (f) and the long beak (b) typical of hemipteran insects. Image courtesy of Iyawnna Hazzard.

Diane and I worked through a long process of examining species sharing similar characteristics to our specimens. We collaborated with the Essig Museum of Entomology to examine modern counterparts to our fossil and were able to narrow the family down to the Rhopalidae. We then consulted the published literature on rhopalids and used the combination of abdominal markings and other characters to differentiate between species within Rhopalidae. What we found was that the fossil shares a number of its characters with species in several genera, but is closest to those in the subfamily Rhopalinae, tribe Rhopalini. Of especial note is the fossil’s abdominal markings, which are very reminiscent of those on the purported introduced European species, Brachycarenus tigrinus.

I’ll be wrapping up my URAP with a publication later this year detailing our findings about this newly discovered fossil insect and its evolutionary, biogeographic and paleoenvironmental implications. The Nevada landscape of today with its miles of treeless expanse, dry lakebeds (playas), hot summers and cold winters was quite the opposite during the Miocene. Unlike today, Stewart Valley boasted an abundance of rain. A lush forest of dicotyledonous trees and nearby grasslands sporting an array of herbaceous plants surrounded a large lake teeming with aquatic life, its waters sustaining a diverse vertebrate fauna. Indeed, 14.5 million years ago the Stewart Valley was an ideal habitat for scentless plant bugs to thrive and diversify.