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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,

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

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!

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:

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!

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.

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!

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

Page 2

Illustrations by Mark Simmons

Page 3

Illustrations by Mark Simmons

Page 4

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.

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