University of California Museum of Paleontology UCMP in the field See the world (and its fossils) with UCMP's field notes.
About UCMP People Blog Online Exhibits Public programs Education Collections Research

Archive for the ‘UCMP news’ Category.

The 2015 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar now available

UCMP and the development of the ichthyosaur quarry at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

2015 calendar image

The focus for the 2015 calendar became Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park when a trove of 35 mm slides and black & white prints chronicling the development of the ichthyosaur quarry was found in the museum archives. These images, from the Charles L. Camp Papers, dominate the calendar, however, there are also slides from the collections of Sam Welles and Joe Gregory, images from the Huff family archives, newspaper clippings, printed materials, and scientific illustrations.

A short summary
In 1953, the bones of large ichthyosaurs found east of Gabbs, Nevada, were brought to the attention of UCMP’s Charles Camp. The following year, he began excavations that led to the discovery of bones representing some 37 individuals of a new kind of ichthyosaur that he later described and named Shonisaurus. From the beginning, Camp felt that the locality should be protected as a state park and, working with other interested parties in Nevada, he was successful in convincing the legislature to do this.

Camp turned one quarry containing the bones of several ichthyosaurs into a showcase for visitors, leaving the bones in situ and sandblasting them clean; this became the Visitors’ Quarry that people see at the park today.

Camp died before he was able to publish his description of the new species, but Joe Gregory saw that the manuscript was completed and published in 1980. UCMP’s Sam Welles, with the assistance of volunteers, spent three summers in the early 1980s at the Visitors’ Quarry cleaning and preserving the exposed bones and making a new map of the bonebed. Read more about the park.

Order now!
Contact Chris Mejia at cmejia@berkeley.edu or call 510-642-1821 to obtain your 2015 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar. They're only $10 each (plus postage) and all proceeds support museum research, education, and outreach.

And for you collectors, a few copies of both the 2013 and 2014 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar are still available for a mere $2.

New UCMP grant to curate the Pleistocene-Holocene McKittrick tarpit fossil collection

Sandy tar deposits at the McKittrick tar seeps in Kern County. Photo by Susumu Tomiya

Sandy tar deposits at the McKittrick tar seeps in Kern County. Photo by Susumu Tomiya

UCMP is pleased to announce the award of a new $149,713 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to curate, rehouse, and capture digital images of the important Pleistocene-Holocene McKittrick tarpit fossil collection from Kern County, California.

The McKittrick tarpits were excavated by Cal scientists in the 1930s and yielded thousands of bones of extinct and extant mammals, birds, and reptiles. The area was eventually designated a California State Historical Landmark due to the importance of these finds. These fossils span a key climatic transition and extinction event near the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary and have direct relevance to other UCMP and UC Berkeley research initiatives. Unfortunately, the fossils, many of which are housed in the Campanile, have never been fully curated, and few people know of their importance. This funding gives us the support to conserve these fossils properly and develop web content and digital learning materials to highlight McKittrick and contrast the site to the better-known La Brea tarpits. We are excited by and grateful for the support of IMLS in helping us to share this important part of the story of California. The one year project will kick off October 1, 2014.

Making the Earth sciences engaging and relevant for broader communities

Lisa at Cal Day

Lisa White at Cal Day, April 2014. Photo courtesy of Pat Holroyd.

Historically, paleontology has been a male-dominated field. Over the past few decades, more and more women have entered the field, but female African-American paleontologists remain a rarity. Lisa White, UCMP’s Assistant Director of Education and Public Programs, is one of these rare women. She spent 22 years as a faculty member at San Francisco State University and held the titles of Professor and Associate Dean when she came to Berkeley in 2012. White was profiled recently in California, UC Berkeley’s alumni magazine.

White has been involved in a variety of programs that introduce minority youth to the Earth sciences, providing them with hands-on experiences both in the lab and in the field to help make the subject engaging and relevant. Two of these programs are “Reaching Out to Communities and Kids with Science in San Francisco” (SF-ROCKS) and “Minority Education Through Traveling and Learning in the Sciences” (METALS).

White gets excited by science and she shares that enthusiasm, both with minorities and the general public as a whole. “We’re trying to reach entire communities that may never be able to access the collections at the museum [UCMP’s collections are closed to the public], but I think they can get excited about what those collections tell us about life in the past.”

Flash! Grad student discovers how Ctenoides ales, the “disco clam,” flashes

Back in 2010, while diving in Indonesia, Lindsey Dougherty first witnessed the flashing behavior of the so-called “electric clam” or “disco clam,” Ctenoides ales. She decided then and there that the focus of her Ph.D. would be the study of these fascinating bivalve mollusks.

Disco clam flashing

Ctenoides ales caught in the act of flashing. In the photo, it's the silvery white band along the lip of the mantle. Photo by Lindsey Dougherty.

Now, four years later, Dougherty reports in the British Journal of the Royal Society Interface just how the flashing works. A nice description of the mechanism and a video showing the flashing behavior is provided in Robert Sanders’ article on UC Berkeley’s News Center website. Also see The Royal Society’s news blurb (with more video footage) about the study, listen to Lindsey describe her research in a New York Times Science Times podcast on iTunes, or check out this ABC News video that aired on July 23.

Lindsey on Cal Day

Lindsey Dougherty describes her work with Ctenoides ales to a Cal Day audience. Cal Day is the annual campus-wide open house that takes place every April. Photo by Jenny Hofmeister.

Dougherty is now looking into the reasons for the flashing behavior. Perhaps it attracts prey or serves as a warning to potential predators; or maybe it’s a signal to juveniles of its own species that this is a good substrate on which to settle. We’ll have to wait and see what Dougherty finds out!

Here are some of the other news outlets and organizations that picked up the disco clam story:

75-year-old sculptures by William Gordon Huff relocated

For the past three years or so I have been researching the life of sculptor William Gordon Huff. Never heard of him? That’s not too surprising since he didn’t have gallery shows and, to my knowledge, no major museum has examples of his work. But, if you do any traveling in California, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen Huff’s work without even knowing it, because most of his sculpture was public art, primarily in the form of bronze bas reliefs for historical plaques. Huff’s plaques can be found in Hangtown, Camptonville, Columbia, Ukiah, Peña Adobe Park, Angels Camp, Murphys, Napa, Monterey, Stockton, Pt. Reyes, Benicia, Alameda, and the University of California’s Angelo Reserve, to name a few places. And then there are his ceramic plaques on The Wall of Comparative Ovations in the Sierra foothills town of Murphys, but that’s a whole story in itself.

Huff’s most notable works, and those that garnered the most media attention, were created back in the 1930s, beginning with his 12-foot bronze statue of Chief Solano. This piece, dating from 1934, can still be seen in Fairfield in front of the Solano County offices at the corner of West Texas Street and Union Avenue.

But Huff is probably best known for his work on the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) that was held on Treasure Island. He constructed four, 20-foot-tall, free-standing figures — two of each — representing "The Arts," "Industry," "Science," and "Agriculture" to fill eight archways in the octagonal Tower of the Sun, the central feature at the fair. He made 28 nine-foot-tall, free-standing female figures for buttresses surrounding the Court of Flowers, as well as two figures for the east side of the Arch of Triumph, which connected the Court of Flowers to the Court of Reflections.

Nimitz plaque, Chief Solano, The Arts

Top: Huff with a fine plaque that he made for the Alameda Naval Air Station. This plaque was unveiled in January, 1967, at the dedication of the station’s airfield as Nimitz Field. Photo from the Huff archives. Below left: Huff with his statue of Chief Solano in 1934. Below right: Huff working on one of his figures for the GGIE’s Tower of the Sun. This and the Chief Solano photo are courtesy of Kevin Phipps, Huff’s grandson.

At the same time as he was working on these monumental sculptures, he was preparing GGIE exhibits for the Department of Paleontology. With painter Ray Strong doing the backgrounds, Huff sculpted the animals and foregrounds for six 1/6th-scale dioramas, depicting scenes from different geologic time periods. Huff also made five life-size heads of Miocene and Pleistocene mammals as well as a 13-by-7-foot bas relief of two American Lions (Felis atrox) attacking a giant Ice Age bison (Bison latifrons). Huff helped with three or four smaller exhibits in addition to these but no sculptures were needed for them.

Permian and Pleistocene dioramas

Top: A portion of the Permian period diorama as it appeared in 1939. Bottom: The Pleistocene epoch diorama as it appeared in 1939. Both photos are from the UCMP archives.

The GGIE was intended to last only a single year, but because it didn’t make enough money, it ran for a second year. Huff made some new sculptural additions to the paleontology exhibit for 1940. He made 20 small plaques of prehistoric animals, a display of invertebrate fossils from Mt. Diablo, and perhaps more.

Since the GGIE exhibits were meant to be temporary, all of Huff’s sculptures were made of plaster. When I began my investigations into the life of William Gordon Huff, only two of his GGIE sculptures were known to still exist: (1) the large bas relief of the lions attacking the bison — this piece is in UCMP’s storage facility in Richmond — and (2) one of the five life-size heads, that of Synthetoceras (a Miocene deer-like mammal) that was restored and featured in UCMP’s Cal Day display two years ago. Nobody knew what had become of the six dioramas or the other four life-size heads; I assumed that they had fallen apart or had been destroyed. Who expected these temporary plaster sculptures to survive 75 years?

But in the span of one month, I have seen two of the six dioramas and two of the original five life-size heads — plus a completely unknown sixth head!

The dioramas
It took a while to track down the dioramas. Documents in the UCMP archives indicated that the six were brought back to Berkeley following the GGIE and were installed in Bacon Hall; they remained there through at least 1947. According to another archival document, the dioramas were transferred to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco at some point. Two of the dioramas were acquired by San Francisco’s Randall Museum; when that was is unknown and what became of the other four is still a mystery. But in the early 1980s, the Randall Museum gave their two dioramas back to UCMP. They were kept at the museum’s Clark-Kerr storage facility until around 1997 when Diane Blades, representing the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation, took them south, ostensibly for the Fossil Discovery Center in Chowchilla. But they did not end up there. It’s not clear where the dioramas were between 1997 and 2012, the year they were discovered in a Madera Library storage space. Lori Pond, president of the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation, rescued the dioramas just days before they were scheduled to be broken up and hauled off to the landfill. Today, the two dioramas, representing the Permian and Pleistocene, are sitting in Lori’s garage. She hopes to find funding to have the dioramas cleaned and restored, but more importantly, she’d like to find them a new home; a place where the public can view them as it once did 75 years ago on Treasure Island.

Permian and Pleistocene dioramas today

Top: Mark Humpal, Portland art galley owner and art historian, admires the Permian diorama. Note the collapsed fragments of a Dimetrodon sculpture at the center of the photo. Bottom: The Pleistocene diorama as it appeared in May 2014. Note that part of the mammoth’s tusk has fallen and that one Smilodon has broken off its supporting armature. Both photos by Dave Smith.

The life-size heads
The discovery of two of the original GGIE life-size heads and of a third new one (perhaps a 1940 addition to the GGIE paleontology exhibit) was serendipitous. In 2012, Senior Museum Scientist Pat Holroyd was talking with Sally Shelton, Associate Director of the Museum of Geology and Paleontology Research Laboratory, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, about collections issues when Pat happened to mention Huff’s name. Sally revealed that in moving to a new building, their museum discovered three sculpted heads by Huff for which they’d love to find a new home. Pat relayed this information to Associate Director for Collections and Research Mark Goodwin. Mark, who has a strong interest in UCMP’s history, said that he would gladly take the heads and pay for the shipping costs. It took a while, but this summer, a 450-pound crate containing the three heads arrived at the museum. The two heads that were made for the 1939 GGIE are (1) Paramylodon, a giant ground sloth, based on a skull from the Pleistocene Rancho La Brea asphalt pits of southern California; and (2) Hipparion, a three-toed Miocene horse, from a skull found at the Black Hawk Ranch Quarry near Danville. The new head is of Pliohippus, a one-toed Miocene horse.

The heads in 1957 and in 2012

Top: The Smilodon, Hipparion, Paramylodon, and Synthetoceras heads in the Hearst Memorial Mining Building circa 1957. Photo from the UCMP archives. Bottom: The heads of Hipparion, Pliohippus, and Paramylodon in South Dakota, 2012. They appear to have been painted at some point. Photo by Sally Shelton.

How did the heads end up in South Dakota? Both Professor Emeritus Bill Clemens and Sally Shelton believe that Reid Macdonald may have been responsible. Reid got his Ph.D. at Berkeley in 1949 and took a job as curator at the Museum of Geology, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, that same year. But he left that position in 1957 and in the UCMP archives, there is a photo, circa 1957, that shows the heads still in Berkeley. Reid retired to Rapid City in 1980 and lived out the last 24 years of his life there. It’s still possible that he was behind the transfer of the heads to South Dakota but as yet, there is no hard evidence.

Dave Smith with heads

Dave Smith with the three Huff heads after removing the sides of the shipping crate and removing all the paper packed around them. Photo by Mark Goodwin.

Nevertheless, now only the heads of Bison latifrons and Smilodon are unaccounted for. Since they are arguably the finest heads in the bunch, it’s entirely possible that they still exist somewhere. Perhaps someday, they too will return home to UCMP.

Waterlogged wood on the seafloor and the critters that call it home

For a marine biologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about wood. What happens to it if it happens to wash into a stream? How much of it gets into the ocean? Where does it sink? What happens to it once it reaches the bottom? What animals are likely to make it their home?

I’m far from the first to think about the role of wood in ocean systems. In fact, Darwin thought quite a bit about how plant material might make its way into the ocean and how long different kinds of wood might stay afloat before sinking …

“It is well known what a difference there is in the buoyancy of green and seasoned timber; and it occurred to me that floods might wash down plants or branches, and that these might be dried on the banks, and then by a fresh rise in the stream be washed into the sea. Hence I was led to dry stems and branches of 94 plants with ripe fruit, and to place them on sea water. The majority sank quickly, but some which whilst green floated for a very short time, when dried floated much longer ….”
— Darwin, excerpted from On the Origin of Species, Chapter 11, 1859.

While Darwin’s focus was on wood as a rafting vehicle for dispersal, I am interested in the flip side: what happens to that wood once it sinks (where it is no longer useful for transporting land-dwelling animals)? Is the wood very useful to certain specialized denizens of the deep? Like Darwin, I recognized that there may be different effects depending on what kind of wood is involved, therefore, I set out to test whether the kind of wood matters in shaping the community of animals that colonize it.

About two and a half years ago, I had an opportunity to sink material from ten very different plants with support from Jim Barry and his lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). We took the research vessel Western Flyer to a site about a day's steam from Moss Landing, CA, and with help from the remotely operated vehicle Doc Ricketts, we placed 28 wood bundles on the seafloor about two miles below the surface.

Processing wood and extracting clams

Left: On board the Western Flyer, Jenna and Rosemary Romero process wood after it was brought up from the seafloor. Right: Connie Martin carefully extracts clams from a chunk of Ginkgo wood.

For two years I waited, not knowing whether I would ever see my beloved wood bundles again. But thanks to the expertise of my colleagues and good weather, I was able to retrieve every single wood bundle last October.

Since then, the lab has been quite the scene with six — yes, I said six — undergraduate research assistants busily extracting animals from the inside of logs and off the surface of leaves and needles. Each of them has developed an eye for detail that only hours upon hours of sorting tiny animals under the microscope can give you. Together we are sorting through heaps of critters and pulling out the patterns that make each colonist community different on each type of wood. Already patterns are emerging, but it will take more sorting, photographing and identifying organisms with help from taxonomist colleagues at other museums and institutions before we have the full story. Please stay tuned!

Christopher Castaneda sorts critters

Christopher Castaneda sorts critters and records his observations.

Learn more about this research in an interview that aired on the radio talk show The Graduates with Tesla Monson on KALX, April 22, 2014. You can download the audio podcast on iTunes.

Links to related articles and posts:

— This research was funded in part by the UCMP, Sigma Xi Berkeley Chapter, Conchologists of America, AMNH Lerner-Gray, and American Malacological Society. The wood used in this research was collected from a variety of sources, including the Tilden Botanical Garden, City of Berkeley, UC Berkeley campus, and other helpful businesses and individuals.

Grad student's artwork graces journal cover

“There are great color reconstructions of dinosaurs, so why not a plant?” thought Department of Integrative Biology and UCMP grad student Jeff Benca when he set out to reconstruct the appearance of a 375-million-year-old Devonian plant. Using Adobe Illustrator CS6 software, he constructed a striking three-dimensional, full-color portrait of a stem of the lycopod Leclercqia scolopendra, or centipede clubmoss. This was no small feat, considering that the fossil plant Jeff was illustrating was a two-dimensional compression.

Jeff Benca and journal cover

Left: Jeff Benca with museum visitors on Cal Day 2014. Photo by Pat Holroyd. Right: Jeff's artwork on the cover of the March 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany.

The illustration appears in a paper by Jeff and coauthors Maureen Carlisle, Silas Bergen, and UCMP alum Caroline Strömberg in the March 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany. Jeff’s illustration graces the cover of the issue (see photo above).

Read more about Jeff and his work with fossil and living lycopods at the UC Berkeley Newscenter. Read the abstract for the paper, "Applying morphometrics to early land plant systematics: A new Leclercqia (Lycopsida) species from Washington State, USA."

Following The Graduates on KALX Berkeley

Tesla at the microphone

Tesla Monson, KALX radio talk show host.

UCMP and Department of Integrative Biology graduate student Tesla Monson, a second-year graduate student in the Hlusko Lab, is the host of a new talk show, The Graduates, on KALX Berkeley, kalx.berkeley.edu! KALX is a UC Berkeley and listener-supported independent radio station and an ideal platform for The Graduates, a show featuring Tesla interviewing UCB graduate students about their research. Debuting on Tuesday, April 8, at 9:00am, The Graduates will air every other Tuesday, from 9:00 am to 9:30 am on KALX Berkeley, 90.7 FM.

Tesla’s first two interview subjects are UCMP graduate students. On April 8, Ashley Poust will discuss dinosaurs and early mammals, and on April 22, Jenna Judge will talk about deep-sea marine biology. Stay tuned!

Audio podcasts of all The Graduates interviews are available on iTunes.

The geology and paleontology of the Caldecott Tunnel's Fourth Bore

Tunnel cross-sectionThe fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel opened to traffic on November 16, 2013, and if you're an East Bay resident, chances are good that you've been through it once or twice (at least!). Did you realize that each time you drive through the tunnel you're passing through several million years of accumulated sediment that has been pushed up on its side?

Want to know more about the rocks the tunnel cuts through and the fossils found in them? As part of an agreement between UCMP and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the museum has created a web-based feature focusing on the geology and paleontology of the tunnel's fourth bore. The feature covers …

… the tectonic history of the East Bay

… the geology of the East Bay Hills

… the preparations taken prior to excavation of the fourth bore

… the method and sequence of excavation

… and the fossils that have been prepared and cataloged (so far).

Erica, PaleoPortal, and the National Fossil Day connection

Erica working on an exhibit

Erica working on an exhibit at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Before coming to UCMP, Erica Clites — currently working on an NSF-funded project to rehouse and digitally image the orphaned USGS Menlo Park invertebrate collection out at the Regatta facility in Richmond — spent about two and a half years with the National Park Service. In 2010 she coordinated a nationwide outreach effort for the first NPS-sponsored National Fossil Day, which was held on October 16th this year. Read an interview with Erica about her work with the NPS on the Park Service's National Fossil Day website.

While at the NPS, Erica worked with Vince Santucci of the NPS Geologic Resources Division. At the same time, Vince was helping UCMP with its "Fossils in US National Parks" module on The Paleontology Portal website; he provided much of the park and fossil data necessary to create the module, which, by the way, was made in support of National Fossil Day.