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Humans began altering natural world 6,000 years ago

Egyptian farmers in the Neolithic period 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Egyptian farmers in the Neolithic period 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Scientists have found an abrupt change about 6,000 years ago in how terrestrial plant and animal species coexisted, right about the time human populations were ballooning and agriculture was spreading around the world.

The findings suggest that human activity had reached a tipping point where hunting and farming were impacting the natural world in irreversible ways — changes that have continued to increase to this day.

The researchers, including UC Berkeley’s Cindy Looy, an assistant professor of integrative biology, will report their findings in the Dec. 17 issue of the journal Nature.

The scientists looked at fossil data on how species coexisted over the past 307 million years, specifically how often a particular pair of plant or animal species is found within the same community. Out of all possible combinations of two species in a certain region and time interval, the proportion of pairs of species that co-occurred remained relatively stable until 6,000 years ago. At that time, the chances of co-occurrence dropped significantly, suggesting that humans were creating some barrier to the dispersal of plants or animals.

"This tells us that humans have been having a massive effect on the environment for a very long time," said lead author S. Kathleen Lyons, a paleobiologist in the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems (ETE) program at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Analyses of modern communities of plants and animals have found that for most pairs of species, the presence of one species within a community does not influence whether the other is present or absent. For pairs where there is an association, most occur within the same community less frequently than expected, suggesting some influence keeps them apart.

But when Lyons, Looy and their colleagues investigated the composition of ancient communities using fossil data, they found exactly the opposite. Their analysis showed that from 307 million years ago, the time known as the Carboniferous period, to about 6,000 years ago, in the Holocene epoch, there was a pattern of pairs of species occurring together within communities rather than being segregated.

"The proportion of co-occurring species pairs was relatively stable from the late Paleozoic until 6,000 years ago, even during periods of major climate change and mass extinction and despite the appearance of many new players in the terrestrial ecosystems, such as mammals and flowering plants," Looy said. "The decline of coupled species pairs in the Holocene also cannot be explained by the transition from the last glacial to the current interglacial at the end of the Pleistocene, as this happened too early. Instead, it is more likely caused by an increase in human population size and the resulting land use and agriculture."

Around the time co-occurrence patterns changed, humans were becoming increasingly dependent on agriculture, a cultural shift that physically altered the environment and would have introduced artificial barriers to dispersal never seen before. Even at low levels of agriculture and other human impacts, there was a detectable shift in co-occurrence structure, indicating that species were not able to migrate as easily as they did for the previous 300 million years.

For more details about the study, see this story on the Smithsonian's website.

This post was originally published online in the UC Berkeley News Center

See also:

The 2016 Fossil Treasures Calendar is now available at UCMP

Assistant Director Mark Goodwin showing off the 2016 UCMP Calendar to an ammonite, a featured fossil.

Assistant Director Mark Goodwin showing off the 2016 UCMP Calendar to an ammonite, a featured fossil.

Sharing the Collections at UCMP

The new year's calendar focuses on the collections and the unique specimens that can be found here. UCMP is a research museum, which means that access is limited to researchers, our students, and affiliates. The 2016 calendar allows us to bring the collections to our supporters and the general public.

Grants from the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences enabled us to restore, catalog and digitize new specimens more rapidly than ever before. The result was an increase in integration and accessibility of the collections for both research and educational purposes.

What’s inside the calendar?

The calendar showcases our fossils, diversity and volume of our collections, as well as the exciting activity happening inside the museum.

It features spectacular images of specimens representing each of our four collections supplemented with fun facts, such as the age of the fossils and where they were found! It also shows different ways of visualizing fossils. Apart from photographs, there are scanning electron micrographs of the microfossils and 3-D volume renderings of a pachycephalosaur dome fossil.

Get yours today!

Contact Chris Mejia at cmejia@berkeley.edu or call 510-642-1821 to get your 2016 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar. They're only $10 each (plus postage) and all proceeds support museum research, education, and outreach.

For the collectors out there, we also have UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendars from 2013, 2014 and 2015 available for $2.

UCMP students help the public unleash their inner scientist

The public enjoys the opportunity to explore fossils and learn more about paleontology from UCMP students. Photo by Renske Kirchholtes

The public enjoys the opportunity to explore fossils and learn more about paleontology from UCMP students. Photo by Renske Kirchholtes

On November 7 UCMP participated in the Bay Area Science Festival Discovery Day at AT&T Park. Discovery Day is the closing event of the annual Bay Area Science Festival – a science extravaganza offering a wide range of science and technology activities in a variety of venues over a two-week period.

The UCMP joined other Science@Cal exhibitors for the fifth straight year by engaging youth and families in fossils and life of the past, highlighting what lived at AT&T Park before the Giants! Thanks to UCMP students Eric Holt, Renske Kirchholtes, Jun Lim, Emily Orzechowski, Elyanah Posner, Nick Spano, and Alexis Williams for making the UCMP table a top hit with festival-goers.

Graduate students (from left to right) Eric Holt, Nick Spano, Jun Lim, and Emily Orzechowski, prepare the exhibit table during Discovery Days at AT&T Park. Photo by Jun Lim

Graduate students (from left to right) Eric Holt, Nick Spano, Jun Lim, and Emily Orzechowski, prepare the exhibit table during Discovery Days at AT&T Park. Photo by Jun Lim

Landscapes change forever when large mammals disappear

An African elephant grazing among trees.

An African elephant grazes. Photo credit: Tony Barnosky

Research on the extinction of large mammals by members of the Barnosky Lab and their colleagues highlights how entire landscapes are affected when modern elephants and their extinct relatives, mastodons and mammoths, disappear.  From plants that are no longer grazed to fewer nutrients in soils, the loss of megafauna significantly impacts ecosystems in a dramatic fashion as detailed in recent articles and interviews.

Learn more about this recent research:

 

UCMP and Stanford partner on a global change workshop for teachers

Teachers Monica Sircar (left; Everest Public High School, Redwood City) and Crystina Ayala (ASCEND K-8 School, Oakland) use string to represent rays of sunlight hitting Earth's surface at different angles at different latitudes.

Teachers Monica Sircar (left; Everest Public High School, Redwood City) and Crystina Ayala (ASCEND K-8 School, Oakland) use string to represent rays of sunlight hitting Earth's surface at different angles at different latitudes.

Middle and high school science teachers received double the resources when UCMP and Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences teamed up to offer a week-long workshop on global change.

Read more about the workshop on Stanford's blog

UCMP science casual: Dinosaur NightLife at the California Academy of Sciences

Imagine over 3,000 adults in San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences (Cal Academy) for a night of fun special exhibits, drinks, and a serious science social. Now imagine it every Thursday. On July 23rd a dinosaur-themed Cal Academy NightLife event called upon volunteers from UCMP to showcase and explain the mysteries of these monsters beside their contemporary chews.

The NightLife also featured a tour of Cal Academy’s library archives about the historic “Bone Wars” between Victorian paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope and a showing of the 1993 classic Jurassic Park in the Tusher African Hall. Indeed, there was something uncannily familiar about watching the Dilophosaurus scene from Jurassic Park amongst stuffed African lions and cheetahs, who had also certainly taken their fair share of prey during life.

The event runs every Thursday from 6-10pm and requires a 21+ photo ID for entry. Stay tuned for the next time UCMP crosses the bay for another paleo-themed NightLife gathering!

New research shows how mammals became smaller in response to dramatic climate warming

Lead author Brian Rankin holds jaws of two species of 50 million year old horses.  Measurements of their teeth were used to study how global change can affect how mammals evolve.

Lead author Brian Rankin holds jaws of two species of 50 million year old horses. Measurements of their teeth were used to study how global change can affect how mammals evolve.

Fifty-six million years ago the Earth underwent a dramatic warming event, with temperatures increasing by as much as 7° Celsius over a span of just 100,000 years. Many mammals responded to this temperature increase by becoming much smaller. How these changes happened, however, is poorly understood. Identifying and measuring the mechanisms that drove these changes was the focus of a new study by University of California Museum of Paleontology researchers Brian Rankin and Pat Holroyd, and colleagues from University of Calgary and Western University of Health Sciences.

Lead author Brian Rankin, the newest postdoctoral scholar of University of California Museum of Paleontology, explains "When temperatures get warmer, we see a wide range of mammals become smaller. Determining what evolutionary processes are responsible for these changes and how much each contribute to this pattern has been very uncertain. We chose the evolution of mammals at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary because it is a time of dramatic global warming when many different types of animals became dwarfed and the fossil record of this time is incredibly rich."

In a new paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, these researchers present a new method to separate and quantify body size change due to selective extinction vs. change within lineages to determine which is the most important way in which evolution takes place during times of global warming. They found that that some evolutionary mechanisms (i.e., species selection) might act differently during global warming events, favoring mammals that increase in size rather than decrease. The methods developed in the paper can now be broadly applied to look at evolutionary change during other times of global change.

Partnership with Point Reyes National Seashore leads to important discovery of marine specimen

ptreyes-fossilUCMP's partnership with Point Reyes National Seashore (National Park Service) has resulted in the discovery and collection of an important marine mammal specimen. This specimen is currently being prepared by UCMP Research Associate Robert Boessenecker, and will be reposited at UCMP. Lillian Pearson, a Geoscientist-in-the-Park intern, is setting up protocols for the long-term monitoring of paleontological resources (fossils) at Point Reyes. Erica Clites did this type of work for the National Park Service before coming to UCMP, and has been advising Lillian on the project. For more information, read the full story.

Barnosky meets with Governor Jerry Brown and a United Nations delegation to discuss climate change

On June 15, UCMP Curator and Integrative Biology Professor Tony Barnosky met with Governor Jerry Brown, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres, and California climatologists at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History to discuss global warming and the consequences of failing to deal with it.

At a press conference following the meeting, Brown expressed his desire to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent over the next 15 years and spoke of legislation mandating that 50 per cent of the State’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2050.

Brown et al

Behind Governor Brown (at the podium) are (from left) Christiana Figueres, Liz Hadley, and Tony Barnosky. Photo courtesy of Tony Barnosky.

At the end of November, representatives from some 195 countries will gather in Paris for a UN Climate Change Conference in the hope of forging international agreements to limit greenhouse gases and combat climate change.

See past blog posts dealing with Tony’s involvement with climate change issues.

UCMP participates in Girl Scouts’ “bridging” event

Every May for the past 30 years or so, the Girl Scouts of Northern California have celebrated the advancement of their scouts from Junior to Cadette status by a symbolic walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Following this year’s May 2 event, the scouts continued on to Crissy Field where they enjoyed entertainment and information booths. And UCMP was there to celebrate with the scouts.

For the third year in a row, UCMP hosted a table staffed by an enthusiastic crew that included graduate student (and former Dutch girl scout) Renske Kirchholtes, undergraduates Gina Hwang and Alexis Williams, and Museum Scientist Erica Clites. The Girl Scouts and their parents enjoyed talking with current UC Berkeley students and seeing women role models.

Renske and Alexis

Graduate student Renske Kirchholtes and undergraduate Alexis Williams talk with members of a Girl Scout troop at Crissy Field. Photo by Erica Clites.

Alexis and Gina

Berkeley undergraduates (and UCMP employees on the USGS project) Alexis Williams (left) and Gina Hwang show fossils to eager Girl Scouts. Photo by Erica Clites.