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UCMP students honored with 2013 Paleontological Society Student Grants Awards

Dori Contreras (Looy Lab), Renske Kirchholtes (Looy Lab), and Allison Stegner (Barnosky Lab) will each receive awards from The Paleontological Society to support their research. Each year the Society grants Mid-America Paleontology Society (MAPS) Outstanding Research Awards to the top three student proposals received and honors a student with the G. Arthur Cooper Award for student research.

Dori, Renske, and Allison

Dori Contreras (left), Renske Kirchholtes (center), and Allison Stegner (right) busy at UCMP's Cal Day open house.
 

Dori Contreras will receive a MAPS Outstanding Student Research Award to support her research titled: Investigating the evolution of tropical rainforests: A functional analysis of the late Cretaceous Jose Creek Member, McRae Fm.

Renske Kirchholtes will receive a MAPS Outstanding Student Research Award to support of her research titled: Phytoliths: a novel application to answering ancient questions.

Allison Stegner will receive the G. Arthur Cooper Award to support her research titled: Assessing small mammal response to Quaternary climate and land use change on the Colorado Plateau.

Barnosky presents statement on global environmental problems to Governor Brown

When California governor Jerry Brown challenged scientists to put global change issues into terms that political leaders can understand UCMP's Tony Barnosky stepped up. On May 23 Barnosky and colleagues presented a 30-page statement entitled Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century to the governor. It's a strong statement about global environmental problems and what people must do to insure the future health of the planet with signatories from 44 countries including two Nobel laureates, 33 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and members of other nations' scientific academies.

 

Read more about Barnosky and other scientists' presentation to the governor at the UC Berkeley News Center.

 

Read the scientific consensus statement at the Millenium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere website.

Another feather in Judy Scotchmoor's cap

Our very own Judy Scotchmoor, Co-Director of Education and Outreach at the UCMP, received the 2013 Chancellor's Award for Public Service. The award honors outstanding public service by UC Berkeley undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff. The Civic Engagement Award received by Judy is, in part, for her exceptional ability to develop, nurture, and leverage collaborative partnerships and resources to better engage the public with exciting and accessible science.

In a public ceremony held on May 9, 2013, at the Alumni House on campus, Judy’s leadership in the Understanding Evolution and Understanding Science websites was highlighted, as well as her efforts in Science@Cal, COPUS, and KQED Quest. Congratulations, Judy!

Judy with the Chancellor

Judy with Chancellor Birgeneau.

Judy at the podium

Photos courtesy of Bruce Cook Photography.

The Looy Lab paleo detectives: Dori and Cindy at the NMNH

Cissites

A Cissites harkerianus leaf from Ellsworth County, Kansas, collected by Charles Sternberg in the late 1800s, and identified by Leo Lesquereux. Specimen from the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History. (photo by Dori Contreras)

Tuesday morning, February 12, 2013, Dori Contreras and Cindy Looy woke before dawn to catch a cross-country flight to Washington, DC, for a two-week visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Originally, Cindy was going to attend a biannual workshop of the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystem Program. However, after Dori obtained a Sigma Xi grant to study a fossil leaf collection housed in the NMNH’s paleobotanical collections, they teamed up and turned it into a joint research excursion filled with an array of activities.

Dori: My main goal was to collect data for a study on the leaf characteristics of early flowering plants from a warm wet climate approximately 100 million years ago. And just to clarify, what I mean by "data" is photographs — lots and lots of high-resolution photographs of individual fossil leaves preserved in rock. The specific fossils that I was interested in come from the Fort Harker locality in Kansas. They were collected over a roughly 30-year period (1860s through 1890s) as a part of the US Geological Survey’s explorations of the geology of the Western Interior of the United States.

I wasn’t exactly sure how many specimens I would find in the museum "stacks," which consist of rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling cabinets filled with drawers of fossils. Based on Leo Lesquereux’s publications from the late 19th century, I was expecting somewhere around 100 specimens. However, after two days of opening wooden drawers I located just over 300 Fort Harker specimens! Many have never been figured or mentioned in publications, and most have not been reevaluated in over 100 years.

Dori with the camera setup

Dori photographing the Cretaceous Fort Harker flora. (photo by Cindy Looy)

I knew that it would be a major task to photograph them all in the detail needed for study, so I went right to work. The museum's imaging room had an impressive setup of top-notch, stand-mounted cameras connected to computers for remote shooting. Most of my time was spent carting specimens back and forth between the stacks and imaging room and doing nonstop photography. The trickiest part of imaging for data collection was getting the lighting angle and brightness just right to pick up the three-dimensional (and often obscure) features of each leaf. At least magnification wasn't an issue — the resolution of the camera I used was so high that a microscope was not necessary!

Inga

Inga cretaceum, another fossil leaf collected by Charles Sternberg and identified by Leo Lesquereux. Specimen from the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History. (photo by Dori Contreras)

Ultimately, I was able to photograph almost every specimen in the collection, totaling a whopping 50 gigabytes of images. Now I look forward to the next tasks: naming and organizing all those files, followed by detailed measuring of key ecological leaf characteristics for each specimen. Luckily ,a new Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) student just joined "Team Contreras." We hope this study will provide insight into the structure and function of plant communities in warm, wet climates during the early radiation of flowering plants.

Cindy: Last year, members of the NMNH's Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystem Program received good news from NSF: their Research Coordination Network proposal, "Synthesizing deep time and recent community ecology," was funded. This means that over the next five years a group of paleo- and "extant" ecologists will meet semiannually to study the assembly and disassembly of biological communities in the past and present. Attending this winter's edition of our meeting series was my main goal of this museum trip. Our workshop consisted of three days of presentations, data gathering and subsequent analyses in a friendly and inspiring atmosphere.

Workshop attendees

The NMNH’s Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program workshop attendees. Cindy is ninth from the left. (photo by Dori Contreras)

It is always a treat to return to the NMNH, smack in the middle of the National Mall in DC. From 2004 to 2008 I worked as a research fellow in the Paleobiology Department of this bigger sister of the UCMP and being at the NMNH always instills a special feeling. It could be the 325,000 square feet of exhibition space, the 20,000 daily visitors from all over the globe, or the 126,000,000 documented specimens in the museum's collections. Perhaps it is the illusion of being in the "center of the world," with the close proximity of the NMNH to the White House. But still, I know how lucky I am to be at the west coast equivalent of the NMNH. The UCMP public exhibits may be primarily online, but with the Department of Integrative Biology, the UCMP boasts something that the NMNH lacks altogether and something that presidential fly-bys can never compensate for: a pack of fabulous graduate and undergraduate students!

Outside of the meeting I had plenty of time to catch up with friends and work with former colleagues. Fellow-paleobotanist Bill DiMichele and I spent quite a bit of time in the museum's paleobotany collections. During the past 20 years, Paleozoic paleobotanists from the NMNH (Bill DiMichele, Dan Chaney, and Serge Mamay) have intensively sampled latest Pennsylvanian, Early Permian and Middle Permian sites in Texas. More than 360 collections of compression fossils were assembled using sampling strategies appropriate for the reconstruction of plant communities. Bill and I pulled out numerous conifers for morphotyping. We are trying to get a grip on how diverse early Permian Euramerican forests were, and how seed-plant dominated assemblages changed through time. Working our way through all the cabinets took quite some time, but that's nothing compared to all the imaging and measuring that still needs to be done. Ah well, that’s what is great about being a scientist: the work is never completed. Every question answered raises plenty of new, interesting questions.

Bill and Cindy

Cindy and Bill DiMichele working in the paleobotanical collections. (photo by Dori Contreras)

Both: Additionally, we got to present our work to east coast paleontologists and geologists at the annual Penn-Smithsonian Geobiology Symposium. It's always good to foster cross-talk on the continental scale and represent the paleontological force that is the UCMP!

Cindy and Dori sample pie

If you ever find yourself in DC, we highly recommend breakfast at Paul's French bakery ("Bonjour Madame!"). Here we test some of their pies for Cindy’s birthday. (photo by Bill DiMichele)

Darwin Day Roadshow

Lisa's presentation

Lisa White makes her presentation to Mrs. Ball's 7th grade class at the Urban Promise Academy in Oakland. Photo by Alison Ball.
 

It is not unusual to see evolutionary biologists around the world involved in celebration activities on February 12th — the reason? Charles Darwin's birthday! UCMP and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) are no exception and this year the activities overlapped. Two years ago, NESCent initiated the Darwin Day Roadshow in order to bring evolutionary science to schools and museums around the country. This year, Lisa White was asked by NESCent to bring the Roadshow to Urban Promise Academy, a small Oakland Unified School District middle school serving students in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, CA. Presenting to Ms. Alison Ball's 7th grade classroom on February 15, 2013, Lisa highlighted research at the UCMP, profiling examples of evolution from the Understanding Evolution website, while conveying why the science of evolution is important and relevant.

To the enjoyment of the students, Lisa brought in an array of fossils for the students to touch and see the tangible evidence for evolution up close. Lisa also spoke about her own education and training, what it is like to be a paleontologist, and how she came to work at the UCMP. Lisa said "the students were such an inspiration and their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn more about paleontology suggests the next generation of potential scientists are alive and well in classrooms like Urban Promise Academy."

Caldwell's rare octopus research makes headlines

Roy Caldwell has been working with Richard Ross of the California Academy of Sciences to study a rare, beautiful, and so far unnamed species of octopus. Their work, along with some of Roy's photos, is the subject of a feature article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

New bone histology book from UCMP and UC Press

The University of California Press has just published Bone Histology of Fossil Tetrapods: Advancing methods, analysis, and interpretation. The book represents the proceedings of an NSF-sponsored workshop and is the first comprehensive summary of the field of fossil bone histology. The twelve authors of the various chapters cover topics ranging from basic bone biology to calculating and analyzing the evolution of growth rates in bones, in addition to step-by-step instructions for setting up a hard tissue histology lab and processing specimens.

The microstructure of bone has a great deal to tell us about the biology of ancient vertebrates. The patterns of how bone tissue was deposited and the configuration of the blood canals in the bone provide a very good idea of how fast the animal was growing, and how its growth regime changed through life. Growth lines, deposited annually like tree rings, help us to calculate how old animals were when they died and even when they matured sexually. These data in turn give us information about life history strategies and metabolic regimes.

UCMP alum Andrew Lee and grad student Sarah Werning were two of the many contributors to the volume who have benefited from studying UCMP’s fossil collections. UCMP researchers have been in the forefront of fossil bone histology for decades, and our histology lab continues to be one of the most active research areas of the Museum. The book was edited by Kevin Padian of UCMP and Ellen-Thérèse Lamm of the Museum of the Rockies.

Lucy Chang captures honors at the International Biogeography Society meeting

IB Students Lucy Chang and Brad Balukjian celebrate their poster success! Photo courtesy of George Roderick.

UCMP grad student, Lucy Chang, received recognition for her student poster at the recent International Biogeography Society meeting in Miami. She was one of two winners in the category of Conservation and Global Change. There were more than 300 student posters dispersed among four categories and only two winners in each category. Lucy’s poster focused on the use of the fossil record to understand how biotas are established in epeiric (epicontinental) seas. See abstract below.

Abstract: Building up the biota in novel environments: insights using the fossil record of epeiric seas
Throughout the Phanerozoic, times of rising sea level were often accompanied by the development of shallow seas on the continents. These epeiric seas formed relatively rapidly in geologic time and differed physically from open marine habitats, with shallower depths and altered salinity, temperature, and circulation. The build-up of diversity within these new habitats must result from one or more of the following processes: uninhibited dispersal of open marine taxa, limited dispersal with ecological filtering of open marine taxa, and one or more rounds of in situ speciation. The paleontological record allows discrimination between these processes and additionally chronicles any accompanying anagenesis. Despite the extensive representation of epeiric seas in the fossil record, little has been done to characterize and determine the source of epeiric biotas. My focus is on ammonites in the Late Cretaceous, characterized by high sea levels and inland flooding, including creation of a seaway across North America between the Arctic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Ammonites are an ideal study group because they are fast evolving, abundant and well preserved — features that allow for fine temporal and spatial control. Using geographic and temporal distributions and body size data for over 500 species of ammonite, I present spatial patterns in diversity and ecology of Cretaceous ammonites across epeiric and non-epeiric habitats to determine the relative importance of the various processes that build diversity in novel environments.

An evening with Neil Shubin

UCMP has partnered with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Arts & Ideas series to present a lecture by Neil Shubin on Wednesday, January 16.

Paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin is famed for discovering the fossilized Tiktaalik roseae, the missing link between ancient sea creatures and land dwellers. His bestselling book, Your Inner Fish, shows parallels between human anatomy and the structures of the fish that first wriggled landward 375 million years ago. In his new book, The Universe Within, he goes one step further, explaining how the universe’s 14-billion-year history is reflected in our bodies, right down to our molecules. Neil Shubin is a professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago and a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. Academy Fellows are a distinguished group of eminent scientists recognized for notable contributions to one or more of the natural sciences.

Get more event/ticket information.

Werning in Biology Letters with oldest dinosaur

©Natural History Museum, London/Mark Witton

Nyasasaurus parringtoni is the new name for a very old fossil — a small dinosaur that lived 10 million years before any other known species. UCMP's Sarah Werning co-authored the Biology Letters paper describing the animal and did bone analysis on the specimen.

The Nyasasaurus fossil that Sarah and her co-authors studied was collected in Tanzania in the 1930s but was not described and documented for 80 years. The find pushes the origin of dinosaurs back to the middle of the Triassic period.

 

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