UCMP'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.
Archive for the ‘Working in the collections’ Category.
If you have taken the elevator to the top of Sather Tower, aka the Campanile, perhaps you've heard that some of the floors of the tower are filled with fossils. This is not a campus myth, it's fact!
The Campanile is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and its very first occupants — moving in before the tower was even completed — were fossils. At that time, the museum and Department of Paleontology were in Bacon Hall, just east of the Campanile, so as a storage facility, the tower was conveniently located. Although the museum has moved several times over the past century, the fossils in the Campanile have not.
Some of the first fossils to be moved into the tower were vertebrate bones from John C. Merriam's excavations at the Rancho La Brea tar pits. These bones, collected prior to 1914, occupy four of the five floors devoted to fossil storage. But the Campanile houses several other collections too. There are bones collected in the 1930s from asphalt deposits in McKittrick (about halfway between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield) and nearby Maricopa; mammoth bones, teeth, tusks, and other miscellaneous Pleistocene fossils; modern whale bones; a few blocks containing ribs of the plesiosaur Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae; crates containing plaster casts of dinosaur footprints and trackways that were made by Sam Welles while doing field work in the Kayenta Formation of Arizona; petrified wood from the Petrified Forest; fossil plants; invertebrate fossils, including collections moved to the Campanile from McCone Hall and some from Triassic rocks in Nevada; Upper Cretaceous leaves from Bryce Canyon, Utah; oil company collections of microfossils (bulk samples) and invertebrates; casts of mastodont skulls; an ichthyosaur skull; some sculptural reconstructions (including a glyptodont); and cases of reprints. A conservative estimate of the number of fossils stored in the Campanile, excluding the microfossils, is 300,000.
During this year-long celebration of the Campanile, it is only fitting that the fossils housed there receive some attention too. We will periodically post blogs throughout the year to discuss some of the ongoing research projects that involve the Campanile's fossils. For instance, UCMP Curator and Associate Professor of Integrative Biology Leslea Hlusko and her lab have two projects underway and Eric Holt, an undergrad in Tony Barnosky's lab, is looking at wolf morphometrics. And back in September we announced the grant award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to curate the Campanile's McKittrick fossils. To date, more than 2,500 specimens have been cleaned and cataloged, and more than 500 images of 273 specimens have been added to CalPhotos.
Stay tuned for more about the Campanile's fossil treasures!
The UC Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) is home to more than five million invertebrate fossil specimens, a majority of them being marine in origin. While rehousing the US Geological Survey’s Menlo Park collections, I came across specimens of Actinella, a genus of terrestrial gastropod. The earliest known air-breathing gastropods in the fossil record appeared during the Carboniferous Period, Carboniferous being a reference to the abundant coal deposits formed at this time, 359 to 299 million years ago.
The name Actinella was established by the British naturalist Richard Thomas Lowe. While serving as a clergyman in the Madeira Islands — a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean — Lowe collected, studied, identified and named many different snail genera and subspecies between the 1830s and 1850s. Lowe’s work is still cited today and used in the identification of Actinella fossils. In 1892, the Scottish malacologist Robert Boog Watson described specimens of Actinella in the Journal of Conchology. Thirty years later, Watson’s work with Actinella was referred to and further expanded upon by then University of Colorado, Boulder, Professor T.D.A. Cockerell in a 1922 edition of the journal Nature.
Terrestrial snails evolved from marine snails, but some modern relatives, such as Ellobium aurismidae, the Midas ear snail, have characteristics of both. Certain parts of the world have terrestrial snails that prefer wet habitats, like Carychium minimum, the herald thorn snail. Other snail species, such as Myosotella myosotis, the mouse ear snail, have adapted to live near water with high salinity.
Studies of living specimens of Actinella and other gastropods continue to generate interesting information. For example, in a 2008 Nature article, UC Berkeley Professor Nipam Patel and UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Cristina Grande discovered that snails use the same genes as humans do for right-left determination of internal and external structures. With continuing investigations into gastropods, both extinct and living, marine and terrestrial, fossils from UCMP’s USGS Menlo Park invertebrate collection just might lead to another discovery!
Actinella photo by the UCMP Invertebrate Collection crew. Ellobium photo © 2012 Femorale (CC BY-NC 3.0); image has been modified. Myosotella photo by Malcolm Storey (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0); image has been cropped. Carychium photo by H. Zell (CC BY-SA 3.0); image has been modified.
In the summer of 1902, US Geological Survey and UC Berkeley paleontology crews had a chance meeting in the field near Redding. Along with Merriam, the Berkeley crew included preparator Eustace Furlong, as well as museum benefactress Annie Alexander and her traveling companion, Katherine Jones. Jones' diary recorded Alexander's encounter with Joseph Diller of the US Geological Survey while washing her hair in a stream. Diller asked "all sorts of leading questions as to the plans of our party and in fact knew our movements as well as we did." Alexander "gave as evasive answers as possible"1, not wanting Diller to co-opt their discoveries. Diller spent his career in the Pacific Northwest, and although not a paleontologist, he collected hundreds of fossils for the US Geological Survey. Despite the suspicion surrounding their initial meeting, Diller later referred Merriam to exposures of the Hosselkus Limestone in Cow Creek, where in 1910, Merriam and his crew discovered the skull and partial skeleton of the ichthyosaur, Shastasaurus.
Working closely with the USGS and associated UCMP collections, it is clear that UCMP and US Geological Survey staff visited many of the same places. I enjoyed reading this confirmation of such encounters. It seems fitting that the fossils collected by these two storied institutions are now reunited in the UC Museum of Paleontology.
1 Hilton, R.P. 2003. Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic Reptiles from California. University of California Press. 356 pp.
2 Sander, P.M., X. Chen, L. Cheng, and X. Wang. Short-snouted toothless ichthyosaur from China suggests Late Triassic diversification of suction feeding ichthyosaurs. PLoS ONE 6(5):e19480.
How do natural history museums build their collections? The UCMP's fossil collection is largely a product of decades of field work by past and present researchers. As the State's fossil repository, the museum also receives a large number of fossil finds from construction sites in California (for example, the Caldecott Tunnel). Another, perhaps less appreciated means of acquiring scientifically valuable specimens, is specimen exchange between institutions — it's a bit like a holiday gift exchange but without the surprise factor, and the gifts are appreciated by all participants.
If you have visited the Valley Life Sciences Building (VLSB) at Cal recently, you may have seen the skeleton of an ichthyosaur (Stenopterygius, UCMP specimen no. 116080) just down the hall from where the popular T. rex stands. It's a marine reptile that superficially looks like a big fish or dolphin; it lived during the Jurassic Period, about 180 million years ago.
How did this skeleton, which was found in Germany, end up in the UCMP? You guessed it — specimen exchange! The story actually begins in the early 20th Century, before the museum was established. We know this because of an old letter found in the archival collections at The Bancroft Library on campus.
Written in 1912, this letter from German paleontologist Friedrich von Huene to John C. Merriam (who at the time was the Chair of the Department of Paleontology at Berkeley) describes ichthyosaur specimens that were being packed for shipment to California. Item No. 1 in von Huene's list ("big specimen, 3.50 m long: skeleton good, skull bad") is the skeleton on display today. In exchange, von Huene asks for specimens of the dire wolf (Canis dirus) and saber-toothed cat — two iconic carnivores from the Pleistocene "tar pits" of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, where their bones had been freshly dug out by Merriam and his crew. This exchange was presumably a win-win deal for the two researchers because Merriam had a strong interest in ichthyosaurs, and von Huene had just toured the United States, visiting museums and possibly collecting fossils at the La Brea tar pits1.
The ichthyosaur made it across the ocean. We don't know what shape the specimen was in when it arrived in the East Bay after what must have been a treacherous journey for heavy fossils. In the late 1970s, a dozen or so pieces of the skeleton were found (reportedly under the Hearst swimming pool) and given to the Senior Museum Preparator, Mark Goodwin, for repair. After exquisite restoration by Mark (who is now an Assistant Director of UCMP), the ichthyosaur was reborn and put on display in the Earth Sciences Building (now McCone Hall), where it remained until 1995.
That year, the museum moved from the Earth Sciences Building to VLSB, and the ichthyosaur went into storage at the Clark Kerr Campus. But in 2009, UCMP Director Roy Caldwell had the specimen retrieved and displayed in its current location, where it now catches the eye of building visitors and residents alike. Like ancient artifacts in art galleries, many specimens in natural history museums have long and complicated post-discovery histories of their own. And, of course, we would know very little of that history without the documents archived at The Bancroft Library and UCMP.
Finally, what happened to the exchange specimens from Berkeley? We have not found a record of shipment from California, but two mounted skeletons of dire wolf and saber-toothed cat in the Palaeontological Collection at the University of Tübingen (where von Huene worked) may be the gifts from Merriam to his colleague. Can you spot the carnivore skeletons in one of their exhibit halls?
1Unprepared Rancho La Brea fossil material in the Palaeontological Collection of University of Tübingen is associated with von Huene's field label dated as 1911 (P. Havlik, personal communication, 2013).
Special thanks to Susan Snyder of The Bancroft Library for permission to post von Huene's letter, Philipe Havlik of the University of Tübingen for information regarding La Brea carnivore specimens in their collection, and Mark Goodwin of the UCMP for information on, and images of, the Stenopterygius specimen on display.
In the orphaned U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Menlo Park Invertebrate Collection, now housed in the UC Museum of Paleontology’s off-campus collections space in the Regatta Building, the work of prominent USGS collectors stands out. One of these dedicated and proficient invertebrate paleontologists was Timothy William Stanton, who amassed collections from over 100 localities, authored monographic research papers, and wrote more than 600 technical reports evaluating the age of collected specimens.
Stanton was born on September 21, 1860, in Monroe Country, Illinois. Early in his life, Stanton moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from the University of Colorado. Stanton continued his graduate education in biology and geology at John Hopkins University and received a doctoral degree in those disciplines in 1897 from George Washington University.
Stanton’s name is encountered most often in association with Cretaceous invertebrates. His affinity for Cretaceous invertebrates developed when he lived in Boulder, surrounded by fossil-rich sediments of Cretaceous age. Stanton incorporated his research interests into his professional life when he was hired at the USGS and worked as an apprentice to Charles Abiathar White in the Cretaceous invertebrate collection. Starting in 1889, Stanton slowly made his way up the USGS ladder; he succeeded White as the head of the Cretaceous invertebrate collection, became the geologist in charge of the Paleontology and Stratigraphy branch, and in 1932, he became chief geologist of the USGS. Additionally, Stanton served as the president of the Geological Society of America and president of The Paleontological Society.
During his time at the Survey — that spanned over 46 years — Stanton maintained field research in Texas, Colorado, the Gulf Coastal Plain, and the Pacific Coast. While working in Colorado, Stanton produced a comprehensive description of Cretaceous fauna in a monograph entitled The Colorado Formation and Its Invertebrate Fauna. The work is still valued as a remarkable text.
Stanton retired from the Survey in 1935, however, he continued to act as the Custodian of Mesozoic Invertebrates at the US National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) until his death in 1953. Throughout his career, Stanton managed a balancing act between acquiring remarkable collections from his fieldwork efforts and the responsibilities of the multiple positions he held at the USGS. Stanton’s success is both reflected in the history of the USGS and his contributions to the Menlo Park Collection. UCMP is honored to permanently house this collection and to manage its care and access for current and future scientists. The collection is a remarkable paleontological record that is being updated and cared for by UCMP students and scientists in the 21st Century.
As undergraduate work-study students recataloging the United States Geological Survery (USGS) Menlo Park Invertebrate collection at the UCMP, we've come across the names Nelson and Addicott time and time again in extensive database entries or on the original, yellowing locality cards paired with each specimen. The names of the paleontologists and geologists responsible for collecting these fossils in the Menlo Park collection are largely unknown to us, but found immersed within the aging drawers of the invertebrate fossils were several curious and antiquarian documents that have brought these names to life. One recently discovered letter, written by UC Berkeley alumnus Cliff Nelson records his activities in the collections during the summer of 1974.
In the letter, Nelson discusses his dissertation work that focused on migration patterns of Neptunea, a large sea snail indigenous to the North Pacific. While studying the migration traces of Neptunea through the North Pacific and to the North Atlantic and California Current, Nelson proposed to elevate Neptunea beyond the level of subgenus. His dissertation interpreted Neptunea as a genus, with the inclusion of 56 named species — half of which are extinct. The letter goes on to explain Nelson's use of the Menlo Park collection and the late nights he spent scavenging through the collections, searching for invertebrate specimens to support his dissertation.
The letter also delivers some insights on other individuals who played an important role in Nelson's research. Warren Addicott, the recipient of Nelson's letter (and another popular name found often in the Menlo Park Collection), obtained his doctorate at UC Berkeley in 1956 and led a distinguished scientific career at the US Geological Survey. The letter concludes with Nelson's gracious thanks to Addicott for his help with his dissertation and an acknowledgment to Dr. Stearns McNeil, another familiar name associated with the Menlo Park collection and the USGS.
After receiving his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1974, the year the letter was written, Nelson went on to publish over fifty articles in refereed journals and books. His work primarily focused on the history of scholarship, ideas, and institutions in natural sciences. Currently, Nelson works as a geologist and historian at the USGS. In 2011 he received the Friedman Distinguished Service Award from the Geological Society of America's History and Philosophy of Geology Division.
Letters such as this one help us discover the identities of the names we come upon so frequently. This is just one of many documents that shines light on the Menlo Park collection and allows us to reconstruct the UC Museum of Paleontology's historic and scientific past.
Another in a series of blog posts relating to the museum's "cataloging the archives" project
The UCMP archives contain five large scrapbooks containing museum-related newspaper clippings dating from 1948 to 1989. The earliest clippings in the oldest scrapbook concern UCMP paleobotanist Ralph Chaney's 1948 trip to central China to see for himself, Metasequoia, a tree thought to have been extinct since the Miocene. The existence of this living fossil had just been publicized in a paper by Hu and Cheng1. The San Francisco Chronicle made a big deal about Chaney's trip, sending one of their own writers along, who filed a series of reports.
But it was a later clipping from the October 20, 1953 Daily Californian that caught my attention. It concerned an interesting relationship between Chaney and Emperor Hirohito of Japan. Here's an excerpt:
"Chaney, on a routine trip to Tokyo and the Far East in 1949, personally presented the Emperor with five Dawn Redwood [Metasequoia] trees, which were planted on the grounds of his estate in Tokyo.
"Chaney had known the Emperor from past visits to Japan, and said yesterday he was inspired to make the gift when he heard that Hirohito was very interested in the tree.
"In 1949, when Chaney was in China, he procured five seedlings of the recently discovered tree and delivered them to the Emperor.
"Chaney received occasional news of the progress of the trees, and made a point of stopping to see them whenever he was in Japan. When Crown Prince Akihito visited the campus recently, he presented the professor with a progress report of the trees sent from Hirohito."
Then, while looking at digital photos of Chaney's lantern slide collection — volunteer photographer Dave Strauss has photographed Chaney's entire collection of lantern slides and glass negatives for the museum — I noticed one of a Japanese gentleman standing next to what looked like a Metasequoia sapling. Hmmm …. So I went online and studied a number of photographs of Hirohito. I am now convinced that the image is of the Emperor himself with one of Chaney's saplings!
And then a clipping from the May 6, 1969, University of California Clip Sheet provided this progress report: "By now, the Japanese have planted 100,000 dawn redwoods, all descended from Chaney's seedlings."
You never know what cool story you're going to find in the archives!
See other blog posts in this series:
See newsletter articles about the archive cataloging project:
• Saluting our volunteers [primarily about our volunteers working on the cataloging project]
Or search UCMP's archival collections yourself!
1Hu, H.H., and W.C. Cheng. 1948. On the new family Metasequoiaceae and on Metasequoia glyptostroboides, a living species of the genus Metasequoia found in Szechuan and Hupeh. Bulletin of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology New Series 1(2):153-161.
This semester, the UCMP has been excited to host a visiting photographer, UC alum Dave Strauss. A self-described "computer guy" for the last 42 years, he is also an avid naturalist, hiker, and mountain biker. Dave finds inspiration at the UCMP through the opportunity to use his talents to communicate evolutionary and historical knowledge to the broader community.
Collaboration with Dave has provided many opportunities to contribute to science. He has confronted technical challenges photographing unwieldy Triceratops fossil fragments with Assistant Director Mark Goodwin, to photographing tiny tadpoles just beginning to grow their skeletons with graduate student Theresa Grieco. He is also assisting with the CLIR/UCMP archive project, documenting and digitizing historical records, particularly more unusual items like lantern slides (for examples of lantern slides depicting California geology, click here).
Dave's willingness to experiment with lighting, lenses, and artistry has paid off - he has helped at least 7 different researchers get great images for their work. He finds he is learning more about photography as his paleontology collaborators push the boundaries of optics and camera technology with unusual requests, and he is able to quiz them about the most current research projects going on in the UCMP.
You can find some of Dave Strauss's work, including images from the UCMP collections, at his website.
"More than 300 years ago, Sir Francis Bacon spoke of amber as 'a more than royal tomb' for tiny insects. Twentieth century scientists may quite agree."
But how do insects end up as amber fossils? What else is found in amber? How are these amber fossils prepared for study?
The answers to these questions can be found in one of the hidden collections of UCMP's archives — the 1561st broadcast of "The University Explorer." This show was narrated by Hale Sparks, former head of broadcasting for the University of California, during which time he ran two educational radio shows — "Science Editor" and "The University Explorer."
The October 6, 1957 broadcast of the program, entitled "Forever in Amber," featured Berkeley entomologist Paul D. Hurd, Jr. It follows the path of an ancient insect as it becomes entombed in amber, uncovered, prepared, and studied. The narration moves from the famous Baltic amber deposits to Berkeley's own amber research efforts in Chiapas, Mexico, and from the struggles of a small fungus gnat caught in sap to the thrill of a scientist's discovery.
"These insects, which were so remarkably preserved in the fossilized tree gums of the prehistoric forests, are now clearly visible to us in amber. They often appear to be virtually alive."