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UCMP now has over 100,000 cataloged invertebrate specimens

Student Lauren Fowler cataloguing.

Student Lauren Fowler cataloguing.

Thanks to our recent digitization projects, UCMP now has topped 100,000 cataloged invertebrate specimens!

At least 6500 of these are fossil insects, millipedes and spiders digitized by Dr. Diane Erwin and undergraduate students under Berkeley's Fossil Insect PEN. Helping make all this possible was the work by the following participants: Dr. Marwa Wafeeq Abdelkhaliq Ibraheem (Ain Shams University, Egypt; volunteer), graduate students Winnie Hsiung and Rosemary Romero, as well as undergraduate students: Iyawnna Hazard, Lin Wang, Meralina Morales, Hiep Nguyen, Madeleine Little, Meschelle Thatcher, Asma Faraj Ahmed, Julia Anderson and Emily Duda.


Clockwise from top left, students who helped UCMP catalog specimens: Iyawnna Hazzard, Lin Wang, Marwa Ibraheem, and Meralina Morales

Over 2400 marine invertebrates from the former San Francisco State University collection have been cataloged under the direction of Drs. Lisa White and Pat Holroyd, with the help of Alexis Williams, Erica Clites and other student assistants. Hundreds of bivalves and gastropods have been cataloged from the early Eocene ponds of Wyoming by Dr. Howard Hutchison and Lauren Fowler as part of a curatorial project led by Pat Holroyd, Lisa White, and Charles Marshall.

Staff, volunteers, and assistants who helped to catalogue the EPICC collection.

Staff, volunteers, and assistants who helped to catalogue the EPICC collection.

The largest project is the Eastern Pacific Invertebrate Communities of the Cenozoic (EPICC), which has cataloged more than 38,000 new specimens over the last three years. UCMP staff Erica Clites and Lillian Pearson, as well as student assistants Katie Berlin, Patrick Garcialuna, Lesly Ann Llarena, Michele Maybee, Annemarie Peacock, Emily Turkel, Paula Gomez Villalba, Yujing Wu and Priscilla Zhang cataloged, identified and labeled specimens. We would also like to thank Austin Hendy and Katy Estes-Smargiassi of the Los Angeles County Museum and Chuck Powell (USGS-retired) for help with specimen identifications!

Funding for these projects was provided by the National Science Foundation (1503678, 1561759, 1203600, 1503671) as well as the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS MA-30-15-0336).

With more taxonomic information now online, it easier for researchers to find specimens of interest or to use the data in reconstructions of paleoclimate or paleoecology.


Hiep Nguyen's UCMP undergraduate research experience: "Scentless in Nevada"

This past year, I’ve been working with UCMP Senior Museum Scientist Diane M. Erwin to identify a new fossil species of scentless plant bug (family Rhopalidae) from a Miocene lakebed deposit in Stewart Valley, Nevada. The study developed as a result of my participation as an Undergraduate Research Apprentice (URAP) in UC Berkeley’s Fossil Insect Digitization PEN project (BFIP) funded by the National Science Foundation. The BFIP project is part of the Fossil Insect Collaborative Thematic Collections Network, a group of seven institutions that house our nation’s largest fossil insect collections. Their charge is to database and image these collections for public access online through the iDigBio and iDigPaleo web portals.

Hiep measuring specimens using BFIP images and computer-based analytical software

Hiep measuring specimens using BFIP images and computer-based analytical software.

Hiep using the microscope camera-lucida setup to make tracings of his specimens.

Hiep using the microscope camera-lucida setup to make tracings of his specimens.

The Stewart Valley rhopalid is brown-bodied, 6.5-7.5 mm long from head to the tip of the abdomen, has numerous dark spots covering the legs, and the femur of its two back legs is noticeably wider than the others, but shows no evidence of spines. The feature that stands out most however is the striking set of dorsal markings on the insect’s abdomen. In the pictures below, you will notice a figure-8 shaped crest accompanied by four similarly-sized semicircular dots beneath it.

Stewart Valley rhopalid in dorsal view showing the distinctive abdominal markings

Stewart Valley rhopalid in dorsal view showing the distinctive abdominal markings. Image courtesy of Iyawnna Hazzard.

Stewart Valley rhopalid in side view where one can see similar markings, an enlarged back femur (f) and the long beak (b) typical of hemipteran insects. Image courtesy of Iyawnna Hazzard.

Stewart Valley rhopalid in side view where one can see similar markings, an enlarged back femur (f) and the long beak (b) typical of hemipteran insects. Image courtesy of Iyawnna Hazzard.

Diane and I worked through a long process of examining species sharing similar characteristics to our specimens. We collaborated with the Essig Museum of Entomology to examine modern counterparts to our fossil and were able to narrow the family down to the Rhopalidae. We then consulted the published literature on rhopalids and used the combination of abdominal markings and other characters to differentiate between species within Rhopalidae. What we found was that the fossil shares a number of its characters with species in several genera, but is closest to those in the subfamily Rhopalinae, tribe Rhopalini. Of especial note is the fossil’s abdominal markings, which are very reminiscent of those on the purported introduced European species, Brachycarenus tigrinus.

I’ll be wrapping up my URAP with a publication later this year detailing our findings about this newly discovered fossil insect and its evolutionary, biogeographic and paleoenvironmental implications. The Nevada landscape of today with its miles of treeless expanse, dry lakebeds (playas), hot summers and cold winters was quite the opposite during the Miocene. Unlike today, Stewart Valley boasted an abundance of rain. A lush forest of dicotyledonous trees and nearby grasslands sporting an array of herbaceous plants surrounded a large lake teeming with aquatic life, its waters sustaining a diverse vertebrate fauna. Indeed, 14.5 million years ago the Stewart Valley was an ideal habitat for scentless plant bugs to thrive and diversify.

Meschelle Thatcher’s UCMP undergraduate research experience: Beetles in Brea!

As an English major, I didn’t really know what to expect when I first started my URAP (Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program) appointment for the UC Museum of Paleontology Fossil Insect PEN (Partner to an Existing Network) funded by the National Science Foundation. All I knew was that I’d be handling fossils, and that struck the scientific chord in my imagination in perfect harmony.

Meschelle Thatcher (left) examining the uncatalogued McKittrick bulk asphalt samples for beetle remains and her finds (right).

Meschelle Thatcher (left) examining the uncatalogued McKittrick bulk asphalt samples for beetle remains and her finds (right).

The Pleistocene Rancho La Brea tar pits in southern California are best known for their extinct exotic animals. However, I’ve learned there is more life in these asphalt seeps than saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, sloths, mastodons and camels. As part of my URAP experience I’ve been sorting the remains of beetles from the asphalt seeps at Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles and those near McKittrick, CA, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Again, coming from a Humanities-oriented framework, I was slightly overwhelmed when my supervisor, Senior Museum Scientist, Diane Erwin, told me to pull out all the beetles I could find from bulk samples of asphalt recently discovered in the collection that had not yet been catalogued. Surely I was capable of spotting beetles, but I found myself wondering if I should also put aside things that look like legs, fragments of elytra and other beetle body parts? What if these beetle remnants should somehow alter the course of science forever? Ultimately, I found out that these anatomical fragments were indeed cute, but it wasn’t necessary to catalog them as individual specimens. Although not deserving of their own photo shoot, I learned they would be gathered for a group photo.

Meschelle carefully preparing type specimens for their photo session.

Meschelle carefully preparing type specimens for their photo session.

Fast forward to this lovely week in April, and I now have plenty of whole beetles really worth looking over. While most of them were easy to spot with the naked eye, I sometimes had to use a 10x magnifying glass to find the really small ones mixed in with the asphalt—the struggle with which I am positive any real paleontologist will identify. Undoubtedly, analyzing these fossils via zoomed in images of them will be particularly helpful. After all, the naked eye can only see so much. And when some of the beetle remains are just a few millimeters in size, we wholeheartedly welcome technology to swoop in and save the day . . . so long as we get the credit for our discoveries.

Image of Holotype 10024. Online specimen record.

Image of Holotype 10024. Online specimen record

I have also helped with the imaging of the UCMP type specimens from Rancho La Brea and uploaded several dozen photos of the McKittrick beetles in the effort to digitize the diverse fossil insect collection at UCMP. By doing so, researchers, teachers, students, as well as citizen scientists and interested public all over the world will literally have accessible data at their fingertips to study. The Rancho La Brea type specimens, described and illustrated over 100 years ago, are a wonderful example of how the digitization age is allowing us to see these old collections in a new light.

As I move forward in this project, I will keep you updated about both my progress as an amateur paleontologist and my progress as a lifelong learner of interdisciplinary interests.

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 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 volunteers discover important specimen

Kathy Zoehfeld, holds her palm out to show the gastropod speciment she discovered.

UCMP volunteer Kathy Zoehfeld holds a tiny gastropod she and volunteer Don Pecko discovered in the former USGS Menlo Park collection.

UCMP volunteers Kathy Zoehfeld and Don Pecko recently discovered a type specimen from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History among the hundreds of thousands of fossils in the former USGS Menlo Park collection. This type specimen, a tiny gastropod called Ceratia nixilia, was discovered in a drawer of fossils they were rehousing into new archival boxes. Don and Kathy not only noticed the less than a centimeter long gastropod, but brought it to my attention because they noticed the number written on the specimen. Noticing the green diamond also affixed to the fossil, we looked it up in the National Museum of Natural History database and discovered that it was listed as a holotype specimen.

Holotypes are the most important examples of a species, and the specimen that future researchers always return to determine whether their fossil is indeed the named one. Although some type specimens are lost due to disasters like the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of the California Academy of Sciences collection, sometimes they are simply misplaced.

The U.S. Geological Survey had a close relationship with the National Museum of Natural History, and their offices housed in the same building for decades. Perhaps the specimen was accidentally transferred with the Pacific coast collections when the USGS Menlo Park office opened in the 1950s? Or perhaps it was sent out on loan to one of the paleontologists in the Menlo Park office and never returned?

Regardless of its journey, it eventually reached the UCMP, where my sharp-eyed volunteers signaled it out. The specimen will be returned to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. and again be made available for researchers. This discovery shows the true value of rehousing a collection because it requires handling every single specimen and often results in lost specimens being returned to their proper location.

We are grateful to the National Science Foundation for the funding to complete this worthwhile project. I am lucky to be working with volunteers as dedicated to returning every fossil to its proper place as I am.

Ceratia nixilia, a small gastropod or sea snail, was discovered mixed with other specimens as the volunteers were rehousing a drawer of fossils.

Ceratia nixilia, a small gastropod or sea snail, was discovered mixed with other specimens as the volunteers were rehousing a drawer of fossils.

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.

Fossils in the Campanile? It’s true!


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.

Mark and Leslea

Mark Goodwin and Leslea Hlusko with drawers of vertebrate fossils collected in the 1930s from the McKittrick asphalt deposits. As Assistant Director for Collections and Research, Mark manages all the UCMP collections, including these in the Campanile. Leslea is a UCMP Curator and Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology; her lab has projects underway that involve some of the Campanile fossils. Photo by Kevin Ho Nguyen.

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.

Wolf skulls

Just a few of the Canis dirus (dire wolf) skulls from the Rancho La Brea tar pits housed in the Campanile. Photo by Kevin Ho Nguyen.

Stay tuned for more about the Campanile's fossil treasures!

Air-breathing snails, old and new

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.

Actinella fossils

Actinella fossils from the US Geological Survey collection.

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.

Air-breathing snails

From left to right are the air-breathing terrestrial snails Ellobium aurismidae, Myosotella myosotis, and Carychium minimum.

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.

Encounters in the field: UCMP and the US Geological Survey

Buchia specimens

Buchia crassicollis specimens collected by J.S. Diller in 1899. Photo by Erica Clites.

Hundreds of specimens from the former USGS Menlo Park Collection, now housed in the UC Museum of Paleontology, were collected in the pioneering days of geological and paleontological exploration of California. This includes fossils collected by Charles A. White, Timothy W. Stanton, Joseph S. Diller and other legendary figures at the US Geological Survey. The newly founded Department of Paleontology at UC Berkeley also led numerous expeditions and excavations of vertebrates in California in the early 1900s; John C. Merriam and his crews discovered two hundred separate remains of Triassic reptiles in the Hosselkus Limestone, exposed in Plumas and Shasta Counties.1

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.

Partial Shastasaurus skull

Partial skull of Shastasaurus pacificus (UCMP 9017) collected by John C. Merriam from the Late Triassic of California. Figure by Sander et al. (CC BY 3.0).2

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.

Cataloging the archives: Paleontology specimen exchange

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.

Ichthyosaur skeleton

Ichthyosaur skeleton on exhibit in VLSB today. Photo by S. Tomiya.

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.

von Huene letter

1912 letter from Friedrich von Huene to John C. Merriam. Reproduced with the permission of The Bancroft Library.

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.

Mark Goodwin preps the ichthyosaur

Ichthyosaur skeleton being restored in 1979. Image courtesy of M. Goodwin.

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.

Moving the ichthyosaur from Clark Kerr to VLSB

Ichthyosaur specimen in transit from Clark Kerr Campus to VLSB in 2009. Photo by M. Goodwin.

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.