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Archive for the ‘Working in the collections’ Category.

Paleo Video: Snail shell mystery

If you study snails, you’ve got to be patient. But two UCMP graduate students, Jann Vendetti and Scott Fay, used time-lapse photography to kick slow snails into high gear. They discovered some surprising behavior in snails living today—and in snails that lived millions of years in the past.

The video features snails of two species: Kelletia kelletii, and Busycotypus canaliculatus (also known as Busycon canaliculatum). This group of animals is so numerous and diverse—in lifestyle, natural history, and morphology—that research questions are virtually infinite.

Shortly after we made this film, Jann and Scott graduated from UC Berkeley with Ph.D.s in Integrative Biology. Jann is now a post-doc at Cal State Los Angeles, studying photosynthetic sea slugs called sacoglossans.  And Scott is a post-doc at Temple University, in Philadelphia; he studies the trophic ecology of Antarctic protists. While they work on disparate groups, their potential for collaboration continues: Jann’s sea slugs and Scott’s dinoflagellates have a similar strategy for energy acquisition: they both steal chloroplasts.

How many mammoths?

Jake Enk cuts off a piece of a mammoth toothA few weeks ago, the UCMP welcomed visitor Jake Enk, a graduate student from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Jake visited the UCMP to saw off chunks of fossil mammoth teeth. Yes, you read that right. He took a small saw, sterilized the blade with bleach, and sliced off a small piece of tooth. Even after tens of thousands of years, mammoth teeth still contain DNA. Jake will put a little piece of the tooth in a test tube, and use a series of chemicals to purify the mammoth DNA. He does this work at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre. The DNA from the mammoths' teeth can tell us about mammoth population structure.

Here at the UCMP, Jake took samples from 35-40 mammoth teeth in our collections — including one of Lupé's teeth! The UCMP is just one stop on his museum tour — Jake visited the Illinois State Museum, the University of Nebraska State Museum, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Over the course of his trip, Jake collected samples from a total of about 175 animals. The mammoth teeth were collected all over the country — from Florida to Washington, and many localities in between. And, the animals lived at different times, over a period of about 200,000 years. By looking at the genetic diversity of the mammoths, through space and time, Jake will learn about variation in the size of the mammoth breeding population. This information can then be used to help answer ecological questions about mammoths.

Jake Enk's visit to the UCMP was funded in part by the Welles Fund. To learn how you can support research at the UCMP, click here.

Cutting off a piece of mammoth tooth Examining mammoth tooth sample

Collaborating, with the help of the collections

Triassic research group A few weeks ago, we blogged about the discovery of a new species of dinosaur, Tawa hallae. Two UCMP alums, Sterling Nesbitt and Randy Irmis, described this new dino in the journal Science. A few weeks ago, Sterling, Randy, and two of their Tawa co-authors, Nate Smith and Alan Turner, visited the UCMP. They've come from Texas, Utah, Illinois, and New York, to work together and delve into the UCMP's collections. Along with UCMP Faculty Curator Kevin Padian and graduate student Sarah Werning, they are looking at the fossils in old collections — dinosaurs and crocodile relatives that lived around the same time as Tawa, in what is now Arizona and New Mexico.

"We're looking at the old fossils in the context of new ones," says Randy. Many of the fossils were collected by Charles Camp in the 1930s — others were collected even before that. Quite a few were never identified and have not yet been entered in the UCMP’s database. For those specimens that were identified, says Sarah, "we're potentially re-identifying them." There are many new species that were not known when the fossils were last studied. In looking through these old collections, the team could find additional specimens of Tawa, or specimens that represent species that have not yet been described.

Their work in the collections will likely influence their field work plans this summer.  They're returning to the Hayden Quarry, in New Mexico, for their 5th full season. They'll also visit nearby areas where fossils from the old collections were found, years ago. "Some of the big discoveries in paleontology have happened when you re-identify fossils that have already been collected, and then you go back to a particular area to look for more," says Nate.  For example, Tiktaalik, an important fossil that represents an intermediate form between fish and amphibians, was found when paleontologists re-visited a field site in Nunavut, Canada.

The scientific community will reap some benefits as a result of this week's work. As experts in the field of Triassic dinosaurs, "we play a mini-curatorial role," says Nate. They straighten out the identities of the fossils, and they add the specimens to the database, so other researchers can access this information.

When they're not looking through the collections, the team clusters around their laptops in the Padian lab, drinking coffee and Diet Coke and bouncing ideas off each other. It's great to be all in one place, they say. Online communication is "good for getting things started and wrapping things up," says Alan, "but for the meaty part in the middle it's best to be in one place."

This research was made possible in part by the Welles Fund. To learn how you can support research at the UCMP, click here.

New dino described by UCMP alums

Field crew 2006

The field crew that excavated Tawa hallae in 2006: Kevin Padian, Sterling Nesbitt, Alan Turner, Nate Smith, Randy Irmis, Amy Balanoff, and Gabe Bever. Photo: Nathan Smith, Field Museum of Natural History

Last week, two University of California Museum of Paleontology alums, Sterling Nesbitt and Randall Irmis, described a new species of dinosaur in the journal Science. The new species, Tawa hallae, sheds light on early dinosaur evolution — and the importance of the UCMP's collections.

Tawa's bones were first found by hikers in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, in 2004. Around that time, Sterling and Randy were doing fieldwork at the nearby Petrified Forest National Park in northern Arizona, excavating fossils from rock layers from the Late Triassic — the same rock formation where the new fossils were found. That fall, park paleontologist Alex Downs approached Sterling and Randy at a scientific meeting and asked them if they'd be interested in excavating and describing what appeared to be a novel species. At that time, Randy was a graduate student at Berkeley, and Sterling had finished his undergrad at Berkeley and begun graduate school at Columbia. They decided to collaborate with Alex to describe the specimens and made plans to start fieldwork during the summer of 2006.

"Three weeks before our first major expedition," says Sterling, "the provost at the American Museum of Natural History called and asked if I'd like to be accompanied by an NSF-funded IMAX movie crew."  They wanted to film the excavation of the fossils for a movie, Dinosaurs Alive!. Sterling was a little worried that the filming would interfere with his fieldwork, but he agreed. The film crew followed Sterling, Randy, and the rest of the team for a week and a half. Sterling needn't have worried about having enough time to do his research — there was plenty of down time. "IMAX film is expensive," he says, and the film crew spent a lot of time setting up each shot. During some of this down time, Sterling was excavating the area where the hikers had found the fossils. "That's when I hit the ankle bone of the articulated leg of what became the holotype."

Other early dinosaur fossils are not as complete or as well preserved as those of Tawa hallae. Sterling, Randy, and the team found two nearly complete skeletons, as well as bones from several other individuals. Some of the bones are so well preserved that you can see very fine details, like the places where the muscles once attached. The neck vertebrae and the bones of the braincase have small depressions with raised rims — suggesting that there were air sacs adjacent to these bones. The air sacs filled up the depressions. Modern birds have air sacs attached to their bones, which they use for respiration. As Sterling and Randy write in their paper (co-authored by Nate Smith, Alan Turner, Alex Downs, and Mark Norell), we can't know if Tawa's air sacs served a similar function. However, we do know that Tawa is the earliest dinosaur with a pneumatic skeleton.

Tawa is particularly important because it fills a gap between early carnivorous dinosaurs, found in South America (where dinosaurs are thought to have originated), and later carnivorous dinosaurs found throughout the world. Randy, Sterling, Nate, and Alan figured out where Tawa fit by comparing it to other specimens, many of which were in the UCMP's collection. "The UCMP collection was instrumental in helping us understand what was at Ghost Ranch," says Randy. Sterling also points out the importance of the museum's collections, both in this study and in his paleontological education. "I came to Berkeley for the paleo," he says. As an undergrad, "I was in the collections a couple times a week, learning anatomy, learning what the fossil record is really like."

"This project really had its genesis when we were all graduate students," says Randy. "This study speaks to what a fantastic program we have at Berkeley, that we can have such fantastic research coming out of a graduate student-led project."

Randy is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah, and Sterling is a post-doc at the University of Texas Austin. Both intend to continue working at Ghost Ranch — "I plan to go back for many years to come," says Randy. "It's an amazing site." And, they plan to continue working in the UCMP collections – they'll be back in January. Check the UCMP blog for an update!

Sterling and Randy are currently collaborating with UCMP graduate student Sarah Werning, Kevin Padian, Nate Smith, and Alan Turner, to examine the growth and bone histology of early dinosaurs (including Tawa) and their relatives from Ghost Ranch. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog about dinosaur bone histology in the New Year.

Sterling and Randy's work was funded by a National Geographic grant to UCMP Faculty Curator Kevin Padian and by grants from Integrative Biology, UCMP’s Welles Fund, and the UCMP Graduate Student Research Award. Learn how you can support graduate student research at the UCMP.

There has been some great news coverage about Tawa hallae. To learn more, check the National Science Foundation's Special Report: Tawa hallae – it includes an audio slide show, a press conference, and lots of photos. There is an interview with Sterling in this Science magazine podcast, and an interview with Randy in this blog from the Utah Museum of Natural History. Also check out this article from the San Francisco Chronicle.

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No backbones allowed

Erin in collections The UCMP Invertebrates Collection includes over 31,000 catalogued specimens! Corals, crabs, bivalves, snails, ammonites… both fossil and recent — if it doesn't have a backbone, it's in this collection. I am a UCMP and Integrative Biology graduate student and have been assisting with curation of the Invertebrate Collection. I catalogue and label specimens, process loan requests, manage the Invertebrates Collection database, curate private collections that are donated to the UCMP, and do numerous other small tasks. This might sound tedious, but I really enjoy the process of curation and am constantly exposed to exciting and unique inverts. Why am I interested in animals without backbones? Well, I was hooked after my first introduction to them during an Invertebrate Zoology course, while I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University. Since taking that class, I have traveled all around the world working on projects that focus on invertebrates, including crustaceans and mollusks in the kelp forests off of Alaska; gastropods, cephalopods, and corals in Bermuda; and bivalves in Thailand. My current research takes me to the islands in the Caribbean Sea and Western Atlantic. (Read more about my research on Caribbean inverts in my previous UCMP blog post!)

The UCMP Invertebrates Collection's 31,000 cataloged specimens may sound like a lot, but the collection contains far more than 31,000 individual invertebrates. The actual holdings are nearly impossible to accurately estimate because a single specimen number could be associated with 100 individuals.  Why do we keep so many individuals of the same species from a single locality? Well, having more than one individual is extremely useful to researchers, especially when they are investigating the morphological variation of a species, because the quality of the preservation can vary from specimen to specimen.

The collection consists of specimens that were collected by museum scientists, faculty curators, and graduate students in the course of their research, as well as specimens that were donated to the museum. Some of the major holdings within the UCMP Invertebrates collection include the USGS fossil invertebrate collection, the Crawfordsville crinoid collection, the Geological Survey of California fossil invertebrate collection, the Lambert modern coral collection. For more information about the special collections within the UCMP, please check out this article written by Jere Lipps, one of our Faculty Curators.

Working as Graduate Student Researcher in the UCMP has allowed me to experience what it is like to be a museum scientist, which is something that I may want to do after I finish my PhD. Also, working in the collections has exposed me to all sorts of amazing fossils that I never would have seen otherwise, including Tessarolax sp. (marine gastropods of the Cretaceous), the strange organisms of the Vendian, and rugose corals of the Permian, to name a few.

Check back to the UCMP blog later this fall and spring for more posts about my work with the Invertebrates Collection!

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South American crocodilians

Daniel FortierDaniel Fortier visited the UCMP for two weeks this summer, investigating the taxonomy of South American crocodilians — crocodiles, caymans, and gharials. Daniel is from Brazil, where crocodiles are fairly common. He is a Ph.D. student at the Universidade Federal Do Rio Grande Do Sul in Porto Alegre, and is spending the year at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. He is using fossils and modern skeletal materials to learn about crocodilian evolutionary history, places of origin, dispersal routes, speciation, and extinction events.

During the Miocene (from about 23 to 5 million years ago), Columbia was home to great crocodilian diversity. The UCMP has the best collection of Columbian crocodilian fossils. “Actually,” says Daniel, the UCMP “is the only one with Columbian fossils.”

This is a fossil gharial skull. Gharials (also called gavials) are a group of crocodilians with long, narrow jaws. They lived in South America during the Miocene, but are now extinct in South America. Gharials still live in parts of India. Daniel is trying to learn more about their evolution, biogeography, and extinction.

Daniel's visit was supported by the Welles Fund, an endowment that supports paleontological research at the UCMP. Click here to learn how you can support research at the UCMP.

Gharial Skull

Paleo Video: Kaitlin Maguire at the John Day Fossil Beds

Watch this video and join UCMP graduate student Kaitlin Maguire on a field trip to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument! After visiting the park last spring, Kaitlin decided it's the perfect place to do her dissertation research.

"When you do a field project for paleontology, especially if you're looking for fossils, you never know what you're going to find — you never know if there's going to be enough data," says Kaitlin. But paleontologists from the UCMP and elsewhere have been studying the John Day Fossil Beds since the early 1900s. "There's a wealth of information to build on," she says. "I'm not just walking into the unknown."

A few fun facts about the John Day Fossil Beds:

  • The fossil beds, in eastern Oregon, were named for the John Day River, which runs through the area. The river got its name because of an incident that occurred at the river's mouth in 1812. A fur trapper named John Day was robbed by Native Americans — he was relieved of all of his belongings, including his clothes. Thereafter, the river was referred to as the John Day River.
  • Over 35,000 fossil specimens have been excavated from the John Day Fossil Beds. Many of those specimens were collected by UCMP paleontologists; the UCMP collections include thousands of fossils from John Day.
  • The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument has a paleontologist on staff, as do several other National Parks. Learn more about paleontology at the John Day on the Monument's website.

Super-sized sinuses

David Dufeau

David Dufeau, a graduate student from Ohio University, spent a few days at the UCMP this July, studying the development and evolution of the middle-ear sinuses in archosaurs — birds and crocodilians. He explains that the sinuses in these animals were so greatly expanded that they completely surrounded the braincase. By understanding these super-sized sinuses in the archosaurs, David hopes to infer something about the nature of auditory receptivity. Maybe the sinuses expanded as adaptations for hearing in terrestrial and aquatic habitats. David can look at the sinuses in fossilized skulls, but he has no way of knowing whether these animals suffered from middle ear infections or terrible sinus headaches.

David's visit was supported by the Welles Fund, an endowment that supports paleontological research at the UCMP. Click here to learn how you can support research at the UCMP.

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One more Moropus

Carolyn RoundsThis summer, Carolyn Rounds visited the UCMP to study our Moropus fossils. Carolyn is a grad student in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And Moropus is an extinct horse-like creature, part of a taxonomic group called chalicotheres.

Chalicotheres are pretty unique — they had claws instead of hooves. They didn’t use their claws to rip apart prey; they were herbivores, and they probably used their claws to pull vegetation down from trees. Chalicotheres lived in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa; they are all now extinct. Chalicotheres are part of a larger group, the perissodactyls, or odd-toed ungulates. Living perissodactyls include horses, zebras, tapirs, and rhinos.

For her Masters degree, Carolyn is describing a species of Moropus that has not been described before — a new species. Here at the UCMP, she’s looking at fossils from the Flint Hill formation in South Dakota. The differences between Carolyn’s Moropus and the species that have already been described are subtle. The facets of the ankle bones — where the bones meet each other — have a slightly different shape than other species. The vertebrae of this species are also a bit different. Carolyn is taking careful notes and making beautiful drawings of the UCMP fossils, so she can compare them to fossils she’s examining at other museums. This summer, she’s making a grand tour of natural history museums. So far, she’s visited The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the University of Nebraska State Museum, and the South Dakota School of Mines. Next week, she’ll travel to the Los Angeles County Museum.

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