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Archive for the ‘Working in the collections’ Category.

The Amber Files: Words from the University Explorer

Polished amber in the Museum of Amber in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. (Photo by Alejandro Linares Garcia (CC BY-SA 3.0))

"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."

Mosquito encased in Miocene-aged amber from the Dominican Republic. (Photo by Didier Desouens (CC BY-SA 3.0))

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."

A complete transcript of "Forever in Amber" can be found online here or as a pdf.

The Amber Files

Unbeknownst to some, UCMP is home to a large collection of amber-encased insect specimens. While some of the most famous amber fossils come from the region south of the Baltic Sea, the majority of UCMP’s amber collection hails from the Chiapas region of Mexico, illuminating never before captured environments of the Western Hemisphere.

Spanning nearly two decades from the mid-1950s through the 1970s, efforts to collect and study these specimens were spearheaded through collaboration between the UC Museum of Entomology’s Paul D. Hurd, Jr. and Ray F. Smith and UCMP’s J. Wyatt Durham. With the help of friends near and abroad through years of fieldwork and research, the Mexican amber project was able to paint a fresh picture of Chiapas insect diversity during the Miocene. The project drew together experts from around the world to identify and describe the insects encased in amber, resulting in scientific publications, radio broadcasts, magazine articles, and more.

Check back to this blog often for inside looks into the amber project brought to you by the Council on Library and Information Resources Hidden Collections Grant and the UCMP archives.

In "Dr. K's" footsteps: A glimpse of Turkey in the UCMP paleobotany collections

Acorn cups of oak (Quercus), 20 Ma, Güvem, Turkey

Why would a Swedish paleobotanist go to the UCMP during a cold summer to study a collection of early Miocene plant fossils from Turkey instead of going to Turkey to enjoy a warm summer and great fieldwork? The reason - UCMP is home to a collection of fossil plants made over 40 years ago by Turkey native Dr. Baki Kasapligil (1918-1992).

Born in Çankaca, Turkey, Baki was raised in Istanbul – his father was Turkish and his mother from the country of Georgia. As a young man he attended UC Berkeley receiving his PhD in Botany in just three years (class of 1950) and then went on to teach at Mills College in Oakland, CA, where he was affectionately known as "Dr. K," and retired professor Emeritus. Baki travelled several times to Turkey in the late 1960s to collect plant fossils. His goal was to make a diverse collection with as many different species as possible. Throughout his career he kept close ties with Berkeley, encouraged by paleobotanists Ralph W. Chaney and Wayne L. Fry to study the Turkish fossils, especially given his strength in structural and systematic botany. With their help, he received NSF funding in 1976 to study the flora. He published a preliminary report in 1977 entitled "A Late-Tertiary conifer-hardwood forest from the vicinity of Güvem village, near Kızılcahamam, Ankara," but it seems as the years passed (no doubt juggling a full teaching load, administrative duties, and other botanical interests), Baki had less time to work on his Turkey collection. At 73, he unfortunately died before completing his monograph.

Today, collecting plant fossils in the Güvem area is more restrictive than was the case so many years ago when Baki made his collections. This is partially because the Güvem area is now famous for a wonderful petrified forest and has become Turkey's first-ever geopark, a nice parallel to the State or National Parks in the U.S. In addition to the geopark, Turkey has numerous excellent Tertiary plant localities, but the macrofossils from these sites are not well studied.

This spring I spent a great time in western Turkey collecting thousands of plant fossils from various lignite mines with colleagues and my PhD student, Tuncay Güner, from Istanbul. These localities have been dated as early to middle Miocene using pollen and spores, but their precise age is still debated. However, we have found a well-dated locality close to Ankara, in the Güvem area. This reference site contains plant fossil strata interbedded with volcanic sediments that have been radiometrically dated at about 20 Ma. These fossil beds are equivalent to those that Baki collected, so we know now his flora is much older than was previously thought.

So how did I get to know about this collection? By chance, I e-mailed Diane Erwin to send me some high resolution images of cleared leaves to compare to fossils I had collected in Turkey this spring. When she learned that I was working on Miocene floras in Turkey, she told me about Baki's collection. The decision was made quickly – I had to see the collection. And it paid off.

Besides enjoying the great hospitality of the people working at the UCMP, Baki Kasaplıgil's collection is indeed a key fossil plant assemblage for the early Miocene of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is extraordinarily rich in plant taxa and very distinct in composition from other southern European localities of the same age. Not only will it give us new insights into the Neogene vegetation and climate history of western Eurasia, but it will also help us better understand the phytogeographic links between Eurasia and North America. During the two weeks I stayed in Berkeley, I took about 5000 pictures of plant fossils and I, too, hope to compile a monograph of the Güvem flora in the nearest future.

Thomas Denk is Senior Curator in the Department of Palaeobotany at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

In collaboration with Diane M. Erwin, UCMP Paleobotany

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.