University of California Museum of Paleontology UCMP in the field See the world (and its fossils) with UCMP's field notes.
About UCMP People Blog Online Exhibits Public programs Education Collections Research

Archive for the ‘Working in the collections’ Category.

Reports from Regatta: Two Cal Alumni and the USGS Menlo Park Collection

Nelson letter and envelope

The letter from Cliff Nelson to Warren Addicott.
 

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.

Neptuneidae specimens

USGS gastropod specimens (Family Neptuneidae) studied by Nelson during the course of his doctoral study at UC Berkeley. Left: A specimen from USGS Cenozoic Locality M863 Pliocene, Gubick Formation of Alaska, Colville River. Right: A specimen identified by Nelson as Beringius beringii; from USGS Cenozoic Locality M860 Pleistocene, Gubik Formation near Point Barrow village, Alaska. Both specimens were collected by John O'Sullivan pre-1960.

Cataloging the archives: Chaney, the Emperor and Metasequoia

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.

Chaney and Metasequoia

Left: Metasequoia is a deciduous conifer and was leafless when Chaney first saw it in March of 1948. See an enlargement. Middle: Chaney photographing the tree pictured at left in 1948. See an enlargement. Right: Chaney took this photo on a later visit when the tree was in leaf. See an enlargement. All three of these images are from Chaney's lantern slide collection.

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!

Hirohito article and lantern slide

Left: The article from The Daily Californian describing Chaney's gift to Emperor Hirohito. See an enlargement. Right: Emperor Hirohito with one of Chaney's Metasequoia seedlings. See an enlargement.

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:

   • Cataloging the archives: Geology camp 100 years ago

   • Cataloging the archives: Unearthing a type

   • The Amber Files: Words from the University Explorer

   • The Amber Files

See newsletter articles about the archive cataloging project:

   • The Mellon Foundation CLIR grant

   • Cataloging the archives: Update I

   • 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.

Photo shoots for UCMP science

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.

A juvenile Triceratops specimen gets its moment in the spotlight.

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.

Dave examines the fineness of detail captured in preparations of Xenopus tropicalis tadpole jaws.

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.

[flickr album=72157622894906563 num=20 size=Square]