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Archive for August 2009

Lupé's story: A mammoth's journey from the ground to a museum

Lupe DigIn 2005, Roger Castillo found the fossilized bones of a juvenile mammoth in the Guadalupe River near San Jose. Roger was walking his dog along the river, which he did frequently as a volunteer for the Guadalupe-Coyote Resource Conservation District, when he saw the tusks of the mammoth's skull poking out of the soil along the riverbank. At the time he wasn't exactly sure what he was looking at but recognized their importance and contacted the UCMP. The fossilized mammoth has been named Lupé, after the Guadalupe River. The San Jose Children's Discovery Museum (CDM) will open a new exhibit in 2011 about Lupé's discovery. The exhibit will focus on how Lupé lived in the past and how scientists have pieced together evidence to understand her life.

I am a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley, and I have been working with the UCMP and CDM on the mammoth exhibit since February. At Berkeley, I study mammals from the past, their evolution, how they lived and their relationship with the environment. I got involved in this project because of my research interests. I mostly help the CDM team answer questions about mammoths and other Pleistocene mammals, as well as show them how paleontologists figure out the past from fossils and rocks. The CDM team visited the UCMP twice this spring to look at the collections and get a feel for what a typical day is like as a paleontologist. We also went on a field trip to the coast to look at fossils and learn about the local geology. I really enjoy sharing my experiences with the CDM team and love how excited everyone is to learn more about mammoths and paleontology.

But it's not just me teaching the CDM team! I have been learning quite a bit about how a children's museum designs exhibits for all ages. I attend CDM's brainstorming meetings and have been astonished by how creative a process it is. How do you design an exhibit that holds the attention of a 4 year old and her 12 year old sibling!? It's not easy, but with a lot of brainstorming and testing, the team comes up with fantastic exhibits.

Luckily, the project team also includes a group of researchers from UC Santa Cruz, led by Maureen Callanan. They focus on understanding how children learn science. One question the team has had during development of the exhibit is when do children understand the concept of time? Do they know that dinosaurs lived before mammoths? The UC Santa Cruz team is currently running experiments at the CDM to better understand what children will be able to learn from the exhibit. Their research has really helped guide the exhibit development.

I am very excited to be part of such a dynamic team of researchers and professionals. As we all learn from each other, great ideas unfold and the exhibit design moves forward. Over the next few months, I'll be updating you on our progress as we design and construct the mammoth exhibit. And I'll let you know when the exhibit opens in 2011!

UPDATE: Read Part 2 of Lupé's story!

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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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