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Archive for January 2010

Lupé's story, part 2: Prototyping the mammoth exhibit

LupeSkullUCMP graduate student Kaitlin Maguire is working with the Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose to develop a new exhibit about the life of Lupé, a mammoth fossil that was found in the nearby Guadalupe River.  This is the second in a series of blogs about Lupé and the new exhibit. Read Kaitlin’s first Lupé blog here.

Development of the Lupé Story Exhibition is moving along quickly as exhibit ideas come to life in prototyping labs, in which the development team at the Children’s Discovery Museum (CDM) sets up preliminary exhibits and opens them up to the public for feedback. Prototyping labs are an important aspect of developing an exhibition; the prototyping labs show how children interact with the exhibits and if the exhibits are successful in teaching the children something about Lupé, paleontology, and the process of science. Maureen Callanan, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, is also interested in the prototyping labs because it gives her and her graduate students a chance to study how children learn and interact with their parents and caregivers.  Maureen and her students then provide additional feedback to the CDM team from a cognitive psychology perspective. Preliminary exhibits in the first prototyping lab included bone puzzles, play dioramas of the Pleistocene, and sifting for fossils. The most popular exhibit in the first prototyping lab was the dig site where some children spent hours using wooden tools to dig out fossils of Pleistocene mammals.

In December, we all got the chance to meet Roger Castillo, the San Jose citizen who found the Lupé fossils as he was walking his puppy along the Guadalupe River. Hearing Roger tell his story about the discovery was inspirational. As a citizen scientist, he is invested in the health of the Guadalupe River and all it has to offer, including fossils. Growing up in San Jose, he has monitored the river his entire life. Specifically, he has looked at salmon populations in the river, changes in the level of the river, and erosion caused by the river.

Upon hearing Roger enthusiastically describe how he discovered the fossils, the CDM team decided to focus on recreating the “discovery moment” for children to experience at the museum. The next prototyping lab will contain exhibits designed to create an experience of discovery, excitement, and curiosity. Children will discover fossils on a riverbank, uncover them, and ask questions about the fossils much in the way Roger did. This prototyping lab will be open through the spring. A third prototyping lab will open in the fall and final production of the exhibition will start afterward leading up to the grand opening in the spring of 2011.

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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.

Conifer evolution workshop

ConiferIf there were a Guinness Book of World Records for conifers, California would be one of the top record holders: the Golden State has the tallest conifer, the most massive conifer, and the oldest conifer. Learn much more than just conifer trivia at an upcoming workshop, The Origin and Evolution of Conifers, co-hosted by the UCMP and The Jepson Herbarium. Through talks, discussions, and a hands-on lab, you'll learn all about the origin, evolution, and diversification of this unique plant group. Museum Scientist Diane Erwin, Faculty Curator Cindy Looy, and UCMP Post-doc Lenny Kouwenberg will lead the workshop. It will be held on Saturday, February 6, from 9am to 4pm. For more info on the workshop, including registration information, click here.

UCMP short course: Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay

predicting_web1How will sea level rise and climate change affect San Francisco Bay in the coming years? To predict the future, we need to look at the past — history shows us that San Francisco Bay has undergone some major changes throughout its history. Learn more about the Bay at this year's UCMP Short Course, Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history. This all-day course will be on Saturday, February 6, at UC Berkeley. It features talks by five renowned Bay Area scientists, as well as a panel discussion, giving you the chance to ask questions and delve deeper into the Bay's history — and its future.

The speakers include Doris Sloan, Adjunct Professor of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley and author of the book Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region; UCMP Faculty Curator Jere Lipps; San Francisco Estuary Institute scientist Robin Grossinger; Andrew Cohen, Director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions; and Will Travis, Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. Learn more about the speakers and their talks here.

Registration information is available here. The cost is $30 for the general public, $25 for Friends of the UCMP and members of the co-sponsoring organizations, and $15 for students. Proceeds support graduate student research and outreach efforts at the museum. Teachers attending the course can receive a certification of professional development hours.

The UCMP hosts a short course for the general public every year; we've covered a variety of exciting topics over the past few years. Last year's UCMP short course, Darwin: the man, his science, and his legacy, was very popular, with over 300 attendees.

Join us for 2010's short course, Predicting the future of San Francisco Bay: Learning from history!

Thank you, Roy Caldwell!

Smilodon

UCMP Assistant Director Mark Goodwin gives Roy Caldwell a cast of a Smilodon skull as a thank you gift.

At the close of 2009, Roy Caldwell stepped down from his position as UCMP Director. Thankfully, Roy isn't going anywhere — he will continue to be a Faculty Curator at the museum and a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology. Roy became the interim director in 2005 and director in 2006. Says Roy, "Acutely aware of my lack of training and experience as a paleontologist, the most I could hope for was to be a facilitator — and hope that I didn't muck things up. Judging by the high quality research conducted in the UCMP, the excellent students who have been trained in UCMP and the success of our UCMP education and outreach programs, I think that goal was met." We at the museum agree!

To thank Roy for his years of great leadership, the UCMP held a party in his honor at the end of December. The museum gave Roy a cast of a Smilodon skull as a thank you gift.

Join us in giving Roy a round of applause!

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Welcome Charles Marshall, new UCMP Director!

Charles Marshall

Charles Marshall on the Permian Wandrawandian Siltstone, Warden Head, Ulladulla, New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Swee Peck Quek.

Let’s give a great, big UCMP welcome to Charles Marshall — the new Director of the UCMP!  Charles recently joined the faculty of the Integrative Biology department after being on the faculty at Harvard as well as being the curator of invertebrate paleontology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

"Greetings to all members and friends of UCMP," says Charles. "I am very excited to be part of UCMP and look forward to meeting you all, and in joining you as we work to make UCMP an even stronger center for paleontological research, teaching and outreach."

"I am interested in how paleontology informs our understanding of the history of life, especially the processes that control it." Charles has broad research interests, including integrating both paleontological and molecular phylogenetic data to look at speciation and extinction rates at different times in the past. A confessed math-lover, he also develops quantitative methods to compensate for the incompleteness of the fossil record; his work looks at the rapidity and timing of mass extinctions, diversification, and the calibration of molecular clocks. His research also has a strong empirical component — he has published papers on the functional morphology of diverse taxa, including fossil plants, marine invertebrates, and the fish-amphibian transition. His current research examines the synergy of tectonic processes, climate change, and changes in diversity on geologic timescales, as well as the import of new genomic data on our understanding of the Cambrian explosion.

More Charles Marshall facts:

  • Charles did his undergraduate work at the Australian National University and his Masters and Ph.D. are from the University of Chicago.
  • Charles enjoys teaching students of all levels.
  • Favorite pastime: playing soccer.
  • Charles' wife, Swee Peck Quek, is also a biologist, and is a Berkeley alum, with a B.A. in Integrative Biology. She also holds a Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard and a M.Sc. in Epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health. Charles and Swee Peck are expecting their first child in February.

So join us in greeting Charles, and stay tuned for continuing coverage of his work at the UCMP.