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Archive for January 2012

Bay Area Field Guide: Tilden Park

I think it took us all by surprise to learn that Tilden Park contains several fossil localities and has a rich history with the UCMP. Don Savage, a former professor of paleontology and past chair of the Department of Paleontology at Cal, found a gomphothere jaw by Inspiration Point off Nimitz Way in 1961 and John C. Merriam collected the type specimen of Eucastor lecontei from deposits near Vomer Peak.

Underlying the beautiful rolling hills of the park are terrestrial deposits of the Miocene. The oldest of these deposits are the Claremont Formation containing chert and siliceous shale layers deposited 14 to 16 million years ago in a deep marine basin. Overlying this formation are the alluvial-fluvial mudstone, sandstone and conglomerate deposits of the Orinda Formation that originated from a higher, mountainous region west of the East Bay. You can see clear views of the Orinda Formation just east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24. The Moraga Formation overlies the Orinda Formation. This basaltic flow erupted from a volcano at Round Top in the Robert Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, just south of the Caldecott Tunnel, about 9-10 million years ago.

There are a number of lava flows visible from Highway 24, east of the Caldecott Tunnel, that are several feet thick. Many of them have a red zone or baked contact at their base where the hot lava contacted with the wet and cool alluvial deposits of the Orinda Formation, oxidizing the sediments. These volcanic deposits are resistant and now form the ridges of the Berkeley Hills and San Pablo Ridge. Some of the lava flows dammed rivers causing the formation of lakes. Deposits from these lakes formed the Siesta Formation composed of fine-grained light gray sediments. These soft rocks are easily eroded and have resulted in several landslides. Capping these deposits is another lava flow called the Bald Peak Basalt (9 million years old), visible at Vomer Peak in Tilden Park. All of these rock layers were folded due to tectonic activity. This created a large north to south plunging syncline that encompasses Tilden Park.

Photos courtesy of Nick Matzke, Tony Huynh, and Lucy Chang.

Please note that a collecting permit and official permission is required to collect, or even pick up, any vertebrate fossil or fossil fragment in any of California's State and National Parks. Other public lands, including city parks and open spaces, may have similar regulations. Best to check in with the appropriate land use office wherever your adventures take you to inquire where the best spots are to see fossils in the field and what is and is not permitted while hiking and exploring our fossil heritage in these natural preserves.

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.

Jere Lipps appointed as Director of The Cooper Center in Orange County

Becoming emeritus usually means an opportunity to slow things down a bit, but that has certainly not been the case for UCMP curators Jim Valentine, Bill Clemens, or Carole Hickman by any means. But starting a new job? Well, welcome to "retirement" defined by Jere Lipps! Jere has just accepted the position of Director of Orange County's John D. Cooper Center for Archaeological and Paleontological Curation and Research.

The Cooper Center is a partnership between O.C. Parks and California State University Fullerton and is "dedicated to preserving the natural and cultural history of Orange County." Its sizable paleo collection represents plants and animals from every major time period since the Jurassic, but only a small fraction of the collection has been inventoried. In Jere's words: "The whales, walruses, and other marine animals and Eocene vertebrate fossils in the collection are tremendous additions to knowledge and heritage of Orange County and the Pacific Rim and will help fill in critical gaps in current knowledge. Some of the fossils are as old as the oldest rocks (Jurassic) that make up Orange County."

Though this will be a return to Southern California for Jere, having been born in Los Angeles and receiving his PhD at UCLA, we trust that the Berkeley connections will continue. To read more about the Cooper Center and Jere's new appointment, read the Cal State announcement. And for more about activities at the Cooper Center, watch this video on the Archaeo-Paleo Project.

Relicts of the Bug-men

What are bug-men and how did their existence benefit UCMP? Watch and listen to this slideshow about an obscure link recently discovered by UCMP micropaleontologist Ken Finger.

Click cover page below to download the full article.


Leslea Hlusko one of eleven UC Berkeley faculty named as AAAS Fellows

Congratulations to Leslea Hlusko, UCMP curator and Professor of Integrative Biology, on her selection as a 2011 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Leslea received this recognition for her distinguished contributions to the study of primate evolutionary biology, especially in relation to the integration of genetics and the fossil record.

The list of fellows, released Tuesday, Dec. 6, by the AAAS, will appear in the Dec. 23 issue of Science.

For more on Leslea and her lab research, click here.

To read a UCMP research profile on her work, click here.

For more on the Berkeley Fellows, click here.

NeoMap: An important step toward answering macro-scale questions

In science we are often confined to studying processes that occur on local scales. This is a natural place to begin and there is great value in understanding local events and processes, but the ultimate goal, at least in my mind, is to synthesize all these smaller snapshots of how living things interact and respond to their environments into a cohesive, whole-world portrait. This kind of comprehensive understanding is particularly important in light of global climate change, which demands that we develop conservation strategies that address broader issues than conservation has in the past. The "Holy Grail," in this regard, would be data covering the whole earth and all taxa, throughout the history of life. Regretfully, this is unlikely to ever be fully realized; however, there has been a recent blossoming of databases, containing all kinds of biological data from across the globe that begins to build toward this overarching ambition. Of particular relevance to paleontologists is the Neogene Mammal Mapping Portal (NeoMap), which holds records of mammalian fossils from the last 30 million years in North America.

NeoMap unifies two free-standing, open-access databases—the Miocene Mammal Mapping Project (MioMap)2, hosted by the UCMP, and the Quaternary Faunal Mapping Project (FAUNMAP)3,4—and enables the user to access and download any published (and some unpublished) data on fossil mammals (along with complete metadata), to map the localities where these fossils were collected, and to generate tables of species abundances (minimum number of individuals). These tables can be easily modified for more specific purposes, for example, to estimate species/area relationships or to assemble a taxonomic list for an entire region during a given period of time. This means that research addressing a wide variety of macro-scale questions is now possible using NeoMap—previously, these kinds of projects were prohibitively laborious, because they required extensive and exhaustive literature searches followed by painstaking data standardization.

A recent example of the utility of NeoMap is described in a book chapter by Tony Barnosky (UCMP), Marc Carrasco (UCMP), and Russell Graham: Collateral mammal diversity loss associated with late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions and implications for the future (chapter in "Comparing the Geological and Fossil Records: Implications for Biodiversity Studies"1). This paper explores whether all of the biodiversity loss exhibited by mammals at the end of the Pleistocene can be explained by extinction of megafauna. The authors found that over and above the loss of large mammals that went extinct, there was local and regional loss of diversity because geographic ranges of species got smaller. That "collateral diversity loss" resulted in an additional 6-51% diversity reduction, depending on location, that was on top of species loss by extinction. This collateral loss affected small mammals even more than large mammals1. The bottom line is that extinction is only one symptom of diversity loss, and local or regional extirpations compound and intensify the massive ecological changes that take place during biodiversity crises like the one we are experiencing today.

This project illustrates two tools that make NeoMap so powerful: paleo-areas were drawn and measured in NeoMap using the BerkeleyMapper utility, and species presence/absence tables were generated using the MioMap EstimateS Web Service, which queries all the points selected in BerkeleyMapper and returns the data as a sites-by-species table. In my own work, fellow UCMP grad student Michael Holmes and I have used NeoMap to study how the distribution of species in different body size and diet functional groups has changed through time in the Northern Great Plains. Our analysis has shown remarkable stasis in the relative number of species in each functional group across millions of years, except during two periods of rapid climate change: the end of the Mid-Miocene Climatic Optimum, and the Pleistocene/Holocene transition5.

To use the database, learn more about it, or read about other examples of research using NeoMap, go to

1. Barnosky, A.D., Carrasco, M.A., Graham, R.W., 2011, Collateral mammal diversity loss associated with late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions and implications for the future. Comparing the Geological and Fossil Records: Implications for Biodiversity Studies. Geological Society, London, Special Publications. 358:179-189

2. Carrasco, M.A., Kraatz, B.P., Davis, E.B., Barnosky, A.D., 2005. Miocene Mammal Mapping Project (MIOMAP). University of California Museum of Paleontology

3. FAUNMAP Working Group, 1994. FAUNMAP: a database documenting late Quaternary distributions of mammal species in the United States. Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers 25(1-2):1-690.
4. Graham, R.W., and E.L. Lundelius, Jr., 2010. FAUNMAP II: New data for North America with a temporal extension for the Blancan, Irvingtonian and early Rancholabrean. FAUNMAP II Database, version 1.0.

5. Stegner, M.A. & Holmes, M., 2011. Using paleontological databases to assess spatial and temporal conservation of mammalian community structure as an aid to conservation planning. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Meeting, Las Vegas, NV.