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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.

Even a mantis shrimp is what it eats

Neogonodactlyus wounds

Neogonodactlyus bredini with damage on its predatory appendage from another mantis shrimp's strikes! Photo by Roy Caldwell.

Ask most anyone what butterflies use their wings for or what fish do with their fins and you will undoubtedly hear an answer like, "Wings are used for flying and fins are used for swimming!" Some body parts just seem so well-adapted to perform certain functions; this is why there is a paradigm in biology that "specialized" body parts correspond to specific ways in which animals go about their daily business. In other words, specialization in morphology corresponds to specialization in ecology. A classic example of this concept is variation in the beaks of the Galapagos finches. Some finches have beaks adapted to crush hard seeds, while others have beaks specialized for eating insects.

However, not all animals seem to exhibit this pattern. The marine crustacean known as the mantis shrimp has legs, called predatory or raptorial appendages, which can produce one of the fastest movements in the animal kingdom. These raptorial appendages come in many shapes ranging from sharp spear-like appendages to hammer-like appendages. Mantis shrimp use their fast-moving appendages to crush open snails and other hard-shelled marine organisms, so they can eat the soft bodies inside. However, mantis shrimp also appear to eat other foods, like fish, which probably do not need to be smashed to bits before they are consumed. Even though they have specialized legs well adapted to smashing or spearing prey, some species may not use their raptorial appendages for this purpose. The goal of my research is to determine if mantis shrimp have diverse diets. Then if so, I will see how diet diversity correlates with raptorial appendage morphology across the mantis shrimp family.

First, a little background about mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimp are closely related to decapods, such as lobsters, crabs, and true shrimp. Even though mantis shrimp look like decapods, they actually branched off and became their own group 400 million years ago. Mantis shrimp have the most complex visual system ever reported in the animal kingdom. They are also one of the fastest swimmers in the sea, swimming at speeds of up to 30 body lengths per second — comparable to speeds measured in squid, which previously held the record.

But my favorite characteristic of mantis shrimp is of course their lightning fast raptorial appendages. Researchers in the Patek Lab at the University of Massachusetts and Caldwell Lab at Berkeley have found that a mantis shrimp’s predatory strike can move 23 meters per second (50 miles per hour) and produces accelerations that are comparable to a flying bullet! So it would be surprising if some mantis shrimp species were capable of this rapid movement, but didn't use it to catch prey. Hence, my study of mantis shrimp diets! I am using two techniques, stable isotopes and behavioral studies, to figure out which food items mantis shrimp eat.

Before I could study their diets, I first had to collect several different species of mantis shrimp and their possible prey. Most mantis shrimp live in the tropics, so I have traveled to Lizard Island, Australia and Mo’orea, French Polynesia to collect the animals. However, my main field site is in Colon, Panama where I collect at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s Galeta Marine Laboratory. After collecting, I transport all of the specimens back to the UC Berkeley Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry, where I analyze the carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes of mantis shrimp and their prey.

What is a stable isotope? Let's go back to high school chemistry for a moment! A normal atom has the same number of neutrons and protons in the nucleus, but a stable isotope has more neutrons than protons in the nucleus. For example, a normal carbon atom has 12 neutrons in the nucleus, but its stable isotope has 13 neutrons. These isotopes are stable, because they do not exhibit radioactive decay over time — they won't lose that extra neutron — which means that the isotope will always have 13 neutrons in the nucleus. Researchers look at the ratio of normal atoms to stable isotopes to track diet, because the ratio of normal atoms to stable isotopes in the body of a predator can reflect the type of prey it has eaten. For example, if the mantis shrimp has a ratio of 10 carbon-13 atoms to carbon-12 atoms and the crab that you think the mantis shrimp eats has a ratio of 8, then there is a good chance that the mantis shrimp eats this species of crab. The reason why the mantis shrimp’s ratio is not exactly 8 is that there is an expected change in the predator’s ratio that occurs when the predator metabolizes the prey. You are what you eat (plus a little bit!), and stable isotopes allow us to track this pretty accurately.

Back In the laboratory, my assistants and I identify all of the prey items and stomatopods that we collected. We then take muscle tissue samples from the mantis shrimp and from the prey. We use a mass spectrometer to analyze the carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in both the mantis shrimp and prey tissue. Finally, we compare the isotope ratios of the mantis shrimp and prey to determine who ate what. Since the mantis shrimp is what it eats, all prey items that have isotope ratios similar to the mantis shrimp’s ratios are likely a part of the mantis shrimp diet.

To confirm the accuracy of the stable isotope analyses, I also conduct behavior experiments that help me to determine which animals mantis shrimp are physically capable of eating. To do this, I stock aquaria with mantis shrimp and potential prey, and I wait to see which prey the mantis shrimp eat. So far, I have performed this experiment on only one species, but eventually I will look at many species of mantis shrimp, with different appendage morphologies, to see if mantis shrimp with different appendage shapes have different diets. Together with the isotope analyses, these experiments will give me a good picture of mantis shrimp diet and ultimately lead to an in-depth understanding of the relationship between raptorial appendage morphology and diet across the mantis shrimp family. This fall, I’ll return to Panama to complete my field experiments, so stay tuned for updates in future blog posts!

To learn more about Maya's research, watch the Paleo Video Field notes: Collecting stomatopods on the Great  Barrier Reef.

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Global warming and declining mammal diversity: new research in Nature

Pleistocene survivor, the deer mouse.  Photo by Glenn and Martha Vargas © California Academy of Sciences

Pleistocene survivor, the deer mouse. Photo by Glenn and Martha Vargas © California Academy of Sciences

Popular images of Ice Age California tend to feature enormous, extinct mammals like mammoths and saber-toothed cats.  By contrast, new research published in Nature examines populations of small mammals that survived through the end of the Ice Age and how they were affected by the climate change.

The research team of Jessica Blois (formerly at Stanford, now at University of Wisconsin, Madison), Elizabeth Hadly (formerly of UCMP, now at Stanford) and Jenny McGuire (UCMP) studied fossilized woodrat nests collected from Samwell Cave in Northern California.  Woodrats carry scat and regurgitated pellets produced by carnivores back to their nests.  These collections are filled with undigested small mammal bones, making fossilized woodrat nests treasure troves for paleontologists.

Comparing fossil data to modern small mammal populations in the same region revealed a big decrease in diversity during a period of global warming at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.  There was a decrease in both species richness (number of different species) and evenness (relative dominance of species within a community).  A few species disappeared from the area entirely.  Some species remain in the area but as a much smaller proportion of the overall small mammal community.  And the main species to increase in relative abundance was the deer mouse — an animal that can tolerate a wide variety of habitats and climates.

Research of historic periods of global warming improves our understanding of how modern, man-made global warming will affect life on Earth.  Read more about this research:

Think Evolution II: a summer institute for science educators

thinkevo_blogJoin us at the UCMP for a fun-filled five days of evolutionary explorations with biologists and educators from the University of California. On August 2-6, UCMP and the National Center for Science Education will host a workshop for middle school, high school, and community college biology teachers and science educators. Scientists will discuss their research, covering topics like molecular evolution, developmental biology, and human evolution. Learn how you can integrate cutting-edge evolutionary research into your curriculum. For more information about the workshop, including registration information, click here.

Last year's Think Evolution workshop was a great success — check out some photos from the workshop, below.

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Special exhibit: Fossil eggshell

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This week, we've launched a new online special exhibit — Fossil eggshell: Fragments from the past. This is the best online source of information about fossil eggshell — you can't find this info anywhere else!  This special exhibit was created in collaboration with Laura E. Wilson, Karen Chin and Emily S. Bray, from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Frankie D. Jackson from Montana State University.

We can learn a lot from fossil eggshell. Using scanning electron microscopy, we can examine the details of the shell morphology and structure. This provides clues as to the identity of the egg-layer; different groups of animals have very different types of shells. Fossil eggshell can also tell us about the ecology and behavior of the egg-layers — and their babies.

This online special exhibit features a case study of the Willow Creek Anticline in the Two Medicine Formation, Montana, where paleontologist Jack Horner and colleagues found numerous dinosaur eggs and eggshell fragments. Read about the discovery of the fossils, and what Jack and his colleagues learned about the egg-layers — dinosaurs Maisasaura and Troodon — through their detailed analyses of the fossil eggshell.

Much of the material in the online exhibit comes from the Hirsch Eggshell Collection at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. The collection was donated by eggshell enthusiast Karl Hirsch who made significant contributions to the field of fossil eggshell research. Learn about his legacy in the special exhibit section Karl Hirsch and the Hirsch Eggshell Collection.

UCMP's Tony Barnosky on Science Friday

barnosky_scifriMounting evidence suggests we may be on the cusp of a major extinction event. Last week, UCMP Faculty Curator Tony Barnosky talked about modern extinctions on Science Friday, a weekly science talk show on NPR. Tony was joined by Barry Sinervo, Professor at UC Santa Cruz, George Amato, of the Sackler Institute and the American Museum of Natural History, and Vance Vredenburg, Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University. In a lively conversation, Tony and the guests discussed many examples of animals and ecosystems currently affected by global warming. If you missed the program last week, you can listen to it here.

Tony is the author of Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming. To learn more about his work, check out the Barnosky Lab website.

On May 17, Tony Barnosky gave the 2010 Integrative Biology Commencement Address, which he titled Geography of Hope, a line he borrowed from Wallace Stegner. Tony discussed the biological and global issues that will challenge the Class of 2010 — and how these graduates represent his hope for the future. Read Tony's commencement address, Geography of Hope, here.

Tony was involved with a BBC radio broadcast (May 2012) about the possibility of our being in the midst of a sixth mass extinction.

Congratulations Tim White!

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Tim White. Photo: Discovery Communications, LLC.

Congratulations are due to Tim White, Director of the Human Evolution Research Center and Faculty Curator at the UCMP! Tim was selected by Time Magazine as one of The 100 Most Influential People in the World. Tim receives this recognition for his work on human evolution. This past fall, Tim and his colleagues published numerous papers on Ardipithecus ramidus, the oldest and most complete skeleton of a human ancestor. Congratulations, Tim!

The game of prehistoric life

EOP-cover

Evolve or Perish is a new board game – not from the makers of Monopoly, but from ETE, the Evolution of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Program, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. UCMP Faculty Curators Cindy Looy and Ivo Duijnstee designed the game in collaboration with illustrator Hannah Bonner. Hannah is well-known for her cartoon paleobooks When Bugs Were Big and When Fish Got Feet. The three enjoy collaborating -- Hannah created the logo for Cindy's lab's web site, and she is currently consulting with her on a regular basis for her next book.

Evolve or Perish is similar to Chutes and Ladders. It begins 635 million years ago, with the first multi-celled organisms. Each square on the board represents 10 million years. On the path to the present, numerous fates await you: slip on an early animal and go back one square; land on the Cambrian Explosion and jump ahead; land on the largest extinction event the world has ever known and go back nine spaces. The game is populated by cute animals (the first four-legged animal wears a party hat!) and strange-looking plants (like Lycopods from the coal swamps of the Carboniferous). All of the beautifully drawn creatures represent real plants and animals, known from the fossil record; a taxa list helps you learn your Oxynoticeras from your Omeisaurus. As you move your game piece from the past to the present, Earth's major milestones appear along the way – you'll pass meteors, millipedes, and the rise of giant mammals. The first player to make it to the present day wins the game – but experiences a gross revelation about how some of Earth's first inhabitants inhabit us humans, too.

The game can be downloaded for free here.

Cal Day at the UCMP

Cal Day at the UCMP 1Thanks for joining us on Cal Day! Here are some photos from a few of the UCMP's Cal Day events.

At Fun with Fossils, visitors used microscopes to look for fossils. They picked through matrix collected at the Bug Creek Anthills in Montana. People found reptile vertebrae, fish scales… and one little girl found a dinosaur tooth!

The courtyard of VLSB was buzzing as hundreds of visitors perused the Biodiversity Roadshow. This exhibit included specimens from many of the Berkeley Natural History Museums.

The faculty, staff, and students at the UCMP had a great time on Cal Day!  Join us again next year for more fun with fossils, more talks and tours, and more t-shirts!

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