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Bones in the Belltower, a Berkeley Science Review feature by Sara ElShafie

fall_2015_elshafie_featureThe Fall 2015 issue of the Berkeley Science Review features an article by Sara ElShafie, a UCMP graduate student in the Padian Lab, on the McKittrick tar seep fossils that have been stored in the Campanile since the 1930s. The convergence of an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to the UCMP to clean and catalogue more the 12,000 specimens in the collection and the centennial celebration of the Campanile in 2015 shined a spotlight on these unique fossils.

In interviews with UCMP graduate students Eric Holt and Ashley Poust, and UCMP staff Lisa White and Pat Holroyd, Sara details the work performed to preserve history and scientific significance of the McKittrick collection. Over 3,000 collective hours spent by more than a dozen students will improve the accessibility to the collection for future research and a rich digital archive facilitates sharing with the education community.

The Berkeley Science Review is a graduate student-run magazine showcasing research conducted UC Berkeley in a variety of disciplines.

UCMP's Lisa White highlights the geology of California in NOVA series

At a Sierra foothills gold mine, White poses with Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and narrator of “Making North America.” (Photo courtesy of Lisa White)

At a Sierra foothills gold mine, White poses with Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and narrator of “Making North America.” (Photo courtesy of Lisa White)

Making North America, a 3-part NOVA series that originally aired on PBS in November 2015, is a richly illustrated journey through the geological history of the North American continent. UCMP Director of Education and Outreach Lisa White appears in episodes one (Origins) and three (Human) in segments shot in northern California.

Lisa joins paleontologist and Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Kirk Johnson, the series host and narrator, along the San Andreas fault in Tomales Bay and in a gold mine near Placerville, CA to explain the unique geological features in California.

Lisa was recently profiled in Berkeley News and talked about her experience filming the series and her commitment to broadening participation in the geosciences.

Humans began altering natural world 6,000 years ago

Egyptian farmers in the Neolithic period 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Egyptian farmers in the Neolithic period 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Scientists have found an abrupt change about 6,000 years ago in how terrestrial plant and animal species coexisted, right about the time human populations were ballooning and agriculture was spreading around the world.

The findings suggest that human activity had reached a tipping point where hunting and farming were impacting the natural world in irreversible ways — changes that have continued to increase to this day.

The researchers, including UC Berkeley’s Cindy Looy, an assistant professor of integrative biology, will report their findings in the Dec. 17 issue of the journal Nature.

The scientists looked at fossil data on how species coexisted over the past 307 million years, specifically how often a particular pair of plant or animal species is found within the same community. Out of all possible combinations of two species in a certain region and time interval, the proportion of pairs of species that co-occurred remained relatively stable until 6,000 years ago. At that time, the chances of co-occurrence dropped significantly, suggesting that humans were creating some barrier to the dispersal of plants or animals.

"This tells us that humans have been having a massive effect on the environment for a very long time," said lead author S. Kathleen Lyons, a paleobiologist in the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems (ETE) program at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Analyses of modern communities of plants and animals have found that for most pairs of species, the presence of one species within a community does not influence whether the other is present or absent. For pairs where there is an association, most occur within the same community less frequently than expected, suggesting some influence keeps them apart.

But when Lyons, Looy and their colleagues investigated the composition of ancient communities using fossil data, they found exactly the opposite. Their analysis showed that from 307 million years ago, the time known as the Carboniferous period, to about 6,000 years ago, in the Holocene epoch, there was a pattern of pairs of species occurring together within communities rather than being segregated.

"The proportion of co-occurring species pairs was relatively stable from the late Paleozoic until 6,000 years ago, even during periods of major climate change and mass extinction and despite the appearance of many new players in the terrestrial ecosystems, such as mammals and flowering plants," Looy said. "The decline of coupled species pairs in the Holocene also cannot be explained by the transition from the last glacial to the current interglacial at the end of the Pleistocene, as this happened too early. Instead, it is more likely caused by an increase in human population size and the resulting land use and agriculture."

Around the time co-occurrence patterns changed, humans were becoming increasingly dependent on agriculture, a cultural shift that physically altered the environment and would have introduced artificial barriers to dispersal never seen before. Even at low levels of agriculture and other human impacts, there was a detectable shift in co-occurrence structure, indicating that species were not able to migrate as easily as they did for the previous 300 million years.

For more details about the study, see this story on the Smithsonian's website.

This post was originally published online in the UC Berkeley News Center

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National Fossil Day website features research by UCMP and partners

The UCMP partnership with Point Reyes National Seashore and the National Park Service continues to thrive and fossil discoveries made as a result of this partnership are highlighted in a previous post. Lillian Pearson, who works part-time with Museum Scientist Erica Clites cataloging specimens from the Point Reyes National Seashore, is the lead author on an article posted in honor of National Fossil Day (October 14, 2015) describing Cenozoic life and landscape features.

National Fossil Day article summarizes the research here.

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Robert Boessenecker (College of Charleston), Lillian Kennedy Pearson (GeoCorps Intern at Point Reyes National Seashore), Sarah Boessenecker, and Erica Clites (University of California, Musuem of Paleontology), are excavating the partial skeleton of an extinct porpoise. The skeleton was excavated from the Purisima Formation on Drakes Beach and includes a nearly complete skull, ribs, several vertebrae, and a humerus. Photo by Kathleen Zoehfeld.

The 2016 Fossil Treasures Calendar is now available at UCMP

Assistant Director Mark Goodwin showing off the 2016 UCMP Calendar to an ammonite, a featured fossil.

Assistant Director Mark Goodwin showing off the 2016 UCMP Calendar to an ammonite, a featured fossil.

Sharing the Collections at UCMP

The new year's calendar focuses on the collections and the unique specimens that can be found here. UCMP is a research museum, which means that access is limited to researchers, our students, and affiliates. The 2016 calendar allows us to bring the collections to our supporters and the general public.

Grants from the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences enabled us to restore, catalog and digitize new specimens more rapidly than ever before. The result was an increase in integration and accessibility of the collections for both research and educational purposes.

What’s inside the calendar?

The calendar showcases our fossils, diversity and volume of our collections, as well as the exciting activity happening inside the museum.

It features spectacular images of specimens representing each of our four collections supplemented with fun facts, such as the age of the fossils and where they were found! It also shows different ways of visualizing fossils. Apart from photographs, there are scanning electron micrographs of the microfossils and 3-D volume renderings of a pachycephalosaur dome fossil.

Get yours today!

Contact Chris Mejia at cmejia@berkeley.edu or call 510-642-1821 to get your 2016 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar. They're only $10 each (plus postage) and all proceeds support museum research, education, and outreach.

For the collectors out there, we also have UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendars from 2013, 2014 and 2015 available for $2.

UCMP students help the public unleash their inner scientist

The public enjoys the opportunity to explore fossils and learn more about paleontology from UCMP students. Photo by Renske Kirchholtes

The public enjoys the opportunity to explore fossils and learn more about paleontology from UCMP students. Photo by Renske Kirchholtes

On November 7 UCMP participated in the Bay Area Science Festival Discovery Day at AT&T Park. Discovery Day is the closing event of the annual Bay Area Science Festival – a science extravaganza offering a wide range of science and technology activities in a variety of venues over a two-week period.

The UCMP joined other Science@Cal exhibitors for the fifth straight year by engaging youth and families in fossils and life of the past, highlighting what lived at AT&T Park before the Giants! Thanks to UCMP students Eric Holt, Renske Kirchholtes, Jun Lim, Emily Orzechowski, Elyanah Posner, Nick Spano, and Alexis Williams for making the UCMP table a top hit with festival-goers.

Graduate students (from left to right) Eric Holt, Nick Spano, Jun Lim, and Emily Orzechowski, prepare the exhibit table during Discovery Days at AT&T Park. Photo by Jun Lim

Graduate students (from left to right) Eric Holt, Nick Spano, Jun Lim, and Emily Orzechowski, prepare the exhibit table during Discovery Days at AT&T Park. Photo by Jun Lim

UCMP volunteers discover important specimen

Kathy Zoehfeld, holds her palm out to show the gastropod speciment she discovered.

UCMP volunteer Kathy Zoehfeld holds a tiny gastropod she and volunteer Don Pecko discovered in the former USGS Menlo Park collection.

UCMP volunteers Kathy Zoehfeld and Don Pecko recently discovered a type specimen from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History among the hundreds of thousands of fossils in the former USGS Menlo Park collection. This type specimen, a tiny gastropod called Ceratia nixilia, was discovered in a drawer of fossils they were rehousing into new archival boxes. Don and Kathy not only noticed the less than a centimeter long gastropod, but brought it to my attention because they noticed the number written on the specimen. Noticing the green diamond also affixed to the fossil, we looked it up in the National Museum of Natural History database and discovered that it was listed as a holotype specimen.

Holotypes are the most important examples of a species, and the specimen that future researchers always return to determine whether their fossil is indeed the named one. Although some type specimens are lost due to disasters like the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of the California Academy of Sciences collection, sometimes they are simply misplaced.

The U.S. Geological Survey had a close relationship with the National Museum of Natural History, and their offices housed in the same building for decades. Perhaps the specimen was accidentally transferred with the Pacific coast collections when the USGS Menlo Park office opened in the 1950s? Or perhaps it was sent out on loan to one of the paleontologists in the Menlo Park office and never returned?

Regardless of its journey, it eventually reached the UCMP, where my sharp-eyed volunteers signaled it out. The specimen will be returned to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. and again be made available for researchers. This discovery shows the true value of rehousing a collection because it requires handling every single specimen and often results in lost specimens being returned to their proper location.

We are grateful to the National Science Foundation for the funding to complete this worthwhile project. I am lucky to be working with volunteers as dedicated to returning every fossil to its proper place as I am.

Ceratia nixilia, a small gastropod or sea snail, was discovered mixed with other specimens as the volunteers were rehousing a drawer of fossils.

Ceratia nixilia, a small gastropod or sea snail, was discovered mixed with other specimens as the volunteers were rehousing a drawer of fossils.

Landscapes change forever when large mammals disappear

An African elephant grazing among trees.

An African elephant grazes. Photo credit: Tony Barnosky

Research on the extinction of large mammals by members of the Barnosky Lab and their colleagues highlights how entire landscapes are affected when modern elephants and their extinct relatives, mastodons and mammoths, disappear.  From plants that are no longer grazed to fewer nutrients in soils, the loss of megafauna significantly impacts ecosystems in a dramatic fashion as detailed in recent articles and interviews.

Learn more about this recent research:

 

Five Climate Tipping Points We've Already Seen, and One We're Hoping For

forestfireThis week is Climate Week in New York, when President Obama, Pope Francis, and many other world leaders converge to continue hammering out commitments intended to limit global warming to 2 degrees C or less, to be presented at the make-or-break COP21 climate meetings in Paris in early December.

The commitments are not there yet--so far those on the table would allow enough greenhouse gas emissions to raise temperature 3 degrees C or more. But staying below 2 degrees is critically important, for we already are seeing climate-triggered problems arise, even though global temperature has only risen less than one degree (0.9 degree C) above what used to be normal, and indeed what human civilization evolved in.

Read the rest at Huff Post Science Blog

UCMP and Stanford partner on a global change workshop for teachers

Teachers Monica Sircar (left; Everest Public High School, Redwood City) and Crystina Ayala (ASCEND K-8 School, Oakland) use string to represent rays of sunlight hitting Earth's surface at different angles at different latitudes.

Teachers Monica Sircar (left; Everest Public High School, Redwood City) and Crystina Ayala (ASCEND K-8 School, Oakland) use string to represent rays of sunlight hitting Earth's surface at different angles at different latitudes.

Middle and high school science teachers received double the resources when UCMP and Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences teamed up to offer a week-long workshop on global change.

Read more about the workshop on Stanford's blog