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The hunt for a Ph.D. thesis: Collecting Late Cretaceous plant fossils in New Mexico

"It ain't Mexico and it ain't new" [quoted from a postcard in a gift shop]

Armed with hammers, chisels, pry-bars, boxes of newspaper, and sunscreen, two trusty assistants (recent graduate Meriel Melendrez and current undergrad Nicolas Locatelli) and I drove from Berkeley in our 4WD extra-long SUV heading for southern New Mexico. There, we met up with paleobotanist Dr. Gary Upchurch and crew from Texas State University and geologist Dr. Greg Mack from New Mexico State University for two weeks of field work in Late Cretaceous plant localities of the Jose Creek Member. It was a bona fide tri-state expedition working on multiple projects. My interests were to set the foundation for my dissertation work on the ecological diversity of Late Cretaceous forests in warm-wet climates. For this I needed a primary study site to generate new collections and data. The trip wasn’t entirely exploratory — I was familiar with some of the localities from my undergraduate days with Dr. Upchurch, and had collected here previously. Based on this earlier work, we knew that there was an abundance of plant fossils, and preliminary studies have indicated that the fossil assemblages of the Jose Creek Member represent a subtropical-paratropical forest. That’s right, in the present day desert of New Mexico, rich in angiosperms but mixed with conifers and ferns.

Late Cretaceous plant communities often contain interesting combinations of plants that are no longer found living together under the same climatic conditions (for example palms and redwoods). That is because the Late Cretaceous represents an important transitional time, as flowering plants (angiosperms) rapidly diversified and rose to dominance in warmer climates. During this time, the typical early to mid-Mesozoic forests that were dominated by ferns and gymnosperms (conifers and other non-flowering seed plants) transitioned to the modern, angiosperm-dominated forests. This begs several questions: what were the different ecological roles of angiosperms and conifers in these forests, and did conifers and other gymnosperms serve functions that have now been replaced by angiosperms? How has the structure of plant communities in warm-wet climates changed from the Cretaceous to present, and how does this inform our understanding of the evolution of modern tropical forests? These are the questions that fueled my quest into the southwest last summer. The New Mexico sites seemed like an ideal place to start my investigations, and we ambitiously set out to do some major collecting.

In the Jose Creek Member, the best-preserved plant fossils come from beds of recrystallized volcanic ash. My initial goal was to collect quadrats from multiple volcanic ash beds, which would give an indication of the vegetation through time (because beds are not necessarily deposited at the exact same time). But things don’t always work out like you plan, and luckily this was one of those times ….

Field site

Field site on the distant hills (can you see the exposure?), but with modern vegetation of course! Photo by Meriel Melendrez.

Dori with palm frond

Fossil palm frond (with Dori for scale). Photo by Meriel Melendrez.

Preparing a collecting site

Meriel and Nick preparing a collecting site. Photo by Dori Contreras.

The first locality we went to had an ash bed that was known for its abundance of plant fossils and beautiful preservation. After setting up the first collecting quadrat with Meriel and Nicolas, Dr. Mack and I headed off to investigate how far we could track the exposed bed, as its lateral extent was hitherto unknown. To our amazement, we were able to track the deposit for ~1.2 km! This was an incredible revelation; here were the remains of a forest preserved in ash for quite an impressive spatial extent, which would enable the reconstruction of a plant community at a single instant in time. This was considerably more attractive for my questions than reconstructing vegetation from multiple beds comprising an unknown amount of geologic time. I adjusted plans and concentrated our efforts on this deposit alone (rather than a compilation of sites) and spent the next nine days collecting small quadrats along the length of the bed. The deposit is so rich that virtually every rock we cracked open had multiple fossil plant specimens! Consequently, almost everything we touched was wrapped in newspaper, hiked out of the field site, and brought back to the UCMP. This was no light task — thank goodness for the incredible Meriel and Nicolas! In total we collected samples from 14 sites along the exposure. These initial collections reveal a rich and laterally diverse flora, and yet are only the tip of the iceberg!

We headed back west with the SUV packed to the brim and riding low from the weight of the fossils; it was the maximum that could possibly be brought back. I should also mention — Cindy Looy and Ivo Duijnstee, along with some of the other Looy Lab members (Jeff, Renske, Robert) — were in New Mexico for a conference and we arranged to meet them. This was particularly fortuitous, not only for good company, but also because they took two large tubs of fossils back with them! Another two tubs went back to Texas, and made it to Berkeley later that summer. All in all, it was enough fossils to fill two double-door cases in the museum!

Of course, the field work is only the beginning and, since then, a lot of work has gone into getting these first collections organized and examined. Currently, two students (James Buckel and Negin Sarrami) and I are describing and photographing leaf morphotypes from the collections to assess the diversity of plants in the flora. A large portion probably represent unknown/undescribed species, so we differentiate ‘species’ as morphotypes based on detailed descriptions of leaf characteristics. The flora includes a diversity of herbaceous and woody ‘dicots’, monocots (e.g., palms and ginger), cycads, ferns, an abundant extinct sequoia-like conifer and several extinct conifers probably related to the Araucariaceae. Overall, it is clear that it will take several more field excursions and countless hours of lab work to understand the taxonomic and structural diversity of this amazing flora. And, of course, I am eagerly looking forward to the return trips and uncovering the treasure trove of fossils still entombed in the rock out in the desert!

Fossil fern

Fossil fern. Photo by Dori Contreras.

Angiosperm leaf

Angiosperm leaf with insect feeding damage (holes). Photo by Dori Contreras.

Waterlogged wood on the seafloor and the critters that call it home

For a marine biologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about wood. What happens to it if it happens to wash into a stream? How much of it gets into the ocean? Where does it sink? What happens to it once it reaches the bottom? What animals are likely to make it their home?

I’m far from the first to think about the role of wood in ocean systems. In fact, Darwin thought quite a bit about how plant material might make its way into the ocean and how long different kinds of wood might stay afloat before sinking …

“It is well known what a difference there is in the buoyancy of green and seasoned timber; and it occurred to me that floods might wash down plants or branches, and that these might be dried on the banks, and then by a fresh rise in the stream be washed into the sea. Hence I was led to dry stems and branches of 94 plants with ripe fruit, and to place them on sea water. The majority sank quickly, but some which whilst green floated for a very short time, when dried floated much longer ….”
— Darwin, excerpted from On the Origin of Species, Chapter 11, 1859.

While Darwin’s focus was on wood as a rafting vehicle for dispersal, I am interested in the flip side: what happens to that wood once it sinks (where it is no longer useful for transporting land-dwelling animals)? Is the wood very useful to certain specialized denizens of the deep? Like Darwin, I recognized that there may be different effects depending on what kind of wood is involved, therefore, I set out to test whether the kind of wood matters in shaping the community of animals that colonize it.

About two and a half years ago, I had an opportunity to sink material from ten very different plants with support from Jim Barry and his lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). We took the research vessel Western Flyer to a site about a day's steam from Moss Landing, CA, and with help from the remotely operated vehicle Doc Ricketts, we placed 28 wood bundles on the seafloor about two miles below the surface.

Processing wood and extracting clams

Left: On board the Western Flyer, Jenna and Rosemary Romero process wood after it was brought up from the seafloor. Right: Connie Martin carefully extracts clams from a chunk of Ginkgo wood.

For two years I waited, not knowing whether I would ever see my beloved wood bundles again. But thanks to the expertise of my colleagues and good weather, I was able to retrieve every single wood bundle last October.

Since then, the lab has been quite the scene with six — yes, I said six — undergraduate research assistants busily extracting animals from the inside of logs and off the surface of leaves and needles. Each of them has developed an eye for detail that only hours upon hours of sorting tiny animals under the microscope can give you. Together we are sorting through heaps of critters and pulling out the patterns that make each colonist community different on each type of wood. Already patterns are emerging, but it will take more sorting, photographing and identifying organisms with help from taxonomist colleagues at other museums and institutions before we have the full story. Please stay tuned!

Christopher Castaneda sorts critters

Christopher Castaneda sorts critters and records his observations.

Learn more about this research in an interview that aired on the radio talk show The Graduates with Tesla Monson on KALX, April 22, 2014. You can download the audio podcast on iTunes.

Links to related articles and posts:

— This research was funded in part by the UCMP, Sigma Xi Berkeley Chapter, Conchologists of America, AMNH Lerner-Gray, and American Malacological Society. The wood used in this research was collected from a variety of sources, including the Tilden Botanical Garden, City of Berkeley, UC Berkeley campus, and other helpful businesses and individuals.

Grad student's artwork graces journal cover

“There are great color reconstructions of dinosaurs, so why not a plant?” thought Department of Integrative Biology and UCMP grad student Jeff Benca when he set out to reconstruct the appearance of a 375-million-year-old Devonian plant. Using Adobe Illustrator CS6 software, he constructed a striking three-dimensional, full-color portrait of a stem of the lycopod Leclercqia scolopendra, or centipede clubmoss. This was no small feat, considering that the fossil plant Jeff was illustrating was a two-dimensional compression.

Jeff Benca and journal cover

Left: Jeff Benca with museum visitors on Cal Day 2014. Photo by Pat Holroyd. Right: Jeff's artwork on the cover of the March 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany.

The illustration appears in a paper by Jeff and coauthors Maureen Carlisle, Silas Bergen, and UCMP alum Caroline Strömberg in the March 2014 issue of the American Journal of Botany. Jeff’s illustration graces the cover of the issue (see photo above).

Read more about Jeff and his work with fossil and living lycopods at the UC Berkeley Newscenter. Read the abstract for the paper, "Applying morphometrics to early land plant systematics: A new Leclercqia (Lycopsida) species from Washington State, USA."

Following The Graduates on KALX Berkeley

Tesla at the microphone

Tesla Monson, KALX radio talk show host.

UCMP and Department of Integrative Biology graduate student Tesla Monson, a second-year graduate student in the Hlusko Lab, is the host of a new talk show, The Graduates, on KALX Berkeley, kalx.berkeley.edu! KALX is a UC Berkeley and listener-supported independent radio station and an ideal platform for The Graduates, a show featuring Tesla interviewing UCB graduate students about their research. Debuting on Tuesday, April 8, at 9:00am, The Graduates will air every other Tuesday, from 9:00 am to 9:30 am on KALX Berkeley, 90.7 FM.

Tesla’s first two interview subjects are UCMP graduate students. On April 8, Ashley Poust will discuss dinosaurs and early mammals, and on April 22, Jenna Judge will talk about deep-sea marine biology. Stay tuned!

Audio podcasts of all The Graduates interviews are available on iTunes.

The geology and paleontology of the Caldecott Tunnel's Fourth Bore

Tunnel cross-sectionThe fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel opened to traffic on November 16, 2013, and if you're an East Bay resident, chances are good that you've been through it once or twice (at least!). Did you realize that each time you drive through the tunnel you're passing through several million years of accumulated sediment that has been pushed up on its side?

Want to know more about the rocks the tunnel cuts through and the fossils found in them? As part of an agreement between UCMP and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the museum has created a web-based feature focusing on the geology and paleontology of the tunnel's fourth bore. The feature covers …

… the tectonic history of the East Bay

… the geology of the East Bay Hills

… the preparations taken prior to excavation of the fourth bore

… the method and sequence of excavation

… and the fossils that have been prepared and cataloged (so far).

Erica, PaleoPortal, and the National Fossil Day connection

Erica working on an exhibit

Erica working on an exhibit at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Before coming to UCMP, Erica Clites — currently working on an NSF-funded project to rehouse and digitally image the orphaned USGS Menlo Park invertebrate collection out at the Regatta facility in Richmond — spent about two and a half years with the National Park Service. In 2010 she coordinated a nationwide outreach effort for the first NPS-sponsored National Fossil Day, which was held on October 16th this year. Read an interview with Erica about her work with the NPS on the Park Service's National Fossil Day website.

While at the NPS, Erica worked with Vince Santucci of the NPS Geologic Resources Division. At the same time, Vince was helping UCMP with its "Fossils in US National Parks" module on The Paleontology Portal website; he provided much of the park and fossil data necessary to create the module, which, by the way, was made in support of National Fossil Day.

Who lived here before the Giants?

For the third consecutive year, UCMP participated in the Bay Area Science Festival at AT&T Park as one of several Science@Cal exhibitors. The November 2, 2013, festival drew more than 28,000 science fans and Lisa White, Tripti Bhattacharya, and volunteer CJ Dunford staffed a UCMP table. With a theme of "Who lived here before the Giants?," the UCMP fossil display and activities were a big hit with the little fans!

BASF photos

Left: A young scientist examines a fossil oyster. Right: Staffing the UCMP table are (from left) Tripti Bhattacharya, CJ Dunford, and Lisa White.

The 2014 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar is now available

March 2014 calendar spread

Examples of the scientific illustrator's art

Early this past year, as UCMP continued its efforts to catalog the museum's archival collections, a small collection of original scientific illustrations were rediscovered. These pieces represent the work of a number of talented scientific illustrators who produced images for the publications of UCMP curators, staff, and students between the years 1934 and 1991. All who saw these works were impressed by the skill, patience, and steady hand required to produce them. Therefore, it was decided that this art should be the focus of the 2014 calendar. Thumbnails of each month's primary illustrations can be seen below.

Contact Chris Mejia at cmejia@berkeley.edu or call 510-642-1821 to obtain your 2014 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar, a tribute to the museum's scientific illustrators. They're only $10 each (plus postage) and all proceeds support museum research, education, and outreach.

And for the collectors out there, a few copies of the 2013 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar are still available for a mere $2.

Calendar thumbnail images

Encounters in the field: UCMP and the US Geological Survey

Buchia specimens

Buchia crassicollis specimens collected by J.S. Diller in 1899. Photo by Erica Clites.

Hundreds of specimens from the former USGS Menlo Park Collection, now housed in the UC Museum of Paleontology, were collected in the pioneering days of geological and paleontological exploration of California. This includes fossils collected by Charles A. White, Timothy W. Stanton, Joseph S. Diller and other legendary figures at the US Geological Survey. The newly founded Department of Paleontology at UC Berkeley also led numerous expeditions and excavations of vertebrates in California in the early 1900s; John C. Merriam and his crews discovered two hundred separate remains of Triassic reptiles in the Hosselkus Limestone, exposed in Plumas and Shasta Counties.1

In the summer of 1902, US Geological Survey and UC Berkeley paleontology crews had a chance meeting in the field near Redding. Along with Merriam, the Berkeley crew included preparator Eustace Furlong, as well as museum benefactress Annie Alexander and her traveling companion, Katherine Jones. Jones' diary recorded Alexander's encounter with Joseph Diller of the US Geological Survey while washing her hair in a stream. Diller asked "all sorts of leading questions as to the plans of our party and in fact knew our movements as well as we did." Alexander "gave as evasive answers as possible"1, not wanting Diller to co-opt their discoveries. Diller spent his career in the Pacific Northwest, and although not a paleontologist, he collected hundreds of fossils for the US Geological Survey. Despite the suspicion surrounding their initial meeting, Diller later referred Merriam to exposures of the Hosselkus Limestone in Cow Creek, where in 1910, Merriam and his crew discovered the skull and partial skeleton of the ichthyosaur, Shastasaurus.

Partial Shastasaurus skull

Partial skull of Shastasaurus pacificus (UCMP 9017) collected by John C. Merriam from the Late Triassic of California. Figure by Sander et al. (CC BY 3.0).2

Working closely with the USGS and associated UCMP collections, it is clear that UCMP and US Geological Survey staff visited many of the same places. I enjoyed reading this confirmation of such encounters. It seems fitting that the fossils collected by these two storied institutions are now reunited in the UC Museum of Paleontology.

1 Hilton, R.P. 2003. Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic Reptiles from California. University of California Press. 356 pp.

2 Sander, P.M., X. Chen, L. Cheng, and X. Wang. Short-snouted toothless ichthyosaur from China suggests Late Triassic diversification of suction feeding ichthyosaurs. PLoS ONE 6(5):e19480.

Werning co-authors paper on growth in Parasaurolophus

Baby Parasaurolophus reconstruction by Tyler Keillor

Artist's restoration of the head of "Joe," the baby Parasaurolophus. Illustration by Tyler Keillor.

Recent Ph.D. grad Sarah Werning, now in a postdoctoral position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, was a major contributor to a paper released today on ontogeny in Parasaurolophus, a Cretaceous hadrosaurid dinosaur notable for the hollow, bony tube on its skull. The study centers around a remarkable skeleton of a baby Parasaurolophus (nicknamed "Joe") discovered in 2009 by Kevin Terris, a student at The Webb Schools in Claremont, California, in exposures of the 75-million-year-old Kaiparowits Formation, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. The Webb has been taking students to Grand Staircase-Escalante to prospect for and collect dinosaur bones for several years.

Werning did histologic studies of the six-foot-long specimen and found that the animal was not even one-year old when it died. Sarah reported that "Dinosaurs have yearly growth rings in their bone tissue, like trees. But we didn't see even one ring. That means it grew to a quarter of adult size [25 feet] in less than a year."

Three-dimensional scans of the entire skeleton were made and are freely accessible online. See the paper, along with the 3D scans, in the open-access journal PeerJ. Co-authors on the paper are Andrew Farke of the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, California, and Webb students Derek Chok, Annisa Herrero, and Brandon Scolieri.

Read more about "Joe" and see photos and video relating to the recovery, preparation, and study of the specimen.

Read more about Sarah's research on her website.