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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.

UCMP hosts phylogenies and fossils workshop

On September 23-25, 2013, the UCMP hosted a workshop on Integrating Molecular Phylogenies and the Fossil Record supported by the France-Berkeley Fund. Led by UCMP Director Charles Marshall and Hélène Morlon from École Polytechnique in France, the workshop brought together leading researchers who are developing methods for inferring diversity dynamics using molecular phylogenies or fossil data. The gathering of approximately 25 people included UC Berkeley faculty and UCMP graduate students and provided an opportunity to integrate both sources of information in a common framework.

A trip to New Mexico

Why New Mexico? Like someone else put it "it ain't new and it sure ain't Mexico!" So why make the trek? To attend the Carboniferous-Permian Transition Meeting! Five members of the Looy Lab piled into a van and drove all the way from Berkeley to Albuquerque. With the enormous number of meetings and conferences being organized, why did we decide to go to this particular one?

I think there is a checklist that most people go over before they decide on which conference to attend. In random order:

  • Is the topic of the conference relevant (or at least a session of it)?
  • Can I afford the conference fees?
  • Will this gathering allow me to collaborate with some of the other attendees?
  • Are there going to be other people attending that I desperately would like to talk to (but then end up being too shy to actually do so)?
  • Is it in a cool location and does it offer any interesting field trips?
  • Will I have something new to present by the time the conference rolls around (or do I dust off some older material)
  • Is this the real conference I'm signing up for, or a bogus one where some fraud takes my money and disappears into the sunset? I am not kidding, this actually happens!
  • Will I have time to prepare for the meeting and will I have time to actually attend it?
  • How much does it cost to get there? Can I find a grant that covers the costs of travel?

These are all things to consider. If the answers to the questions above are 'yes,' or at least positive, then the conference might be worth going to. And that is how we ended up in Albuquerque. Because the conference included two field trips on which we were hoping to collect a lot of fossils, and there were five of us going to the same conference, it made sense to drive. A nice bonus was that we got to see some cool field sites along the way.

New Mexico medley 1

Clockwise from top left: The Tehachapi wind farms. The textbook Meteor Crater in Arizona. Most interesting of all: Petrified Forest National Park. The Painted Desert. Photos by Renske Kirchholtes.

After two days of driving we arrived in Albuquerque. The conference was held at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. The conference room itself was as boring as any other conference room, but during the breaks and the banquet we got to wander around in the museum, which was really nice. It is definitely worth a visit if you're ever in Albuquerque.

The first day of the conference was mostly about stratigraphic issues. Where is the Carboniferous-Permian boundary exactly? Do we base this on findings in Russia, China or perhaps the U.S.? There was definitely quite a bit of disagreement on that particular topic. More applied research was discussed the second day and on the third day, Wednesday, it was our turn. Cindy Looy talked about branch abscission, Robert Stevenson showed us cool movie clips of auto-rotating winged seeds, Jeff Benca discussed patterns of leaf margins and what that does and does not tell us, and I talked about phytoliths. We all got great responses. Sometimes audiences can look like they're about to go into hibernation, but not this time. They were engaged and had good questions and recommendations for all four of us.

New Mexico medley 2

Clockwise from top left: A typical New Mexico landscape. Trying to navigate between prickly things, i.e., Ocotillo with its beautiful red flowers. Leaves of a seed fern. Part of an arborescent lycopod. Photos by Renske Kirchholtes.

We also got to go on two fieldtrips. The first one was to the Kinney Brick Quarry where sediments from the Pennsylvanian, the "younger" half of the Carboniferous, crop out. The locality is considered to be a Lagerstätte, an extremely fossiliferous site with excellent preservation. On another trip, they took us east of Socorro, where the Upper Carboniferous and Lower Permian deposits are exposed along the eastern margin of the Rio Grande rift. This gave us the opportunity to collect a lot of plant fossils. We collected more than six big boxes of material. It will take a while to work our way through all of it, but that won't stop us from collecting more fossils in the meantime. Once paleobotanists are on a roll, nothing will stop them. Not even The Thing, unfortunately.

A whale of a find

The upper Miocene-Pliocene Purisima Formation near Capitola, California, is well known among avid fossil collectors and popular with beachcombers. While this seaside shallow marine deposit contains rich assemblages of clams, snails and other invertebrates, fossil vertebrates such as whales, fishes, and birds are the most prized. Happily this is a case in which amateurs and scientists have often partnered to exchange fossils and report findings. Fossil hunters Frank Perry, Stan Jarocki, and Bobby Boessenecker recently donated several important fossils from the Purisima Formation to the UCMP: a five-million-year-old whale skull and two ear bones from dolphin-like marine mammals. Descriptions of these fossils were published in the journal Acta Paleontologica Polonica as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Understanding Science is now in Portuguese

Você fala português? If so, you’ll be pleased to learn about Understanding Science’s new Portuguese translation, led by Unversidade de Lisboa Principal Researcher Nuno P. Barradas and his team. Nuno and colleagues recently promoted Understanding Science in Portuguese at a community science event in the town of Estremoz, east of Lisbon. Science on the Streets was organized by Portugal’s national agency for public awareness of science, Ciência Viva ("Living Science"), and the Understanding Science flowchart featured prominently in the display!

Science on the Streets

Nuno P. Barradas (left) promoting Understanding Science at the Science in the Streets event in Estremoz, east of Lisbon, Portugal. Photo courtesy of Nuno P. Barradas.

Cataloging the archives: Paleontology specimen exchange

How do natural history museums build their collections? The UCMP's fossil collection is largely a product of decades of field work by past and present researchers. As the State's fossil repository, the museum also receives a large number of fossil finds from construction sites in California (for example, the Caldecott Tunnel). Another, perhaps less appreciated means of acquiring scientifically valuable specimens, is specimen exchange between institutions — it's a bit like a holiday gift exchange but without the surprise factor, and the gifts are appreciated by all participants.

If you have visited the Valley Life Sciences Building (VLSB) at Cal recently, you may have seen the skeleton of an ichthyosaur (Stenopterygius, UCMP specimen no. 116080) just down the hall from where the popular T. rex stands. It's a marine reptile that superficially looks like a big fish or dolphin; it lived during the Jurassic Period, about 180 million years ago.

Ichthyosaur skeleton

Ichthyosaur skeleton on exhibit in VLSB today. Photo by S. Tomiya.

How did this skeleton, which was found in Germany, end up in the UCMP? You guessed it — specimen exchange! The story actually begins in the early 20th Century, before the museum was established. We know this because of an old letter found in the archival collections at The Bancroft Library on campus.

von Huene letter

1912 letter from Friedrich von Huene to John C. Merriam. Reproduced with the permission of The Bancroft Library.

Written in 1912, this letter from German paleontologist Friedrich von Huene to John C. Merriam (who at the time was the Chair of the Department of Paleontology at Berkeley) describes ichthyosaur specimens that were being packed for shipment to California. Item No. 1 in von Huene's list ("big specimen, 3.50 m long: skeleton good, skull bad") is the skeleton on display today. In exchange, von Huene asks for specimens of the dire wolf (Canis dirus) and saber-toothed cat — two iconic carnivores from the Pleistocene "tar pits" of Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles, where their bones had been freshly dug out by Merriam and his crew. This exchange was presumably a win-win deal for the two researchers because Merriam had a strong interest in ichthyosaurs, and von Huene had just toured the United States, visiting museums and possibly collecting fossils at the La Brea tar pits1.

The ichthyosaur made it across the ocean. We don't know what shape the specimen was in when it arrived in the East Bay after what must have been a treacherous journey for heavy fossils. In the late 1970s, a dozen or so pieces of the skeleton were found (reportedly under the Hearst swimming pool) and given to the Senior Museum Preparator, Mark Goodwin, for repair. After exquisite restoration by Mark (who is now an Assistant Director of UCMP), the ichthyosaur was reborn and put on display in the Earth Sciences Building (now McCone Hall), where it remained until 1995.

Mark Goodwin preps the ichthyosaur

Ichthyosaur skeleton being restored in 1979. Image courtesy of M. Goodwin.

That year, the museum moved from the Earth Sciences Building to VLSB, and the ichthyosaur went into storage at the Clark Kerr Campus. But in 2009, UCMP Director Roy Caldwell had the specimen retrieved and displayed in its current location, where it now catches the eye of building visitors and residents alike. Like ancient artifacts in art galleries, many specimens in natural history museums have long and complicated post-discovery histories of their own. And, of course, we would know very little of that history without the documents archived at The Bancroft Library and UCMP.

Moving the ichthyosaur from Clark Kerr to VLSB

Ichthyosaur specimen in transit from Clark Kerr Campus to VLSB in 2009. Photo by M. Goodwin.

Finally, what happened to the exchange specimens from Berkeley? We have not found a record of shipment from California, but two mounted skeletons of dire wolf and saber-toothed cat in the Palaeontological Collection at the University of Tübingen (where von Huene worked) may be the gifts from Merriam to his colleague. Can you spot the carnivore skeletons in one of their exhibit halls?

1Unprepared Rancho La Brea fossil material in the Palaeontological Collection of University of Tübingen is associated with von Huene's field label dated as 1911 (P. Havlik, personal communication, 2013).

Special thanks to Susan Snyder of The Bancroft Library for permission to post von Huene's letter, Philipe Havlik of the University of Tübingen for information regarding La Brea carnivore specimens in their collection, and Mark Goodwin of the UCMP for information on, and images of, the Stenopterygius specimen on display.