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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.

Barnosky interviewed about climate change

global changeTony Barnosky, UCMP Curator and Professor of Integrative Biology, discussed a consensus statement to world leaders regarding global change, Maintaining Humanity's Life Support Systems in the 21st Century, this past week in an interview by KQED Science Editor Craig Miller.

Barnosky has been working with the California Office of the Governor to promote science-based solutions to global change problems. With 15 other global change scientists he developed the scientific consensus statement, which has now found its way into a number of state, national, and international discussions about environmental solutions. Since the release of the statement in May, more than 1,000 scientists around the world have endorsed it. Join the scientists and add your name as an endorser of the statement.

Pollen may help solve the mystery of why a pre-Columbian city in Mexico was abandoned

My research focuses on the Holocene geological time period, the last 10,000 years of Earth history. An accurate picture of past climate can help us understand the relationship between past environmental change and ancient societies. In this post, I describe how my summer fieldwork and my broader dissertation project link summer rainfall, microscopic grains of pollen, and an ancient city in Mexico.

The pre-Columbian city of Cantona is an impressive sight, even today. Located near the border of the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz, in the Oriental Basin, it covers 12.6 km2 and features a complex network of streets, ball courts, and pyramids. At its peak, between 1,750 and 1,000 calendar years before present, the site was an important Mesoamerican center of trade in obsidian. Archaeological investigations suggest that the city was abandoned abruptly at approximately 1,000 years ago. While the cause is unknown, many have invoked climate change as a possible contributing factor, partially because of the lack of surface water in the region today. This, however, requires an accurate picture of climate change at least 900 years before we had reliable, instrumental measurements of temperature and rainfall.

Cantona ball court

A ball court at the pre-Columbian city of Cantona. Photo by Tripti Bhattacharya.

All is not lost, however. It turns out that past climates leave microscopic traces in lake sediments. A wet climate, for instance, will leave behind different clay minerals than a dry climate. The pollen preserved in lake sediments can also tell us about the regional vegetation at the time the sediments were deposited, which in turn reflects regional climate. Various techniques like radiocarbon dating can be used to establish the age of the sediments. Detailed analysis of pollen composition or sediment geochemistry can therefore provide a long-term perspective on climate change. My research focuses on lake sediments from a volcanic crater lake called Aljojuca that is approximately 30 km south of Cantona. In 2007, a team from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and Mexico’s Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México took a 12 m sediment core from the lake. Radiocarbon dating suggests that this core contains a continuous, 6,000-year sediment record.

This summer, I collected pollen samples from contemporary vegetation to improve our interpretation of our pollen results from the Aljojuca core. Understanding how vegetation changes along natural gradients of temperature and precipitation (for instance, up the slope of a mountain) can help us interpret the results we see in fossil pollen assemblages. We can even characterize the composition of the pollen created by local vegetation by analyzing the modern pollen preserved in surface soils, small ponds, or even cushions (called polsters) of moss!

Engaging the next generation of geoscientists

Most Earth scientists have vivid memories of their first geological field trip, but how many can say their first experience was as a high school student on a trip led by 15 professors, professional scientists, and college students?

Thirty lucky students from the Bay Area, El Paso, and New Orleans were selected to participate in a ten-day, geology-of-California field trip that started along the San Andreas Fault at Pt. Reyes National Seashore and ended at Yosemite National Park. Led by UCMP Assistant Director Lisa White as part of the METALS (Minority Education Through Traveling and Learning in the Sciences) program, the trip was supported by an NSF collaborative grant between San Francisco State University, University of Texas El Paso, and the University of New Orleans. High school students recruited from each of the participating cities came together on June 10-20, 2013, for a fast-paced field trip led by faculty, graduate students, and educators associated with those universities.

At Pt. Reyes visitor center

Lisa White (second from left) with students at the Pt. Reyes National Seashore visitor center.

At Tomales Bay

Students on their way to see exposures of invertebrate fossils along Tomales Bay, east of Inverness ridge.

Lisa said, "Having directed the program for four years, my expectations for the student participants grow higher each year, and I am never disappointed. We create opportunities for the students to not only learn in a field setting but also to compete for awards by demonstrating an understanding of key concepts, making rock and fossil identifications, and producing outstanding field interpretations. The students, many of whom have spent little time outdoors or at the coast or in the mountains, have fun testing their endurance and enjoying learning in a natural setting."

The overriding goal of the METALS program is to raise awareness about the geosciences and to increase the numbers and diversity of students choosing academic paths in geoscience and related careers. What better way to showcase Earth science than through fun and exciting field work?

Snow at Lassen

The students enjoyed the snow they found at Mt. Lassen.

Group photo

The trip participants posed for this group photo at Mt. Lassen. All the photos in this post are courtesy of Lisa White.