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Warmer climates can lead to big lizards

A mounted modern lizard alongside the fossil jaw bones.

Pat Holroyd and co-authors describe a new species of giant lizard in the latest issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The fossil jaw bones of this lizard have been in the UCMP collection since the 1970s, but it took a while for them to be recognized as something special. The specimens are from an herbivorous lizard that lived in the warm climate of Asia 40 million years ago. Dubbed Barbaturex morrisoni, this lizard was much bigger than the largest herbivorous lizards alive today. The unique traits of this lizard indicate that a warmer climate may have enabled gigantism via increased floral productivity and metabolic rates.

 

Read the press release at the UC Berkeley Newscenter.

 

Read the full paper at Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Reports from Regatta: T.W. Stanton, prominent contributor to the USGS Invertebrate Collection

In the orphaned U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Menlo Park Invertebrate Collection, now housed in the UC Museum of Paleontology’s off-campus collections space in the Regatta Building, the work of prominent USGS collectors stands out. One of these dedicated and proficient invertebrate paleontologists was Timothy William Stanton, who amassed collections from over 100 localities, authored monographic research papers, and wrote more than 600 technical reports evaluating the age of collected specimens.

Stanton was born on September 21, 1860, in Monroe Country, Illinois. Early in his life, Stanton moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he received his Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from the University of Colorado. Stanton continued his graduate education in biology and geology at John Hopkins University and received a doctoral degree in those disciplines in 1897 from George Washington University.

Stanton’s name is encountered most often in association with Cretaceous invertebrates. His affinity for Cretaceous invertebrates developed when he lived in Boulder, surrounded by fossil-rich sediments of Cretaceous age. Stanton incorporated his research interests into his professional life when he was hired at the USGS and worked as an apprentice to Charles Abiathar White in the Cretaceous invertebrate collection. Starting in 1889, Stanton slowly made his way up the USGS ladder; he succeeded White as the head of the Cretaceous invertebrate collection, became the geologist in charge of the Paleontology and Stratigraphy branch, and in 1932, he became chief geologist of the USGS. Additionally, Stanton served as the president of the Geological Society of America and president of The Paleontological Society.

Bivalves

Bivalve specimens collected by Stanton in the Santa Susana Mountain Range, just north of Los Angeles. These specimens were collected during October of 1900, and constitute a small sample of Stanton’s fieldwork along the Pacific Coast. USGS Locality Number 2251.
 

During his time at the Survey — that spanned over 46 years — Stanton maintained field research in Texas, Colorado, the Gulf Coastal Plain, and the Pacific Coast. While working in Colorado, Stanton produced a comprehensive description of Cretaceous fauna in a monograph entitled The Colorado Formation and Its Invertebrate Fauna. The work is still valued as a remarkable text.

Stanton retired from the Survey in 1935, however, he continued to act as the Custodian of Mesozoic Invertebrates at the US National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) until his death in 1953. Throughout his career, Stanton managed a balancing act between acquiring remarkable collections from his fieldwork efforts and the responsibilities of the multiple positions he held at the USGS. Stanton’s success is both reflected in the history of the USGS and his contributions to the Menlo Park Collection. UCMP is honored to permanently house this collection and to manage its care and access for current and future scientists. The collection is a remarkable paleontological record that is being updated and cared for by UCMP students and scientists in the 21st Century.

Invertebrate specimens

Various Cretaceous invertebrate specimens collected by Stanton during September of 1900 in Colusa County, CA. USGS Locality Number 2290. Photos by Michelle Sparnicht.

Small discoveries from the Caldecott Tunnel Project

Observing the tooth

 

Some of the most interesting fossils a paleontologist can find in the field are not necessarily the biggest. During construction of the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, scientists working with the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) collected micro-vertebrate fossils, including teeth, jaws and even toes of small animals such as rodents and amphibians. Sediment thought to contain potential fossils was washed through mesh screens, and the remaining material was carefully examined under a microscope to identify and collect any fossil remains too small to be noticed otherwise.

Every tiny bit helps. These miniscule finds represent the first rodents to be recovered from the 12-million-year-old layer of rock known as the Orinda Formation. Studying the large animals living at this time, exotic creatures such as camels and rhinos once common in North America, can only provide a partial window into the past. Smaller animals often lived more specialized lifestyles, a frog who must live close to water or a gopher who burrows and collects seeds. Knowing these animals were present allows us to infer more about the local environment than the presence of more cosmopolitan animals such as horses, who could roam in much wider areas.

Rodent tooth

Above is the lower jaw of an extinct rodent known as Copemys. Its modern cousins include voles, lemmings and hamsters. Even though the jaw is only 1 centimeter across, it holds the potential to tell us much about life in the Bay Area ~11 million years ago.

Hypolagus tooth

This tiny tooth, just 1 millimeter wide, is from an extinct rabbit called Hypolagus. The peg-like cusps are a feature characteristic of rabbits. All photos by Jason Carr.
 

Paleontologists are interested in not only studying the evolution of organisms, but also of communities and ecosystems. In order to deduce how organisms in an environment interacted the more you know the better, and every little bit helps.

Werning blogs at PLOS about the fossils of the Sierra Nevada

In her latest post over at the Public Library of Science blog The Integrative Paleontologists Sarah Werning writes about about what the fossil history of California can teach us about climate change. UCMP is teaming up with other Berkeley natural history museums on the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology to strive for a comprehensive picture of the effects of climate change on past, present, and future life.

Read Sarah's post here.

UCMP students honored with 2013 Paleontological Society Student Grants Awards

Dori Contreras (Looy Lab), Renske Kirchholtes (Looy Lab), and Allison Stegner (Barnosky Lab) will each receive awards from The Paleontological Society to support their research. Each year the Society grants Mid-America Paleontology Society (MAPS) Outstanding Research Awards to the top three student proposals received and honors a student with the G. Arthur Cooper Award for student research.

Dori, Renske, and Allison

Dori Contreras (left), Renske Kirchholtes (center), and Allison Stegner (right) busy at UCMP's Cal Day open house.
 

Dori Contreras will receive a MAPS Outstanding Student Research Award to support her research titled: Investigating the evolution of tropical rainforests: A functional analysis of the late Cretaceous Jose Creek Member, McRae Fm.

Renske Kirchholtes will receive a MAPS Outstanding Student Research Award to support of her research titled: Phytoliths: a novel application to answering ancient questions.

Allison Stegner will receive the G. Arthur Cooper Award to support her research titled: Assessing small mammal response to Quaternary climate and land use change on the Colorado Plateau.

Barnosky presents statement on global environmental problems to Governor Brown

When California governor Jerry Brown challenged scientists to put global change issues into terms that political leaders can understand UCMP's Tony Barnosky stepped up. On May 23 Barnosky and colleagues presented a 30-page statement entitled Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century to the governor. It's a strong statement about global environmental problems and what people must do to insure the future health of the planet with signatories from 44 countries including two Nobel laureates, 33 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and members of other nations' scientific academies.

 

Read more about Barnosky and other scientists' presentation to the governor at the UC Berkeley News Center.

 

Read the scientific consensus statement at the Millenium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere website.

Another feather in Judy Scotchmoor's cap

Our very own Judy Scotchmoor, Co-Director of Education and Outreach at the UCMP, received the 2013 Chancellor's Award for Public Service. The award honors outstanding public service by UC Berkeley undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff. The Civic Engagement Award received by Judy is, in part, for her exceptional ability to develop, nurture, and leverage collaborative partnerships and resources to better engage the public with exciting and accessible science.

In a public ceremony held on May 9, 2013, at the Alumni House on campus, Judy’s leadership in the Understanding Evolution and Understanding Science websites was highlighted, as well as her efforts in Science@Cal, COPUS, and KQED Quest. Congratulations, Judy!

Judy with the Chancellor

Judy with Chancellor Birgeneau.

Judy at the podium

Photos courtesy of Bruce Cook Photography.

Finding forams in the Caldecott Tunnel

Day after day, over the course of two years, the massive tunnel borer worked its way through the sedimentary rock layers of the Berkeley Hills during the construction of the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel, grinding up the rocks in the process into fist-size pieces that were later deposited outside the entrance of the tunnel. At the end of each work day, paleontologists sifted through these piles, referred to as the day’s "spoils." They were not only on the lookout for fossils of plants and animals; each day they also collected samples of the rocks for later testing for microfossils.

These samples eventually made their way into one of the prep labs of the UC Museum of Paleontology, a room that has become my second home during the spring semester of 2013. One of my jobs as a graduate student researcher on the CalTrans project is to break down and process these rock samples to look for evidence of ancient microscopic life.

Susan with boxes of matrix

Here I am in the UCMP prep lab. In the foreground are some of the microfossil samples to be processed. Photo by Pat Holroyd.

Looking at forams
Microfossils are by definition too small to be studied with the naked eye. A group of microfossils that we are particularly interested in are the Foraminifera, commonly referred to as “forams.” These single-celled amoeboid-like organisms, which are usually about the size of a sand grain, have shells, known as “tests,” often consisting of multiple chambers, arranged in a myriad of configurations. Living specimens extend strands of protoplasm from their tests in order to “communicate” with their ambient environment. This enables benthic (bottom-dwelling) forms to crawl and the planktonic (floating) forms to remain in suspension, while providing both with a means of obtaining food. Forams are common in marine environments all over the world, and their tests are often a major component of marine sediments.

Left: Drawing of the living foram Polystomella strigillata, from John H. Finley ed. Nelson's Perpetual Loose-Leaf Encyclopaedia (vol. 5) (New York, NY: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1917); Right: © Creative Commons, Mihai Dragos

Foram tests are important fossils because they are paleoenvironmental indicators. As the tiny fossils accumulate in marine sediments they leave records that are often continuous for long geological stretches of time. By comparing the fossils to modern species, we can infer a great deal about the temperature, ocean depth, and depositional conditions that existed at the time that the organisms were living millions of years ago.

Processing the samples
In order to separate the microfossils from the shale and mudstone matrix, we first gently disaggregate the rocks by soaking them in water and adding Calgon water softener to prevent the finer sediments from clumping. If the rocks don’t readily start to disaggregate, heat and hydrogen peroxide are added. Because the shells of forams and other creatures often contain calcium carbonate we do not use acids to break down the rocks or we will dissolve the fossils at the same time!

Breaking up the matrix

Left: First stages of the process; Right: Some of the rocks in this sample are already starting to break down.

Once the rocks have completely broken down, the sediment is rinsed through a sieve with 63 micron (1 micron =0.001 mm) openings to remove silt and clay. After the residue is filtered and dried, it is ready to examine for forams under the stereomicroscope.

Sieving and drying

Left: Sieving to remove the smaller silt and clay particles; Right: Filtered samples drying in the oven.

So far the process sounds pretty straightforward, but the reality of doing science doesn’t always live up to our expectations. The first batch of samples were from the Orinda Formation; these broke down readily but revealed only a few charcoal fragments. The absence of forams was not surprising, as this unit was deposited in freshwater! I am hoping the Orinda will yield some ostracodes (another kind of microfossil), but none have been observed in the material processed thus far.

I next turned my attention to the samples collected from the definitely marine Sobrante Formation. While a few forams were noted on the surface of some partially broken-down rocks, most of the rocks did not break down at all. While experimenting with some alternative treatments on these samples, including soaking them in kerosene, I have begun to process the tunnel samples of the Claremont Formation, which is stratigraphically between the younger Orinda and older Sobrante formation, and represents the final sequence of marine deposition before emergence of the sea floor.

The first batch broke down readily with our gentle treatments and, when the results were viewed under the microscope, the sediment sample contained not only tiny pieces of coalified plants but a fair number of foraminifera shells.

Examining the dried residue

Left: Examining the dried residue under the stereomicroscope; Right: The view through the eyepiece. Each square in the grid is about 4 mm wide.

UCMP’s foram expert Ken Finger identified the three most common taxa as Martinotiella communis, Pyramidulina acuminata, and Lenticulina sp. Today this benthic association occurs on the continental slope, no shallower than 500 meters. Try to identify the three genera in the close up of the microscope photo on the left, below, based on the reference drawings on the right.

Three genera

Read other blog posts about the Caldecott Tunnel fossils:

Fossil neighbors, posted September 12, 2012
The arrival of the fossils, posted October 1, 2012
Prepping the fossils from the Caldecott Tunnel, posted May 16, 2013

All photos by Susan Tremblay except where indicated.

Prepping the fossils from the Caldecott Tunnel

For the last semester I have been lucky enough to work as the GSR (graduate student researcher) for the spring semester at the UC Museum of Paleontology fossil preparation lab (prep lab) under the supervision of our new lab manager, Jason Carr.

It has been fun getting back into the preparation role, something that I did as a job after college. The material we have to work on varies a lot which keeps the work interesting. It requires a variety of techniques, so I get to do something different nearly every day.

marine snailWhen we started this project in the fall semester we stored dozens of boxes and stacked them high at the offsite Regatta storage facility. I have gone through enough material that now all of the boxes are in the prep lab. We are making good progress but there is so much we are still unpacking! But, it is okay because sometimes we find marvelous surprises like this nearly perfect marine snail shell (at left).

We are constantly amazed at the number of different materials that the collectors used to wrap and protect the fossils. One shark tooth was even cleverly protected in a cut-up Coke bottle! I guess you use whatever you can in the field. The majority of the fossils that I am preparing are fish bones and scales — several of the formations that the Caldecott Tunnel plunges through were marine, such as the Sobrante Formation where most of our material was found. We are also finding a variety of plants, charcoal, bones of mammals from both the ocean and the land (including tiny mammal teeth, which will be the subject of a later blog), turtles, whole oyster beds, and whole rock samples that we process for marine microfossils and shells of foraminifera. These are important fossils because they allow us to address questions of climate and stratigraphy and GSR Susan Tremblay will tell you more about the preparation of those materials in her blog.

I am using some quite different techniques than Susan since most of the fossils that I am preparing are visible with the naked eye. Most of what I am doing is surprisingly low tech! It does take a lot of practice though and a good supply of patience. Some fossils are solid enough that we can use special air-powered tools like this pneumatic air scribe.

Ash using the air-scribe

Most of the marine mammal fossils are strong enough for this. The tools vibrate the rock though so more delicate fossils need to be stabilized with resins. I usually apply these with an eyedropper or gently brush them on like you can see here.

Ash applies resin to a fossil

These techniques are simple but really important if the fossils are to last in the collections until someone wants to come examine them.

I am excited to spend this time working in the lab. I love opening a new box and getting to see firsthand some of the remains of the animals that roamed over the East Bay hills. To learn about a world that existed so long ago and was so different that it had camels and rhinos living in it and then to realize that it existed right here in the East Bay? Exhilarating! Hard to picture perhaps but every fossil we unwrap brings us a little closer to visualizing that world.

Ashley Poust

Read other blog posts about the Caldecott Tunnel fossils:

Fossil neighbors, posted September 12, 2012
The arrival of the fossils, posted October 1, 2012

Photos courtesy of Ashley Poust and Jason Carr

The Looy Lab paleo detectives: Dori and Cindy at the NMNH

Cissites

A Cissites harkerianus leaf from Ellsworth County, Kansas, collected by Charles Sternberg in the late 1800s, and identified by Leo Lesquereux. Specimen from the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History. (photo by Dori Contreras)

Tuesday morning, February 12, 2013, Dori Contreras and Cindy Looy woke before dawn to catch a cross-country flight to Washington, DC, for a two-week visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Originally, Cindy was going to attend a biannual workshop of the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystem Program. However, after Dori obtained a Sigma Xi grant to study a fossil leaf collection housed in the NMNH’s paleobotanical collections, they teamed up and turned it into a joint research excursion filled with an array of activities.

Dori: My main goal was to collect data for a study on the leaf characteristics of early flowering plants from a warm wet climate approximately 100 million years ago. And just to clarify, what I mean by "data" is photographs — lots and lots of high-resolution photographs of individual fossil leaves preserved in rock. The specific fossils that I was interested in come from the Fort Harker locality in Kansas. They were collected over a roughly 30-year period (1860s through 1890s) as a part of the US Geological Survey’s explorations of the geology of the Western Interior of the United States.

I wasn’t exactly sure how many specimens I would find in the museum "stacks," which consist of rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling cabinets filled with drawers of fossils. Based on Leo Lesquereux’s publications from the late 19th century, I was expecting somewhere around 100 specimens. However, after two days of opening wooden drawers I located just over 300 Fort Harker specimens! Many have never been figured or mentioned in publications, and most have not been reevaluated in over 100 years.

Dori with the camera setup

Dori photographing the Cretaceous Fort Harker flora. (photo by Cindy Looy)

I knew that it would be a major task to photograph them all in the detail needed for study, so I went right to work. The museum's imaging room had an impressive setup of top-notch, stand-mounted cameras connected to computers for remote shooting. Most of my time was spent carting specimens back and forth between the stacks and imaging room and doing nonstop photography. The trickiest part of imaging for data collection was getting the lighting angle and brightness just right to pick up the three-dimensional (and often obscure) features of each leaf. At least magnification wasn't an issue — the resolution of the camera I used was so high that a microscope was not necessary!

Inga

Inga cretaceum, another fossil leaf collected by Charles Sternberg and identified by Leo Lesquereux. Specimen from the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History. (photo by Dori Contreras)

Ultimately, I was able to photograph almost every specimen in the collection, totaling a whopping 50 gigabytes of images. Now I look forward to the next tasks: naming and organizing all those files, followed by detailed measuring of key ecological leaf characteristics for each specimen. Luckily ,a new Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) student just joined "Team Contreras." We hope this study will provide insight into the structure and function of plant communities in warm, wet climates during the early radiation of flowering plants.

Cindy: Last year, members of the NMNH's Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystem Program received good news from NSF: their Research Coordination Network proposal, "Synthesizing deep time and recent community ecology," was funded. This means that over the next five years a group of paleo- and "extant" ecologists will meet semiannually to study the assembly and disassembly of biological communities in the past and present. Attending this winter's edition of our meeting series was my main goal of this museum trip. Our workshop consisted of three days of presentations, data gathering and subsequent analyses in a friendly and inspiring atmosphere.

Workshop attendees

The NMNH’s Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Program workshop attendees. Cindy is ninth from the left. (photo by Dori Contreras)

It is always a treat to return to the NMNH, smack in the middle of the National Mall in DC. From 2004 to 2008 I worked as a research fellow in the Paleobiology Department of this bigger sister of the UCMP and being at the NMNH always instills a special feeling. It could be the 325,000 square feet of exhibition space, the 20,000 daily visitors from all over the globe, or the 126,000,000 documented specimens in the museum's collections. Perhaps it is the illusion of being in the "center of the world," with the close proximity of the NMNH to the White House. But still, I know how lucky I am to be at the west coast equivalent of the NMNH. The UCMP public exhibits may be primarily online, but with the Department of Integrative Biology, the UCMP boasts something that the NMNH lacks altogether and something that presidential fly-bys can never compensate for: a pack of fabulous graduate and undergraduate students!

Outside of the meeting I had plenty of time to catch up with friends and work with former colleagues. Fellow-paleobotanist Bill DiMichele and I spent quite a bit of time in the museum's paleobotany collections. During the past 20 years, Paleozoic paleobotanists from the NMNH (Bill DiMichele, Dan Chaney, and Serge Mamay) have intensively sampled latest Pennsylvanian, Early Permian and Middle Permian sites in Texas. More than 360 collections of compression fossils were assembled using sampling strategies appropriate for the reconstruction of plant communities. Bill and I pulled out numerous conifers for morphotyping. We are trying to get a grip on how diverse early Permian Euramerican forests were, and how seed-plant dominated assemblages changed through time. Working our way through all the cabinets took quite some time, but that's nothing compared to all the imaging and measuring that still needs to be done. Ah well, that’s what is great about being a scientist: the work is never completed. Every question answered raises plenty of new, interesting questions.

Bill and Cindy

Cindy and Bill DiMichele working in the paleobotanical collections. (photo by Dori Contreras)

Both: Additionally, we got to present our work to east coast paleontologists and geologists at the annual Penn-Smithsonian Geobiology Symposium. It's always good to foster cross-talk on the continental scale and represent the paleontological force that is the UCMP!

Cindy and Dori sample pie

If you ever find yourself in DC, we highly recommend breakfast at Paul's French bakery ("Bonjour Madame!"). Here we test some of their pies for Cindy’s birthday. (photo by Bill DiMichele)