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UCMP's 2009 summer adventures

This summer found many of the UCMP community at the North American Paleontological Conference (NAPC) in Cincinnatti (see story). However, beyond attendance at that meeting, the UCMP summer adventures spanned the continents!

Tony Barnosky spent much of the summer chained to his computer writing papers and grant proposals. But he did manage to sneak away to deliver a plenary lecture at the 10th International Mammalogical Congress in Mendoza, Argentina, a lecture to the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Chile in Santiago, teach a day's worth of middle school and high school science classes at Nido de Aguilas International School, also in Santiago, and travel to Newport Beach, CA, to give a keynote lecture to the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Katie Brakora's adventures extended well beyond the summer months. She has been measuring antelope skulls in the National Museums of Kenya since January, but took some time this summer for additional excursions. In May, she toured a farm for elands (Tragelaphus oryx) in the Czech Republic and met with Radim Kotrba from Prague University who, along with other colleagues, is studying eland biology and investigating the commercial potential of eland meat. In July she visited central and southeastern regions of Kenya to document variation in coat patterns among dik-diks (Madoqua sp.) and plans to return this fall to survey other areas in central Kenya. Finally, in August she spent two weeks in Cape Town, South Africa, where she presented a poster on skull development in springbok antelope (Antidorcas marsupialis) at the Congress for the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists and measured specimens at the South African Museum.

In June an invitation to speak at the International Symposium on Terrestrial Paleogene Biota and Stratigraphy of Eastern Asia took Bill Clemens to Beijing. Unexpectedly, within hours of arriving, Bill and some 90 other travelers on his flight spent six days in quarantine as guests of the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau. Someone on their flight was suspected of having Swine Flu! Thanks to the help of friends in Beijing, a Powerpoint file, and a tape recorder, his talk was presented at the designated time in the symposium (Bill took advantage of the situation to emulate a number of his students and colleagues in napping through one of his own talks!). From Beijing, Bill traveled directly to Cincinnati for the NAPC. In July, Bill was back in northeastern Montana working with UCMP alum, Greg Wilson and his crew from the University of Washington, adding to the documentation of faunal change across the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary.

Diane Erwin, Russell and Sylvia Bartley (Fort Bragg, CA), and David Springer (College of Redwoods, Fort Bragg, CA) continued their study of the geology and paleontology of the Miocene coal-bearing beds in the Middle Fork Eel River drainage near Covelo, CA. Recovery of a diverse pollen and spore assemblage has revealed the types of plants that once grew in and near this coastal mire and ultimately became the coal.

Katie Brakora was in Kenya looking at dik-diks Diane Erwin (left) and Russell Bartley cross the Middle Fork of the Eel River
Click on any photo on this page to see an enlargement. Left: Grad student Katie Brakora was in Kenya looking at dik-diks, such as this female at the Taita Hills Wildlife Conservancy. Katie's interested in the coat patterns of these small antelopes. Right: After a day in the field, Diane Erwin (left) and Russell Bartley cross the Middle Fork of the Eel River. The inset shows Tilia (basswood) pollen from the region's coal underclay.

This summer, Mark Goodwin continued his work with Jack Horner describing a Triceratops growth series from Montana, but from afar. While crews from the Museum of the Rockies went on with the fieldwork discovering new Triceratops fossils, Mark remained in Berkeley to take advantage of his successful research proposal to the Advanced Light Source division of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. He is using their equipment and techniques to try to determine the chemical and structural make-up of purported "soft tissue" and cell-like structures recovered from fossilized Tyrannosaurus and Brachylophosaurus bones. Assisting Mark with this research is Materials Science graduate student Elizabeth Boatman. This work will help Mark and his collaborators determine whether these structures really are what they appear to be: the actual tissue of long-extinct organisms.

Demineralized Tyrannosaurus and ostrich bone
Mark Goodwin wants to know more about the composition of purported soft tissues preserved in fossil bone. On the left is dinosaur "soft-tissue" recovered from demineralized Tyrannosaurus bones. The structures are very similar to blood vessels recovered from demineralized modern ostrich bone, shown at right.

Emily Lindsey traveled to Guyana to investigate a rainforest site where giant sloth bones had been discovered, and to the Ecuadorian coast to set up a field project excavating a tar pit deposit filled with Pleistocene megafauna bones. While in South America, she also visited museums in Argentina and Uruguay.

Jere Lipps and his colleagues from Dalhousie University visited the delta of the Eel River in northern California near Eureka to take cores of the marshy lands. Their objective was to retrieve a history of subduction zone (that's the southernmost end of the Cascadia Subduction Zone), earthquake and tsunami histories using foraminifera, thecameobians and sedimentology of the cores. In particular, they hope to discover "precursor" events that might occur a few years ahead of a major quake. This continues work Jere published previously on Cascadian and New Zealand subduction zone activity.

Jenny McGuire traveled to the Natural History of Los Angeles County and the University of Oregon Museum of Natural History this summer to photograph fossil vole teeth. She plans to use these specimens to trace how species shifted their ranges over the last hundred thousand years. She looked at specimens from several exciting sites including McKittrick tar pits, Smith Cave, Paisley Cave, and Woodburn marsh. She also had a paper accepted with minor revisions in Quaternary International about the correlation between vole tooth shape and geographic and environmental variables. At the end of the summer, Jenny took a week long vacation to Glacier National Park with friends (see photo on front page). There, she observed the incredible resilience of life, and how fast it can rebound after major environmental disasters, including forest fires and glacial scouring.

Erin Meyer spent another summer traveling around the Caribbean, looking for Cittarium pica (West Indian Topshell), a large, marine snail. She traveled to nine islands in the Eastern Antilles, including Anguilla, Antigua, two islands in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Barbados, St. Vincent, Tobago, and Trinidad. Luckily, she traveled from north to south, and thus avoided being in the path of Hurricane Bill. After six weeks of fieldwork, she collected 385 tissue samples from 13 different field sites, conducted 10 population surveys, recorded habitat and size information for 2,542 individuals, collected shells from each site, and has thousands of photographs, including fossils of C. pica in Barbados. To read more about her summer adventures, please check her blog.

Emily Lindsey and her Ecuadorian colleagues with the bones of Eremotherium Erin Meyer was back in the Caribbean to continue her study of the West Indian Topsnail
Left: Emily Lindsey and her Ecuadorian colleagues with the bones of Eremotherium, a giant ground sloth. Right: Grad student Erin Meyer was back in the Caribbean to continue her study of the West Indian Topsnail, Cittarium pica. Here she looks for specimens on the south shore of Grande-Terre, one of the islands of Guadeloupe.

Kevin Padian spent most of June in France and Spain, where he was an invited speaker at three international conferences celebrating the Year of Darwin. In between he managed to take some time with his colleague Fabien Knoll, currently stationed in Madrid, to roam through the Spanish countryside visiting new collections and quarries. Spain has undergone a full-blown dinosaur renaissance in the past two decades, with hugely productive quarries in Cuenca, Teruel, and elsewhere. Some beautiful new collections are going to add a great deal to our knowledge of dinosaur biology. In between conferences, museum days, and field trips, Kevin traveled to Lyon, where he and Jean-Michel Mazin finished a long-gestating paper on the first known landing track of a pterosaur (see box below).

Pterodactyloid trackway

A Late Jurassic pterodactyloid trackway in Crayssac, France, exhibits what may be landing behavior. The photo of the trackway has white arrows to indicate the manus (hand) and pes (foot) prints. On the right is a drawing of the trackway. RP, right pes print; LP, left pes print; RM, right manus print; LM, left manus print.

Pterosaur landing trackway identified

A paper by Jean-Michel Mazin, Jean-Paul Billon-Bruyat, and Kevin Padian describing the first record of a pterosaur landing trackway has just been published in the August 2009 Proceedings B of the Royal Society of London.

This paper received a lot of media interest because it shows that pterosaurs stalled to land on the ground, which is consistent with what is known of their strong flapping capabilities. The trackway shows that the animal landed with both feet, then dragged the claws forward as its momentum carried it a short half-step distance, whereupon it landed again with both feet, rested its hands, took another step and adjusted its body to a more horizontal position, then ambled off to the left. The "flagstone" appearance of the matrix represents the effects of mud cracks after the sediments dried out.

In late June, Jann Vendetti attended the Western Society of Malacologists meeting at Cal State Fullerton, where she presented a paper and a talk, both of which won awards! A field trip followed the conference, taking attendees from Los Angeles harbor to Catalina Island. Highlights included an ocean floor dredge and blue whale sightings along the way. In early August, Jann recreationally "geologized" at Devil's Postpile National Monument, marveling at its columnar basalts, then visited the California State Mining and Mineral Museum to see an exhibit of George D. Louderback's California gem, Benitoite. Jann reflects: "All in all, a summer full of spectacular science and scenery!"

Dik-dik photo by Katie Brakora; crossing the Middle Fork of the Eel River by Sylvia Bartley; Tilia pollen by Diane Erwin; demineralized Tyrannosaurus and ostrich bone images courtesy of Mark Goodwin; Emily Lindsey and colleagues photo courtesy of Emily Lindsey; Erin Meyer collecting photo by Michael Beetham; pterodactyloid trackway images courtesy of Kevin Padian