Doing Paleontology - Visiting the Collections of the UCMP

I have always loved visiting natural history museums. Growing up, I would never turn down an opportunity to visit Morrill Hall in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I could see dioramas of 300 million-year-old reefs, the remains of 70 million-year old marine reptiles, and rows of extinct elephants that once roamed the Great Plains. I still frequent natural history museums but now spend less time roaming through their exhibits. Rather, I visit museums to study their research collections, the hundreds or thousands of fossil specimens not on display.

The Valley Life Sciences Building, which houses the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Photo by D. Croft. Reuse permitted under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Yesterday I spent the day working in the collections of the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP). This is a somewhat unusual museum because it has few fossils on display - though one of them is an impressive case of Tyrannosaurus rex. I suspect many people think that displays (exhibits) make a museum. That is not the case for paleontologists, mammalogists and other researchers who study the natural world. For us, research collections are what make a museum. As a result, some of the most important museums to paleontologists are relatively unknown to the general public. The UCMP probably falls into this category. Thanks to their excellent web resources though, they do have relatively large cyberfootprint.

The entrance to the museum collections of the UCMP. Photo by D. Croft. Reuse permitted under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

What is not obvious from the UCMP’s relatively modest exhibits is that it houses one of the most important collections of extinct South American mammals anywhere in the world: more than 1,200 specimens from a Colombian site known as La Venta dating between about 13.5 and 11.5 million years old. La Venta is one of the richest fossil sites in South America and one of the few from the northern two-thirds of the continent. It preserves the remains of fishes, birds, crocodilians, lizards, and turtles in addition to mammals, and provides an unparalleled view of life in the South American tropics during the middle Miocene. Most of these fossils were collected in the late 1940s by expeditions of the University of California at Berkeley led by the well-known paleontologist Ruben Stirton.

A drawer of fossils from the middle Miocene site of La Venta, Colombia. Photo by D. Croft. Reuse permitted under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The reason I took a day to visit the UCMP was to work on a current puzzle of mine: identifying some tooth fragments that my team discovered at a Bolivian fossil site known as Cerdas. Although I knew these teeth belonged to an astrapothere, a type of extinct large mammal unique to South America that resembled an over-grown tapir, I did not know whether they pertained to an already-named species or something new. I had formulated some ideas based on research papers I had read and astrapothere specimens I had examined at other museums, but I wanted to study astrapothere specimens from La Venta firsthand to test those ideas.

The three C's of collections research: camera, calipers, and computer. Photo by D. Croft. Reuse permitted under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

I spent the day measuring specimens, taking photographs from a variety of angles, and writing extensive notes on how the La Venta specimens compared to mine. It was a great way for me to get away from campus distractions and focus on research. I also happened to run into Christine Janis, a researcher who helped inspire me as a graduate student to study the paleobiology of extinct mammals in addition to their evolutionary relationships. She was there studying the limb bones of small mammals. Such chance meetings are actually fairly common and another reason why paleontologists enjoy working in collections.

Christine Janis’ set-up for photographing limb bones of small mammals, an example of improvisation in paleontology. Photo by D. Croft. Reuse permitted under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

If you are wondering about that Bolivian astrapothere, you will have to wait for the publication...
Posted: 8/14/2015 12:00:00 AM by croftdarinadmin | with 0 comments
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