University of California at Berkeley

A Birthday For a Library Of Bones

 by Robert Sanders

Asphalt still clings to the curved, eight-inch tooth, more than 85 years after it was yanked from the tar pits at Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles. Now lying in a dusty drawer in the campanile, it is surrounded by bins and drawers of other dismembered bones, each tinted a beautiful blackish brown oddly reminiscent of barbecued ribs.

A drawer here contains saber tooth cat skulls, perhaps the very one that owned the tooth; another displays row upon row of dire wolf ribs. Vertebrae, leg bones, and all the bones in between are ranked together. For when Berkeley staff and students excavated the pits for the first time in 1908, they found a jumble of disarticulated bones.

Though dusty and disused, these fossils once told the story of California's Ice Age, and may once again yield tales of the past. For that eventuality, they remain part of the Museum of Paleontology's immense collection of fossils, ranging from the Precambrian era more than a billion years ago to yesterday's roadkill.

"Our role is to be a library of specimens," explains the museum's energetic director Jere Lipps, professor of integrative biology.

"We take nearly everything, because we never know when something will be useful to students or researchers. Our policy has been to build the collection with good material spanning all of life through all of time over all the world -- and now probably Mars if we can get stuff from there."

Dug up or dropped off, bought, bartered or bequeathed, these fossils have been piling up at the Museum of Paleontology ever since the legislature created it in 1874.

Now grown so large it won't fit in its brand new quarters on the first floor of the Valley Life Sciences Building, it ranks among the top three paleontology collections in the country and in some areas is tops in the world.

All of which is cause for celebration as the 125th anniversary of its collections approaches and the museum passes the 75th anniversary of its endowment by benefactress Annie Montague Alexander in 1921.

As part of a year-long celebration, the museum is sponsoring a series of three lectures this semester, plus other special events culminating in a symposium next May.

The museum's specimens include the original collection of bones from the La Brea tar pits, which sprawls over four floors of the Campanile. Whales, on the other hand, are stashed in the Marchant building on San Pablo Avenue along with other bulky fossils. And four large rooms on the Clark Kerr campus house boxes and boxes of stuff, with more arriving every day.

Most of the collection, however, resides in VLSB, arrayed in rolling cabinets color-coded according to the geologic era to which the fossils belong. Though the extensive collections emphasize fossils from the western United States, they include representative fossils from around the world, plus "element" collections of living animals for comparison.

Visitors such as evolutionary biologist Geerat Vermeij, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of geology at UC Davis, arrive every week to set up shop for days, weeks or months as they examine specimens in the collections. Vermeij, who though blind has established a worldwide reputation for his classification and characterization of shells, often visits the museum, which he praises for its all-around collections as well as its exellent California shells.

"I think the museum is right up there near the tops in the world," he said in a phone conversation last week. "I'm apt to find new things all the time, as I did just yesterday -- an entirely new species from Venezuela, never before described."

Scientists from Berkeley and elsewhere have used the invaluable collection to describe the unique history of California and show how it fits into the four and a half billion year history of the Earth.

"Berkeley described all the state's fossil history," Lipps says. "California and the West Coast are very distinct from the rest of the West, and it was a major task to fit this with what we know from Europe."

The museum grew from the collections of James D. Whitney and others in the California Geological Survey, who gathered fossils during various expeditions in the 1860s and 1870s. But the museum really achieved its identity 50 years later when Annie Montague Alexander, one of the university's early benefactors, created a permanent endowment for the museum.

Long-time museum scientist Sam Welles, 88, remembers her as "very reserved, very retiring, but very inflexible in what she wanted in the museum." Heir to an Hawaiian sugar cane fortune, Alexander traveled the globe gathering more than 24,000 specimens for the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which she endowed in 1908, and the Museum of Paleontology, which she endowed in 1921.

Welles, who vividly recalls playing bridge with Alexander, named one of his finds after her, a long-necked California plesiosaur he dubbed Hydrotherosaurus alexandrae.

Over the years various expeditions have expanded the collections, including two to South Africa to collect animal fossils from the country's Pleistocene caves. Other unique holdings include Devonian fish from Nevada and Cretaceous dinosaurs and mammals from Montana and Wyoming.

Welles himself contributed a now famous find, a creature he dug up in Arizona in 1942 and described 42 years later as a unique meat-eating predator with a double-crest, Dilophosaurus wetherilli. It later achieved fame as the menacing, spitting dinosaur in the movie "Jurassic Park." For the sake of accuracy, Welles notes that there is no evidence that Dilophosaurus spat poison or that it had a skirt of skin around its neck, as depicted in the movie.

Less dramatic though no less important are the invertebrate and plant fossils in the museum, including more than five million fossil and recent invertebrates, the largest collection of Tertiary plants in North America, and a large number of modern and fossil pollen preparations.

As for the microfossil collection, Lipps brags that the foraminifera collection is the third best in the world, containing millions of species of microscopic one-celled sea creatures.

The museum is growing in new directions, too, such as molecular paleontology. Molecular or DNA analysis of organic material in younger specimens can help settle questions of evolutionary relationships that may not be evident from comparing bones.

And the museum also recently acquired an environmental scanning electron microscope that will aid the study of microfossils, including pollen, as well as the study of the microstructure of shells and the microscopic wear on teeth.

A taste of these spectacular collections can be had on the World Wide Web (, where the museum's site is one of the most popular museum sites around. Constructed by a slew of students, it has now become an educational tool for schools wired into the Internet.

"We want to create small Internet packages that teachers can use as part of their curriculum," says outreach coordinator Judy Scotchmoor.

Nevertheless the main purpose of the museum remains science and the conservation of fossils that are forever in danger of destruction by bulldozers, road graders or just natural weathering. That's why Lipps is eager to accept almost any fossil he can get, for who knows what it might tell about the history of species living and long since dead. "Extinction is our business," he quips.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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