Ice Age fossils to get new digs in tower

Old bones in search of a good place to rest haven’t found one in the Campanile. There, more than 20 tons of prehistoric fossils excavated from California tar pits have been housed in substandard storage conditions for up to a century.

UC Berkeley paleontologist Mark Goodwin explains the significance of the La Brea bones housed in the campus’ iconic Campanile. (Video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Phil Ebiner)

A federal grant recently obtained by the UC Museum of Paleontology from the Institute of Museum and Library Services not only will provide state-of-the-art museum cabinetry for about one-fourth of the collections, but also funding to create a digital record, including images, of the fossils and an online presence for them — for the benefit of researchers and educators worldwide.

“The current housing for these fossils is not a good one, as they’re exposed to dust and often on open wooden shelves, and a couple of the shelves have collapsed,” said Patricia Holroyd, a museum scientist in the UC Museum of Paleontology, adding that being in an earthquake zone makes the situation more precarious. “The new cabinetry is steel, and there will be archival foam lining the trays and the shelves.”

The fossils getting new digs are from the McKittrick and Maricopa tar pits, found along the eastern foothills of the Temblor Range in southern San Joaquin Valley. The pits are part of a vast complex of oil, gas and tar seeps that occur through the heavily faulted zone. That area comprises the western part of California and includes the better-known Rancho La Brea tar pits near downtown Los Angeles.

University paleontologists excavated thousands of McKittrick fossils primarily between 1921 and 1927. Among the collection from the late Pleistocene era — between 9,000 and 13,000 years ago — are well-preserved insects, plant tissues, reptiles, birds and mammals that include dire wolves, coyotes, camels and mammoths. The smaller Maricopa collection has bones of similar animals, but it has never been properly studied or radiometrically dated.

As early as 1914, UC paleontologists placed fossils on five levels of the Campanile, even before the tower was fully constructed, because storage there was ample and close to the paleontology department in the former Bacon Hall. First to arrive were 20 tons of 23,000-year-old Pleistocene fossils from the La Brea tar pits.

Fossils housed in the Campanile

Five levels of the Campanile are home to fossils excavated by campus paleontologists from California’s La Brea, McKittrick and Maricopa tar pits. The need for better storage is an ongoing issue. (UC Berkeley photo by Kevin Ho Nguyen)

When the McKittrick and Maricopa fossils were added in the 1920s, “most of them were double- or triple-stacked in wooden drawers housed in open shelving on multiple floors of the Campanile. In a limited number of cases, the drawers have failed,” Holroyd said.

And since their arrival in the tower, only a fraction — slightly more than 3,000 specimens, or about 10 percent — of the McKittrick and Maricopa fossils have been entered into the museum’s database. The new grant will employ a museum scientist to train and supervise undergraduates to do the data entry, and digital copies of supporting documents connected to the specimens will be put online.

“The McKittrick and Maricopa collections have research relevance today, and will be used immediately in ongoing research, including global climate-change work being done by the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology,” said Charles Marshall, director of the UC Museum of Paleontology and principal investigator on the grant.

The rest of the fossil collections in the tower — the grant addresses about one-fourth of the specimens there — also need similar care, said Holroyd.

“Obtaining this grant is a first step in safeguarding these fossils for the future, and it’s a small first step that we’ve been able to do with help from federal funds,” she said. “If we want to do the rest of it right, it will take a lot more tiny steps, or big steps, from other sources.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. Its mission is to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning and cultural and civic engagement.