Madeline’s bug blog

Madeline Little’s URAP experience: A semester spent “plugging away” rehousing the UCMP tar pit collections!

Some of the type specimens collected and described in the early 1900s from the Rancho La Brea (Rosemary, CA) tar pits in their original storage units.
Digital image of the hypotype specimen UCMP 10017 published as Coniontis puncticollis LeConte (darkling beetle) by Fordyce Grinnell, Jr. in 1908, associated with its label data.

During the Spring 2017 semester, I worked as an undergraduate research apprentice at the UCMP on the Berkeley Fossil Insect PEN project to organize and rehouse the digitized insect specimens from the Rancho La Brea and McKittrick tar pits. The UCMP McKittrick collection includes insect specimens collected as early as the 1930s, while the Rancho La Brea collection has insects dating from the late 1900s when the site was first referred to as Rosemary. At this writing, over 1,300 tar pit specimens have been digitized, with images and specimen records available in CalPhotos, the UCMP online database, iDigBio, iDigPaleo, and other data aggregators. These specimens included not only those digitized during the BFIP project, but also additional ones added this year as a direct result of BFIP’s digitized data being used by Anna Holden, a doctoral student at the Richard Gilder Graduate School of the American Museum of Natural History for her dissertation research on the paleoclimate of southern California since the last Ice Age. 

During the earlier databasing and imaging stages of the project, individual insect specimens were sorted and placed in 1 x 3 inch specimen trays. Specimens curated under a previous grant had been placed in glass vials with plastic snap caps. However, because of the small size of the specimens, permanently storing them in the trays and vials would be a huge waste of space and potentially detrimental to the specimens. Maximizing the efficient use of space is always a high priority for museum collections. Storage in the trays would also leave them open to the air to collect dust, it would allow movement that could cause damage (breakage) and in the case of very small specimens or fragments, they could be blown away. I did find one of the trays was empty and learned it was a tiny specimen that was lost due to a sneeze. Additionally, I discovered specimens, which were broken or fragmented due to this storage method.

Metal drawers with labeled specimens arranged in numerical order and showing storage of 1 X 3 specimen trays. Some specimens have been rehoused into PCR tubes, the larger specimens await placement in the friction lid plastic boxes.

My first task was to organize the collection, arranging it in numerical order by specimen number. I then had to transfer the specimens into their new space-saving storage units. As part of this, I had to be sure to include all of the useful pieces of the damaged specimens and keep the specimens associated with their labels. The smaller specimens were rehoused in PCR tubes (plastic tubes with snap caps used in the field of molecular biology) with ethofoam plugs at the bottom to minimize the “rattle space,” a term coined by David Zelagin (Digitization Assistant at CU Boulder Natural History Museum). The PCR tubes would not only prevent further damage but also take up less space than the open trays.

Close-up of a specimen in their labeled PCR tube with ethofoam plug.

After labeling, they were stored upright in museum trays using the cardboard separator inserts that come as part of the packaging for the glass vials. The larger specimens were placed in small friction lid plastic specimen boxes, with archival tissue paper at the bottom to minimize rattle space and storage space. I was able to complete reorganizing of the entire

Specimen trays fitted with glass vial cardboard separator inserts to house the tar pit specimens rehoused in PCR tubes.
Specimens organized in numerical order and in various stages of rehousing. Larger specimens in the clear rectangular friction lid plastic boxes lined with tissue paper are visible in the upper drawer.

collection and rehousing all of the small and many of the larger specimens for ease of storage.

Though not the largest fossil insect collection, UCMP’s Cenozoic insects have contributed to the Fossil Insect Collaborative TCN by filling in geographic and temporal gaps not covered by the other TCN collections. I have enjoyed the opportunity to be part of the larger effort to organize and digitize this important collection so it can be accessed in an online database and more effectively used by researchers as well as the public.

Julia’s bug blog

Julia Anderson’s URAP experience: Curating the AERA Energy collection – butvar, hot glue, fluffy stuff and “ethocradles”!

When I first entered the UCMP Paleontology Preparation Lab, where I would be working, a cold rush of air and the smell of dirt greeted me. This may sound unpleasant, but for me, as a future paleontologist, this rattled my heart strings! I couldn’t wait to get started on my Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship with Diane Erwin, working on the Fossil Insect PEN Project.

As Diane and I hauled metal drawers and wooden trays full of specimens into the prep lab, I took glances at what I would be working with. These specimens, which I would be curating this semester, that is preparing, cataloging, labeling and housing them for future study and imaging, looked like hunks of dirt. However, when I shined a flashlight onto the shiny soil, suddenly the wings of dragonflies and the delicate veins of an oak leaf showed themselves to me, emerging from the thousands of years-old sediment.

In the prep lab curating the AERA fossil collection.

These fossils were collected from a Holocene oil seep site in Oil Canyon located on land owned by the AERA Energy oil company near Coalinga, California. The oily sandy rock matrix was incredibly friable, breaking apart in my hands. Something had to be done to consolidate the specimens in order for them not to turn into piles of sand in the collections!

However, before I could start my work in the prep lab, I had to take a series of online safety trainings – the Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) 101 laboratory safety fundamentals course, the Hazardous Waste Program, the Hazardous Materials Spill Response, and the Laboratory Hazards Assessment Tool followed by an in-lab safety orientation. This certification ensured that I would not only be lab safety savvy but soon the proud owner of two fitted blue flame resistant university-issued lab coats, a pair of safety glasses and goggles. Sporting my new PPE (personal protective equipment), I set my music playing in the background and began preparing the out-of-the-field fossils. I used a very thin liquid adhesive made from a mixture of powdered polyvinyl butyral resin (Butvar®) and ethyl alcohol, a standard consolidant used for all types of fossils. Using a disposable plastic pipette, I delicately squirted some on the insect and plant impressions, with heavier applications to the matrix surrounding each specimen to solidify the sandy matrix. Sometimes I would apply the adhesive three or four times to fully stabilize the fossil.

Julia applying butvar to a lepidopteran compression using a plastic disposable pipette.
Close-up of butvar-treated lepidopteran compression.
1) “The Field Cradle”, 2) “The Pill Box Hat”, 3) “The Nest”, 4) “The Let’s-Just-Not-Finish-This-One”, and 5) “The Ethocradle” (THE WINNER).

Our quest for the perfect “cradle” for these specimens went through five stages. The first four featured a lot of masking tape and looked…well… let’s just say “interesting.” Finally, using Diane’s extraordinary origami skills and my ridiculously long time experience with a hot glue gun, we fashioned the “ethocradle,” the perfect hybrid of our previous designs. Throughout the next couple of months, I hand measured, cut out, and hot glued ethocradles for the fossils that needed them.

Identifying and cataloging the AERA collection. Specimen data is entered into the UCMP’s Excel bulk upload spreadsheet, then uploaded to the UCMP online database.

Then came the cataloging. I spent about two weeks meticulously going through each specimen and updating the UCMP Excel spreadsheet bulk upload form with new information. I learned a lot about insect and plant taxonomy, which was more than rewarding. The collection’s insect orders included Coleoptera (beetles), Orthoptera (grasshoppers), Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), and Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). The insects were beautifully preserved and I often had to take moments to admire them. As far as plants, I identified two classes; Magnoliopsida (including oak) and Liliopsida. A vast majority of the plant material was oak. To access the AERA specimen records go to the UCMP online database select Collection equals: Invertebrates and Loc ID Num field equals PA1340. 

Sample drawer of specimens fully curated and ready for their move into the UCMP collections.

Once the official new labels were printed out it was time to celebrate! I gathered the two hundred or so field tags into my hands and threw them into the air above my head. My apprenticeship was a success! I learned so much this past semester about how fossils are prepped and housed in the UCMP’s vast collections. I achieved my goals of gaining experience working with fossils, while also having so much fun! This undergraduate research apprenticeship experience only solidified my desire to become a paleontologist and make my passion my career.

To learn more about the AERA Oil Canyon site and its significance here is a recent publication in the 2017 Desert Symposium proceedings volume entitled, “Flora and fauna of the Holocene Oil Canyon oil-sands from the poorly understood San Joaquin Desert Biozone,” pgs. 308-314, by Ryan O’Dell (BLM), UCMP staff and associates Diane M. Erwin, Patricia Holroyd, Brian Rankin, and Marwa El-Faramawi.

Meschelle’s bug blog

Meschelle Thatcher’s UCMP undergraduate research experience: Beetles in Brea! 

Meschelle at work sorting through the bulk material of fossil insects from Rancho La Brea and McKittrick tarpits.

As an English major, I didn’t really know what to expect when I first started my URAP (Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program) appointment for the UC Museum of Paleontology Fossil Insect PEN (Partner to an Existing Network) funded by the National Science Foundation. All I knew was that I’d be handling fossils, and that struck the scientific chord in my imagination in perfect harmony. 

Beetle specimens from the McKittrick asphalt sorted by Meschelle.

The Pleistocene Rancho La Brea tar pits in southern California are best known for their extinct exotic animals. However, I’ve learned there is more life in these asphalt seeps than saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, sloths, mastodons and camels. As part of my URAP experience I’ve been sorting the remains of beetles from the asphalt seeps at Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles and those near McKittrick, CA, in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Again, coming from a Humanities-oriented framework, I was slightly overwhelmed when my supervisor, Senior Museum Scientist, Diane Erwin, told me to pull out all the beetles I could find from bulk samples of asphalt recently discovered in the collection that had not yet been catalogued. Surely I was capable of spotting beetles, but I found myself wondering if I should also put aside things that look like legs, fragments of elytra and other beetle body parts? What if these beetle remnants should somehow alter the course of science forever? Ultimately, I found out that these anatomical fragments were indeed cute, but it wasn’t necessary to catalog them as individual specimens. Although not deserving of their own photo shoot, I learned they would be gathered for a group photo.

Fast forward to this lovely week in April, and I now have plenty of whole beetles really worth looking over. While most of them were easy to spot with the naked eye, I sometimes had to use a 10x magnifying glass to find the really small ones mixed in with the asphalt—the struggle with which I am positive any real paleontologist will identify. Undoubtedly, analyzing these fossils via zoomed in images of them will be particularly helpful. After all, the naked eye can only see so much. And when some of the beetle remains are just a few millimeters in size, we wholeheartedly welcome technology to swoop in and save the day…so long as we get the credit for our discoveries.

Meschelle preparing Rancho La Brea type specimens for imaging with the D80 Nikon camera.

I have also helped with the imaging of the UCMP type specimens from Rancho La Brea and uploaded several dozen photos of the McKittrick beetles in the effort to digitize the diverse fossil insect collection at UCMP. By doing so, researchers, teachers, students, as well as citizen scientists and interested public all over the world will literally have accessible data at their fingertips to study. The Rancho La Brea type specimens, described and illustrated over 100 years ago, are a wonderful example of how the digitization age is allowing us to see these old collections in a new light.

Type specimens of Elodes laticollis Le Conte from Rancho La Brea imaged by Meschelle.



As I move forward in life, such experiences will continue for me as a lifelong learner with interdisciplinary interests.