THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA MUSEUM OF PALEONTOLOGY (UCMP) is celebrating its centennial this year, but the story of its founding begins nearly two centuries ago, when the new California legislature commissioned a study of the state, keen to map its gold deposits.
A team of geologists led by Josiah Whitney set out into the wilderness, collecting fossils and taking meticulous notes of California’s natural wonders, from the high granite walls of Yosemite to the towering redwoods of the Sierra, “the great wonders of the plant world â. They published their findings in a monumental tome adorned with vivid illustrations and a gilded relief cover.
But it was the relentless determination of a pioneering scientist named Annie Alexander that gave the museum its official title.
Lawmakers were not impressed. They had sent the men on a prospecting mission, or so they thought. Whitney remarked in frustration at the disapproval of lawmakers: âWe have escaped the dangers of floods and fields, escaped the grizzly’s friendly embrace and now find ourselves in the mouth of the Legislature. When those jaws closed, cutting off funding, the team donated part of their fossil cache to the New University of California, establishing the founding collection of what would later become UCMP.
But it was the relentless determination of a pioneering scientist named Annie Alexander that gave the museum its official designation. His interest aroused during a visit to Crater Lake in 1899, Alexander began auditioning classes taught by renowned Berkeley paleontologist John Merriam. The two became close, and Alexander, a sugar heiress, began funding the professor’s expeditions, many of which she also joined. Alexander and Merriam were intellectual partners for many years, but she soon became frustrated with his thirst for recognition and influence.
âI am more convinced than ever that it is quiet research that works,â she wrote to renowned naturalist George Grinnell. To ensure that low-key research continued, she wrote to the university in 1921, offering to fund a separate paleontology museum. The UCMP was born.
âMuseumâ can be a bit misleading; UCMP is a research collection and is largely closed to the general public. Having said that, he has worked hard to bring his resources to the world via the Internet. In collaboration with the National Center for Science Education, the museum has created award-winning educational websites, including Understanding Evolution, Understanding Science, and Understanding Global Change.
The only physical public exhibit is a small collection of casts on display in Valley Life Sciences, dominated by the imposing T. rex in the atrium. With no single building, the museum’s collection is scattered across campus, including the Campanile, which houses five-story fossils, from cave bears to saber-toothed tigers. In the years since its founding, the museum has expanded its collection to around half a million specimens, attracting world-class researchers who have helped shape our understanding of life on Earth.
Marshall says paleontology is undergoing a revolution, thanks to digitization and the creation of databases such as paleobiology
One of these researchers is geologist Walter Alvarez, who, together with his father, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez, and Berkeley chemists Frank Asaro and Helen Michel, reconstructed the theory of the impact of asteroids. explaining the disappearance of dinosaurs over 65 million years ago.
The Alvarezes found a staunch opponent in Bill Clemens, the museum’s eighth director, whose decades of studying fossils in the Montana badlands had convinced him that Alvarez’s theory was nonsense; dinosaurs were headed for extinction for millennia before the asteroid struck. While the feud was mostly collegial, Elder Alvarez remarked to the press that paleontologists are “more like stamp collectors” than scientists. Ouch.
Stamp collectors nevertheless continued to do revolutionary science. In the 1990s, a team led by Tim White, faculty curator at UCMP, co-director of the Human Evolution Resource Center in Berkeley, discovered “Ardi”, a 4.4 million year old hominid skeleton. in the Afar Depression in Ethiopia that changed the way we think. beginning of human evolution. In 2009, the review Science called Ardi’s discovery the breakthrough of the year.
Current museum director Charles Marshall points out that the accomplishments of museum affiliates like Alvarez, Clemens and White are just the icing on a much larger confection. âThe real cake,â he says, âis the century of UCMP hard work, billions of fossils and thousands of items that have helped us better understand the fossil record as a whole. The strength of the museum, he adds, is to “facilitate the interaction of paleontology with the richness of so many other fields: computational biology, mathematics, computer science, ecology, but also from the additional information that each fossil gives us when we analyze it in relation to the collection as a whole.
Marshall says paleontology is undergoing a revolution, thanks to the digitization and creation of databases such as the Paleobiology Database, which he co-founded. While only about 4 percent of known fossils have yet been entered into the paleobiology database, the percentage is increasing daily. “The lost treasures,” wrote Marshall, “are waiting to be rediscovered in the museums themselves.”