College of Natural Sciences

Museum Without Walls Lecture Series

The Museum Without Walls (MWOW) Fall 2021 virtual lecture series, on Fossils, Formations & Extinctions, will begin October 6th and continue every Wednesday evening through the end of October. All lectures will be available in video format. The four lectures scheduled in October will be pre-recorded but will include live questions and answer sessions with the presenters. 

This virtual lecture series is organized by the Gateway Science Museum

All virtual lectures start at 7 pm

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October 6 

“Mastodons Among Us: A Paleontology Story Millions of Years in the Making”

Hosted by Greg Francek, Ranger/Naturalist Mokelumne Division, East Bay Municipal Utility District. 

Imagine a wild landscape of grassland, forests and erupting volcanoes… add a robust population of mammals including camels, rhinos, ancestral elephants and bone-crushing dogs — such is the scene during the late Miocene in what we know as present-day California. Join Ranger/Naturalist Greg Francek as he shares his account of the discovery of a significant northern California fossil deposit and the ongoing collaborative study being conducted by EBMUD, CSU Chico and Gateway Science Museum.

October 13

“Sierra Volcanism, Paleo-River Valleys, and the Miocene Zoo”   

Hosted by Professor Emerita Cathy Busby, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, the University of California at Davis

One of the largest fossil troves in California was discovered only a year ago in the Sierra Nevada foothills, by East Bay Municipal Utility District Ranger Greg Francek. It is now the subject of intense study by paleontology professor Russell Shapiro (Chico State University) and his team. This site has excited intense scientific and public interest. The fossils include camels with necks as long as giraffes, rhinos, a mastodon skull with 6’ tusks, hundreds of fossilized logs, and much more. The extremely rich site records a time when the climate was cooling, and forests were being replaced by grasslands, where creatures of both habitats co-existed. The fossils are somewhat poorly-constrained to be between 5 and 10 million years old (Late Miocene), but geochronologic work in progress is expected to better constrain its age. This is because dateable volcanic pumice and ashes are abundant in the deposit.

What factors contributed to the creation and preservation of the Miocene zoo? Like many fossil forests world-wide, the silica in the ash deposits was dissolved by groundwater and precipitated in the fossils and the wood, resulting in their pristine preservation. But why were the creatures all buried together with the fossil logs, and where did the ashes come from? To answer those questions, we need to take a look at the paleogeography of the Sierra Nevada in Miocene time. 

Two important paleogeographic features created the Miocene zoo. The first is that paleo-river valleys flowed from east to west across the Sierra Nevada. These were carved into its bedrock and filled with river sediments (including gold nuggets) over tens of millions of years. The Miocene zoo lies in one of these paleo-river valleys, referred to as the Mokelumne paleochannel. The second important paleogeographic feature is that a chain of volcanoes lay along what is now the crest of the Sierra Nevada. This volcanic chain is referred to as the Ancestral Cascades arc, because it was like the present-day Cascades arc, which includes volcanoes such as Lassen and Shasta. Arc volcanoes may produce explosive eruptions that fill river valleys with pumice and ash, forming torrential floods or slurries that bury everything downstream. A large volcano, the size of Lassen, lay upstream of (east of) the Miocene zoo, at what is now the Ebbetts Pass area of the Sierra Nevada range crest. This provided the eruptive products that choked the river valley and buried the unsuspecting creatures that lived downstream.

Perhaps other fossil troves await discovery in other Sierran paleo-rivers in the foothills downstream from the Ancestral Cascades arc!

October 20th

“Mass Extinction and the Real Jurassic Park: What Prehistoric California Corals can Teach Us About Today's Crisis”

Hosted by Dr. Montana Hodges, Professor at Serria Nevada University. 

Most people are familiar with the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, but have you heard about the other “Big Five” mass extinctions that nearly wiped out all of life on Earth? Amazingly none of these other extinctions show direct evidence for catastrophic events like an asteroid impact. Instead, the tie that binds all the mass extinctions is global climate change and ocean conditions. One of the best climate and oceanic fossil record keepers through deep time are coral reefs, which fossilize extremely well, and have millions of years of data to share. The coral fossil record of California and Nevada shows one particular mass extinction record with eerily similar conditions to today. The Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction was caused by increased greenhouse gases, changing oceans, and collapsing ecosystems.

With biologists and ecologists proposing evidence that we are in the “Sixth Extinction” find out how the past might be able to tell us more about our present and future. Join Professor Hodges as she walks through the Big Five’s relationship to our modern biodiversity crisis through the story of coral reefs.

October 27

“From Mountains to Museums & Back Again: Triassic Marine Reptiles in the American West” 

Hosted by Dr. Neil P. Kelley, Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Science, Vanderbilt University

After the most catastrophic extinction in all of earth history at the end of the Permian, multiple terrestrial reptiles successfully readapted to marine life. The evolution of marine reptiles in the Mesozoic was coincident with a top-down reorganization of marine ecosystems whose effects persist to this day long after the extinction of most of the Mesozoic marine reptile groups. Since the mid-1800s, the American West, including Shasta County in Northern California, has been a rich source for fossils that record this pivotal evolutionary transition. Unfortunately, due to a combination of factors including fragmentary fossils, complex tectonics and remote localities, the American Triassic marine reptile fossil record has been overshadowed by contemporaneous fossil assemblages from Europe and Asia. During the past several years, new discoveries in the field, as well as reappraisal of forgotten, misidentified or overlooked specimens in museum collections, have helped to fill in important gaps in our knowledge and reaffirm the important perspective provided by Triassic marine reptiles from the American West. This talk will review key historic and contemporary developments on this scientific frontier and explore what recent discoveries reveal about the evolution and extinction of Triassic marine reptiles and the ecological roles they played in an interval of global change.