Collections Close-Up: She Studies Seashells by the Seashore

Member Exclusive: Join Collections Manager Kathleen Aston for a special webinar on July 9 at 5:30 p.m. as she explores the specimens and stories of our malacology collection. Learn more.

Front cover of Tide-drift Shells of the Monterey Bay Region

“Even if there are no collectible shells, a walk along the tide drift will yield recognizable bits and pieces of fifteen to twenty species. Don’t spurn them. Half the joy in collecting is in the learning process; these imperfect pieces are valuable starters – studying them will enable us to recognize and identify the perfect specimen when we finally find it. Shells, like gold, are where you find them.”

-Hulda Hoover McLean

Thus advises Hulda Hoover McLean in her introduction to the Tide Drift Shells of the Monterey Bay Region. Originally published in 1975 as the Tide Drift Shells of the Waddell Beaches, naturalist and conservationist McLean wrote the book in response to what she saw as a growing interest in local young people at the time in the natural features of the world around them. Her book could only further captivate them. The identification guide reads as an informative yet personal story – grounded as it is in a lifetime of collecting shells of all kinds (and levels of completeness!) on the shores of the Monterey Bay. 

Enthusiastic gratitude towards scientific advisers is balanced by wry encouragement not to bother professionals with amateur questions unless absolutely necessary; antique quotes describing the richness of local mollusk diversity are displayed opposite sorrowful personal observations on the diminished number of shells available today; the pageantry of tidepool creatures is lauded while the “horror” of shell art and crafts is disparaged. Organized by scientific class and family, the standard identifications for these shells are enhanced by local context and practical notes. 

red abalone specimen and illustration

Red abalone (Haliotis rufescens), is pictured here both in the book’s illustration and as a specimen from the Museum’s collection. Hulda notes that abalones have “an almost flamboyant beauty with their graceful shape and brilliantly opalescent interior.” In addition to their distinguishing identification information, McLean places the various locally found abalone species into the context of their conservation restrictions (now increased) as well as local fishing and aquaculture projects.

Average sizes are given for each specimen, like the 10 mm San Pedro Olives (Olivella strigata) pictured here. Often with the smaller shells, Hulda advises the potentially overwhelmed sheller to simply gather up a handful of gravel and save the task of differentiating these tiny beauties for a rainy day, the comfort of an armchair and the aid of a magnifying glass. 

San Pedro olive shell specimens in jar and an illustration

The Giant Rock Scallop (Hinnites giganteus) life cycle is described in some detail, to explain to readers the stark distinction in the forms in which they may find it – small and light colored when found from its free-swimming stage, large rough and misshapen if one finds and older specimen that had already cemented to a rock. In either case, the specimen is distinguishable by the characteristic purple stain on its hinge, seen here in the specimen rather than the illustration. Hulda herself noted the value of color photographs, and mentions in her introduction how she exaggerates some aspects of the illustrations in order to aid in identification of subtle characteristics.  

Giant rock scallop specimens and illustration

Hulda’s illustrative and descriptive styles were carefully attended to in the 1992 republishing of her book. A collaboration with the Waddell Creek Association, the original book was expanded to reflect the broader Monterey Bay Region. Several new drawings were made by Amey Mathews, the granddaughter of longtime board members/volunteers Pat and Kirk Smith. A high school student taking college level botanical illustration classes, Amey went on to study art at Stanford. A yoga teacher today, she relies on some of the same artistic skills that governed her earlier practice: observation, metaphor, and creativity. Additional descriptions, and a list of additional resources were provided by longtime Museum community member and research associate Frank Perry.

Perry has always been a great admirer of Hulda Hoover McLean. An accomplished naturalist himself, Perry admired the breadth of McLean’s knowledge of the natural world, from insects to birds, from mammals to malacology. McLean grew up roaming the family property that is now the Rancho del Oso portion of Big Basin State Park. The transfer of those lands to the state park system are largely due to her desire to see the beauty of its flora and fauna preserved for the public and posterity. “If there was a ‘Santa Cruz Naturalists Hall of Fame’” Perry says,”she would be in it.”

Perry is also a lifelong admirer of seashells – beginning childhood collections and continuing on into his work as an adult. As a paleontologist, he finds that broken shells often have more interesting stories to tell, from how they were broken and by whom, to how long the shell was empty and who else might have been using it as habitat. Perry’s ability to identify mollusk species has also come in handy for local archaeology. Faced with little information on the daily lives of the lime workers who lived at what is now UCSC, Perry’s identification of abandoned shell fragments helps us understand their diet. 

Indeed, the study of shells contributes broadly to our understanding of the world, from a greater understanding of the consequences of ocean acidification to the broadening of possibilities for human architecture and more. Pairing their versatile scientific contributions with amateur collections that, in McLean’s words, represent a “lifetime investment in beauty”, it is easy to see how shells are as good as gold.

Visualizing Science: Illustration and Beyond with Jen Christiansen

Where does illustrator end, and infographer begin? How does data visualization fit in? And what does science have to say about the design decisions we make? With the goal of strengthening connections between communities, Jen hopes to get folks thinking about what they can learn from — and teach to — different visual sub-disciplines within the broader orb of science communication.

We are excited to learn about the role of science illustration in data visualization as we continue to feature our virtual exhibition of science illustration, The Art of Nature.

Jen Christiansen, senior graphics editor at Scientific American

About the speaker: Jen Christiansen is senior graphics editor at Scientific American, where she art directs and produces illustrated information graphics and data visualizations. She completed undergraduate studies in geology and art at Smith College, then happily merged the two disciplines in the scientific illustration graduate program at UC Santa Cruz. She began her publishing career in NY at Scientific American in 1996, moved to DC to join the art department of National Geographic, spent four years as a freelance science communicator, then rejoined the SciAm team in 2007. She writes on topics ranging from reconciling her love for art and science, to her quest to learn more about the pulsar chart on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover.


Rockin’ Pop-Up: Geologic Time Part One

One of the greatest challenges for most people when it comes to understanding geology is the concept of time. When our lives are measured in minutes, hours, and days, what does 3-7 million years even mean? Or 4 billion years? Explore the conventions of geologic time during this week’s installment.

About the series: Join the Geology Gents, Gavin and Graham, for weekly conversations about rocks live on Facebook. Each week we’ll explore a different geologic topic, from Santa Cruz formations to tips for being a more effective rockhound. Graham Edwards and Gavin Piccione are PhD candidates in geochronology with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.

Submit your questions ahead of time on Facebook or by emailing events@santacruzmuseum.org, or during the program live on Facebook. Feel free to include pictures of rocks you’d like identified! Pro-tip: the better the picture, the better the ID.

Watch Past Pop-Ups

On the Subject of Seeds

Patricia Larenas loves seeds. With a background in horticulture and art, her work aims to inspire appreciation for this life stage of plants. She also works directly with seeds, helping others grow edible gardens and save seeds. This project explores the germination and growth of a Hopi red lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus). The following is written by Patricia.

A sample of Pala hatiko, a kind of lima bean
Pala hatiko (Phaseolus lunatus) is the Hopi name for this variety of lima bean. Lima beans originated in South America in the area now known as Peru, and were named after the Peruvian city of Lima.

Genetic Diversity

I’ve drawn three beans to show the diversity of the seed coat color: 1. solid red-brown, 2. red-brown with dark streaks and spots, and 3. mostly dark with red-brown streaks and spots. The diversity in color of the beans is an indication of  the genetic diversity in this variety. This is an advantage because genetic diversity means that this bean could have more ability to adapt to different environments.

For example, lima beans usually like to grow in hot areas like the Southwestern and Southern USA . My garden in the Bay Area is cooler than those areas, so with its ability to adapt, this bean may do just fine in my garden under cooler conditions. By growing it for a few years and saving seeds from the most vigorous and productive plants, I can create my own land race that is adapted to growing well in my area.


All viable seeds are alive. By viable I mean they have the ability to grow once they germinate.  Conditions that kill seeds are: exposure to warm or hot temperatures, old age, exposure to light, humidity that can cause mold to grow or seeds to rot, and diseases. Seeds can stay dormant, but alive, while they are waiting for the proper conditions that will induce them to germinate. Germination is the process by which a seed begins to sprout and develop into a seedling. The proper conditions for seeds to germinate vary greatly for different types of seeds and they have to do with temperature, moisture, and exposure to light or darkness. Additionally, some seeds need a period of exposure to cold, usually about the temperature of your refrigerator (called stratification) before they germinate. This could be from a few weeks to a few months. Other seeds need to have their seed coats abraded or damaged (called scarification) a bit so that moisture can penetrate to begin the germination process. Vegetable seeds rarely need stratification or scarification, but some flower seeds do.

An illustration of the germination and growth of a lima bean seed

Bean Seeds

Lima bean seeds need soil temperatures of at least 750 F to germinate (up to 900F), besides moisture (water). As shown in my drawings, first, the root radicle grows out of the seed, and the seed coat begins to retract as the bean swells with growth. The seed leaves, or cotyledons, are the two halves that make up the bean seed, these start to open up and the true leaves grow out from in between them, while the radicle develops into a stem and roots. The little seed is now a seedling ready to grow into a full sized plant that will flower and make lima beans!

Patricia Larenas is a featured artist in the 2020 exhibition of science illustration, The Art of Nature.
Find Patricia’s art on Instagram @plarenas_onpaper
See her website for tips on growing your veggie garden and saving seeds http://www.urbanartichoke.com/

Summer Solstice Sun Prints

A summer solstice sun print being made

Happy Summer Solstice! What better way to celebrate than creating art with sunlight? Follow along and harness the power of the sun to create your own sun prints using objects found in nature, construction paper, and sunlight.

Astronomically, the June solstice marks the first day of summer for the Northern Hemisphere, but many cultures consider this event to signal midsummer. This year, solstice occurs at 2:34 p.m. PDT on Saturday, June 20, 2020, which is the exact moment that the Earth’s North Pole is leaning most toward the sun.

The materials for a sun print laid out

Construction paper
Nature objects

Saran wrap

  1. Place object(s) on construction paper. If your object is heavy, like a rock, move on to step two! If it is lighter, like a feather or leaf, you may want to tape it down (masking tape works best), or put a piece of saran wrap or plexiglass over the paper (glass won’t work because it will block the UV rays from the sun, which we need to make our prints). You can also cut paper into shapes and tape them to your construction paper.
  2. Place paper under the sun. Since we’re doing this on the solstice, we’ll have many hours of daylight — more than any other day of the year! Hopefully we also have sunny skies with few clouds, which will make our project go faster. If not, however, that’s okay. Just leave your paper out longer. Give your project at least two hours in the sun. Place your paper on the ground and make sure everything is secure so that the wind won’t blow anything away.
  3. Remove objects and enjoy your artwork! Why do you think the sun changed the color of the paper? Why did the paper not change color where the objects were placed?
A small collection of sun prints

Post by Marisa

A Message of Support

As our society is embroiled in confronting systemic racism, museums worldwide are reflecting on our roles as institutions of learning, community centers, and curators of culture. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is dedicated to connecting people through nature and science, and we stand against racism that is keeping communities apart. 

Our staff have taken time to reflect on recent national events. We believe it is important to state and elevate the message that Black Lives Matter. Furthermore, we have identified a path forward for our museum that promotes and celebrates our values of racial diversity, equity, inclusion, and access to nature and science:

  1. As educators, stewards of cultural and natural artifacts, and facilitators of community dialogue, we commit to ongoing staff and board training to ensure that our practices reflect our stated values. 
  2. We will continue to engage with local and national groups whose work aligns with our values. Through partnerships, we will learn more about cultivating an inclusive and diverse museum community. Our learning will be reflected in all our programs and exhibitions. 

We remain grateful to all of our supporters, patrons and friends. 

#MuseumsAreNotNeutral #museums4equality #blacklivesmatter

Felicia B. Van Stolk
Executive Director

Collections Close-Up: Kelp and Conservation

This month’s Collections Close-Up explores two kinds of conservation: the preservation of biodiversity records in the form of marine algae specimens and the fight to save the kelp forests of the California Coast.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen.

Not yet a member? Join today!


Rockin’ Pop-Up: Chemical Sedimentary Rocks

This week the Geology Gents are rounding out our recent discussions about the three main rock types (igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic) by digging a little deeper into sedimentary rocks. This week we’ll explore how sedimentary rocks can be further impacted by their environments, resulting in the phenomenon of chemical sedimentary rocks. Some well known examples are geodes and opals.

About the series: Join the Geology Gents, Gavin and Graham, for weekly conversations about rocks live on Facebook. Each week we’ll explore a different geologic topic, from Santa Cruz formations to tips for being a more effective rockhound. Graham Edwards and Gavin Piccione are PhD candidates in geochronology with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.

Submit your questions ahead of time on Facebook or by emailing events@santacruzmuseum.org, or during the program live on Facebook. Feel free to include pictures of rocks you’d like identified! Pro-tip: the better the picture, the better the ID.

Watch Past Pop-Ups