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Collections Close-Up: Storytelling with Skulls

This month’s Collections Close Up stares out at us from the intersection of spooky, stunning, and scientific – of storytelling with skulls. To set the scene, we introduce a newer member of the Museum’s collection – the skull of a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), part of a complete skeleton given to the museum from the collection of Ray Bandar. 

Turkey Vulture Skull

These birds are no stranger to Halloween-esque themes – carrion eaters like turkey vultures feed on the decaying flesh of dead animals. While this is exactly as spooky as it sounds, it’s also an essential ecological role. By consuming dead animals, turkey vultures and other carrion eaters help reduce the amount of disease in the ecosystem. 

It’s also this very behavior that has inspired the term vulture culture – an evolving subculture of people who are captivated by the artistic allure of body parts of dead animals. Of course, there’s more to a skull then how nicely it would cover part of your wall. From a science education perspective, skulls tell stories of the adaptations that animals use to survive in the world around them. For example, here we note a strong, sharp beak for tearing meat from bones rather than sipping nectar from flowers or straining food from water. Researchers dig deeper into the morphology, or structures of skulls, looking at hundreds of individuals bones to build our understanding of animals’ lives.

Collector Ray Bandar, was no stranger to balancing a morbid fascination of skeletons with their scientific and educational value. So driven by his passion to study nature’s “sculptures”, the humble Bay Area high school teacher spent 60 years as a field associate for the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). While his collection contained everything from birds to bears, his particular speciality was marine mammal skulls. Working in collaboration with Academy scientists and the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network efforts, Bandar spent decades oncall for collecting trips from Bodega Bay to Año Nuevo.

Day or night, whenever the calls came, the first part of the process for deceased animals was also the most important: collecting the data. Information such as the location, species, sex, size, apparent cause of death are critical for a specimen’s contribution to science. He would often participate in the entire messy, squishy and smelly process of taking these animals from “From Death to Display”.

Skulls are collected because they are information-rich – scientists can learn a lot from the wear on the teeth to the size of the brain case and more. They are also expedient – it is easier to store the skull of a whale than an entire individual. Nonetheless, in rare or scientifically valuable cases, like Orca O319 – scientists may take the whole animal.

Ray Bandar in his home, photo by Ross Feighery

Whether whole or in pieces, Bandar contributed thousands of specimens to Cal Academy’s collections, particularly California sea lion skulls. Collected under CAS permits, many of the specimens were stored in his home, or “Bone Palace”. A stunning take on the palatial, specimen rich displays of natural history collections throughout time, Bandar’s labor of love inspired numerous articles and even a documentary or two.

Never the shy collector, Ray was also a constant public fixture at the Academy. He designed exhibits, wrote labels and staffed events, particularly around Halloween. Today, elements of his collection are still on display, supporting the CAS’s stories of skulls.  

After Ray’s death in 2017, well documented members of his skeletal menagerie were relocated to Academy collections storage. The folks at the Academy generously shared the remaining wealth of Bandar’s kingdom with science education organizations – including your local natural history museum. Thrilled to take part in the rich legacy of “Bones” Bandar, Museum staff collaborated to select a set of specimens to flesh out the gaps in our collection, focusing on enhancing our capacity to engage visitors with the striking elements of the natural world. 

And that has been the case for this turkey vulture skull – whose first public debut was as a creepy carrion eater with an ecological heart of gold for 2019’s “The Birds” themed Museum of the Macabre. Other Bandar specimens, including a second turkey vulture skull, showcased biodiversity – enriching our “exploded bird” exhibit case. 

Macabre has traditionally been our evening of curiosities, creatures, and cocktails – where we dig into the seemingly strange or ostensibly awful elements of the natural world to create space for different kinds of connections. Join us this year for online events, whether for creepy caves, macabre mushrooms, taxidermy tips or a deeper dive into cabinets of curiosities and their relationship to modern museums. 

Macabre Mushrooms: Ghouls of the Woods with Christian Schwarz

Mycologist Christian Schwarz is back to explore the macabre side of the mushroom kingdom during this online lecture. From bizarre appearances to odd sexual proclivities, and digestive modes that are downright appalling, these mycological tales will delight Halloween revelers and offend Victorian sensibilities.

Image of Christian Schwarz holding up a mushroom to a group of people.

Christian Schwarz is a naturalist currently living in Santa Cruz, the land of milk (caps) and honey (mushrooms). He studied Ecology and Evolution at UCSC, and now spends his time photographing, teaching about, collecting, and researching macrofungi. He is coauthor of Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast. Fungi satisfy his curiosity with their seemingly endless forms – from the grotesque to the bizarre to the sublimely beautiful. Besides dabbling in mushroom taxonomy, he loves fish, plants, nudibranchs, moths, and dragonflies. He is passionate about citizen science, especially iNaturalist.

Rockin’ Pop-Up: Caves (Special Edition)

Photo of stalactite formations in a marble cave.

In honor of Halloween, we’re exploring the curious, the scary, and the strange all week during our series, Museum of the Macabre. And what’s scarier than a deep, dark cave? For the special Halloween Pop-Up, Gavin and Graham will explore the different ways that caves form. Learn more about caves in this month’s Rock Record blog post.

About the Series: Join the Geology Gents, Gavin and Graham, for monthly conversations about rocks live on Facebook. Each month 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 by emailing events@santacruzmuseum.org and 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
Read our blog Rock Record

The Basics of Taxidermy with Alex Krohn

The Basics of Taxidermy

Presented by the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History and the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Learn what you need to know to dive into taxidermy as a hobby. Alex Krohn shares the basics of preserving animals, the laws surrounding the process in California, and an overview of necessary tools, before then diving into an example on an Acorn Woodpecker specimen.

Image of Alex Krohn smiling with a frog on his finger.

Alex Krohn is the Assistant Director of the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History at UC Santa Cruz. While he is a reptile and amphibian specialist, he loves helping connect people with all aspects of nature, both in the museum and across the natural lands of Santa Cruz County.

10/17 Saturdays in the Soil

Photo of woman working in the garden in front of the Museum surrounded by native plants in bloom.

Saturday, October 17 | 10 a.m. to noon
Every third Saturday at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

It’s time to get your hands dirty! We’re excited to relaunch Saturdays in the Soil, a monthly volunteer program in our native plant garden. Learn about local ecology, native plants, and sustainable gardening while coming together as a community (in a physically distanced manner!) to steward Tyrrell Park through the City’s Adopt-A-Park program.

Space is limited and RSVPs are required.

Email volunteer@santacruzmuseum.org to express interest.

What to Expect

  • This native plant garden requires general landscaping, occasional watering, weeding, and replanting.
  • All ages are welcome; children under 14 require adult supervision.
  • Limited to 12 volunteers to allow for physical distancing
  • Masks are required at all times
  • Tools are provided, but we encourage you to bring your own gloves if possible, as well as water and snacks

Rockin’ Pop-Up: Building Appalachia

The mountain ranges along our western edge of North America have a much different origin story than those of the east coast. We’ve explored the Sierra and the Santa Cruz Mountains in past pop-ups. This time around we’re comparing our relatively young ranges to the ancient origins of the Appalachians and beyond.

About the Series: Join the Geology Gents, Gavin and Graham, for monthly 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 here or by email to events@santacruzmuseum.org and 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

Collections Close-Up: Curiosity Cabinets

A cabinet full of natural history pictures and objects

Peer into the wonderful world of wunderkammers — otherwise known as curiosity cabinets. Often filling full rooms, these pre-modern museums favored the eccentric and the esoteric. We’ll explore how our museum’s history is rooted in the Victorian versions of the curious trend, as well as more contemporary takes on cabinets.

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. Watch last month’s webinar on the fossils and fossil collectors of Santa Cruz.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Museum of the Macabre

Welcome to the Museum of the Macabre, a month of curious events, unsettling insights, and fall favorites.


Watch Program Recordings

Collections Close-Up: Curiosity Cabinets
This Collections Close-Up program explores the Victorian origins of cabinets of curiosities, as well as their role in the Museum’s history and present.

The Basics of Taxidermy
Learn what you need to know to dive into taxidermy as a hobby. Warning for the squeamish: Alex Krohn will demonstrate the process on an Acorn Woodpecker.

Rockin’ Pop-Up: Caves
In honor of Halloween, we’re exploring the curious, the scary, and the strange all week during our series, Museum of the Macabre. And what’s scarier than a deep, dark cave? For this special Halloween Pop-Up, Gavin and Graham will explore the different ways that caves form.

Macabre Mushrooms with Christian Schwarz
From bizarre appearances to odd sexual proclivities, and digestive modes that are downright appalling, explore the macabre side of mushrooms.


More to Explore

Halloween Bingo
Whether you are looking for an alternative to trick-or-treating or you want to add a little scare to your Halloween stroll, this nature themed scavenger hunt will have you noticing the mysterious and the spooky all around you.

Nature Pumpkin Carving Templates
We challenge you to create a jack-o’-lantern that puts a spotlight on the nature of Santa Cruz County. Use some of our provided templates or get creative to highlight the wonders of nature this Halloween season.

The Macabre Martini
Part of our series On The Rocks, exploring science and nature through curated cocktails, this recipe will add a mysterious darkness to your halloween evening.

Macabre Music
Every year we explore the macabre side of nature through an evening of creatures, curiosities, and cocktails. This year, we invite you to create your own macabre evening at home with the help of this selection of moody, macabre music.