Collections Close-Up: Herbarium Highlights

Late rain and sporadic sunshine are lighting up the local landscape with green growth and bright blooms, raising spirits for the oncoming spring. This month’s Close-Up highlights a slightly less vivid but no less delightful collection of plants – a collection of preserved grasses, complete with identifications by their collector, beloved naturalist and conservationist Randy Morgan.

Herbarium specimen of California canary grass

At first glance, the graceful blades and intricate flowers are captivating for their beauty alone, as in specimens like this California Canary grass (Phalaris californica). After all, another specimen in this collection represents a plant that so charmed Californias that it was designated the state grass. Not only are they beautiful, they’re informative – each specimen is carefully arranged to make visible important features such as the roots, blades, and flowers. The subtle distinctions between grass species in a field might blend together, but laid out on the herbarium sheet (or for that matter, conveyed via botanical illustration) the various parts of the plants can be easier to see.

This arrangement of significant features is a critical component of a quality herbarium specimen. The scientists who use herbaria (the plural of herbarium, or collections of plants preserved and labeled for reference, a practice which is more than 700 years old) such as these need to be able to see as many diagnostic features and as much of the plant as possible for use in understanding the identities of specimens, their classification, and their relationships to one another. This is harder with some plants than others – while grasses aren’t as difficult to capture on the herbarium sheet as, say, rattan palms, – at 103 cm, the above specimen didn’t quite fit on the herbarium sheet. Although this sheet is a petite 8.5 by 11 inches, at 103 cm this specimen still wouldn’t have been close to fitting on today’s standard herbarium sheets of 11 by 16 inches.

Thankfully, Morgan noted the height of the specimen on the label. The more than seventy specimens also have, at least, the general location name of where they were collected, their common name, scientific name, and collector listed. Quality herbarium specimens are fixed to archival paper and accompanied by labels that include this key information. It is preferable to have any other associated information like collection number or i.d., description of the plant and any collecting notes. Specimens in herbaria that meet these qualifications are called voucher specimens. 

Not only is this information important for science, it’s important for collections management as well. As we strive to enhance the accessibility of our collections, the level of data a specimen or set of specimens has helps us make decisions about what to prioritize for the time-consuming process of digitization. The time spent is well worth it – the enormous increase in access to specimens brought on by digitization has not only accelerated the current possibilities of plant science but also created new opportunities for how we think about pressing issues like the future of botanical biodiversity.

Of course, digitization efforts connect us to more than just the scientific value of pressed plants. Who can be surprised, when herbarium specimens readily embody the intersection of science and art cherished by nature enthusiasts everywhere. One such fan was the poet Emily Dickson, whose enchanting collection of preserved flora, collected during a period when the formal study of science was inaccessible to many women, can now be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

This collection of grasses is also dear to us for a different kind of connection – that of our institution’s relationship with Randall Morgan. Often known as Randy or R, Morgan was a pillar of the local natural history community. And though he passed away a few years ago, his influence on the natural world and those who celebrate it in Santa Cruz is evident from the the Sandhills that his activism helped to save, to the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society that he helped found, to this very Museum where he worked as a taxidermist to pay for studying linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. 

UCSC’s Norris Center for Natural History, the primary steward of Morgan’s collections, details in their vivid biographical rundown, Morgan’s love of nature began with birds and buoyed him through his life as a largely self taught naturalist. Even without formal training, his passionate observation of the world around led him to many achievements, including the discovery of new species, and his collection of plant voucher specimens that serves as the foundation of our understanding of plant biodiversity in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His story is inspiring in part because, like so many of those featured in the Norris Center-led exhibit Santa Cruz County Naturalists, it expands the notion of who can be a naturalist.

It’s inspiring to have this collection then, as a snapshot of the plant communities of California in the 1970s, but also as a window into Morgan’s dedicated observations of the natural world. As the Norris Center director Chris Lay mentions in the CNPS’s Randall Morgan memorial “When I look at plants I’ll be very satisfied if I can just tell you the species name. But Randy, he recognizes the diversity within the construct we call a species.”

For a deeper dive into the legacy of collector Randall Morgan, keep an eye on our April calendar for our next Collections Close-Up event.

A selection of native and non-native grasses collected by Randall Morgan in Soquel, CA.

Mini Museum Exhibit Project | 2nd Grade

A cardboard diorama of a nature exhibit

What kind of thinking goes into the design of a natural history exhibit? Over the course of three lessons, students deepen their observation-making abilities, learn about how to properly collect natural specimens, and create their own miniature museum exhibit. This project-based sequence will teach students how to interpret their findings and distinguish natural objects from one another based on their physical properties.

Lesson 1: Engage

Students view a presentation  of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s exhibits, and think about how different specimens are interpreted.

Lesson 1 Student Guide
Lesson 1 Slides

Lesson 2: Explore

Students collect different specimens from around their home or favorite outdoor place to explore.

Lesson 2 Student Guide
Lesson 2 Slides

Lesson 3: Explain

Students create an exhibit that displays and interprets collected specimens, grouping them by shared characteristics.

Lesson 3 Student Guide
Mini Museum Video

A Guide to the Fossils of Santa Cruz County

Santa Cruz County is home to marvelous wonders, from the shoreline to the summit — and every inch of this landscape was under the ocean mere millions of years ago. In an afternoon you can watch whales breach in the ocean and look at the fossilized remains of their ancestors on the beach (or high up in the mountains for that matter).

From mastodons to megalodons, this guide provides an overview of our local rock formations that feature fossils and how to dig deeper with the resources we’ve compiled.

Jump to: Fossiliferous Formations | FAQ | Additional Resources

Fossiliferous Formations

Before you can understand the fossils of Santa Cruz County, you need to dig a little deeper into the rocks of Santa Cruz County.

Purisima Formation (3-7 Ma)

This sandstone formation was deposited at shallow, near-shore conditions, which is why it has a coarser composition than the Santa Cruz Mudstone it followed. The blue-gray sandstone primarily consists of sediment deposited from rivers dumping into estuaries and bays.

A large fossil in grey rock on the beach.

If you find a fossil on a beach in Santa Cruz County, it is most likely from this formation. The Purisima Formation features dozens of species of invertebrate fossils, especially mollusks, as well as cetaceans and pinnipeds (i.e. whales and seals).

Though there are outcrops of this formation north of Santa Cruz, within the County this formation can be found from where Merced Avenue intersects West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz down to the cliffs of Seacliff State Beach. The best way to find fossils from this formation is at low tide on the beaches below Depot Hill in Capitola, between Capitola Beach and New Brighton Beach. Look to the cliff walls and through boulders and smaller rocks littering the sandy shore.

Santa Cruz Mudstone (7-9 Ma)

While the Purisima Formation formed from shallow-water sediment, the Santa Cruz Mudstone formed farther out at sea where the sediment consists of finer silt and clay. This formation has a more yellow tone and is often patterned with rusty red cracks, caused by methane seeping through the rock while it was still under water.

Finding a fossil in the Santa Cruz Mudstone formation is a much trickier task than the Purisima Formation that overlays it (in parts), but there are fossils to be found. While most are small bivalves (i.e. clams) and echinoids (i.e. sand dollars), O. megalodon teeth have been found in this Formation.

The arch at Natural Bridges State Beach is Santa Cruz Mudstone, as are all of the cliffs up the coast from there until just before Año Nuevo. Read our Guide to the Swift Street Outcrop to learn how to distinguish this mudstone from the Purisima Foundation sandstone.

The arch(es) at Natural Bridges State Beach have eroded over time so that now just one remains.

Santa Margarita Formation (10-12 Ma)

The Santa Margarita Formation is a marine deposit of Miocene sandstone and conglomerate. It is visible in areas of the southern Santa Cruz Mountains and you can spot it by its rough, chunky, and sparkling white appearance.

Some of Santa Cruz County’s most magnificent fossil finds have been unearthed from the Santa Margarita Formation. According to Frank Perry, “Fossils of at least 20 species of sharks and rays are present, as are remains of bony fishes, marine mammals such as sea cows and sea lions, and invertebrates including mollusks and sand dollars.”

Features from this formation on display in our exhibits are a cast of a fossil sea cow, an O. megalodon tooth, a jaw bone from a baleen whale, and a dig-box of sand dollars. We also have many more examples in our collections storage, such as the ones seen here.

There are outcrops of this formation in the lower parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains all the way up to Año Nuevo, but in Santa Cruz County we find it mostly north of Santa Cruz, through Scotts Valley and up to Boulder Creek. The rare Santa Cruz Sandhills habitat consists of sediment from this formation.

Monterey Formation (17.5-6 Ma)

The Monterey Formation is a Miocene deposit rich in organic material. While it might not reveal fossils of charismatic megafauna like the Santa Margarita formation that followed, the Monterey formation has other interesting biotic features. Monterey Chert, used for tools by Indigenous peoples along the coast for thousands of years, is a feature of the Monterey formation. Chert is extremely diatomaceous (contains high quantities of organic material from plankton), and under other conditions could have become oil. Regularly occurring controversies regarding drilling for oil in the Monterey Bay are due to the presence of the diatom-rich Monterey Formation.

All of the above notwithstanding, there are micro-fossils to be found. Fossils of diatoms are only visible under a microscope, but fossils of some fish fragments and mollusks are (a little) easier to find. The example from our collections on the left is a fossil pea crab.

There are outcrops of this formation throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains — and throughout California. Oil drilling operations off the coast of Southern California and even inland are removing oil from the Monterey Formation. In Santa Cruz County, you can explore this type of rock on parts of Ben Lomond Mountain, along Lompico Creek, and at Majors Creek Canyon.

A variety of Awaswas stone points from present day Santa Cruz County, featuring chert.


I think I found a dinosaur bone — did I?

That cool thing you found in Santa Cruz is undoubtedly cool, but we gotta tell you — it’s not a dinosaur. Our landscape in Santa Cruz was still millions of years away from forming when the dinosaurs were alive in the Mesozoic era, 248 to 65 million years ago.

So what did I find?

It could be a fossil bone or shell, or it could be a uniquely weathered stone. Explore the resources listed here or email a photo and detailed description to us at info@santacruzmuseum.org to help determine the identity of your interesting find.

May I collect fossils?

When collecting anything from nature, always practice the “Know Before You Go” philosophy. Determine who manages the land you are on and their laws. For instance, State Parks do not allow collecting of any kind (plants, fossils, etc.), while National Forests do to an extent. Never collect without permission.

Is it a bone or a stone?

There are a few things to consider when determining if the object you have found is a (fossilized) bone or a stone.

  • Where was it found? If it was in your lawn, it’s probably a rock. Consider what rock formations are around you and how old they are.
  • Look at the texture. A rock will either be made up of packed sediment or crystalized minerals, whereas a fossilized bone will likely show evidence of the canals and webbing featured in actual bone.

Is it a modern bone or is it a fossilized bone?

Discarded bones have canals and webbing within them that are hollow. If the bone has fossilized, this texture will likely still be evidence, but it will have been “filled” by mineralization. This also means that fossilized bones will likely feel heavier. Depending on how the bone fossilized, it may also have an altered color.

Dig Deeper

Explore other resources for better understanding paleontology, geology, and our local fossil landscape in Santa Cruz County.

Fossils at the Museum

On exhibit at the Museum

  • Cast of a fossil sea cow (Dusisiren jordani) excavated from the Santa Margarita Formation at a Zayante sand quarry in 1963.
  • Fossil skull of an American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) discovered in March 1980 by Aptos resident Jim Stanton. He spotted the giant molars protruding from a gravel bank along Aptos Creek.
  • Fossil jaw bone of a baleen whale from the Santa Margarita Formation in Scotts Valley.
  • An array of shark teeth (including Megalodon), bivalves, plants, and the skulls of a fossil dolphin, walrus, and sea lion, as well as microfossils.
  • Garden fossils: Take a stroll around the Museum’s Garden Learning Center and see if you can spot our large whale fossils.
  • Activities for kids: Multiple dig boxes features Santa Margarita Formation fossils of sand dollars and casts of a fossil sea cow.

Bring fossils home

Rent a kit to explore local fossils at home. Kit rentals are $10 per week and can be requested here (you do not need to be a teacher to request a rental).

Explore our other online fossil resources

Shop the geology and paleontology section of our online store

Local Paleontologists: Then & Now

Books and Papers

Online Resources

Other Resources

Have a question? Email us at info@santacruzmuseum.org.

How to Make a Spore Print

Sure, you can make beautiful pieces of art from the spores of a mushroom, but you can also learn more about the mushroom in the process, too!

Watch this video to learn how to make a spore print and explore more resources below.

Do you know what a spore is?

A spore is a reproductive cell. Some plants make them but bacteria, algae, and fungi make them too. Spores are to mushrooms as seeds are to plants. Spores are how mushrooms reproduce and make more mushrooms. 

The first step to making a spore print is collecting a mushroom.

You can collect from:

  • Your yard
  • Your friend’s yard (with permission)
  • Local city park. 

You cannot collect from:

  • Someone else’s property without permission
  • State parks

Please follow the rules of where you collect and make sure it is okay to collect from the area you are visiting. 

Bring something to carry your mushroom with, like a basket or paper bag. You don’t want them to get squished in your pocket! Only pick the mushroom if there are a lot around because they are important for the environment

Do you know why mushrooms are important? 

Mushrooms are decomposers which means that they break down dead materials such as fallen leaves and logs to make soil and nutrients that help other living things survive. Remember to wash your hands after handling mushrooms!

Once back home:

  1. Gather jars or containers big enough to place over the mushrooms. Gather white and black paper. It is okay if you only have white paper, but some mushroom spores are white and therefore they won’t show up on white paper that well. 
  2. Take the stems off the mushrooms using your hands or scissors. 
  3. Place the mushrooms with the gills or pores facing down onto the paper. Then place the container over the mushroom to create an airtight seal.
  4. Leave the mushrooms covered anywhere from a couple hours to overnight based on how fresh the mushrooms are.
  5. After you let the mushrooms sit for a while, carefully pick up the containers and the mushrooms to reveal the spore print. Spore prints are fragile, so try to avoid touching it. 

Resources for identifying mushrooms

FULL Member Meet-Up: Birding at Struve Slough

Saturday, March 13 | 9-11 a.m.
Member Exclusive | FULL

Member Meet-Ups are small group get-togethers for Museum Members where we learn from each other while exploring Santa Cruz’s diverse natural spaces. Not yet a Member? Join today!

Watsonville’s wetlands are among the best birding locations in the state — many local birders might chime in with, “Nay! The World!” From migratory teals and buffleheads, to stilts, shorebirds, and swallows, Struve Slough is a must see for anyone interested in spotting birds.

For this month’s Member Meet-Up, we invite you to join us for a morning of birding along the Upper Struve Trail as we try to spot as many of the roughly 400 species that reside or migrate through our County as we can (we will not get close, but we’ll see plenty). Your guides will be our Education Coordinator Spencer Klinefelter (avid birder extraordinaire) and Public Programs Manager Marisa Gomez (development of birding prowess in progress).

Please review the following details prior to registering:


  • Wear a mask at all times
  • If you feel sick, stay home
  • Maintain at least six feet of distance from others
  • We are limiting the number of Members who can join us to 12 individuals


  • Location details and further instructions will be shared upon registration.
  • Member Meet-Ups are more focused on shared exploration and less on downloading a bunch of information. We promise friendly (masked) faces, an abundance of enthusiasm, resources to aid in identifications, and a fun morning jaunt through the redwoods.
  • As is the case with most ornithological, botanic, and geologic explorations, we will likely not travel very far due to constant distractions and pauses. That being said, be prepared to traipse through the woods on uneven terrain.

Become a Member

3/11 Ten Years Since the Tsunami with the UCSC Seismology Lab

Thursday, March 11 | 6-7 p.m.
Free Zoom Webinar | Register for Link

Santa Cruz Harbor after the tsunami (Karen T. Borchers/Mercury News)

The March 11, 2011 magnitude 9.1 Tohoku-oki earthquake and accompanying tsunami was devastating to Japan and affected regions all around the Pacific Ocean, including here in Santa Cruz.

On the tenth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami, Heather Savage and Kristina Okamoto of the UC Santa Cruz Seismology Lab will talk about how and why the earthquake occurred and the lessons learned by earthquake scientists from this event. We will also discuss how Japan has recovered since the earthquake.

About the speakers

Heather Savage | Associate Professor, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, UC Santa Cruz

Professor Heather Savage’s research focuses on earthquakes and faults. Using both laboratory experiments and field studies, she works on questions regarding the strength and stability of faults in order to improve our understanding of when and where larger earthquakes occur. She uses rock deformation and friction experiments at pressures and temperatures relevant to the seismogenic zone to study in situ fault conditions where earthquakes start. Heather uses field observations of fault structure, particularly mapping earthquake slip and fault damage zones, to provide windows into the processes that occur during earthquakes, such as heat production and chemical reaction, that affect fault zone mechanics. She has worked in a variety of geologic settings, studying faults in California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Alaska, Wyoming, Japan and New Zealand.

Kristina Okamoto | Graduate Student, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, UC Santa Cruz

Kristina Okamoto is a graduate student in the seismology lab at UCSC. Currently, she’s studying an induced earthquake sequence in Prague, Oklahoma in order to analyze the mechanics of earthquakes. She also uses laboratory experiments to explore the physics of friction at conditions relevant to earthquake depths.

Register for Link

FULL Out and About: Indigenous Culture of Santa Cruz

A child holds a basket of bay nuts.

Saturday, March 6 | 10-11 a.m.
Free (donations appreciated) | FULL

Out and About is a monthly series of family-friendly, small group get-togethers exploring Santa Cruz’s diverse natural spaces through guided activities.

There is a rich history of Indigenous culture in Santa Cruz, originally named Aulinta by the Awaswas-speaking Uypi people. Join us for a morning exploring this Indigenous culture and the relationships between people, plants, and animals. We’ll learn about oral tradition, ethnobotany, and traditional tools outside in the Museum’s Garden Learning Center. Families are encouraged to attend, but all ages are welcome. Please review the following details prior to registering:


  • Wear a mask at all times
  • If you feel sick, stay home
  • Maintain at least six feet of distance from others
  • We are limiting this to 12 individuals
  • Registration is required

Other ways to explore the Indigenous culture of Santa Cruz:

Become a Member

Rockin’ Pop-Up: Biogenic Geology

When we think of geology and rocks, living things rarely jump to mind unless we’re talking about fossils. And when we think of fossils, we usually think of mineralized bones and shells or tell-tale impressions within sedimentary rocks. Some rocks, however, are made up entirely of the fossilized remains of once living creatures. These “biogenic” sedimentary rocks are an important part of the solid Earth and more common than you might think! The Geology Gents are no biologists, but they nonetheless explore biogenic sedimentary rocks and the incredible geologic histories they record.

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! Note: you do not need to have a Facebook account to be able to watch the program live.

Watch Past Pop-Ups
Read our blog Rock Record

Coyote Skull Activity | K-3 Grade

Side view of a taxidermied coyote

Coyotes are widely known as clever animals. Commonly heard, less commonly seen, and rarely surprised, coyotes are able to survive in all kinds of habitats thanks to their ability to eat lots of different foods.

Explore a coyote skull and learn about how these tricky creatures are able to adapt to eating different foods, and how teeth and skeletons can tell us a lot about how an animal survives!

Materials Provided:

Use this activity with our rentable coyote specimen! Learn more about kit and specimen rentals HERE.