Collections Close-Up: Keeping Up With the Past

It has been over a month since the Museum closed for public safety, and the world is full of changes.

For many of us, this means reconfiguring our sense of community in a world of physical distancing and protective barriers. Although it is hard, community is about more than shared physical presence. Among other things, it is also about identity, common values, and a sense of history. For this month’s collections close-up, we invite you to take a closer look into one such history – that of the museum itself. 

The newsletter outlines the difference between bees in our exhibit

Building on last month’s Close-Up, our commitment to digitization doesn’t stop with our specimens. The story of keeping those things safe and making them accessible is as much about the keepers as it is about the objects themselves. We maintain an archive of documents, flyers, posters, pictures, receipts and records related to the history and happenings of the Museum and its keepers. This includes the forerunner of today’s email: newsletters.

These physical, mailer-style newsletters, spanning decades from the seventies to the late aughts, paint a vivid portrait of daily life at the museum. There are postings for classes and lectures, announcements for exhibits and fundraisers, listings for volunteer activities and kids camps. And, perhaps most exciting to those of us of a collecting mind, recurring lists of specimens and objects accessioned by the museum in a given month. 

Visitor Services Representative Mary Verutti is the Collections Department’s guest star on this project. She is charting a path through the past by investigating the articles and advertisements for details that will resolve inconsistencies and span gaps of knowledge about both the Collections and the Museum itself.

Announcing new Museum technology!

Mary is a big fan of history, and the newsletters don’t disappoint – she feels as if all the when, where, how and why of our Museum are in these pages. As our most veteran employee, she’d be the one to know! They even give glimpses into stories of other local institutions like Santa Cruz Surf Museum, where Mary also works. She especially enjoyed seeing continuities, like the establishment of our docent program, and evolutions, like the transition of our Illustrating Nature exhibit series into today’s Art of Nature.

Name changes like this one can be a confusing part of reading primary documents, as Mary points out. In exploring these pages, one encounters a variety of names including the Seabright Museum, Carnegie Museum, City Museum, Whale Museum, Crafts House, Main Library Museum, Tyrell House – all used to describe our institution and collections in some form. Tracking name changes like this is not so different from keeping up to date on the changes in the scientific names of specimens – both tasks are an important part of maintaining good records. 

These newsletters also attest to broader challenges in the Museum’s history, including difficult economic times. Mary speaks for all us when she says that the Museum community’s response to challenges never ceases to amaze her.

While we work to make all existing newsletter issues available online, we are providing a sneak peek here at some of the newsletters Mary is currently working on. In the spirit of International Museum Day (May 18th), find your favorite and share it with someone who, like Mary, finds the Museum to be an “easy place for a heart to land.” For a more narrative take on our history, check out Frank Perry’s history lecture or explore other posts here in the Collections Close-Up blog. 

A program listing for the Nautical Neighbors series

Collections Close-Up: Towards Digital Nests and Online Eggs

Dusting feathers, labeling fossils, freezing foxes. Checking conditions, inventorying subcollections, replacing boxes. Measuring shelves, sorting photos, scanning files. The steady hum of the dehumidifier over the muffled murmurings of distant meetings. Collections work lives at the intersection of the physical and the abstract, where a great deal of our time is devoted to the preservation of our specimens, objects, and artifacts so that they continue to be available for the creation of knowledge.

What then, is collections work when not at the museum?

A critical part of our ongoing efforts is the expansion of access to our collections through the process of digitization. So, on the eve of the shelter in place in order, collections assistant Isabelle West spent hours upon hours scanning as many of our undigitized ornithology catalog cards as she could so that we could continue this important work.

Digitization is the conversion of analog data to digital data. For many of us this is an easy definition. But collections are as diverse as their contents, and each museum must decide if their digitization work focuses on specimens and labels, or extends to field notes, accession records and more.

For us, digitization is twofold: It includes conversion of our foundational records, (catalog records and the accession paperwork that supports our ownership of our cataloged items) while building infrastructure and staff expertise in specimen photography. With the latter unavailable, the former becomes the focus.

Transcribing these cards, which at present focus on eggs and nests, Isabelle gets up close and personal with the ins and outs of decades of record keeping. This is one of her favorite parts about the process – getting to be part of the collaborative conversation that captures as many as three or four voices describing, updating, and inventorying information about this nest, or that clutch of eggs. She enjoys observing trends in collecting, like being able to see that almost all of our eggs were collected between 1880 and the mid 1890’s, or that the majority of the eggs were collected in June.  Happily, her work means we’re headed to a place where museum patrons, researchers, and the wider public can also make observations about our data.

That data is critical to the value of scientific collections; the who-what-when-where details of collecting. A big challenge to creating good records, Isabelle points out, is when there is little to no data, or when what’s there presents puzzles like the red dot stickers that were used to signify that some form of fumigation treatment was applied to the specimen.

And while Isabelle is leading this charge, she’s not alone. Given the hundreds of records, record digitization is incorporated into all collections-related workflows. Recent projects include work by former intern Jordan Bakhtegan, who digitized and inspected specimens in our mollusk collection, and our ongoing ethnographic record digitization and review project led by Dr. Alirio Karina, PhD, whose scholarship interrogates practices of representation in ethnographic museums.

This process of digitization isn’t new to us – museum staff have undertaken various computerization projects over the years. Two of my favorite 80s-era relics are an IBM keyboard box used as temporary housing for a set of eggs in the teaching collections, and a brittle black binder entitled “Usage of Computers in Museum Collection” – both of which attest to the early interest of museum staff in taking advantage of the digital age. However, various efforts have fallen victim to different kinds of data decay – disks can get corrupted, databases can crash, and data input documents can get misplaced. A critical part of digitization is preservation, and our present commitment to collections stewardship is anchored, in part, on an industry standard collections management database, complete with physical and cloud backups, that unites all of our laboriously created collections data under one (digital) roof.

But stewardship is as much about sharing things as keeping them safe. 

Historically we’ve done this through exhibits, pop ups, research appointments and more. More recently, we’ve added elements like the Laura Hecox Collections Guide or the Naturalist’s Scrapbook. Now that we are more aggressively pursuing digitization, we can also start looking at how to take part in the vibrant global conversation around the data mobilization or use. 

As large scale data aggregators like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), Integrated Digitized Biocollections (iDigBio), Vertnet come into their second and third decades, researchers are reflecting not only on the history of digitized collections, but also the ways they are transforming how we ask questions about the world around us. An analysis of the past ten years of scholarship utilizing publicly accessible biodiversity databases richly depicts the triumphs and challenges of the field. Echoing UC Berkeley paleontology professor Charles Marshall on unlocking the value of fossil collections, we are excited for the ways that digitization will not only bring our collections into deeper conversation with the public, but also with the larger pursuit of knowledge.

Collections Close-Up: Fur Seal Fossil Focus

The Central Coast is packed with pinnipeds for all seasons. From regular sightings of harbor seals and seal lions, to special occasions like elephant seal breeding season, which wraps up at the end of this month. An even more special sight would be northern fur seals, who spend more than 300 days a year out at sea. An even rarer sight would be their extinct ancestors, if it weren’t for your neighborhood natural history museum’s fossil display!

Out from its permanent home in our local paleontology exhibit for a closer look this month, this fragmentary fossil is a partial cranium and frontal skull region of the ancient pinniped Thalassaleon macnallyae. Compare this specimen to modern pinnipeds, including their descendant the northern fur seal.  Thalassaleon means sea lion in Greek, and is the name of an extinct genus of the family otariidae. Otariidae, including fur seals and sea lions, are a group of carnivorous semi-aquatic marine mammals with flippers and visible external ears. Together with Phocidae, the earless or true seals like harbor seals, and Odobenidae, whose only living member is the walrus, and the extinct Desmatophocidae family, these families make up the clade of pinnipeds. 

This fossilized cranium, which belonged to an immature individual, was collected but not identified from near Soquel Point by teenager Gerald Macy in the late 1930s or early ‘40s. Many fossil hunters have cut their teeth collecting along the Opal Cliffs, and Macy was no exception. In 1939 the local paper described the then 17-year old as “the local authority on paleontology, a position attained by more than five years painstaking search of the rich stratas [of the cliffs]”.

While the cliffs of Capitola have exposed countless fossils for science, they are special for this species: Thalassaleon macnallyae has only been found in exposures of the Purisima formation in Central and Northern California. The first of its kind to be formally described was uncovered in Point Reyes by paleontologist Kathleen MacNally Martin in 1965. As a whole, this species has a geochronologic range of 6.9-5.33 Ma.

As the ancestor of the modern northern fur seal, this specimen represents millions years of life in Santa Cruz. Today its descendants spend most of their time on the open ocean where they feed on a variety of fish and squid. They come ashore to reproduce and molt on rocky or sandy beaches of islands in the eastern North Pacific and Bering Sea, including California’s San Miguel Island and South Farallon Island. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were hunted for their luxurious pelts: their insulating fur boasts 46,500 fibers per square centimeter. Although they are now protected, they face threats from debris entanglement, fisher interactions, and climate change throughout their range. 

Our ancient fur seal specimen’s story doesn’t stop with its own descendants – it also has a role in putting together the puzzle pieces of pinniped evolution. Its measurements, along with those of a variety of other pinniped fossils, were used by paleontologists Robert Boessenecker and Morgan Churchill in 2015 to identify an older species of fur seal – Eotaria crypta, the oldest discovered otariid specimen. 

Boessenecker was looking through pinniped fossils at the Cooper Center in Orange County in 2012 when he spotted a small fur seal jaw whose identification seemed at odds with the age of the rock formation in which it was found. He suspected that the specimen might represent a missing link between otariids and the ancient ancestor of pinnipeds from which they diverged.

To confirm, the paleontologists analyzed more than 115 morphological features from specimens representing more than 23 taxonomic groups, including the star of this month’s Close Up. By preserving fossils like the remains of Thalassaleon macnallyae as well as others, our collections can further our understanding of the history of life on earth. 

We couldn’t do that without the paleontologists who put in the work to study our collections, and we were thrilled to talk to California native Robert Boessenecker about what that process looks like. 

He says that the decision to study a fossil begins with how interesting it is – whether it helps tell a story,  fill a hole in current knowledge or has unusual features or strange preservation. From there it takes a combination of fieldwork, fossil preparation, museum visits, and data collection to understand a fossil’s significance.  

Boessenecker, who teaches at the College of Charleston and blogs about his research, is no stranger to SCMNH. Bobby, as he is often referred to in our records, has been hunting for fossils in Santa Cruz since he himself was a teenager, and has gifted some of his finds to our museum. This kind of collection, he says, is perhaps unique to the field of paleontology – how easy it is for community scientists (e.g. amateur fossil collectors) to make serious contributions to science.  

Stop by this month to check out one such contribution – our fossil fur seal in focus.

Collections February 2020: Frequent Flyers

If fungi had a poster child, who would it be? A classic red capped amanita? Or maybe an exuberantly golden chanterelle? Or maybe, just maybe, it would be one of the eclectic cast of characters that has periodically adorned Fungus Fair flyers from as far back as the 1970s!

Centered in a square frame, a grasshopper (or another member of the family orthoptera) leans an “elbow” onto a table piled high with vibrant fungal forms, reaching lazily towards this treasure trove. Nearby, what appears to be an excited alligator lizard is poised to pop a mushroom in it is mouth. It’s a homey scene, but unlikely beyond the goofy trope of animals at a table. While grasshoppers, who prefer leafy green meals, will turn to fungi for food, alligator lizards might likelier eat their fellow fair guest! 

Zooming out, these whimsical Fungus Fair attendees are in a series of rooms full of fungi. The specimens appear to be planted into the floor, recalling the elaborate dioramas of the fair, where a visitor might wonder how they walked through the doors of the Louden Nelson Center and found themselves in a forest. And while these elaborate displays have been an iconic part of the event, it hasn’t always been held at Louden.

In fact, the first festival was held in 1974 here at your favorite local natural history museum, then called the Santa Cruz City Museum. From the beginning, it featured more than 150 varieties of wild native mushrooms, displayed in those trademark habitat dioramas with detailed identifications. Originally a joint project of the Museum, mycologist David Arora, and enthusiastic community members who would become the Fungus Federation, the event quickly grew to thousands of guests. There were even years where the very rains that supported fungal growth would cancel the tables and activities that had to spill out into Tyrrell Park. 

Looking for more space, the fair moved around and eventually settled at Louden in the 1990s. In describing the choice of venue, longtime member and mushroom identification instructor Phil Carpenter pointed out the value of not only having more space, but of having a facility where the Federation could begin setting up displays many days ahead of time. This extra time is a critical requirement for specimen preservation and display, as Federation members are called upon to gather various specimens in the days leading up to each year’s fair. Dive into years of the Fungus Federation’s digitized newsletters for more on the nuts and bolts of everything from fair set up to making that ideal chanterelle pasta. 

This shared history is one of the reasons why our own archive has so many Fungus Fair treasures. Another reason is the treasure who was a longtime volunteer, Pat Smith. Building on last month’s close up, the people behind these posters weren’t always science illustrators – sometimes they were silkscreening powerhouses!

Pat and her husband Kirk Smith arrived in Santa Cruz in the mid 1970s after serving in the Peace Corps. Some of their adult children had established roots in the community, and they soon followed suit. One of the organizations they both cared a great deal about was our little museum. Pat gravitated towards active and tangible ways to support her causes – she would rather be printing t-shirts and flyers for the gift shop than serving on a board. And make them she did – for countless events ranging from public festivals to staff birthday parties. 

Her daughter and current board member Laura Smith remembers Pat’s constant outpouring of creative activity over the course of a lifetime – from making linocuts with one of her small daughters, to teaching underserved students sewing and photography after her own kids had grown up, to turning part of the couple’s Santa Cruz home into a silkscreen studio. If you stopped in at Pat and Kirk’s for a visit, and mentioned you liked frogs, Pat would jump at the chance to invite you into the darkroom to make yourself a frog t-shirt.

You can see one of the screens used to print our fun fungi dinner guests, as well as different iterations of posters, mailers, and even aprons featuring this design on display this month at the Museum. And you can find more fungi images and interactives as part of our final month of the visiting exhibition Mushrooms: Kings to the Kingdom Fungi.  

Fun Forms: Nature Illustration in Fungus Fair Posters

With the Central Coast awash in new growth, this time of year finds many a fungus hunter stalking the landscape to feast their eyes, expand their minds, or feed their stomachs. For the January and February Collections Close-Ups, we went hunting in the museum’s archives to highlight stories of fungus and the people who appreciate them.  

A beloved institution for many of us, the Fungus Federation is a community organization that promotes love for and study of fungi. They welcome folks of all skill levels, from amateurs just learning what to look for, to experts helping science look more closely at the mycoflora of Santa Cruz County. In addition to educational events, workshops, and classes, they support scientific research through scholarships and grants. A federation member might be just as likely to help you learn what a particular mushroom is, as they are to advise you on how to cook it. Of course, one doesn’t always follow the other – in the words of mushroom enthusiasts, who seem equally fond of fun sayings as they are of caution – there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.

And they don’t just put the fun in fungi, they put on the famous annual Fungus Fair! This year’s festivities will take place from January 10 to 12 at Louden Nelson Community Center. The festivities of yesteryear can also be found in our pop up display of previous fair posters. 

The Federation’s knack for bringing people together over fungi extends to the robust local community of science and nature illustrators. This selection of posters highlights diverse strategies and styles used to depict the natural world, from watercolor to block printing to photo collage. Oftentimes the artists have been graduates of UCSC’s former science illustration certificate program. We were lucky enough to catch up with two of them.

Cynthia Armstrong’s illustration for the 2003 Fungus Fair poster is a striking combination of stark contrasts and intricate detail, highlighting a variety of fungus species ensconced within a delicate network of vines. She made it not long after completing her science illustration degree, committed to pursuing a career that dovetailed her first love, science, with her lifelong creative impulses. As an artist, Cynthia loves to show her processes – the unfolding of a subject in process recalls how the scientific exploration for answers often unfolds into new questions. As a science illustrator, she has enjoyed taking part in this process across the world, whether illustrating mammoth bones in Maine’s state museum or documenting plants for a field botanist in Panama.  

At home on the Central Coast, Cynthia loves that the redwoods are always full of opportunities to find fungus. The incredible diversity of fungus keeps her intrigued – their otherworldly and alien forms and structures are a joy to illustrate. She still regularly attends the Fungus Fair with her family, having first attended decades ago when fair founder David Arora was signing copies of his newly published classic, Mushrooms Demystified. You can catch Cynthia’s current work, including local classes, on her website.

Gay Kraeger’s work for the 2004 fair poster provides another perspective: four species of dreamily watercolored fungi chart a circle in time – guiding the viewer on what season one might be most likely to find them. Gay actually created this image years before she formally got into illustration. Her neighbors at the time, Fungus Federation members who were in the habit of hosting parties with delicious food, asked her to help illustrate a fungi cookbook they were putting together. Gay was happy to help – she’d always been in engaged with art, and natural history is her favorite subject. 

Today her career continues to bring together these interests: on the one hand she teaches illustrated watercoloring journaling. Her own journaling entries are stunning. She loves to see people become more excited and aware of the world as they build the confidence to draw it. On the other hand, she and her business partner Holly Reed run an interpretive design firm called Wildways Illustrated. You can see their work all over the state, but locally they’ve contributed to signage and exhibits at places like Natural Bridges, Ano Nuevo, and the Boardwalk. She’s excited to be working on a welcome panel for Henry Cowell, where park staff made sure to request a turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) as a primary feature. 


For the next two months, these posters and others from the history of the Fungus Fair will be displayed alongside a riveting traveling exhibit. We are excited to be hosting Mushrooms: Keys to the Kingdom Fungi, an exhibition developed by Jennifer Jewell and John Whittlesey.

Collections December 2019: Fossils and Field Experiences

This December’s Collections Close Up features a familiar face, rather, fossil. We’re highlighting a whale ear bone that lives in our permanent fossil exhibit, currently under wraps for the final month of our Sense of Scale exhibit about earthquakes, Loma Prieta, and seismologist Charles Richter. In doing so we are also able to explore the locale from which this fossil was uncovered through a virtual field experience of the Purisima Formation. 

About the size of an oblong, to the casual observer this specimen might look like a cross between a seashell and a shriveled nut. It is in fact the ear bone of an ancient whale of unknown species. More specifically, it is a tympanic or auditory bulla, a bony capsule enclosing and protecting delicate parts of the middle ear. 

In humans, sound waves are funneled through the fleshy outer ear down the ear canal to the eardrum, where this bony protection is part of the temporal bone of the skull. This system works well in the air, but as anyone who has gone swimming knows, not so well in water. Part of the reason sound comes out garbled is because of the connection of the ear bones – your skull and your eardrums are all vibrating in response to sound waves at the same time, rather than in sequence, making it difficult to pinpoint the garbled sound’s origin. 

For cetaceans, the category of marine mammals that includes dolphins and porpoises, that just couldn’t cut it. These creatures evolved about 50 million years ago from a terrestrial mammal that looked something like a small hippopotamus. When it comes to life in the water, sound is a much more effective sense than light for communication, hunting, and finding your way. They have no external ear openings, and instead of sound waves traveling through an ear canal, they rely on pads of fat in their jaws to amplify vibrations from the water.

For a more in depth discussion of fossil whale ear bones, check out the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s paleontology blog. This article describes just one example of how scientists can learn a ton from this relatively small bone found in large creatures. In addition to shedding light on the ancient ancestors of whales, the study of these bones can illuminate how it came about that toothed whales hear best at high frequency ranges while baleen whales hear best at low frequency ranges, how it may be the case that some whales hear well at both, and more.

Our fossil was found in 1973, embedded in a chunk of Purisima Formation exposed along the Capitola Coast dating between 3 to 7 million years old. In general, museums and paleontologists are careful about how we track and provide access to information on where fossils are found in order to help preserve as much scientific information as possible while also protecting fossil discovery sites for science and the public. At the same time, this caution is balanced with a commitment to educate and share information about these same discoveries. An exciting example of educational outreach featuring the same general area where this ear bone was found is the Eastern Pacific Invertebrate Communities of the Cenozoic partnership’s Virtual Field Experiences initiative.

These virtual field experiences are richly immersive presentations of text, image, and video that serve as online excursions to different classic paleontological sites. So far there are two VFE’s, with more on the way. The first focused on the Kettleman Hills on the western edge of the central valley,  Fortunately for us, the second focuses on two areas on the central coast where the Purisima formation can easily be observed – at Moss Beach in San Mateo County and at Capitola Beach here in Santa Cruz County.

The whole project is a National Science Foundation funded effort involving several institutions, including folks at UC Berkeley and the Paleontological Research Institute, to increase public access to Cenozoic marine invertebrate fossils along the Pacific coast of the Americas. And while that means the focus is more on the fossils of creatures like clams and sea snails than vertebrate specimens like our whale ear bone, the project pages are a rich trove of information on everything from the nature of fossils, to best practices for ethical collecting, to the journey of fossils from field sites to museum collections. 

This last part is particularly exciting for us, as we work on increasing access to our own collections. And while EPICC and their VFE’s are part of an enormous, national, and multi-institutional effort, they still serve as an incredible model of how many different ways digitized collections can reach people. In the meantime, stop by the museum this month to see this ancient ear bone front and center in the Collections Close Up display.

Collections November 2019: Leaving an Impression

cottonwood leaf with a newspaper printed on it

Sometimes nature can feel distant. As we move through the obligations and opportunities of everyday life, it can be hard to see the way that the natural world shapes the things we do and see. At other times, we can’t help it. Like when you finally have time to take that walk in the woods, or when you’re awakened by an earthquake, or your hair is tousled by the wind. Or, when someone is using nature to make a point.

One such example is this month’s Collections Close-Up: a newspaper issue printed, not on paper, but on the leaf of a tree picked in the Santa Cruz Mountains one hundred and three years ago this November. 

In 1916 newspapers were embattled by the high cost of paper. This was due in part to supply shortages caused by World War One, which were aggravated by a widespread increase in publication demand. Closer to home, the relatively new publisher of Boulder Creek’s Mountain Echo paper had another problem: his readers weren’t paying their fees.

To drive home the stark realities of the situation, Luther McQuesten printed four issues of his paper on leaves! A contemporary article from the American Printer and Lithographer ties McQuesten’s strategy to the changing of the seasons: “The advent of fall gave him an idea, and he gathered a bale of golden cottonwood leaves, which are broad and smooth and the Mountain Echo began echoing on Nature’s own papyrus.” 

Although now faded from gold to brown, this November 18th, 1916 issue still carries the news of the day. An editorial extols the virtues of Boulder Creek’s beautiful trees and babbling brooks, local families have visitors, a Winchester rifle is for sale, and D.E. French is visiting again to enjoy the scenery and collect specimens of native woods.  

The leaves proved sturdy, and our collection is not the only one that stewards one of these remarkable issues. The Boulder Creek Branch of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries has some copies on display, and the San Lorenzo Valley Museum has some in their collection as well. In fact, the San Lorenzo Valley Museum houses the original copies of the Boulder Creek Mountain Echo newspaper, both those made with “nature’s own papyrus” as well as plain old wood pulp. 

We reached out to SLV Museum Board President, Lisa Robinson, to learn more about this unique object. Lisa is a wealth of knowledge, especially when it comes to the Santa Cruz Mountains. She has also authored the “Redwood Logging and Conservation in the Santa Cruz Mountains: A Split History,” among other things.

Lest you think this leaf printing was a tired gimmick, Lisa told us that in all her years of working in museums and historical collections, she hasn’t encountered anything like this object. She highlights the technical feat of being able to print legibly on both sides of the fragile leaf. McQuesten was fully committed to people actually being able to read these nature notes – an attitude underscored by the fact that the newspaper subsequently reprinted the content of each issue on regular paper. While we don’t know exactly which of the newspapers’ presses was used for this printing, one of them still exists and is now at San Francisco’s Book Club of California.

Newspaper office for The Mountain Echo in Boulder Creek, CA
The Mountain Echo offices, Boulder Creek, CA

In this image from the SLV Museum’s collections you can see the Mountain Echo office at the corner of Highway 9 and Forest St, in downtown Boulder Creek. Less than a block away from the location of the former office stands a handful of cottonwood trees (Populus fremontii). 

In 1917, an article from the Santa Cruz Evening News described the printed leaves as having brought McQuesten a “vast amount of desirable publicity” from all over the United States. Despite this notoriety, McQuestion’s stunt didn’t appear to have its desired effect: the Mountain Echo ceased publication shortly afterwards. And while the Mountain Echo is no longer covering local news nor nagging delinquent subscribers, this page of “nature’s papyrus” persists. It will be on display all this month in the Museum’s Collections Close Up, highlighting the contrast between nature we think of as natural, and the items from nature we use everyday.

If you want to explore more on related topics, stop in the Museum Gift Shop to find Lisa’s book about conservation in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and on November 23, join us for a seminar on American Indian Art, made from nature’s resources. 

Collections October 2019: Sheer Coincidence

sooty shearwater specimen
Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea)

“It’s the end of the world!” 

Thus interrupts the drunk man from the corner of the bar, as the leading lady of Hitchock’s The Birds tries to get some answers. Outside in the sleepy town of Bodega, California, birds are everywhere. They’re massing at playgrounds, dive-bombing pedestrians — malicious attacks, intentional and murderous. It just so happens that one of the bar’s customers is an ornithologist – a baffled bird scientist who insists that birds don’t have the brain power to mount a deliberate attack – and yet, we know how serious the situation gets. 

This month’s Collections Close-Up highlights the protagonists of Monterey Bay’s real life The Birds episode, as we explore how scientists, using historical museum collections, can help us understand the natural world even when things seem bizarre or scary. 

Sooty shearwaters (Ardenna grisea) like this one are seafaring birds that spend most of their lives on the ocean. Named for their rich gray-brown plumage, the birds have gray beaks and feet with a brush of silver-white under the wings. Sooty shearwaters complete a remarkable annual migration. Each year they cross a whopping forty thousand miles round trip from nesting sites in the Southern Hemisphere to the nutrient rich waters of the north Pacific, in one of the largest mass migrations known. Here off the coast of California, you can see them from mid summer to mid fall. The shearwaters can be observed in the summer, diving down as far as 200 feet, “swimming” with their wings in pursuit of anchovies and squid.  

Sadly, sometimes they get more than they bargain for.   

One such occasion, a hallmark of local lore, was rumored to have inspired Hithcock’s horror film. Around 3:30 in the morning on August 18, 1961, thousands of sick sooty shearwaters began slamming into the coast of the Monterey Bay. As they fell against homes, cars, and streets, primarily in Capitola, they disgorged half eaten anchovies. Some frightened folks were even bitten by the crazed birds. Municipal services struggled to clean them up. 

Two years later, Alfred Hitchcock released The Birds. We know that the Capitola incident caught his eye — he even called the editors of the Sentinel to ask about the news. However, at the time of the so called “Seabird Invasion” Hitchcock was already at work on a project inspired by British author Daphne DuMaurier’s 1952 novella of the same name.  As Capitola Museum’s Frank Perry points out in a Santa Cruz Waves article on the incident, that the sad fate of the sooty shearwaters mirrored the film was simply a coincidence. And where both stories portray their avian antagonists with a malicious intent, the actual culprit is more concrete: domoic acid. 

Domoic acid is a neurotoxin produced by diatoms in the Pseudo-nitzschia genus. When these single-celled photosynthetic organisms occur in high numbers, the toxin can build up in the fish and shellfish that eat them. While it doesn’t appear to harm them, as it accumulates up the food chain to birds and mammals, it can cause lethargy, dizziness, disorientation, seizures and death. In humans, those symptoms can include irreversible short term memory loss. 

Today, when seabirds are discovered with symptoms consistent with domoic acid poisoning, swift treatment can save their lives. This was not an option in the 1960s, in part because the mechanism of the poisoning was not yet known. While scientific work on domoic acid began taking off in the 1950s, it wasn’t until a major die off of pelicans and cormorants in 1991 that researchers began monitoring the presence and effects of domoic acid in the Monterey Bay. Within a few years, scientists began suggesting that domoic acid poisoning was also at play in the 1961 event.

In 2012, a team of researchers at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, intent on solving this scientific whodunit, examined the guts of zooplankton samples harvested in 1961, a few months before the berserk birds hit Capitola and the surrounding area. They confirmed sufficiently high levels of domoic acid-producing species of Pseudo-nitzschia diatoms had been consumed by zooplankton, who would in turn be eaten by the anchovies that poisoned the birds that ate them. As one of the researchers excitedly pointed out, historic specimens can provide answers that nothing else can, and in ways that were never imagined by the scientists who collected them.

The story certainly doesn’t end there. High levels of domoic acid in the food chain is a form of Harmful Algae Bloom. Also called HABs, these events are on the rise. HABs occur when there is a spike in the growth of algae with negative consequence for their surroundings, such as the accumulation of toxins or the depletion of oxygen. They occur when an excess of nutrients builds up in waterways, and are often associated with higher temperatures and stagnant water. Scientists are working to understand these occurrences and their complex consequences through monitoring projects across the California Central Coast and beyond

If toxic algae blooms are a little too dystopian for you, check out this year’s Museum of the Macabre for a more classic scare. We’ll be highlighting the natural and cultural history of our sometimes frightening feathered friends, from Hitchcock horror to ancient omens and beyond. Set the spooky mood by locking eyes with our very own Sooty Shearwater on special display for October’s Collections Close-Up.

References available upon request.

Collections September 2019: California’s Stately Grass

photo of a collected sample of purple needlegrass from Soquel, CA

Grass gets a lot of attention for being green, but in California it can be gold, blue or even purple! While rolling golden hills are synonymous with many mental pictures of California, that gilded landscape is overrun by non-native species. In fact, the grasslands that cover almost a fifth of the state are dominated by plants from elsewhere. Despite this, California’s grasslands remain a biodiversity hotspot, with an immense variety of native grasses coexisting with other flora and fauna. One such species is the star of September’s close up: purple needlegrass or Stipa pulchra, California’s State Grass.

A perennial bunchgrass, purple needlegrass grows as a dense clump with tall stems that can reach higher than three feet. When it flowers in spring, these stems are topped by wispy, branching flowers. These give rise to the striking purple and red-tinged fruit or grain for which the plant is named. The grass then produces seeds that are pointed in shape with twisting bristles which act as a self-sowing mechanism, helping them to self-bury in the bare earth around the base of the mature clumped plants. Their far-reaching roots can dig down an impressive 15 feet or more into the soil, supporting the plants over a lifetime that can extend beyond 100 years.

While we’ve learned a lot about these plants, some things are still hard to know – like how widespread purple needlegrass actually was before the disruption of California’s native ecosystems. Beginning around 250 years ago, early colonists brought various changes, ranging from accidental arrivals like seeds caught in clothing to intentional alterations like the planting of new grasses for grazing cattle. In many cases this led to the introduction of non-native grasses that out-competed locals like purple needlegrass.

As we strive to understand our environment, its changes and challenges, it is critical to document species through observation and collection. This individual specimen is a window in time to the hillsides of Soquel in 1976, where it was collected by the late Randy Morgan. Beloved naturalist and teacher, Morgan was a life-long champion of Santa Cruz’s rich biodiversity heritage.

Purple needlegrass itself promotes biodiversity in a number of ways! For example, the seeds it produces, up to a whopping 227 pounds per acre, feeds a host of grassland animals. The grass itself is foraged by native ungulates like tule elk, mule deer, and pronghorns. The clumped shape of bunch grasses creates space for a whole slew of flowering plants and pollinators. Those deep reaching roots help fight erosion, maintain soil moisture, and support the growth of young oak seedlings.

Some of these same attributes that support a rich and interconnected community are also part of what makes purple needlegrass fire resilient, a hot topic in the minds of Californians everywhere. The grass’ clumping nature creates a discontinuous fuel pattern in the path of a fire. The long, water—grabbing roots of these grasses means they dry out later in the summer, making them less likely to burn during during large portions of fire season. Sadly, these benefits are often overwhelmed by the widespread presence of continuous golden carpets of shallow-rooted, invasive grasses that dry out earlier in the year than many indigenous species.

Grasses are only one of the many ingredients in the making of a California fire. For a rich discussion of fire ecology across the history and future of California, check our our upcoming panel discussion, California on Fire on September 19th. To dig in to California’s native plant communities, check out the local California Native Plant Society or garden with us at the Museum’s twice monthly Saturdays in the Soil. And now through the end of September, check out the fine details and striking hues of our preserved purple needlegrass, on display at this month’s Collections Close-Up exhibit.

Collections August 2019: Small But Significant

Three small, stuffed mammal study skins sit side by side. From left to right, they include the broad-footed mole (Scapanus latimanus), the California mouse (Peromyscus californicus) and the dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes).
From left to right, these small mammal study skins include the broad-footed mole (Scapanus latimanus), the California mouse (Peromyscus californicus) and the dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes).

Small mammals conjure a wide range of emotions, from disgust at the sight of a rat in the kitchen to affection for a chipmunk’s fuzzy face. The diversity of these animals is just as varied as the feelings they inspire — in Santa Cruz County alone, surprisingly many different species of mice, rats, moles, and gophers tunnel under our feet and climb branches over our heads. We may rarely see them out in nature, but they encompass a diversity that’s sometimes overlooked.

A stuffed, broad-footed mole (Scapanus latimanus) sits face-forward.
Moles sport polydactyl forepaws, meaning each paw has an “extra thumb” (an elongated bone stemming from the wrist) that runs parallel to its first thumb. This adaptation could help moles, like this broad-footed mole, dig more efficiently.

This month, we’ll introduce you to a few members of these small but impactful creatures, along with some local research efforts to better understand them. Our collections hold a number of specimens ranging from the petite harvest mouse to shrew moles. While some of these are taxidermy mounts designed for diorama display, many are study skins. 

Study skins are effectively stuffed pelts that allow for compact and safe storage for future research. Researchers can pull chemical information from the fur to glean details about an animal’s diet or compare coloring across specimens to find evolutionary forces at work.

First, let’s explore the California mouse, or Peromyscus californicus. Because they’re nocturnal, small and fast, you might at first think this species is the same as the house mouse, or Mus musculus. In fact, the California mouse is larger, distinctly bi-colored with a white belly and tends to live in the burrows of larger animals across California chaparral and woodland, rather than in close association with humans.

A stuffed study skin of a California mouse (Peromyscus californicus) rests on a table top, whiskers pointing stiffly outward.
A close cousin of the house mouse, the California mouse (pictured here) is larger than its ubiquitous counterpart, bi-colored and dwells inside the burrows of larger animals.

Discovering the subtle differences that enable similar looking species to thrive in the same environment is part of what captivates rodent researcher Chris Law, who collaborated with us for this post. Law will start a postdoc at the American Museum of Natural History this fall and recently earned his PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from UCSC. While his research primarily focuses on sea otters, Law worked as a graduate mentor with UCSC’s Small Mammal Undergraduate Research in the Forest project, or SMURF, whose aim it is to monitor small mammal populations in Santa Cruz County while providing opportunities for undergraduate students to do hands-on field work.

As part of his research, Law investigated the dietary habits of mice by studying their bite force. Coaxing mice to bite onto measuring devices can be tricky, it turns out, so Law also studied skull morphology to round out his research. The differences he saw helped explain the preference these species seem to have, Peromyscus californicus for arthropods like insects and spiders and Peromyscus truei for acorns, which enables their success living side-by-side in the same ecosystem.

One reason why it’s important to learn more about small mammals, despite their seemingly inconsequential size, is because shifts in their population can warn us of problems elsewhere. Because they are lower on the food chain than many other animals in a given ecosystem, changes in their population reverberate through the population levels of the animals that eat them and the animals that eat those animals.

A stuffed study skin of a dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes) sits on a tabletop. Its brown fur is mottled with patches of light and dark brown, gray and black.
Dusky-footed woodrats, like the one pictured here, are expert builders, constructing elaborate, chambered nests that can last for decades.

Against this backdrop, finding a species can be just as important as not finding them. For example, in a 2017 project, undergraduate SMURF researcher Deanna Rhoades tested several sites in Felton where kangaroo rats once roamed. They found none, which, along with other records of a population contraction, means the rats are likely extinct in parts of their previous range. 

Dusky-footed woodrats (Neotoma fuscipes), on the other hand, are common throughout Santa Cruz. These rats, distinguishable from non-native black rats in part by their furry tails, are sophisticated architects and builders. Their homes, which can have a variety of different chambers and persist for 20 to 30 years, increase an ecosystem’s diversity by providing additional shelter for a variety of creatures like salamanders, slugs, snails and lizards. 

Law notes that one of the coolest things about working in museum collections is contributing to the team of people who forge a scientific record of life. Study skins, like the mole (Scapanus latimanus) specimen pictured above, hold scientific value in that they strengthen that record, which scientists need in order to detect changes over time in the field. That particular specimen was captured on Santa Cruz’s West Side in 1901, in Lighthouse Field when it used to be known as Phelan Park. As such, it can be used as a point of comparison for more than a century of mole populations on the California Central Coast. 

Happily, museums are more than just collections. They are also public exhibits! Take advantage of your chance this month to see these small but significant creatures — up-close, above ground and by the light of day — at our Collections Close-Up pop up exhibit, right by the Museum’s front desk.