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Collections Close-Up: Digging Into Learning

Fossils tell the changing story of life on earth over millennia – but they can also tell stories of more recent changes. For this month’s Collections Close-Up, we look at an ancient specimen and its deep timeline, as well as a more modern, local legacy of integrating paleontological adventures with educating young minds.

Photo of fossil leaf from the Miocene era.
Fossil leaf, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History collection

This fragment of a leaf-imprinted shale is a small slice of the Monterey Formation, an olive-gray to light-gray layer of shale and mudstone that underlies swaths of the Santa Cruz area. This formation, rich in once-organic material, was formed during the Miocene. Defined as the period of time between 5.33 and 23.03 million years ago, the Miocene was a period of great change for earth’s ecosystems. The earth’s ecosystems became cooler and drier, and animals like horses began to look more like they do today. And while there is much to explore in the world of Miocene mammals, this period also saw the first emergence of kelp forests and grasslands.

As distant as it may seem, you can explore the way the Miocene shapes present day places such as the Monterey Formation mudstone of Ano Nuevo Point or the ancient ocean beds that are today’s unique Santa Cruz Sandhills. Exploring these landscapes is a great way to observe stories of ancient life. In some places it is also possible to collect elements of these stories, as long as you maintain a responsible collecting ethic: research and follow the local laws, and consider the specific concerns of paleontology ethics

This month’s feature was given to the Museum in 1974, where it is preserved alongside several similar specimens collected by high school students, who were led in their own exploration of ancient local life by teacher William Miller. Bill, as he was also called, was an earth sciences instructor with an active local presence in organizations like the Museum Commission, the Boy Scouts, and the Gem and Mineral Society. His passion for promoting public understanding of science made him a common feature in the local papers in the 1970s, speaking about fossil whale finds and similar spectacular local fossils. 

Newspaper article with headline Fossilized Whale Skulls Found

Miller’s former students have fond memories of his classes, including his classroom’s improvised paleontology lab and how it helped them wrap their head around the history of the earth. But he was also a big believer in teaching beyond the classroom. Miller organized frequent field trips across the Santa Cruz County landscape for his students to learn firsthand about geology, paleontology, and even litter. 

Newspaper article with headline Students get some practical knowledge about litterbugs.

Oftentimes it is the eye catching creatures, like the whales and sea cows of ancient Santa Cruz oceans that capture our attention more than the subtle beauty of a delicate leaf impression. Another educator who has long been involved with the museum can speak to that as well – Wayne Thompson is a local middle school teacher, and paleontologist who helped prepare our stunning mastodon skull for exhibit in the early 1980s. His interests in science were encouraged by his education, and in particular, his teacher Bill Miller. Today, Wayne carries forward this legacy of connecting kids to science through paleontology – brimming with contagious excitement, he’s always happy to help the Museum, and always looking for ways to get his students involved in his paleontology projects. 

He’s particularly keen to explore how new tools, like virtual field trips and 3D scanning technologies, can get folks excited about fossils and other topics. Now that health precautions have moved many schools into virtual mode, the enthusiasm of teachers like Wayne for experiencing new tools is even more critical. To dig deeper into what we can learn from the Museum’s fossils, and to explore how one of our county’s teachers is meeting the challenges of virtual education in uncertain times, check out this month’s Collections Close-Up event.

Explore geology and paleontology with items from our Online Museum Store.
Learn more about geology with our Rockin' Pop Up programs.

Collections Close-Up: Collecting Spaces

One hundred and fifteen years ago this month, the Santa Cruz Museum first opened its doors to the public. Those doors were not the ones that visitors might walk through today. Indeed, the museum has had several homes in its evolution from the city’s first public museum to our present form as the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. As we continue to provide activities and inspiration for connecting with the natural world in this moment of physical distancing, this month’s Collections Close-Up looks at how the migration of our spaces influences our evolving collections.

Santa Cruz Lighthouse, early 1880s

A familiar foundation to our story is Laura Hecox, whose lighthouse museum provided the first home to what would become our collections. In 1869, Santa Cruz’s first lighthouse was built near the site of todays’ Mark Abbott Memorial lighthouse. Laura Hecox, having taken up the post of keeper after her father Adna passed away in 1883, made her collection available to the public as part of her regular lighthouse tours. Tall wooden shelves were packed full of carefully cataloged fossils, shells, birds, curios, and artifacts, which photographs from the 1880s depict as full to bursting. Her collection was a popular and respected local attraction and, in the early 1900s, was solicited for exhibition at Santa Cruz’s first library. 

Main Library, 1904

On April 14, 1904, the main branch of Santa Cruz’s public library opened to the public. The two story building housed more than 14,000 books on its first floor, with ample space to expand into its lower level. Plans for this space were already underway, and not just for books –  on April 13, 1904, Laura Hecox had already deeded a portion of her collection to make this space a public museum. Her friend, local luminary Dr. Charles Anderson, was quoted in a contemporary newspaper praising the combined virtue of libraries and museums in providing both explanations and examples for public knowledge. 

The museum opened to popular acclaim on August 21, 1905. While Laura’s collection seeded the museum, we know that from the beginning her collection was already being expanded. Laura made sure to acknowledge friends of the library who gave additional items for the opening, from a centipede collected in Arizona to Chilean coins. Despite this variety, the collection is usually described as one of natural history, and the library noted that they generated increased demand for books on natural history. This success of the museum as an educational endeavor would influence its next home. 

Santa Cruz High School after 1915

Santa Cruz’s first dedicated high school building opened in 1897, but tragically burned down in 1913. Fortunately, the Museum was relocated to the high school after it was rebuilt in 1915. This was likely motivated by the need for space, but a place of learning seemed the right home for the collections. Echoing others, the Santa Cruz Evening News described the high school as “preeminently the place in Santa Cruz where numbers are engaged to study. It is therefore a place where a museum may do a great deal of good.”

Some years after Santa Cruz’s original public museum collections took on the role of a high school teaching collection, the community’s museum fervor was rekindled. In 1929 Humphrey Pilkington gave his collection of Native American artifacts and other items to Santa Cruz on the condition that a dedicated museum be established to house it. The Tyrrell Arts and Crafts House, a community hub in the park adjacent to the Seabright Library, was chosen as the Santa Cruz Museum’s new location. As curator Jed Scott and various hard working volunteers set about cataloging and organizing Pilkington’s collections, they also began to solicit other gifts to the museum. Significantly, the museum lobbied and was successful in transferring the Hecox collection from the high school to Seabright. As part of the transfer, many items that had lost labels and records while at the high school had to be re-identified.

Tyrrell House, Early 1950s

Thus united the Hecox and Pilkington collections, along with many other invaluable donations, that remain in Seabright to the present day. In the mid 1950s they made one final, if incremental move into what was then the Seabright Library. After the library withdrew in 1965, the museum expanded into the entirety of the building, later making actual physical expansions to the rear of the building that today constitute staff offices and collections storage.  

In these spaces we ground our present efforts to preserve the collections for the future. As complex as the past is that brought us here, we also have a rich history of envisioning remodels, relocations, and other possible futures for what the museum could look like. And while we never expected this virtual future, we are confident that, in the same way we have been an important feature of the Santa Cruz community for 115 years, we will continue to meet the challenges that face the community, with our community, for another 115 years and more.  For a deeper dive into the intersection of our collections and space, different dreams for the Museum through time, and our current conservation efforts in our Carnegie building, register for our virtual Collections Close-Up event on August 13th.

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.

Collections Close-Up: On Kelp and Conservation

Watch this month’s presentation about the Collections Close-Up here. Members are invited to join us for these monthly extensions of the blog — become a Member today!

From glittering blues to shimmering silvers, the ocean punctuates the visual landscape of all who are fortunate to spend time along the Monterey Bay. Yet many of the beauties of the bay are elusive for terrestrial animals such as ourselves. Nonetheless, they can be just as dear to us as our redwood forests. Even now we find ways to connect to them – whether live streaming the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s kelp forest exhibit or exploring tide pools when beach open hours coincide with low tides. 

This month, we’re connecting to the museum’s own oceanic treasures, with a dive into our herbarium. Pressed onto paper and accompanied by handwritten collection notes, our collections of marine algae specimens are as beautiful as they are significant in tracking the changes in the bay. For while these specimens have been safely preserved in the Museum’s herbarium for decades, a different kind of preservation campaign is being waged in the ocean outside our doors. And it centers on kelp.

Sample of Macrocystis integrifolia

Kelp is the common term for large brown algae in the genus Laminariales. The bigger species in this genus form forest-like canopies in the lower intertidal and upper subtidal ocean floor. One such species is preserved in our collections: Macrocystis integrifolia. In contrast to the roughly 11×17” paper on which pieces of it are mounted, this organism can grow up to 20 feet long. Also called small perennial kelp, it’s scientific name is describes salient features: “macrocystis” is Greek for large bladder, in reference to the gas-filled floats called pneumatocysts that support the leaf-like blades which inspire the species name – “integrifolia” is Latin for “with entire leaves.” At their base, structures called holdfasts attach the algae to rocky surfaces. The holdfasts of M. integrifolia are flatter and branch differently than its more prominent relative, M. pyrifera or giant kelp, although some authorities consider them the same species. 

Kelp live in cool, nutrient rich waters where they sustain an immense diversity of life. As both food source and habitat, they support fish like rockfish, invertebrates like abalone, and mammals like sea otters. Humans, of course, interact with kelp forests as well. For thousands of years people have harvested kelp for food, and it is still a common ingredient in many surprising things. More recently it also has been used in manufacturing and medicine. And for several decades, we’ve looked at it for scientific monitoring. Lately, kelp has signaled some alarming changes.

Sample of Macrocystis integrifolia

“Marine dustbowl” is the term used by Mike Esgro to describe the scale and impact of the devastation of kelp forests on California’s north coast in particular. And Esgro would know: he is the marine ecosystems program manager and agency tribal liaison for California’s Ocean Protection Council. Keeping one foot in the world of research and another in conversations with tribal members, divers, fisherman and others, Esgro and his colleagues strive to ensure that the decisions made by the state of California to protect its coast and oceans are informed by science.

And we are in need of both good decisions and good news, because California’s kelp forests are being destroyed by what Esgro and others have described as the perfect storm of factors. “Any one of these things would have been bad, but to have them all together was just a disaster”, says Esgro. In 2014, a massive marine heatwave nicknamed “the Blob” warmed up California’s coast and stubbornly persisted through 2016, boosted by a strong El Niño. Among other problems related to these unusual temperatures, kelp has a harder time growing in warm water, which contains fewer nutrients. It is also thought that warm water played a role in the spread sea star wasting syndrome, which led to massive die-offs of sea star populations starting in 2013/2014. The sickness has been particularly hard on sunflower stars, a many-armed sea star that is a key predator for purple urchins. These spiny creatures, who once grazed fast-growing kelp forests in equilibrium, saw a huge population rise as their predators declined due to wasting sickness. Today, these urchins make headlines as the destroyer of these forests upon which they feed. 

Of course, ecological stories are always made by multiple actors, and an in-depth discussion can be found in the Great Farallones Marine Sanctuary Bull Kelp Recovery Plan. And while the north coast bull kelp forests have seen a more than 90 percent reduction in their populations, similar problems face the giant kelp dominated ecosystem of southern and central California. The same goes for M. integrifolia, which has a similar ecological role and can often be found alongside its predominant relative. 

Sample of Macrocystis integrifolia

As a longtime diver and lifelong ocean lover, Esgro is more than scientifically appalled by this situation. He is also heartbroken. Esgro believes an emotional connection is innate to all Californians, whatever form it takes, from surfing to fishing to sea glass collecting. This connection facilitates the work of getting people to care about ocean conservation. For those people who do care, he emphasizes a few crucial actions. 

The ways to get involved are as diverse as the ways that people connect to the ocean. Esgro highlights the importance of voting. He does not get to do his job, from promoting solutions to the kelp forest crisis to protecting our coast beyond those forests, if we do not have elected officials who care about the environment. He also emphasizes that it is important to recognize that this is a climate problem, and people need to find ways that they can meaningfully engage with it, both in their personal habits and in how they choose to support the larger systems in our society that contribute to climate change. You can also connect with organizations like ReefCheck, an important collaborator of the Ocean Protection Council, and join the Museum in celebrating World Ocean Day on June 8. 

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. 

A clipping describing the ecology of honeybees
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.

Clipping from when the museum first got a new macintosh
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
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.

Catalog card for two California Murre eggs

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.

Catalog card for a bent-nosed clam

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

partial cranium and frontal skull region of the ancient pinniped Thalassaleon macnallyae

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. 

partial cranium and frontal skull region of the ancient pinniped Thalassaleon macnallyae, with the braincase in the back

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]”.

Newspaper clipping regarding Gerald Macy, 17-year-old palentologist

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!

1978 Fungus Fair flyer

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.  

Advertisement for the Fungus Fair

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. 

A diagram of fungi sorted by the seasons

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

Whale ear bone

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.