Making Mastodons Come to Life

Fossils bring the past to life, but they can’t always take us there. While the smallest sliver of ancient bone can hold the key to scientific mysteries, it can’t always immerse us in the ancient world itself.

Enter the work of the paleoartist, the illustrator who excels at engaging contemporary science to create vivid depictions of forgotten worlds. The museum is delighted to share brand new imagery from one such local artist, Mason Schratter. Mason, a graduate of Cal State University Monterey Bay’s Science Illustration certificate program, spent this fall focused on bringing our Pacific mastodon skull to life.

A long time fan favorite, the mastodon skull has presided over our exhibit halls since it was first wrenched from a local creekbed in 1980. One of the few documented mastodon finds from Santa Cruz County, the skull is also the most complete mastodon fossil found locally. In the illustration below, you can see Mason’s straightforward depiction of the mastodon as a specimen.

Specimen illustrations like this are incredibly useful for exhibiting extinct animals to the general public. They help us envision aspects that are missing, such as the tusks that had to be recreated for the display. It also helps us focus on significant anatomical elements that might be harder to discern for the average viewer, such as a clear visualization of the proper orientation of a mastodon tooth: it is the lumpy parts that peak out of the jaw bone, rather than the longer, more stalk-like roots of the tooth. Detailed specimen depictions can be useful for scientific papers, while stylized illustrations can be useful for posters and merchandise. 

But paleoart is more than just illustrating specimens, it is the art of using science to inform the viewer of prehistoric life – living creatures in their environments. Enter the lush landscape of Mason’s mastodon scene, depicting a juvenile mastodon at play alongside a stream. Dappled sunlight drifts across the soft textures of rich flora and furry fauna, luring the viewer into the hazy ambiance of an ancient forest. The playful pose of the young mastodon is especially enchanting, reminding museum goers that despite the hulking size of our mastodon skull, the animal it came from was not even fully grown.

The immersive aspects of this landscape wouldn’t be worthwhile if not for the science that informs the artistic choices – Mason has adult mastodons browsing for food amongst Douglas firs because pollen records show that Douglas firs were prominent in local forests during the Pleistocene epoch (2.58 million to 11,700 years ago). He chose to include animals such as the Steller’s jay and the Sierran treefrog, known from the fossil record to have existed contemporaneously in comparable habitats, to emphasize that while these mastodons may feel impossibly stuck in the past, they co-existed with animals that are part of our present.

Paleoart can do more than transport us, it can also surprise us, upending misplaced notions of distant eras. Viewers may notice the absence of ice in this vision of the “ice age”, the nickname by which the Pleistocene epoch is more commonly known. Rather than being a single stable cold period, the Pleistocene was characterized by cool periods of advancing glaciers across the globe, with warmer interglacial periods. Despite not being frosted with a constant layer of ice, Pleistocene Santa Cruz would still have been generally cooler than it is today.

We love these depictions of our mastodon, but we’d love help expanding our mental landscape of Pleistocene Santa Cruz. To help us out, make like Mason and the mastodon, and explore illustrating your own ice age creatures! 
Get started by going to the contest page on the museum’s website. Need inspiration? Check out this video by museum educator Hannah Caisse on drawing dinosaurs for a deeper dive into paleoart’s depiction of dinosaurs, or explore these hands on guides and classic examples of paleoart outside of the dino mold.

A Whale of a Tale

The barnacled bodies and heart-shaped spouts of gray whales (Eschrictius robustus) are a welcome sight as they migrate through the Monterey Bay, routine visitors renowned for their deliberate and friendly curiosity towards humans. As one of the three most commonly seen whales along the Central Coast, it can feel surreal to reflect on how recently, and how close to home whales were last commercially fished in the United States. To the whaling industry, these amiable animals earned the nickname “Devil Fish” for their robust aggression in the face of harpoons. But since the U.S. officially outlawed commercial whaling in 1971, these behemoths earned a more gentle reputation, and their populations have stabilized in response to a wave of conservation efforts in the 1970s. 

Against this backdrop of accelerating whale conservation, what was then the Santa Cruz City Museum was delighted to host an exhibit by General Whale. The brainchild of artist Larry Foster, who was known for his pioneering efforts to accurately portray whales, General Whale harnessed a blend of art and science to get folks excited about cetaceans. It was through two temporary exhibits in 1977 and 1979, that the Museum memorably hosted two titanic visitors: the ferrocement statue of Sandy the gray whale, who found a home at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, and the fabulous fiberglass form of Pheena the fin whale, who landed at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

Wherever these whales went, they were a hit, and Santa Cruz was no exception. It didn’t take long for city and Museum staff and volunteers to hatch plans to acquire Santa Cruz’s own whale statue. The vision was to make a ferrocement gray while like Sandy, but rather than build the statue in separate chunks that could be easily relocated, this permanent structure would be built with a single wood lathe frame, encased in a layer of cement-coated wire mesh. The City Museum community was keen to provide a forever home to a public art piece that would simultaneously provide opportunities for play and learning.

From a wildly-popular lecture series to well-attended walkathons, the whale-wishers put their money where their mouth was, raising thousands of dollars in collaboration with the City to get the whale built. Starting in spring of 1982, City Museum newsletters began bursting with the names of individuals (including former staff member John Anderson) and activities dedicated to getting the community on board the whale ship, as it were. 

An important aspect of this campaign was activities designed to get people thinking at the scale of whales — like assembling a ten foot whale skeleton, or wandering around inside an inflatable 110 foot long blue whale model. Connecting folks to a life-sized gray whale statue was a key component of the important ways that this statue was always intended to act as an educational exhibit for park-goers of all ages — in the words of City Museum leadership, the whale would be a visible symbol of the Museum’s purposes. The whale campaign raised more than funds —it also expanded community awareness of the Museum’s mission to connect people to nature.

Construction of the gray whale statue, carried out by local ferrocement boat builder Al Hipkins in consultation with Larry Foster, culminated in the statue’s dedication on October 16, 1982. While the well-loved whale has been refurbished throughout its life, it continues to provide community and connection from where it rests in Tyrrell Park. The Museum (an independent non-profit since 2008) proudly continues to partner with the City in the stewardship and care for this remarkable statue. This October, we hope the friendly face of the gray whale statue lures the marine-curious beyond the park and into the depths of our special Maritime Mysteries and Monsters exhibit, which will further explore oceanic phenomena, marine science, and the complex relationships between humans and the sea.

Collections Close-Up: A Curious Catch

Natural history museums are no strangers to strange fish. Our museum is no exception, even when it comes to exceptional specimens like our Tapertail ribbonfish (Trachipterus fukuzakii) cast. Over six feet of silvery skin punctuated by coaster-sized eyes that seem at once startled and startling, and topped with an unbelievably red dorsal fin, this cast preserves the true-to-life details that defined this curious catch just as it emerged from the Monterey Bay more than 80 years ago. 

In early May 1938, local fisherman Gus Canepa was out on the bay going about his business of trawling for cod. While local news reports differ on the depth, at some point between 2000 and 750 feet he caught an unusually long but eerily thin, distinctly un-cod-like creature. Arriving at the wharf, he immediately shared it with his fellow fisherman. All were intrigued, with one older Italian man claiming to have seen such a specimen only once before, decades prior off the coast of Genoa. 

News spread fast, and inspired the arrival of Dr. Ralph Bolin of Hopkins Marine Station, who first identified the specimen as the illustrious Trachipterus rex-salmonorum, or King-of-the-Salmon. By this time the fish had been transferred to the possession of what was then the Santa Cruz City Museum, led by ocean enthusiast Harry Turver. The local naturalist community was abuzz with excitement – remarking especially on the thinness of the fish, which seemed not to exceed an inch in length anywhere along its body, and the large eyes, which aided in the gathering of minimal light as the animal explored the ocean’s mesopelagic, or twilight zone. The red fins were another source of interest, a feature historian Randall A. Reinstedt in his Shipwrecks and Seamonsters of California’s Central Coast has argued might help explain historical accounts of sea serpents with red manes. 

The enthusiastic interest was shared by the Smithsonian Institute, which, having heard the news of the fish, asked to collect it. In bargaining with Mr. Turver, they emphasized the rarity of the specimen and its importance – at that time they only knew of two specimens of the species, and each had been badly mangled. For the sake of science, and a high quality cast, Turver agreed. The original was packed in 200 pounds of dry ice and shipped east by train, where the Smithsonian preserved it in a tank of fluid. Subsequently re-identified Trachipterus fukuzakii, the specimen is available to researchers to this day.

The same is true of its cast, which has delighted museum visitors since its 1942 arrival (you can even see it in the 1954 photos of opening day at the “Seabright Museum-Library”). A semi-permanent display feature in our exhibit halls, it is currently being refurbished by conservator Alicia Goode to make sure that such a rarity can be shared with our community for another eighty years and beyond.

Even as the cast has become a familiar face to the museum community, the species continues to puzzle scientists. A 2021 review of the Trachipteridae, the ribbonfish family, emphasizes how much work remains to be done to understand these strange fish. This makes it an even better fit for this fall’s Maritime Mysteries and Monsters special exhibit, where the ribbonfish’s re-emergence serves as a testament to the ongoing enigma that is life in the ocean.

Collections Close-Up: Perfectly Imperfect Perch

Each spring as the surrounding landscape unfurls new life, we open The Art of Nature. This vibrant exhibit of local artists features as many different forms of nature as it does forms of science illustration.  For this month’s Close-Up,  we’re highlighting a method of recording nature found in our collections that makes a particular impression – gyotaku, the art of fish prints. 

At its most traditional, this method relies on minimal supplies to make incredible works – producing fish prints that are both precise and dreamy, crisply capturing the anatomy of the specimens while simultaneously conveying the ethereal quality of the watery world in which they lived. You can see all these qualities in this dynamic print of a pile perch (Rhacochilus vacca) caught in the cabinets of our collections room. Scaly fish with a laterally compressed body, perch are great for gyotaku. More of the fish’s body is easily captured than with a more rounded fish body, as the printer trades the silvery sheen of the fish’s scales for the textured details of its skin and fins.

Printed in the 1960s by then Capitola-based artist Edith Weintraub, this perch print was made in the traditional “direct” method of gyotaku: Weintraub lightly daubed the perch with sumi ink, then delicately pressed Japanese rice paper onto the body and contours of the inked fish to produce a mirror image of the specimen. The fish was caught off the Santa Cruz pier, and this print may have been originally on display at Weintraub’s Out of Print Bookstore and gallery. 

Santa Cruz Sentinal clippings from 1964 and 1965

Edith appears to have been an early American adopter of the art – having made prints with Pacific coast fish for many years already by the time of her 1965 gallery showing. Gyotaku was first introduced in the US in the 1950s, by events like the American Museum of Natural History’s 1956 Gyotaku Exhibit and individual efforts like the introductory gyotaku book published by Yoshio Hiyama in 1964. Almost immediately it was seen as a natural fit for science illustration and natural history textbooks in the U.S. However, the art began almost a hundred years earlier – as a means by which Japanese fishermen in the 1860s could record their finest catch without the help of a camera. 

As it flourished, new aspects of the craft were fleshed out. In addition to direct printing, other traditional methods include indirect printing, where you press the paper onto the fish and then ink the relief; and transfer printing, where you transfer the impression of the fish to a flexible surface, which is used to print onto another surface. Color can be used to accentuate the print, and eyes are often painted on after the initial printing. When all’s said and done, most artists/fisherman can still eat their fish – the entire process is traditionally non-toxic. And even while contemporary gyotaku has evolved to include new tools like computers, most of today’s artists (folks like Naoki Hayashi and Heather Fortner) make a point to talk about the ethics of how they collect their fish and how they are later eaten, composted, or returned to nature.

Edith Weintraub King Fish Print

This is a trend even for folks who aren’t using fish – the term gyotaku is sometimes used to describe the inking and printing of other natural materials – even roadkill.  This flexibility illuminates the technique’s ties to the general practice of nature printing – a centuries long tradition with a variety of global takes that continues to provide stunning images and contemporary insight into the relationship between humans and nature.

Meanwhile, contemporary gyotaku continues to keep the relationship between art, fish, and natural history firmly afloat. As recently as last year, artist Dwight Hwang, who makes gyotaku in the classical Japanese style, collaborated with the Natural History Museum of LA County to record an incredible catch: a female Pacific footballfish (Himantolophus sagamius), one of only thirty or so such specimens to have been found. Not only was this a rare and precious find that was important to document in many ways, the frightening forms of this creature also presented an incredible artistic opportunity. Hwang talks about how his approach to gyotaku, which he sometimes describes as a type of taxidermy, is grounded in a Japanese aesthetic of taking a subject and emphasizing the beauty in its imperfections.

To get a closer look at the perfect imperfections of Edith Weintraub’s local fish prints, and to get a feel for gyotaku yourself, register for our upcoming workshop with local printmakers Lucas Elmer and Janina A. Larenas. 

Collections Close-Up: Pins, Process, and Purpose

At first, the details of this month’s Collections Close-Up may be hard to see. It’s not that the picture is pixelated, it’s that the specimen is still covered in pins! As we continue to focus on Pollinators, for our February Close-Up we talk with friend of the museum Dustin Lofland about the motivations of amateur entomologists — from different styles of preservation to what keeps insects interesting. 

Pressed between pins, glassine paper, and a pinning board rests Eumorpha achemon, the Achemon sphinx moth. Common throughout the United States and findable in Santa Cruz county, this moth was collected by Dustin near Plumas National Forest in July of 2021. Looking more closely, you can see that this moth looks like it was caught with it’s mouth open – pinned out to almost the length of its body is the straw-like proboscis that the animal uses to suck up nectar from flowers. 

Achemon sphinx moths are in the family Sphingidae. These distinctive insects are referred to as hummingbird moths, in part because of their large size and hovering flying habits. The family is also known for having the longest reported tongues of any insect – up to almost a foot long! This adaptation helps them feed on flowers with extremely long nectar tubes, making them critical pollinators of a number of plant species.

Even though this kind of coevolutionary relationship between organisms is a common theme of natural history, like in our current exhibit, it is unusual to see a moth on display sticking its tongue out. It is a stylistic choice that helps tell a particular story – but it also makes the specimen more vulnerable. When thinking through specimen preparation choices, Dustin emphasizes the importance of thinking about the “why” of what you’re doing – the overarching motivation for creating and preserving specimens in a collection.

When you’re creating a collection to be used as a source of scientific data, you first want the specimens to be identifiable. In the case of moths like this sphinx, that means spreading the wings and underwings, which are important parts of identification. Above all else, you want them to be survivable – so you tuck in delicate protruding parts like the legs or tongues.

Future researchers who need to look at the rolled up tongue can relax the specimen, using the moisture from water or chemicals to make the specimen more pliable, and stretch it out for observation. For insects whose protruding parts are consistently useful for identification, like the phalluses of certain families of beetles, the part will be removed from the specimen and adhered to a card which is then attached for accessibility on the same pin as the specimen itself.

In this case, Dustin knew about our exhibit and wanted to put together a specimen that shows off this moth’s interesting adaptation. An aquarist by day, Dustin helps care for aquriums including the Museum’s, but he is also enchanted  by the world of insects and the stories that they can tell. 

“From an environmental studies perspective,” he says, ”as an indicator for what is going on in the world, [entomology] is hard to match. That level of biodiversity and variation, it’s really engaging, it’s a never ending curiosity when you start drilling down into it.” This curiosity helps him stay excited about biology when working with the daily biological responsibilities of animal husbandry. 

It’s also a relatively low investment way to contribute to science: “You can create data pretty easily because of the way insects preserve. It’s something that you can sort of come back in and out of, it’s not temperamental, and your specimens can keep for a hundred years if you store them properly.” 

Due to his interest in creating more data, Dustin is keen to find locations and species that are not yet well documented, always being sure to get the permission of the landowner prior to collecting. And if those places have historically tended to overlap with music festivals, all the better. The nice thing about coolers is that they can just as easily be used for holding refreshing beverages as they can for preserving insects on the way to the freezer! Once he has time to defrost his specimens, he will pin and tag them to preserve the information that is critical to scientific collections — location, date, habitat, etc. – that tell the fuller tale of the insect.

Sometimes these tales are especially thrilling  – On the same collecting trip during which he found this month’s moth, Dustin and his fellow collector Jerry Wilson happened upon a new species of dermestid beetle. Connecting with other collectors is one way to hone one’s entomology knowledge, in addition to using sites like iNaturalist and Bugguide. By submitting good quality images and their best guesses at species identification to Bugguide, Dustin and Jerry caught the attention of a moderator who put them in touch with a leading professional entomologist who was able to create the formal novel species description.

While this Achemon sphinx moth might not be new to science, seeing a moth tongue up close might be new to you! So stop by the Museum this month to take a closer look at this pinned moth, and compare it to the preparation of other Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) on display.

Written by Kathleen Aston, Collections Manager

The Collections Close-Up is a series of blogs, events, and pop-up exhibits that highlight our collections.

Collections Close-Up: Old Time Oology

All of our collections are special, but some of them are egg-squisite. The study of eggs and nests, historically referred to as oology, is a rich vein in the story of natural history museums. Museum egg collections have played a large role in critical conservation conversations, and continue to be relevant for contemporary research. True to this larger history — from mighty ostrich to minuscule hummingbird eggs, from 19th century birders to current digitization projects — eggs are an important part of your local natural history museum.

During this Collection Close-Up webinar, join Collections Manager Kathleen Aston on an exploration of our egg collection from the 1880s to the 1980s and beyond. We’ll also look at how birds feature in our current priorities, from community science to youth education.


About the series

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

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Your support helps us steward our collections and offer educational programs that connect people with nature and science. Memberships start at just $15/year.

Collections Close-Up: Entomology of An Era

Brightening the entrance to our upcoming Pollinators exhibit is a striking display of Lepidoptera — the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. Three cases contain a selection of species demonstrating a stunning scale of diversity. They are eye-catching in many ways, but not least for the variation of the coloring produced by the tiny scales that cover their wings: sunburst yellows of the swallowtail family, the subtle soft tones of a selection of moths, and the spectrum of colorways from different locally collected species. And while we are equally delighted that the exhibit highlights a range of pollinators, from beetles to bats, we can’t deny the charisma of these fluttering creatures. We are far from the first to be so captivated.

For this month’s Collections Close-Up, we look through the lens of butterflies and moths to explore the early entomological context of our Museum.

Foundational collector Laura Hecox, who was born 168 years ago this month, was renowned for her lighthouse museum, and celebrated for gifting it to the people of Santa Cruz. Contemporary accounts describe the delights of her collection, highlighting shells, fossils, and curios, as well as stuffed birds, eggs, and nests. It is applauded for its richness, display, and classification – but no mention is made of insects in these early accounts. Further, insects were not mentioned in  the earliest inventories of the collection upon its arrival here in Seabright. Yet, they were ultimately not neglected: in a 1905 article describing local collections that were given to the library museum to complement Laura’s, the Santa Cruz Sentinel describes the addition of “a collection of beetles, bugs, and butterflies, etc., from Napa, by Master W. Switzer of Napa.”

While it is exciting to see that the earliest days of the Museum inspired participation beyond Santa Cruz, we know from Laura’s own catalog books that it was not unusual for her to collect via gift or exchange with collectors from around the world. Moving beyond geography, it is also interesting to look at this inclusion of insects against the backdrop of the popularity of entomology in the United States. In his article “Insects in the New Nation,” written for the American Entomologist in 1985, Jeffrey Barnes traces the story of how Victorian naturalists generally, and Americans in particular, roused popular interest in entomology later than interest in other elements of natural history. American entomology, when it did get going in the last few decades of the 19th century, was influenced not only by the desire to describe the virtues of the humble insect but also for its potential to aid the economic engine of American agriculture. 

This is reflected in some of the history of entomological organizations, such as how the American Association of Economic Entomologists, first founded in 1889, transformed in 1906 into the Entomological Society of America to appeal to a broader audience.

But what of our Laura, inspirational naturalist, avid student of small shelled creatures at sea and on land — did her interests extend to insects? Beyond the contents of the Laura Hecox collection and early primary sources in newspapers articles, it’s hard to know. But returning as we have before, to Laura’s scrapbooks, we can see that creepie crawlies did not escape her notice.

From clippings on the food habits of the carrion beetle to a poem about the “humble bee”, insects show up in a variety of articles. Perhaps most striking is this story on the “Rare Butterflies – A Collection Half a Century Old”. Detailing the gift of thousands of specimens by one Dr. Behr in the late 1890s to the California Academy of Sciences (founded in 1853, the year before Laura was born), the article covers many of the same insect issues we’re interested in today. From highlighting local specimens, to changing population trends, to the challenges of safely sharing out these fragile specimens – we see that science communication of yesteryear sought to impart some of the same kinds of information we still care about. 

An example of this continuity can be found in one of the specimens the article’s author is most excited about – what is now called the Zerene eurydice, or California dogface butterfly. While this so-called “rarest butterfly” of California is not listed as threatened or endangered, it still captivated the people of California almost a century later when it became the state insect in 1972. Of course, not even the expansive curiosity of a naturalist has to be drawn to everything, and many of Laura’s contemporaries were plenty enchanted by entomology, as described in Barnes’ article and others.

Stop by the Museum to explore your own interests, of butterflies and beyond, beginning with our Friday, January 14 Member’s opening for Pollinators: Keeping Company with Flowers. For more on Laura, take a trip with us into the 19th century for our Laura Hecox Day festivities on Saturday, January 29.

Collections Close-Up: Taxonomy

The science of tying things together

Research appointments are the highlight of any given week in the collections department. Not only do we get to learn more about the ways our collections contribute to science, we get to see the process in action. Scientists and students bring their questions alongside various tools of the trade, from pencils to calipers to cameras. Paleontologist Chuck Powell travels with tupperwares of sand.

Chuck is a retired USGS scientist whose life’s work has focused on describing the geology and paleontology of the West Coast, with a special focus on Purisima Formation. His current project is a collaborative paper with four authors, including local fossil folks like Frank Perry and Wayne Thompson. The epic tome they are working on aims to describe all of the invertebrates of the Purisima Formation – a challenge given that new species are still being discovered. Leaving no specimen unturned, Chuck and his coauthors are visiting collections, both public and personal, across California. 

This kind of descriptive project takes an enormous effort and they have been at it for over 20 years already. It’s also an important part of taxonomy, or the branch of science concerned with the classification of organisms and their relationships. Digging into a drawer of ancient invertebrates, whether they are fossil ark clams or sand dollars, a taxonomist like Chuck starts by looking to confirm specimen identifications. One example of this is the pictured Miopleiona oregonensis specimen – while it has previously been described as being present in the Purisima, the three specimens in our collections are the first that Chuck has encountered, despite working on Purisima mollusks for decades and examining well over 700 collections.

However, he’s also looking to investigate and untangle our understanding of specimens with features that fall outside of the species identifications assigned to them — or even just to clear up confusion in the many names that a specimen can acquire over the years. For example, even after many west coast olivella snails (like Callianax biplicata, formally Olivella biplicata, whose shell has been commonly used by Indigenous peoples of the Central Coast for beadwork) were recognized as being in the genus Callianax, there was still a lot of confusion about which specimen names were valid. In 2020, Chuck and his coauthors pulled together the existing descriptions, evidence, and documentation for each name, clarifying its validity, and even providing a handy chart for identifying the four species in this genus we find on California beaches. 

If that sounds like a lot of very detailed work to keep tabs on taxonomy – you’re right.

“People think taxonomists do it on purpose,” Chuck notes. ”That we change the names just to be ornery.” But that’s far from the reality. Taxonomists like Chuck are passionate about the way these updated names give us new information that helps tie things together — to open up relationships between organisms and their environment that we might have otherwise overlooked.

The photographs that accompany these revised descriptions become significant scientific evidence in this process. Any images published for this purpose elevate the status of the pictured specimen to something called a “hypotype”, which then requires special protocols and protections.

Photography is also where the sand comes in. In addition to bringing these fossils full circle to an environment similar to that in which they were grown, the black or white sand is the ideal backdrop. It provides soft but even support that is easily edited out in post production, while being very responsive to whatever adjustments are needed to show off the significant features, or morphology of the specimen. 

Stay tuned for future updates on SCMNH specimens starring in paleontological publications. But don’t wait to dig further into the Purisima – USGS papers are freely available to the public, including these two dealing with the Purisima. Also available to the public this December are our geology and paleontology exhibits – outcropping briefly between our successful Seeds exhibit and our upcoming exhibition Pollinators: Keeping Company with Flowers.

Collections Close-Up: Front Yard Fossils

fossil of a whale ribcage

Have you ever found a fossil?

It’s hard to walk along many of our local beaches without encountering the fossilized forms of whales or sea lions and the ornate whorls of ancient shells. These old organisms are made visible, in part, by the effects of weathering and erosion. While these forces are active all the time, a good storm can come along and shake open whole new windows into the past.

Some fossils you can even find in our front yard, literally.

The large specimens situated on the whale statue (southern) side of the museum’s garden are, thematically, the remains of ancient whales from Purisima formation outcrops in Capitola. Between 4.4 and 5.5 million years old, these specimens include an ancient ribcage (see above image), whose head would be oriented towards the beach if it were still attached. And although skulls are always interesting, we are lucky to have such a complete ribcage. The inherent movement of the ocean, the activities of scavengers, as well as the potential for marine mammals to “bloat and float ” upon their demise, often result in the slow and scattered disarticulation of the organism. Speaking of skulls, the other two specimens on display in this part of the yard do contain whale skulls (below images left and center). If you look closely, you can see the visible ear bone in one, while the other is partially obscured by the phalanges of an ancient flipper. 

Other fossils tell the story of a different type of discovery – that of human intervention in the landscape. The specimens peeking through the Fuschia and hummingbird sage beneath our gift shop windows (above right image) take that story further, to the surprisingly intertwined history of paleontology and physics. 

Fourteen million years ago, the coast of California was quite differently shaped. In parts of what is now terrestrial San Mateo County, a shallow, high-energy marine environment brimmed with life. Crustaceans burrowed in sand below swimming sharks and wandering whales. The organisms present, based on fossil evidence, indicate a nearshore to open shelf marine environment.

Fifty-seven years ago, a bulldozer cut a little too widely into the petrified remains of this ecosystem, a green-gray to light gray rock formation now called the Ladera Sandstone. In doing so, construction workers on what is now SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory discovered the remarkably well-preserved and almost complete skeleton of an ancient hippo-like creature now called Neoparadoxia repenningi. Prior to this discovery, this roughly cow-sized herbivore had only been known through specimens of preserved teeth. The value of the find became clearer and clearer as, with the efforts of experts from Stanford and USGS and beyond, all but the head of the organism emerged from the surrounding stone. The UC Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley (UCMP) agreed to curate this significant specimen in exchange for providing casts.

Casts which became the life’s work of the wife of SLAC’S then-director, Adele Panfosky. Alerted to the discovery when taking a phone message for her husband Wolfgang, Adele immediately drove to the site. What started as an opportunity for an interested volunteer without formal training to assist with excavation turned into a decades long quest by a budding paleontologist to create a complete and accurate Neoparadoxia model. Over the years Adele collaborated with scientists from around the world, ranging as far as Japan’s National Museum of Science and as close as local museum member Frank Perry, who cast some of the teeth for the display. 

Fortunately for us, the Neoparadoxia wasn’t the only specimen uncovered at SLAC. In the late 1970s, the campus was expanded to include the Positron Electron Project or PEP ring, digging further into the Ladera Sandstone. All told, the remains of ancient whales, porpoises, sea lions and at least six different kinds of sharks were unearthed. Scientifically significant specimens were again sent to UCMP. When it came time to find a home for specimens that were more useful for educational display than science, Adele arranged for several to be gifted to our Museum here in Santa Cruz. You can still find these on display in our garden today, now with the additional context of the specimen descriptions provided here.

Meanwhile at today’s SLAC, now with a new name and an expanded research profile, scientists are circling back to fossils once more, using advanced x-ray imaging techniques to determine the original colors of ancient creatures

If you find these discoveries exciting, nurture your own passion for paleontology: check out our fossil guide to explore our local landscapes with fresh eyes, and join us for our October Collections Close-Up event, to be held on October 13th, National Fossil Day, all about Fossil Walruses and Other Ancient Life in the Monterey Bay with Dr. Robert Boessenecker.

Fossil Walruses and Other Ancient Life in the Monterey Bay with Dr. Robert Boessenecker

Though our coast today is inhabited by sea lions, harbor seals, and elephant seals, none of these species existed in California 3-5 million years ago. Instead, fossils from the Purisima Formation tell a very different story of strange walruses and early fur seals that inhabited our coast. These include the ancestor of the modern northern fur seal (today a rare visitor to Monterey Bay), the bizarre “double tusked” walrus Gomphotaria, and the toothless walrus Valenictus. Several discoveries made by local collectors and paleontologists represent new species — and you’re going to hear new data and findings never reported before during this presentation.

Join us on National Fossil Day for this member-exclusive presentation with longtime friend of the Museum, Dr. Robert Boessenecker.

Dr. Robert Boessenecker

“I grew up in Foster City on the peninsula, disappointed as a dinosaur nerd kid that there weren’t much in the way of dino fossils from California – which I mistook for “no interesting fossils at all”. Once in high school I visited some shark tooth sites in Scott’s Valley and became obsessed with marine mammal fossils none of the fossil collectors could identify. As an undergraduate student at Montana State University, I started collecting and researching a marine mammal fauna I discovered in Half Moon Bay; I continued with my master’s thesis at MSU on the preservation and stratigraphic context of Purisima Formation fossils, and then went to University of Otago in New Zealand to do my Ph.D. on early baleen whales from much older rocks down under. I have been at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, studying early baleen whales and dolphins, and once again researching Purisima Formation sharks, fish, birds, turtles, and marine mammals.”

-Dr. Robert Boessenecker

About the series

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

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