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.

Collections July 2019: The Castle and the Changing Coast

The Scholl Mar Castle on Seabright Beach, 1930s.
The Scholl Mar Castle on Seabright Beach, 1930s.

Seabright State Beach has been a popular spot for more than 100 years, providing cool coastal relief from the valley’s hot summers and fun for visitors and residents alike. It’s also a picturesque meeting of the forces of nature and civilization, where the two vie for the shaping of place. For many of those years, this sandy cove at the end of Seabright Avenue was known as Castle Beach. 

The name was inspired by the Scholl Mar Castle — a structure that once stood across from the Museum at the beach’s entrance — and it is the unifying element of the Bob Watson Scholl Mar Castle Collection, which we’ll explore today. This collection is a recent gift from a family member of the castle builders, and consists of historical photographs and ephemera. These artifacts expand our understanding of the Seabright community in which we are deeply rooted, while allowing us to observe and explore changes in the natural world over time. 

Though it was a popular spot, Seabright’s beach often narrowed for much of the winter. What shore remained was famously packed with driftwood. In Reminiscences of Seabright community bastion Elizabeth Forbes’ turn of the 19th century memoir, the author recalls, “The coming in of the driftwood on the Seabright beach has always been one of the great excitements of the winter. I have seen several hundred cord on the beach at once.”

Louis and Conrad Scholl standing among driftwood on Seabright Beach, 1930s.
Louis and Conrad Scholl standing among driftwood on Seabright Beach, 1930s.

Even years later, as the image above shows, the very men who built the castle stood amidst a beach overrun by driftwood. Locals harvested the wood for various uses, from bonfires to heating baths, though today collecting driftwood is regulated by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. 

In part because Seabright Cove tended to gather the widest amount of beach on this stretch of coast, it was here that James Pilkington built a saltwater bathhouse in 1903. James was the cousin of foundational museum collector Humphrey Pilkington. In 1918, father and son duo Conrad and Louis Scholl took over the bathhouse, adding a candy shop and restaurant several years before the building was transformed into the castle.

It was a family affair, and Louis’ sister Gladys spent years managing the bathhouse and renting swimsuits. During these years her son, Bob Watson, who donated this collection, grew up exploring Seabright. It was also during these years that young Bob witnessed, alongside the rest of the community, the 1929 refashioning of the business into the Scholl Mar Castle. Its reception was positive and, indeed, the collection includes a letter from then-mayor Fred Swanton acclaiming the change. 

“I wish to congratulate you and the Seabright residents upon the wonderful and permanent improvement you have made on your beach property,” he wrote. “The transformation in your bathing pavilion is fine.”

As mighty as the castle was, Louis Scholl still spent a great deal of effort shoring it up against wild waves. Crashing logs battered the foundation. Storms sometimes broke windows. 

Tide coming up past the castle walls, 1930s.

Louis sold the Castle in 1944, making way for a handful of different businesses. But the castle’s ultimate removal in the wake of a damaging fire took great effort. Margaret Koch, writing for the Sentinel in March of 1967, eulogized “…enough of the old under-structure held to make it necessary to get two bulldozers on the job. They pushed and puffed and snorted and the stubborn old building finally came crashing down.”

While there are certainly still storms and seasonal changes in our beach’s shape, perhaps one of the biggest shifts in Castle Beach happened as a result of the construction of the 1964 Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. The harbor’s west jetty, where Walton Lighthouse sits today, traps sand that fends off eroding waves from the Monterey Bay and accumulates to make more space for sunbathing and sand castles. 

Conversely, the construction had a narrowing effect on nearby Capitola Beach, as sand that would have otherwise traveled down to the coast did not make it past the harbor jetties. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the 250-foot breakwater and trucked in roughly 2,000 truckloads of sand in 1969, and Capitola regained its beach. 

Collections like these help us to understand our place on the coast, especially in an era of changing climate and coastlines. We’re eager to dive deeper in this collection as we prepare for an exhibit on the Scholl Mar Castle Collection next summer.

As we learn about the past, we are fortunate to have a rich community of local resources, such as Gary Griggs and Deepika Shrestha Ross’ Then & Now book on the Santa Cruz Coast, or Randall Brown and Traci Bliss’s Santa Cruz’s Seabright. Here in the present, you can snag a copy of these great beach reads from our giftshop when you stop by the Museum this July to see firsthand these rich photographs of changing and changeable coast.

Collections June 2019: A Feathery Feat

This dark feather runs roughly the length of a small human arm and once belonged to a California condor. Just as researchers assess tree rings to glean information about past climatic conditions, scientists sample lead content from leathers to learn when and how much condors were exposed to the poison.

Feathers are a marvel of evolution. They do a few different biological jobs: they insulate, waterproof and, of course, they make flight possible. But today, one especially large feather — the subject of this month’s close-up — will do more than fly. It will carry us into the world of California condor conservation and the birds’ returning path from the brink of extinction.

This dark feather, almost the size of a human arm, once belonged to a California condor. We’re not sure which exact bird it belonged to, but UC Santa Cruz environmental toxicologist Myra Finkelstein, who facilitated the gift of the feather to the Museum from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and whose research has revealed a great deal about the birds’ plight, has narrowed it down to two animals. The first candidate, condor 222, is still flying over Central California today, where you might spot her identifying wing tags. The other, condor 306, is no longer soaring. On her last day in 2013, she flew into a power line while carrying ammunition pellets in her digestive tract and toxic levels of lead in her liver.

The fate of condor 306 is far from rare among these birds. While hunting condors has been illegal for nearly a century, their populations are still recovering from human activities that nearly exterminated the species. Exposure to poisons like lead ammunition (the leading cause of their mortality today) and DDT, and unintentional killing from predator control, among other pressures, forced populations into decline.

A newspaper clipping from 1894 describes the California condor's shrinking range, with an illustration depicting a condor looking out over a rocky outcrop.

As far back as 1894, a newspaper clipping from Laura Hecox’s scrapbooks speaks of the birds’ low numbers: “Some day the nesting place of this great bird of the clouds may yet be found, but it must be soon, for ere long not a vestige of the doomed race will remain, save only on some lonely hill an ebon feather or bleaching bone.” Almost a century later in 1982, fewer than 30 of the animals survived worldwide.

What use does a feather have in helping to conserve a species so challenged? In the past, assessments of condor lead exposure were based largely on annual or biannual blood sampling. Lead tends not to stick around in blood for very long, however, so these samples only reveal so much. Feathers tell a different story.

Look closely at the close-up specimen — notice the small notch cut toward the top. Here, the delicate feather vanes extending from the hollow central shaft were trimmed when the feather was growing so biologists could go back and sample it when it was finished growing. Just as tree growth rings record past climatic conditions like dry and wet years, feathers reflect a condor’s history of lead exposure. Where blood samples reveal a few days worth of information, feathers can show months.

A notch toward the top of the feather reveals where researchers trimmed and sampled for lead content. This feather is a primary remige or flight feather, meaning it generates much of the thrust needed for flight, helping to carry condors the roughly 100 miles they can travel each day while foraging for carrion.

Biologists never remove whole feathers from condors. Instead, researchers gather them after they’re molted, or just cut the trailing edge of the feather vane. This feather is a primary remige or flight feather, meaning it generates much of the thrust needed for flight, helping to carry condors the roughly 100 miles they can travel each day while foraging for carrion.

Today, the California Condor Recovery Program leads the captive breeding and wild reintroduction program that, with great effort, has helped condors toward recovery. In 2017, 463 California condors were alive in release programs and captivity , with 170 of those individuals flying free outside of captive breeding programs across California — compare this to the mid 1980s, when the 22 remaining wild California condors were captured and placed in a captive breeding program to combat total extinction.

Wild release sites for the current southwestern population of condors already exist in Mexico and Arizona, and in California at Pinnacles National Monument, Ventana Wilderness and the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex. A partnership facility between the Yurok Tribe of Northern California and federal agencies in Redwoods National Park is planning to release the first condors in Northern California skies as early as 2020 — an effort that designates the birds’ expansion into northern territories they were once common in.

Even sooner, Assembly Bill 711, which requires the use of non-lead ammunition when hunting wildlife with a firearm in California, is set to go into effect July 1, 2019. Studies show that, without eliminating or at least substantially reducing lead poisoning rates, the conservation of the California condor will continue to require intensive and ongoing management. In other words, lead poisoning stands in the way of a self-sustaining wild California condor population.

Dr. Finkelstein recommends http://huntingwithnonlead.org/ as a great resource for savvy hunters to help safeguard the health of condors and other wildlife. For other folks excited about helping condors, look to the citizen science project Condor Watch where you can help enhance project data by identifying individual birds. Finkelstein says this project is about to be overhauled, but to keep an eye out for its reboot over the next few months.  

Please stop by this June and see this specimen for yourself! As a bonus for stopping by in person, you’ll be able to compare the notched feather to an un-notched specimen given to the Museum in the 1950s.

Collections May 2019: Mapping Wind and Marking Weather

This detailed map, first published in 1879, depicts the wind currents that blow through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Arrows depict gusts that blow south along the Pacific Coast, and an illustration toward the bottom of the map shows idealized geological layers of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Wind is a mighty force. It moves our ocean currents, shapes the landscape and helps forge plant communities. In May, we showcase an artifact that not only gives shape to this force, but also calls attention to the rich history of citizen science that powers our country’s weather science. We look this May at a vintage printed map illustrating the wind currents of the Pacific Coast.

This gorgeous map, crafted with delicate linework and sharp detail, was purchased by the Museum in 1977 and originally published in 1879 in Elliott’s Illustrated History of Santa Cruz County. It depicts the wind-powered currents that batter the Pacific Coast, with Santa Cruz near its center.

As you can probably tell, the scale of the map is shortened along the vertical axis — the author was keen to depict as many important “coast openings” as possible in the small space. An illustration toward the bottom of the map depicts idealized geological layers of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Ocean currents are driven by a mixture of wind, water density differences and tides. The map depicts what we today refer to as the California Current: a large-scale current system that brings cool waters southward along the Pacific Coast. Simultaneously, land breezes push ocean surface waters away from the coast, which allows cooler, nutrient-filled water to rise up from ocean depths.

This process, called upwelling, supports California’s rich coastal ecosystems. For a more modern visualization, check out NASA’s Perpetual Ocean, which displays ocean current surface data from June 2005 to December 2007.

The map was compiled from U.S. Coast Survey data recorded by Dr. Charles Lewis Anderson, a local naturalist extraordinaire. On top of his day job as a medical doctor, Anderson found time to discover new plant species, became well known for his scientific publications on local natural history and even held public office. As a Santa Cruz Public Library board trustee in the early 1900s, he was instrumental in founding the “library museum” that first hosted Laura Hecox’s collection.

Anderson was struck by the interplay between winds at the border of land and sea: “When the wind blows down the coast,” he wrote in Elliott’s Illustrated History, “overlapping the land, and flowing over capes and promontories with a strong current, two or three miles inland the air is often calm and warm. Such is remarkably the case in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We may observe the white caps a mile or so out, whilst standing on some high point, scarcely a couple of miles inland, we enjoy a very mild breeze.”

One person who contributed to both our understanding of Santa Cruz weather as well as the life of the Museum was early trustee Robert Burton. In addition to his career as a high school science teacher, his collecting trips with dear friend and Museum donor Humphrey Pilkington, and his involvement in the Museum and Santa Cruz City Council, Burton was also the Santa Cruz weather station’s volunteer weather observer for over four decades.

He reported weather observations from 1931 to 1947 and 1950 to 1976. The Weather Bureau even awarded him the Thomas Jefferson Award, which denotes outstanding achievements in the field of meteorological observations. The highest honor available to volunteer observers, the award is named for Thomas Jefferson’s own decades-long meteorology career.

The length of Burton’s service represents more than just a single volunteer’s devotion to weather. It’s also part of a trend in the history of Santa Cruz weather reporting. Santa Cruz observers tended to commit for many years, and many of them lived near one another. Because Santa Cruz’s weather observations were so geographically consistent for so long, Santa Cruz is an important location for studies of long-term climate variability.

Indeed, while information provided by citizen observers continues to be essential for the daily forecast, historical data can be used to explore a future governed by changing climate. This includes projects like Old Weather, which invites members of the public to transcribe old ship logs to gather climate data, and this map that relies in part on historical data to suggest what a given American city might feel like in the late 21st century.

As we close out April, which boasted both Citizen Science Day and National Volunteer Month, we will continue acknowledging the myriad volunteer efforts that sustain not just the Museum but a great deal of scientific labor. Check out the fruits of this labor by visiting the Collections popup on display this month by the front desk, or get inspired and get involved through our volunteer options. If you’re mad for maps, check out our May 21 workshop on understanding geology through maps and illustrations.

Collections April 2019: Old Time Oology

Six eggs stand in two rows, each with its distinct shape and markings. These eggs, gifted to Laura Hecox by her friend and fellow naturalist Ed Fiske, represent a mix of species found in Santa Cruz just before the 20th century.

Eggs can reveal a good deal about who laid them — hue, markings, shell shape and size can sometimes suggest the identity and even the health of the nester. But they can also show, as is the case with this month’s closeup, much more. Let’s take a close look at this month’s item: a selection of eggs from a larger collection of bird eggs, skins, nests, and mounted specimens gifted to our Museum’s founder in the early 20th century.

A handwritten note describes a collection of bird skins, eggs and mounted specimens gifted to our Museum's founder Laura Hecox. These items, along with Laura's many baskets, preserved marine specimens and geological artifacts first formed the basis of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

Over 100 years ago, on the 13th of April, 1904, Laura Hecox deeded her natural history collection to the City Of Santa Cruz. In documents detailing this gift, a note written in loopy cursive stands among them. It describes how Laura’s friend and fellow naturalist Ed Fiske gave these bird specimens to her for the very special occasion of the new museum.

Among Fiske’s locally-gathered eggs, you see a snapshot of what avian species were present in late 19th century Santa Cruz. Looking at the labels, we find many birds we’re familiar with today. They span a few species, from a wrentit (C. fasciata) and violet-green swallow (T. thalassina), who produced the smallest eggs, to our state bird, the California quail (C. californica), with the largest egg among the collection.

From the tiny wrentit to the California quail, the shape and markings of each egg can sometimes reveal who laid them. This chart describes which of the six eggs featured in this month's closeup belong to which birds. Nest shape and design, too, can help in identifying the parent species.

A few years before Fiske made his gift, he and a collaborating naturalist, Richard McGregor, compiled a checklist of 154 bird species found within a 20-mile radius around Laura’s lighthouse. In this “Annotated List of the Land and Water Birds of Santa Cruz County, California,” published around 1892 as part of “Edward Sanford Harrison’s History of Santa Cruz County,” you can read the status and habits of each of these birds, some of whose eggs are on display this month. You can also read some of Fiske’s own collecting notes, as published in an 1885 volume of the publication “The Young Oologist” (“oology” was the term used to described the study of bird eggs during its heyday from the 1880s to the 1920s).

Fiske and McGregor were far from alone in their enthusiasm in collecting. Publications like “The Young Oologist” proliferated in their time, in addition to more scientific resources such as “The Journal of the Museum of Comparative Oology.” Museums amassed encyclopedic egg collections, including exotic and undescribed species, while amateur collectors tended to gather more local specimens.

Ultimately, the huge popularity of egg-collecting proved its undoing. Public outcry in the face of destructive collecting practices, for those taking eggs as well as decorative feathers, led to legal and cultural changes. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is often considered the death knell of America’s egg-collecting fervor. It prohibits the collection of most birds, nests, and eggs except for scientific purposes.

Around the same time, the culture of birding shifted away from collecting birds and their parts to simply observing them. This was due in large part to conservation efforts of groups like the Audubon Society, as well as increased availability of tools like binoculars and cameras.

While eggs are no longer collected in the same way, the specimens that linger within museum walls offer a wealth of information. They answer questions in ornithology, including those of bird taxonomy, evolution, historical population distribution and breeding behavior. By showing researchers where nests were laid, what compounds have passed through a bird’s system and more, examination of eggs can inform research on climate change, environmental contamination, and conservation best practices.

Perhaps most infamously, a comparison of shell thickness between museum collections and contemporary specimens provided evidence that DDT was harming bird populations. This was crucial to the federal banning of DDT for agricultural use in 1972.  

Our particular collection also illustrates the role small natural history collections can play within the larger scientific community. Like many naturalists of the day, Fiske donated specimens to more than one institution, one being the California Academy of Sciences. Tragically, the Academy’s collections were destroyed in the the 1906 earthquake and fire, in which only one specimen was salvaged.

Disasters like this emphasize the role a little natural history museum can play as a kind of biodiversity insurance. Because Fiske gifted specimens to his friend Laura Hecox, the natural history he captured — and all the information it carries — lives on into the 21st century.

Come visit us this month and browse Fiske’s eggs for yourself! If you’d like to dive deeper into the world of ornithology, the interactive birding data platform eBird is a great way to discover what birds are in your own backyard, and you can even make your own contributions. Nestwatch, too, is another tool that can help you better connect with local species while contributing data. The Santa Cruz Bird Club, who meets regularly at the Museum, also offers a wealth of resources to share with interested local birders.

Collections March 2019: Fern Fever

Delicate ferns rest between the pages of this 19th century album. Some pages show a single specimen, while others are crowded with the leaves and branches of various species.

Open the delicate pages of this month’s close-up item and you’ll find ferns from long ago. Though carefully pressed and arranged, this pressed plant album doesn’t tell us which species are on display or where they were found. It does, however, offer some perspective into female participation in 19th century science— a relevant point during Women’s History Month — and how people from the Victorian era explored nature through these ancient plants.

Entitled “Sea Mosses,” this pressed plant album holds neither mosses nor anything from the sea. Its contents do, however, signify a path taken by some women who sought to engage the natural sciences.

A purpose-built seaweed collecting album, the engraved cover is entitled “Sea Moss,” though no moss or seaweed rest inside. Some pages feature single specimens. On others, a mixed array of leaves and branches almost leaps out at the viewer. In a time where traditional scrapbooking was a popular pastime, books like this were sold to support the collecting and pressing of seaweeds and other plants.

It is one of several albums once part of the James Frazier Lewis estate. Lewis was a son of Donner Party survivor Martha “Patty” Reed Lewis, who had settled in the Santa Cruz area. This collection was given to the Museum in 1945, with a note suggesting that the albums were made by Mr. Lewis’s daughters. We know very little of these possible authors, though, and Lewis’s obituary lists him as survived by a sister and a niece.

This recorded silence on the subject of women is unsurprising, although it is an absence that is being excavated more and more. And it is indeed likely that these albums were made by women. The Victorian era witnessed a widespread seaweed-collecting craze. Yet it was women, already the more prolific scrapbookers, who were the most prolific creators of these pressed albums.

Artistic arrangements of plants, whether fresh or pressed, from land or sea, were considered an appropriate and healthy hobby for young women at a time when their participation in the natural sciences was generally rebuffed. Whereas the men who made pressed plant albums could engage more formally in the emerging profession of botany, female collectors were encouraged to make sentimental and decorative displays.

Found in Laura Hecox’s scrapbook, this clipping details and illustrates the natural history of ferns. Without the aid of flowers, ferns propagate via spores, which take the form of small dots on the underside of the plant’s leaves.

That does not mean they were not active in furthering the field, of course. Recent scholarship acknowledges the importance of the female contribution to botanical fields through non-professional botanical societies. Similar realities unfolded in other disciplines, such as the case of Laura Hecox. An avid naturalist without formal scientific training, Laura’s correspondence with scientists even resulted in two species being named after her: a fossil snail and a type of banana slug.

And how do we find ourselves with a sea moss album featuring ferns? Because pteridomania, or fern fever, also reverberated through Victorian culture. Fern-hunting parties were the rage, ferneries or fern gardens decked houses both large and small, fern motifs exploded across arts and crafts, and pressed ferns were gathered into albums.

This craze was made possible in large part by the invention of the Wardian case by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward in 1829. An early version of the terrarium, these sealed glass cases let British folks bring a variety of exotic plants into their homes, including the ferns that naturally grew happier in the wetter and wilder parts of Britain.

Some also suggest the late 18th century discovery of fern reproduction via spores promoted specific interest by allowing collectors to propagate them at home, in addition to collecting. In one of her scrapbooks, Laura Hecox saved a beautiful article on ferns some time in the late 1890s.

Ferns hang from the Museum’s ceiling and branch out from displays at the Museum’s 1980 Fern Festival.

And lest you think pteridomania has disappeared — the American Fern Society, founded in 1893, is still kicking. They promote the cultivation and study of ferns, and have a solid introduction to ferns on their website. Our very own Museum even hosted a Fern Festival in March, 1980. A collaboration between the Natural Science Guild of the Santa Cruz Museum Association and the local Native Plants Society chapter, this three-day event “celebrate[d] the variety and beauty to be found in ferns.”

Stop by the Museum this month to take a closer look at some fabulous pressed ferns. Botanically speaking, March at the Museum also includes a native plants garden design workshop on the 7th, as well as our twice monthly Saturdays in the Soil volunteer gardening program.

Collections February 2019: A Puzzle from the Pleistocene

Partially fragmented, the long ridges of this mammoth tooth once ground grasses and sedges much like cattle do today.

In January, we looked at rocks from our oldest collection. Today, we explore the Museum’s newest fossil: a fragment of a locally-discovered tooth that belonged to a Columbian mammoth. Not only is this an exciting specimen for the Museum’s Collections, it also brings into the public sphere another piece of what local paleontology expert Frank Perry describes as the “giant jigsaw puzzle” of paleontology.

The tooth is about the size of a half-gallon of milk. On its crown you can see ridges that would, some hundreds of thousands of years ago, grind grasses and sedges much like cattle do today. Mammuthus columbi was primarily a grassland grazer. These grinding teeth grew in sets of four, and were replaced several times throughout the animal’s life, just like in elephants. Its enamel plates are slightly tilted, which helped to keep the teeth sharp as they wore down.

The Columbian mammoth was one of several mammoth species that lived during the Pleistocene, about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. It would have appeared in North America about one million years ago, where its range stretched from Canada down to Nicaragua and Honduras. In contrast to the thick coat of its relative the woolly mammoth, the Columbian mammoth probably did not have much hair.

Notice the more pronounced cusps of this fossilized tooth from a mastodon, a distant cousin of the mammoth. This difference helped mastodons to feed on woodier plan material, like trees and shrubs.

They stood up to 14 feet high at the shoulder and 13 to 15 feet long, with tusks up to 16 feet long. These animals may have weighed between 18,000 and 22,000 pounds, just under the weight of a school bus. Compare a tooth from a mastodon’s skull to this mammoth, and you’d notice higher cusps: an indicator that mastodons ate woodier shrubs and trees.

Our newest tooth was given to the Museum by longtime friend Frank Perry. In a recent email titled “Mammoth Puzzle,” Frank wrote to say he received a piece of tooth that was collected several decades ago at an excavation in Watsonville, and could it be the missing part of a similar tooth from the same area, already in the Museum Collections?

Here he was referring to the 1973 discovery of a Columbian mammoth tusk, a whole tooth (weighing a whopping 10 pounds!), and a smaller tooth fragment. With great excitement, we scheduled an appointment to compare the two partial teeth to see if we indeed had a match.

Fortunately for us, Frank Perry loves to share. He sat down with us to offer some of his personal history studying Santa Cruz County’s fossils, and that includes several mammoth finds over his career. Often these discoveries have been teeth, which are so huge and durable that they often outlast the rest of the animal’s body.

It’s fairly common, Frank says, for these discoveries to happen at construction sites or coastal cliffs, or any place where ancient sediments get exposed. And while our two teeth were not a match, we weren’t wrong to hope: Frank points out that in the history of paleontology, after someone finds a fragment, it sometimes takes “50 or 100 years before a fossil is found that shows what the rest of the animal looked like.” Paleontologist Charles Repenning, for example, found the remaining parts of a fossil pinniped — a relative of modern sea lions — more than half a century after the original fragment was discovered.

Part of the reason these mammoth teeth are so cool is because most fossils found in Santa Cruz are marine. Many people have found seashells, whale fossils and pinniped parts. However, they’re also interesting because they represent the contemporary set of large animals, or megafauna, that lived during the Pleistocene.

Mammoths and mastodons weren’t the only megafauna to stomp the landscape — camels, giant ground sloths and saber-tooth cats also roamed North America. To learn more about the Pleistocene Epoch and its animals, check out the University of California Museum of Paleontology. For those who still wonder how the Museum’s new tooth — and paleontology in general — might matter to their lives, Frank makes an excellent case for the joys of exploring the deep past.

“Everyone is curious about their own genealogy,” he says. “Paleontology is nature’s genealogy.” Whether learning how changing climates have shaped our lands or tracing evolutionary relationships between extinct species, paleontology can tell us more about how we came to be. And one way to fill in the gaps of our past, Frank says, is careful observation.

“In paleontology,” Frank says, “you often hear the statement, ‘the present is the key to the past.’ By looking at modern day plants, animals and geologic processes, we can better understand the past. But observation is also a key to the past. Learning to see these things — that takes practice.”

Collections January 2019: Laura Hecox’s Rocks

January brings a new year and new opportunities for contemplation. Many take this occasion to make resolutions, though the new year is also an opportunity to reflect on the past. This month, we look to the Museum’s past to celebrate the 165th anniversary of the birth of our founding naturalist, Laura Hecox. And for this month’s Close-Up, we examine Laura’s geology specimens, their history, and how they enhance her legacy.

The three specimens include:

A smooth, gray mineral, this stibnite is composed of the elements sulfur and antimony.

[Stibnite, from Nevada], Sb2S3. An ore of antimony, stibnite often occurs in the form of long, prismatic crystals. Humans have long been aware of stibnite: it’s one of several cosmetics used by ancient Egyptians to adorn the eyes. Today, you can find it in fireworks, batteries and metal bearings. People have even found stibnite in the nearby New Almaden Mine!

[Cinnabar, from Napa], HgS. Cinnabar is a toxic ore of Mercury. Although it can be found in crystal form, it usually takes the shape of a big hunk of beautiful, red cinnabar. In the past, people often sought cinnabar for its mercury (drops of liquid mercury are sometimes bound within its crystals), which was once used to separate gold from ores and stream sediments.

Red and rough to the touch, cinnabar is a sulfide mineral that sometimes holds liquid mercury.

Due to its characteristic bright red color, it was often used for decorative or artistic purposes; the pigments known as “vermillion” and “Chinese Red” were made of cinnabar. But it’s as poisonous as it is beautiful. Prolonged exposure to cinnabar may inflict skin rashes, and even damage to the kidneys and nervous system.

[Quartz, unknown location], SiO2. Quartz is one of the most abundant minerals found on Earth’s surface. Though generally clear and colorless, small impurities can create prized colorful specimens like amethyst. From gemstones to stone tools and glass-making, quartz has an incredible variety of uses.

There are many varieties of quartz, from purple amethyst to colorless rock crystal, but they all stem from uniting silicon and oxygen atoms.

Recently, as part of the work of our Collections intern Isabelle West, these specimens were rediscovered in our geology cabinets and relocated to the dedicated Hecox Collection cabinet.

Laura Hecox was born in 1854 to Santa Cruz lighthouse keeper Adna Hecox. She was an avid collector, even in childhood. Her father built cabinets to house the rocks, shells, fossils, and artifacts she gathered from the natural world surrounding the lighthouse. She eventually became keeper and showcased these materials in a small museum during the lighthouse’s public hours, which grew quite popular.

In 1904, she gifted much of her diverse collection to the City of Santa Cruz, founding what is now our Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Her collection was sorted into the various components of the Collections: her shells became a part of our malacology department, her egg specimens, our oology department, and her rocks the foundation of our geology department.

But we now recognize that, when together, Laura’s specimens carry more meaning than the natural histories they represent individually. Reunited in one Laura Hecox Collection, they embody the unique story of a woman in science — an insatiably curious observer — who showed by example that anyone can be a naturalist.

These specimens mark a point of progress in our work to preserve and promote Laura’s legacy. As we think about her story, set against the backdrop of a Victorian-era boom in collecting natural history specimens, we might wonder what Laura would think of modern rock-collecting.

While we are big fans of hands-on learning, we have to stress the importance of researching the legality of collecting geologic specimens. Aspiring rockhounds, be sure to ask yourself: how much should I take? Who owns the land I’m on? What restrictions are in place and why?

Whether you’re hunting for fossils, rocks or petrified wood, regulations vary. Check websites for local beaches, parks, and natural spaces. For a great overview of rock-hounding and related laws, check out the comprehensive site Gator Girl Rocks.

Finally, these specimens prompt us to think about the different levels of the past: these rocks were collected over 100 years ago, which certainly feels like a long time. Yet they belong to a different scale where 100 years is more like the blink of eye — perhaps even less.

Gypsum crystals from the Cave of Crystals in Naica, Mexico, grow at a nearly imperceptible rate of 14 femtometers per second. That means those crystals would take over 3,400 years to reach the width of a penny. Though difficult to grasp at this scale, understanding deep time is important for understanding our natural world.

In their engaging review of public understandings of deep time, the British Natural History Museum notes that navigating deep time is enhanced by the use of meaningful, contextualized events like birthdates. To better situate 2019 within your personal timeline this January, come check out Laura Hecox’s rocks or join us for her birthday beach cleanup!

Collections December 2018: Wildflowers in Winter

Folio cover: The front of this folio is adorned with redwood branches and needles, marking an invitation to savor Santa Cruz’s natural beauty before readers even reach the first page.

Often in the coldest months we express our warmest feelings. When remembering old friends fondly you might send an email or post a throwback photo — in the 1890s you might have dedicated a book of poems. December’s Close-Up is “From California,” a beautiful folio of poems and paintings whose cover has graced our social media pages before. This month we dive deeper!

The dedication at the front of the folio announces: “To my lifelong friend, Smith Griffith, these verses are affectionately dedicated. Bart Burke Santa Cruz, Calif. Dec 20, 1890.” The author, Bartemus Burke, was born in Richmond, Indiana, and served as Santa Cruz Postmaster from 1887 to 1890. His poems, penned in fine calligraphy, speak of the joys of the Santa Cruz landscape, the delights of encountering nature and the return of wildflower season.

A page illustrated by the bursting reds of blooming thistles, for example, reads, “Clad are we in armor gray/Till the merry month of May/Then our scarlet plumes and gay/Don we for a holiday.”  We have fewer details about Burke’s lifelong friend, Griffith. We do have a local news report, unearthed by Geoffrey Dunn in his research for Santa Cruz is in the Heart Volume II, declaring that Griffith would “not receive a souvenir of lovelier conception and design than th[is] one from Santa Cruz.”

A page from our folio where Bartemus Burke’s poetic words describe red thistles, painted by artist Lillian Howard: Because many native thistles flower just once before dying, they tend to produce many flowerheads (and abundant nectar) to attract pollinators, generating quite a colorful display. It’s easy to see why the author chose to highlight them!

The loveliness of this work comes not from the poems alone but from the breathtaking landscape and wildflower oil paintings that illustrate them, created by the gifted Santa Cruz artist Lillian Augusta Howard. Howard was born in 1856 and came to Santa Cruz in the early 1880s. She taught art, botany and English at Santa Cruz High, where she would later become Vice Principal.

Enchanted by the natural world, she took enrichment classes, learning how to teach students about marine plants and animals. She worked across a few mediums, including pen and ink drawings and photography. But she is best known as a watercolorist of wildflowers and landscapes.  

In the late 1800s, Howard and others were fueling interest in elevating the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, to something more than the unofficial state poppy. After holding an evening session on “Floral Culture, Wild Flowers and Ornamental Plants” at the 14th annual California State Fruit Growers’ Convention in Santa Cruz, November 1890, the flower-enamored educator opened a discussion on the proposal of a state flower.

The dedication page, where Burke speaks of his lifelong friendship to Smith Griffith, the folio’s original recipient: We know little about Griffith, but we do know the artist behind its illustrations, Lillian Howard, helped spark recognition for California’s diverse wildflowers.

To enhance the conversation, she showed paintings of several contenders, including the California poppy. A lively dialogue ensued, and was concluded by an impromptu vote. The California poppy won the lion’s share of votes. Formal legislature made it official in 1903.

As we wait for wildflowers to return, perhaps even the arrival California Poppy Day on April 6th, we might enjoy making a memento for a friend or loved one. If you have any special someones who would enjoy a personalized gift card or handmade nature craft, swing by our upcoming Winter Open House this weekend, Dec. 1 – 2, and dive into the holiday activities. Whether through art or exploration, with personal sentiment or historical significance, may we all enjoy the natural wonders of Santa Cruz this December!