Fun Forms: Nature Illustration in Fungus Fair Posters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collections December 2019: Fossils and Field Experiences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collections November 2019: Leaving an Impression

cottonwood leaf with a newspaper printed on it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collections October 2019: Sheer Coincidence

sooty shearwater specimen
Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea)

“It’s the end of the world!” 

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

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

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

Sadly, sometimes they get more than they bargain for.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References available upon request.

Collections September 2019: California’s Stately Grass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collections August 2019: Small But Significant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.