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!

Collections November 2018: Milling with a Metate

Metate, Robison Collection, collected 1980s

For the past few months, we’ve been very excited to partner with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in presenting a series of talks, walks and workshops that highlight the past and present of the Native Peoples of California’s central coast. One of our exhibit halls, the Ohlone room, is permanently dedicated to exhibiting artifacts that offer insight into this part of history.

These include several large mortars and pestles which were used to pulverize or smash natural materials. They were especially useful in processing larger food substances, like acorns. November’s Close-Up expands this picture by showing another type of stone tool that hasn’t been on regular display: a metate, or milling stone.

The word “metate” is from the borrowing of the original Nahautl word, “metatl.”  Metates are used with a mano, or handstone, to apply pressure to the materials that one is milling or grinding. When we think of metates, we typically think of the traditional Mexican, footed metate still widely used today to grind corn for masa.

In the Museum’s Hecox collection, we have a typical example (pictured below) of this style that was collected in the 1880s. Both metates and manos, and mortars and pestles, are types of querns: the broad term for a hand mill used for grinding materials.  

Metate, Hecox Collection, collected 1880s

Metates often take the form of rectangular slabs with a single shallow depression on one side, across which a mano was pushed in a back and forth motion. However, these traits varied across Native Californian tribes.

Due to their shape, metates can be hard to distinguish from natural rocks. Indeed, the nature of a rock was a big factor in whether to use a stone as a tool (softer stones make it easier to mold an impression, for example). The first metate depicted in this month’s Close-Up is from the Soquel area, and you can see that is has a flat work surface across the top.

Metates used by the Ohlone were sometimes used on both sides, and often with the lesser-used, circular motion of grinding. While metates were often used for milling smaller seeds, they could also be used to process other plant materials and even meat from small animals.

To continue exploring the world of metates and milling, check out this review: “An Ethnographic Review of Grinding, Pounding, Pulverizing, and Smoothing with Stones.”

Collections October 2018: Soft-bodied and Suspended

Our halls are filled by a menagerie of creatures, and this month we add to their number by taking a closer look at this small, taxidermied octopus. Most of the preserved creatures we have on exhibit are terrestrial animals like coyotes or birds. But not all animals are furry or feathered, of course. Some, like this octopus, are soft-bodied, requiring an entirely different taxidermy process.

Given to the Museum in 1973, this octopus — species unknown — both adds to our depiction of marine life and represents an important distinction in taxidermy technique: rather than skinned and sculpted, it was freeze-dried by local taxidermy expert Richard Gurnee of Richard J. Gurnee Freeze Dri in Watsonville.

Taxidermy is an old skill, and the technique of freeze-drying is a relatively young innovation in its field. Some folks trace the history of taxidermy to the ancient Egyptian practice of preserving humans and animals through mummification. However, the word “taxidermy” is composed of the Greek words “taxis,” meaning arrangement, and “dermis,” meaning skin, establishing taxidermy as the art of arranging skin rather than an umbrella term for preservation techniques like mummification.

The word was coined in 1803 by Louis Dufresne, ornithologist and taxidermist for the French National Museum of Natural History. Early taxidermy was especially focused on removing and preserving a creature’s skin, then stretching the flesh over a frame designed to resemble the animal’s body.

But many of these early frames were far from perfect. Crude wooden or metal frames often misrepresented an animal’s actual figure. In one classic example, the body shape of the dodo was widely misinterpreted for a number of years due, in part, to a poorly constructed taxidermy frame. In the 1950s and 1960s, it became industry standard to use molded plastic models or forms that more realistically captured body shape.

Enter freeze-drying, where an entire animal is preserved through freezing and dehydration, almost eliminating the need for a frame. In this method, which greatly minimizes the need for artificial materials, a taxidermist inserts wires to bend and pose the body. They then freeze the specimen and review its position before drying.

Once everything is properly posed, the creature is placed in a vacuum chamber under sub-freezing temperatures, which removes tissue-bound ice. This can take roughly three weeks for something small, like a quail, and three months for something larger, like a coyote.

Then come the final touches: artificial eyes are used, as with any taxidermy, and some painting. While fur and feathers do not fade during the freezing process, skin and scales may require some paint to restore life-like coloration. Taxidermists use this method for more than wildlife — it can also preserve plants and fungi.

Refrigeration advances in the early 1990s mean that, today, freeze-drying is commonplace. More than an advancement in taxidermy technique, our octopus also represents a significant person in the industry’s history: Watsonville resident and nature enthusiast Richard Gurnee, who completed his first taxidermy project in 1954 as a child in pursuit of a Boy Scout Merit Badge.

He later studied zoology at Humboldt State University, and went on to work in a taxidermy shop while pursuing his master’s degree at UC Berkeley. Gurnee began to experiment with freeze-drying whole animals, having been inspired by scientists using the same technique to preserve tissue samples.

While he was not alone in this insight, his pioneering work brought him to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where he served as a taxidermist for several years. Fortunately for us, he returned home to Watsonville in the 1960s to start his own taxidermy business.

Gurnee has taxidermied specimens for museums across the country, including our collection here in Santa Cruz. When you stop in to see this month’s Close-Up, be sure to check out our other cases, as many of them feature Gurnee’s handiwork. And if you find yourself in the mood for talking taxidermy, be sure to visit us for the Museum of the Macabre later this month, where you can witness the taxidermy process firsthand!

Collections September 2018: Message in a Bottle, Souvenir Stories

As we wind down from the height of summer, travelers and locals alike are headed home with stories of seasonal adventures. Many of us snag souvenirs, from curiously shaped rocks to refrigerator magnets, to carry our fond memories forward. While you can always find a great collection of treasures at the Museum gift shop (an assortment of rubber sharks, anyone? Fossil sea cow hat?), this month we’ll take a closer look at a souvenir found within the Collections: a small glass bottle of crude oil.

This bottle is part of the Laura Hecox Collection, and it is about four inches tall with a wired shut glass stopper. Its contents are the deep brown and black that indicates heavy crude oil. The embossed lettering along the sides of the bottle reads “1904 Bakersfield” and “Kern County Oil”. 1904 was the year that Laura gifted a large portion of her collection to the City of Santa Cruz, so we consider this bottle to be one of those pieces that she was not losing, “taking everyone else into partnership with her enjoyment of it,” as she was quoted by a newspaper of that day.

That same year was also significant in the history of Kern County Oil. The first oil wells were drilled in Kern County in 1877, and subsequent years saw the establishment of many productive oil fields and the incorporation of various companies to capitalize on this resource. It was later, in 1904, that the Kern River oilfield produced 17.2 million barrels of oil, making it the largest oil field in California at that time. While the Kern River oilfield is still producing, our souvenir bottle memorializes this boom in California’s oil industry.

Such souvenirs were not unique — a dip into museum catalogs and collecting blogs shows these sorts of trinkets were widely traded, from Pennsylvania in the 1930s to Norway in the 1980s. The Drake Well Museum and Park in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the first American oil well was drilled, sells crude oil souvenir bottles to this day. In some cases these souvenirs move beyond the function of history marking or memory making.

The oil in these bottles can have scientific value. Researchers can analyze them to gain a more robust geochemical and historical understanding of their associated wells, for example. Crude oil souvenir bottles can even have philanthropic value. In the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana-based activists organized to sell a limited edition series of bottled spill oil at $1,000 a piece, with proceeds going to support workers whose fishing jobs were devastated.

While a major value of our Kern County oil sample is its ability to speak to the past, it also provides an interesting comparison to the present. Here at the other end of California’s oil history, in which we recognize the climatic consequences of the fossil fuel industry, how do we relate to oil? As we strive to leverage the Collections to connect people to nature and science, it is important to showcase artifacts and specimens that document the changing relationships between people and the natural world.

Collections August 2018: Touchable Taxidermy

A bat. A gopher. An ermine. This month we welcome these new additions to a special part of the Museum’s holdings: Our Education Collection. When we talk about our Collections, we often talk about the distinction between different kinds of objects, like our geology specimens or anthropological artifacts. Another significant line we draw is less about the nature of an item and more about the purpose such an item serves in the life of the Museum. In our primary Collections we include materials that are actively preserved and protected, whether they present a unique avenue of research or are simply too fragile to be handled without damage. Regardless of their condition, an important criteria for these “museum quality” items is that they are accompanied by sufficient data  (e.g. field notes/locality, age, history of object, collector id, etc.) to form the basis for scientific research.

In contrast, the Education Collection consists of those specimens and artifacts that can engage more directly with the general public. Though we may have limited information about these individual specimens and artifacts, they can still support experiential learning through our programs, pop-ups and workshops. They include stones you can heft, furs you can feel, and jaws you can manipulate, all to gain a more hands-on and tactile observation of the natural world. When we are given the opportunity to accept a specimen donation, we gather as much information as we can about it to help us determine whether it belongs in the general Collections or in our Education Collection. If we expect items to be handled on a regular basis, we also consider whether they are safe to touch. Traces of arsenic from dated taxidermy processes sometimes linger in mounts and dioramas, for example.  

When we were offered the specimens featured in this month’s Close-Up, we knew they were great candidates for our Education Collections because they already had a history of being handled. Gifted by a local teacher for the visually impaired, the donation included several small mammals, a bird skeleton and nest, and a red fox. In this context they have been used as an opportunity for blind and visually impaired students to gain a greater understanding of animals through touch. While these specimens were collected in various locations across the West Coast, we can trace their origin as instructional materials to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

The use of taxidermy in visually impaired education and programming has a long-standing presence in natural history museums. As early as 1913, the Sunderland Museum in the United Kingdom offered programs and classes for blind and visually impaired children and adults to touch animal specimens as well as historical and anthropological artifacts. Pictures of these programs are publicly available through the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums’ Seeing through Touch photo collection. Similarly, in the digital collections of the American Museum of Natural History, a collection of photographs taken between 1914 and 1927 documents public school class visits for blind and visually impaired students. In these photos of what were mostly called “sight conservation classes,” you can see students clustered around a hippopotamus or handling globes of the Earth and Moon.  

Today, teachers still use taxidermy to educate visually impaired students. Several decades-old specimens populate the library at the California School for the Blind, for example, where children can still explore them. These specimens range from a racoon to a coyote to a small pig, though a constant favorite is the bear. While they currently serve as an informal opportunity for students to gain experiential knowledge of animal traits, in previous years they have been used in formal classroom settings.  

Stop by the Museum this month to get a feel for this Close-Up and the unique history these specimens represent.