Collections February 2019: A Puzzle from the Pleistocene

Mammoth tooth
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.

Fossilized mastodon tooth
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

Laura Hecox's mineral samples

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:

Stibnite sample
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.

Cinnabar sample
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.

Quartz sample
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

Beautiful naturalist's folio
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.”

Folio page on red thistles
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.

Folio dedication page
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

Heavily worn 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 slab
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

Taxidermied octopus

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

An ancient glass bottle filled with crude oilAs 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. and an ermine in a display caseA 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.

Collections July 2018: Laura Hecox’s Catalog Books

This July we are taking a closer look at one of Laura Hecox’s catalog books. We have several books associated with our foundational collection, and this particular one is a small leather bound volume entitled “Shell-Book Freshwater Shells 1-244”. Although it belonged to our founder, this book came to the Museum accompanied by the cabinet featured in our Naturalist exhibit, which was built by Adna Hecox for his daughter. Due to Laura’s family connections, these items spent many years at the California School for the Deaf Historical Museum before making their way back to Santa Cruz in the early 1990s.

Laura Hecox’s shell catalog

We’ve been thinking a lot about the documents in our Laura Hecox collection due to our recent project, the Naturalist’s Scrapbook. In this project, which you can find from the Collections page of the Museum’s website, participants can help us explore digitized news clippings from Laura’s late 19th century scrapbook clippings. Not only do these catalog books and scrapbooks possess historical and scientific value, they are also precious because they are the some of the few documents we have that were made by Laura. We can also use them to think about two different but complementary ways of being a naturalist.

Looking first at Shell Book 1-244, we have a plain and straightforward document with entries describing items in Laura’s collection. We have several such books, for shells, fossil shells, and a “Curiosity book” for curio artifacts of historical and anthropological nature. It is possible that more existed, but we see from the ones we have that Laura was following good cataloging form and highlighting meaningful scientific distinctions in separating her collection by type. In this vein, shell specimens are found in shell books, whereas artifacts made from shells are found in the curio book. Another thing we notice about these catalog entries is that they are succinct: entries include the specimen name, a citation for the identification, the location it was found, and the name and locality of the person who provided the specimen. One such example is specimen:

“65 Bythinella Binneyi
Santa Cruz, Cal.
Presented by Mrs. R. H.
Rigg of Santa Cruz, Cal.”

This entry directly follows the text, which was written entirely in cursive. Following standard formatting for scientific names, we would italicize the name and make the species epithet lowercase, like this: “Bythinella binneyi”. Some items are missing information, and sometimes an item will have a name added in pencil above an ink record, suggesting a continual updating of the catalog.  

Parallel with Shell Book 1 – 244, we are also displaying a copy of a clipping from Laura’s scrapbook, which came to our attention through the Naturalist’s Scrapbook project.  Scrapbooking is a more abstract information-gathering practice than shell collecting, and Laura’s scrapbooks reflect her varied interests, with a strong focus in natural history. Entitled “California Shells. An Interesting Report on Conchology,” the featured article opens by acknowledging that the shells of California have “not as yet been fully described”, and then goes on to detail several specimens, with particular focus on their pretty colorations. It then introduces the collection of a San Franciscan, one Rev. Dr. Joseph Rowell, who had an extensive shell collection and spent several years on collecting missions up and down the Pacific coast in the employ of the Smithsonian. Rowell is quoted in the article, describing his collections, his scientific endeavors, and his opinions on the functions of shell features.  

For a woman like Laura, herself known as an avid conchologist, one wonders what information she was collecting with this article. Perhaps she was acquainted with Rowell, given that her collection was popularly known and her lighthouse was in his expedition area. Perhaps his observations on various shells confirmed or contradicted her own. The clipping also alerts the reader to the latest list of California shells published by the Smithsonian, noting that

“. . . this list is probably the latest contribution to our knowledge of California shells. It would, however, scarcely interest the amateur, as most of the additions to shell-lore consist in alternations in scientific nomenclature, or notes of the localities for species rarely found. Still this same list is of value to the general public, as it includes descriptions of two new California species  . . .”

Perhaps this article alerted her to the publishing of a new list of shells – given her interest in updating her catalogues for nomenclature, she many have found this to be just the thing. Or perhaps it put new species on her collecting or trading radar – for many of her shells were presented by folks from beyond California to New York and England. Whether Laura considered herself an amateur or a member of the general public, whether she was collecting shells or clipping news, her work reflects two of the many different ways that you can be a naturalist and observe and gather information about the natural world.

Collections June 2018: Ohlone Baskets

Ohlone basket

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, we are fortunate to be able to provide local residents and visitors access to one the few existing historical Ohlone baskets. Many of the remaining historical Ohlone baskets are in museums as far away as Europe and even Russia. Here, so close to its origin, it can better be seen within its historical and cultural context.

Based on the information received with the basket, we know that it was made by an Ohlone weaver at Mission Santa Cruz and purchased by James Frazier Lewis in 1885.  We do not know to which of the local Ohlone tribelets this weaver belonged. Lewis, a Santa Cruz resident, was the son of Patty Reed Lewis, a survivor of the infamous Donner Party. This Ohlone basket was gifted by Robert Knapp, an heir to the Lewis estate, in 1945 to the Museum, where it has been on display or on loan at various points throughout its history.

The basket itself is a gift or funeral basket, made from both traditional, local materials and non-native materials, using traditional techniques. It is coiled to the left, and utilizes willow and bracken root fern. Like many baskets of the region, this basket has been adorned with beadwork. Traditionally the beads would be made from olivella shell disks. However, it was not uncommon to see European glass beads on these baskets, as is the case with this month’s Close-Up. These beads were typical of trade in the 1860s. These beads were sewn on with a single stitch of split willow. With the exception of a few red ones, the beads are white, which gives them a more traditional appearance. According to Christopher Moser in his Native American Basketry of Central California, this basket was originally decorated with Mallard Duck feathers and red Woodpecker scalps between the rim and first row of beadwork.

Because of its history, the basket offers researchers an opportunity to better understand early California, including the ways that the Missions impacted traditional domestic practices and the made-for-sale basketry trade. It also provides us a chance to better understand the role of indigenous women and their work in native life, both prior, during and post-Mission era. And while many may think that basketry is a relic of the past, it is also still very much a living, vibrant practice carried out by today’s Native communities throughout the state and the country. This basket serves as a wonderful connection between the present and past, and is an invaluable reminder of the culture and history contained within it.

Guest Author Maggie Hames is a SCMNH Collections Intern. She is digitizing our basketry collection and hopes to do her senior thesis research at the Museum.

May 2018: Paleobotany

Spring is coming along nicely at the Museum. We’re super excited about our blooming garden and growing programs related to native plants. For May’s Collection Close-Up, we have arranged a tour of our fossil plant garden. Rather than heading outside, this garden tour will take us into the paleobotany shelves of our paleontology cabinets.

Paleobotany, or fossil plants, is an interdisciplinary field relying on both botanical and geological expertise to investigate questions related to the evolution and natural history of plants. By studying fossil plant material, paleobotanists learn about the ancient organism and also delve into questions such as whether the specimen has close living relatives, how the fossil’s anatomy compares to that of modern plants, what the specimen can tell us about the relationship of different layers of rock and what the specimen can tell us about the the environmental conditions in which it lived.

Not all plant material is resilient enough to be preserved; often it decays or is consumed before it can be buried (and be on its way to fossilization). As a result, plant fossils typically consist of parts of the plant — most commonly, individual leaves or stem pieces. They are also often  preserved as imprints of the original specimen in the rock which holds them instead of preserved material itself. There is still surprisingly a lot of information you can gleam from incomplete fossil plants — from size and shape of the fossil to specific structures, such as veins, thorns and even individual cells under the right magnification.

Here are some of the beautiful specimens from our fossil garden and the stories they tell:

Foissilized Cordia leaf
Cordia leaf

Cordia leaf (Monterey Formation, Miocene epoch). Leaf fossils are the most common macroscopic remains of plants. With its clear leaf shape and veins, this specimen can be identified as a member of the Cordia genus.

Fossilized stem

Stem (Monterey Formation, Miocene epoch). This impression of a stem was found by a Soquel High student in the 1970s. If you look at it closely, you can see the impressions of the plant’s thorns, which are identified in this image by white arrows.

Fossilized Annularia leaf
Annularia leaf

Annularia leaf (Francis Creek Shale, Pennsylvanian epoch). This distinctive whorl of leaflets along a stem belongs to a member of the extinct Calamites family, a tree-like relative of modern horsetail plants. This specimen is one of several in our collection (like the one below) from the Francis Creek Shale, a famous fossil locality known for its unusual preservation of soft-tissued organisms within rounded nodules of rock.

Fossilized fern leaf
Fern leaf

Fern leaf (Francis Creek Shale, Pennsylvanian epoch). This beautiful impression of a fern is another great example from the Francis Creek Shale. Both fossil ferns and sphenopsids (like Annularia above) are commonly found within the rock formation, as are a wide variety of uniquely preserved land and marine fauna.

For a closer look at these fossils, as well as other exhibits and gardens, stop by the Museum through June to look our Collections Close-Up.