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Collections Close-Up: Front Yard Fossils

fossil of a whale ribcage

Have you ever found a fossil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collections Close-Up: Herbarium Highlights

Late rain and sporadic sunshine are lighting up the local landscape with green growth and bright blooms, raising spirits for the oncoming spring. This month’s Close-Up highlights a slightly less vivid but no less delightful collection of plants – a collection of preserved grasses, complete with identifications by their collector, beloved naturalist and conservationist Randy Morgan.

At first glance, the graceful blades and intricate flowers are captivating for their beauty alone, as in specimens like this California Canary grass (Phalaris californica). After all, another specimen in this collection represents a plant that so charmed Californias that it was designated the state grass. Not only are they beautiful, they’re informative – each specimen is carefully arranged to make visible important features such as the roots, blades, and flowers. The subtle distinctions between grass species in a field might blend together, but laid out on the herbarium sheet (or for that matter, conveyed via botanical illustration) the various parts of the plants can be easier to see.

This arrangement of significant features is a critical component of a quality herbarium specimen. The scientists who use herbaria (the plural of herbarium, or collections of plants preserved and labeled for reference, a practice which is more than 700 years old) such as these need to be able to see as many diagnostic features and as much of the plant as possible for use in understanding the identities of specimens, their classification, and their relationships to one another. This is harder with some plants than others – while grasses aren’t as difficult to capture on the herbarium sheet as, say, rattan palms, – at 103 cm, the above specimen didn’t quite fit on the herbarium sheet. Although this sheet is a petite 8.5 by 11 inches, at 103 cm this specimen still wouldn’t have been close to fitting on today’s standard herbarium sheets of 11 by 16 inches.

Thankfully, Morgan noted the height of the specimen on the label. The more than seventy specimens also have, at least, the general location name of where they were collected, their common name, scientific name, and collector listed. Quality herbarium specimens are fixed to archival paper and accompanied by labels that include this key information. It is preferable to have any other associated information like collection number or i.d., description of the plant and any collecting notes. Specimens in herbaria that meet these qualifications are called voucher specimens. 

Herbarium specimen of California canary grass

Not only is this information important for science, it’s important for collections management as well. As we strive to enhance the accessibility of our collections, the level of data a specimen or set of specimens has helps us make decisions about what to prioritize for the time-consuming process of digitization. The time spent is well worth it – the enormous increase in access to specimens brought on by digitization has not only accelerated the current possibilities of plant science but also created new opportunities for how we think about pressing issues like the future of botanical biodiversity.

Of course, digitization efforts connect us to more than just the scientific value of pressed plants. Who can be surprised, when herbarium specimens readily embody the intersection of science and art cherished by nature enthusiasts everywhere. One such fan was the poet Emily Dickson, whose enchanting collection of preserved flora, collected during a period when the formal study of science was inaccessible to many women, can now be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

This collection of grasses is also dear to us for a different kind of connection – that of our institution’s relationship with Randall Morgan. Often known as Randy or R, Morgan was a pillar of the local natural history community. And though he passed away a few years ago, his influence on the natural world and those who celebrate it in Santa Cruz is evident from the the Sandhills that his activism helped to save, to the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society that he helped found, to this very Museum where he worked as a taxidermist to pay for studying linguistics at UC Santa Cruz. 

UCSC’s Norris Center for Natural History, the primary steward of Morgan’s collections, details in their vivid biographical rundown, Morgan’s love of nature began with birds and buoyed him through his life as a largely self taught naturalist. Even without formal training, his passionate observation of the world around led him to many achievements, including the discovery of new species, and his collection of plant voucher specimens that serves as the foundation of our understanding of plant biodiversity in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His story is inspiring in part because, like so many of those featured in the Norris Center-led exhibit Santa Cruz County Naturalists, it expands the notion of who can be a naturalist.

It’s inspiring to have this collection then, as a snapshot of the plant communities of California in the 1970s, but also as a window into Morgan’s dedicated observations of the natural world. As the Norris Center director Chris Lay mentions in the CNPS’s Randall Morgan memorial “When I look at plants I’ll be very satisfied if I can just tell you the species name. But Randy, he recognizes the diversity within the construct we call a species.”

For a deeper dive into the legacy of collector Randall Morgan, keep an eye on our April calendar for our next Collections Close-Up event.


A selection of native and non-native grasses collected by Randall Morgan in Soquel, CA.

Collections Close-Up: Tide Pools and Touch

Take the plunge into the interactive world of our intertidal touch pool exhibit, which has provided visitors with an intimate look at the interior world of the sea outside our doors for decades.

Museum staff explore the history of these hands-on exhibits, from beachside Victorian tubs to today’s collecting permits. We further investigate the care of these seaworthy collections, including the practical challenges of creating intertidal conditions, and their special capacity to connect people to nature.

Resources


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

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: The Interwoven History of Baskets and Museums

Ohlone Basket

Spend an evening unraveling the complex ways in which consumer trends and museums influenced early 20th basketry collections and craft. Collections Manager Kathleen Aston will elaborate on these trends and how they relate to our collection. Joining us will be Julie Sidel, Interpreter 1 for Santa Cruz Mission State Historic Park, to share how the intersection of museum artifacts and interpretation illuminates daily life at the Santa Cruz Mission.

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

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Curiosity Cabinets

Peer into the wonderful world of wunderkammers — otherwise known as curiosity cabinets. Often filling full rooms, these pre-modern museums favored the eccentric and the esoteric. We’ll explore how our museum’s history is rooted in the Victorian versions of the curious trend, as well as more contemporary takes on cabinets.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen. Watch last month’s webinar on the fossils and fossil collectors of Santa Cruz.

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Santa Cruz Fossils and the People Who Dig ‘Em

Frank Perry works on a cast of a fossil sea cow skeleton.

Dig into the fossil record of Santa Cruz through the eyes of locals who find themselves captivated by these windows into the past and who made it their work to share this passion with others. One of these important contributors, Wayne Thompson, will share his history with the Museum and the unique potential that fossils have to engage students with science and the natural world, inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.

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

Not yet a Member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Preserving Our Past

The Museum opened its doors to the public 115 years ago this month, and though the doors have changed over time, the task of stewarding our collections has always been an inherent part of our mission. Explore the journey of our collections over the past century and gain a deeper understanding of what preservation looks like today.

About the series: Zoom into the stories, secrets, and science of our collections during monthly webinars with Collections Manager Kathleen Aston. This live event is an extension of our monthly Collections Close-Up blog, with added insights and intrigue. Members are invited to participate in this program before it is made available to the general public as well as ask questions directly of Kathleen. Watch last month’s webinar on malacology and the life of Hulda Hoover McLean.

Not yet a member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Malacology

From curiosity cabinets to catalog cards, abalone pendants to olivella beads on baskets, the stories of our seashells are vast like the ocean and rooted, like our museum, in the history of women in science.

Stroll with us into the malacology collections, where we look at the legacy of local naturalist and seashell collector Hulda Hoover Mclean. In the 1970s, Hoover McLean wrote one of the first shell identification guides for this area, based on a lifetime of seaside sojourns. Alongside her story we will highlight various collections specimens and the creatures who formed them.

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

Not yet a member? Join today!

Collections Close-Up: Kelp and Conservation

This month’s Collections Close-Up explores two kinds of conservation: the preservation of biodiversity records in the form of marine algae specimens and the fight to save the kelp forests of the California Coast.

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

Not yet a member? Join today!

Resources:

Collections September 2019: California’s Stately Grass

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.

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

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.