The last couple years have flown by so quickly that we’ve overlooked milestones worth marking. In 2020, the John & Peggy Maximus Wing passed its 25-year anniversary, an event which—had it been safe to gather then—we certainly would have celebrated with a reception and a giant cake topped with an Audubon in icing. Two years later, Maximus Curator Linda Miller is pausing to reflect on this quarter-century accomplishment. Consider this letter your virtual piece of cake: just as sweet, and not at all fattening.
For many of us, the compulsion to collect starts in childhood as a form of play. But things can get serious fast. My father-in-law David Byers remembers: “As a kid, I used to come home with my pockets full of rocks.” By the time he was 20, he had started collecting for real, informed by an undergraduate education in geology. He didn’t stop until 1,200 specimens later, a number he assures me isn’t actually that large by private mineral collection standards!
We asked David about motivating criteria. “Perfection” was paramount; he wanted undamaged and uncut natural crystals. He became a regular at the world’s largest and most prestigious gem and mineral show: during 45 years, he missed the mineral-lover’s annual pilgrimage to Tucson only three times.
I want to tell you about some “fool’s gold” that’s worth much more to us than “real” gold.
One of the goals of our upcoming summer show, Rare Earth, is to make you think about the value humans assign to natural objects. The earth science treasures in this show have meant different things to different people over millennia. Because we facilitate research and provide education, scientific value is a priority for us. We’re interested in what we can learn from natural objects, and an object’s capacity to teach is usually not the same as its market value.
We keep turning 100.
If you recall how we celebrated the centennial of the Museum’s 1916 incorporation several years ago, you may be excused for thinking we would like to wishfully stay forever 100. But this spring marks 100 years since another major milestone: the establishment of our campus here beside Mission Creek. Keep reading for a trip down memory lane, for which I am indebted to Museum Librarian Terri Sheridan and our Museum Archives.
Madeleine A. Becker describes herself as “an animal enthusiast in general.” Yet unlike most cat video connoisseurs, she can truthfully say, “I have 157 mouse toes currently in my possession.” This early-career scientist owes her many toes to how she’s channeled that enthusiasm for animals into a well-rounded background of great promise.
When I was little, I wanted to become a veterinarian because I wanted to help animals, and I thought treating sick or injured pets would be the best way to get tangible results. This logic applied more to cats and dogs, since I grew up with them. Despite growing up with this avid interest in animals and being raised in a family that would always spend time outside, I hadn’t noticed how little I knew about birds, because I saw them every day and never thought twice about it. I thought birds were beautiful and was more interested in drawing them or just observing them in the wild rather than memorizing species names and facts like many avid birders do. It wasn’t until I became aware of the multitude of birds present that I may not see in the city, and how helping animals really comes down to protecting the environment as a whole, that I began exploring what bird species are in my area and what ecological services they provide.
I was first introduced to the Sea Center when I moved to Santa Barbara in fifth grade. I had always loved the ocean, but the majority of my ocean education was visits to places like the Seattle Aquarium. The aquarium was always the highlight of my week, but the features on exotic life made the ocean seem distant and far away. I could do my own research on the ocean, but I didn’t understand what oceans truly looked like until I visited the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. Ever since, I’ve been hooked not only by the Sea Center, but by everything ocean-related.
I swing my legs under the tall desk and lean closer to my paper. My chair creaks slightly as I turn it gently to the side. I squint at the slideshow on the screen, full of pictures and diagrams. The breeze outside causes the tree branches to stir. I glance around the room, full of interesting things. Posters and dioramas from previous classes, proclaiming the costs of the melting ice sheets and the successes Gray Wolves brought back to Yellowstone National Park. In the back of the room, rows of atom models hang, made with everything from leaves to Legos. Underneath the models a display case holds amazing specimens, including turtle skeletons, fossils, and horseshoe crab exoskeletons. In the front, high on the shelves, a taxidermied falcon spreads its wings. I focus back on the paper in front of me. It holds the secrets of the natural world, with diagrams on rock layers, magma, faulting, fossilization, and more. Secrets that took generations to uncover. And as I sat in my seventh grade science classroom, I dreamed of the day when I would be the one to make the discoveries.
It seems that 2021 is going to be a good year for astronomy around the world: Three new probes arrived at Mars and an asteroid is making headlines.
Apophis (the Egyptian deity of chaos) is an asteroid classified as a Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA). These are asteroids that can make close approaches to Earth and could cause significant regional damage in the event of impact.
Apophis has a diameter of approximately 300 meters—which is bigger than your average football stadium—and it is travelling fast. Imagine an entire football stadium, packed to the brim with rocks and metal, racing towards you at more than 60,000 miles per hour. Ay, ay, ay!
This post is the first in a series, Bio-inspired Materials: From Nature to Technology.
Nature has developed a material to meet any need. In this series, we explore the science behind natural materials and how researchers use nature’s tricks to design new bio-inspired materials.
The idea for this show in the John and Peggy Maximus Gallery began when I was given a book chronicling the lives of extinct birds, Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Christopher Cokinos. The stories were poignant and shocking. I realized that an exhibit on the subject would be thought-provoking in the current sobering time of bird loss.
Because the exhibit space is devoted to antique natural history art, we could reveal the tragic histories of lost species through the work of Mark Catesby, Alexander Wilson, and John James Audubon, who depicted America’s lost birds. It was a challenge to find the exact prints. After all, they were made more than 150 and in some cases 250 years ago: rare to begin with and not easily found. There were a few already in our collection but we needed several others.
The events described in this story took place before our new era of social distancing.
After more than a hundred years, we’re sort of used to people taking a family interest in the Museum. Generations of Santa Barbarans (Barbarians, depending on whom you ask) have enjoyed pushing the button on our electrified rattlesnake, peering into our dioramas, and exploring for wildlife on the shady banks of Mission Creek. Longtime Museum and Sea Center supporter Natalie Myerson—whose late husband Raymond served as a trustee and the Museum’s treasurer for over 25 years—loves to tell the story of how her grandchildren grew up calling this place “grandpa’s museum” (and we love to hear it). We suspect there are other families out there who feel a similar connection, based in their own tradition of service. Recently, we enjoyed a special visit from a guest who has a very literal claim to call us “grandpa’s museum”: Keith Dawson, grandson of Museum founder William Leon Dawson.
Two years have passed since the Thomas Fire and January 9 debris flows devastated our community. For many, the losses suffered then are still very fresh. We haven’t forgotten the shock of discovering that our uniquely beautiful region is vulnerable, too. That remembrance—painful as it is—will be critical as we plan for the future, and increase our resilience in the face of wildfire and extreme weather events.
Marcel Proust famously wrote that “the only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another.” Yet in the effort to develop new perspectives, “visiting strange lands” sure helps. Travel broadens horizons, forcing us to grow as people. Adapting to new circumstances, we stop inching like caterpillars and start flying like butterflies. That’s growing up.
Our Collections and Research Center (CRC) is fertile ground for research. Our curatorial staff and visiting scholars from around the world frequently publish work based on our specimens. Not to brag, but recently a scientist at another small museum—Western Science Center in Hemet, CA—published his discovery of a species of mastodon, based in part on fossil specimens from our Earth Science Collections. Just last week, scientists from a variety of institutions (including two visitors from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History) studied artifacts in our Anthropology Collections and specimens in our Department of Vertebrate Zoology. Yet the coauthor on one of our recent peer-reviewed publications coming from the Department of Invertebrate Zoology is a little different: she’s a scientist who just happens to be 18 years old.
Every beetle fan knows the story: “Darwin was peeling bark and collecting beetles. He had one beetle in each hand already, and he saw a third that was exciting to him, so he popped one of the ones in his hands into his mouth.” Curator and Schlinger Chair of Entomology Matthew L. Gimmel, Ph.D., told me this story the day I met him. The beetle Darwin put in his mouth to free up one hand “turned out to be one with really foul-tasting chemical defenses, and it released in his mouth. So he, of course, spit it out. He ended up losing all three beetles in the process.”
It’s a tale told so many times that Google knows when you’re about to ask for it, and there’s a reason for that.
Warning: This post contains information and images pertaining to the preparation of dead animals via taxidermy, and may not be appropriate for readers who find this topic disturbing. (The rest of us may find it helpful as a holiday season appetite suppressant.)
Museum of natural history: What comes to mind when you think of these words? Dioramas, taxidermy, giant articulated skeletons of charismatic megafauna…and if you’re from around here, a rattlesnake that shakes its rattle when you push the big red button. But our exhibits are just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, most museums have collections behind the scenes that extend far beyond the selection of specimens on display. In our case, the Collections & Research Center (CRC) houses over 3.5 million specimens and artifacts, as we never tire of bragging. Although our exhibits team and education staff draw on those collections to inform the public, most of the time the specimens in the CRC are shared with a different audience: visiting scientists who come to study them to advance their research. Yet the CRC specimens are stored within a modest 12,937 square feet of space, while our halls and outdoor exhibits sprawl across a far larger campus. How do they fit all those specimens in there? In the Invertebrate Zoology Department, it helps that many of the treasures are tiny, from microshells to microscopic insects. The Vertebrate Zoology Department has no such luck. They’re the ones who have to figure out where to put the whale skulls.
How does it make you feel to gaze deep into the eyes of a spider? Possibly you lock eyes with one like the jumping spider pictured above, over a romantic caterpillar meal just like mom used to make. Are you fascinated and seduced, or repulsed? Perhaps you feel a combination of these things. Some might speculate that there’s an evolutionary advantage to being creeped out, and that we should heed a deep, valuable impulse to steer clear of things that are dangerous. The problem with this is that spiders aren’t—generally speaking—dangerous. If anyone should feel repulsion and wariness, the spiders should feel those sensations when they regard us. Leaving aside our distasteful paucity of eyes and legs, we’re notorious spider-killers. Sometimes we kill them accidentally—by crushing them as we go about our business—but often we do it deliberately, like my creative neighbor who hunts Black Widows with a Super Soaker. Spiders, by contrast, never seek out humans to bite or eat, and only bite when cornered. When a spider is threatened by something about to push on it—be it an incautious hand picking up a piece of wood from a woodpile or a foot thrust into a shoe—that threat triggers the spider to engage a defensive response of opening and closing its fangs. So while we should move with care where spiders might be present, we can take comfort in the fact that they have no interest in picking a fight with us.
Santa Rosa Island is a unique place, as anyone who’s been can tell you. For all that the Channel Islands have in common with the mainland, the first thing someone returning from a visit to Channel Islands National Park (CINP) is likely to say is “It’s another world out there.” And Santa Rosa Island—west of the more commonly visited Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island—is at yet another remove. Its landscape is especially marked by the effects of the wind that comes in straight off the Pacific. In Santa Barbara, we’re lucky; the Channel Islands act as our windbreak and buffer us from storms. But the islands themselves—particularly the western islands of Santa Rosa and San Miguel—have no such buffer. On Santa Rosa, the wind roars across the marine terraces, making their grasses ripple like water. It scours out dramatic sandstone formations, creating scenes of erosion like the Grand Canyon in miniature, exposing stratigraphy like a crazy layer cake. And as you may have heard last fall, the wind’s last revelation on Santa Rosa Island disclosed the 20-25-million-year-old fossilized remains of a marine mammal quaintly known as a sea cow.