The deep sea is in the news a lot these days, as it becomes more attractive not only to extractors of fossil fuels, but to makers of electric car batteries. The International Seabed Authority is charged by the UN with the task of regulating this mining to protect the environment. It’s a difficult challenge for many reasons, such as that we’re barely beginning to understand the ecosystems mining may affect. Museum collections have a major role to play in building that understanding, both as repositories for samples that document the existence of deep-sea organisms, and as bases for the scientists who study those organisms.
My name is Stella Scheim, and I’m a senior in the Quasars to Sea Stars program, a three- to four-year internship program here at the Museum that allows high schoolers to explore science and nature through hands-on learning. Each summer, Quasars create a project that they present in August; first years collaborate on creating an original museum as they learn about the inner workings of our own, and second and third years present a literature review of a topic of their choice that relates to summer classes taught by our Teen Programs intern. Seniors, though, are tasked with something with a bit of larger scope: an original research project, mentored by an expert in the field, that they work on throughout the year.
For my project, I focused on a long term passion of mine–fungi.
How do you build a collection? Slowly, and with patience. The Museum’s research collections are built in many ways, and usually over many years. They start small and grow through the collecting efforts and encouragement by generations of curators, donations from private collectors, from other museums, and the public who bring in something interesting or important. If well cared for and made accessible, they can become significant to our understanding of the natural world we live in.
The Museum’s current Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) collection started with a few cabinets salvaged from a fire in 1962. Sandy Russell volunteered as a docent in 1999 when she and her husband Paul moved to Santa Barbara. Eric Hochberg, Ph.D., a curator in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at that time, suggested that she also come work on the long-neglected insect collection. She has been tending the collection and adding specimens ever since. The addition of the Schlinger Chair of Entomology in 2001 has been a game-changer since it signaled a long-term commitment to insects by the Museum. Since that time the collection has grown manyfold through donations from Tom Dimock, Ken Denton, Ed Pfeiler, and others. John Carson donated specimens and a significant bequest.
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.