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.
The raptors are back! Nope, we’re not talking about dinosaurs from the Cretaceous resurrected by Hollywood, but about our favorite dinosaur descendants, the birds of prey who live in the mews on our Mission Creek Campus. That is, they lived there from 2011 to early fall of 2017, when construction workers got busy transforming the outdoor play space of our Museum Backyard and the birds moved to two generously donated temporary aviaries located in private spaces near the Museum. Now that the new and improved Backyard is almost up and running, the birds have finally come home. It’s been a stressful time for humans and birds alike—with the Thomas Fire and its aftermath delaying construction and prolonging the time the raptors spent in their temporary digs—so the sense of relief here is palpable as our beloved birds return.
These animals can’t survive on their own in the wild. For most of them, that’s due to health conditions like blindness or wing damage sustained during car accidents. Acclimated to life around humans, they do more than earn their keep by acting as ambassadors between the avian world and our own. They’re part of the outreach group Eyes in the Sky (EITS), a program of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society. Every year, the seven birds currently in EITS inspire and inform the schoolchildren they visit in classrooms and the Museum guests who visit the birds here. All this happens because of the dedicated EITS volunteers who care for the birds and act as their interpreters in the community.
If the Museum was part of your childhood, chances are you’ve enshrined our halls in your memory. You may have wondered (or even worried about) whether it was possible to update the halls without losing the history that makes them so special. We wondered about that ourselves. Actually, we obsessed over it. When you visit, we think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that while much has changed, the historic character remains intact. We were able to honor our history because we understand and value it.
As an institution, we rely heavily on Librarian Terri Sheridan to preserve our memories. “Librarian?” you might be thinking, “What librarian?” Such a title implies the existence of a library, and relatively few visitors discover ours. Like Platform 9 ¾, it’s hiding right under your nose, but there’s no trick to entering; the magic is all inside.
The Stubby Squid: Does it have a face only a mother could love, or the face that launched a thousand ships? However its gaze may strike you personally, it launched at least one ship, namely, the E/V (exploration vessel) Nautilus. The Nautilus belongs to the Ocean Exploration Trust, and it’s the ship that brought the world this astounding face from the depths…and much more. If you’ve been living your life somewhere even more remote than the Mariana Trench, and you’ve never seen the Stubby Squid or heard of the Ocean Exploration Trust, you’ve still probably heard of its founder, Dr. Bob Ballard. He discovered the Titanic, remember? What’s more, he’s a UCSB alumnus, and thanks to him, our region is treated to recurring brushes with greatness vis-à-vis the deep sea.
Why does Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology have a severed albatross head in its collection? That wasn’t one of our sleuth’s original research questions, but he answered it all the same. SBMNH Curator of Vertebrate Zoology Paul Collins encountered the surreal specimen while researching his book-in-development on the birds of the Channel Islands. It’s not the only mystery he’s solved over the course of that research, but it may be one of the strangest.
For the past forty years, Collins has compiled information about Channel Islands birds from specimens and field notes at institutions around the world. His sources stretch from 1843 to the present day, and include records of nearly 10,000 museum specimens and more than 150,000 observations of birds on the eight islands. The last book to cover the birds of all the islands was a slim volume published in 1917, so Collins’s book will fill a big gap in the field. Physically, the observation records fill a stack of binders 24 inches tall. In bird terms, that’s about the height of a Great Egret, those tall white birds you see in the wetlands around UCSB and the fallow fields of Goleta.
“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume.”
–Hope Jahren, Lab Girl
“Drought, Fire, and Flood: Climate Change and Our New Normal,” the community conversation held April 25 at the Granada Theatre (the space generously shared by the Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts), educated and motivated those who could devote their Wednesday evening to getting informed about local climate resilience. If you missed the event, read on for detailed coverage.
This event had its roots in the long drought and increasingly severe fires that scourged our state in recent years, which set the stage for devastating local flooding and debris flows in January. Following the death and destruction in Montecito, members of the SBMNH Board of Trustees suggested that the Museum host an event addressing the natural disasters. Museum President and CEO Luke Swetland reached out to Karl Hutterer, the Museum’s Director Emeritus, and Community Environmental Council (CEC) CEO/Executive Director Sigrid Wright. The CEC, a “think-and-do-tank,” has spent approximately the last half-century promoting solutions to environmental problems in the Santa Barbara area. In the last decade, it has specifically focused on promoting regional solutions to the challenges posed by climate change.
As a young visitor to the Museum, I never really looked behind the taxidermy. I never imagined that there were scientists behind the scenes, managing collections and pursuing their own research. It certainly never occurred to me that collections housed here in Santa Barbara would draw researchers from other institutions worldwide. This reflected not only my lack of knowledge about the Museum, but something I didn’t yet understand about science: that it’s conducted not by lone wolves, but by pack animals.
This might sound surprising, in light of what we all usually picture when we imagine a scientist. Even if we’re lucky enough to know some real scientists, we typically visualize someone whose expertise exceeds their social skills, someone who’d rather spend Friday nights alone in a lab than having a beer with friends. Shows like The Big Bang Theory derive their humor from this entrenched stereotype. What the stereotype gets right is the fact that scientists are typically passionate about what they do, and most of the time they’d rather be doing it than anything else. They’re in it for love, and not for the money, which you can confirm by asking any researcher what they earn.