Shark Teeth & Whale Tale – Helping the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

This is a not-at-all-paid endorsement of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History’s Kickstarter project to make a very neat interactive exhibit, one I would have loved as a kid. I say not-at-all-paid because I tend to be the one who buys the drinks when my sister visits.

Wherever you went to school as a kid, there were field trips in elementary school. Now that I’m an adult, I suspect this was so there was time to fumigate the classrooms and disinfect every surface covered in the toxic biofilm of Cooties. Of course, the quality of your field trips was directly proportional to the level of funding your school had. Growing up in the immediate aftermath of post-Prop 13 California, this meant these trips got a lot more local with parents driving since we couldn’t afford to run the buses.

Before the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened, the most popular science field trip destinations for the kids of Santa Cruz County were Shark Tooth Hill (now known as the Randal Morgan Sandhills Preserve) and the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, AKA THE PLACE WITH THE WHALE SCULPTURE YOU CAN PLAY ON!!!!! It was, of course, forbidden to climb all over the concrete gray whale model outside the museum but somehow it seemed to attract dozens of second graders just the same. We got yelled at to get off of it, but were back on again within seconds of the Museum Lady turning her back. (NOTE: my sister now holds the role of Museum Lady for today’s kids)

The Museum is small but somehow manages to be a focal point for scientific inquiry for the whole county. Strange rock? People call the museum. Found a skull you think is a dinosaur’s despite the fact that the geology of Santa Cruz didn’t exist in the Mesozoic Era, a fact I totally learned in first grade there? People call the museum. Weird fungus on that tree over there, recording of a bird call you don’t recognize, etc.? I think you get the idea. The answer to your question may be “Umm, please don’t bring roadkill into the museum, unless it’s Bigfoot, TOTALLY BRING THAT IN” but it’s at least somewhere to start asking.

Now, having mentioned the geology of Santa Cruz, most all of what you see is uplifted marine sediments. The drier parts of the county tend to have a lot of exposed sandstone which is why there’s several quarries around. And as any student of paleontology, or sufficiently dinosaur obsessed six year old (e.g. Li’l Phil), can tell you quarries tend to find fossils as they’re doing the most digging. Being marine sediments, the fossils you get reflect that.

Near Scotts Valley, there was an exposed hill face of sandstone that science field trips and cub scouts went to regularly to go play in the sand, particularly after good storms. What were we looking for? Shark teeth. They washed out of the hill with astounding regularity which captivated my imagination as a kid. Even six year old Phil had some grasp of statistics, populations, and the geologic time scale. My first grader math quickly put together a picture of submerged Santa Cruz as a place that was a thronging sea of almost nothing but great white sharks, HUGE sharks, to have caused that many teeth to be in that hill.

Really, it only takes one Megaladon tooth side by side with one from a modern great white to make you stare at the calm ocean surface and never want to get near a boat again.

But other fossils and than shark teeth get found in those hills. There’s plenty of whale skeletons and massive loads of sand dollars, but one of the more interesting ones is the long extinct Dusisiren jordani sea cow (same family as the Steller’s Sea Cow, which fur hunters in the North Pacific hunted to extinction to keep sailors fed). They would like to make a replica of this skeleton for students to practice exhuming this from a sandbox. If you’ve gotten the opportunity to play in an archaeology/paleontology grid, this is precisely what they’d like start teaching kids about in elementary school, except with a sea cow to discover and assemble.

As much fun as I had sliding down those sand hills to the point I abraded holes in the seat of my pants as I kid, I’m not sure I can express what kind of dark pacts I would have made to have a skeleton to assemble. So, go on over to Kickstarter and toss a few bucks at them. Do it for Li’l Phil. Do it for some unnamed mischevious child that’s out there now with a healthy sense of the morbid that has future in forensics.