Collections inside the San Diego Natural History Museum

Bugs and worms and dinosaur bones

On the third floor of the Natural History Museum in Balboa Park, a world away from the tourists and schoolchildren trooping noisily from display to display on the two floors below, is a large, quiet room with a vaulted ceiling. Row upon row of tall metal cabinets stand inside, magisterial amid the dust and the faint odor of moth balls, and in one of them — in the bottom drawer — lies a fossilized shark tooth four inches long and nearly as wide. Researchers who have reason to examine it occasionally cut their fingers on the sharp, serrated edges of the tooth, which was found in Oceanside and dates from a time six million years ago when the dominant creatures in the neighborhood were not Marines or real-estate developers but forty-five-foot-long white sharks that could swallow a human being in one bite.

Botany Lab

Botany Lab

If disaster ever befalls San Diego, let us hope the Natural History Museum survives. Its third floor, where most of the museum’s various collections are kept, contains more history than the rest of the county combined. In fact, there are so many specimens dried and stored within the museum’s walls that if they were simultaneously doused with water they might sprout into an entirely new county, a lush and fantastic place where all the plants and animals that can be found here now would live side by side with all the things that have died out. Imagine it: jack rabbits amid mastodons on the mesas, condors in the skies with mockingbirds, redwood trees towering over barrel cactus, crocodiles sunning next to rattlesnakes, insects like you wouldn’t believe.



Working with the museum’s archives, future historians or visitors from another solar system could reconstruct to a fairly precise degree what San Diego County was like at any one time. And surely they would find pleasure in examining the drawers full of dried cockroaches skewered on pins, the — limbless, wormlike lizards coiled in jars full of alcohol, and the bones of a giant sea cow — the largest ever discovered, dug out of a bulldozed lot in Chula Vista in 1981 — stored on a back shelf in the paleontology department. The curious visitors would also come across anomalies such as duck-billed platypuses from Australia, giant beetles camouflaged as leaves from tropical Central America, and a few three-foot-long clams from the South Pacific, but with a close reading of the attached labels these could be separated from the local stuff. The museum’s great strength is its definitive accumulations of flora and fauna from two Californias — Southern and Baja. Other natural history museums have larger collections, some have more exotic collections, but few, if any, have more thorough inventories of the territory that surrounds them.

King cobra

King cobra

“It’s one of the outstanding collection museums in the country, in terms of the size of its collection and the amount of unusual stuff in it,” says Bill Everett, a wildlife biologist who has examined bird collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco as well as at the local museum. “There isn’t a lot of stuff from around the world . . . but in terms of focusing on the local area, it’s one of the best.” Adds local botanist Mitchel Beauchamp, “It’s the principal museum for [plants from] San Diego County and Baja California.... In terms of volume, it’s probably the fourth largest in the state” behind such prestigious institutions as UC Berkeley and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden near Los Angeles.

Scarab beetle

Scarab beetle

Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that the museum's collections are considered far superior to its exhibits. But the museum has never enjoyed widespread financial support from the community or local government agencies, and the grants garnered by individual curators are almost always earmarked exclusively for enlarging or cataloguing collections. Currently there are ambitious plans afoot to re-vamp completely the museum’s exhibits over the next decade. In the meantime, despite their failure to generate flashy headlines or astounding new scientific advances, the collections grow — “repositories,” as one local scientist put it, “for what is and what was.”

David Faulkner, Frederick Schram. Geoff Levin, Amadeo Rea, Gregory Pregill, Tom Demere.

David Faulkner, Frederick Schram. Geoff Levin, Amadeo Rea, Gregory Pregill, Tom Demere.

The museum’s collections got their start in October of 1874, when the San Diego Natural History Society first began meeting in the downtown office of Daniel Cleveland. a local attorney and amateur plant collector whose 3000 plant specimens later became the foundation for the museum’s herbarium. Among the earliest things recorded as part of the society’s property were a bird’s beak, the claw of a grizzly bear, 200 chunks of various minerals, some fossils and dried plants, and “a piece of a bandage used on General Stonewall Jackson.”

Turtle skulls

Turtle skulls

That assortment of oddities pretty much set the tone for future collecting, although in 1922 the society did concentrate its interests somewhat by adopting a resolution that stated, “The Society shall devote its main efforts to the study, collection, preparation and exhibition of the flora, fauna, and geology of Southern California, Arizona and Lower California, and the waters of the Pacific Ocean adjacent thereto, concentrating first on San Diego County and its immediate vicinity.” One hundred and eleven years after the society was founded, the integrity of that statement still stands. Consulting the museum’s collections is practically a must for researchers studying any aspect of the natural history of the southwestern United States, northern Mexico, or Baja California. Its collection of rattlesnakes is the finest in the world, and researchers across the country know of its collections of Baja plants and fossil seashells, and its rapidly growing collection of marine mammal fossils from a period about three million years ago. The total number of specimens alone is staggering: 117,000 plants; 70,000 frogs, snakes, and lizards; 43,500 birds; 23,500 mammals; 20,000 minerals; 85,000 gastropod shells and crabs; 250,000 fossils; 700,000 insects.

The curators who preside over these collections often refer to them as libraries, and they are; if you want to study rattlesnake penises or succulent plants from Baja, for example, the San Diego Natural History Museum is the place to go. But in a way the collections are more closely akin to garages or attics: stockpiles of things obscure, arcane, and wonderful. “We're all pack rats here,” explained Gregory Pregill, curator of herpetology. “It’s part of the collector’s mentality. We keep everything, because you never know when some use for it may come up.” As he spoke, Pregill was showing off part of a pit viper’s skull with a single, vicious-looking, inch-and-a-half-long fang protruding from it. The skull, carefully boxed, labeled, and stored in a cabinet in the herpetology department, has no great research value, he conceded; it’s just, well, kind of neat.

Pregill is one of several relatively young and relatively recent additions to the museum staff (others include curator of botany Geoff Levin and Tom Demere, assistant curator of paleontology) who, along with curator of entomology David Faulkner, help give the museum’s third floor a kind of collective personality. The lasting impression is one of highly intelligent young Field biologists who have a sense of humor and more than a little irreverence. A cartoon posted in one third-floor laboratory, depicting two white-coated men of science playing with small plastic dinosaurs, sums up this attitude nicely.

Pregill is thirty-eight, bearded, fond of wearing western-style shirts and boots. On the door to his laboratory is a sticker that reads, “Institute of Depravity and Sacrilege,” and among his office furnishings is a glass tank containing a bright green collared lizard, which Pregill refers to in all seriousness as “a very handsome animal.”

“To do this job you have to have the collector’s mind, the collector’s syndrome,” Pregill commented in his office one morning not long ago. “I collected matchbooks for years when I was in grammar school, and I remember one time, when I brought some animal or other back to the house one afternoon, one of the neighbors told my folks, ‘Don’t worry, he'll grow out of it.’ “ Pregill laughed.

The young curator has spent much of the last ten years engaged in field research on West Indian islands such as Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Grenada, and the Dominican Republic, but since coming to the local museum in 1981 he has done a good deal of collecting in San Diego County, too. The frogs, snakes, and lizards he scoops up in various remote parts of the back country are killed with an injection of Nembutal and are then prepared according to need. Some are gutted and skinned, and only their skeletons are kept; others are treated with a formaldehyde solution to halt decay, and the entire animals are then stored in jars full of alcohol, where they will last indefinitely. Pregill spends $1000 a year on alcohol — he buys it by the fifty-five-gallon drum — and because of the fire hazard it represents, most of the specimens in the herpetology collection are stored on shelves in a tightly locked shed behind the main museum building. There, in a room kept dark most of the time so that light won’t gradually bleach the skins, thousands of pickled snakes and frogs peer silently at visitors through sightless eyes. Some of the jars are quite large, like the one that contains a foot-long Goliath frog from Africa, the largest frog species on earth. Others contain smaller but no less interesting specimens, such as a poisonous, yellow-bellied sea snake collected off Acapulco. “They’ve been found as far north as Ensenada,” Pregill said, “but that’s unusual. They’re distantly related to cobras, and they still breathe air, but their tail is flat and functions as a sort of paddle. They’ve also got very small teeth and don’t deliver much venom. The venom affects the nerves that control your breathing and heart rate, and if you were bitten you would basically stop breathing or your heart would just stop. But they’re not aggressive to humans; they eat fish.”

There are countless other interesting things on the shelves, including a limbless lizard from southern Baja California that resembles a fat worm except for its distinct mouth and rows of fine teeth. The lizard lives in underground burrows, and its hearing is so acute it can detect a beetle walking on the surface a foot above, burrow under it, burst forth from the ground, and snatch the unsuspecting beetle before it knows what is happening. But the largest and most highly prized part of the collection are its rattlesnakes — all 10,000 of them. As he perused the rows of bottled rattlers recently. Pregill stopped in front of one from Angel de la Guarda (an island in the Gulf of California) and marveled at its baseball-size head. “That’s a big rattlesnake,” he remarked.

Pregill said that the vast majority of the rattlesnakes were donated to the museum in 1960 by Laurence Klauber, a pillar of the local community who went to work for the San Diego Gas & Electric Company in 1911 as an electric sign salesman and retired in 1954 as chairman of the company’s board. Klauber grew up in San Diego and developed an interest in snakes during his family’s frequent outings to Alpine, Descanso, and Mount Palomar, but it wasn’t until 1922, when he was nearly forty years old, that he took up reptile collecting in earnest. The basement of his Hillcrest home became a laboratory for storing and conducting experiments on rattlesnakes; in one experiment he discovered that the speed at which a snake’s rattle vibrates varies with the temperature of the snake.

Philip Klauber, Laurence’s son, recalled recently that his father’s consuming involvement with rattlesnakes inevitably drew in other members of the family. “Our family picnics to the back country became snake-hunting trips,” he said. “And during the Depression he hired me to pickle specimens for twenty-five cents an hour. I also used to fill out pages of data on individual snakes, mostly things like its length, the length of its tail, the dimensions of its head, and so on. . . . I didn’t have the great consuming interest [in rattlesnakes] that he had, but I didn’t have the dislike of them that some people do, either. My mother didn’t care too much for snakes and lizards, but she was smart on how you keep a marriage together, and that is, you tolerate things.”

Laurence Klauber eventually named sixteen new subspecies of rattlesnake, and with the publication in 1956 of his two-volume work Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, he became recognized as the world’s foremost authority on the subject. The 1530 pages of Rattlesnakes contain “just about everything you’d ever want to know about rattlesnakes,” noted Pregill. “He wrote with all the care of a trained professional scientist. He also discovered a method of collecting snakes that changed herpetology forever — night driving. He’d go out to the desert in a chauffeur-driven limousine and drive dirt roads at night, and he’d find [a lot of] snakes. In fact, he discovered that many snakes were more common than was thought — they were simply nocturnal. It’s because of Klauber that [county road] S-2 in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is recognized as one of the great snake-collecting roads in the United States.”

Klauber donated a total of 30,000 snakes and other reptiles and amphibians to the museum, one of many donations the institution has received over the years and one of the most important ways its collections have grown. Not all collectors are so generous; Charles Sternberg, for instance, who collected dinosaur bones and other fossils throughout Montana and western Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s, sold two tons’ worth of dinosaur bones to the museum in 1921 and demanded gold coins, not paper money, for his $3680 payment. (The huge duck-billed dinosaur mounted in plaster and displayed on the museum’s second floor is constructed from three different specimens Sternberg collected; most of the other bones he sold to the museum are currently stored in cardboard boxes behind this exhibit.) But other benefactors have been less profit-oriented, including Sea World and the San Diego Zoo, which sometimes donate animals that have died. Donations from these institutions are accepted gratefully and almost automatically, even though they nearly always consist of exotic species such as penguins or lemurs that do little to further the museum’s interest in regional flora and fauna.

Women have made a special contribution to the museum, too, mainly to the herbarium. And this is because in the narrow, neo-Victorian views that persisted in this country until World War II, collecting plants was somehow proper and acceptable for the daughters of wealthy families, while pursuing science of almost any other kind was most assuredly not. The museum’s files are filled with the names of women and the plants they donated: Rebecca Austin’s plants from the Mid-west, 1880; Minnie Reed’s grass collection, 1892; Edith Purer’s marsh and coastal plants, donated in the 1930s; and plants carefully plucked and dried by Catherine Brandagee, Alice Eastwood, Ethyl Bailey Higgins, and many, many more.

Geoff Levin, the museum’s curator of botany, noted that the method of collecting and storing plants has changed little in the century since the museum’s first plants were brought in. The harvested plants are bound tightly between sheets of cardboard that fit into a wooden frame, and are left to dry for a week or two. Then they are glued into manila folders along with labels explaining what species they are, where they were found, and other pertinent information. Most plants will survive in this way for well over a hundred years, and visitors to the herbarium can still see brightly colored flowers — fremontia from Jamul in 1878, gilia from San Diego in 1884, and poppies from Lake Hodges in 1935 — collected during temperate springtimes long ago.

The pressing and drying process does not affect all plants or their oils equally, however. Researchers who make the mistake of handling the museum’s poison oak specimen, collected in 1975, sometimes come down with an all-too-familiar burning, itching rash. (Experiments have proved that poison oak leaves stored at room temperature for five years show absolutely no decrease in potency.) And more than one young researcher has probably considered conducting private experiments on the museum’s excellent specimen of Cannabis sativa, thick with buds, that was collected near Escondido in 1980. The label in its folder reads, “Undoubtedly cultivated by resident of nearby house for its excellent hemp fibers.”

Levin said the plant collection, like the museum’s other collections, has a variety of practical uses. “One function is that it serves as an aid to identification. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a specimen is worth a thousand pictures. We have a lot of environmental consultants and employees from the state park system and the county planning department who come in here to identify a plant they’ve found at some site or other. They want to determine whether it’s really an endangered species or not.

“Another function is documentation — recording whether or not a plant was present at a particular place at a particular time. In San Diego that’s particularly important because so much of the city has been disturbed by urban development.” The museum’s collections are full of identical species of plants and animals that have been collected at various locations around the county, and at different times; in this way scientists can keep track of individual species. Levin pointed out, and determine whether they are getting rarer or more abundant.

Generally speaking, the trend has been toward rarer. The herbarium’s records show that San Diego mesa mint, once relatively abundant around vernal pools, is now found only in few places because so many of the area’s vernal pools have been filled in or buried by development. Many moths and butterflies once found along San Diego’s coast have likewise disappeared in recent years due to the surge of coastal development. And the orange-throated whiptail lizard, once widespread on the county’s coastal mesas, is now all but extinct. “It has a particular fondness for a particular termite that inhabits a particular kind of chaparral plant that only occurs there [on the coastal mesas],” explained Pregill. “If you eliminate the plants, you eliminate the termites and you eliminate the lizard.”

Pregill and Levin also agreed that one of the prime uses of the collections is for establishing how plant and animal species are related to each other — what is called evolutionary biology, or systematics. “It isn’t the sort of flashy stuff that the National Institutes of Health will fund,” Pregill conceded. “The fact is that cellular biology and biochemistry is where all the money is right now, because . . . that type of research has more medical applications and clinical applications.

“The only time [we evolutionary biologists] seem to get any popular attention is when some new species is discovered. But while a new species is interesting to us in the field, the excitement of discovering it passes rather quickly. . . . What we’re really trying to figure out is how one animal is related to another, or even how one group of animals is related to another.” Such studies involve painstaking examinations of the bone structure and teeth of various animals (or in the case of plants, their blossoms, leaves, and other characteristics) in order to determine which are more primitive, which are more advanced, and what their closest relatives are.

Pregill pointed out that systematics is what makes laboratory experiments possible, because it provides scientists with a fundamental framework with which they can order the world. “One of the reasons the white rat is used so much in laboratory studies is not simply because it’s easy to rear, or that it has a rapid [reproduction] rate, but because it’s a mammal.... We know that we can make extrapolations from a white rat to a human. We also know that studying some process in earthworms or mushrooms is not going to tell us a whole lot about how [that process] will affect humans. It’s kind of a simplistic example, but that knowledge comes from systematics.

“But,” he added, “I think one of the main reasons many of us pursue evolutionary biology is because it allows us to get outside a lot. For a pure mainline dose of aesthetics, just to be out in nature and see what’s going on, you can’t beat it. And here at the museum we’re really lucky in that we have just about unlimited amounts of field time. I spend four or five months each year doing field work. That’s really what makes it all interesting and worthwhile to me.”

One of the prime rewards of field work is, of course, that it enables the curators personally to add to their collections. Amadeo Rea, curator of birds and mammals, has a reputation for being the museum’s most devoted field investigator, spending nearly four months at it each year. On the other hand, David Faulkner, curator of entomology. spends about two months every year collecting specimens at locations ranging from the desert to San Diego Stadium.

Faulkner insists he likes field work, but to hear him talk about it, it sounds somewhat trying. One of the areas he concentrates on is Baja, and as he puts it, “Most of the easy stuff has already been collected, so we’re often stuck with going to these mountain ranges that are practically inaccessible. Typically, I pack up my four-wheel-drive International Scout so that I can be reasonably self-sufficient, because most of the time I’m out in the sticks. Maybe once a week I’ll stop in a town, take a shower in a cheapy hotel, get a meal, and then go back out into the field.”

In early April of this year Faulkner and a companion took a ten-day field trip to Baja to collect insects. The first day they drove from San Diego to Mulege, a distance of more than 600 miles on a road that has frequent detours and even more frequent potholes. That night they camped on the shores of the Gulf of California and collected a number of moths, flies, and beetles. The next morning they drove through the mountains in the middle of the peninsula to the Pacific coast, using a dirt road that does not appear on the map produced by the American Automobile Association, one of the most detailed Baja maps available. (Faulkner freely sketches in the routes he takes on his AAA map and crosses off others that he has discovered do not exist.) They spent the second night at Bahia San Juanico, where an unseasonal frost did not prevent them from taking sand wasps, tiger beetles, and more moths. Next, they spent two days driving up and down a long arroyo that Faulkner describes as “sort of passable,” collecting wasps, flies, moths, grasshoppers, “anything that comes in, really. I just wanted to find out what’s there. Probably no one has ever collected insects in that arroyo before. No one in his right mind.” After that, Faulkner and his companion retraced their route back up into the mountains in the middle of the peninsula, camping for three nights at La Purisima, where a year-round stream guarantees the presence of aquatic insects such as mayflies, caddis flies, mosquitoes, and black flies. Then they came home. “We only collected a total of 1500 specimens, which isn’t a whole lot, and the black flies were pretty bad,” Faulkner said, rolling up his pants leg to reveal countless small red bites. “But. . . .” He popped open a small wooden box on his desk. Inside, several black flies were mounted on pins. The curator smiled.

Faulkner is thirty-five, and moves around his office in a slightly frantic manner, like a moth around a candle. A poster near his desk shows millions of tiny insects swarming beneath the caption: Just because you're paranoid doesn’t mean they're not out to get you. “I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t collecting insects,” he said, recalling that as a boy he displayed his butterfly collection at the Del Mar Fair’s hobby show year after year. Even a scorpion that once stung him as he was playing in a construction project near his parents’ Encinitas home made it into his collection.

To collect the bugs he wants, Faulkner uses either a net mounted on a long pole (“You run around and try to snare them in the net just the way insect collectors do in the comics”) or a black-light trap. The latter consists of an ultraviolet light that is switched on at night in front of a sheet or other broad surface that reflects the light. “Then you just sit there . . . and when things land on the sheet you go collect them,” he explained. “Insects respond to light, and some of them you can really only get at night. You get all the beetles that way, for instance, and all the moths.”

According to Faulkner, the museum’s 700,000 insects make up “a small to moderate-size insect collection, as far as museums go.” The Smithsonian Institution has about 22 million, he pointed out; the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, about 15 million. But like the local museum’s other collections, the insect collection has a vast array of specimens from San Diego County and Baja California. There is a good sampling of insects from western Mexico and southern Arizona, too. “And then there’s the ‘stuff,’ ” Faulkner said, “the specimens we get out when we have special groups in to visit. We don’t do any research on them, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re great.” Sliding open a drawer, he revealed several of the world’s largest moths, a species from Southeast Asia with lemon-yellow wings nearly a foot across. (By comparison, the largest moth found in San Diego County is the black witch moth, which, with a wingspan of only six inches, is still often mistaken for a bat by people who are not particularly enamored of large flapping things.)

In a nearby drawer was a row of flies so tiny they were mounted on the heads of pins rather than skewered by them. Faulkner said that to identify such a small insect “you First of all put it under a microscope to find out what the hell family it’s in. Then the length of the wings or the legs might tell you what species it is, or you might have to dissect it and look at the genitalia. It’s not that difficult to dissect them under the microscope — sometimes we snip open the body with scissors that were developed for eye surgery — but the thing is, you can’t lose it.” He chuckled. “If you know where it is, you can work with it.”

Some of Faulkner’s favorite insects are lacewings. “They’re just really bizarre,” he explained, producing one half-inch-long specimen from Baja that resembled a small brown praying mantis. “Some live in termite nests and feed on worker termites. Some are aquatic and feed on freshwater sponges. But these will seek out a wolf spider when they're still in the larval stage, get into the spider’s lungs, and live in them for up to two or three years, feeding on the liquid there. When the spider lays its eggs, the lacewing larvae exit the lungs and then eat the eggs. I mean, that's not normal."

Collecting, cataloguing, and storing the collections is accomplished with surprisingly little money, although with only ten to fifteen percent of the museum’s total operating budget of approximately one million dollars a year spent on equipment and maintenance for the collections of the six departments, this is out of necessity rather than choice. The entomology department’s annual budget is only about $3000, most of which goes for travel expenses, cabinets, and pins. The herpetology department has a budget of $10,000, the majority of it spent on alcohol, boxes and jars, and a part-time assistant from San Diego State who takes care of preparing and cataloguing many of the new specimens.

Most of the curators supplement these meager amounts by obtaining research grants from various foundations and societies. For example, the paleontology department averages about $60,000 a year in research grants and contributions, including gifts from the local Scripps and Rirker foundations. And Pregill, who recently used up the last of a three-year, $70,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, now has an application in with the same organization for $80,000 more. But such grants can be used only for expenses such as travel and equipment, not to supplement the curators’ salaries, which according to Pregill average about $25,000 a year. “We make less than bus drivers,” he commented ruefully. “We’re underpaid, pure and simple. But none of us are in this for the money. . . . All of us share a profound appreciation for the complexity of nature, and the opportunity to try to make sense out of it is very compelling.” Pregill also noted that a museum curator’s job is an independent one that allows him to spend full time studying amphibians and reptiles on his own schedule, rather than teaching anatomy or beginning biology as he would likely have to do as a college professor. One measure of how highly scientists prize such benefits — and how few research positions there are — is that when the museum began actively looking for a curator of herpetology in 1981, Pregill was one of about seventy people who applied for the job.

In contrast to the museum’s other collections, many of the 250,000 fossils looked after by the paleontology department are stored in the open. The sheer size of them is one reason for this: no reasonable person would want to put, say, a fossilized whale jaw eight feet long inside a cabinet drawer. Another reason is that the fossils are in no great need of protection from air, light, or insects. They’ve lasted a few hundred million years, some of them, and chances are they’ll stick around for a few million more. Piles of bones lie in the hallways and offices of the department, waiting to deliver stubbed toes and smashed knees to unwary visitors. A lot of these piles are the remains of huge and extinct marine mammals that once wallowed in local waters when most of what we now call the greater San Diego area was the bottom of an enormous bay, a layer of muck several feet thick. Over the centuries this layer was compacted and thrust up and eventually covered with houses, and it is now revealing the richest assemblage of three-million-year-old marine mammals in North America and possibly in the world, according to Tom Demere, the museum’s assistant curator of paleontology.

Demere, who is thirty-six, is a dark-haired man with owlish features and a quick wit. His investigations into San Diego's past have given him a unique view of the county; for instance, he knows that some of the sweetest surf breaks along the North County coast are caused by a layer of fossilized oyster beds some 50 million years old. Hard and resistant to erosion, the oysters in effect form offshore reefs that stick up above the surrounding ocean bottom and cause the swells to curl over into waves. Not that Demere is always around to take advantage of them. Although he surfed fairly often when he was a student at San Diego State University and lived in Carlsbad, now he confines his foam-and-fiberglass adventures to the summer. “That’s when the water’s warmer,” he said somewhat sheepishly. “I’ve turned into a pansy.”

At any rate, oysters are the domain of Demere’s boss, curator Frederick Schram. Schram is an expert on fossil invertebrates, primitive organisms such as trilobites and mollusks that crawled around on the ocean floor long before there were any animals on land. To Demere have fallen the vertebrates: the whales, dolphins, sharks, camels, tapirs, and other animals that once inhabited San Diego. Pieces of these creatures occasionally turn up in people’s back yards and are given to the museum, Demere said, like the whale jaw one elderly woman found in her Mission Hills garden, or the walrus tusk that came from an excavation at a house in Talmadge.

The walrus tusk belongs to one of several “mystery” animals in the paleontology collection, animals that Demere knows must have existed but about which he has no clues regarding size, appearance, or habits. “We’ve found bits and pieces of them, but until we find their skulls we won’t be able to relate them to other animals and put together their life stories,” he explained.

Fortunately for Demere, the skulls as well as the bones of many other animals have been found together, making identification fairly easy. One of the most intriguing is the foot-long brain case and cheekbone of a giant sea cow, huge mammals with broad muzzles and whalelike tail flukes that floated in the shallows and munched kelp some three million years ago. “By comparing it to the skulls of modern sea cows [including the six-foot-long manatees that inhabit Florida’s waterways] and knowing the proportions that would be there, we can estimate its body was thirty to thirty-five feet long,” he said. “It turns out that’s the largest sea cow ever known.”

Demere and his assistants at the museum find most such relics by going out to new construction sites and sifting through the freshly turned earth. The same development that is endangering many species of birds, insects, and reptiles around San Diego is uncovering a wealth of fossils, and like the other curators at the museum, Demere is interested in collecting just about everything he can lay his hands on. The vertebrate fossil collection now boasts of such things as whale ear bones, dolphin jaws, camel fore-legs, rabbit pelvises. and even fossilized rodent teeth, these last mere chips of yellowed bone so small they are mounted on pinheads and carefully given a place among the multitude of birds, plants, mammals, shells, and other obscure paraphernalia in the museum’s third-floor cabinets. “Just because they’re small doesn't mean they're insignificant. We haven’t had time to classify them yet, but it’s conceivable that we have the teeth of a new and undescribed species of rodent,” said Demere, trying hard not to smile. “You may think, ‘So what?’ But we want to have as complete a fossil record as possible. If we get a lot of teeth from one kind of rodent and not so many from another kind, for instance, we might be able to make some estimates as to which species were rare and which were abundant.

"But we don't keep everything he went on. “We get pretty tired of looking at whale ribs. There’s a lot of them around, and they don’t contain much information we can use. We actually throw them away” For a museum curator, it seemed like an incredible confession. “At some point,” said Demere, “even for us, enough is enough.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader