Sam McManis

Discoveries: Skulls at the Academy of the Sciences

Nobody can emit stark, withering and visceral utterances of disgust better than teenagers. They seem preternaturally imbued with this power, which, for good or ill, fades as adulthood encroaches.

The other day, I parked myself at the flesh-eating beetle display at the California Academy of Sciences “Skulls” exhibit, which runs through November, and watched as school kids visiting the museum skulked toward this beetle banquet, peered into the dark, cool cabinets where little critters were fast at work stripping desiccated flesh off freshly foraged skulls.

Quite entertaining.

Among the responses from field-trip students from middle schools in San Jose and Santa Barbara, often accompanied by comical facial-muscle twisting denoting revulsion:

• “Ewwwwwww ... Gross!”

• “


, dude.”

• “That. Is. Foul.”

• “Hella nasty.”

• “So cray.”

Or, the obverse, uttered with a hoarse chuckle from one Henry Tran, a Sylvandale (San Jose) Middle School student, who read the accompanying text that hungry dermestid beetles are a more efficient bone-cleaning technique than burial or use of solvents: “Cool!”

Apart from keeping one abreast of ever-evolving teen lingo – Urban Dictionary, by the way, defines “cray” as an abbreviation for “crazy,” because apparently that extra syllable takes too much effort to say – this example of science in action is meant to engage visitors more than creep them out.

Gee, as if just lining the walls and tables in the cavernous exhibition hall with nothing but bleached skulls of mammals of all shapes, sizes and species did provide enough shock value to garner interest. Make no bones about it, it’s an unforgettable sight. Frustrated thespians can even heft a real skull on the interactive table and re-create the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech from “Hamlet.”

“It’s a macabre thing for some people,” said Ron Proctor, one of the handful of Academy of Science’s “orienteers” roaming the gallery answering questions. “That can be part of the fascination. But it’s an educational thing, too, evolutionary.”

Indeed, Academy promotional material throws around the term “macabre” often in its “Skulls” literature but, really, it’s more fascinating than spooky and, unless you’re an acute osteophobe, the sight won’t ruin your appetite for lunch or anything.

But get this through your thick skull: The display, 640 pieces in all, is both edifying and artistic, not just finely sculpted objects worthy of a Rodin sculpture or a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, but also tools for researchers to study animal species and humans – how they lived and dined, how they fended off predators or used their chompers (a scientific term, I believe) to bring home dinner for the pack, how they adapted over the ages to ecological changes. It can even help identify new species, such as the Academy discovering a new long-nosed, round-eyed mammal called the elephant shrew strictly by analyzing the teeth.

We lay people can stare at the shrew’s teeth under glass here and just see daggerlike fangs and incisors of any number of critters, but, trust them, Academy scientists know the dental records are quite different from its northern Namibian shirttail relatives.

The shrew’s skull is science writ small. For a large, splashy display, museum-goers can turn their attention to a curved wall running 90 feet of the 4,000-square-foot space mounted with 400 California sea lion skulls. Hard to miss, in its starkness, it first resembles something more akin to an art installation. All these sea lion heads, stripped of both flesh and inherent cuteness, seemingly give you forced smiles through clenched jaws, as if posing for family portrait. Contrast that with a video projection showing sea lions in happier times, frolicking in the surf, blissfully ignorant of the fact they may some day wind up as hollow-eyed museum pieces.

What’s amazing, aside from the sheer jaw-dropping site of rows of near-identical skulls, is that the wall represents only about a sixth of the Academy’s sea-lion boneyard. Believed to be the largest holding of sea lion carcasses in the world, the Academy keeps them for more than just show. Researchers travel to the center to study the evolution of the species and compare the teeth-wear pattern of older skulls to newer offerings to determine how the specimens adapted its nutritional patterns to the changing ocean.

And where, you’re no doubt wondering, do the skulls come from?

Step over to the video monitor and catch a fascinating five-minute documentary about the Academy’s resident bone collector, Raymond “Bones” Bandar, a retired high school science teacher whose Bay Area home (dubbed the “Bone Palace”) contained 7,000 skulls from all types of animals. That’s in addition to the storage rooms of noggins Bandar gave to the Academy.

Lore has it that Bandar stumbled across his first specimen, a dead harbor seal, while body surfing at Ocean Beach in 1953. Others might have shied away; Bandar cut its head off with a knife in his backpack and carried it back to his parents’ house. Video shows Bandar carving layer-after-layer of flesh off a head to reach bone – leaving the beetles or solvents to finish it off – and he isn’t a bit squeamish about the work.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you just collect the skull and not the rest of the body?’ ” he said in the video. “I’m walking up and down the beach for miles, and there’s a carcass of a sea lion. There’s no way I can haul the carcass back. ... The skull is the easiest part to remove.”

As for why he has such an avocation: “The skull is like the pages of a book. It can tell you a lot about the lifestyle of an animal, whether it walked upright, was a knuckle dragger, whether the animal was prey or predator.”

Prey-vs.-predator identification is all in the eye sockets, as the exhibit shows. Prey such as antelope have eyes to the sides of their heads for peripheral vision, whereas predators have forward, close-set eyes to focus on the target.

Sometimes, too, it doesn’t take an advanced science degree to figure out the cause of death of a particular skull specimen. A display table shows, for instance, two deer skulls locked together, antlers and all – obviously the fight was judged a draw. There’s also a mountain lion skull that has a hole in its temple made by a bear’s tooth that became embedded, and a sea lion with part of a fisherman’s net fused to its skull.

The middle schoolers’ favorite table, judging by their migration habits, was not the flesh-eating beetles or the freakish five-horned sheep or the 218-pound African bull elephant skull. It was a case displaying the skulls of dogs – yes, man’s best friend, from a chihuahua to a Labrador, reduced to mere bone.

Me, I couldn’t look at the dog skulls. Hit too close to home. I didn’t want the mental picture of a skull to pop up when I went home and scratched my Lab mix behind the ear. As the youngsters would say, “That’s so cray.”