Academy scientists, journalists, adventurers and other staff members are blogging their stories and inviting questions and comments. Read
current science news, hear from researchers in the field (Philippines, Sao Tome, Papua New Guinea), ask a question of an Academy naturalist,
and much more. Our blog roll below shows the most recent entries from our blogs. The full list of blogs is in the right sidebar.
My new little friends are crawling all over me. In Careers in Science, Level Three interns have the opportunity to work in a mentorship with Academy scientists. Cyrah and I have begun a mentorship with Kristen and Nicole of the Osher Rainforest. Kristen and Nicole are biologists who work to take care of the many exhibits in the rainforest. One of our duties includes caring for leafcutter ants by replacing their browse (plants). These leafcutter ants are naturally attracted to discovery. They want to find new habitat with new plants to bring back to their colony for cultivation. For a short while, the ants are not enclosed, leaving no barrier between them and the fresh world that intrigues their curious little minds. We become bridges and dozens of ants begin to explore the complexity of our arms. Kristen instructs us to pinch them off. Our hardy little friends are returned to their home and new browse as we move on to tend to other inhabitants of the Rainforest. Next up, the Madagascar day geckos…
The Articulation of Orca O319: Questions from our Visitors
We’ve been getting some great questions from our visitors about Orca O319 and Orcas in general. Here is a sampling of the questions we’ve gotten, along with our answers:
What does “Orca” mean?
The scientific name of Orcas is Orcinus orca: “Orcinus” means “kingdom of the dead” or “belonging to Orcus” (a Roman god of the underworld), and “orca” was the name that ancient Romans gave these animals, possibly borrowing it from a similar greek word which referred to a whale species.
How big is the Orca’s brain?
Roughly four times larger than a human’s brain.
How much did the Orca weigh?
The skull alone (bones only, no flesh) weighs 72 lbs, closer to 85 lbs with the mandibles (lower jaws). We don’t have an exact weight for our Orca before we began the necropsy, but adult Orcas can weigh between 5,700 and 16,000 lbs. At birth, Orcas weigh 350-500 lbs. O319 was not a fully grown adult, so he probably weighed on the low end of average adult weights.
Have there been any bleaching agents applied to the bones?
The bones all soaked in dilute sodium perborate, which is a powder that release hydrogen peroxide when mixed with water. The skull was placed on the roof of the Academy for one month to allow the sun to naturally bleach it. Being in the Piazza will likely bleach the bones further, as they’re exposed to ultraviolet light. We don’t use actual bleach, as it degrades the bones.
How long will it take to put the skeleton together?
We will be articulating the skeleton from May 8th through June 9th (1 month). After that, staff members from Ornithology and Mammalogy will work on finishing touches. The entire skeleton should be done by the end of June.
Does the Orca have a name? Will we name it?
Our Orca is referenced as O319, its scientific identification number. We will not give it a personal name because it is a research specimen. It will always be O319.
Are Orcas seen specifically in this area?
There is currently a pod of transient Orcas in Monterey Bay, seen hunting different species of marine mammals (sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals, dolphins, porpoises, and gray whale calves). A pod of Orcas has also been seen in the Gulf of the Farallones in the past.
What will we be using as “cartilage” on the skeleton?
We will be using silicone.
How do we attach the bones together?
We will be using a variety of metal rods, glues, and wires to articulate the skeleton.
If you have a question about the articulation process or about Orca O319, leave a comment or come visit us at the Orca Lab Tuesdays through Sundays!
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammalogy
All marine mammal stranding activities were conducted under authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement issued to the California Academy of Sciences and MMPA/ESA Permit No. 932-1905/MA-009526.
The Library’s Reading Room exhibit created by former, CIS intern Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski focuses on the Ecuadorian rainforest - the history of Western exploration of the region, and current issues facing the area’s immense biodiversity. She recently sent me an update to the continuing issues of oil exploitation. ” Thought I’d pass along this article I just read about Ecuador’s plans for the rainforest. It contains bad news, very bad news.”
The Remora remora, or common suckerfish, is an odd pelagic marine fish usually found in warmer parts of most oceans. They can be found offshore from San Francisco south to Chile. Their front dorsal fin has evolved into a giant sucker disc that they use to hitch rides on faster swimming sharks, rays, sea turtles, bony fishes and even marine mammals. Once thought to be purely parasitic, the relationship to their “host” is now considered to be symbiotic.
Not eaten themselves, they have been used by fishermen who attach a line to the Remora‘s tail, letting it free to swim. The tethered Remora then attaches it’s sucker disc to a larger fish as they are wont to do. At this point when it is noted that the Remora is accelerating, the fisherman then reels it back in and captures the larger fish.
(c) Diane T Sands 2013. carbon dust on illustration board.
(c) California Academy of Sciences.
In 1905, the California Academy of Sciences sent 11 men off for a year and a day on an eighty-five foot schooner destined for the Galapagos Islands. While the expedition was underway, the California Academy of Sciences would fall into ruin during the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The specimens gathered during that expedition would come to form the crux of the new California Academy of Sciences’ collections. Of the young men on that voyage, entomologist Francis Xavier Williams kept field books (http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/123606) and made drawings of all of much of the wild life he encountered. This illustration of the Remora remora was one of many fish Williams ran across in his exploration of the islands.
We celebrate Endangered Species Day on May 18th. We have reasons to celebrate because though human activities have many species on the brink of annihilation, there is serious commitment ranging from individuals to nations states to both protect those species, and to bring them back from the brink. Nevertheless, the threats to species are growing in number and severity. The following essay will not be cheery, and I hope to convince you that avoiding extinction is a very difficult problem and its consequences are severe. I will therefore begin with the optimistic message: The fact that we humans are the cause of the current species crisis is reason to be hopeful. We cannot save species from devastating physical events such as asteroids and volcanoes, but we can save them from ourselves.
It is well known, based on the fossil record, that the majority of species that have ever existed are now extinct. That’s why you will often hear the phrases, “99% of all species that have ever existed are extinct”, and “extinction is the fate of all species”. Let’s examine these statements for a moment. The first is a somewhat factual measure. No one knows if 99% is the correct figure, but we do know that most species that have ever evolved are now extinct. The reason that the Earth is still teeming with millions of species is, of course, because new ones evolve all the time. The second statement is a bit more problematic though; it’s an assumption, not an observation. To scientifically predict the fate of a thing is to presume that we know and understand all the forces controlling it, and that we know what those forces will do in the future. That of course is certainly not the case here. Even more problematic is the fact that even though changing conditions might cause the extinction of a species, changing conditions also drive evolution! In a sense then, extinction is an evolutionary failure. Okay, it’s not quite that simple, but here’s what I mean. Under what circumstances does evolution fail and lead to extinction?
Such cool headgear (Wikipedia)
Imagine that you are lucky enough to be a spectacular dinosaur living somewhere on the planet 65 million years ago (some of you know what’s coming…). You are the culmination of archosaurian evolution which got started some 175 million years before, in the wake of the devastating end Permian mass extinction. Unfortunately for you, today is the day that a giant asteroid from outer space collides with the Earth somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Yucatan Peninsula. The energy released by the collision is some 19,000 times greater than the explosive force of the world’s current nuclear weapons arsenal. The survival of your species depends on enough of its members surviving the ensuing environmental catastrophe, and that could happen in two ways. First, you could have the individual capacity to acclimatize to the changes happening around you. For example, it’s possible that many animals survived by taking advantage of underground dwellings, or their abilities to enter into some sort of resting phase. Second, your species could adapt to the changes. In either case, evolution is at work. The capacity to acclimatize is generally a function of the physiology, behaviors and so on that evolved in your ancestry, while adaptation is the result of current genetic variation and natural selection. Extinction will occur if the magnitude or severity of the environmental changes overwhelm your capacity to acclimatize, or your species’s capacity to adapt (e.g. limited genetic variation) or the rate at which it can adapt. Sadly, non-avian dinosaurs neither acclimatized nor adapted, and today exist only as fossils or in the movies. This has happened repeatedly during the history of life. The end Permian mass extinction of 251 million years ago resulted from overwhelming changes of climate, ocean conditions and atmospheric composition. Ultimately, it was driven by massive volcanism in the Siberian region. The mass extinction 65 million years ago was also the result of significant changes in climate, driven by massive volcanism in India’s Deccan region, coupled with that rock from outer space. That collision would have heated large regions of the North American continent, darkened the skies for months, and subsequently cooled the planet for years.
Today the Earth is on the brink of another mass extinction, but this time we humans are the volcanoes and asteroids. Driven by an exploding population and rapidly increasing rates of resource consumption, we are sequestering landscapes and habitats or destroying them outright, over-exploiting wild species, and changing the climate at rates that overwhelm the ability of species to acclimatize or adapt. Climate change is by far the most dangerous of the bunch because while we can confer protection from exploitation on landscapes and species, we cannot protect them from changing temperatures, seasons, patterns of rainfall and ocean acidification. Even as we work to curb our climate-changing habits by developing alternatives to fossil fuels, engineering more efficient transportation systems and planning our own socio-economic adaptations, species must also acclimatize and adapt. This will be accomplished either by species movement to track favourable climates, or staying put and acclimatizing and adapting. Unfortunately, there are severe limitations to each.
There is no doubt that many species are now on the move in response to climate change. Most pronounced are expanding ranges of many tropical or warm temperate species as tropical air and water temperatures expand outward from the equator. Examples include the Humboldt squid, normally restricted to waters of the tropical and south eastern Pacific, but is now a frequent and abundant species in waters as far north as Alaska. The increasing incidence of normally tropical diseases such as West Nile virus are also testimony to increasingly favourable conditions in regions that were previously too cool. Habitat expansion for those species occurs at the expense of other habitats of course. Regions of cooler temperatures are shrinking, leaving no room for migration of the species there. In alpine regions many species are moving upward, but of course can go no higher than the highest mountains. Polar species are not only faced with changing habitats, such as the drastic reductions of summer ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean, but must deal with the newcomers from warmer regions. And therein lies the another limitation. Given the rate at which conditions are changing, on a timescale of decades, there is absolutely no guarantee that a species will have the genetic capacity to evolve and adapt rapidly enough to survive. For scientists, the answer will in many cases be a wait and see experiment. The results will no doubt be intriguing and valuable, but that will be small comfort for any species that come up short.
There is a final limitation, and that’s based on relationships. No species exists in isolation, humans included. Every species interacts with other species and is dependent on other species for survival. That’s how we evolved! Species adapt to changing conditions, and in turn their new adaptations alter the world around them. We are united in a gigantic global network of biological relationships which includes production, predation, competition, parasitism, reproductive services, habitat engineering, and recycling. When species move, when they change, some of those relationships are disrupted. Even now we see the synchrony of spring flowerings, fruitings, nesting etc. becoming de-synchronized. And these relationships are not formed on the fly! They are the evolutionary result of species interactions occurring over time, and indeed the systems or networks that they produce are likewise products of evolution. In studies by myself and colleagues (see Further Resources below) of ecosystems in the wake of the end Permian mass extinction, we found that while the number of species recovered very quickly within a million years of the extinction, the networks of relationships so formed were unstable and weak. It took several million more years before system robustness recovered to pre-extinction levels. And during that time, the dominant vertebrates of the land, the ancient relatives of humans and other mammals, were eclipsed by the rise of the dinosaurs. They would have to wait another 175 million years before another opportunity for dominance would present itself. Those timescales would try the most patient of humans.
So what do we do? I believe that we must become better stewards of the planet. I know that some will argue that we should not be stewards at all, but consider this. Humans already occupy to varying extents some 48% of the planet’s dry surface and we directly utilize or otherwise co-opt 24-41% of global photosynthetic production. We are already stewards of the planet! The real problem is that we are rather poor stewards. We either absolve ourselves collectively of this responsibility or we embrace it. The choice is ours, and the fates of an uncounted number of species now depend on us. Therefore, let us indeed celebrate Endangered Species Day, for while it is a reminder of the dire state of our environment, it also recognizes our acceptance of an awesome responsibility.
Some of these are fairly technical (sorry!), but please feel free to submit any and all questions.
A few weeks ago in our Project Lab blog, there was a discussion about what constitutes an “animal” and how this may influence the way we make decisions about conservation. A polar bear may be more charismatic than a shrimp or a coral to some, but there are many invertebrate species that still need our attention even if they don’t have the same “cute” factor. Have you ever heard of the Boreal digging frog (Kaloula borealis), or the Red-footed crab (Sesarma intermedium)? These are two endangered species that reside on Jeju Island, an island off the southern coast of Korea. Island species can be especially sensitive to any changes in habitat due to their isolated evolution. Whether it is inter-specific competition between native and non-native species or habitat degradation leaving species with limited space to relocate, population decline can happen quickly in smaller island populations. While this frog and crab are not necessarily cuddly, they still are an important part of a local ecosystem and need to be recognized.
Jeju Island, situated about 270 miles off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, is a distinctive island ecosystem and culture. Known for its great natural beauty, Jeju Island is home to the Jeju lava tubes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site designated in 2006, as well as beautiful soft coral reefs and bountiful farmland. These soft coral reefs and coastline of volcanic rock, known as gureombi, are habitat to many different types of invertebrates that are harvested by haenyo, or free divers. A group comprised mainly of women and representing the matriarchal structure in Jeju, these haenyocollect marine invertebrates from the coastline for food as well as income. Leading into the ocean are freshwater streams and ponds that have created fertile farmland for a variety of crops. Inhabiting the surrounding areas of terrestrial and freshwater ponds and streams are Sesarma intermedium, and Kaloula borealis, both considered Class II endangered species under the Ministry of the Environment of South Korea. This means that these species are under threat of extinction due to natural or human factors.
The Red-footed Crab (Sesarma intermedium), is a terrestrial crab that lives in wetlands and freshwater close to the coastline. Although they spend the majority of their time in these freshwater environments, once the females release their eggs, the eggs must travel downstream to saltwater in order to hatch. Adult crabs have been known to rest and feed in the rocky coastline of gureombi.
The Boreal digging frog (Kaloula borealis), is a small amphibian with a range throughout Northeast Asia. Living in farmlands such as rice paddy fields and breeding in small ponds or rainwater pools this frog is common in the majority of its habitat, but considered endangered within the Korean peninsula due to habitat degradation and loss of breeding areas. These frogs belong to a group known as “narrow mouthed frogs,” meaning their body shape is more oval with the mouth area smaller than its wider anterior end. A nocturnal species, these frogs emerge from an underground burrow at night to hunt small insects.
On the southern coast of Jeju Island is a small area designated an Absolute Conservation Area by the Korean government, as well as a Natural Memorial by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea and can be called home to both these endangered species. Sitting amongst these protected areas is Gangjeong village. Initially proposed in 1993 but starting in 2007, plans have moved forward to build a Republic of Korea/US military base in Gangjeong. While not all the villagers oppose the base, it has become a deeply divisive issue within the community. Those against the construction of the base fear it threatens a way of life of the people in Gangjeong, like haenyo and farmers who rely on the soft coral reefs, gureombi and surrounding freshwater for food and spiritual connection. Once teeming with life, the gureombi has recently been paved over with concrete and pillars erected next to the soft coral. Also considered a sacred space, the loss of the gureombi is seen as not only as loss of species habitat, but also a loss of cultural heritage.
The government has worked to relocate the endangered species on Jeju, however more long term data is usually needed for these types of studies to determine success. Habitat restoration or relocation to new areas can sometimes be viable options for species facing loss of natural habitat, but ecosystems are complicated. Many of the finer complexities and connections are still unknown to researchers making it difficult to recreate ideal conditions. This belief that natural habitat should be conserved for all species using the area has led to calls to halt construction efforts in Gangjeong. Currently construction plans continue. In situations like these, it can be tough to determine what is the best course of action. As mentioned before, conservation can be influenced by our perception of what needs protection and what species are important to a fully functioning ecosystem. In the case of Gangjeong village, we can only hope that our voice is heard and that all sides are considered before completely and forever altering a habitat found nowhere else.
As an archivist here at the California Academy of Sciences, it is our job to preserve, organize, and make available for use the records of scientific activity and discovery. We undertake this effort in a variety of ways; from making available new and beautiful images of the natural world freely available for educational, personal, and non-profit use through the Manzanita Image Project, to digitizing field books and linking the resources to newly digitized specimens and published materials through our work on the Connecting Content Grant, to more traditional processing of our large collection of scientific records in an effort to make the material accessible to those who wish to consult it. Archival materials may include formats such as paper, photographs, film, video and audio recordings on analog or digital media, works of art, and other realia of significance to our collections. In short, you never know what you’ll find when you open a box.
I often boast that this exciting discovery is the best part of the job. As archivists, we get to be part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes (with equally zany fashion sense) and we are given the opportunity to preserve and explore the treasures of the past and allow for new connections and discoveries to be made as a result of our making the collections available. Moreover, in making these collections available, we uncover exciting items that we want to immediately share with you. With that in mind, we have decided to do a monthly (or perhaps more often if we just can’t wait) series of posts dedicated to highlighting some of the exciting new discoveries in our collections.
In our inaugural installment we would like to share with you a recent discovery (to us) when we opened a collection known to us as “Special Collections”. The records themselves were fairly straight forward and were comprised of documents that captured the history and processes that formed the California Academy of Sciences Special Collections but as we perused the contents, a series of “Files from the Rare Book Room” brought forth unexpected treasure. A few items stood out, including the hand written account of a meeting in 1885 between Adolph Sutro, California fish commissioner Joseph D Redding in which the “Sea Lion Question” was addressed. In case you are curious, the sea lion question was essentially, “ Do the sea lions who occupy the bays and coasts near San Francisco pose a threat to the fish populations?” We also found a California land patent for a small section of Mount Diablo signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.
1872 land patent for lots on Mt. Diablo
Additionally, we found a letter signed by Albert Einstein!
Letter from the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists dated February 10, 1947.
The letter itself is a form letter asking for money to fund an educational endeavor regarding the responsible use of atomic energy after the tragedy of Hiroshima . Einstein was at the head of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists for its brief existence. The University of Chicago holds the organization’s records, and you can read more about the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists here: http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/scrc/findingaids/view.php?eadid=ICU.SPCL.ECAS
I can only speculate that this letter came to the Academy by way of ECAS member and Nobel laureates Harold Urey and Linus Pauling, who were closely affiliated with the California Academy of Sciences and appeared on several episodes of our Academy produced television program, Science in Action.
Stay tuned for more great finds as we dig into our archives and uncover the history and intrigue of our past!
Connecting Content Project Manger & Archives and Digital Collections Assistant Librarian