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Naturalist Notebook 

May 31, 2011

New at the Naturalist Center: Snakes and Lizards

We have some great new arrivals this week at the Naturalist Center! They’ve slithered in just in time for summer.

SSSS : Snake Art & Allegory / Gita Wolf and Ianna Andréadis. [Chennai] : Tara Books : [Paris] : Musée Du Quai Branly, c2010. Unpaged, color illustrations.
Naturalist Center GR740 .W65 2010

SSSS Cover Image

This little book engages even the sense of touch, being printed on thick and slightly rough paper. Bold, swirling brush strokes, primarily in simple black, illustrate short Hindu and Buddhist tales about the place of snakes in the universe.

Stalking the Plumed Serpent and Other Adventures in Herpetology / D. Bruce Means. Sarasota, Fla. : Pineapple Press, c2008. 238 pages, 16 pages of plates.
Naturalist Center QL641 .M39 2008

Cover Image

Herpetologist Bruce Means writes of his adventures studying the creepy, crawly and maligned creatures of this world. He travels in search of reptiles, going everywhere from his home in the Florida panhandle to Australia, Mexico and Costa Rica. Dr. Means will impart a little of his herpetophilia to the reader.

Check out these and other great new titles next time you stop by and see us!

At the Naturalist Center, Academy Members and California teachers can check out five books for three weeks and two DVDs or other media for one week, with one renewal possible.

Filed under: News,Theme of the Month — nature @ 12:01 pm

August 7, 2009

Water We Doing? June 2009

Photo: Cierva Cove, Antarctica. Gerald and Buff Corsi © 2001 California Academy of Sciences.

Earth is often called the “water planet” so we often take it for granted that there is an endless supply of water. In reality, only 3% of all Earth’s water is freshwater, and of that 3% only 1% is available for human use. Learn more about some of the water issues we face by perusing the following books or watching the DVD. You can also find more resources in the Naturalist Center.

Books and Media Reviews

Glennon, Robert. Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What to do About it.Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2009. Nat. Ctr. TD223 .G578 2009

“ Water is a valuable, exhaustible resource but we treat it as valueless and inexhaustible.” Robert Glennon opens Unquenchable with a series of vignettes showing just how crazy our consumption of water is and how close we are to running out of water. While Las Vegas hotels continue to create flamboyant shows with millions of gallons of water, water shortages all over the West are forcing communities to change their way of life. There is also a strong linkage between water consumption and energy consumption. Glennon also shows how our enthusiasm for fossil fuels is draining our water supplies, but before we get too excited about biofuels we should consider that production of ethanol consumes even more water than oil or natural gas.
Glennon manages to be both funny and scary as he leads us through the follies of our water consumption. But he is utterly clear: we must change our habits as a nation or we will run out of water sooner rather than later. Unquenchable, however, does not just tell us what the problem is: the final third of the book gives us solutions.
Many of the changes Glennon proposes are ones that we as individuals can make: from re-examining what we plant in our gardens to installing composting toilets (what is a composting toilet? Find out here).
In addition, as a nation, we need to abandon business as usual and create a new water infrastructure. This has to come from the federal government and, at the moment, there are no signs.
Unquenchable is packed full of information and is extremely readable. There is an excellent list of sources at the end for further reading.


Shoveller, Herb. Ryan and Jimmy and the Well in Africa that Brought Them Together. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2006. Nat. Ctr. Juv. HV28 .H74 S56 2006.

Ryan Hreljac was six when he first became aware of the lack of safe drinking water for much of the world. His teacher told the class that it only cost $70 to build a well that could supply a village and surrounding area with safe, clean water. Ryan was inspired and decided to raise the money himself by doing chores around his neighborhood. But this was only the start of it: Ryan went on to raise first $2000 for a well for an African village and then $25000 for a power drill to make more wells. But this is not just Ryan’s story: It is also the story of Akana Jimmy; a boy in the village where Ryan’s well was drilled. Jimmy and Ryan become pen pals and then meet up when Ryan goes to Africa to see his well in place. But Jimmy soon has far greater problems and the book follows his story as his life is threatened in the Ugandan civil war.
This is a story of both boys and their determination and bravery. Both face immense challenges and both Ryan and Jimmy overcome their fears to triumph. It is an inspiring story about what children, even young children, can achieve through persistence and courage.
Parents should note that some of Jimmy’s story might be disturbing for younger children.


Journey to Planet Earth: The State of the Planet [DVD].Washington, DC: Screenscope, 2005. Nat. Ctr. Media GE140 .S72 2005.

This hour long DVD, narrated by Matt Damon, provides an overview of many of the challenges the world is facing from population growth to climate change. Water supply is one of these challenges and possibly the most underestimated one. The State of the Planet takes a global look at the question “Are we running out of water?”, as experts project that the demand for water will double in twenty years. The program uses stories from different countries around the world to skim the surface of profound concerns such as the supply of clean drinking water to the developing world, the potential exhaustion of underground water sources and the link between economic development and water usage. However, there is also a section of good news, which looks at how human ingenuity has come up with new ways to balance our need for water with what is available.
Although there is a lot of information crammed into the program, clearly these topics cannot be covered in much more than a superficial way in such a short time. The strength of The State of the Planet is how it draws together all the threads of the different issues covered.
The State of the Planet is one episode in the PBS series Journey to Planet Earth, which explores the fragile relationship between people and the world they inhabit. For more information see http://www.pbs.org/journeytoplanetearth/about/index.html.

Read an engaging book or seen a riveting movie about water? Share the title and why you liked it with us below in our comments section.

What’s the Difference?

Photo: G. Sharlow, 2009.

Bottled Water vs. Tap Water

Despite what many people think, tap water is much cleaner and safer than bottled water; strict federal regulations control it. It is much cheaper, about 100 times less expensive than bottled water, which can cost more than gas! It is also better for the environment. Forty-seven million gallons of oil are used to produce and transport plastic water bottles for Americans every year—the equivalent of putting 100,000 cars on the road and producing a billion pounds of carbon dioxide. Thirty billion plastic water bottles are thrown away each year in the United States and most aren’t recycled. They end up in landfills and can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

Want to know more about water? Visit:

  1. American Museum of Natural History Water: H2O =Life
  2. Circle of Blue
  3. EPA Ground Water and Drinking Water
  4. USGS Water Science for Schools

Filed under: Theme of the Month — nature @ 2:20 pm

Green Living April 2009

Want to learn more about moving towards an eco-friendly lifestyle? Check out the books and DVD listed below as well as other resources found in the Naturalist Center. You can also use our “Sustainability Made Simple” card to take some simple steps towards a more sustainable future. It might not seem like much individually, but every small step can lead to a world of difference.

Book and Media Reviews

Melville, Greg.Greasy Rider: Two dudes, one fry-oil-powered car and a cross-country search for a greener future.Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008. Nat. Ctr. GE197 .M45 2008

In 1903, H. Nelson Jackson and mechanic Sewell Crocker were the first people to drive across the country in an automobile. Just over a hundred years later, journalist Greg Melville and his friend and mechanic, Iggy, set out to emulate this feat by being the first people to drive cross-country in a car powered by re-used vegetable oil. Greg is initially motivated more by the economic opportunity – free fuel! – than by environmental concerns.
The journey itself is pretty uneventful: only a few mechanical mishaps and the struggle to find suitable fryer oil liven up a routine cross-country drive. Along the way, Greg and Iggy stop off at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the American Council on Ethanol and the Rocky Mountain Sustainable Fair to glean more information about how the way we live impacts on the environment.
The third strand of the book is a series of six ‘errands’, or challenges, that Iggy sets Greg, to be met after the drive is completed. These include finding the greenest house in America (hint: it’s not Al Gore’s) and investigating renewable heat sources at Fort Knox.
Over the course of his journey, Greg forms some conclusions about the direction that we, as individuals and as a nation, need to take if we are to avoid the looming environmental crisis. His frustration at a nation that seems content with small, incremental changes rather than “fence-swingers’ is clear.
Greasy Rider includes some excellent notes, sources and websites for further reading.


Collard, Sneed B.Acting for nature: What young people around the world have done to protect the environment. Berkeley, Calif. : Heyday Books, c2000. Nat. Ctr. Juv. GE195.5 .C65 2000.

This is a collection of 15 real life stories of how young people have made a difference to the world we live in. The stories are drawn from all around the world: USA, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The challenges the young people faced range from saving sea turtles that walked away from the sea to saving an ancient forest in London that was threatened by a four-lane highway.
The message of the book is very clear: there are many ways to help the environment and everyone has a way they can contribute. The stories are often inspiring struggles, in which the young hero needs to persevere, usually in the face of opposition or indifference from their peers. In the end, each of them triumphs through persistence, making connections and being passionate about their cause.
Action for Nature, a San Francisco based organization, continues to encourage young people to take personal action for the environment. Every year Action for Nature honors these people through the Eco-Hero Awards.


The Recyclergy: 33 minutes of garbageDVD. Produced and directed by Jeremy Kaller. 2006. Nat. Ctr. Media TD794.5 .R42 2006.

In May 2009, Gavin Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, announced that San Francisco had the highest recycling rate in the U. S: 72% of discards are now recycled. This DVD is about those who push even further than that: Bay Area non-profit recycling organizations that love to salvage what others would send to the landfill. But now the work that these organizations do is becoming absorbed into the mainstream as the general population catches up with the pioneers interviewed here. Rollicking music by Rube Waddell sets off this entertaining small piece of local history.


Read an engaging book or seen a fabulous movie about green living? Share the title and why you liked it with us below in our comments section.

Filed under: Theme of the Month — nature @ 1:15 pm

April 15, 2009

Wade into Wetlands and Frolic in Freshwater

Photo: Albert P. Bekker © California Academy of Sciences, 2000.

Watch for the eyes of alligators as they emerge from the murky waters. Listen to the songs of frogs as they call their mates. Flit from cattail to cattail with graceful dragonflies. Check out the following books, DVD and specimens in the Naturalist Center, as well as other resources on wetlands and other freshwater sources. Then see live animals from wetlands in the southeastern United States in our Swamp exhibit.

Book and Media Reviews

Wilson, Sam and Moritz, Tom (eds.). The Sierra Club Wetlands Reader: A Literary Companion. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996. Nat. Ctr. QH76 .S58 1996

This is a great bedside book with a wealth of essays and writings to dip into. The Wetlands Reader is divided into two sections. The first, ‘Impressions’, contains a collection of readings by well-known figures: from Mark Twain to Zane Grey via Frederick Law Olmsted and Henry David Thoreau. Many of these selections are not specifically about wetlands; often the wetlands are part of the context of a story or a ‘character’ in their own right.

The second section of the Reader, entitled ‘Impacts and Compensations’, is “concerned with America’s cultural about-face regarding wetlands, from historical policies that rewarded destruction to today’s attempts at preservation and restoration”. It includes excerpts from significant government documents, as well as literary, legal and social commentary, many of them from the Bay Area.

The readings are interesting individually, and as a collection give a many faceted picture of one of our most fascinating ecological communities. There is a useful glossary and extensive bibliography for further reading.

Hoose, Phillip. The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. New York: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 2004. Nat. Ctr. Juv. QL696.P56 H66 2004

Combining history, biology, adventure, and mystery, Hoose relates the tale of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from it abundance in southern U.S. forests to its presumed extinction. Known as the “Lord God Bird” since when seen flying overhead that is all one can shout out in amazement, this majestic bird and the fight to save it helped shaped the conservation movement in the U.S., influencing the development of important conservation groups, such as the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy. Archival photos interspersed throughout the text help bring the history to life, and a glossary clarifies some of the terms used for younger readers. Meticulously researched and engagingly written, this important book helps readers see the interconnections between politics, economics and the environment, while impelling young conservationists to act given the urgency that still exists in conserving wildlife and its habitat in the U.S. Recommended for ages 12 to adult.


The Wetlands.[VHS]. Pittsburgh PA: Metropolitan Pittsburgh Public Broadcasting Inc., 1988. Nat. Ctr. Media QH76 .W47 1988

The Wetlands is part of WQED’s Conserving America series. The film examines the effects, both positive and negative, that people have had on wetlands across the U. S. from Florida to the San Francisco Bay Area. For some years the balance between economic development and conservation has been heavily in favor of development and these richly populated areas have suffered, in much the same way and for the same reasons as rainforests have. The Wetlands shows what a diverse array of people across the country has done, and is doing, to stop and reverse this decline. This includes farmers, a business coalition, naturalists, writers and those who make a living from the swamps, like Alligator Annie – a tour guide in the Everglades. There is an extended interview with Marjory Stoneham Douglas who wrote the classic River of Grass(available in the Academy’s Main Library) and, 40 years later, is still campaigning to save the Everglades. Although the video is somewhat dated, its central message remains true: it is down to all of us to protect our swamps and wetlands and their rich diversity of life.

Read an engaging book or seen a fabulous movie about wetlands or freshwater? Share the title and why you liked it with us below in our comments section.

Featured Creatures

Photo: G. Sharlow.

American Bittern

Spotting this bird can be a tricky feat. Once detected, the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) turns toward the threat, stretches its long neck and pointy bill upward, stands still, and sways ever so slightly. Its mottled brown plumage with vertical front stripes blends in amongst the tall, swaying grasses, reeds, and sedges of the freshwater and brackish marshes where it lives. So innate is this defensive behavior that the bird will even strike this pose when it is out in the open, away from its protective surroundings.

Photo: G. Sharlow.

Western Pond Turtle

The only turtle native to California, western pond turtles (Actinemys marmorata) are found, as one would expect, in ponds, as well as other freshwater habitats. Their numbers are in serious decline throughout more than three-quarters of their range because of habitat loss and predation. If you spy a turtle basking on a log or mudbank, chances unfortunately are that it is a nonnative one. Hard-shelled western pond turtles and nonnative sliders and painted turtles all have similarly shaped, blunt-nosed heads. However, western pond turtles’ heads are lighter with black speckles, while sliders and painted turtles’ are darker with colored stripes or swirls.

Want to find out more about these animals and their freshwater habitats? Visit:

Filed under: Theme of the Month — nature @ 10:55 am

February 27, 2009

An Eye on Evolution February 2009

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago. It revolutionized biology, introducing the concept of evolution through natural selection. His ideas helped shape the foundations of evolutionary biology and continue to spark debate today. Delve into the books and media below to learn more about Darwin and evolution.

Sís, Peter. The Tree of Life. : A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin, Naturalist, Geologist and Thinker New York: Frances Foster Books, 2003.

Sís tells the story of Charles Darwin’s life – public, private and secret – through words and beautiful illustrations. The Tree of Life covers the main events in Darwin’s life, but it is much more than that. It explores the revolution that Darwin started with the publication of On the Origin of Species and chronicles the opposition it faced, as well as examining the doubts Darwin had about publishing this work. The book includes many extracts from Darwin’s diaries, as well as charts and maps from his explorations.
This is not a picture book for younger readers as the illustrations are complex, detailed and informative. The book has a unique visual presentation that is engaging and appealing, and is ideal for those who comprehend ideas through images.


Evolution: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [DVD]. Boston, MA: WGBH, 2001. (Disc 1 of 4).

This 2-hour DVD intersperses a dramatization of Darwin’s life with more detailed explorations of different aspects of his theory of evolution. For example, after Darwin hypothesizes about natural selection leading to the evolution of species, there is a chapter on how HIV evolves to overcome different medications, and how doctors are using this knowledge to fight the disease. The dramatization chapters can also be viewed together for younger viewers, as they work as a stand-alone explanation.
The remaining 3 discs in this series explore the facets of evolution in more depth – the changes that triggered the tree of life, mass extinctions, the power of sex and the perceived conflict between science and religion.


Mindell, David P. The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

With what would be Darwin’s 200th birthday this year, evolution seems to be popping up everywhere. For many, however, evolutionary biology remains a somewhat confusing science that might not seem relevant to their everyday lives, or it is simply the field that fuels the evolution versus intelligent design debate. Academy scientist Mindell provides alternative ways of looking at evolutionary biology, demonstrating how key concepts and processes from the field are in fact applied in a myriad of ways in our society, from the breeding of agricultural plants and animals to forensic science used in court cases and even the parallels between evolution and cultural and religious development. Written in an engaging and accessible manner Mindell clearly demonstrates that, “evolution is not just useful, it is indispensable.”


Read an engaging book or seen a fabulous movie about evolution? Share the title and why you liked it with us below in our comments section.

Featured Creatures

Photo: G. Sharlow.

Underwing Moth

The North American underwing moth (Catocala species) readily blends in among the bark it rests upon during the day. In the past, those individuals that didn’t hide themselves as well were plucked off by hungry birds, leaving behind the mottled brown moths that did a better job of going undetected. If camouflage wasn’t enough to fool curious predators, most underwing species have also developed colorful underwings to startle them. Exposing hidden orange, red, or white splashes of color either gives the moth a few spare seconds to flee or scares away the potential threat.

Photo: G. Sharlow.

Dead Leaf Butterfly

This Indo-Australian butterfly (Kallima inachus) has evolved a more impressive way to go incognito. Its dull brown wings are dead ringers for dead leaves, even down to some of the finest details. A false midrib extends right along the middle of the mimic’s wings, while the bottom tips resemble a leaf stem. The wings even have a few seemingly nibbled-upon holes, crunched edges, and small fungus-like dark patches. Like the underwing moth, the dead leaf butterfly also has a flashier side. Its undersides reveal bright yellowish orange with shimmering indigo.

Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was particularly amazed by the various dead leaf butterflies he found on his travels. They were “the most wonderful and undoubted case of protective resemblance in a butterfly” he had ever seen. Their mimicry is part of what helped shape his theory of natural selection, which he codiscovered with Charles Darwin.

Want to find out more about Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, and how organisms have adapted to their environments? Visit:

Filed under: Theme of the Month — nature @ 2:37 pm
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