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Naturalist Notebook 

February 24, 2009

Dive into a Coral Reef December 2008

Photo: Foster Bam

Marvel at the wide array of colors and shapes of corals. Come face to face with a garden eel. Dart through anemones with a clown fish. Check out the following books, DVD and specimens in the Naturalist Center, as well as other resources. Then see live animals from coral reefs in our Philippine Coral Reef exhibit.

Book and Media Reviews

MacGillivray Freeman’s Coral Reef Adventure. DVD. (43 mins.). Image Entertainment, 2004. Nat. Ctr. Media QH541.5 .C7 C663 2004

Coral reefs represent one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, yet they also are one of the most threatened. Join ocean explorers Howard and Michelle Hall as they visit several different reefs, diving with marine scientists and local islanders. They attempt to determine the causes of the degradation of coral reefs, as well as examine the resilience of this fascinating underwater world. Breathtaking scenery, colorful corals and unusual creatures abound, immersing the viewers in an experience that awakens their senses.


Bingham, Caroline. Coral Reef. 24 Hours Series. New York: DK Publishing, 2005. Nat. Ctr. Juv. QL125 .B56 2005

From dawn to dusk, a coral reef is a busy place. Take an hour-by-hour journey to a coral reef, learning about the unique characteristics of the various creatures found there. Facts abound on each page and colorful photos provide an up-close and personal view of life on the reef. Includes a handy glossary and index. Recommended for grades 3-5.


Vernon, Jen. Corals of the World. Townsville, Queensland: Australian Institute of Marine Science, 2000. Nat. Ctr. Ref. QL377 .C5 V44 2000.

This comprehensive three-volume set of books provides detailed information on corals from all parts of the world. Volume one includes introductory chapters that present the different types of coral reefs, information on coral structure, the geological history of corals and an overview of the taxonomy and distribution of corals. The rest of this volume and all of volume two include detailed species descriptions of corals arranged by taxonomic families. Various photos for each species are also included. Volume three contains the final species descriptions, as well as concluding chapters on the biogeography of corals, an examination of what exactly a species is and the evolutionary history of coral species. Includes keys to genera and species, an extensive list of references and a list of common names for several coral species. For all things coral, this is the book to turn to.


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

Creature Features

Photo: G. Sharlow

Cauliflower Coral

Unless you don’t mind breaking a tooth or two, you definitely don’t want to bite into this cauliflower coral (Pocillopora meandrina). Like other hard corals, its skeleton is made up of calcium carbonate, the same mineral snails and shellfish use to build their shells. This material is what’s left behind when the colony’s polyp inhabitants–close relatives of sea anemones and jellyfish–die. Cauliflower corals are found on exposed reef fronts around the Pacific and Indian Oceans


Photo: G. Sharlow

Organ-Pipe Coral

Despite their melodious name and look, organ-pipe corals (Tubipora musica) aren’t aquatic musical instruments. They use their red tubes as homes through which they wave their greenish white tentacles to capture microscopic food. Most of their nutrition, however, comes from the photosynthetic algae (zooxanthellae) that live inside them. This symbiotic relationship confines organ-pipe corals to the shallow waters of the western Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea.

See an array of live corals and the many animals that depend on them in our Philippine Coral Reef, one of the world’s deepest live coral exhibits.

Want to find out more about coral reefs and their inhabitants? Visit:

Filed under: Theme of the Month — nature @ 3:52 pm

December 24, 2008

Adventures in Africa September 2008

Photo:  G.  Sharlow

Roam the vast savanna with lions and elephants. Trek though mountain rainforests in search of gorillas. Watch playful penguins as they frolic on Boulders Beach. Check out the following books, DVD and specimens in the Naturalist Center, as well as other resources. Then see live animals and specimens from Africa in our African Hall exhibit.

Book and Media Reviews

Talbott, Hudson. Safari Journal: The Adventures in Africa of Carey Monroe.; New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003. Nat. Ctr. Juv. PZ 7 .T153 Saf 2003

“Safari” means journey in Swahili, and what a wild and wondrous journey you’ll take when you join 6th grader Carey on his adventures in Africa. Reluctantly dragged across the ocean on a trip to Kenya with his wacky Aunt Elaine, a fashion photographer, Carey quickly loses her and travels overland instead with a Maasai guide, and his son. Traveling from Amboseli National Park to the Maasai Mara Reserve, the reader learns about African wildlife and the Maasai way of life along with Carey, as well as becoming entangled in a plot to stop poachers trying to steal precious rhino horns. Written in a humorous and informative style and replete with drawings, photographs and side-notes, the reader quickly becomes immersed in the sights and sounds of Africa. An author’s note at the end of the book also provides background information. Recommended for grades 3-6.

Leakey, Richard & Morell, Virginia. Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa’s Natural Treasures.; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Nat. Ctr. QL 31 .L42 A3 2001

Political turmoil. Clashes with poachers. Death threats. Who knew wildlife management was such a daring and tumultuous job? In 1989, Richard Leakey quickly found this to be true when President Moi appointed him head of Kenya’s Wildlife Department, “which was in desperate financial straits and rife with corruption and inefficiency.” Leakey initially had gained international fame for his human anthropological finds in Africa, following in the footsteps of his renowned parents, but in this memoir he explores the challenges he faced and successes he achieved while moving into the role of conservationist. In an engaging and highly personal style, he describes his crusade to end the ivory trade and save one of his nation’s treasures, the elephant, along with his work to establish the Kenyan national park system as a model for balancing the needs of humans with protecting wildlife. Recommended for anyone interested in exploring the political, social and environmental complexity of conservation in Africa.

Caracal: Top Cat. DVD. Natural Killers: Predators Up Close Series. International Masters Publishers, 2000. Nat. Ctr. Media QL737 .C23 C372 2000

Can a family of caracals that were raised in captivity learn the necessary skills to return to the wild? Rescued from the exotic pet trade and cared for at a wildlife center in England, these caracals are reintroduced in a nature reserve near Hoedspruit Air Force Base in South Africa. In an innovative approach to wildlife management and conservation, the wild cats were chosen to be placed here to help control the bird population in the area, which can wreak havoc on the planes flying in the area. Bird-airplane collisions are frequent and often birds get sucked into the engines of planes causing severe damage to the plane and endangering the pilots. Rather than just eliminating all of the birds in the area, however, the South African government is attempting to find a way to live with nature. With amazing footage of the caracals, including their leaps of up to 10 feet into the air to catch birds, the DVD is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in wild cats and the issues surrounding captive breeding and the reintroduction of species. Also includes a booklet with extensive background information on caracals, including their range, behaviors and historical associations with humans. A wonderful introduction to a little known feline found in Africa.

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

Featured Creatures

Photo: G. Sharlow

Goliath Beetles

Africa isn’t just home to the heaviest land animal in the world; it’s also home to some of the heaviest insects. Goliath beetles (Goliathus species) can weigh 100 g (nearly a 1/4 lb.), with males being slightly larger than females. Males also have a longer, horned head that they use as pry bars in territorial battles. Those who manage to flip over their opponents get access to feeding sites and females. Females have a shorter, spade-shaped head for burying eggs.

Want to find out more about these and other African animals? Visit:

Filed under: Theme of the Month — admin @ 10:46 am

Trek through a Rainforest October 2008

Swing through the trees with monkeys. Listen to the sweet songs of birds. Find out just how long an anaconda can be. Check out the following books, DVD and specimens in the Naturalist Center, as well as other resources. Then experience what its like to walk through the different layers of a rainforest in our Rainforests of the World exhibit.

Book and Media Reviews

Yolen, Jane. Welcome to the Green House. Illustrated by Laura Regan. 1993. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Nat. Ctr. Juv. QH541.5 .R27 Y65 1993

Over the course of Welcome to the Green House, we are invited to become immersed in the ‘green house’ that is a rainforest. We start on the outside looking in, and are quickly taken inside to meet the animals and plants that call the rainforest home. Laura Regan’s lush, realistic paintings suggest the rich green of a rainforest from the canopy to the ground. The vivid colors of the birds, frogs and butterflies that live there sing out against a detailed backdrop of plants. Jane Yolen’s rhythmic text is ideal for reading aloud and meshes perfectly with the beautiful illustrations. The languid prose evokes the sights and sounds of a rainforest by day and night. At the end, we have a better understanding of the patterns of life in a rainforest and the balance achieved by its inhabitants. The final page sounds a warning note about deforestation.

Children’s writer Jane Yolen and San Francisco artist Laura Regan have collaborated on several other Welcome to… books including Welcome to the Ice House and Welcome to the River of Grass. Recommended for kindergarten to 3rd grade.

Really Wild Animals: Totally Tropical Rain Forest. DVD. (40 minutes). National Geographic Nat. Ctr. Media QH541.5 .R27 .T67 2005.

What animal is related to both the horse and the rhino? And just how dangerous is a piranha? These questions kick off this kid-friendly DVD before we’re whisked off onto a fun-filled exploration of tropical rainforests. Our host on this tour is Spin, an animated globe who takes us to the different layers in a rain forest and shows us many of the different bugs, birds and animals that live there. The DVD is educational in the sense that much interesting information is given, but the learning sits lightly and never gets in the way of close up shots of the creatures. There are songs along the way and snippets from old black and white movies and these both support the messages of the DVD. ‘Let’s eat lunch’ is a particularly funny song, which takes the first steps towards explaining the web of life accompanied by many unsentimental shots of creatures chowing down on each other. The final section touches on deforestation and shows children and scientists working together to halt it. As Spin says, the rain forest is a weird and wonderful place, full of unforgettable and unbelievable species and it’s a place worth trying to save.

Extras on this DVD include a National Geographic feature called “Far Out Families” and some quizzes and fun facts.

Newman, Arnold. Tropical Rainforest: A World Survey of Our Most Valuable and Endangered Habitat with a Blueprint for its Survival.New York: Facts on File, 1990. Naturalist Center QH541.5.R27 N49 1990

Arnold Newman is a science writer and conservationist, as well as a superb photographer. He starts this book with a lively and detailed description of the rainforest and follows this with a section looking at the inhabitants of the rainforest and how their lives are inter-related and interdependent. Newman’s main theme, however, is the human threat to the rainforests from timber extraction, slash and burn agriculture, fuel wood collection, cattle grazing, mining, and pollution. He looks at each of these in some detail and vividly creates a picture of what we lose if these activities are allowed to continue without restraint. In the final section of the book, Newman gives a ‘blueprint for survival’ with some well-argued proposals for managing the forests without further destruction through use of sustainable production techniques.

The early descriptive sections of the book are well written and packed with many gorgeous photos. The latter part of the book is much more text heavy, with some photographs and many charts and diagrams. However as Newman clearly feels passionately about the destruction of the rainforest and possible solutions to this, it remains very readable.

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

Featured Creatures

Photo: M. Flannery

Green Anaconda Skin

Found in the Amazon basin and other parts of South America, green anacondas (Eunectes murinus) sport blotched scales that camouflage them against rainforest vegetation. These ambush predators lie in wait along the shallow waters of swamps and flooded forests for prey that includes fish, birds, reptiles . . . pretty much any animal with a backbone. Despite their formidable size and notorious onscreen reputation, these large boas only have received a few authenticated reports of eating humans. They can grow up to 9 m (29.6 ft), but the average adult length is 5 m (16.5 ft). The Naturalist Center’s snakeskin is 3.62 m (11.9 ft) and lost its green coloration during preservation.

Don’t forget to visit our live anaconda curled up in the Flooded Amazon Exhibit in the Steinhart Aquarium.


Photo: G. Sharlow

Photo: G. Sharlow

Blue Morpho

Now you see ‘em, now you don’t. At rest, the earth-toned undersides of blue morpho butterfly (Morpho species) wings make them difficult for birds and other predators to detect. Eyespots along wing edges also create the illusion that a bigger creature is staring back at them. Blue morphos’ flashier side is revealed when they take flight. The backs of their wings are a brilliant aqua blue with the wings of males being particularly iridescent. As they open and close their wings, the butterflies’ bright blue and dull-brown colors flash, creating the illusion that they are disappearing and reappearing.

Watch blue morphos and a variety of other Costa Rican butterflies flutter about the Academy Rainforest.

Want to find out more about rainforests and their inhabitants? Visit:
Amazon Interactive

Passport to Knowledge: Live from the Rainforest
PBS Journey into Amazonia
Rainforest Alliance Learning Site

Filed under: Theme of the Month — admin @ 10:45 am
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