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Naturalist Notebook 

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

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

February 4, 2009

International Young Eco-Hero Award

Do you know a young environmentalist aged 8-16 who deserves to be recognized with a cash prize? The environmental organization, Action for Nature, will be awarding its 2009 Eco-Hero awards soon. The deadline for applications is February 28, 2009.  Guidelines for applications are available at: http://www.actionfornature.org/eco-hero/index.html or by e-mailing awards@actionfornature.org. To read about last year’s winners visit: http://www.actionfornature.org/eco-hero/EcoHeroAwardsWinners2008.html

Filed under: News — nature @ 1:28 pm

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