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The Academy will be closing at 3:00 pm on 4/24. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Project Lab 

April 16, 2014

Volunteer spotlight: CiS interns in the Project Lab

With over 140,000 specimens in the Ornithology and Mammalogy research collections, volunteers can be a great help in our collections.  Volunteers are an integral part of the Academy of Sciences whether its docents on the public floor or curatorial volunteers numbering every bone in a tiny hummingbird skeleton.   What some may not know is that the Academy also has a wonderful mentorship program through the Careers in Sciences intern program.

“Created in 1996, the Careers in Science Intern Program provides San Francisco youth from communities traditionally underrepresented in the sciences with opportunities to immerse themselves in the natural world, develop life and job skills, receive college and career mentorship, and learn science and sustainability concepts in an authentic, paid work environment. Through the mentorship program, interns have learned to prepare research specimens while up in the collective Project Lab.1″

Careers in Sciences interns Judy Hua and Jamarc Allen-Henderson have participated in the Ornithology and Mammalogy specimen preparation mentorship this spring preparing skeletons and spread wings.  Skeleton preparation entails removing the skin, feathers or fur and muscle from the bones before soaking them in water (masceration) or putting them in the dermestid beetle colony to completely clean the bones.  Check out the Project Lab’s previous posts to learn more about masceration and the dermestid colony!  Skeleton can tell us a lot about what a bird or mammal ate, how it walked or even identify a new species! Spread wings are also important specimens that can show molt patterns in birds.  Each of these specimens will be be given an individual catalogue number that distinguishes it from the others in the collection and increase our knowledge about bird and mammal populations

Judy and Jamarc have been busy flensing skeletons, adding to the Academy’s incredible collection of specimens.



Judy Hua explained her favorite  part of working up the Project Lab:


“Everyone sees the skulls after all the tissue is removed and the maceration is done, but no one really knows the process of it. And because we get to see the organism up close and personal, I’ve begun to notice all the beautiful, elegant parts of birds, like their different layers of feathers.

This is a part of science high school students never have really have the chance to experience. We dissect cow eyeballs if we’re lucky but usually we’re rushed to finish. We can’t stop and appreciate how amazing the specimen is. But in O&M, I can easily work my own pace and stop to appreciate the organism I’m dissecting. It shows you that science is a long process (which I love!).”


1. http://www.calacademy.org/youthprograms/careers-in-science/

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant/Specimen Preparator
Ornithology and Mammology


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 6:04 pm

March 23, 2014

The Perils of Scavenging

We’ve written multiple blog posts about the effects of plastic and trash on ecosystems (Faux foodThe Plastisphere- an artificial marine ecosystem), corresponding with our Summer exhibit “Built for Speed.”  I recently witnessed the effect that trash can have on wildlife firsthand as I prepared a Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) specimen.

photo_gwgu skin copy


This gull was found dead by one of our department’s volunteers at Lake Merced. It was in pristine condition – no evidence of having been attacked by another animal or hit by a car. Part of my job as a specimen preparator is to take notes on everything that I notice, both internally and externally, about the animal that I’m working on. This may mean noting organs that are strangely colored, the amount of fat that the animal has, and any evidence of attack/trauma, among other things. In this case, the bird was, as far as I could tell, perfectly healthy and in great body condition. It wasn’t until I cut open the stomach and esophagus that I found the probable cause of death.

Before the big reveal, I should explain that gulls are scavenging, omnivorous animals. This means that they have a wide array of food sources, from live animals to carrion (dead animals), as well as garbage. I’m sure the majority of people who live in areas with gulls have noticed how much these birds like to hang around dumpsters, as well as steal food straight out of your hand. They’re opportunistic birds who have learned that people often bring a food source with them. I have a clear memory as a child of watching a gull fly into a dumpster and come out with a full slice of pizza in its feet.


photo_gull trash copy


So, what did I find when I searched through the digestive system of this particular gull? A piece of trash lodged in the esophagus:

photo_hotsauce copy

Most humans would know better than to try to swallow trash, but animals associate its looks and smell with food. Unfortunately, it is likely the reason that this Glaucous-winged Gull died, since there was no other trauma seen on or in the body. While I’m not blaming the restaurants who hand out these condiments for this gull’s death, it does serve as an important reminder to make sure trash is properly disposed of. However, there’s no guarantee that even throwing away your trash properly will keep it off the streets and out of our oceans. It might blow out of a garbage can or truck, or an animal might dig through a trashcan looking for food, spilling trash along the way (I’m talking about you, raccoons).

photo_raccoon copy


This is one of the unfortunate impacts that garbage has on wildlife. There are many ways you can reduce the amount of trash that is polluting our world. For more information and ideas, check out http://5gyres.org/.


Laura Wilkinson

Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:19 am

March 9, 2014

Please do not tap on the glass!




You see it posted at zoos and aquariums… Please do not tap on the glass.  I have always wondered what it must be like to be an animal living in a zoo, but never did I think that I would be observed like a specimen through the glass myself.  So what is it like to work as a scientist in a fishbowl?  Well, it’s complicated.  When I first started working in the Project Lab, I was concerned about distractions and about the possibility of screwing up my DNA extractions. DNA extractions take some concentration and it can be a little awkward and distracting to be doing an extraction with someone right in your face!  However, after a little while, I became accustomed to being observed while working, and it’s really not so bad.


Here are a few things you should know when you observe us in the Project Lab…


1. We are real scientists and curatorial assistants, and we are actually working. We are not actors or robots (yes, I heard a rumor that during one Nightlife someone actually thought we were robots. I mean robot technology is good, but it’s not THAT good… yet). So please keep that in mind, and do not tap on the glass!


2. We can hear you from behind the glass.  And we hear all kinds of things… including your jokes about me being on Facebook (and for the record, occasionally this is true!  I post links to our blog on our Facebook Research page, whenever we have a new post).  Most often, we hear a lot of parents making up answers to their children’s inquiries. Typically, children ask, “what are they doing in there?” and this brings me to the third thing you should know…


3. We usually have a sign posted describing what we are doing. Look for computer screens, sign placards, or signs projected up onto the glass screens, so you don’t have to guess what we are doing!





4. The doors are locked on the public side.  In other words, you cannot get into the lab.  Often, we have people who are unaware of this and they will yank on the doors (occasionally quite violently) to try to get into the lab.  As much as we appreciate your enthusiasm for science, this is a working lab space, so we cannot let the public in.  In fact, the only way for members of the public to get into the lab is to take our Behind-the-scenes Academy Tour, which at the end of the tour takes you through the Project Lab, and often allows you to talk to us about our research.  Further, on the weekends and during peak times like the winter holidays, we actually come out and talk to you!  You can ask us all about the work and science we do during our Science Discovery and Out of the Lab programs.  So the next time you visit, check the program guide for program times and come talk to us!


Non Public


5. The giant spider is not a real spider.  It’s a puppet made from cloth, but I’ve already covered that in this blog post. Also, we recently gave it a nice top hat!




So hopefully this dispels some misunderstandings about the Project Lab.  We love to share our science with you, so if we are out with a cart, come talk to us!


Vanessa Knutson


Project Lab Coordinator

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:28 pm

February 23, 2014

Spider identity crisis, and some magnificent memorable membracids


Blaboma sp._Face

About a week ago I posted a spider picture on the Academy’s Facebook page, which I had identified as Ariadna pacifica. After conferring with Darrel Ubick, one of our resident spider experts, I discovered I had misidentified both the family and species! It turns out to be in the family Dictynidae, and is one of about 10 species in the genus Blaboma that are found locally living in leaf litter. They form sheet-like webs which they use mostly as retreats, and are ground hunters of small arthropods. Spiders can be notoriously difficult to identify, so while I may be embarrassed by my mistake, I learned something new that I am not likely to forget!


This week in the Project Lab, I have imaged some unusual looking insects in the family Membracidae.  Membracids are a family of true bugs (Hemiptera), which are commonly known as treehoppers and thorn bugs. Membracids live on plants and trees and feed on the sap using their piercing beaks to penetrate the host plant. They are found on all continents except Antarctica, but the tropical varieties attract a lot of attention because they have adapted to look like the plants they live on, by growing projections that often look like the thorns and spines of their host plants.  Unlike most insects, they appear to be wingless, though some scientists believe that the “helmet” found on many is actually the result of fused and modified wings. The sharp spines and “thorns” provide both camouflage and protection from hungry predators. Some treehoppers are gregarious, and can be found in groups on the same plant.  Sap feeding insects like treehoppers and aphids concentrate the sugars in the sap they consume, and excrete a sweet substance known as honeydew. Because of this, they sometimes form symbiotic relationships with ants, or even iguanas who feed on this substance.  Treehoppers do not directly cause harm to humans, although a few of them are pests on agricultural crops. I hope you enjoy the images of these unusual insects.

all images by Vic Smith, copyright CAS 2014


El Salvador Membracid_Lat1

Membracid from Mexico

Peruvian Membracid1





Until next time,

Vic Smith

Imaging Specialist


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 10:56 am

February 10, 2014

Illustrating An Ecuadorian Melastome




A: Plant habit & inflorescence (including: lower leaf surface zoom of glands & divergence of leaf veins)

B: Flower

C: Dorsal and lateral view of stamens (including: zoom of glands on the connective)

D: Stigma & style


One of my jobs here at the California Academy of Sciences is as Scientific Illustrator. A couple years ago I graduated from a graduate program in Science Illustration from California State University Monterey Bay. Since graduating and completing a couple internships, I now work here illustrating newly discovered or described organisms in various departments. Above is just one botanical plate I’ve completed for my advisor. This species was found in the rainforests of Ecuador, collected a handful of years ago but was just being described last year. Above is the final illustration for one of my advisors here in the Botany Department. When I first receive a new plant to work with, I am given an ancient-looking specimen as seen below:


As botanical illustrator it is my job to essentially revive and reconstruct this plant suitable enough for publication. This plant specimen proved unique in multiple ways to the other Melastomataceae species I have illustrated.  The most challenging part of the illustration was reconstructing the entire flower from broken or missing parts.  It was also challenging to make the illustration appear more three dimensional, as opposed to flat, with use of perspective and different shading techniques.  Below you can see more images of these tiny structures that had to be illustrated for this botanical plate:







Every new plant specimen I work with is pretty exciting. From specimen to specimen you notice how much diversity has developed within and between genera within this plant family. For every plate I concentrate on illustrating every unique characteristic of the species and genus. Some of my later posts will concentrate on the steps from start to finish: preliminary sketches, edits, ink used, type of style used to illustrate various plant parts, and the digital process, etc).

Sean Vidal Edgerton

Science Illustrator

Botany Department; California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:00 pm

January 28, 2014

Specimen of the week: Rattus norvegicus

The last few weeks up in the Project Lab, I have been preparing some study skins and skeletons of Rattus norvegicus.  But before you wonder where these specimens were found and call the exterminator, I should specify that these are domestic rats, which are slightly different from the rat one may imagine hiding out in the alley.

So what is a Rattus norvegicus?  Its most common names include Brown Rat, Norway Rat and Hanover Rat.  This species is thought to have originated from Asia, and is now found on almost every continent except Antarctica.  This prolific species has also given rise to the “laboratory rat” and also our furry, friendly domesticated house pets, the “fancy rat.”  Although these fancy rats are still considered the same species, Rattus norvegicus, they can look quite distinct from the same species found in the wild.




The main and most conspicuous difference between fancy rats and wild rats is color.  Fancy rats can exhibit a wide variety of colors from white to black, and many shades of brown.  This color variation is extremely rare in wild populations and would most likely be a detrimental feature if exhibited frequently – a white rat is much easier to spot by potential predators!  There are also some temperament differences in domesticated rats that make them more sociable towards their pet guardians.




But why would we have these domesticated breeds in our collections?  If you’ve ever walked through the museum, you may have noticed a small display of domestic dog breed skulls hanging on the wall near Tusher African hall.  Although we may think of dogs as separate breeds, they are all considered to belong to one species, Canis familiaris.  This may bring up the question then, what is a species?  There are many definitions. One definition, perhaps the best known, suggests that a species is a group of organisms that can interbreed and create fertile offspring.  So most dog breeds have arisen with artificial selection, and once established can reproduce on their own, which is also the case in the domesticated fancy rats.  While it may not seem as important to keep specimens of these domesticated animals, they can still give researchers insight into how species have changed over time. Whether it is a morphological difference like pelage (fur) color, size, or shape, or whether it is a genetic variation, these specimens can help researchers piece together the puzzle of a species’ history.


Codie Otte

Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:00 am

January 15, 2014

Marsh Birds

This week, I prepared a study skin of a wetland bird called a Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), the most widespread heron species in the world. There are 64 species in the heron family (Ardeidae), which also includes egrets and bitterns.  Black-crowned Night-Herons forage for fish, amphibians, insects, and other types of food during the evening, avoiding competition with the other heron species that use the same wetlands during the day. Night-Herons nest in colonies with other heron and egret species in trees or other vegetation, usually over water. Adults and juveniles look drastically different, with adults sporting long white ornamental plumes on their heads.




These birds, like most bird species, will raise any chick in its nest, meaning that they are unable to distinguish between their own biological offspring and those of other parents. In a previous blog, Codie talked about brood parasitism, which occurs when a bird lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, leaving that parent to raise offspring that aren’t biologically theirs. This can be done by more species than the commonly known Cowbirds and Cuckoos! By not being able to distinguish between chicks in their nest, Night-Herons can become victim to this kind of brood parasitism, and have been documented to be parasitized by Black-headed ducks. There is, however, another kind of brood parasitism called “conspecific brood parasitism.” This strategy is when a bird lays its eggs in the nest of a bird of the same species. This occurs in another marsh bird species, the American Coot (Fulica Americana), which has a high rate of conspecific brood parasitism. Females will lay their eggs in other females’ nests, potentially increasing their own reproductive success. Unlike Night-Herons, however, Coots have developed strategies to recognize their own young and reject the young of competing parents.



The strategies that different species evolve to make them as biologically successful as possible are fascinating, from brood parasitism to elaborate dances and plumages, and can be seen in all types of birds. If you’re interested in seeing Black-crowned Night-Herons in San Francisco, you can find them year-round in different wetland areas such as the lakes in Golden Gate Park as well as harbors and piers.


Laura Wilkinson

Curatorial Assistant & Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:20 am

January 5, 2014

Woah, look at that spider!


spider on scope


Due to the holidays, I’ve spent extra time in the Project Lab over the last few weeks. One thing that has really surprised me lately is the reaction that a certain member of our lab gets from visitors.  You see, Vic, our Entomology imaging specialist, has a couple of plush spiders at our Big Kahuna imaging station.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard, “woah, look at that spider!” more times than I can count (yes, we can hear you through the glass!).  I recognize that some folks are teasing each other about the giant spider toy, but I also get the impression that some guests have mistaken this spider for a real animal. I’m a bit shocked that so many people seem to think that this is a real spider.  So, this week I decided to set the record straight-sorry folks, but it’s a stuffed animal (not of the taxidermy variety).



spider puppet


Now, I’d like to arm you with some spider facts to help you from getting tricked by big fake spiders in the future (which will be particularly useful during Halloween time)-


Our spider puppet is humongous!   I took a ruler to it, and the body, not including the legs, is about 6 inches long and 3.5 inches wide.  If you include the legs, the puppet is about 17” wide!   So how large can the largest real spider get?  The largest spiders in the world are the Goliath Birdeater, sometimes known as the bird-eating spider, and the Giant Huntsman Spider.   Here is how they measure up to our spider puppet:


Project Lab spider puppet Goliath birdeater Giant Huntsman
Body length  6” (15.2)  4.7” (11.9 cm)  1.8” (4.6cm)
Leg span  17” (43.2cm)  11” (28cm)  12” (30cm)






So, as far as we know, there are no real spiders out there that are as big as our Project Lab puppet spider.


Now, of course, if we had a live spider in the Project Lab, we would keep it in a terrarium, not sitting on top of a microscope.   As for preserved spiders, typically, spiders are not preserved as dry specimens (unlike other arthropods like beetles or butterflies).  The reason spider specimens are not stored dry is because they are quite soft-bodied, even though they have an exoskeleton.  Dry spiders shrivel up and are not useful for research purposes (nor do they look all that good).    Occasionally, you may see framed dry spiders available for sale as decorations or educational displays, but this is not the case for research.  Instead, spiders are kept in alcohol as wet specimens.  This prevents spiders from drying out and shriveling up, and allows researchers to be able to bend and manipulate the legs.


wet specimens1


spider puppet3

spider puppet 2

So the next time you pass by the Project Lab, feel free to say hi to the spider puppet.  I’m not sure if this spider has a name yet, I’ll ask Vic and get back to you!


Vanessa Knutson

Project Lab Coordinator

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:48 pm

December 20, 2013

Lolita’s Butterflies

In the mid 1950’s, the famed Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote the novel Lolita, which at the time was considered highly controversial because of its subject matter, the sexual attraction and relationship between the protagonist and his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Despite continuing controversy, both literary and otherwise, Lolita is today considered one of the most important 100 books in American literature today, (it was written in English and published in New York) and has given rise to 2 movies and a Broadway play.


Despite his fame as a novelist, few people are aware of his career as a scientist. While in England, he studied Zoology at Trinity College in Cambridge. Nabokov had a life-long fascination with butterflies, and became quite famous in entomological circles as a lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies). After moving to the United States, Nabokov served as a volunteer entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and later became the curator of the butterfly collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, a position he held for many years. Nabokov described several species of butterflies, and had quite a few species named after him by other scientists.


Karner Blue_L_reduced

As in his literary career, Nabokov generated some controversy as a scientist as well.  He had some “old fashioned” ideas about emerging science, and didn’t believe that chromosomes and genetics could provide enough information to delineate species (this was pre-DNA). Nabokov distinguished among species of similar looking butterflies by dissecting and microscopically examining their genitalia. At the Harvard Museum, he was said to have studied genitalia for 6 hours a day seven days a week until his eyesight began to fail. Many of his early species were discredited by other lepidopterists, but DNA data have re-instated quite a few of them.



Nabokov is known for describing the Karner Blue butterfly, Lycaeides mellisa samuelensis, a federally listed endangered species found in the northeastern United States from New York to Ohio. He is said to have written much of Lolita while on a collecting trip looking for this butterfly, which is the state butterfly of New Hampshire.  The Karner Blue feeds entirely on species of Lupine, and is endangered because habitat destruction has destroyed much of its food sources. The federal government has a recovery plan, which it hopes will help restore populations of this small, beautiful creature.


Stay tuned for more blogs from the Project Lab…


Until next time,

Vic Smith

Imaging specialist

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:07 pm

December 8, 2013

Volunteer Spotlight- Palma You

Many visitors often ask how volunteers got their start at the Academy and what inspired each person to get involved.  Who better to provide some insight into the mind of the volunteer than some of the amazing volunteers themselves?

The Ornithology and Mammalogy department has a dedicated group of volunteers who prepare specimens for the research collection every Thursday during the Academy’s Nightlife event.  Starting in 2008, many of these Nightlife volunteers attended a 10 week class to learn preparation techniques for birds and mammals and haven’t stopped since!  One of these volunteers, Palma You, has now been preparing specimens for five years in the Project Lab and in her time here has also been able to work on some pretty amazing projects outside of the Project Lab around the museum floor.  I asked Palma a few questions about her volunteering experience here at the Academy:

What you do at the Academy?

I’m a volunteer for the Ornithology and Mammalogy Department; I prepare bird and mammal skins for the research collection.




How did you learn about volunteer opportunities at the museum?

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be accepted for an internship with the O&M Department working with the Collections Manager Moe Flannery. I was pursuing a master’s degree in museum studies when the Academy needed help with moving the O&M collection from the temporary space on Howard Street to the new Renzo Piano building in Golden Gate Park.  Being a fan of modern architecture, and of being green, I wanted to see the building behind the scenes. At that time, I was more interested in the building and the effort to be green than the collection.


Why did you decide to start volunteering?

A couple years ago the Academy needed more preparators because the freezers were maxed out. The freezer is where donated specimens are stored until they are prepared for the collection. The Academy offered to train a group of interested people. I jumped at the opportunity to learn a new skill.


What is your favorite thing about volunteering?

There are two. 1) I have the opportunity to see animals up close and to learn and appreciate the details of a species. In nature, I have to observe from afar. The details are hard to see especially if the bird or animal doesn’t want to be seen. 2) A great deal of satisfaction is derived from knowing the work I do ensures the preservation of a specimen for future study.


What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve been a part of?

The outstanding ones are the articulation of Orca 0319, the Ostrich project* and the move from Howard Street to GG Park.




*The Ostrich project volunteers helped raise Ostrich chicks as part of the Earthquake exhibit.  These chicks are no longer on display, but you can see them in action on our Earthquake exhibit blog page.

You can also check out our blog about the articulation of Orca O319.


What is interesting to you about the O&M collections?

The specimen labels are a considerable niche of history on their own. They show a style of handwriting, what information was considered important at the time, how the specimen was prepared, who the collector and identifier of the species and was from where the species was collected.


How does volunteering relate, if at all, to your current/former occupation?

Recently I’ve developed my skills in conservation of works on paper. The bench work includes cleaning, hydration, preservation and repair of fragile archival collections. Bird and mammal preparation is very similar to repair of paper because every specimen or artifact has its own history. I exercise my problem solving skills for every project regardless of whether the subject matter is animal or vegetable fibers (paper).


Lastly, what is your favorite exhibit here at the museum?

Human Odyssey.

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:01 pm
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