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Project Lab 

September 25, 2014

Not quite the deadliest catch


The beginning of the fall season always seems to make me want to reflect on the past, and this fall I asked myself the question: “What was I doing ten years ago”?  In 2004 I was a Curatorial Assistant in the department of Invertebrate Zoology here at the Academy. The department at the time had a contract with NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which is part of the Department of Commerce.  Every year, NOAA does a ground fish survey in and around the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea areas of Alaska (ground fish are those that live near the bottom, like cod, halibut and rockfish). The primary purposes of these surveys are to determine population trends of various fish species, discover breeding grounds which need protection, and gather data to sustainably manage fisheries.  Over the years this program has had many successes in protecting and restoring over- fished populations. To perform these surveys, NOAA leases fishing boats and crews to do the collecting, and sends teams of scientists along to record data about the fish and invertebrates collected. That year, I was picked as the Cal Academy representative to assist with the collecting, identifying, and vouchering of invertebrate specimens collected on the cruise.  That year, the vessel I was on was the 110 foot FV Seastorm, a trawler-crabber of the type you might have seen on the TV show ‘Deadliest Catch”.


A study area is selected in advance and broken up into smaller search areas. A smaller area is randomly selected, and if the captain approves of the safety and practicality of the choice, several hauls are made before moving on to the next location.  The drums at the rear of the boat contain nets on long lines that are deployed and carried along just above the floor of the ocean, weighted down by 2 large steel plates called trawl doors, that cause the net to drag along just above or on the bottom.( one of the trawl doors is visible on the left rear of the boat in the picture below.   This is known as an ‘otter trawl’.  The volume of the net is known, and the time and distance travelled for each haul is also recorded to allow for volumetric measurements of the haul.  Attached to each net is a small basket (the snail bag) which drags along the floor and collects many of the invertebrates.

Our ship had a captain and a crew of 5 seasoned experienced fishermen, plus a compliment of 6 scientists.  The crew enjoyed this type of work as a relief from their usual grueling fishing and crabbing seasons, in which their pay depends on the size of the catch. On these cruises they get paid the same, no matter how big the haul.  It was still hard and somewhat dangerous work, and when we were onsite we would often do hauls from first light in the morning until way into the evening (long daylight hours this far north).


The catch is dumped out onto the trawl deck, where it is sub-sampled and all the fish species identified.

Representative sub-samples are sexed and measured, and tissue samples may be taken. After the fish are dealt with, it is on to sorting and identifying the invertebrates.


Aside from the food on board (which was by and large fantastic!), a highlight of the trip was a visit to the Coastguard LORAN station on Attu Island, the westernmost point of US land, and the site of the only battle fought during WWII on an incorporated territory of the USA.  You could pretty much actually ‘see Russia’ from there. That’s me on the left.


Soon the cruise was over and it was back to San Francisco with several barrels of specimens.

In 2005 I was able to go on a similar cruise, and in 2007 I had the privilege of going to Antarctica as well, perhaps the subjects of future blogs.

Until then,

Vic Smith

Imaging Specialist

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 2:02 pm

September 11, 2014

Some Basic Materials For Black & White Scientific Illustration

Working in the Project Lab and having the chance to interact with the public I am often asked what tools I use to create some scientific illustrations. I’ll often immediately jump to my overloaded case of diverse pigma micron pens and my mechanical pencils of 0.3mm width. As a technical and scientific illustrator, being accurate to the true form of your subject is absolutely essential. These tiny pens and pencils provide that easy maneuverability and intense detail to achieve that accuracy. Picture1   Above you can see some of the materials that I use to achieve the basics. Tiny 0.3mm mechanical pencil, tracing paper for preliminary sketches, carbon paper for transferring your sketches, vellum paper because it beautifully accepts ink, and an array of pen and ink materials for final illustrations. I’ve collected every size of pigma microns and use each one to accurately render the basics of an illustration: size, form, and even light on form to illuminate shape and volume of certain structures. Keep in mind this is all done to communicate a scientific concept or principle as simply as possible!   Picture2   Above are some simple to complex illustrations. Remember when illustrating (scientifically!) be as observant as possible on tiny details that characterize your subject. Be true to its form and render exactly what you see, that was you could educate others on the plant or animal on what you may have seen.   Picture3     Also remember that practice makes perfect. Continuously practice drawing and doodling whenever you have time and eventually you’ll take a moment to realize how far you’ve come.  While in elementary school I found myself drawing my favorite animals, plants, and Saturday morning cartoons. Now I’ve somehow found myself here in the California Academy of Science’s Project Lab illustrating newly discovered species for publication. If you are curious about the field of Scientific and Natural History Illustration check out my website below and please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have!   Sean Vidal Edgerton Science Illustrator http://www.theillustration.co/ Botany Department – California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:18 pm

August 10, 2014

Mass stranding of weird, alien-like creatures!



Well, not really, but I can imagine some folks thinking it, if they have recently visited some West Coast U.S. beaches.  Sometimes, as a biologist, I take things for granted… like knowing a thing or two about these odd-looking creatures, but to someone who has never seen this before, this sight may be somewhat alarming.


Alas, there is no need to panic, this is relatively normal, and unlike mass strandings of some other marine creatures, due to low oxygen levels or other issues, (as far as we know) there is really nothing to worry about here, as this happens periodically and is due to a weird quirk related to these creatures’ bodies.


First, a little about these beauties… These animals, yes they are animals (why? Read here) are not jellyfish, but they are jellyfish relatives. Like jellyfish, they are cnidarians, also relatives of other favorites including corals and sea anemones. What do all of these animals have in common?  For one thing, stinging cells. They all possess cells that enable them to capture their prey by firing a micro-harpoon, of sorts, delivering venom (this is what causes a jellyfish sting).




Weirdly enough, and this still boggles even my biologist mind, these Velella are not individual animals, but rather a collective of individuals that live together and form a colony. Full disclaimer- the understanding of what these animals are has changed a lot through time, and will likely continue to change in the future!


These animals are pushed around on the surface of the ocean by wind acting on their stiff “sails” on top of their “bodies.”  Occasionally they wash up by the hundreds, thousands or perhaps even MILLIONS.  I’ve seen these creatures washed up, probably by the millions as I remember it, in Washington State at Cape Alava, extending up and down the beach as far as I could see, in a swath about 2 meters (6.6 feet) wide and deep enough to add a bit of spring to my step.   I’ve also seen them washed up in eastern Australia on Stradbroke Island.   So, it was enjoyable this past month for me to see these cool creatures washed up right in my Ocean Beach backyard.


Okay, so let’s get to the point here, you may be wondering, “that’s great, but what is the connection to your research interests?”  The connection, of course, is to nudibranchs and to their food!  Velella velella just so happens to be a prey item of several species of nudibranchs that live in the open ocean (genus: Glaucus).  Their better-known prey item is the Portugese Man o’ War, Physalia physalis, another colonial cnidarian that can deliver a much nastier sting than Velella.   There is a good chance that you’ve seen pictures of Glaucus atlanticus floating around the Internet, several folks have posted these to my Facebook timeline, and I’ve seen them in chain emails as well.   Glaucus atlanticus, the internet star:




There are some great images of Glaucus with some Velella here and here.



Glaucus nudibranchs, like many of their relatives, have a pretty awesome parlor trick, or superpower, if you will.  Not only can they eat their stinging cnidarian prey, but they also store the unused stinging cells in the tips of those beautiful frills (called cerata) and use them against their own predators.


Now for the last juicy bit- it turns out that like some of the Gymnodoris nudibranchs species that I study, Glaucus nudibranchs sometimes eat members of their own species. In other words, they are cannibals.


Unfortunately, although I keep my eyes peeled, I think I am pretty unlikely to find any Glaucus nudibranchs washed up here at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. While you can find their Velella prey here, I think it’s probably just a little too cold for these nudies, as they stick to warmer parts of the world.  I can’t blame them, without a thick wetsuit, I stay out of those frigid waters too!

Vanessa Knutson

Invertebrate Zoology and Geology


Velella have found their way into several news articles and social media lately, here are a few links to check out if you are interested in learning more!





*Savilov A.I. 1956. Floating biocoenosis in the Pacific Ocean based on the material of the Expeditions of the Institute of Oceanology, Academy of Sciences USSR. Priroda, vol.45, no.3, pp.62-68.





Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:25 pm

July 17, 2014

I love weeds!

If you live in California, you are pretty much surrounded by weeds! Wait, weeds?
What determines what is considered a weed and what isn’t? A weed is a plant growing in a location where it is not desired, so one (wo)man’s weed is another’s bounty. Weeds grow on lawns, street dividers, athletic fields and golf courses, vacant lots, rooftops, sidewalk cracks, and farms.


Humans have developed technologies that can be very effective in removing or eliminating weeds, but these technologies are often used before considering what the overall consequences might be. Weed control has become a big business for both the petrochemical companies that produce herbicides and the bioengineering firms like Monsanto. Case in point: Monsanto produces glyphosate herbicides (commonly known as Roundup), which kill grasses and broadleaf annual weeds. Alongside this herbicide, they also bioengineer corn and soybean varieties known as ‘Roundup ready’. The combination of these products allow farmers to plant their crops, then spray the fields with glyphosate, killing all the weeds and leaving the corn or soybeans unharmed. This works out well for the chemical and seed companies who make a profit from the farmers who use them. The farmers benefit by not having to weed their crops, but who loses besides the weeds?


This year’s count of Monarch butterflies is the lowest ever, so low that many experts are concerned about the survival of this iconic species. One probable cause is the use of Roundup ready crops. Millions and millions of acres of corn and soybeans are now completely weed free, almost completely eliminating the food source for the butterfly, and probably many other insects as well. Monarchs rely on a single food source: milkweed. Without access to this food source as they migrate great distances every year, the Monarch population is in steep decline.


I didn’t have any access to milkweed this week, so I decided to take some close-up images of a common lawn weed, a member of the Geranium family known as storksbill. This common plant was probably introduced from Turkey and is found in many urban and suburban lawns, where it is considered by some to be a weed.


I used the Big Kahuna imaging system to take a series of photos, each one a closer view of this pretty little weed. These three images are the result.




All images copyright Vic Smith/California Academy of Sciences


Until next time,

Vic Smith
Imaging Specialist
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:45 am

July 4, 2014

I present to you, three new species of nudibranch!

But first, check out this Academy video about describing new species, featuring me and fellow Academy colleagues:

If the video above does not load, try refreshing the page, or you can view it here.



I’ve been looking forward to writing this blog post for years!  I am happy to share with you my very first species descriptions, which were published on April 15, 2014 (a nice birthday present for me!).  The first thing that you should know about describing a new species is that it takes a LOT of work.  It is very important that a description is detailed enough that other people can actually identify that species.   Some of the difficulty today in species identification comes from old descriptions that just aren’t detailed enough, or that focused on describing characteristics that aren’t actually very useful for telling species apart from each other. In the group of nudibranchs that I study, the majority of species share a common color pattern of orange spots, so unless you describe other features unique to a species, it will not be very easy to identify.


As exciting as new species are, the descriptions themselves can be quite technical.  Unless you are an expert in a particular group, the description may be difficult to understand, and in that case, dare I say it, boring.  I remember the first time I ever read a description of a nudibranch- it was pretty unintelligible to me, filled with jargon such as radula, papillae, and receptaculum seminus!  These days, this jargon has become a part of my daily language, though I will spare you from that in this blog post!


Before I introduce you to the new species, I will give you a little background about the group that I study. I study nudibranchs that belong to the genus GymnodorisGymnodoris nudibranchs are found throughout the Indo-West Pacific Ocean and Red Sea.  They are found in areas like the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.  The most interesting feature of this genus is that most species are predators of other nudibranchs and sea slugs.  A few species are even known to be cannibalistic, eating members of their own species.  While many are difficult to tell apart on the outside, they often have differences on the insides of their bodies.


Presenting my three new species:

blog VK3


Gymnodoris tuberculosa

This species can be found throughout the Indo-West Pacific Ocean.  It has been seen in places like Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Marshall Islands.  This species is relatively small, around 2cm in length.  It is translucent white in color and covered in bumps. Distinctive white/yellowish  glands can be seen through the skin on the sides of the body (although these are not obvious in the images above).  These glands may store and secrete toxins for defense.  The short gills on this animal are arranged in a circle. This species is usually found in relatively shallow depths of less than 30 ft.  It appears to be active at night, where it can be found crawling around on the bottom.


blog VK1


Gymnodoris brunnea

So far, we have only encountered this species in one part of the Philippines.  We found this species, along with Gymnodoris pseudobrunnea, in shallow water underneath a pier in Anilao.  This species is also small in size, less than 2 cm in length.  The color is brownish, transparent and covered in orange spots.  The gills of this species are arranged in a row, rather than a circle.  This species is active at  night, where it can be found crawling over a sandy bottom.


blog VK2_1

Gymnodoris pseudobrunnea

As with the previous species, so far we have only encountered this species in Anilao in the Philippines. It looks very similar in appearance to G. brunnea, and is translucent and sometimes brownish in color.  There are internal differences that differentiate this animal from G. brunnea, including the shape of the teeth, and arrangement of the reproductive organs. This species also lives on a sandy bottom and is active at night.


As I mentioned previously, most of the species in the genus Gymnodoris feed on other nudibranchs and sea slugs, so I am often looking through stomach contents to try to identify prey items.  While I was working on these descriptions, I had a fun surprise when I dissected a specimen of G. pseudobrunnea to find an undigested nudibranch in its stomach… after careful examination, I identified this prey item as G. brunnea!  So it turns out that G. pseudobrunnea eats G. brunnea.  The discoveries never end!


For those of you who are interested in the technical aspects, this blog post was based on the following:

Knutson V.L. and T.M Gosliner. Three New Species of Gymnodoris Stimpson 1855 (Opisthobranchia, Nudibranchia) from the Philippines. The Coral Triangle: The 2011 Hearst Philippines Biodiversity Expedition. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, California 15 April 2014.

which can be found in the Hearst Special Publication.


Vanessa Knutson

California Academy of Sciences


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 10:00 am

June 20, 2014

Track ‘em down!

I recently returned with some coworkers from 3 weeks of field work in Desert National Wildlife Refuge, 25 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. We were surveying the small mammals (rodents, bats, and other mammals that are generally less than 1 foot long) that live in the refuge, as it had not been thoroughly surveyed in the past. We used traps that catch the animal alive, which allowed us to decide which animals to release and which to keep for the Academy’s mammalogy collection. The majority of my field experience involves birds (like this), so it was fun to try my hand at mammals. However, today I’m not going to talk about the fine details of mammal trapping; instead, I want to test your mammal identification skills. Specifically, mammal track identification.


The desert is a great place to look for tracks because the soft sand holds them well. My colleagues and I had fun finding these tracks and trying to figure out which animals were recently nearby. It’s also a great way to figure out where to set your traps if you’re targeting specific types of animals.


So let’s get started! On our first day we were working in soft sand dunes, where we found some of the best tracks:

photo 1

You can clearly see small sets of feet in the center of the photo, with a small line at the very back. The front feet look to be smaller than the back feet, which have a large heel. Can you guess what it might be?

photo 2

This photo shows tracks from the same species, but with longer brushy lines dragged throughout. Any ideas? Think of a small mammal with larger back feet than front (for its strong back legs) and a tail that would make those lines in the sand. It’s…

photo 3

a kangaroo rat! The Merriam’s kangaroo rat (Dipodomys merriami) was the most common kangaroo rat species we found throughout the refuge. Kangaroo rats live up to their name by hopping around on their back feet, though they do walk around on all fours as well. They’re not related to kangaroos, but are rodents like other rats and mice.


The next set of tracks comes from the gravel paths that wound around one of our campsites. I noticed that these paths were used as a highway of sorts for a particular animal. It might be difficult to guess by the photo, but take a look:

photo 4

These tracks, like those from the kangaroo rat, are also from an animal with large back feet and smaller front feet (good for hopping!) It’s…

photo 5

a Black-tailed jackrabbit! We saw quite a few of these around this campsite. Since we were camping at an established site, the jackrabbits knew that having people around meant finding good food. They chewed up one of our cardboard boxes and chewed on a few wooden boxes we had. I also woke up to one chewing through one of my tent guy lines. It was hard for me to get annoyed with such a cute animal, though.


Around this same campground, there were lots of tracks of the largest mammal I saw on this trip:

photo 6

It’s hard to see the definition in the gravel, so I’ve outlined the shape for you here.

photo 7

Those definitely look like hooves to me. Any guesses on the species? It’s…

photo 8

a mule deer! I saw a few of these walking towards me down a trail – it took them a while to notice me, but then took off immediately.


As a parting shot, here’s a photo of some very cool lizard tracks. I’m no herpetologist so I don’t know the exact species, but I love that the tail drags a line between the footprints.

photo 9

Next time you’re out walking around, take a look for mammal tracks! You might be surprised at the diversity you can find.


Laura Wilkinson

Curatorial Assistant

Ornithology & Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 10:00 am

June 4, 2014

Thoughts of Spring and Easter Eggs

Springtime is winding down in California!  The days have been getting longer and warmer, the rains came at last and turned the hills green, and the flowers began blooming. Spring, as welcome as it is, is a special time because it is so ephemeral. In only a few short months, maybe even weeks, the green grasses turn brown, the flowers go to seed, and summer begins. As I walk the fire trails of Mount Tamalpais every morning with my dog, I have watched the new grass sprout and rapidly grow. Although there are many species of grasses in California, the vast majority of them are not native species. When the Spanish explorers first came to California in the mid 1700’s, they brought their sheep, goats and cattle with them. These animals in turn brought along their native European annual grasses, as seeds stuck to their coats and in their droppings. By the mid 1800s, expanded populations of cattle killed off the native annual bunch grasses, which were susceptible to their heavy grazing, leaving the rapid growing annual grasses to dominate the landscape, as they do still today. Two of these grasses have fallen under the lens at the project lab this month. One is big quaking grass, also known as rattlesnake grass, Briza maxima. The cone-shaped inflorescence resembles the rattle of its namesake, and after it dries out a bit it will make a faint rattling sound as it is blown about by the gentlest of breezes. Often a subject of nature photographers, this macro view shows a beauty otherwise not seen.

Rattlesnake Grass


Also featured is the bristly dogtail grass, Cynosurus echinatus. This grass has become naturalized over much of the United States.

Dogtooth Grass

Spring is also associated with Easter, the holiday that celebrates the return of life after the long winter. Fertility, fecundity, resurrection; these are all aspects that Easter focuses on. The egg is often used as a symbol of these qualities, but I thought I would add an entomologists twist: beetles. Of all the animal life on the planet, there are more species of beetle than any other. In fact, nearly a third of all described species of animals are beetles, with weevils (snout beetles) being the largest sub-set of beetles. As my parting shot, I offer you a view of one of the “Easter Egg Weevils”, Pachyrhynchus kotoensis.

Pachyrhynchus kotoensis_Lat

Enjoy your last few weeks of Spring!


Until next time,

Vic Smith

Imaging Specialist

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 9:00 am

May 18, 2014

The How-To’s of Botanical Illustration

s a science illustrator, people often ask how I begin one of my drawings. Never really realizing it, I notice that the process begins before I even pick up a pencil. Scientific illustration is a form of art that serves to (accurately!) communicate scientific concepts, ideas, and findings to an array of audiences. As such, I begin by observing the botanical specimens for hours even before I begin the preliminary drawings. The curator and I will make a list of what plant characteristics to include and from there the drawings commence.



Above is a highly simplified version of what my desk would look like during the process of creating any kind of illustration. You can see that tracing paper, various sizes of ink pens, small mechanical pencil, transfer paper, and vellum paper are all involved. The process all begins on sheets of tracing paper.



One of the important aspects to include in a past botanical plate was the flower bud. The flower bud we’ll focus on here came from a newly discovered plant species from an Academy expedition to South America.

Once I have the subject in front of me, I immediately break the subject down into basic geometric shapes (as seen above). At first this flower bud seems simple, but keep reading and you realize the miniscule details that made this subject a bit difficult to illustrate. Often I will (mentally) place the object in a grid to keep track of proportions and symmetry. Then from there slowly add details (accurately!) and the drawing becomes more and more complex.



As you can see, this flower bud quickly became much more complex. Above, you can notice the calyx knobs (look like flaps, or wings), and the small wart-like projections towards the base of the bud. The process continues on and I begin adding all the hairs that protrude from the warts and along the calyx lobes and petals. Getting more detailed, I noticed that the plant hairs broke off into even smaller hairs, and some of these hairs ended with a glandular structure. Function of the glandular structure is still unknown. Once I have finished accurately rendering the subject, I take all my preliminary illustrations to the curator for approval. Sometimes these illustrations need to be bigger, include a bit more detail, add hairs here or there, or even redraw in a different angle.



After the preliminary illustrations are approved, I transfer the sketches from the tracing paper onto the final vellum paper, where I will render the subject in pen and ink. Once the shape is down, I illustrate the subject as if lit from a single source of light (traditionally from the top left) and use light and shadow to show the form. Above on the left, you see the final illustration of the flower bud in pen, the scale bar, and my little signature in the corner. On the right, you see the flower bud in the final botanical plate for this species.



The illustration above is another example of the step-by-step process I use to scientifically illustrate a botanical subject for a plate describing a newly discovered species. Once the entire botanical plate is assembled, it is used to aid the taxonomic description in the final publication describing the species. Above, you see the flower of another newly described plant species I illustrated from South America (also collected on an Academy expedition).



The image above acts as another example of the botanical specimen I will be given and the illustration of the species on the right. You can notice minute details of the plant that require a microscope. Microscopes definitely help, but one of the big aspects of botanical illustration is the reconstruction and assemblage of broken or missing pieces.


Reconstructing these broken and missing pieces (e.g. flowers, fruits, cross-sections, etc.) is necessary as all aspects of the plant are absolutely critical to fully describe the new species. It is one of the most crucial parts to scientific illustration, and is one of the main reasons this traditional art form still exists!


Sean Vidal Edgerton

Science Illustrator


Botany Department – California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:44 pm

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
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