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Project Lab 

February 26, 2012

Bird window crashes

Photo by L. Wilson

Photo by L. Wilson

Something that I hear many guests exclaim as they watch staff and volunteers from the Ornithology and Mammalogy department prepare study skins is, “did they kill that?” While going into the field on collecting trips was the common way for museums to obtain their specimens in the past, this is no longer common in our department. We rely heavily on the donation of dead animals by private individuals and organizations; it can be something that your cat brought in, something that was hit by a car, washed up on the beach – we take it all!

One of the birds I worked on today was a Fox Sparrow (above) given to us by Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO). This bird was found dead on a porch, likely due to hitting a window. I’ve had guests mention to me that they’ve never heard of a bird dying this way, but it’s actually more common than you might think. Often, birds only see the reflection of the sky and plants in the glass and assume it’s safe to fly towards it. Sometimes they simply bounce off and fly away, but often they can hit hard enough to instantly kill themselves or sustain a fatal injury. Have you noticed that the windows on our main floors have silhouettes of birds of prey on them? Because the academy has such large windows, we have to be responsible about the possibility of killing birds. These silhouettes of hawks and other predators, along with shades drawn down over the windows, keep other birds from flying towards the glass.


Photo by L. Wilson

If you want to minimize the chance of birds hitting your windows at home, hang sheer curtains or keep blinds and shutters partially closed. However, if you do find a dead bird near your house, bring it by the reception desk here at the Academy and it will forever be a part of our collection!

Laura Wilson
Curatorial Assistant & Specimen Preparator
Department of Ornithology & Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:03 am

February 22, 2012

Nudibranchs, slugs of the sea


Live nudibranch on its hyrdoid prey. Photo taken by Dr. Gosliner.

Nudibranchs are vividly colored marine slugs found throughout the world’s oceans. For my Masters research through the Academy’s department of Invertebrate Zoology & Geology and San Francisco State University, I am studying the molecular systematics of the highly ambiguous nudibranch family Dotidae, under the direction of Dr. Gosliner. Systematic biology aims to name and describe new species, as well as delineate the evolutionary relationships between groups of organisms. For the past eight months, it has been great working in the Project Lab, while also educating museum visitors about my research and the research that is done by the over 100 scientists that work here.

The Doto are a genus of small nudibranchs that range in size from a millimeter to 34 millimeters. Due to their small size, it is possible that the specimens may be damaged when extracting tissue for DNA analysis. This is why it is important to either draw or take high quality photographs of my specimens before subsampling. In the Project Lab, I am working on the Automontage, which is a sophisticated microscope camera capable of photographing very small specimens. It snaps photographs of specimens at different focal planes and then combines these images into a single focused image.


A preserved specimen of an undescribed species from the Philippines. Same specimen as the live nudibranch above. Note the loss of color pigmentation due to preservation in alcohol. Photo taken by C. Shipman.

The Dotidae are an excellent, but challenging group for systematic study since many of them look very similar. Certain Doto were thought to be individual species, but with further study it was revealed that these Doto were comprised of more than one species. These groups of closely related species are known as species complexes. Doto coronata, the type genus, is one such species complex. Many of the Doto are morphologically indistinguishable, yet could be different species since they feed on different prey. The photographs taken with the Automontage will be used to pinpoint small morphological differences between closely related species.

Presently, I am photographing Doto specimens donated by Bernard Picton, the marine invertebrates curator at the National Museum of Northern Ireland. The North Atlantic harbors many Doto that need to be studied in greater detail to determine if there are in fact more species within species. My project has great potential for helping scientists better understand the process of speciation and will provide us a better idea of how this family is related to other nudibranchs within the suborder Dendronotina.

Carissa Shipman, Invertebrate Zoology and Geology graduate student

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:24 pm

February 13, 2012

Midden at Moscone


Over the past 2 months, archaeologist Michael Stoyka has been in the Project Lab meticulously sorting and identifying fish bones found in a midden site that was uncovered in the construction at Moscone Station, a part of the Central Subway project in downtown San Francisco. Middens are archaeological refuse heaps that consist of piles of discarded shells, bones and other debris and artifacts from human everyday life; they contain records of the types of foods that were eaten as well as the types of tools that were used by the inhabitants that lived in the area.

In cooperation with the city of San Francisco and the Municipal Transportation Agency, Michael and other archaeologists from the Anthropological Studies Center at Sonoma State University are investigating the contents and origin of this midden site, which is associated with the native Ohlone people. By federal law, the Central Subway project is required to have a cultural resource management (CRM) firm monitor the construction in order to make sure that cultural sites and materials are not damaged. Michael was the CRM monitor who supervised the construction and found the midden deposits.


In the Project Lab, Michael is using the Ichthyology bones collection to help identify fish from this midden, which is thought to date back to 1,200-1,400 years ago. Many of the bones are very small and fragmented, so he has to rely on diagnostic parts of the skeleton such as the vertebrae or the otolith. From these bones, he is finding perch, top smelt, jack smelt, sardines, herrings, rockfish, salmon, bat rays and sturgeon. The information from Michael’s work will be compiled with findings from the analyses of other dietary remains and tools found in the midden in order to put together a picture of how the Ohlone people lived in the past.

This is one of the many interesting projects that are happening in the Project Lab. Come back next week to hear stories about nudibranchs from graduate student Carissa Shipman.

Project Lab Coordinator

Filed under: Uncategorized — codie @ 4:45 pm

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