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Project Lab 

April 22, 2012

Counting Bones and Baby Teeth

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Barbara is a facial reconstructionist. She laughs as she says this, and gently reconnects the hinges of the jawbone of a baby sea otter. I find Barbara immersed in her Tuesday routine – neatly numbering bones and gluing skulls together. Barbara has been volunteering at the California Academy of Sciences, one day a week, ever since her retirement 15 years ago. She has worked in all three CAS’s: the original museum in Golden Gate Park, the Howard Street location and the current renovated museum. And now, stationed in the Project lab, she seems at once an adept puzzle solver and creative artist, dipping her finger in Elmer’s glue to adhere a bone fragment back to the cranium of an adult male Sea Otter.

She shares some of the things she never thought she would learn, “See this bone,” she says. It is a long straight bone, which seems disproportionately big to connect to the skull in her hands. “This is a baculum, a penis bone. It is kept with the skulls to differentiate their sex.” She moves on to tell me the other notable species she has numbered: Kangaroo, hippo, giraffe, to name a few. “Not the entire skeletons,” she explains, “but you certainly learn things you never thought you would.”

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Barbara likes the interactive function of the Project lab where she has recently been working. She digs through the pile of boxes on her left and pulls out a baby skull to show me where you can see the baby teeth coming through. She says, “I can’t help but wonder, do they get toothaches?” She loves the opportunities she gets to share her curiosities with the public. “It’s interesting for young people to see that other baby animals go through the same process of losing their teeth. It’s something they can relate to, and maybe even get a better idea of how things work in their own bodies.” She runs her hand over the half grown tooth and puts it back in the pile of finished skulls.

Barbara also gets a window into more serious ailments we share with Sea Otters and other species. She remembered the challenge of dealing with a Sea Lion skeleton with Osteoporosis. One of the amazing gifts of having the collections is the opportunity for knowledge, not just about specific species, but also about shared diseases and our interconnectivity.

She has been working on Sea Otters for close to ten years. “But no,” she says “the work has not become redundant; it changes all the time.” She gets in her zone and it can be meditative. “I like to make it a leisurely day,” she says, “I come early and sit with a scone and some coffee and watch the public.” Barbara is an avid birder, one of many reasons she was interested in volunteering for the CAS. She also used to be a librarian and worked in Silicon Valley for a company, which shared databases between libraries. Her passion for sharing is evident and the Project lab provides a great opportunity to see her at work and ask her questions about the creatures she has helped document for CAS over the last decade and a half.

Page McCargo
Project Lab blogger


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 12:57 pm

April 18, 2012

Specimen of the day: Common Raven (Corvus corax)

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Many of us know what a Raven looks like, and have probably heard the haunting poem by Edgar Allan Poe.  I’ve heard them calling from my rooftop at all hours of the day and clacking their bills when I pass by, hardly moving out of the way whenever there’s a passerby.  These gregarious birds belong to one of the smartest avian families-the Corvid family, which includes Ravens, Crows, Jays, and Magpies amongst others.

Today, I am preparing a Common Raven, Corvus corax, for the Ornithology and Mammalogy research collection.  This specimen will enter into our collection of more than 30,000 study skins used for scientific research on avian populations and systematics.

Although Common Ravens can oft be seen down at Ocean Beach or in Golden Gate park, it might be surprising to learn they were not always such a ubiquitous presence in the Bay Area until the late 1970s to early 1980s. While it’s not clear what has caused the increase in Raven populations, they don’t seem to mind the co-habitation!  Carrion eaters by trade, Common Ravens are able to take advantage of human settlements and the trash we leave behind, scavenging their meals from our bins. Since the Raven doesn’t have a hooked bill to pry flesh from dead carrion, it usually has to wait for larger predators or vultures to take the first bite before moving in, but humans leave behind plenty of scrumptious morsels for the Raven to feast with relatively little effort on their part.

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Another member of the Corvid family, American Crows (Corvus brachyrhinchos) have also benefited from their relationships with humans.  Crows have been seen dropping nuts onto the road and waiting for cars to crush the shell leaving the Crow with a healthy snack.  If a car tire misses the nut, Crows were seen re-positioning the nut during the lull between cars.  Pretty smart!

One of the most recognized studies involved Betty, a Caledonian Crow (Corvus moneduloides).  When faced with a vertical tube containing a morsel of food and a piece of wire, Betty was able to bend the straight wire into a hook and fish out the food with the bent end of wire.  Betty was able to do this with no previous presentation of this type of problem to solve.  This was one of the first experiments to demonstrate a bird’s ability to improvise tool making.

Whether scavenging our trash, using our cars as nutcrackers or just plain stealing our chips right out of the beach bag, Corvids have found a place in San Francisco.  Now if only I had a second bag of chips for myself…

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:13 pm

Natural born killers

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What has five eyes, a pair of wings, spiked legs with sharp grasping claws, and a scabbard with a stabbing beak inside? It’s a magnificent predator known as the robber fly! Robber flies (family Asilidae) are a large group of flies found all over the world in and near forests. They are among the most effective and terrifying predators on the planet.

When most people think of scary predators they think of things such as sharks, lions, tigers and wolves, but the robber fly is right up there with them. Like all flies, it has two wings (Diptera, the name for the group containing flies and mosquitoes means 2 wings). The powerful muscles in the enlarged thorax allow the robber fly to be a very strong and rapid flyer.  To see where it is going and what it is hunting for, the robber fly uses its 2 large compound eyes, which enable it to see ahead, to the sides and behind all at the same time. A second set of 3 simple eyes on a bump on its ‘forehead’ sees only light, shadow and movement. but helps the fly not to be easily caught or attacked.  Six long, spiny legs ending with grasping claws allow the fly to capture and hold prey, often when both fly and prey are in flight.

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Vic Smith
Invertebrate biologist, curatorial assistant and imaging specialist
Department of Entomology


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 2:03 pm

April 4, 2012

Birds on sticks

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How many of you have walked by the Project Lab and noticed some pretty strange things, and maybe even gross things, happening inside? There’s a good chance that you’ve seen a staff member or volunteer from the Ornithology and Mammalogy department preparing dead birds and mammals for our research collection. The majority of what we do in here is preparing study skins, our main method of preserving specimens.

Study skins are just what their name implies – skins that are studied by researchers. In order to keep just the skin of a bird or mammal, we have to remove any soft parts from the inside that could rot over time. I start by making an incision down the front of the specimen, and slowly separate the muscle from the skin. I’ll continue this process until the whole body is separate from the skin of the animal, severing at the limbs and tail as I go along. This is generally the part that gets the best round of Eeewwwwws  from the visitors watching outside the lab. You can see in the picture above that I already have all of the muscle and the body removed from this hawk, circled in blue. It looks just the same as when you get a chicken or turkey at the grocery store!

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I now have just the skin of the bird with its feathers attached. In birds we leave a few bones in the wings, legs, feet, and the skull to give the skin some structure. In mammals, there are typically only a few toe bones left inside. Now I can stuff the skin with some cotton and a wooden dowel, shown in this picture of a Varied Thrush. The cotton serves as a body to replace the one I removed, while the dowel helps give additional structure. Once the specimen is stuffed, I’ll sew up the incision.

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Each animal is then pinned onto a board. We pin them in a specific position so that, when the specimen is dry, it will forever be in this shape. This part is a bit different from traditional taxidermy, where animals are positioned into life-like poses. Researchers don’t need specimens to look life-like in order to take any measurements or samples that they might need, plus it would take up too much space! That’s what study skins are designed to do: create a compact library for researchers to reference.

The next time you walk by the Project Lab and see one of us preparing a study skin, stop and watch! It may seem a little gross, but it’s a cool process that’s been around for over 100 years and is essential for us to continue building our library of life here at the Academy.

Laura Wilson

Curatorial Assistant & Specimen Preparator

Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:14 pm

Unraveling the Doto coronata species complex

Note: Refer to previous blog posted 2/22/12 for additional information

As a part of my masters research, I am studying the nudibranch Doto coronata, which is found in the Northeast Atlantic from Iceland to Scandinavia, and to Iberia and the Mediterranean. Doto coronata is the type species for the genus Doto, meaning that it is the representative species for the genus. I am particularly interested in examining D. coronata because it is also a “species complex,” a group of closely related species that are difficult to delineate due to recent reproductive isolation. Since D. coronata is a type species, it is important to know which specimen/species within the complex actually represents the genus as a whole.

The Doto within this species complex are a challenge to tell apart since their morphologies are so similar. It is thought that there are many species within D. coronata since several specimens have been found feeding on distinctive hydroids. It is still uncertain whether hydroid prey can be utilized as a taxonomic character for the Doto. If the hydroid prey is found to be a reliable character for the species complex of D. coronata, it may be possible to use it to identify other cryptic Doto species.

So, how many species are thought to be within the species complex of D. coronata?  In 1976, Lemche identified four cryptic species within D. coronata. He acknowledged that the four he described had the potential to be divided into even more species. (Morrow et al, 1992). Later on, two distinct morphs within this complex were described by Morrow et al.  One of these morphs was collected from the hydroid Hydrallmania falcata and the other from Sarsia eximia (Morrow et al, 1992).

Since a great deal of confusion still exists with regards to which specimen represents D. coronata, a neotype has never been assigned. A neotype is a type specimen that has been designated following the original holotype.  It is created in the event that the holotype is either lost or when the original description does not cite the specimen.

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Several specimens suspected to be D. coronata have been examined in the Project Lab to provide greater clarity on this species complex. These include specimens collected from three distinct hydroids from Wales, UK, one from Maine and another from South Africa. Comparisons of the Automontage photographs of these specimens and their DNA will help sort out if there are additional species within this complex. The photographs of these specimens indicate there is distinguishable variation in the shape of the cerata and tubercles. These photographs and their gene sequences will assist in determining if these small morphological differences observed are due to intraspecific or interspecific variation.

Carissa Shipman

Invertebrate Zoology & Geology graduate student


Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 2:48 pm

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