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Project Lab 

May 30, 2012

Specimen of the day: the Iranian Fat-tailed Gecko


In my work photographing the Herpetology holotype collection, I have the opportunity to handle many interesting specimens, and as I move from one specimen jar to the next, I never know what to expect. Last weekend, I pulled out a jar that was quite a bit bigger than the usual ones that I work on. As I opened the lid and lifted out the specimen, I couldn’t help smiling in delight – it was a large, meaty leopard gecko covered with tubercles and dark reticulations on its dorsal side. The specimen was CAS 86384, Eublepharis angramainyu. I placed it under my camera and took a closer look.

The Iranian Fat-tailed Gecko (Eublepharis angramainyu), also known as the Western Leopard Gecko, is a ground-dwelling gecko that can be found in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, and it belongs to the subfamily Eublepharinae. All members of this subfamily have movable eyelids (latin: eu=true, blephar=eyelid), and this trait distinguishes them from all other geckos, which instead have a protective membrane over their eyes that they lick clean. In addition, members of Eublepharinae are nocturnal and do not have the adhesive feet that we often associate with geckos.

E. angramainyu was described in 1966 by Academy herpetologists Dr. Steven Anderson and Dr. Alan Leviton, and I was handling the exact same specimen that they had used for the species description. I pulled up their 1966 publication to learn more about this gecko’s past. It was “collected along the old road between Masjid-i-Suleiman and Batwand, Khuzistan Province, Iran, by Steven C. Anderson on May 20, 1958.” The species was named after “Angra mainyu,” which is the “Spirit of darkness” in the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism, and it refers to the nocturnal activity of this animal. I then saw the black-and-white photograph of this same specimen that was taken 46 years ago. It made me wonder what it must have been like to travel to Iran decades earlier and to find such a marvelous animal in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. If only these specimens could talk.


There is so much history contained in the Academy’s research collections, which have specimens that date back all the way to the late 1800s. By documenting our specimens using tools such as digital imaging, many years from now, scientists can continue to learn from these specimens and the stories behind them.

Tinya Hoang, Project Lab Coordinator

Literature cited: Anderson, S.C. & A. E. Leviton. 1966. A new species of Eublepharis from Southwestern Iran (Reptilia:Gekkonidae). Occ. Pap. Cal. Acad. Sci. 53:1-5.

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 8:49 pm

May 22, 2012

Barred and Spotted Owls: The Saga

“Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-all!” Birders from the eastern United States probably recognize the phrasing associated with this bird’s call, but those from the west may not be familiar with that of the beautiful Barred Owl, Strix varia. Of course, it’s not actually saying these things, but we birders like to make up fun phrases that correspond to the calls that birds commonly make. This weekend in the Project Lab I’ve been preparing Barred Owls; I have a special love for this order of birds (called Strigiformes) and always enjoy a chance to see them up close.


Here in the west, and with a much smaller range of distribution, we have the close relative of the Barred Owl, the Spotted Owl, Strix occidentalis. It is equally as beautiful as the Barred Owl, but is not nearly as populous. In fact, two of the three subspecies have been placed under protection of the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species due to declining populations. However, it turns out that the Barred Owl has been spreading west and may be threatening Spotted Owls.


The Barred Owl has been expanding its territory along the northern United States/southern Canada and into Northern California, likely due to habitat changes due to settlers. Since 1990, the owl has come as far south as Marin County and the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because they are more aggressive than Spotted Owls, it is thought that Barred Owls may be pushing Spotted Owls out of their territory. Scientists have questions about what’s really going on in this “invasion” of Barred Owls: are they different subspecies than their eastern relatives? Are they directly pushing Spotted Owls out of their native territories or are they simply filling in the niches left behind from a declining species? These questions, and countless more, will hopefully be answered thanks to museum specimens like the ones I’ve been preparing.

I always find it fascinating how our world is constantly changing – who knows what will happen with these two species and if they’ll ever learn to cohabitate!

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:34 pm

May 18, 2012

Lions and tigers and SPIDERS! Oh my!


Last week, my imaging work in the Project Lab involved taking pictures of two distinctive California spiders, the aggressive false tarantula (Calisoga longitarsus) and the California turret spider (Atypoides riversi). Both of these species belong to the mygalomorph spiders (fangs work in a parallel position), a group which includes the familiar tarantulas. They are both ground dwelling hunting spiders which do not use webs for prey capture.

The Calisoga spider is found in Central and Northern California oak and coniferous woodlands to about 2300 feet, and is often seen in urban areas, often in swimming pool filters. Spiders live in burrows or crevices that are partially lined with silk, where they wait for passing prey of small to medium arthropods. “I can’t believe it’s not a tarantula!” is the common comment of people who observe this hairy spider, which can be brown to silvery in color. Males are usually easier to find, as they are ‘vagrant’, particularly during mating season. Despite their aggressive behavior, they are not dangerous to humans, though they will bite if harassed. The males have special spines on their lags that act as claspers during mating. Males generally die soon after mating, females can live several years.

Atypoides riversi

The California Turret Spider is another large spider that builds burrows in the ground with silk linings, and a built-up turret of silk and debris that blends into the background when closed. When hunting at night, the spider opens the turret and lies in wait for passing prey, which it senses by vibrations. Males are often observed wandering at night during the rainy and mating season, and can be observed looking for females if one walks around on forested paths at night with a flashlight. As with most other California spiders, their bite is not considered dangerous to humans. Look for the distinctly elongated pedipalps of the male, mouthparts adapted for reproductive purposes.  These spiders can have a considerable life span in the wild (up to 16 years)

Until next time,
Vic Smith


Spiders of North America, D. Ubick et al, American Arachnological Society 2005

The Natural History of the California Turret Spider, L. Vincent, The Journal of Arachnology , 1993

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 9:56 am

May 10, 2012

International Migratory Bird Day


This week, May 7th to May 13th, the Academy of Sciences celebrates International Migratory Bird Day.  Although it was originally slated as the second Saturday in May, the birds don’t always recognize our time schedule, and in some places, migratory birds had already left the area so the single day celebration was extended to an entire week.

Here at the Academy, the Ornithology and Mammalogy department’s research collection aids researchers in studying bird migration. Often times migration can be shrouded in mystery-exact migration routes of species can be little known or unknown altogether! By analyzing stable isotopes, or chemical compounds, in feathers of our study skin collection, researchers can determine geographical locations visited by the migrating birds on their long flight. But why migrate at all?

Many birds use migration as a tactic to ensure secure food supplies all year round, especially around breeding time.  Generally, in the Northern Hemisphere, birds will fly north to more temperate spring/summer breeding grounds and then head back down south when winter approaches their northerly breeding habitat.  This allows them to take advantage of warm weather year round, effectively securing their food source consistently for their own stomach and the young they raise.  Some migration journeys take months and some take days depending upon the distance and flight of the bird.

Arctic Terns have one of the longest distances to travel of any birds; they travel 12,000 miles from Antartica in the southern hemisphere’s summer to their Arctic breeding grounds during the northern hemisphere’s summer.  This journey from pole to pole takes this 13-inch bird only a few months to complete!


Instead of migrating for a few months, Bar-tailed Godwits migrate in a little over a week.  This is despite the fact that Bar-tailed Godwit has one of the longest continuous migrations.  They often journey 11,000 miles from New Zealand to their breeding grounds in Alaska in one trip.  A trip to Hawaii from San Francisco is around 2300 miles.  Imagine flying to Hawaii and back four and a half times without stopping!

These long migrations are not limited to larger birds either.  Allen’s hummingbirds also migrate from parts of Southern Mexico up the coast to southern California, a trip of 1500-2400 miles!


For all birds, migration can be a dangerous, exhausting time.  Since one of the driving factors is food, some birds choose not to migrate if they are fed all year round by an outside source like bird feeders or if they land somewhere that has a temperate climate all year.  Some hummingbirds will choose to stick around if they have access to bird feeders and a subspecies of one of our San Francisco residents, the White-crowned Sparrow will not migrate and choose to breed along the coastline.

Bird migration is a truly awesome feat of stamina!  Come check out the Project Lab during Migratory Bird week for some specimens of migratory birds on display. We also will be having specimen preparation during Nightlife on May 10th as well as our collections manager, Maureen Flannery, discussing bird migration!

You can also visit the official International Bird Day website here: http://www.birdday.org/birdday.

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:50 pm

May 5, 2012

Roki and Jacqueline visit the Project Lab


The Project Lab was recently visited by two botanists from Madagascar: Rokiman (Roki) Letsara, the Botanical Coordinator at the Madagascar Biodiversity Center; and Jacqueline Razanatsoa, a botanist at the National Herbarium of the Parc Botanique et Zoologique de Tsimbazaza. Roki and Jacqueline are currently here at the Academy working with curator Dr. Frank Almeda, who leads the Academy’s botany research at the Madagascar Biodiversity Center in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Madagascar, the fourth largest island on Earth, is among one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots where the California Academy of Sciences is actively doing research. Not only is Madagascar’s wildlife incredibly diverse, but over 80% of its species are endemic to the island (i.e. they are found nowhere else on Earth). This remarkable level of endemism is a result of the island’s 88 million years of isolation, which has led to the evolution of a unique diversity of plants and animals. However, today, Madagascar’s ecosystems are experiencing habitat destruction, which threatens undo these millions of years of evolution in, relatively speaking, the blink of an eye. Recognizing the urgent conservation needs in Madagascar, the Academy established the Madagascar Biodiversity Center in the nation’s capital, Antananarivo, in 2007. The MBC provides research and training facilities for Malagasy and international scientists to study the biodiversity of the island and to apply this information to conservation planning.


Roki and Jacqueline have come to CAS to share their knowledge of Malagasy flora as well as to progress in their research and training. They are helping to identify and describe some of the Malagasy specimens that are now in the Academy’s herbarium (plant specimen collection). These specimens include species belonging to the families Melastomataceae and Acanthaceae, and the genera Kalanchoe and Aloe.

To help better describe some of these plant species, Roki and Jacqueline are learning how to use their genetic information in order to compare them with other previously described species. In the Project Lab, Roki and Jacqueline are being trained in plant DNA extraction with the help from Dr. Gilberto Ocampo, a post-doctoral fellow in the Botany department. With their plant tissue samples, they go through a series of steps, which involve pipetting chemical buffers, spinning and vortexing tubes and transferring solutions – a much more complex process than the strawberry DNA extractions that you might have seen in the Project Lab’s “Sweet Side of DNA” demonstration. The plant DNA extracted by Roki and Jacqueline will then be analyzed using the lab and computing facilities in the Academy’s Center for Comparative Genomics.


This close collaboration between CAS and Malagasy scientists, like Roki and Jacqueline, is crucial for the exchange of knowledge and experience, and together, we will be able to better understand the unique diversity of Madagascar and advance conservation efforts to protect the island’s critical habitats.

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:32 pm

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