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Project Lab 

August 29, 2012

Happy 97th Birthday, Ed

On September 1st of this year, Entomology Curator Emeritus Dr. Edward S. Ross will turn a young 97 years old! Ed started his Academy career in 1939, and became Curator Emeritus in 1980. As I was photographing spider type specimens, I came upon a specimen collected by Ed in Berkeley in 1936!

For the past 60 years or so, Ed has traveled the globe as a major explorer and collector, visiting and collecting in the Americas, Africa, India, Asia, Australia, the Philippines, the Middle East and tropical Pacific Islands.


Ed is the world’s foremost authority on the little-studied group of insects known as embiids or webspinners, primitive insects that spin silk for their nests from glands in their front legs.  He has collected thousands of these insects for study, often raising them live in culture to better study their life habits. Ed is also a world-renowned photographer, pioneering in insect macrophotography since the 1950s. He has documented his world travels, photographing insects, wildlife, amazing scenery and fascinating portraits of people, many of which have been published in National Geographic and other magazines, textbooks and publications, including children’s books.


Ed’s knowledge of insects and their behavior is amazing, and he has inspired many budding entomologists and students. The Academy Board President and entomologist John Hafernik once served as teaching assistant to Ed when he taught entomology at UC Berkeley.

In my role as curatorial assistant and imaging specialist here at the Academy, I access many areas of our entomology collection to prepare loans for researchers and to produce images for our databases and publications. I am often amazed at the number of specimens of all types of insects, spiders, scorpions and other invertebrates in our collection listing Ed as the collector. Some estimates are that he may be responsible for up to 1/3 of the 13 million insects in our collection!

While Ed is no longer actively collecting, he continues to work on producing books and publications, and continues his research on embiids.


Happy Birthday Ed, and many returns!

Until next time,

Vic Smith,

Curatorial Assistant/Imaging Specialist

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:01 pm

August 22, 2012

Marine Organisms as Resources for Drug Discovery


Marine natural products research and its application to pharmacology is a relatively new scientific discipline. The biomedical potential of marine chemicals is infinite since much of the life in the oceans has yet to be uncovered and the compounds within most known marine organisms still require investigation.

The chemicals originating from marine life are valuable since their unique structures can be applied differently than those discovered from terrestrial organisms, like plants. The increased discovery of marine novel compounds indicates that research in this field is a worthwhile investment. Papers are published each year on the description, synthesis, and economic value or biomedical significance of marine natural products. Marine compounds can be utilized as probes to study cellular and biochemical processes at the molecular level and possess therapeutic value for treating certain diseases like cancer and AIDS.

Sponges, algae, and bryozoans among many other marine organisms are important sources for chemicals toxic to numerous mouse, rat, and human cancer cells. For instance, the sponge Dercitus sp., found in the deep-waters of the Bahamas, harbors the compound dercitin. Dercitin was found to prolong the life of mice with leukemia tumors and is active against melanoma and small cell Lewis lung carcinoma. Dercitin may work by halting the replication of DNA within cancer cells. A second example comes from the Caribbean seaweed, Stypopodium zonale. S. zonale contains stypoldione, which disrupts the cell cycle by inhibiting the formation of the spindle. Further, Amathia convoluta, a bryozoan, possesses convolutamide A, a compound which has been successful in treating mouse leukemia and human epidermoid carcinoma cells.


The diverse capabilities of marine slugs to synthesize and seize defensive compounds from their food renders them as a valuable resource for the extraction of anticancer agents. Opisthobranchs, marine slugs, feed on an assortment of marine organisms; including sponge, algae, and bryozoan, from which they acquire or synthesize secondary metabolites to prevent predation. Their extraordinary ability to incorporate and build new toxic compounds from food has lead to the reduction, internalization, or loss of a protective shell. Anticancer compounds have been discovered from many marine slugs including Hexabranchus sanguineus, Jorunna funebris, and Elysia ornata.

Systematics, taxonomy, and the study of natural products are intricately woven together. The names of natural products originate from the scientific names of the organisms from which they are obtained. Studying the evolutionary relationships of marine organisms can be utilized as a tool to pinpoint new species, which may contain useful chemicals for drug discovery. This emphasizes the importance of taxonomy and systematics to other science disciplines such as biochemistry.

Jorunna funebris

The discovery of valuable chemicals within marine organisms highlights the importance of the ocean to human lives. Protection and conservation of vulnerable marine ecosystems, like coral reefs, is paramount since the cure for cancer, AIDS, and other diseases could be discovered from life inhabiting these underwater jungles.

Carissa Shipman
Masters Student
Invertebrate Zoology & Geology Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 2:00 am

August 16, 2012

Birds and Music: What’s in a song?

You may think your last Karaoke session sounded great, but we’ve got nothing compared to the natural ability birds have to sing from early on in life. Birds use sound to attract a mate, defend their territory, sound a danger alarm to nearby birds and communicate with their mate, young and flock members. Although most birds will sing one song for their entire life, some species of birds such as parrots, starlings and some songbirds can incorporate new sounds into the repertoire over time.  This week in the Project Lab I prepared a Zebra Finch, a species that has been studied for their vocalizations.


Young male Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata) learn their song from a father or mentor.   Without this guidance, the Zebra Finch can have a song that sounds very different from the typical melody heard in most Zebra Finches.  The brains of the young males need to process their mentor’s song at a specific age to make the connection between their own sounds and the song they will need to learn to attract a mate.  The resulting song is the song of their mentor plus a few notes acquired from random environmental noises.  Many researchers use these Finches and the neurological pathways that are used to learn their specific song to study acquisition of speech in humans.  Although these little birds can be studied for their human applications, bird song can also be used in systematics.

In some bird songs there are distinct differences in vocalizations between populations.  Researching these differences in bird songs can help identify and discover subspecies or genetic lineages.  Many researchers use the Ornithology and Mammalogy research collection to collect genetic and morphological data for their studies. Using this in conjunction with audio recordings, researchers are able to better address their research goals.

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 8:00 am

August 10, 2012

Avian Malaria and Climate Change

Laura with Orange-crowned Warbler

I recently returned from a month of field work in Alaska where I was collecting blood samples from birds at various latitudes in the state. I will analyze these samples as a part of my Masters Degree thesis at San Francisco State University under Dr. Ravinder Sehgal, where I am studying avian malaria and the ways it may spread in the Arctic due to climate change. Like human malaria, the avian malaria parasite is spread via insect vectors such as mosquitoes; however, it does not always appear to affect birds as drastically as the human version affects us. Although not all infected birds die, studying the change in prevalence of the parasite in birds will serve as a model for how human malaria may be able to spread into new territory due to climate change. We predict that as the climate warms in Arctic regions, where avian malaria historically was not present, temperatures will become suitable for mosquitoes to survive in, allowing the parasite to be passed on to birds in that region. Combined with blood samples from the past 12 years, my lab has over 2000 samples from throughout Alaska that I will be screening for malaria and comparing with climate data to look for patterns.

In the field, I collected birds by using mist nets, a series of 12 meter long fine mesh nets commonly used to collect birds. The nets are placed in areas where birds commonly fly. The birds cannot see the net and become tangled when they fly into it. Once a bird is caught, I remove it, bring it back to our processing station (a tent to keep the mosquitoes out), and place an identification metal band on the bird’s leg. Next, I take a small blood sample from the brachial vein in the wing, and then release it unharmed (other than a small prick on the wing). The band does not inhibit the bird from functioning as normal, so no animals are injured in this process.

Alaskan birds

I traveled to Alaska with a team from UC Davis who is trying to figure out which species of mosquitoes are actually transmitting malaria to the birds. We had a great trip even though the weather wasn’t very cooperative, and eventually got used to 24 hours of daylight. Now that we’re back in California, we are processing all of our samples. Hopefully we’ll get some interesting results!

Laura Wilson
Curatorial Assistant
Ornithology and Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:50 pm

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