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Golden Gate Park
San Francisco CA
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9:30 am – 5:00 pm


11:00 am – 5:00 pm
Members' Hours:


8:30 – 9:30 am


10:00 – 11:00 am

The Academy will be closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Planetarium will be closed Sep. 22, 23, 24

Project Lab 

October 31, 2012

Walking Ghosts: The San Joaquin Kit Fox

San Joaquin Kit Fox

While this time of year is full of stories of ghosts, spirits and trickery, sometimes we don’t have to look far to see a frightening story happening right in our midst!  The story of the San Joaquin Kit fox is one of a disappearing species in danger of extinction.

Kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis) are small mammals in the Canidae family.  Most of us know what a grey fox or red fox looks like and sometimes have seen them in Golden Gate Park quietly running through the trees.  Kit foxes aren’t seen around the Bay Area unfortunately, as Kit foxes prefer a little bit less drizzle and a little more desert.  Their habitat ranges in the southwest USA and down into central Mexico.  These charismatic species are about the size of a house cat with huge ears for hunting in the evening.

One of the larger species of Kit Fox, the San Joaquin Kit Fox can only be found in California’s Central Valley.  Once lush grassland, in the early 1900s agriculture came to the Central Valley and farmers readily converted fertile soil into bountiful cropland.  Warm temperatures and readily available water from the San Joaquin River seemed perfect for settling down.  With most of the land being used for farming or raising animals for consumption, the San Joaquin Kit fox was pushed out of their native habitat into the fringes of the San Joaquin Valley, clinging to survival with less than 10,000 individuals.

In March of 1967, the San Joaquin Kit fox was listed as an Endangered Species under the Endangered Species Act and has stayed there ever since.  Current riparian habitat restoration along the San Joaquin River has seen some success with sightings in 2006 and 2008 of the Least Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus) bird, another native species that has been extirpated since the 1950s.  Successful restoration projects are helping many birds and mammals make their way back to their native habitats and hopefully keep them from falling into history as a species that once was.

San Joaquin Kit Fox Pelt

Hearing stories about species like the San Joaquin Kit Fox and thinking about current day extinctions are scary enough for me to last long past the end of October!  This male San Joaquin kit fox was hit by a car in Kern County all the way back in 1997 and will finally make its way into the Academy’s pelt collection, skeleton collection and tissue bank.  Researchers will be able to look at our few specimens of Kit Foxes and study their genetics and population distribution to see how to potentially help these small foxes.  Striking the balance between farmland that provides food for humans but that also can provide habitat for many different species is a complicated process.  With a lot of work and dedication by many individuals the San Joaquin Kit Fox can become a success story instead of a tale of ghosts…

Codie Otte
Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator
Ornithology & Mammalogy Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 10:21 am

October 25, 2012

Sea Slug Surveys


At least four times a year, Friends of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve and other marine biology enthusiasts like myself, assist with surveying nudibranch populations. These surveys involve getting down and dirty in the local tide-pools in search of sea slugs. I have participated in several of these surveys since starting my graduate program in marine biology at San Francisco State University. These surveys are always exciting since they provide an opportunity for me to see species of sea slugs I have never seen before. I chose to study marine biology due to my great passion for nudibranchs, which have been given such ostentatious descriptions as the gems or butterflies of the ocean. Their sizes, colors, and patterns never cease to amaze me!

Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is a marine protected area in Half Moon Bay located about 40 minutes south of San Francisco off of Highway 1. It is a great place to learn about and marvel at the local marine biodiversity. Here many dedicated volunteers help protect and teach visitors about the uniqueness and beauty of California’s marine life.

The nudibranch surveys are important since they allow us to tally and document the species seen at different times of the year, at various field localities and tides. Very low minus tides are optimal for nudibranching since more rocks and pools are exposed for exploration. These surveys are also important since the number and diversity of nudibranchs is an indicator for marine ecosystem health. Nudibranchs are excellent indicator species since they depend on a wide variety of marine organisms for food.


My last adventure searching for sea slugs was on Sept. 30 at Pillar Point. Although the diversity of sea slugs documented was low, I saw seven species I had never seen before. One of these sea slugs was the Salted-Yellow Doris, Doriopsilla albopunctata. This species is an example of a dorid nudibranch. Dorid sea slugs possess a plume of gills, which project out of their backs like tiny feather dusters. Another new species for me was the White-Frond Aeolis, Dendronotus albus , which is an example of a dendronotid nudibranch. Dendronotid sea slugs possess small projections called cerata, which run parallel along their backs. These appendages contain gills, which allow them to breath under water.


One other great aspect of this survey was that my advisor Terry Gosliner participated. He has been studying sea slugs for over 40 years and has noticed a stark change in the amount and diversity of sea slugs along California’s coast. Unfortunately, rather than seeing an increase in diversity, there has been a decline.

Marine life is vital to the existence of humanity and essential to our planet. I am hoping that in my lifetime and in my professional life as a scientist, the ocean will be made a bigger priority by governments and individuals. We owe it to ourselves to be better stewards of the oceans since so much marine life has yet to be discovered. Every moment spent immersed in the splendors of the ocean testifies to the need to protect and preserve it.

The data collected by each survey will eventually be compiled together to see if there are correlations between nudibranch populations, time of year, field localities, and weather patterns. Surveys like this are super valuable since they give us a greater picture of what is happening ecologically with local sea slugs and marine environments. Surveys like these also allow citizen scientists, educators, students, and expert scientists to work together for the greater good of our ocean.

Carissa Shipman

Masters Student

Invertebrate Zoology & Geology Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:39 pm

October 19, 2012

Specimen of the Day: Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis)

This weekend I got the chance to work on one of my favorite mammals: the Rock Hyrax. I’ve been intrigued by these bizarre mammals for quite some time, ever since I first saw one in a zoo when I was young.

hyrax skin


Check out that cute face – what kind of mammal do you think it’s related to? A rodent? Maybe a rabbit? What about a Mustelid – the family that includes weasels and badgers? Let’s try to figure it out by looking at the skulls (one of the best ways to differentiate mammals). First, the Rock Hyrax:


It has teeth that look like they’re made for crushing, but also those two dagger-like incisors. Let’s compare it to a Muskrat (a type of rodent):


Now that’s a rodent skull if I’ve ever seen one – look at those incisors that are made for gnawing! Not too similar to that hyrax skull. What about a rabbit?


That looks totally different. As a side note, rabbits skulls are easy to distinguish because of a unique feature called rostral fenestration (circled above). If you see a skull with this feature, you know you’ve found a rabbit. Lastly, let’s look at a badger skull:


This skull is representative of a classic carnivore: sharp teeth useful for tearing up their prey. Again, doesn’t look like the hyrax.

If you compare the hyrax skull to these other three common mammals, you’ll notice that it doesn’t actually look like any of these species. It turns out that hyraxes aren’t related to any of these well-known North American mammals; they’re in a family of their own! In fact, they’re so unique that they’re in their own entire Order, called Hyracoidea. According to molecular data (analyzing the DNA), the closest living relatives to hyraxes aren’t what you might think:


That’s right - hyraxes’ most closely living relatives are elephants, along with manatees and dugongs, collectively with the hyrax known as Paenungulata. Pretty cool, right?

I always find it fascinating that molecular data can change the way we look at species. Something that may look like a rodent or mustelid turns out to be entirely different! Analyzing DNA is a big part of the research that’s currently done at the Academy – you’ve probably seen a researcher up in the Project Lab either working at the DNA extraction table or analyzing DNA sequences on our MacPro computer. Codie and I make sure to keep tissue samples from every specimen that we prepare exactly for this reason.


If you ever have a chance to see a hyrax either in a zoo or if you’re lucky enough to travel in Africa, remember that looks can be deceiving!

Laura Wilson

Curatorial Assistant

Ornithology & Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:19 am

October 12, 2012

Nudibranch imposters

Last time we sorted out the difference between sea cucumbers and nudibranchs and now it’s time to mention another nudibranch imposter. This one is a real trickster. Even I’ve been fooled by these on occasion, at least at first. So who are these tricky nudi imposters? Flatworms. Many species of polyclad flatworms are excellent mimics of nudibranchs.


There are three main reasons why I think these can be so difficult to tell apart from nudibranchs:

  • Since flatworms are flattened in shape, they often look like nudibranchs from far away.
  • Many of the color patterns of these flatworms match the color patterns of different species of nudibranchs, nearly perfectly.
  • Often, the edge of these flatworms is rolled up in two spots on one end of the worm and this mimics rhinophores (nudibranch sensory organs) really well. So if you are looking for rhinophores and see these rolled up structures, you may get fooled without a closer look.

My best advice for distinguishing between a nudibranch and a flatworm imposter is to first look for gills.  Though not all nudibranchs have gills located externally on their backs, many do.  My second piece of advice is to look very closely at what appear to be the rhinophores. If it looks as though this is just the edge of the animal rolled up, you are likely looking at a flatworm and not a nudibranch.



It’s been fun explaining some of the differences between nudibranchs and some of the animals that look like them.  I’ve actually been reviewing various kinds of nudibranchs and other sea slugs myself.  The reason for this is that in a few weeks I will be heading to Papua New Guinea as a part of an expedition to the Madang Province- Our Planet Reviewed’ Initiative, Papua New Guinea 2012-2103 Expedition.

The next time you hear from me, I’m going to be up to my gills in fieldwork- collecting, photographing and identifying sea slugs for 6 weeks!  I will be blogging from the field right here at the Project Lab blog, so stay tuned!

Vanessa Knutson

Project Lab Coordinator

Graduate Student

Invertebrate Zoology and Geology

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:48 pm

October 3, 2012

Extinction is Forever: Gone but not Forgotten

Since the beginning of life on earth, it is believed that 95% of all the species that have ever existed have become extinct. Biologists today are observing an unprecedented increase in the rate of extinctions, especially since the beginning of the industrial age and the expansion of human populations. It appears that human activities are responsible, either directly or indirectly for much of this, due to habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and global warming. These issues have been brought about by urbanization, industrialization, globalization and an ever-increasing human population.

Sadly, San Francisco can boast of having the first known species of insect in North America to go extinct due to human disturbance, the Xerces Blue Butterfly, Glaucopsyche xerces.



First described in 1852, the Xerces Blue is a member of the Lycaenidae (gossamer-winged butterflies), the world’s second largest family of butterflies. Their food plants are legumes in the genera Lotus and Lupinus, and the larvae were known to have a relationship with ants, in which the ants helped tend the larvae. The range of this species was small, found in the sand dune habitats around the Sunset District of our city. The last known specimens were collected in 1943, and some specimens reside in our collection.


Though the exact reason or reasons for their loss remain unknown, habitat loss certainly played a part in their demise, as the dunes and vacant lots where they were found disappeared to development. Another possible reason was the introduction of the Argentine Ant, which may have displaced the species with which the larvae were associated with. Argentine Ants are now the most commonly found ant in the Bay Area, and are not known to have any association with butterfly larvae.

In 1971, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation was founded as a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of invertebrate species in the United States.

Sadly, the Xerces Blue is not the only butterfly of San Francisco to go extinct, and I will explore these in future blogs.

Until next time,

Vic Smith

Curatorial Assistant in Entomology, and Imaging Specialist at the Project Lab

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:03 pm

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