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Project Lab 

November 29, 2012

Common as Muck, part II- the common aeolids

From Madang, Papua New Guinea…

While the phyllidiids are the most common nudibranchs here, there are several other species that we encounter regularly.  But first, a little background…  For a review on the very basics of sea slugs and nudibranchs check out this older post.

Generally, nudibranchs are subdivided into 4 groups:

1. the dorids

2. the dendronotids

3. the arminids

4. the aeolids- these animals have a branched digestive system that passes through appendages on their backs called cerata.  The cerata also function as gills, and in many species they store stinging cells from the aeolid’s prey (such as corals, anemones and hydroids) that can be used for their own defense against prededators.

Here are some photos of three of the most common aeolids we’ve seen in Madang:

Caloria indica

Flabellina exoptata


I’ve probably seen hundreds of these Pteraeolidia ianthina so far here in Madang.  This nudibranch deserves a special mention because it is a partially solar-powered slug!  This aeolid feeds on hydroids (animals with stinging cells related to corals, jellyfish, and sea anemones) from which it acquires symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae.  These symbiotic algae live in the tissues of the nudibranch and provide it with food produced through photosynthesis (the process that plants use to make their own food from sunlight).  You can’t get much greener than that!

Vanessa Knutson

Project Lab Coordinator

Graduate Student

Invertebrate Zoology and Geology

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 9:00 am

November 25, 2012

Common as Muck, part I

From the field…

One of the goals of this expedition is to document all the species of mollusks and other invertebrates that live in the Madang Lagoon.   Everyday a group of us “hunter-gatherers” goes out to look for species that we haven’t encountered yet.

When you are looking for animals, you are likely to find several that are pretty common, and you have to work a bit harder to find the other species.   There are several species that have been “common as muck” on this expedition. For nudibranchs, the most common we’ve seen are the phyllidiids, which in general are the most common nudibranchs on Pacific coral reefs.

Phyllidiella pustulosa

You can see phyllidiids on just about every dive.   There are several different species and many are rather difficult to tell apart.  They are all rather tough-bodied and because they secrete some nasty toxins, you can’t keep them in a dish with other nudibranchs.   If you disturb them, you can actually see them secrete the white, milky toxins.  After touching phyllidiids you can even smell the toxins on your fingers.  Trust me, it’s not the most pleasant smell…

Phyllidia coelestis

Phyllidia varicosa

Note from the photos that phyllidiids do not have a typical gill on their backs like many other dorid nudibranchs.  Instead, they have respiratory structures on the sides of their bodies underneath the mantle.

Phyllidia ocellata

Stay tuned for more notes from the field…

Vanessa Knutson

Project Lab Coordinator

Graduate Student

Invertebrate Zoology and Geology

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 2:08 pm

November 24, 2012

Bird or Insect?

Imagine exploring a new place and seeing a type of animal you’ve never seen before. Something that appears to have feathers like a bird, but is much faster and smaller than any bird you’ve seen before. Perhaps it’s a new species of animal – part insect and part bird!

This is what European settlers encountered when they first explored the New World and saw hummingbirds. You may not have previously known it, but hummingbirds don’t exist in the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa). They’re so commonly seen on a walk through Golden Gate Park that you might not realize what a special treat they are for some international visitors!

Photo courtesy of Laura Wilkinson

Photo courtesy of Laura Wilkinson

I recently prepared the most commonly seen hummingbird in this area: the Anna’s hummingbird. They are a larger species and have beautiful coloration (as do all hummingbirds, admittedly). Adult male hummingbirds have brightly colored feathers on their throats, and sometimes covering their heads, called a gorget. The gorget of the Anna’s hummingbird is a bright magenta color when it catches the light just right.

Photo courtesy of Laura Wilkinson

Photo courtesy of Laura Wilkinson

Aside from their beauty, the male hummingbird has a very cool way of attracting a mate. He starts by hovering in front of his object of affection, zooms straight up to heights that can reach 40 meters off the ground, and plummets back down. At the end of the flight, he spreads his tail feathers for a millisecond to create a very loud “chirp” that was long thought to be a vocalization. In fact, spreading his tail feathers allows the wind to pass over them much like air over a clarinet reed, allowing for a loud burst of sound. After this sound, he arcs back up and returns to his starting position. I’d be pretty impressed with that feat of aerial acrobatics!

The next time you see a hummingbird, remember how awe-struck settlers must have been when they first arrived in the New World. These bejeweled little insect-birds are pretty amazing, especially when you think about all the mechanics involved in their speedy flight and impressive displays!

Laura Wilkinson (formerly Wilson)

Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator

Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:32 pm

November 18, 2012

Attack of the Snail Eaters!

My last visit to the Project Lab blogosphere found me straying from my doctoral dissertation research in order to identify and describe a group of Australian beetles, which were new to science. Today, however…I return to my true passion: Snail Eating Beetles!

Scaphinotus interruptus

Scaphinotus interruptus. Photo courtesy of Joyce Gross.

Now you might fall into the category of folks who find beetles and other bugs creepy or even frightening but fear not, unless of course you are a snail! Harmless to humans, these relatively large beetles come out at night to hunt for native snails and slugs, which they approach and devour live.

Scaphinotus angusticollis. Photo courtesy of ©2008 Walter Siegmund.

Scaphinotus angusticollis. Photo courtesy of ©2008 Walter Siegmund.

Snail-eating beetles belonging to the genus Scaphinotus can be found across North America, including 15 species right here in California.  Scaphinotus has evolved a unique body shape or morphology, which aids them in feeding on snails. They have elongate heads and well developed mouthparts, as well as long legs. This means they can stick their heads up into the shell to reach the snail, while standing far enough away from the snail to prevent the mucus from sticking to their bodies. In this way, they are able to take advantage of a food resource that many other insects cannot.

Scaphinotus hatchi. Photo courtesy of Meghan Culpepper.

Scaphinotus hatchi. Photo courtesy of Meghan Culpepper.

So aside from being veracious feeders what makes Scaphinotus so interesting? I am interested in understanding how the species of Scaphinotus are related to one another, where their ancestors may have lived many millions of years ago, and what factors might have led to their speciation.  The Entomology Department and Project Lab here at California Academy of Sciences have proved integral to my studies and to the studies of many other scientists from across the world.

Want to find Snail-eaters in your own back yard? Grab a headlamp or flashlight and head outdoors after the sun has set.  You may find Scaphinotus on their nightly prowl for snails and slugs. If you prefer the daylight hours for your beetle hunting try lifting rocks and logs, a popular hiding spot for many nocturnal insects!

Meghan Culpepper

PhD Candidate

Entomology Department

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:30 pm

November 13, 2012

Collecting Down Under

In my last blog post, I mentioned that I was heading to Papua New Guinea for an expedition to the Madang region.  I decided that on my way to Papua New Guinea, I would make a stop in Australia to do some sea slug collecting.  I was particularly interested in collecting specimens in the Sunshine Coast region of Queensland, Australia, because of a fantastic website that documents the sea slugs found there (www.nudibranch.com.au).  What interested me most is that this site has photos of species in the region that are new to science and belong to the group that I study.

In order to collect in Australia (or anywhere, for that matter) permits are essential. The folks from the Queensland Museum have been extremely helpful with organizing permits for me. This could not have worked without their help and kindness. Special thanks to Dr. John Healy and Dr. John Hooper.


I ended up going to two beaches to do some intertidal collecting- Kings Beach and Shelly Beach.  Check out some of the opisthobranchs (sea slugs) I found:





This last image belongs to a species that is a new record for nudibranch.com.au.  I met Gary Cobb, the site maintainer and he was very excited that I found this species. Pretty exciting!

Stay tuned for more about my trip…

Vanessa Knutson

Project Lab Coordinator

Graduate Student

Invertebrate Zoology and Geology

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:44 pm

November 10, 2012

Extinction is Forever: Gone but Not Forgotten II

Speyeria adiaste attosa

In my last blog I discussed the Xerces Blue butterfly, a California native with the distinction of being the first known insect species to go extinct in North America as a result of man’s activities.  This week I will pay tribute to two more butterflies that appear to have joined the ranks of animals that have disappeared from the face of the earth.

The first is the Unsilvered Fritillary, Speyeria adiaste atossa, a former common resident of Southern California, once found in the Tehachapi, Tejon and San Jacinto mountain ranges, last observed and collected around 1960.   In this case, the cause of extinction is not entirely clear, and may not have been a direct result of the activity of man.  These butterflies are found near the tops of mountains, and loss of habitat due to development is not a likely cause. This species and its related subspecies feed on wild violets, which do not seem to be in decline. Some workers think that massive droughts in the mountains in the late 50’s may have weakened the population and made them susceptible to disease. Two more northern subspecies found in the Santa Cruz and Santa Lucia Mountains (Speyeria adiaste adiaste and Speyeria adiaste clemencei) also appear to be in rapid decline, but they have not yet been listed as endangered.

Speyeria adiaste atossa

While the subject of my last blog, the Xerces Blue, was the first North American species to be officially listed as extinct by the U.S. Government, it appears that it was beaten out by an earlier extinction, that of Boisduval’s Satyr (Cercyonis sthenele sthenele). There is little mystery as to why this butterfly disappeared from San Francisco in the 1870’s… it was forced out by loss of its hilltop grassy habitats as the city rapidly expanded after the gold rush.

Prior to the 1906 earthquake, California Academy of Sciences had a good collection of specimens of this species, which were lost in the fire that followed the quake. The specimen shown is the only one now in our collection, with other specimens found in our National Museum in Washington D.C.  This specimen was collected around 1855 by Pierre Lorquin, an amature butterfly enthusiast who came to California for the Gold Rush. He sent specimens to Dr. Boisduval in Paris, who named the species. Years later, the entire Boisduval collection was purchased by Dr. Barnes, an American lepidopterist who donated this specimen to the Academy.

Boisduval's Satyr

Boisduval's Satyr

Next time I will explore more endangered/extinct California Insects.

Vic Smith, Imaging Specialist and Curatorial Assistant

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 3:04 pm

She’s got baggage!

From the field in Madang, Papua New Guinea…

Expeditions are far from being all fun and games.  One of the more frustrating aspects for me is traveling with so much BAGGAGE.   I love traveling, but when I travel for personal vacation, I generally like to only take a backpack and carry-on.   The trouble with an expedition, and particularly one that involves SCUBA diving, is that you have to take a lot of gear with you.  This is especially challenging if you have to mind all of your gear by yourself.

While the issue of carrying all that baggage and keeping an eye on it is trouble enough, these days there is another major issue involved: excess baggage fees.   You may have experienced this yourself during your own travels and know how frustrating it can be.  So far, I’ve been slammed with excess baggage fees for nearly each leg of my trip! Hopefully, I’ll use up enough of the sunscreen I brought with me to save a few bucks on the way back. ; )

expedition essentials

Okay, enough with the venting about excess baggage fees! What kind items are so essential that I’m getting slammed with fees?  It’s certainly not clothes.  I looked up the temperature before I left and the weather in Madang is supposed to be about 86°F, both night and day, so I’m not toting around heavy outerwear or anything like that.  Other than the sunscreen I already mentioned, the main culprit is SCUBA gear and safety equipment.  I have fins, a buoyancy compensator, regulator, wetsuit, and everything I need to dive except for a tank and weights (good thing I don’t have to lug that around with me!).  I’m even carrying an Automated Electronic Defibrillator  (AED) in case of an emergency in the field.  That thing and its case weigh more than a bowling ball, but hey, I guess better safe than sorry.

Stay tuned for more of my adventures…

Vanessa Knutson

Project Lab Coordinator

Graduate Student

Invertebrate Zoology and Geology

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 4:11 am

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