55 Music Concourse Dr.
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco CA
Regular Hours:


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 

March 23, 2014

The Perils of Scavenging

We’ve written multiple blog posts about the effects of plastic and trash on ecosystems (Faux foodThe Plastisphere- an artificial marine ecosystem), corresponding with our Summer exhibit “Built for Speed.”  I recently witnessed the effect that trash can have on wildlife firsthand as I prepared a Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens) specimen.

photo_gwgu skin copy


This gull was found dead by one of our department’s volunteers at Lake Merced. It was in pristine condition – no evidence of having been attacked by another animal or hit by a car. Part of my job as a specimen preparator is to take notes on everything that I notice, both internally and externally, about the animal that I’m working on. This may mean noting organs that are strangely colored, the amount of fat that the animal has, and any evidence of attack/trauma, among other things. In this case, the bird was, as far as I could tell, perfectly healthy and in great body condition. It wasn’t until I cut open the stomach and esophagus that I found the probable cause of death.

Before the big reveal, I should explain that gulls are scavenging, omnivorous animals. This means that they have a wide array of food sources, from live animals to carrion (dead animals), as well as garbage. I’m sure the majority of people who live in areas with gulls have noticed how much these birds like to hang around dumpsters, as well as steal food straight out of your hand. They’re opportunistic birds who have learned that people often bring a food source with them. I have a clear memory as a child of watching a gull fly into a dumpster and come out with a full slice of pizza in its feet.


photo_gull trash copy


So, what did I find when I searched through the digestive system of this particular gull? A piece of trash lodged in the esophagus:

photo_hotsauce copy

Most humans would know better than to try to swallow trash, but animals associate its looks and smell with food. Unfortunately, it is likely the reason that this Glaucous-winged Gull died, since there was no other trauma seen on or in the body. While I’m not blaming the restaurants who hand out these condiments for this gull’s death, it does serve as an important reminder to make sure trash is properly disposed of. However, there’s no guarantee that even throwing away your trash properly will keep it off the streets and out of our oceans. It might blow out of a garbage can or truck, or an animal might dig through a trashcan looking for food, spilling trash along the way (I’m talking about you, raccoons).

photo_raccoon copy


This is one of the unfortunate impacts that garbage has on wildlife. There are many ways you can reduce the amount of trash that is polluting our world. For more information and ideas, check out http://5gyres.org/.


Laura Wilkinson

Curatorial Assistant and Specimen Preparator

Ornithology & Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 11:19 am

March 9, 2014

Please do not tap on the glass!




You see it posted at zoos and aquariums… Please do not tap on the glass.  I have always wondered what it must be like to be an animal living in a zoo, but never did I think that I would be observed like a specimen through the glass myself.  So what is it like to work as a scientist in a fishbowl?  Well, it’s complicated.  When I first started working in the Project Lab, I was concerned about distractions and about the possibility of screwing up my DNA extractions. DNA extractions take some concentration and it can be a little awkward and distracting to be doing an extraction with someone right in your face!  However, after a little while, I became accustomed to being observed while working, and it’s really not so bad.


Here are a few things you should know when you observe us in the Project Lab…


1. We are real scientists and curatorial assistants, and we are actually working. We are not actors or robots (yes, I heard a rumor that during one Nightlife someone actually thought we were robots. I mean robot technology is good, but it’s not THAT good… yet). So please keep that in mind, and do not tap on the glass!


2. We can hear you from behind the glass.  And we hear all kinds of things… including your jokes about me being on Facebook (and for the record, occasionally this is true!  I post links to our blog on our Facebook Research page, whenever we have a new post).  Most often, we hear a lot of parents making up answers to their children’s inquiries. Typically, children ask, “what are they doing in there?” and this brings me to the third thing you should know…


3. We usually have a sign posted describing what we are doing. Look for computer screens, sign placards, or signs projected up onto the glass screens, so you don’t have to guess what we are doing!





4. The doors are locked on the public side.  In other words, you cannot get into the lab.  Often, we have people who are unaware of this and they will yank on the doors (occasionally quite violently) to try to get into the lab.  As much as we appreciate your enthusiasm for science, this is a working lab space, so we cannot let the public in.  In fact, the only way for members of the public to get into the lab is to take our Behind-the-scenes Academy Tour, which at the end of the tour takes you through the Project Lab, and often allows you to talk to us about our research.  Further, on the weekends and during peak times like the winter holidays, we actually come out and talk to you!  You can ask us all about the work and science we do during our Science Discovery and Out of the Lab programs.  So the next time you visit, check the program guide for program times and come talk to us!


Non Public


5. The giant spider is not a real spider.  It’s a puppet made from cloth, but I’ve already covered that in this blog post. Also, we recently gave it a nice top hat!




So hopefully this dispels some misunderstandings about the Project Lab.  We love to share our science with you, so if we are out with a cart, come talk to us!


Vanessa Knutson


Project Lab Coordinator

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 1:28 pm

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