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Rainforests of the World 

April 25, 2010

Have you ever seen 800 babies all at once??

Last fall our orb weaver spider (Nephila clavipes) on the Costa Rica level of the rainforest laid several egg cases. And recently one of the egg cases hatched with approximately 800 offspring! They’re tough to photograph, but below is a picture of a group of the hatchlings at a couple days old:

orb weaver BABIES

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Orb weavers in the Americas have an interesting natural history. They range from southeast United States (North Carolina to Texas) through Central America into the warmer parts of South America. In the U.S. they are a seasonal species, hatching from previously laid egg cases in April/May and then dying after they reproduce in Oct/Nov. In more tropical climes, they typically live 2-3 years. Here is a photo of an adult taken near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, Costa Rica:

orb weaver adult

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

With a body length of two inches and ~4 inches with their legs, these are good sized spiders. They have extremely strong silk with a tensile strength six times that of steel! There are species of Nephila throughout the world’s tropical areas. Come visit our 800 baby orb weaver spiders next time you are at the Academy. They can be seen on the third (Costa Rica) level hiding out in the terrarium accross from the elevator doors. Here’s what one of the little cuties looked like on Thursday the 22nd of April:

baby orbs-4

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Filed under: Insects & Arachnids — rainforest1 @ 12:31 pm

April 19, 2010

Leafcutter Ants

Look closely into the leafcutter ant mound and you will see many ants of varying sizes working within their fungus garden. Leafcutter ants have evolved a system of farming in which they grow fungus, their sole food source. Each ant has a job which is dictated by its size. There are foragers who venture out of the nest to cut leaves and bring them back. From there, another set of ants of a different size takes over, chewing up the leaves and using it as a substrate for the fungus to grow on. There are smaller ants that act as nursemaids and take care of the brood and keep house. They also help protect their co-workers from phorid flies, who will parasitize the ant when she has her mandibles full. The smaller ant rides on the cut leaf a forager is bringing back to the nest and fights off this fly. You can see it below.

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Larger ants, the soldiers, defend the colony and keep everyone safe, although smaller ants will attack invaders as well. There is one queen ant, and she is the largest of them all, about 1 inch in length. Her sole purpose is to lay eggs and produce more workers. She is very well taken care of by her daughters who feed her and groom her regularly.

All the ants in the colony are female; they are all sisters working together, and they can not reproduce. In their natural habitat, once a year, the queen will produce males and virgin queens. These are about the same size as the queen, but they have wings. They then leave the nest to go mate with others from different colonies. The virgin queens take a small piece of fungus with them and after mating, the fertilized females fly off to start their own colonies.

Here in our exhibit in the rainforest, the queen has produced males and virgin queens! We are very excited to see winged ants in our colony as it suggests the colony is productive and healthy. We don’t expect to see more than a few produced but they are quite visible in the fungus chambers as these ants are substantially larger than worker ants. Unfortunately, they will not get to fly away, as they are contained within the mound.

Alate on Fungus

Photo by: Rachael Tom

Filed under: Insects & Arachnids — rainforest1 @ 12:51 pm

April 11, 2010

Borneo or bust!

Those of us that work with animals and plants on a daily basis often take our vacations where we can see even more animals and plants! Recently I had the opportunity to travel to one of the regions exhibited in our rainforest here at the Academy- the island of Borneo. There I witnessed first hand the world’s oldest tropical forests and the island’s amazing biodiversity. Below is a photo of Mulu National Park.

Mulu National Park, Sarawak

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

Borneo is the world’s third largest island and is divided politically between Indonesia (73%), Malaysia (26%), and Brunei (1%). We explored the Malaysian sections of the island. First, I met my friends in Singapore where we spent some time adjusting to the 13 hour time difference. From there we traveled to Kuching, Sarawak state, then made our way east across the island, ending in Danum Valley, Sabah state. Below is one of the emergent trees in Danum Valley.

big tree, Danum Valley, Sabah

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

We were led by talented author Eric Hansen, along with biologist Ch’ien Lee, and botanist Anthony Lamb. Borneo has a rich history and great cultural diversity in addition to its unique ecology. And we saw some pretty cool stuff…including this pitcher plant Nepenthes bicalcarata . We have the same species growing in our rainforest here at the Academy- look for them growing on the wall on the Borneo level.

Nepenthes bicalcarata, Sarawak

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

Borneo has some pretty fascinating insects, including this rhinocerous beetle and millipede:
giant beetle, Danum Valley, Sabah

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

big millipede, Sarawak

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

At one point we found a Little Spiderhunter Arachnothera longirostra that had flown into glass and stunned itself. We gave it some fluids and a quiet spot in the shade to recover. Spiderhunters are the Bornean equilvalent of the honeycreepers Cyanerpes spp that can be seen in the neotropics and in our rainforest exhibit.

Little Spiderhunter, Sabah

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

We even found a land planaria, sometimes called hammerhead leech. Remember those planaria from 7th grade biology class? This is what they look like in Borneo!!
land planaria, Sarawak

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

And of course, no trip to the tropics would be complete without some sort of habituated monkey that’s causing trouble. In this case, long-tailed macaques Macaca fascicularis, sometimes called crab-eating macaques, were the smart ones that kept an eye on unattended bags, waiting for the chance to thieve some treats.
long-tailed macaque, Bako National Park, Sarawak

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

The reality is that most of what we saw was in protected areas such as national parks or conservation areas. Land that is not protected is being “developed,” mostly into oil palm plantations. It is a very complex issue compounded by the fact that Borneo has some very unique and charismatic species along with the need to provide jobs and infastructure for its people.

Monocultures of oil palm have extremely reduced species diversity (12 bird species compared to 220+ in lowland primary forest). Palm oil is used in a variety of products, from processed foods to soaps and shampoos. The effect of oil palm plantations on habitat in Borneo is one we as consumers can shape, by using our purchasing power to support sustainably grown palm oil.

For more info, check out fellow AZA member Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s palm oil resource site or GreenPalm, a certification program designed to address the social and environmental issues surrounding palm oil production.

bird's nest fern, Sabah

Photo by: Eric Hupperts

Filed under: Herpetiles,Insects & Arachnids,Plants — rainforest1 @ 1:01 pm

April 6, 2010

Wild Bettas of Borneo

wild betta taeniata SE Asia Borneo CAS rainforest

Photo by: Charles Delbeek

The majority of visitors looking at our SE Asian Stream exhibit on the Borneo level of the rainforest miss one of my favorite fish here at the Academy, a species of wild betta (pronounced BET-TUH not BAY-TUH) that is probably Betta taeniata.

When people think about bettas what they are probably picturing is the ubiquitous Betta splendens, also known as the “Siamese Fighting Fish”. This fish is perhaps the most popular fish kept in the aquarium hobby and a trip to most any pet store will usually find dozens, if not hundreds, of these fish kept in very small bowls or plastic cups. These unlucky animals are uniquely able to survive in substandard conditions like this because they possess what is called a labyrinth organ. It allows them to breathe oxygen straight from the air at the surface of the water. This is an adaptation that has evolved to help them thrive in water that is so hot it holds too little oxygen, or is too polluted, for most fishes.

Because Betta splendens is frequently referred to simply as “betta”, many fish fanciers are unaware that there are actually about 65 different species in the Betta genus. Many of these are Threatened, Endangered or even Critically Endangered in the wild so keeping and breeding them in captivity is of paramount importance!

All bettas show strong sexual dimorphism, meaning that males and females look very different from each other. Below are photos first of a male and then of a female individual currently on display in our rainforest.

wild betta taeniata SE Asia Borneo CAS rainforest

Photo by: Charles Delbeek

wild betta taeniata SE Asia Borneo CAS rainforest

Photo by: Charles Delbeek

If you’re as smitten as I am with these fascinating beauties look for another species of wild betta, Betta albimarginata, on exhibit in the Staff Pick section of the aquarium!

Filed under: Fish — brooke @ 11:51 am

April 1, 2010

Creating the Forest

Ever wonder what elements makes up an exhibit? The animals and plants are the most obvious component, but there is also an element most people don’t even notice: the exhibit furniture.

All of the stuff in an exhibit that makes it look like a rainforest or helps to accommodate animal husbandry needs are called “exhibit furniture.” At the Academy, these items are created by Exhibits Fabricator Robin Allen. This can be a really big job here, considering the whole rainforest bola is one big exhibit, with three huge “trees” made out of concrete and plastic.

flooded forest tree

It can also be really small jobs, like the two tiny fabricated Strawberry Dart frogs next to the ramp on the second level, or the home for the baby Cave Rat Snakes (Elaphe t. ridleyi). Usually it’s stuff that’s more of middle range: a “vine” for Leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes) to climb and get their food, like in this photo:

ants on a vine

Also check out this “tree” for the Kuhl’s flying geckos (Ptychozoon kuhli) and Red-Tailed Green rat snakes (Gonyosoma oxycephela) to lounge on near their heat lamps.

two stumps

Next time you visit the Academy try to guess which things are real and which things we made to help make it seem more like a forest for our guests and our animals. As the Exhibit Fabricator, I get the always challenging and really fun job of making the exhibit furniture at the California Academy of Sciences. I hope you enjoy looking at our exhibits as much as I enjoy making them!

Filed under: Uncategorized — rainforest1 @ 12:39 pm

The Rainforest Team


Academy biologists share the inside scoop on the Academy's 'Rainforest of the World' exhibit.

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