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

Fly on the Wall 

July 6, 2011

Flying Specimen-Class

Unpacking after any trip is usually a drag – it means the trip is over and it’s back to real life. However, when your luggage contains more than 300 species that you believe are new to science, it can be quite fun! During their seven-week expedition in the Philippines, Academy scientists and their Filipino colleagues surveyed terrestrial, shallow marine and deep marine environments on and around the island of Luzon, collecting specimens that will now be analyzed and cataloged as part of the Academy’s library of life.

Most marine specimens are preserved in alcohol, to stabilize and prevent them from deteriorating. However on airplanes, regulations strictly limit the amount of alcohol that can be present in shipping containers. So, for the flight from Manila to San Francisco, specimens were kept in plastic bags with just a thimbleful of alcohol – enough to help preserve them, but not so much that they couldn’t fly. Extremely delicate specimens like urchins need to be suspended in liquid during transport, so they traveled in a diluted alcohol mixture. All were sealed tight, double bagged, then loaded into buckets and tubs for the journey.

Just as human passengers are eager to stretch their legs after a long flight, scientists are eager to get their specimens into proper storage conditions. Below, staff in the invertebrate zoology department move new specimens fresh from SFO into jars of alcohol. In the coming months, they will study these creatures more closely, using microscopes and DNA analysis to confirm new species and compile distribution maps.

Double-bagged specimensUnpacking Bags to bottles

Filed under: Research Departments — Helen @ 10:25 am

February 24, 2011

Weaving a fence

Most of Charlie Kennard’s weaving experience has been with baskets. But lately, he’s been weaving a sinuous 150-foot-long fence in the Academy’s east garden. The fence, made from the branches pruned off of the iconic sycamore trees in the Music Concourse and Opera Plaza each winter, is now complete after four days and three miles worth of branches. While the format is larger, the principles of fence weaving are quite similar to those of basket weaving.

Kennard employed a California Indian weaving technique called twining, in which two bundles of branches are simultaneously woven through a series of fence posts on opposing sides, effectively wrapping both sides of each post in a sturdy sheath of branches. Woven fences have a minimal environmental impact and have probably been around since the beginnings of agriculture, though most use a technique called wicker weaving. He decided to twine this particular fence, and top it off with a special twisted weave at the top, to withstand the wear and tear of children’s curious hands and the beaks of local birds looking for nesting material.

A variety of native plants have been planted on the hillside beyond the new fence, so this spring, stop by the east garden to see thimble berries, California poppies, and a host of other colorful California native wildflowers in bloom.
Twining techniquewattle_enclosure11th_s1

Above: Kennard’s twining technique, and an illustration of a wattle fence from an 11th century Welsh manuscript
Below: Academy Landscape Exhibit Supervisor Alan Good (L), weaver Charlie Kennard, and the finished fence


Filed under: Other News,Sustainability — Helen @ 3:07 pm

December 22, 2010

Welcome home, water monitor!

While biologists are always fine tuning and adding new animals to the Academy’s exhibits, some are small and can fly (or crawl) under the radar. Not this one! This morning, the aquarium staff moved a 3-foot-long water monitor (Varanus salvator) into the Borneo level of the Rainforests of the World exhibit. That may sound large for a lizard, but in fact she has plenty of room to grow in the exhibit, and may as much as double in size. Water monitors are typically found near water in nature (hence the name), so her enclosure was remodeled to feature a private pool, how luxurious! According to zoo and aquarium database Isis.org, there are only 17 members of this species known to be on exhibit in the U.S., and the Academy’s individual is the only one in California. Watch for her in the cave just inside the rainforest entrance.
Water monitor 1Water monitor 2

Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 4:03 pm

November 23, 2010

The Reindeer have Arrived!


Windsong and Yukon, a beautiful pair of mountain reindeer, have made themselves at home in the Academy’s east garden, where they will munch on foliage and greet visitors for the next six weeks, as part of our ‘Tis the Season for Science festivities.

To get here, they traveled up the freeway in a trailer from Tehachapi, California, a journey which takes about 6 hours by car. Had they hoofed it, it would have taken a mere ten days. A mere ten days? It may sound like a long trip when compared to car travel times, but reindeer actually migrate farther each year than any other land mammal, up to 33 miles each day and 3,000 miles per year. Their “airspeed,” of course, is still undocumented, but remains open to speculation and the imagination.

Drop in between now and January 2 to say hello and find out more about how these antlered herbivores have adapted to the cold climes of the Arctic tundra.




Filed under: Exhibits — Helen @ 11:55 am

October 29, 2010

Polar bear hair plugs

The Exhibits team has begun pulling a variety of Arctic specimens out of storage in preparation for ‘Tis the Season for Science, the Academy’s upcoming holiday celebration with a science twist. The largest of these specimens, a polar bear which has been in the Academy’s collections for decades, has developed some bald patches and lost a couple of toes over the years- he needs some TLC before going on display in late November.

Getting a bear ready for its close-up is not a Hollywood affair, it takes the careful work of a trained preparator, who knows just how to clean polar bear fur, and restore the damaged areas using archival materials. This process begins next week in the Project Lab.

Step 1: Hair plugs. To fill in the small bald patches on the bear’s coat, preparator Alicia will take samples of hair from the bear’s armpit or another inconspicuous area, where the fur is the right color and length. Then, 20-30 hairs at a time, she’ll embed them in the bare area. Just like with human hair plugs, the smaller the clusters of hair, the more realistic the effect.
Step 2: Making new toes. Believe it or not, there is a company out there who makes casts of grizzly bear claws, but if they are not a good match, Alicia will craft toes and claws of her own.
Step 3: Vacuuming. Black & Decker doesn’t make a “fur” model, but luckily it turns out that a standard vacuum cleaner does the trick when it comes to cleaning the dirt and grit out of a polar bear mount.
Polar bear
Alicia has a variety of tricks up her sleeve to fix other problem areas as well – come by to check out the work in-progress next week, and of course, don’t miss the final results, which will be on display from November 23 – January 2. ‘Tis the Season for Science will also feature a pair of live reindeer, indoor snow flurries, and a suite of polar- and winter-themed special programs for the whole family.
Other Arctic specimens being prepared for display include a Dall sheep (above), weasel, and snowy owl – all of which have developed incredible adaptations to life in the extreme cold.

Filed under: Exhibits — Helen @ 12:27 pm

September 21, 2010

Claude’s Birthday Bash

Claude the albino alligator was the lucky recipient of 15 fish-flavored cupcakes last Wednesday, in honor of his 15th birthday. In the aquarium prep kitchen, local birthday boys Dominic (turning 6), and Matthew (turning 15) joined biologists to decorate the cupcakes with colorful hummus “frosting,” and a confetti of flowers, berries, shrimp and fish.

After putting the finishing touches on the platter of treats, the party moved up to the Swamp for a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday to Claude” by visitors and staff. Biologists Brian and Nicole then climbed into the exhibit to toss the gator his cupcakes one by one. He snapped them up eagerly. As appetizing as fishy cupcakes are for alligators, they are decidedly less appealing to people. Dominic and Matthew received people-friendly cupcakes inspired by the reptilian star (vanilla cake with vanilla frosting, of course). Scroll down to check out both cupcake recipes.

Over the course of the week, Claude also received several birthday cards from fans, and a shiny new whistle for his training sessions from 6-year-old Dominic. On Claude’s behalf, thanks to everyone for your warm wishes! You can check out party highlights at http://www.ktvu.com/video/25024901/index.html.

Cupcake decorationsFeeding Claude

Albino-alligator-inspired Cupcakes for People
Recipe provided by the Academy Cafe

Vanilla Cupcakes (makes 12)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup milk

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Line 12 muffin cups (½-cup-sized) with cupcake papers.
• In a small bowl, combine the flour with salt and baking powder. Set aside.
• In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes.
• Combine the eggs and egg yolks together, then incorporate them one at a time, beating well after each addition.
• Add the dry ingredients in three parts, alternating with the milk and vanilla. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, but do not over-beat.
• Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl to make sure the ingredients are well blended. Carefully spoon the batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about 3/4 full.
• Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cupcake comes out clean.
• Cool the cupcakes in tins for 15 minutes. Remove from the tins and cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.

Vanilla Frosting (makes enough for 24 cupcakes, or one 9-inch layer cake)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
6 to 8 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt

• Place the butter in a large mixing bowl. Add 4 cups of the sugar and beat together until fully combined.
• Then gradually add the milk and vanilla while on medium speed of an electric mixer. Beat until smooth and creamy, about 3 to 5 minutes.
• Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition (about 2 minutes), until the frosting is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency. You may not need to add all of the sugar.
• Add lemon juice and salt and continue to mix until fully blended.

Frosting can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days. (Use and store the frosting at room temperature because frosting will set if chilled.)

“Cupcakes” for Claude the Albino Alligator
Recipe provided by Academy biologists
2 C hot water
2 2/3 C ground gator chow (available from exotic animal food suppliers)
12 oz capelin
6 oz prawns
4 oz spinach
1 C parsley
2 oz grated carrots
1 2/3 cups phytoplankton
2 T marine fish flakes
2 oz omega-3 fatty acids
2 T gelatin
2 C Hummus
Food coloring
Berries, flowers, silverside fish and shrimp to garnish

• Grind gator chow pellets to a powder using a food processor.
• Place capelin, prawns, spinach, parsley, grated carrots, phytoplankton, fish flakes, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins into a food processor and grind until smooth.
• Stir gelatin into hot water until completely dissolved.
• Add gelatin liquid to blended capelin, prawns, etc. mixture.
• Stir in ground gator chow.
• Mix to a spackle-like consistency, adding more water if needed.
• Spoon into molds.
• Refrigerate overnight to let gelatin set.
• If desired, separate the hummus into four batches and color each with a different shade of food coloring.
• The next day, remove cupcakes from molds, and decorate with hummus frosting, berries, flowers, and small fish and shrimp.


Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 1:50 pm

September 13, 2010

A Flamboyant Courtship Results in Flamboyant Babies

Credit: Brian Freiermuth

Photo credit: Brian Freiermuth

In recent months, the Academy’s flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) successfully bred and produced eggs. These animals are often found in muck habitats (sandy mud) and tend to “walk” over the sea floor because they’re too plump to really swim. They perform this feat using their outer pair of arms and unique lobes on the bottom of their body. They are one of the most desired and beautiful of the cuttlefish, but also the most difficult to obtain and keep. Because of this, little is known about their husbandry and captive life cycle.

After eight years of trying, one of our biologists was finally able to get a group of brood stock. In the past, only single animals have been available. We are fairly certain that our eggs resulted from mating that took place here at the Academy. The mating was captured in this YouTube video.

Since Metasepia pfefferi often lay their eggs in coconut shells in the wild, Academy biologists cleverly put coconut shells in their tank, and the critters then laid their eggs inside. There is nothing like providing a comfortable environment for the fundamentals. Happy cuttlefish get on with making more cuttlefish. It’s the way of nature.

Recent research indicates that the flesh and bite of Metasepia are extremely toxic. Their flamboyance may be an aposematic (warning) coloration. Despite their small size and tiny tentacular clubs, their diet consists of fish and crustaceans, including the aggressive mantis shrimp.

Steinhart Aquarium is currently displaying a flamboyant cuttlefish in the Water Planet exhibit. It’s in the short corridor between the moon jellies and the Philippine Coral Reef, and it shares a tank with the featherduster worms. Come say hello to this spunky little cephalopod!

Do you like cephalopods as much as we do? What’s your favorite cephalopod? Post your comments below.

Filed under: Aquarium — Greg Farrington @ 2:02 pm

August 16, 2010

Rewriting the Textbooks on Human Evolution

In the world of scientific publication, the covers of Nature and Science are highly coveted real estate. Last week’s cover of Nature featured a discovery by the Academy’s very own Zeray Alemseged, curator of anthropology. Over the past decade, Alemseged and an international team of scientists have explored the harsh Ethiopian desert for evidence left by our early human ancestors. Below, you’ll find a link to a Science in Action video that describes their most recent, and very exciting, discovery: the oldest evidence of tool use (and meat-eating) by human ancestors ever found, which shatters the previous record by almost one million years. It’s fascinating when you think about how the computer screen you’re reading this on is simply a continuation of the tool use habit that started 3.4 million years ago.

Click here to watch the three-minute video. If you prefer reading, here are links to the story in The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

What modern-day tools couldn’t you live without? Leave your comments below. And if you’re curious about the other traits that make humans and our relatives extreme, stop by the Extreme Mammals exhibit at the Academy. It closes on September 12, so be sure to visit before then.

Filed under: Research Departments — Greg Farrington @ 10:43 am

July 15, 2010

Summer Reading Suggestions

Galapagos expedition

Beach reading? No, these intrepid explorers have landed on the Galapagos to study its wildlife. This photo was taken during the Academy’s 1905-06 expedition.

Summer is a famous time for beach reading. Fortunately, you don’t really have to sit on the beach to read. It’s delightful but optional. You can use a Kindle or an iPad to read, but I’ve also heard that in the old days people used a remarkable technology based on paper to store text. Rumor has it that they could read print on paper during takeoff and landing. Now that’s an idea!

Here are suggestions of three good summer reads, each having to do with Academy themes of science and exploration. I’ve read them all and stayed awake with a minimum number of short naps to freshen the little gray cells, as Monsieur Poirot would say.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
By Dava Sobel
A major development in the 1700s was a means to determine longitude. Determining latitude had been relatively easy, but there was no reliable method to accurately determine longitude on a ship far from land. As a result, ships occasionally plowed into land with predictable consequences. This was such an important challenge that the British Government established a prize of 20,000 pounds for the person who succeeded in developing a method to determine longitude, a sum equivalent to about $12 million today. Ultimately, the problem was solved by John Harrison, a Lincolnshire carpenter with little formal education. He devised a portable clock that kept very precise time even on a ship in motion. After considerable controversy, he was awarded the prize in 1773, three years before his death at 84. It didn’t allow for much time to enjoy his newfound wealth. This book by Dava Sobel tells Harrison’s story. I recommend it.

The Victorian Internet
By Tom Standage
This book recounts the invention of the telegraph in the 1800s, and the profound impact it had on the world as the “Internet” of its day.

The Lost City of Z
By David Grann
In 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett disappeared during an expedition to find Z, a fabled city in the Amazon rainforest. Fascinated by this mystery, author David Grann embarks on his own quest to learn more about Fawcett and the City of Z. This book is available in the lending library of the Naturalist Center (Level 3 of the Academy). Borrowing privileges are a member benefit, so during your next visit, don’t forget to come browse our wide selection of books and DVDs.

Have you read any of these books already? Or do you have other summer reading recommendations? If so, share your comments below.

Filed under: Other News — Greg Farrington @ 3:20 pm

June 2, 2010

It’s catfish physical time


The rainforest dome is getting a thorough cleaning this week, and while the exhibit is closed temporarily, staff are jumping at the opportunity to do a variety of maintenance projects in the exhibit, including annual physicals for the seven redtail catfish who live in the large Flooded Amazon tank.

These fish require a more thorough examination than their tankmates because they have a propensity to investigate and sometimes eat foreign objects that occasionally fall into the tank. So, a team of eight aquarium staff members (including a veterinarian, animal health staff, divers in the tank, and other catfish wranglers) assembled on Tuesday morning to weigh each catfish and examine their stomach contents for any problematic objects.

In preparation, the fish spend a few minutes in a holding tank, where they can absorb an anesthetic called MS222 through their gills. Then, it’s all hands on deck to administer the exam and weigh the fish as quickly and smoothly as possible.

In the left-hand photo below, aquarium staff weigh catfish number seven, who is just 19 pounds (our largest tips the scale at 63 pounds!). In the center, animal health biologist Alison Rusch prepares to reach in and check catfish number two’s stomach, wrapping her arm above the glove with plastic and duct tape in an effort to prevent scratches from the fish’s teeth. And on the right are the results from last year’s exams: a pair of glasses and a toy dinosaur were recovered from one of the catfish’s stomachs, before they could become lodged in its intestine. Fortunately, this year nothing was found in any of the fish.

Watch for the redtail catfish’s distinctive red tail and whiskers on your next visit to the rainforest, and keep an extra tight grip on your sunglasses while inside!

weighing a catfishexam prep2009 results

Filed under: Aquarium,Exhibits — Helen @ 2:31 pm
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