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.
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.
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.
In an effort to increase accessibility, the Academy’s AntWeb project recently loaded more than 31,000 images onto Wikimedia Commons, an upload which took several days to complete. Whether you’re an entomologist, a backyard enthusiast or just a fan of unique photographs, an up-close look at ants is fascinating. Their bodies can be as small as the point of a pin, or as big as a walnut; as sleek as sports cars, or as bulky as tanks.
Ants are a vital part of ecosystems around the globe, and scientists like the Academy’s own Brian Fisher are hard at work cataloguing new species, and using data like that collected in AntWeb to inform conservation decisions. After all, while tiny, the collective weight of all the ants in the world is equal to the weight of all the world’s humans – they’re a force to be reckoned with.
The Academy is home to the world’s largest collection of skulls, skeletons, and other preserved samples of the southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis). Research collections like ours are valuable resources for scientists studying California marine ecosystems, and informing conservation strategies. Southern sea otters live along the coast of California (mostly between Monterey and Big Sur), and are classified as threatened on the U.S. Endangered Species List.
From September 28 – October 3, 2009, stop by the Research Lab to see select specimens on display. Sea otter-themed books and resources will also be available in the Naturalist Center. For those ages 21 and up, stop by the sea otter table at NightLife on October 1 to talk to biologists about how these creatures are faring in the wild.
Vibrantly colored sea urchins (below, left) are a favorite food source among sea otters, and individuals who eat a lot of them over the course of a lifetime can end up with purple-tinted bones and teeth. Read more about their behaviors in this archive issue of California Wild.
There aren’t many people out there who would feel honored to have a foul smelling, two-inch, phallus-shaped fungus named after them – but herpetologist Bob Drewes is an exception to the rule. On a 2006 expedition to São Tomé, which involved Drewes (below, left) and researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines, Academy research fellow Dennis Desjardin discovered a new species of stinkhorn mushroom, and after a few jokes, the name Phallus drewesii stuck. Read more about it in the July/August issue of the journal Mycologia , or for more casual fungus fans, in the San Jose Mercury News.
The Academy’s mammalogy department recently acquired a mounted tiger specimen that was confiscated by officials at San Francisco’s SFO airport. Tigers are listed as endangered species under the Federal Endangered Species Act, and are also protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna (CITES).
When U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials confiscate an animal skin or other such material that has crossed the border illegally, they contact institutions like the Academy that maintain research collections. This particular tiger is not well-suited for exhibit display, so it will remain in collections storage, as part of the Academy’s library of life (below, left). These research collections are of great value to the scientific community; they document the diversity and evolution of life on our planet, helping us understand how to sustain it.
On occasion, a confiscated specimen can become part of an educational exhibit seen by thousands of people every day. That’s exactly what happened when officials confiscated a mounted leopard during the Academy’s rebuilding project – they called the Academy and we were able to incorporate it into African Hall, where it now sits perched in a tree above the double-wide open diorama (below, right).
Friday marked the last scheduled trips for the Academy’s collections move. One truckload at a time, 20 million specimens have made their way from Howard Street to Golden Gate Park. There are a few odds and ends left, but Friday’s two trips included one of the most unwieldy specimens, the 11-foot tall Kodiak bear featured in the video clip below. At right, additional specimens from the Ornithology and Mammalogy department being unloaded in Golden Gate Park. Since the time the Academy first moved to Howard Street, the research collections have grown by about 2 million specimens.
600 yards of string and 75 yards of muslin fabric later…Ornithology & Mammalogy’s antler bags are complete. Now that the sewing is done, it’s time to get the skulls into their protective bags and hang them up – a process that’s more complicated than you might think.
First, the lower mandible is attached to the rest of the skull with wire. The wire is coated with nylon to protect the bones. Next, a piece of soft foam is inserted between the upper and lower jaw, to keep them from bumping together (below, left). Then a wire is inserted through the back of the skull and a loop is formed at the top (below, right) for hanging.
Then the skull is placed in a small, medium, large, or XL archival cloth bag, which is tied at the top to keep it on (below, left). The last step is to hang the skull up on a hook – by the wire loop, not the tied cloth, of course. Racks like the one pictured below are being filled this week, and are organized by genus and species, so researchers can readily locate the specimens they need in the future.
This is one of those stories that you won’t find anywhere but the California Academy of Sciences…this week, a small team of volunteers started the process of sewing 150 or so custom-fit bags to protect the Ornithology & Mammalogy department’s collection of antlers and skulls.
Below, from left to right, here’s how one begins crafting an “antler bag” (whether you’re sewing something for a child, your home, or an elk, it’s a remarkably similar process):
1. Record the skull’s dimensions.
2. Cut a first draft of the pattern from butcher paper. Hold it up to the skull to see how the bag will fit, and adjust as needed. The elk (Cervus elaphus) skull pictured in the second photo is from 1913, and is one of the largest in the collection.
3. Using the final pattern, cut the pieces from archival muslin fabric, which will protect the specimens while in storage.
The Invertebrate Zoology & Geology department (also known as “IZ&G“) has painstakingly stabilized two and a half million specimens over the past several months – ranging from jars of spindly sea spiders to geological treasures that are millions – even billions – of years old. To prepare for moving, the collection handlers have crafted thousands of custom-made cushions (like the ones below, center) to accommodate all the odd shapes and sizes.