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Golden Gate Park
San Francisco CA
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Fly on the Wall 

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

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

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

May 13, 2010

Venomous Fish Reproduce (and Rewrite Song Lyrics)

Aquarium biologists have succeeded in spawning the lacy scorpionfish, Rhinopias. This is the first documented case of captive reproduction in this genus, which was extensively studied by a former Academy scientist, Bill Eschmeyer. Here is a picture of the proud Rhinopias parents.

These venomous fish are not overly abundant in the wild or common in the aquarium industry. They don’t have the best track record in captivity, often living for less than two years. Academy biologists thought very hard before deciding to put them on display, but were confident they could provide them with high-quality animal care.

Things seem to be working out, fish style. Since going on display last November, the two individuals have been eating well, regularly shedding their skin (a normal behavior for Rhinopias), and challenging guests to spot them among the corals.

I will admit that the ever-active whimsical lobe of my brain has sprung into action to imagine how Tin Pan Alley would have been different if people, too, signaled contentment with their lives by regularly shedding their skin. Song lyrics would be very different. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” would need a new second verse. There surely would be a new take on that great song sung by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald: “There I go again. About to shed my skin again. All aglow again. Takin’ a chance on love!” And so forth.

But I digress. Back to the fish.

In early March, Academy biologists found an egg raft in the Rhinopias tank. Eggs signal mucho happiness in the piscine set, even more than skin shedding. The eggs were hard to spot because they are almost completely clear. It’s possible that they mimic a comb jelly to discourage predation. Should you wonder, a “comb jelly” is an animal that looks like a jellyfish and behaves like a jellyfish, but is a different animal altogether. Since it’s transparent and about the same shape as the egg raft, it would be easy to mistake one for the other.

Our biologists have asked around among those who would know, and it appears that these are the first Rhinopias eggs that have been laid in captivity, or at least the first that have been observed and reported. The biologists assumed the eggs were infertile, and then were surprised to see them develop, and even more surprised when they hatched. Two batches of eggs have now been laid, and it has been amazing to watch the larvae develop: growing fins, a mouth, and a gut where none existed before.

Feeding really tiny larval fish of this sort is a major challenge, so every day that they survive is another triumph. Pictures of the larvae at day 2, 3, and 8 are shown below.

The scorpionfish parents live in the Water Planet exhibit (Lower Level), next to the Burmese vine snakes. Come and visit!

Filed under: Aquarium,Sustainability — Greg Farrington @ 10:17 am

April 30, 2010

Endangered frog species

Madagascar is home to an extraordinary number of endemic species – species found nowhere else in the world. In fact, among amphibians, there is literally only one among 230 known species which is not endemic. As habitat loss, the pet trade, and environmental contaminants threaten amphibians like mantella frogs, understanding and trying to protect these animals and their habitats is a race against time. Some species, including the brilliantly-colored golden mantella (Mantella aurantiaca), live in tiny, isolated areas, heightening their vulnerability to extinction.

This winter and spring, the Academy’s crack team of aquatic biologists discovered several clutches of eggs in the golden mantella (critically endangered) and green mantella (Mantella viridis, endangered) frog tanks in the rainforest exhibit, and have had success raising them. As of this week, the biologists are caring for over 100 baby frogs in various stages of development. Eighty of the endangered green mantella froglets have come out of the water already, with 20 more on the way in the next couple of weeks.

So what do you feed a baby frog that’s less than half an inch long? When they first metamorphose, tiny green mantellas are just barely big enough to eat a wingless fruit fly, but they do so voraciously. In the case of the newly-metamorphosed golden mantellas, which are even smaller, the food of choice is the springtail, a very small invertebrate.

Eventually, the Academy will share these healthy young frogs with other zoos and aquariums, who share our commitment to raising awareness and learning about these rare rainforest gems.

baby golden mantella frogadult golden mantella frog

Above, left: Baby golden mantella frog, with human hair for scale (copyright Brian Freiermuth, California Academy of Sciences).

Above, right: Adult golden mantella frog (copyright Dr. John P. Clare)

Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 3:39 pm

April 20, 2010

“Pierre the Penguin” Hits Bookstores

Courtesy Sleeping Bear Press

Courtesy: Sleeping Bear Press

Two years ago, you may have heard the story of Pierre, the eldest member of our African penguin colony. He was losing his feathers, and this bout of baldness left him shivering on the sidelines while the other penguins frolicked in the water. Pam Schaller, our chief keeper of the penguins, and Celeste Argel, Early Childhood manager (and couturier), designed a neoprene wetsuit to keep Pierre warm. Remarkably, Pierre’s feathers began to grow back. Pam suspects that because he was no longer using all of his energy to stay warm, Pierre was able to divert calories to feather production once again. Now he no longer needs his wetsuit and is content in his natural tuxedo.

Watch a clip of Pierre’s story on Anderson Cooper 360.

Since then, we have been working on a fun project – a children’s book about this endearing true story. I am happy to announce that Pierre the Penguin hits bookstores across the country this month. The book is told in rhyme by noted I SPY author Jean Marzollo, and paired with gorgeous paintings from acclaimed wildlife artist Laura Regan. Here is a sample:

One day aquatic biologist Pam
Observing the penguins, saw one in a jam.
Gently, gently, she examined Pierre.
His feathers were gone.
His bottom was bare.

The story and pictures will make you smile. If you think your children, grandchildren, kids in the neighborhood, or people you meet on the street would like Pierre the Penguin, you can find it in our Academy Store. And during your next visit, don’t forget to say hello to Mr. Comeback Kid himself, Pierre, at the end of African Hall. He has a blue band on his right wing. You can also view the colony from the comfort of your own home using one of three live penguin webcams.

Filed under: Aquarium,Education,Other News — Greg Farrington @ 3:30 pm

March 30, 2010

Rainy Season Romance

Disguised as motionless floating leaves, South American leaf fish (Monocirrhus polyacanthus) are amazing camouflage artists. These small, predatory fish rarely spawn in captivity, but Academy biologists have found success with this delicate breeding process. To our knowledge, no other institution has successfully raised them from egg to adult, but we are well on our way, with a new group of hatchlings and a couple of 11 month-old juveniles.

In order to encourage the adults to spawn, the biologists did what they could to recreate the conditions at the onset of the rainy-season in the Amazon, when dissolved substances are diluted. That means making incremental adjustments to the tank’s water chemistry with very pure, acidic (pH=3.0), slightly cool, peat-filtered water. The low barometric pressure associated with San Francisco’s winter rains may also have been a factor. The recently-hatched fry at the Academy are now behind the scenes, so biologists can better manage their care and photo-document their development. You can check out the adults in the “Staff Picks” area of the aquarium.

Day 1 leaf fish fryDay 22 leaf fish fryAdult leaf fish

Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 12:53 pm

February 26, 2010

Tank Makeover

The deep sea is home to numerous strange looking, fascinating creatures that are typically only seen from a high-tech submersible, or perhaps in a television special. Among them, the chambered nautilus (Nautilus pompilus) – a “living fossil” species which is largely the same as it was more than 400 million years ago. The Academy is among a handful of institutions to successfully display these intriguing creatures, which prefer total darkness.

By day, the wild chambered nautilus hovers at depths up to 500 meters below the surface, and every night, they make the long trek upward to shallow warmer waters to feed on small fishes, crabs and crustaceans. The nautilus’ shell, a spiraling series of gas-filled chambers, is the key to this daily journey. By altering the levels of gas and water in its chambers, the nautilus can maintain buoyancy, or dive, as needed.

Academy staff recently redesigned the nautiluses’ tank to simulate their natural environment more closely. They now float beneath an other-worldly blue light which suits their desire for darkness, and staff are developing technology that will induce a daily temperature change to simulate the conditions that nautiluses encounter during their migration from deep to shallow waters. On your next visit to the aquarium, you’ll find this window into the deep sea around the corner from the upside down jellies.

Chambered nautilus

Photo by John White

Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 1:44 pm

January 29, 2010

Tank spotlight: Meet the toads and snakes of Borneo

Not many people have seen a toad the size of a small rabbit. And yet there are four right here in Golden Gate Park – in the Borneo level of the Academy’s rainforest exhibit to be exact. Borneo river toads (Phrynoidis juxtaspera), a.k.a giant river toads, are notable for their large size, and predators would be wise to steer clear: these toads secrete a highly toxic, milky poison from their warts when threatened or injured.

Sharing the toads’ space, usually found wrapped around a branch at the top of the tank, are two red-tailed green rat snakes, and a mangrove snake. The mangrove snake (Boiga dendrophila) is mildly venomous and an excellent nighttime hunter. Its vertical, cat-like pupils open wider than round pupils, allowing in extra light in the dark. Red-tailed green rat snakes (Gonyosoma oxycephala), despite their colorful name, are not always green, nor are their tails always red. Case in point, the two female snakes on display at the Academy look very different from one another—one is green with a gray tail and the other is all gray with a greenish head (below, at right), and neither tail could be described as “red.”
Borneo river toadsRed-tailed green rat snake

Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 6:53 pm
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