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.
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.
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.
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!
While most of us were sleeping in the wee hours of Monday and Tuesday mornings this week, three exhibit specialists from Academy Studios were busy disassembling and reassembling a full-size cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the Academy. The same crew assembled the skeleton over a year ago in the Altered State exhibit. Now, the T. rex is in the front lobby to make room for upcoming changes in Altered State, and the installation of our first temporary exhibit, Extreme Mammals, which is coming to the Academy in April, 2010. This time around, the crew knew their way around the T.rex so well that they finished in two eight-hour nights, instead of the expected three.
As the Academy approaches its one year anniversary in the new facility, it seems appropriate that our cuttlefish have begun laying eggs. After all, our opening last September was just the beginning. These dwarf cuttlefish (sepia bandensis) are located in the Water Planet exhibit. You’ll have to look carefully for them, since they are able to change color, and can be tough to pick out of their surroundings. There are two in the photo below, plus a large cluster of dark eggs. The species is native to reefs in the Indo-Pacific region, and they feed on small mollusks, crabs, shrimp and fish, using a pair of feeding tentacles.
On September 26-27, to celebrate the Academy’s first anniversary in our new building, we have put together a fantastic lineup of cultural music performances and live animal demonstrations (including big cats). This weekend also marks the debut of our new planetarium show Journey to the Stars. Click here for a full schedule of events.
Next time you pass through the Academy’s Islands of Evolution exhibit, take a peek at a few new additions by the wall of colorful Frans Lanting photographs. Touch a 221-pound iron meteorite (below, left), and check out an actual moon rock (below, right), collected on the last manned lunar mission, Apollo 17, in December, 1972. The rock was collected from the Taurus-Littrow Valley, between the Sea of Serenity and the Sea of Tranquility, and is on loan to the Academy from NASA. Alongside those extraterrestrial specimens, you’ll also see a sampling of incredible fossils from Earth—up to 900 million years old.
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and to celebrate, staff from Morrison Planetarium will be on hand at the Science in Action exhibit to show video footage of the of the Apollo 11 landing, and introduce the moon rock to visitors on the weekend of July 18-19. Stop by at 1:30 pm either day to check it out.
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).
In the past two months, two Silver-beaked Tanager chicks have hatched out in the Academy’s rainforest exhibit. Right now, they are honing their flying skills in the exhibit, and Academy biologists are monitoring their progress daily. For this species, it takes just four weeks from the time the egg is laid to when the bird is self-sufficient. The timeline goes something like this:
1. The parents select a nesting site, build a nest, and lay 2-3 eggs. Our biologists have been collecting valuable information about successful nesting/fledging sites in the exhibit, which they hope can be applied to other species.
2. Incubation of the eggs lasts about 12 days.
3. After hatching, the chicks stay in the nest for about 10 days.
4. After the chicks are able to leave the nest, the parents continue to feed them for another 5-7 days, while their tail feathers grow. This is the fledgling stage. At this point, they’re not strong fliers yet. They have short stumpy tails, but are still quite mobile.
5. Once they have the feathers and wing muscles needed for flight, the chicks are basically on their own and considered juveniles. This is the stage these two chicks are in now – they are fully-flighted and self-sufficient, but not sexually mature.
In the left-hand photo, the fledgling is on the left, next to an adult female Silver-beaked Tanager. In the photo on the right, a closer view of one of the fledglings.
If you’ve visited the Academy’s exhibit on climate change, you may have seen a wall labeled “Share Your Ideas,” where visitors can post their thoughts on how to lessen their impact on the environment (if you haven’t seen it, it’s pictured below, left). In search of a more sustainable source for the tags on the wall, our creative services department and our printer Paragraphics came up with a great solution: re-using make-readies.
What’s a make-ready, you ask? It’s the paper that goes through the press to perfect the ink coverage and colors for a print job. Paper often goes through the press several times before being recycled, and the effect is interesting layers of text and graphics on one side. The other side is blank for writing on. Paragraphics has offered the Academy free use of their make-readies, and they even trimmed and punched the paper to fit the current specs of the posting board. Kudos to those who put this creative, sustainable idea into practice!
The Academy’s 87-foot-long blue whale skeleton now hovers above the west exhibit hall, the future home of an exhibit called Altered State: Climate Change in California. From a whale watching boat or photo, it can be difficult to grasp the scale of these massive creatures (the largest mammals on Earth)…but it’s incredible to see a skeleton up close and realize you could easily stand up tall inside its ribcage.
Catch a glimpse of the week-long installation process below: