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Fly on the Wall 

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

January 6, 2010

Frog breeding program celebrates first anniversary

Aquatic biologists at the Academy first began breeding Asian horned frogs (Megophrys nasuta) in captivity one year ago, and have now successfully raised over a dozen tadpoles into young frogs. Even after a year, around 40 of the frogs are still tadpoles, but more metamorphose every week, and seem to be in excellent health. The young frogs and tadpoles are being raised behind the scenes in the aquarium’s amphibian holding room.

Very few zoos and aquariums have been able to breed this species successfully, so our biologists have been learning as they go. One of the discoveries they made was that the size of an egg clutch can actually be as large as 1,400 eggs – a figure much higher than the popular literature suggested.

Native to the rainforest floors of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, these frogs are not currently threatened in the wild, but are vulnerable to habitat destruction and exploitation by the pet trade industry. At the Academy, several adult Asian horned frogs can be seen on the Borneo level of the rainforest exhibit, blending into their leafy surroundings.
Photos: (c) Brian Freiermuth/California Academy of Sciences

Left: The much smaller male holds on to the large female in amplexus, the typical grasping behavior many frogs engage in prior to egg laying and fertilization.
Center: Tadpoles have upward turned mouths that allow them to filter feed at the water’s surface.
Right: A newly metamorphosed froglet still has some tail left, but already has tiny projections over the eyes like its adult counterparts.

Filed under: Aquarium — Helen @ 11:21 am

November 30, 2009

Ants march online

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.

Those interested in using the photos can do so subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

Filed under: Other News,Research Departments — Helen @ 1:03 pm

November 18, 2009

The leg bone’s connected to the…hip bone

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.
Disassembled T. rexFront lobby

Filed under: Exhibits — Helen @ 11:28 am

October 13, 2009

Help for coho

Every so often at the Academy, we hear about how some of the equipment used at our temporary Howard Street home is now meeting other organizations’ needs in unexpected ways. When all the animals had been moved out of Howard Street, we donated aquarium tanks to a number of institutions, including the Tiburon Salmon Institute.

This week, we heard from them that the National Marine Fisheries Service has been deeply concerned about their coho salmon hatchery near Santa Cruz, ever since the area was hit by wildfire this summer. The first rains of the year (now upon us) are expected to wash ash, silt, and other debris into the creeks which feed the hatchery, changing the pH of the water, and potentially clogging the gills of the endangered coho. So, NMFS called the Tiburon Salmon Institute, and is borrowing several of the donated 500-gallon tanks in order to protect the hatchery’s coho population from those harmful contaminants. We wish them every success! Read more about the situation here.

Filed under: Great Migration,Other News — Helen @ 12:08 pm
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