SAN FRANCISCO (October 19, 2006) — A living tropical rainforest exhibit is now under construction in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, setting new records as it rises as part of the new California Academy of Sciences. The four-story dome will be the first spherical living rainforest display in the United States and the largest in the world. The only other dome of its kind, located in Italy, was designed by Renzo Piano, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect who designed the new California Academy of Sciences.
The exhibit will also be the first to include an elevator that descends into an underwater flooded forest display. Teeming with over 1,600 live animals, including more than 600 free-flying birds and butterflies, nearly 100 exotic reptiles and amphibians, and a cave full of bats, the new Rainforests of the World exhibit will be a breathtaking component of the new Academy when it opens in late 2008.
The living rainforest will be contained inside a glass dome that measures 90 feet in diameter. Temperatures will be maintained at 82-85° F, and humidity will be maintained at 75% or above using a special misting system. Skylights in the roof will allow natural sunlight to reach the exhibit’s live plants, including over 30 different species of orchids, and powerful metal halide lights will provide additional growing power. A spiraling ramp will carry visitors through the top three floors of the exhibit, introducing them to rainforests from Borneo, Madagascar, and Costa Rica. Then, an elevator will bring visitors down into the Amazonian Flooded Forest, where they will walk through an underwater tunnel that provides views into a 100,000-gallon tank.
The rainforest dome will be split vertically into two different sections. One half of the dome will house a living tropical rainforest that will span all four floors of the exhibit, from the underwater flooded forest to the tree-top canopy. Living trees that are currently being grown in Florida will be lifted into the exhibit by crane sometime next summer. The other half of the dome will house the four galleries that will allow visitors to meet hundreds of rainforest inhabitants from Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica, and the Amazon River Basin. As the ramp circles up through the exhibit, visitors will pass alternately through three different levels of the living rainforest and three exhibit galleries. The elevator will then carry visitors down to the final gallery and the last slice of living rainforest—the fish-filled Flooded Forest.
Over the past several months, the concrete walls of this uniquely-shaped tank were poured, the enormous acrylic tunnel and elevator shaft windows were installed, and the gently sloping steel ramp was erected. This ramp features such complex geometry and tight curves that a rollercoaster manufacturer was hired to shape the steel. Over the next few weeks, the frame for the glass dome will be installed over the ramp, creating a counterpoint for the matching 90-foot dome on the opposite side of the building’s central courtyard, which will house the new Morrison Planetarium.
Amidst sounds of Borneo animals and indigenous music, visitors will enter the Borneo rainforest gallery and encounter a large cave that houses bats, bat-eating snakes, and scorpions in separate nooks. After exploring the cave, they will wander along a path lined with live orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants that leads to tanks filled with freshwater fishes and invertebrates. Finally, they will meet flying snakes, flying frogs, and even gliding lizards known as flying dragons as they learn why many animals in Borneo’s rainforest canopy have evolved into gliders.
Coming off the ramp out of the living rainforest, visitors will find themselves in a gallery with new sounds and lower light levels, drawing their attention to the tanks and terrariums of living animals. About 80% of the animals found in Madagascar do not exist anywhere else on Earth, and because over 90% of their natural habitat has been destroyed, many are endangered. In this gallery, visitors will learn why so many new species have evolved in Madagascar, and they will have the opportunity to meet a wide variety of insects, fish, snakes, frogs, and geckos. Three different species of chameleons will also be on display, highlighting the fact that almost half of the world’s chameleons are found only in Madagascar.
Under the domed skylights, visitors will be immersed in a bright, airy space filled with over 40 different species of free-flying birds and butterflies, including doves, tanagers, honeycreepers, finches, and colorful longwing butterflies. Nearby, a group of terrariums will hold snakes, frogs, and insects. Here, visitors will learn why about 90% of the biodiversity in the rainforest is found in the canopy layer. They will also find a message of hope, since much of Costa Rica’s rainforest is still intact.
Amazonian Flooded Forest
After exiting the elevator with its underwater view into the Flooded Forest tank, visitors will find themselves in a cooler, darker gallery lined with live animal displays. Throughout this gallery, the water level in the tanks will gradually rise, tracing the progress of a seasonal flood, during which water levels rise 40-60 feet in the Amazon Basin. An enormous anaconda will reside near the elevator doors, greeting visitors as they enter the gallery. Nearby, a sculpted anaconda will coil across a recess in the wall, leaving an arm-sized opening for the adventurous visitor. Inserting an arm will trigger an inflatable liner within the hole, teaching visitors about the predation technique used by these constrictors. After passing by other snakes, turtles, and fish, visitors will encounter an electric eel, along with an interactive display that delivers mild electric shocks. Finally, they will reach the 100,000-gallon Flooded Forest tank, where hundreds of fish will cruise overhead, including armored catfish, South American arowanas, spotted peacock bass, pacu, and angelfish.
The new Rainforests of the World exhibit will be enriched by a number of scheduled public programs, giving visitors an opportunity to interact with Academy biologists and volunteers. Steinhart Aquarium biologists will bring live rainforest animals out into the exhibit to meet the public, including parrots, a collared anteater, and a kinkajou. Additionally, a corps of over 100 volunteer divers will make scheduled dives into the Flooded Forest tank to care for the exhibit.
Throughout the exhibit, research conducted by Academy scientists in tropical rainforests will be highlighted. At “Dive Stations” on each level of the dome, visitors will be able to touch scientific specimens collected in the rainforest, examine the tools used to study those specimens, and learn about the ways that Academy scientists are working to document and preserve some of the most biodiverse places on Earth.
About the new California Academy of Sciences
Designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Renzo Piano with local partner Stantec Architecture (formerly Chong Partners Architecture), the new California Academy of Sciences will combine inspiring architecture with inventive exhibits to provide eye-opening interactions with the natural world for its visitors. Topped with a living planted roof, the new building will also integrate the Academy more sensitively into its natural environment in Golden Gate Park. The new facility will employ energy-efficient, environmentally-sensitive building strategies to help set a standard for sustainable architecture in civic buildings. It recently received the silver Holcim Award for sustainable construction in North America. The estimated total cost of the project is $488 million, including building, exhibition, relocation and interim operation costs.