Most people think of the California Academy of Sciences as that museum in Golden Gate Park. But that is only part of the story. Each day, as visitors gaze at fish in Steinhart Aquarium or watch a show in Morrison Planetarium, scientists are at work in offices several floors below.
They are conducting research in biodiversity and adding to our knowledge of the natural world. And they are good at it. Last year, researchers at the academy discovered 103 new species of plants and animals previously unknown to science. They run the gamut from ants and spiders to corals, sea slugs and a series of viruses.
The research, conducted in cooperation with other scientists around the nation and the world, places the academy in an elite category with such institutions as the Field Museum in Chicago and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Much of the effort is spent on field studies which took scientists to five continents, three oceans, rainforests and islands off the coast of Africa. They published 44 scientific papers and brought back specimens some of which will appear in exhibits later in the year.
Meg Lowman, a botanist and the academy’s Director of Global Initiatives, says the effort is in keeping with the institution’s goal to explore, explain and sustain life. She recently returned from a visit to Ethiopia where Lowman worked with local officials to help preserve forests. The society’s unique gathering of biologists helps in the discovery process, she said.
“The academy is one of the very few places left in the world that has a cohort of biodiversity researchers,” she said. “We are dedicated to exploring the unexplored.” Universities often have only one or two researchers doing field work, she added. The scientific group includes close to 100 employees with 20 researchers and 80 support staff for collecting specimens and other related work, according the Lowman.
Once a scientist finds what appears to be a new species, the specimen to brought to the academy where graduate students conduct DNA testing to determine if the plant or animal is unique. The researcher submits a scientific paper for peer review and finally names the new discovery.
Senior Curator of Invertebrate Zoology Terry Gosliner is a renowned expert on nudibranchs, the colorful sea slugs found throughout the oceans. During his 50-year career he has named close to 1,000 new species and is credited with nine discoveries during 2015. While his salary is paid by the academy, Gosliner must apply for outside funding to pay for field studies. Much of his recent work has been in the Verde Island Passage in the Philippines, financed by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Academy scientists have fewer teaching commitments than college professors, allowing for more time observing animals in their natural habitats Gosliner said. “A lot of people study (animals) but never see them alive,” he added. The building’s lower floors also contain a vast store of specimens among the largest in the nation. Often research involves comparing preserved animals with current specimens to determine changes over time.
“Having the world’s best collections helps me tremendously, “Gosliner said. “If I need to compare nudibranchs I only need to go two floors above me.”
Other researchers came up their own interesting discoveries.
Curator of Entomology Brian Fisher found six new species of “Dracula ants” from Madagascar and the Seychelles. The tiny (less than 1.5 millimeters long and 0.2 millimeters wide,) insects live in underground tunnels on the floors of rainforests. Their vampire name comes from the habit of wounding their young and drinking their blood to obtain nutrients. Fisher will return to Mozambique this year to study ants in the nation’s mountains and coastal forests.
And speaking of ghastly named insects, Arachnologist Charles Griswold identified 10 new species of microscopic armor plated “Goblin spiders” on the island of Madagascar. Unlike other spiders that spin webs and hunt above ground, these insects live underground like beetles.
Shark expert David Ebert continued his work locating little known species of sharks around the globe. He found a new ghost shark from New Zealand, a catshark from the Indian Ocean and an electric “Torpedo ray” in the Atlantic. Living at more than 500 feet, the ray stuns its prey with an electric shock from organs located in its head. The zap can reach up to 45 volts; enough to topple a human being.
Academy research associate Douglas long combed through rocks in Texas and Russia to reveal a prehistoric shark. Pseudomegachasma lived in the sea more than 100 million years ago and fed on plankton. That’s important because scientists now know the ancient oceans supported large plankton swarms during the mid-Cretaceous period.