Native San Franciscans largely appreciate the California Academy of Sciences as somewhere you can go on Thursday nights and get drunk among circling sharks and taxidermic lions and even an albino alligator named Claude, who may or may not be French, Matt Simon writes in this article in Wired magazine.
But behind the scenes of this premier scientific institution, which combines an aquarium, a planetarium, and giant bubble with a rainforest inside, are marvels few people beyond scientists see: 46 million creatures, all preserved and squirreled away (sorry about that) in row after row of cabinets, 56,000 square feet in all. From tiny beetles to hulking dino bones, it’s an indispensable catalog of nature’s awesome biodiversity.
Ace WIRED photographer Josh Valcarcel and I spent some 15 hours touring the stacks with the Academy’s many curators, and during the next three weeks we’ll bring you the most amazing critters we found. First up are these remarkable mammals and birds, many of them extinct or extremely threatened, specially selected for us by collections manager Moe Flannery.
Now, given the grief I got on Twitter when I tweeted photos of creatures during our visits, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why such collections are absolutely essential to science. Sure, it’s hard to appreciate preserved specimens as much as living ones, but trust me on this: Scientists aren’t going out and indiscriminately murdering things they happen upon. And many of these creatures are sent to the Academy by regular folk who find them dead, or come from the confiscation of smuggled specimens like shells and corals.
The specimens provide invaluable information to scientists that you just can’t get from photos or written descriptions when observing them firsthand in the wild. Say you’ve found yourself what you think is a new species. To help confirm that, you can go back into the collections and run gene tests on similar preserved critters. And with a lineage of a particular preserved species at our disposal, we can show how it’s evolving before our eyes (yes, observable evolution can happen that quickly).
There’s no evidence to suggest that overzealous scientists have ever collected a species into extinction. What does tend to do that though is global warming, overhunting, destruction of habitat, etc. (I could go on but I’m depressing myself). Appropriately enough, comparing new and old specimens of threatened species can actually help inform how we go about conserving them to keep them from extinction.
Preserving specimens also means that when our stupidity drives a species to extinction, we can at least retain a material reminder of its time on Earth. It’s hard to explain the feeling of even seeing an enormous egg of an extinct elephant bird, much less touching it. So with any luck, that egg will be locked up safe and sound at the California Academy of Sciences for generations to come, a reminder not just of our negative impacts on Earth, but of our foresight in remembering lost species as best we can.
For the original report go to https://www.wired.com/2014/12/academy-of-sciences-birds-and-mammals/#slide-id-1621505