by Jonathan Foley
From Boom Fall 2015, Vol 5, No 3
In California museum collections
We all know that California boasts many of the best universities and research institutes in the world. But we also have some of the world’s best museums, including world-leading natural history museums that document and study the diversity of life on Earth.
At the California Academy of Sciences, where I work, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, we have a research collection of nearly 46 million specimens, one of the largest in the world, spanning nearly every branch of life. Other great research collections can be found at other California museums, including the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the six natural history museums at the University of California, Berkeley.
These collections describe more than the branches of the tree of life. They span time and space. The Academy collections extend from the nineteenth century (although we have some older specimens too) to the present, and include specimens from every ecosystem in the world. Together, they give us a picture of how life varies—in time and space—on this incredible planet. They tell us how ecosystems respond to environmental pressures, including land use, the rise of invasive species, and climate change. Research collections are priceless scientific assets, and are crucial to understanding how the world’s ecosystems may change in the future.
California museums continue to push the boundaries of ecological science. At the Academy, we are currently expanding our scientific ranks, making our biggest investment in new science in a century. Along with other museums, we are pioneering the use of new tools, including molecular and genomic technologies, satellite remote sensing, and crowd-sourced observations of biodiversity from citizens (check out our iNaturalist.org platform), to describe the changing patterns of life on Earth. We are seeing a scientific renaissance blossoming in the world’s natural history museums, with California leading the way.
California museums curate and preserve collections like these to help us document and understand the changing nature of life on Earth, and to help build the tools we need to ultimately sustain the wonderful creatures and ecosystems we all depend on. We trust future Californians will be glad we did.
Ed Ricketts—later immortalized as “Doc” in Cannery Row by his friend John Steinbeck—collected this sea star during an expedition aboard a fishing boat around Baja California in 1940. That journey was chronicled in Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a classic in popular scientific literature. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Grévy’s zebras (Equus grevyi). Also known as the “imperial zebra,” this endangered species is named for Jules Grévy, considered the first true republican president of France. The largest of all wild equines—around five-feet tall and eight-to-nine-feet from head to tail—it lives in the semi-arid grasslands of Kenya and Ethiopia. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Orange sea fan (Eugorgia ampla). Also known as “sea whips,” the gorgeous sea fans are known as “gorgonians” because the order they belong to used to be known as Gorgonacea. Today, they are part of the Alcyonacea, composed of nearly 500 different species in the oceans of the world. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Pacific footballfish (Himantolophus sagamius). In 1985, deep-sea fishermen in Monterey Bay, California, hauled up their nets to find this fish with a six-inch-long globular body, prickly skin, needle-sharp teeth, miniscule eyes, and a strange stalk on its head. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Cuban land snail (Polymita picta nigrolimbata). The shells of this species, also known as the “painted snail,” are highly prized by collectors and poachers who sell them for jewelry and trinkets. As a result, this endemic species, found only on the island of Cuba, has become endangered. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Xerces blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche xerces). First described in 1852, the Xerces blue is a member of the Lycaenidae (gossamer-winged butterflies), the world’s second largest family of butterflies. Found only in sand dune habitats around San Francisco’s Sunset District, the last known specimens were collected in 1943. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.
Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus californicus). Two male deer locked antlers while fighting and, unable to separate themselves, died in this position. These skulls were found in Southern California in 1946. Photograph by Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences.