Bugs: Academy’s millions of hidden treasures 

Consider the California Academy of Sciences as an iceberg. While everyone sees and admires architect Renzo Piano’s beautiful glass building, visited by 2.3 million in its first year, it’s what’s going on beneath the surface that supports the museum: the academy’s collections.

More than 26 million specimens — including 3.5 million beetles and one incredible moth — lurk out of visitors’ sight, stored away in endless rows of sliding metal cabinets in the 60,000 square feet that house the collections rooms. Much of these riches date back to the vast early collections of the academy in the mid-1800s, a good number saved from the 1906 earthquake by curator Alice Eastwood’s heroic efforts amid fire and chaos.

Working in the depths of the academy cataloging, studying, maintaining, preserving and circling the globe, there’s a very small cadre doing this huge job — eight collection managers, 21 curators and 30 scientist-researchers.

Senior Entomology Curator David Kavanaugh has worked with the academy since 1974, and he said toiling with the specimens is nothing short of a dream.

“This is the one job in the world I really wanted,” Kavanaugh said.

Academy scientists Galen Rathbun and Jack Dumbacher relish the creepy-crawly creatures housed in the cabinets, especially the stuffed skins of round-eared sengi (macroscelides proboscideus).

The furry, ratlike creatures have spindly legs, a flexible snout and the tail of a rat. Sengis were first misidentified as hoofed mammals, vaguely related to primates. Day by day, newer and more startling discoveries are made about sengis and creatures on and above the Earth, and in the depths of the oceans.

Academy scientists are constantly crisscrossing the globe, adding thousands of specimens to the collections. Currently, Rathbun and Dumbacher are combing the sand dunes of Namibia in search of sengi, while Ichthyology (fish) Curator Tomio Iwamoto is on an expedition in the Gulf of Guinea, off the west coast of Africa, collecting a group of fish called grenadiers, or rattails.

“Some species are known for just one specimen, but most have a virtually infinite variety, and their study requires multiple specimens,” Kavanaugh said.

And while Iwamoto searches for the fish, Ichthyology Collection Manager David Catania watches over the store of 2 million specimens of fish in small jars and huge tanks back at the museum.

Academy scientists are constantly adding thousands of specimens to the collections, and that means crossing through San Francisco International Airport with customs and security officials.

Fortunately, said academy Communications Manager Andrew Ng, “people at the airport are usually familiar with our scientists.”

 

Beetle man nets rare ‘oh, my’ moth

 

David Kavanaugh, the California Academy of Sciences’ senior curator of entomology, is devoted to all of his 14.5 million specimens, but favors heavily the 3.5 million beetles — many of which he collected during 10 years of research in China.

He’s also a romantic guy.

As such, Kavanaugh named a beetle after his wife, having found what is now nebria beverlianna kavanaugh on the shores of the Hoback River in Wyoming in 1979. “I named it in her honor because it’s a beautiful beetle and she is beautiful, and she has supported my work all through my career,” he said.

But the most amazing thing about the beetle man is the Darwin’s hawk moth he caught in Madagascar in 1998. Also called the predicta moth, this wondrous creature is in the “oh, my” section of the academy collections, so named for the typical exclamation from visitors.

The giant moth is pinned next to a drawing of an orchid (angreacum sesquipidales,) Charles Darwin wrote about in “The Origin of Species.” The orchid has an unusual long spur, about one foot. Darwin conjectured that there has to be a pollinator with a long enough tongue to reach the nectar, so he predicted the existence of such a moth.

Decades after Darwin’s death, the hawk moth was discovered, with its 18-inch long tongue, pollinating the orchid. “Predicta” acknowledges Darwin’s hypothesis.

Kavanaugh caught the moth by hanging a white sheet outside his tent in Ranomafana National Park and illuminating it from inside with a mercury vapor light. When a moth settled on it, Kavanaugh “looked closely and saw that it had a huge proboscis coiled under its head. We don’t collect a lot of moths because none of us specializes in their study, and they are extremely delicate and require special handling and storage to be collected and brought home in good enough condition for scientific study and inclusion in a collection.”

But, suspecting that it was the rare hawk moth, Kavanaugh and his assistant carefully caught it, easing it into a jar that contained cyanide fumes, which quickly killed the moth — otherwise, if it struggled, its wings would have been damaged. The specimen in the collections is flawless.

Placed in a cardboard box designed for transporting fragile insect specimens, between layers of cellucotton, predicta made it to San Francisco, here to wow viewers in the “oh, my” corner.

 


Colony of preserved wonders of the world


Breakdown of the 20 million-plus creepy crawlers and treasures housed in Academy of Sciences’ collections:

The entomology collection
More than 14.5 million specimens include: Flies, ants, bees, wasps and more; ranked among the top five such collections in the world.

The invertebrate zoology and geology collections
Approximately 2.5 million specimens include: Invertebrates, fossils, diatoms and minerals.

The botany collection
More than 2 million specimens include: Plant collections from California, the Galápagos Islands, Baja California and Chiapas, Mexico.

The herpetology collection
Approximately 300,000 specimens include: World’s largest collections of reptiles from the Galápagos Islands; specimens from Western North America, Central and South America, Africa and Asia representing 166 countries.

The ornithology and mammalogy collections
140,000 specimens include: 6,000 Darwin’s finches, in addition to marine mammals, bats, rodents, seabirds, waterfowl, and birds of North America, Mexico and Manchuria.

The anthropology collection
More than 16,000 specimens include: Objects from the Mayan sites of Chalchitan and Pichikil in Guatemala; American Indian objects, including textiles, jewelry, baskets, pottery, works of art on paper, katsina carvings and beadwork; some 1,400 examples of eating utensils from around the world.

 

IF YOU GO

The California Academy of Sciences collections are open to the public only on Deep Dive Tours, available to groups of 10 or more with a minimum age of 12. Admission must be reserved and paid for in advance, at least 10 days ahead of the tours, usually held at 10 a.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, with additional tours at noon Wednesdays through Fridays. The $58.65 tickets are handled by Travel Industry Sales, (415) 379-5176, or toursales@calacademy.org.

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