A Trip to the CalAcademy of Sciences Research Area
1 November 2004 – Scott, Merrie and I drove up to the CAS to meet Mor and Andreas. There, we met Stan, who showed us around.
1:55pm -- Stan gave us a short presentation on what they do at the CAS. The main science done at the CAS is Biological Taxonomy (classification and description of specimens and species). There are way more specimens coming in than can be classified, so they have to pick and choose.
The CAS is part of many hundreds of natural history museums around the world, who collaborate for the good of science.
Their work on Biological Systematics is to study variation within and between species.
Diagnostic – A vs. B. How do we tell the difference between two species?
Phylogenetic – “Worms vs. Snakes”. How do we classify them, even though at many levels they are similar.
~10 to 100 Million species yet to be discovered, mostly in rainforest and deep sea.
What they do
Preserve & Catalog
Observe & Analyze
Publication & Dissemination
They have their own proceedings which hold their research findings.
We then went up to meet at lady (S) who studied nudibranchs, in the invertebrate zoology and geology department. Linnaeus studied nudibranchs (small sea slugs) in the late 1700’s.
What they do is dissect them (millimeter sized animals) and find characters to classify them. Inventing and choosing characters to classify species is part of the intellectual work that these biologists do. There are various contributions of nudibranch research, such as future cancer drugs.
Then we met a gentleman (B) who showed us their reptiles and amphibians department. When new specimens come in, they are packaged in containers. Each species gets a tag number and identification is written on (presumably water/alcohol proof) paper.
Their software database for cataloging the identification of the specimens does not log history. If someone else comes and says that your ID was wrong, and renames the entry, then your input is lost. In their herpetology hall, they get about 2 external visitors a month who’ll stay there for several days to research specimens. He mentioned that sometimes, they find species that he doesn’t even know existed. Many times, the interesting questions are similar to “Which characters, when flipped, cause ambiguity in species identification?”
We visited Mr. J S, who showed us a room with 5 million insect specimens, stored in boxes, arranged by species. Each box has colored dots to also indicate the geographical location of where the specimen was caught.
We then went up to visit a lady who works on the AutoMontage system to take pictures of ants for AntWeb (google: antweb). We talked about neotypes, holotypes, and paratypes. For example, a holotype (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holotype) is the one specimen that “defines” the species. If it is destroyed, a neotype is selected. Paratypes define the range of the species, and Allotypes are the type of the opposite sex.
We then met a lady (M K) who works on making map visualizations of where amphibian specimens were caught. They work in ArcGIS 9. She showed us the field notes that were taken in their project in Myanmar.
Last, we visited the library where they house really really old books. We saw some of Tracy Storer’s handwritten field notes (Storer was a contemporary of Joseph Grinnell). We also saw some really big books by the Audubon Society (a book of birds).
That was it. We learned a lot, and had a lot of fun too. Now, to research!