Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Dinosaurs of the California Academy of Sciences

During a recent jaunt to San Francisco, Jennie and I visited the California Academy of Sciences, nestled in Golden Gate Park.

Tyrannosaurus rex

The entry is dominated by a cast of a mid-size Tyrannosaurus rex, which unfortunately isn't much more than a decoration. The provenance of the fossil casts isn't given. In my limited expertise I'd guess this is a teenage individual.

Tyrannosaurus rex

As for Mesozoic dinosaurs... that's it. Nice, but once you've spent quality time with Sue at the Field Museum or Stan and Bucky at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, not a huge draw. The CAS is a conglomeration of institutions, and paleontology is not one of its primary areas of focus. It seems that the inclusion of T. rex is a matter of protocol - you can't have a science museum without a dinosaur, right? (If you're in the Bay area, your other option is the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley, which does have a few fossils on display, though it is primarily dedicated to research and does not focus on being a destination for the public.)

The Academy of Sciences holds one other dinosaur mount, in the form of the recently extinct avian theropod Aepyornis maximus, the famed "elephant bird" of Madagascar.

Aepyornis maximus

A. maximus is mounted within the Academy's impressive evolution exhibit, which focuses on islands as venues for evolution. Therefore, the rationale for its inclusion is as an example of the island rule, and there really isn't anything specific to the dinosaur-bird transition here. I can understand why: this is clearly meant to give the lay audience a good, graspable, visual evolutionary concept - how the isolation of islands makes them perfect places to study macroevolution. I'd love to see an entire hall devoted to the evidence for the theropod - bird transition, but that's not the point of the exhibit at the CAS, and it's stronger for its clear narrative.

The highlight of our visit was the enormous terrarium of the Rainforests of the World exhibit, which had its fair share of extant theropods. They provide a great opportunity for photographers, as they aren't too bashful.

Blue-necked Tanager, CAS Rain Forest
Blue-necked Tanager. Photo by me.

Saffron Finch, CAS Rain Forest
Saffron Finch. Photo by me.

Red-Legged Honeycreeper, CAS Rain Forest
Red-Legged Honeycreeper. Photo by me.

Two beautiful Blue-and-Gold Macaws, Ara ararauna, also live there, but I was one of the few people who took the Academy's "no photography" signs to heart (you can see a photo or two at the Academy's rain forest blog). Leaving the rainforest but keepking with the theme of extant theropods, the most inconspicuous yet utterly fascinating specimen I saw had to be this mounted Barn Owl wing.

Barn Owl wing

The wing was set just inside one of those big windows through which visitors can watch Real Live Scientists do Real Live Science (I'd love to see a giant vacuum valve water bottle in one of these). Sitting on a little table, the Barn Owl wing didn't attract much attention. It certainly wasn't on any brochure or promotional item I saw before the visit. But that's one of the joys of visiting a museum: tucked between the blockbuster attractions that attract the crowds, the attentive visitor can find unexpected windows into entire worlds.


  1. It should be noted that the CAS used to have a good paleontology exhibit, but unfortunately it was removed when they remodeled the place. I was honestly rather pissed when that happened, since I visited that exhibit a couple times when I was a kid.

  2. CAS seems to remind me of The Thinktank in Birmingham (at which our friend Dr. Adam Stuart Smith was the Natural Science curator until recently) in terms of being 'a conglomeration of institutions.' I still enjoyed my visit there very much for that, especially as it seemed to me to showcase both the best in nature and 'human endeavour', as Dr. Adam phrased it.

    Thanks so much for sharing these, David. And your bird photographs are beautiful. The red-legged honeycreeper must have been such a gift of a model.

  3. I hope it doesn't come off as a criticism that the CAS is a conglomeration of institutions, as I think it's still a very worthy place to visit (in particular, I wish we would have had time to check out their living roof and a planetarium show). Since the T. rex was featured in promotional materials, I assumed that it had at least a small fossil hall. Just want folks to know.

    It seems that the outreach goals of the museum are dedicated to items of local interest (a major exhibit in construction dedicated to earthquakes) and urgency (acceptance of evolution, ecology). I'd love to have a dinosaur hall in every city, but each museum has to prioritize. Maybe the CAS hall of taxidermied dioramas could be better used as a fossil hall (and be a better draw than a single tyrannosaur), but that's certainly not my call.

    1. Oh, no, it didn't sound like a criticism at all, I was just reminded and felt like sharing. Interesting too what you mentioned about items of local interest. There seemed to me to be a slant on the Industrial Revolution at the Thinktank. I think it was that tribute to Victorian ingenuity that pleasantly surprised me in particular.

  4. Dinosaurs and other extinct creatures are the biggest draw for me for science museums. It makes me sad that there aren't more of them on display at this place. The San Diego NH Museum is pretty nice, but it is also lacking in the dinosaur department.

    One of the best dinosaur exhibits is at the Museum of Ancient Life in Lehi, UT. It is chock full of dinosaurs.


  5. I can see how they think evolution and ecology are currently more important or urgent matters and I mostly agree. The island-focused evolution exhibit sounds really impressive; I would definitely love to visit! But it brings up a point I've often thought - I wish more museums would juxtapose exhibits of dinosaurs/fossil record/history of the earth with displays dealing with current ecological issues in a very connected and pointed way. What better way to drive home the idea of just how fragile it all is? When the public sees all those long dead and gone creatures and are then informed about our current age of extinction, I would think (hope!) it could make a lasting impression. I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but there's just so much to learn from the past that will teach us about the present and it's unfortunate to have that left out. I suppose every museum has to deal with tough choices about how to prioritize their space though.

    Great bird photos! I'm imagining those lovely macaws.

  6. Lovely photos. I, too, like to see some of the odd (usually dead) things tucked away in the corners of most museums. When I was younger I was fascinated by the drawers and drawers of impaled butterflies and beetles and occasional monsterous stick-insects. I found the experience to be slightly macabre and a little surreal.

  7. Cityscape seems a good subject for murals. But many themes can of course be painted there, for decoration and as a break and escape from looking at cement. This painting by American painter Charles Sheeler, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8DP5GS, would make a good mural as it is as a good painting. The image can be seen as wahooart.com who supplies canvas prints from original art.


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