Academy hunting for life to fill halls

A journey into glass-cased exhibits reminiscent of such exotic wild lands as Bornean caves, Philippine coral reefs and flooded Amazonian rain forests is approaching reality in Golden Gate Park, but California Academy of Sciences employees first must find and buy plants and about half of the animals that will be housed in the rebuilt museum.

Giant octopi, bats, damselfish, penguins, krill, chameleons, butterflies and living coral will call the academy home following a $484 million refit started in 2004 of the worn-down, 88-year-old museum.

The academy, which includes Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium and newly named Kimball Natural History Museum, will be stocked with a variety of functioning ecosystems. Its doors are expected to open to the public late next year.

A four-story dome shown to reporters Thursday will become the world’s largest spherical living rain-forest display, according to academy plans, and the canopy will be connected by elevator to underwater coral and Everglades displays.

“Steinhart Aquarium has always been known for its diversity of living collections — and we’re going to probably double that diversity,” said Christopher Andrews, director of Steinhart Aquarium, as he stood in front of bricks and cement that will be covered with corals and water.

“We have about half of the animals that we need,” he said. “So we need to get the other half. Those animals will come from a wide range of sources — some will come from other zoos and aquariums, some will come from dealers, and some of them will come from sustainable sources in the wild.”

Andrews said the academy will buy bats from bat breeders and an albino alligator from an alligator farm.

“[Albino alligators] occur from time to time in the wild,” Andrews said. “But obviously, being an albino, they tend to be very obvious prey items.”

An anaconda given to the academy in 1999 will be well-fed and kept warm in hopes that it can grow from 11 feet to 15 feet before the academy reopens, Andrews said.

The academy has owned an Australian lungfish since 1938, aquatic biology Chairman John McCosker said.

“In 1973, if we wanted a fish, we caught one — we just went fishing,” he said. “Now you can get some of the rarest fishes on earth by driving to the airport.”

McCosker said rare animals are bred or captured sustainably and then sold by licensed experts.

The senior curator of the academy’s botany department, Frank Almeda, said trees, including peach palms, are being grown for the academy in Florida.

“I suspect some could be as big as 30 feet,” he said. “Some of them could probably grow to the very top of the dome.”

New exhibits

» Rainforests of the World: The Amazonian exhibit will include more than 1,600 live animals, including 600 birds and butterflies, nearly 100 reptiles and amphibians and a cave full of bats.

» Coral reef display: A 212,000-gallon tank will house a simulated Philippine coral reef. It will become the world’s deepest living coral reef display.

» African Hall: Chameleons, tortoises, cichlids, penguins and a python will be on display.

» California and Climate Change Wing: This exhibit will highlight the effects of climate change on California’s environment, economy and culture.

» Planetarium: A 75-foot diameter screen will act like a giant computer monitor, projecting images of the sky for crowds of up to 300 people.

– Source: California Academy of Sciences

jupton@examiner.com

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