When is the last time you saw bushbuck, baboons, bats from Borneo, or the bulging stomach of a Madagascar leaf-nosed snake?
What is in the stomach anyway, to make it bulge like that? A very small visitor to the California Academy of Sciences on Friday suggested “potatoes.”
She was probably wrong, since potatoes are not native to Madagascar, and the delicate little leaf-nosed snake isn’t a vegetarian, but she was in the right place to get some answers.
Particularly this weekend, because for Mission neighborhood residents, Friday, Saturday and Sunday are free with proof of residency, like a driver’s license or utility bill. Normally, admission is can be as much as $25, depending on how old you are or if you’re a student.
It’s also free every third Wednesday, but some visitors suggested that makes those days rather busy.
The leaf-nosed snake lives in the academy’s four-story mock rainforest, which itself is isolated from the rest of the museum to prevent non-native species from escaping and populating California. Sealing the rainforest dome off also keeps it warm and humid.
There’s just one way in – through a staffed antechamber – and one way out – by way of the staffed elevator.
By itself, the rainforest dome is worth the visit here, even if that involves braving public transit. Rarely can you experience something so beautifully reflective of nature without risking your own hide in the actual rainforest wilderness. There the poison dart frogs, disease-carrying mosquitoes, anacondas, vipers and other potential hazards roam unhindered. At the academy, it’s a substantially lower risk.
Humid and green, the dome is dominated by a pool, which constantly swirls with the movement of giant rainforest fish and is set about with bright green plants and free-flying birds and butterflies.
The academy spent three years rebuilding its museum in Golden Gate Park, crafting the greenest museum in the world. The new building relies on a lot of natural light, which filters down from windows and skylights even into the deeper sections of the museum like the Steinhart aquarium.
The building, designed by Renzo Piano, was constructed from recycled steel and recycled jeans, for insulation. Recycled slag and fly-ash from power plants was added into the concrete.
Do not miss the living rooftop. This surreal and bulbous topmost level of the academy museum alternates between hypermodern, with automated skylights and pretty much the most efficient photovoltaics money can buy, and a retro-sod house, with short, native plants like stonecrop, tidy tips, self heal and California sagebrush, and, not one, but four hives of bees.
On Friday a red-tailed hawk swooped low over the rooftop, probably in search of a rodent meal. Academy staff had mixed opinions on whether rodents might have moved into the man-made habitat. No one is studying mammals just yet, but scientists are tracking rooftop visits by insects and birds. According to one study by a scientist at San Francisco State University, there are proportionally more native insects on the rooftop than in Golden Gate park. Surveying of plant and insect species is ongoing and welcomes volunteers.
Also not to be missed, though one might really have to apply effort to overlook it, is the truly gargantuan, 87-foot-long – real! – blue whale skeleton. Or the fantastic, as in, so bizarre as to be unbelievable, sea dragons.
That’s not to belittle the quirky, blue day geckos, the pacific spiny lumpsucker, the upside-down jellyfish, the albino crocodile, or is it an alligator? Neither would it be fair to neglect the white-throated Savanna monitor lizard, the macaws, the climate exhibit where you can estimate your carbon footprint, or the uncountable multitude of preserved specimens.
The nature center houses a smattering of these specimens, stuffed and dried or floating in jars. Many are deliciously Halloween appropriate, like the model human and Neanderthal skulls, snakes in bottles, and various furs and teeth.
Staff at the nature center are happy to look up the names of anything you’ve seen in the museum, or simply try and answer questions like, how big is the brain of a walrus? In this case, staff can point to a life-size plastic cast of a walrus skull, which shows a somewhat small cavity for the brain behind a protuberant and bony nose, and the prominent “zygomatic arch,” which indicates an animal with a strong jaw.
This Sunday there are two Halloween events at the nature center, a K-4 Day of the Dead science adventures at 2:15 and family nature crafts from 11-12:30.
Though the building’s been entirely reinvented, many of the old exhibits remain, like Foucault’s pendulum and the ever-popular African penguin exhibit. Pierre is the oldest penguin, at 26, but there are also new, younger ones. It’s hard to tell who’s watching whom at the penguin exhibit, with some of the avian characters swimming right up against the window. Come at feeding time for the best show.