California Academy of Sciences

San Francisco, CA, United States

California Academy of Sciences

San Francisco, CA, United States
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News Article | July 24, 2017

Dr. Lauren Esposito, one of the world's only female scorpion biologists, and her colleagues describe two new genera and three new species of Earth's oldest living, land-based arthropods SAN FRANCISCO (July 24, 2017) -- A team of researchers -- including Dr. Lauren Esposito, Curator of Arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences and colleagues from the American Museum of Natural History and Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil) -- have painstakingly revised a large group of Neotropical "club-tailed" scorpions. After sifting through DNA and comparing the physical traits of hundreds of specimens to reorganize (and strengthen) scientific understanding of this scorpion group, the scientists described two new genera and new species. The authors also restored a long-forgotten group called Heteroctenus. The colorful, new-to-science club-tailed scorpions hail from the tropical regions of North, Central, and South America. The results appear this summer in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History. "Clocking in at 435 million years old, scorpions are among the oldest living terrestrial arthropods on the planet," says Esposito, one of the world's only female scorpion biologists and expert in the evolution of their venoms. "We need to understand what they are and where they live so we can protect them. This review clears up longstanding confusion about the club-tailed group, but there's still so much to discover." Scorpions -- which give birth to live young--are found in every ecosystem on the planet, from cave systems below sea level to the snow-capped peaks of the Alps. Arachnologists estimate that the 2,200 species of known scorpion species only encompass around 60% of the group's total diversity. Esposito is part of a dedicated group of arachnologists determined to fill in those taxonomic gaps and care for vitally important museum collections -- often referred to as "libraries of life" available to students and researchers around the world. Though their characteristics vary, specimens of the three new species -- Ischnotelson peruassu and Physoctonus striatus from Brazil, and Rhopalurus ochoai from Venezuela -- inhabit the same overarching group of mostly large-bodied, strikingly colored, and sonically gifted scorpions. "Savannas, caves, deserts, open fields, and forests -- you name the Neotropical landscape," says Esposito, "and we can show you a club-tailed scorpion that lives there. One wild thing about this group is that many species have the unique ability to make sounds by rubbing a specialized comb-like structure against their sandpaper-like abdomen. We think it's probably a loud way to tell predators: 'back off.'" Esposito says the warning is audible to the human ear, adding that it "sounds like hiss, or even like a maraca shaking." Most specimens collected explicitly for this study -- about 200, in addition to specimens from museum collections--were detected at night using UV lights that produce a blue-green glow on scorpions' armor. Many of the study's authors turned over rocks, searched caves, and explored near rivers and forests to look for male and female representatives of the club-tailed group. Portable GPS devices record the geographical coordinates of each discovery so scientists can trace specimens back to their home environment. "This project exemplifies the many uses of natural history collections, without which research of this kind would be impossible," says Dr. Lorenzo Prendini, Curator of Arachnida at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and coauthor of the study. "Making use of the vast scorpion collections at the AMNH, among the world's largest, we were able to combine 'traditional' comparative morphological and anatomical data, reflecting the physical attributes of these scorpions, with DNA sequences from their nuclear and mitochondrial genomes. Integrating these diverse sources of data enabled us to achieve a more holistic understanding of the evolution and classification of these amazing scorpions." "It's mind-blowing how new genomic technology allows us to reevaluate entire plant and animal groups," says Esposito. "We can take new and old scorpion specimens, zoom in on their DNA and other characteristics, and use that information to better understand where they belong in the evolutionary tree. This would have been unthinkable decades ago." Inspiring the next generation of scorpion experts Lead author Esposito is on a mission to train the next generation of scientists and nature advocates. In 2014, she co-founded Islands & Seas, a science and education nonprofit currently building an independent network of field stations where scientists, tourists, and locals can work together to conserve natural resources. Its first field station is in San Juanico, a small fishing village in Baja California Sur situated just south of El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, the largest wildlife refuge in Latin America. While ecotourism businesses built around whale-watching surround the area, the local community is only just on the verge of development; with their work, Islands & Seas hopes to influence development in a sustainable direction. "First, the locals need to know what they have," says Esposito. "And before they can know what they have, we need scientists and students to conduct biodiversity surveys because nobody knows what's there." The organization recently completed its first "Science & Surf" summer institute in field biology for undergraduate students, with scientists from the Academy and other partner institutions showing them the ropes. "With the help of the students and local community, we've started building baseline information of what's there in the biosphere reserve," says Esposito. "And then we'll continue to build from there." Biology enthusiasts (and scorpion fans) stay tuned for open spots in 2018. Hi-res images available upon request at Jaguajir Found in: Brazil, French Guiana, and Guyana (possibly in Suriname and Venezuela, too) This new genus is named for the Tupi word Jaguajira -- meaning scorpion or "one who devours." The scientists say these "large, robust" scorpions reach up to more than four inches long and range in color from deep browns and black to yellow and slightly orange. The three known species of this group have been found under stones in daylight and with UV light detection at night. Ischnotelson Found in: northeastern Brazil Named for Greek words referring to a remarkably slender part of this scorpion group's abdomen, this small new genus (two known species) is endemic to northeastern Brazil. They are colorful; orange, many shades of yellow, reddish-brown, with black details. At just under two inches long, the Ischnotelson scorpions are generally smaller than members of the new Jaguajir genus. Ischnotelson peruassu Found in: Brazil This medium-sized, reddish-brown scorpion (about two inches long) is named for the Brazilian state park where it resides. It is known from only two semi-arid spots in Brazil along the Peruaçu River. Physoctonus striatus Found in: Brazil Collected from beneath stones by day and under UV light detection by night, this new species ranges from dark yellow to light brown. They are small -- only about one inch long -- and prefer veryf dry environments with sandy soil. Rhopalurus ochoai Found in: Venezuela This pale yellow or tan scorpion is named for Peruvian arachnologist Jose Antonio Ochoa Camara, a prolific scorpion biologist who collected most of the type material of this new species. Rhopalurus ochoai is medium-sized (about two inches long) and appears to be restricted to the dry forests of Venezuela. About Research at the California Academy of Sciences The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 400 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analysis of vast biological datasets, the Institute's scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. Through innovative partnerships and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.

News Article | May 25, 2017

Once thriving throughout sub-Saharan Africa, relentless hunting by European settlers reduced black rhino (Diceros bicornis) numbers dramatically – by the late 1960s they were gone from many countries and only about 70,000 remained in all of Africa. And then the 1970s came and the poaching began. By 1992, some 96 percent of black rhinos were lost to the desire for rhino horn. In 1993, the count was down to 2,475. The black rhino pictured here was photographed at Namibia’s Etosha National Park and is one of the 5,000 or so black rhinos that are slowly returning in numbers, thanks to conservation and anti-poaching efforts. The image was taken by award-winning Belgium-based photographer Maroesjka Lavigne while traveling in Namibia working on a project called “Land of Nothingness" – a photographic study of plants and animals blending into their natural environments. While the black rhinoceros is mostly gray, and the white rhinoceros isn't white at all, the black rhino here is decidedly white – a ghostly apparition poignantly suited to the beleaguered history that has placed the creatures on the Critically Endangered list. Many a rhino will roll in the mud and dust to fend against biting insects, but the salt from Etosha's iconic salt pans lends the creatures here a hauntingly beautiful dusting of chalky white. When Lavigne saw this lone black rhino becoming one with the ancient lakebed, she says, “My heart felt like it was going to explode from adrenaline.” It's the rare kind of scene that photographers dream of, and she rose to the occasion beautifully. The photograph won the Grand Prize at the California Academy of Sciences’ 2016 BigPicture photography competition. Lavigne says that she loves photographing places where “you can imagine how the world must have been before there were people.” And this photo certainly does that – however, were there no people, there would likely be more than one rhino in the frame. Thank you to the California Academy of Sciences’ magazine bioGraphic for sharing this incredible image with us. You can see more by following them on Facebook and Twitter. And see more of Lavigne's beautiful work here.

News Article | May 24, 2017

Research based on more than 180 fossil insects preserved in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles indicate that the climate in what is now southern California has been relatively stable over the past 50,000 years. The La Brea Tar Pits, which form one of the world's richest Ice Age fossil sites, is famous for specimens of saber-toothed cats, mammoths, and giant sloths, but their insect collection is even larger and offers a relatively untapped treasure trove of information. The new study, published today in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, is based on an analysis of seven species of beetles and offers the most robust environmental analysis for southern California to date. "Despite La Brea's significance as one of North America's premier Late Pleistocene fossil localities, there remain large gaps in our understanding of its ecological history," said lead author Anna Holden, a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History's Richard Gilder Graduate School and a research associate at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. "Recent advances are now allowing us to reconstruct the region's paleoenvironment by analyzing a vast and previously under-studied collection from the tar pits: insects." The new study focuses on ground beetles and darkling beetles, which are still present in and around the Los Angeles Basin today. Insects adapt to highly specific environmental conditions, with most capable of migrating when they or their habitats get too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry. This is especially true for ground and darkling beetles, which are restricted to well-known habitats and climate ranges. The researchers used radiocarbon dating to estimate the ages of the beetle fossils and discovered they could be grouped into three semi-continuous ranges: 28,000-50,000 years old, 7,500-16,000 years old, and 4,000 years old. Because the beetles stayed put for such a sustained period of time, evidently content with their environmental conditions, the study suggests that pre-historic Los Angeles was warmer and drier than previously inferred--very similar to today's climate. In addition, insects that thrive in cooler environments, such as forested and canopied habitats, and are just as likely as the beetles to be preserved in the tar pits, have not been discovered at La Brea. "With the exception of the peak of the last glaciers during the late Ice Age about 24,000 years ago, our data show that these highly responsive and mobile beetles were staples in Los Angeles for at least the last 50,000 years, suggesting that the climate in the area has been surprisingly similar." Holden said. "We hope that insects will be used as climate proxies for future studies, in combination with other methods, to give us a complete picture of the paleoenvironment of Earth." Other authors on this study include John Southon, University of California-Irvine; Kipling Will, University of California-Berkeley; Matthew Kirby, California State University; Rolf Aalbu, California Academy of Sciences; and Molly Markey, AIR Worldwide. The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, is one of the world's preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. The Museum encompasses 45 permanent exhibition halls, including the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for temporary exhibitions. It is home to the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, New York State's official memorial to its 33rd governor and the nation's 26th president, and a tribute to Roosevelt's enduring legacy of conservation. The Museum's five active research divisions and three cross-disciplinary centers support approximately 200 scientists, whose work draws on a world-class permanent collection of more than 34 million specimens and artifacts, as well as specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data, and one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, it is the only American museum authorized to grant the Ph.D. degree and the Master of Arts in Teaching degree. Annual attendance has grown to approximately 5 million, and the Museum's exhibitions and Space Shows can be seen in venues on five continents. The Museum's website and collection of apps for mobile devices extend its collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to millions more beyond its walls. Visit for more information. Become a fan of the Museum on Facebook at, and follow us on Instagram at @AMNH, Tumblr at amnhnyc, or Twitter at

Roopnarine P.D.,California Academy of Sciences | Angielczyk K.D.,Integrative Research Center
Science | Year: 2015

The fossil record contains exemplars of extreme biodiversity crises. Here, we examined the stability of terrestrial paleocommunities from South Africa during Earth's most severe mass extinction, the Permian-Triassic.We show that stability depended critically on functional diversity and patterns of guild interaction, regardless of species richness. Paleocommunities exhibited less transient instability-relative to model communities with alternative community organization-and significantly greater probabilities of being locally stable during the mass extinction. Functional patterns that have evolved during an ecosystem's history support significantly more stable communities than hypothetical alternatives.

Williams G.C.,California Academy of Sciences
PLoS ONE | Year: 2011

Recent advances in deep-sea exploration technology coupled with an increase in worldwide biotic surveys, biological research, and underwater photography in shallow water marine regions such as coral reefs, has allowed for a relatively rapid expansion of our knowledge in the global diversity of many groups of marine organisms. This paper is part of the PLoS ONE review collection of WoRMS (the Worldwide Register of Marine Species), on the global diversity of marine species, and treats the pennatulacean octocorals, a group of cnidarians commonly referred to as sea pens or sea feathers. This also includes sea pansies, some sea whips, and various vermiform taxa. Pennatulaceans are a morphologically diverse group with an estimated 200 or more valid species, displaying worldwide geographic and bathymetric distributions from polar seas to the equatorial tropics and from intertidal flats to over 6100 m in depth. The paper treats new discoveries and taxa new to science, and provides greater resolution in geographic and bathymetric distributions data than was previously known, as well as descriptions of life appearances in life and in situ observations at diverse depth. © 2011 Gary C. Williams.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Continuing grant | Program: | Phase: SYMBIOSIS DEF & SELF RECOG | Award Amount: 82.64K | Year: 2016

Insects live in a world of chemical signals. Chemicals are used as defensive weapons, to signal danger, to mark resources for later foraging or for avoidance, and to identify mates of the correct species and assess their quality. The social insects take this chemically-oriented lifestyle to an extreme. The sophisticated division of labor in social insect colonies requires exquisite regulation of individual behaviors, and chemical pheromones are crucial for organizing work within the colony. Despite these important and diverse roles, we have only a rudimentary understanding of how pheromones originate and evolve. Here, Tsutsui and Fisher will combine genetic manipulations, pheromone analyses, and behavioral tests to clarify how various forces of natural selection shape chemical communication in a social insect. This research will be performed using the invasive Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) as a model system. This ant is a globally widespread invader, is considered one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world, and is a significant agricultural and structural pest. The research of Tsutsui and Fisher is likely to reveal pheromonal and behavioral processes that can be targeted in the development of new control techniques, thus contributing to greater ecological resilience, enhanced food quality and security, and reduced degradation of soil and water by conventional insecticides.

Self/non-self recognition systems have played a central role in many of the major evolutionary transitions. Because components of these recognition systems are often co-opted from existing systems, they can experience conflicting forms of selection after acquiring their new functions. The societies of eusocial insects are an ideal system in which to study the evolutionary trade-offs associated with the evolution of self/non-self recognition systems. In many eusocial insects, cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) are used to distinguish colonymates (self) from non-colony members (non-self). However, CHCs have also retained their original function as barriers to desiccation. These two distinct roles of CHCs - as both desiccation barriers and recognition pheromones - are expected to produce different forms of selection, as the optimal molecular proporties for the two functions are quite different. Tsutsui and Fisher will combine functional genomics, chemical ecology, and behavioral ecology to test the overarching hypothesis that evolutionary trade-offs shape the recognition system of social insects. The results of this research will illuminate how genetic and chemical changes lead to changes in individual behavior and, in turn, alter the structure of complex societies.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: CROSS-EF ACTIVITIES | Award Amount: 610.64K | Year: 2013

This project will document a suspected peak in marine animal diversity in the Earth?s most diverse marine realm. Investigators from the California Academy of Sciences (CAS), in collaboration with numerous other US and Philippine institutions, will document the kinds of marine organisms in the Coral Triangle of Southeast Asia, focusing on the center of the center of biodiversity, the Verde Island Passage (VIP) of Luzon, Philippines. Researchers will assess the extreme biodiversity across the VIP to determine species distributions, analyze genetic diversity among species, and discover new species, including in the Twilight Zone, accessible through advanced underwater technology that allows exploration at depths below those reached with traditional scuba diving.

The project will establish crucial baseline information on biodiversity at key VIP localities before further impact of global climate change and human development activities. Results will inform regional and global conservation and management policies, and engage the public in protecting coral reef communities integral to oceanic and human health. Data and collections will be preserved and cataloged, and will be available for study into the future.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: SEDIMENTARY GEO & PALEOBIOLOGY | Award Amount: 208.86K | Year: 2016

Collaborative Research: Mesozoic Tethyan paleocommunity dynamics: Modelling complexity and stablity during times of biotic escalation and community restructuring

The Mesozoic Era began in the aftermath of Earths largest mass extinction 251 million years ago, ending 66 million years ago with another mass extinction. The current project focuses on ecosystems of an ancient ocean which covered much of western Europe during the Mesozoic and left behind a rich, well-documented fossil record. The groundwork for modern oceans was laid during this time with increasingly complex ecosystems. The relationship between the complexity and stability of ecosystems is, however, poorly understood. The project will examine that relationship by modeling the complex dynamics of Mesozoic marine ecosystems using food webs, which capture the interactions and energy transfer between species in biological communities. Food web reactions to environmental disturbances are informative of ecosystem resilience. Analyzing ancient food webs will be accomplished with a suite of mathematical and computational models.

Ecosystem responses to changes in biological complexity and environmental disturbance remain poorly understood. Anthropogenically-driven global biological change is currently resulting in catastrophic losses of biodiversity. To anticipate ecosystem responses and effectively manage resources, we must understand how ecosystems respond to extreme changes; yet there are no precedents in human experience to guide us. The fossil record documents extreme ecosystem changes and this project will provide analogs from the past to enable better forecasts for modern marine ecosystems. This information will be distributed to the public, educators and students through a variety of programs at the California Academy of Sciences.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Continuing grant | Program: | Phase: RSCH EXPER FOR UNDERGRAD SITES | Award Amount: 268.54K | Year: 2014

This REU Site award to the California Academy of Sciences (CAS), located in San Francisco, CA, will support the training of 8 undergraduate students for 8 weeks during the summers of 2014-2018. During the program, students will work with CAS scientists on research projects on biodiversity. Given the abundant resources of the museum, it can support research projects on the systematics, phylogenetics, and biogeography of a diverse range of organisms including extinct human ancestors, spiders, turtles, birds, fish, ants, marine invertebrates, and plants. By conducting an independent research project, students will be trained in a range of research techniques. Depending on the nature of the particular project, students may gain experience with light and scanning electron microscopy, molecular phylogenetics, and/or next-generation sequencing technologies. In addition, students will receive lectures on systematic biology, take educational tours of the facility, and participate in community-building activities. Students will also learn about the ethics of collections-based science, responsible conduct of research in a museum setting, appropriate data collection and archiving, and informed attitudes towards preserving the worlds biodiversity. Furthermore, students will develop oral communication skills through the process of preparing a presentation of their research findings, which are highlighted in a symposium at the end of the program. In conjunction with educators, CAS has developed program assessment tools that provide feedback on every aspect of the program and will also employ the common assessment tool for BIO REU Sites. Interested students are encouraged to contact prospective mentors before applying since shared interests between the mentor and student are a key component of the application process. Letters of recommendation, a statement of interest, and academic performance are also used in the selection process. The program places particular emphasis on attracting students from groups that are under-represented in the sciences.

The CAS REU program hopes to foster in its participants a long-term interest in science by promoting scientific engagement that extends beyond the programs end. Specifically, student participants will be encouraged to present their research at domestic and international scientific conferences.

Students are required to be tracked after the program and must respond to an automatic email sent via the NSF reporting system. More information is available by visiting, or by contacting the PI (Dr. Rich Mooi at

Fossils provide our only direct evidence of past biodiversity and how individual organisms to ecosystems have responded to past and long-term environmental change. This project fills a major gap in the documentation of past environmental change, making available digitized data from the especially rich fossil record of the eastern Pacific marine invertebrate communities of the Cenozoic, the 66 million years that have passed since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Digitization and integration of these data will foster increased accessibility, efficient analysis to understand past change, the identification of factors involved in that change, and enable predictions for how current biodiversity may be impacted by future change. Development of virtual fieldwork experiences will assist stakeholders and educators in understanding how field data and fossil collections are used to infer past ecosystem and environmental conditions.

The data currently exist as a vast collection of fossil specimens and printed materials distributed among multiple natural history collections: this project involves 7 primary institutions, one small collection and one federal institution and will integrate this digitized specimen data with the other two ongoing fossil networks through the web portal iDigPaleo, expanding the resource for fossil invertebrate information by spanning over 500 million years. This wealth of data will provide resources not only to researchers, but will be made available to K-16 educators, government, industry, and the general public. Through the national resource (iDigBio) these data will be integrated with information on modern organisms providing the means to understand important questions on niches, environmental change, transitions in sea levels, etc. Additionally, undergraduate and graduate students will be trained in the modern uses of natural history collections. This award is made as part of the National Resource for Digitization of Biological Collections through the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections program and all data resulting from this award will be available through the national resource (

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