Geneva Anderson digs into art

Tis the Season for Science…the California Academy of Sciences gears up for five weeks of wintry events–extended hours and daily shows of science

Reindeers Yukon (male, seated) and Windy (female) have taken up residence at the California Academy of Science's east garden for the holidays and are available daily through January 2, 2011. With thick fur and short tails adapted to the cold, they are the only deer species in the world in which both male and females have antlers. Their antlers are made of bone and fall off and regrow every year. Photo: Geneva Anderson.

With Thanksgiving just behind us, it’s time to concentrate on the holidays that follow and making the most of the time we have with those near and dear.   I still remember our family outings in the 1960’s and 70’s to the old California Academy of Sciences and Steinhardt Aquarium in Golden Gate Park and what fun we had.  Those memories kick in every time I go back.   This year, San Francisco’s California Academy of Science  is celebrating the holiday season with “Tis the Season for Science,” a five week offering of polar and holiday-themed programs, activities and interactive displays. Visitors can meet a pair of live reindeer, ask a botanist what “mistletoe” actually means, find out what causes the Northern Lights, and more, while exploring the “hows” and “whys” of  life in some of Earth’s most frigid climates.

Been awhile?  If you last visited before the $500 million Renzo Piano re-do, completed in September 2008, the academy is a stunning single structure that contains multiple venues—the Steinhardt Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium, the Natural History museum and a 4-story rainforest.  A miracle of sustainable design, it is the largest public Platinum-rated (the highest rating possible) building in the world for Leadership in Energy and A miracle of sustainable design, it is the largest public Platinum-rated (the highest rating possible) building in the world for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and also the world’s greenest museum. 

Wintry Events:  Indoor snow flurries will dust the Academy’s central Piazza–and all inhabitants–throughout the day.  And this being the Academy of Sciences, the evaporative snow is appropriately high-tech.  It’s  a foam  that is blown through a special filter that creates small, white, flake-like bubble clusters, that look just like snow. The foam is made of 98% de-ionized filtered water and 2% surfactant and is non-allergenic, biodegradable, non-toxic, non-staining, and even kosher. (Surfectants are elastic chemicals that lower surface tension in a liquid, and make the hollow flakes).

In between snow storms, visitors can take in the stunning photographs by Arctic National Wildlife Refuge photographer Subhankar Banerjee.    There’s  an igloo dome to visit, holiday craft activities and a stage for special shows offered daily.  Young visitors can also meet “Santa Claude,” the Academy’s lovable alligator character based on Claude its albino American alligator who resides in the Academy’s swamp.  They can also get a closer look at rarely displayed stuffed Arctic specimens, including a stunning polar bear, a dall sheep, a snowy owl, and snow geese.

After a breakfast of "Reindeer chow," Yukon takes a snooze, dreaming of the Christmas eve that awaits him. Photo: Geneva Anderson.

Daily festive performances, programs, and interactive activities include—

Reindeer Rendezvous – Drop-in daily in the east garden. Meet Yukon and Windy, a pair of live domesticated reindeer (a.k.a. caribou) and their friendly shepherd, Marie Reeves, from California Reindeer Rentals who can tell you all about how reindeer are engineered for cold environments.  Last Tuesday, Yukon (bull) and Windy (cow) had just made their transition from their ranch home in the Central Valley to the Academy’s East Garden.   When I arrived to photograph them,  they were having a vegetarian breakfast of Reindeer chow which consists mainly of alfalfa pellets and grains with added nutrients.  

Marie Reeves explained that all reindeer have a fur coat with hollow tubular hairs for insulation from the cold and that they can lie down in the snow without melting it.  This fur also makes them buoyant, so they great swimmers. Underneath this fur coat is a very thick wooly coat for additional protection from the cold.  There are about 5,000 hollow hairs and 13, 0000 wooly hairs per square inch. 

Their hooves are also divided in halves that form an almost complete circle.  This helps them walk on the snow.  Beside the hooves are small “cleats” that act like snow tires to give the reindeer traction when running in the snow.  Because there is little snow in California, they need to have their feet trimmed regularly.

Reindeer are the only deer where both males (bulls) and females (cows) have antlers.  The males shed their antlers by mid-December when breeding season ends.  The females hold theirs until spring when their babies (calves) are born.  They both then grow a new set of antlers and antlers are the fastest growing tissue on earth.


This Polar Bear has been in storage and received a fur "touch-up" before going on display at the California Academy of Science. Polar bears evolved from brwn bears about 150,000 years ago, when glaciers isolated some brown bear populations. Photo: Geneva Anderson.

Polar Perspectives

– Shows daily in the Piazza. Step into the igloo presentation dome for a glimpse of the stark, vast beauty of the North Pole.

Polar Jeopardy – Daily at 11am and 3pm in the Piazza. Think you know a thing or two about polar bears, emperor penguins, and the Northern Lights? Challenge yourself in this interactive game show.

Arctic Exploration – Daily at 12:30pm at Science in Action. Explore the extreme north, from the ice of the Arctic to the evergreen Boreal Forests and beyond, with Google Earth.

Cold-Blooded Live Animals – Daily at 1pm in the Piazza. Meet slithering, cold-blooded snakes and learn about their amazing attributes.

“Chill Out” with an Academy Scientist – Every Wednesday at 2pm in the Piazza. Meet Academy scientists who study plants, animals, and climate change in some of the planet’s coldest environments.

Night at the Museum Sleepovers:  The Academy’s popular “Penguins and Pajamas” sleepover program resumes on Tuesday, December. 28, 2010, offering children ages 6 to 17, and their adult chaperones, the chance to camp out for a night at the Academy.  Sleepover guests check-in at 6 p.m. and explore the Academy after it’s closed to the public, taking in a snake demonstration, the 4 story Rainforests of the World exhibit, the Extreme Mammals exhibit, an alligator talk in the swamp, a planetarium show, the Discovery Tidepool, Penguin Central in African Hall, and (weather permitting) the living roof and its telescopes.  There’s a late night snack and a movie in the West Pavilion or a snack and bedtime story in the Boardroom Lobby.  At 11 pm, it’s lights out.  Participants can unroll their sleeping bags in African Hall with the penguins, in the Aquarium, or in the Lower Swamp next to Claude the albino alligator, or in the East Pavilion next to the swaying kelp of the California Coast tank.  In the morning, there’s breakfast at the Academy Café and the sleepover ends at 8 a.m.

The “Penguins and Pajamas” Academy sleepover package requires prepaid tickets ($99 members to $119 non-members). Package includes overnight parking in the Music Concourse parking garage, next-day museum admission, breakfast, snacks, and a special commemorative gift.  Dinner is available for purchase at the Academy Café or the Moss Room.

The Penguin show and feedings at the California Academy of Sciences are a favorite with people of all ages. Academy biologists answer visitor questions while feeding and craing for these lovable penguins. The Academy has a popular sleepover event that allows kids to actually spend the night near the penguins. Photo: Geneva Anderson.

 The new planetarium show: “Life A Cosmic Story:”   How did life on earth begin?  This tantalizing question forms the basis of the new second all-digital show, produced by the Academy and narrated by actress Jodi Foster.  “Life: A Cosmic Story” screens daily in the Morrison Planetarium across its 75 foot diameter screen. The show begins in a redwood forest, derived from photographs taken at Bohemian grove in Muir woods.  One redwood looms large, until we approach its branches and enter one of its leaves, adjusting our perspective to a microscopic level.  We see a pared-down version of its inner workings, learning about the process of photosynthesis and the role of DNA.  This scene sets the stage for the story of life.  From there, we leap backward billions of years to the origin of elements themselves and learn about the early Universe and dark matter which drew hydrogen and helium together to form the first stars.  We then dive into the Milky Way Galaxy of several billion years ago and witness the formation of young Earth and how life may have taken off and continue leaping forward in time, viewing the movement of continents and the changing environment for life, until we reach modern Earth.  In Life’s live section, a Morrison Planetarium presenter will reveal the latest news about the potential for life in our Solar System and beyond.  

 Details:  The California Academy of Sciences is located at 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park.  For information about all Academy events, including sleepovers, visit , or call (415) 379-8000.

November 27, 2010 Posted by | California Academy of Sciences | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment