Biodiversity Resources at the California Academy of Sciences

By Dr. Healy Hamilton, Research Division, California Academy of Sciences

CAS Herpetology and various National Forests are working together as Challenge Cost–Share partners to survey amphibians and reptiles in northern California. Image: M. Koo, CAS Herpetology.

The California Academy of Sciences (CAS) was founded in 1853 as the very first scientific institution in the West, with a mission to explore and explain the natural world. CAS has maintained an active field research program through which CAS systematic biologists have traveled from poles to equator, collecting and describing the diversity of flora and fauna they encounter. Today, CAS ranks among the ten largest natural history museums in the world, with over 18 million biological and anthropological specimens in its collections. Not surprisingly, the biological diversity of California is among the greatest strengths of the Cal Academy collections.

The CAS collections are divided among eight research departments, each representing different taxonomic disciplines. The Botany Department is the sixth largest herbarium in the U.S., with the largest collection of vascular plants in the western states. Of special interest to Californians is the California wildflower database, where anyone with internet access can search by color, geographic region, common or scientific name to retrieve descriptive information, geographic distribution, and lovely photographs of over 125 native wildflower species. The Entomology Department is one of the five largest in North America, with exceptionally rich specimen resources for California insects. The Pacific Coast Entomological Society is headquartered at the CAS Entomology Department.

The Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy houses bird specimens from every county in California as well as the largest collection of marine mammals in the world. Currently, over 800 skulls of the California sea lion Zalophus californianus are on display in a popular exhibit entitled Skulls. Information from the entire bird and mammal collections is available via a searchable internet database.

California reptiles and amphibians are well–represented in the Herpetology Department, which is among the top five collections in the world in both size and diversity, which is also searchable online. Both freshwater and marine fishes of California can be found in the Ichthyology Department collections, one of the largest fish collections in the world, housing approximately fifty percent of all fish species known to science. The Department of Invertebrate Zoology and Geology is the home of SFBay:2K, a major survey of the benthic fauna of the San Francisco Bay. Comparing the diversity, distribution, and abundance of animals in the Bay bottom to historical samples from the department collections will help establish a biological baseline for this rapidly changing region.

Natural history collections constitute the permanent, verifiable evidence of biodiversity, the most authoritative and continuous record that science can ever possess. Specimen identifications can be updated as taxonomies change, so voucher specimens retain their scientific value for decades and even centuries. Many museum specimens were collected in landscapes that are now irreversibly altered by development, making museum collections uniquely capable of providing valuable perspective on the changes already wrought.

Certainly there are limitations associated with historical data, such as variations in sampling effort or difficulties assigning precise geographic locations. But increasingly, natural history museum collections are being recognized as unique and underutilized sources of biodiversity information.

To bring 150 years of museum collections data into relevance to bear on the issues facing biodiversity conservation in the 21st century, these data must be integrated with modern computational tools. Creating specimen–level searchable databases is one essential step. However, to be maximally useful, a museum specimen record must include spatial coordinates (latitude–longitude). Integrating the fundamental museum specimen data of ‘who, what, where, and when’ with the powerful analytical tools of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) vastly expands the value of collections data at Cal Academy.

CAS scientists have developed a tool that helps convert textual localities typically recorded with a specimen (e.g., “2 mi S of Bakersfield”) into geospatial coordinates. With a focus on California, CAS curatorial assistants are currently now georeferencing specimen data for birds, mammals, freshwater and marine fishes, reptiles, amphibians, and benthic invertebrates of the San Franicsco Bay.

CAS aims to supply the many potential users of georeferenced museum specimen data, whether for producing simple biodiversity maps of a particular taxa or region, or for more sophisticated applications such as modeling species distributions.

From the identification of conservation priorities to the development of natural history educational materials, the California Academy of Sciences is committed to providing the public with information that supports a biodiversity informatics infrastructure that will foster information and reinforce conservation in California.

For more information, visit or email Dr. Hamilton at

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California Biodiversity News: Volume 10, Number 1
Spring/Summer 2003
For more information on the California Biodiversity Council, please contact:
Erin Klaesius, Communications Coordinator
CA Biodiversity Council
1416 Ninth Street, Suite 1311
Sacramento, CA 95814