Tropical rainforest comes to SF


The four story dome inside the Academy of Sciences is the largest display of its kind in the world.

It is filled with live plants and animals - a feast for the senses.

"Rainforests are just magical, magical places," Academy chief of public programs Chris Andrews said. "It's almost as if, as if nature has thrown a party and they've invited everybody and everybody has come."

A spiraling ramp takes visitors through the top three floors of the exhibit, traveling through the rainforests of Borneo, Madagascar and Costa Rica.

"The sites, the sounds, the smells in a rainforest are completely overwhelming when you visit them," Andrews said. 18 "And what we hope here is when people come into our exhibit they'll get just a hint of what a rain forest is really like and they will care about them in the future."

Almost everything about the exhibit is on the cutting edge of museum science. The glass that encloses the rainforest was installed about a year and a half ago; the panels were imported from Germany and are made with the lowest possible lead content. The glass helps keep the temperature at a constant 82 degrees.

The roof is sprinkled with skylights that let in sunshine for the plants.

The first trees for the rainforest arrived last December. Just getting them into the building was a huge challenge; the entire process took two days. The trees were grown in Florida and trucked across the country. The Academy wanted a diverse mix of sizes and types of trees, just like it would be in nature.

"You have to have a lot of passion for it because nobody's ever done this before, so there's a lot of trial, lot of error," project manager Lori Garrison said. "We just keep plugging."

Four months after the initial planting, crews put in the lower level of the forest, designed to simulate the muddy banks along a river in the Amazon. Some of the trees have already grown as much as a foot.

"Four of the trees have flowered since they've been brought in, which is a good sign they are feeling comfortable," horticulturist Kristen Natoli said. "Two of them have set fruit - yeah, they are happy."

While the plants soak up the sun, the Academy is gathering the animals that will live inside. One new addition is a bat-eating snake.

"This particular form sometimes occurs in caves," Andrews said. "As bats come out at night to feed, this snake will live in the mouth of a cave and will grab bats out of the mid air."

The Academy is trying to get as many creatures as possible that were bred in captivity, rather than taking them from the wild. Some of the animals are being trained to be comfortable around people.

"People just love to get up close to animals," Andrews said. "And one feature of the new Academy is we don't want all of our animals to be in cages behind glass. We want to bring them out on the floor and get people close to them."

About a month ago, the birds for the exhibit were brought into the dome. They spent their first few days in cages while they adjusted to the temperature and feel of their new home.

"They seem to be doing really well," assistant curator Brenda Melton said. "As soon as they came in, they became very vocal. I think they really like the environment."

The outside of the dome was covered with temporary netting to help the birds learn where the glass was so they would not fly into it. Then the birds were released and given a few more weeks to adjust before visitors started touring the rainforest. Now the netting is gone and the birds seem right at home.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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