Exotic species bred at the Academy of Sciences

March 2, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
The California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park has been open for over a year now, attracting record crowds. But what they don't see is the academy's thriving maternity ward.

There are lots of cool creatures at the Academy of Sciences, and the staff wants to keep it that way. They try not to take animals out of the wild, so when possible, they breed them on site.

Their best known breeding program is for penguins, and now academy biologists are having the same kind of success with other animals, maybe not as cute, but just as fascinating.

Brian Freiermuth is raising Asian horned frogs.

"It's kind of a learning game right now," he said.

The frogs are on display in caves in the museum's rain forest exhibit.

"These guys are obviously set up really well to blend in with leaf litter, and that's why they have these projections that stick out," Freiermuth said.

Asian horned frogs are sometimes brought into the United States as pets. But they are hard to care for and very little is known about their breeding habits.

So biologists were thrilled when a female at the academy laid 1,200 eggs more than a year ago. They set up a frog nursery and hundreds of tadpoles were born.

"The tadpoles are strangely adapted to have these funnel shaped mouths that are upturned. And they sit at the surface and they just kind of filter feed," Freiermuth said.

It's been a slow process with some tadpoles developing much faster than others. About 20 have now gone through metamorphosis and come out of the water as froglets.

"When they are at this stage they don't actually even eat, they just absorb the tail and that gives them enough food to then turn into a frog," Freiermuth said.

Horned frogs are not endangered, but they're closely related to a number of rare species.

"Potentially we can learn a lot about this species and then we can apply what we learned to other species that are less common," Freiermuth said.

Down the hall, Richard Ross is breeding cuttlefish. Despite the name, cuttlefishes are not actually fish, they're in the same family as octopus and squid.

"Oh, they are just the coolest animals in the world, aren't they? They are like little humming birds in the sea who look at you," he said.

These are dwarf cuttlefish. The adults only get about four inches long and they change color and texture to blend with their surroundings.

Ross has been working with the species for eight years; full of trial and error.

"There was not much information on them at all, anywhere," he said.

Cuttlefishes have highly developed brains and three hearts. Today, they're eating shrimp for lunch.

"They stalk it and they throw their arms up and try to distract it, and shoot out two tentacles like a chameleon's tongue," Ross said.

This cuttlefish breeding program is the only one in the United States. The babies are exact replicas of adults, but very tiny. They are kept in plastic cups, and have to be fed one at a time.

"The challenge is that they start so small and they eat a lot. So you got to feed them and you got to feed a lot," Ross said.

Eventually they move to a larger tank. Ross spends a lot of time with the breeding group, but he tries not to get too involved.

"They only live about a year anyway, so I've gotten really good at not getting emotionally attached to them because they are only going to be around for a little while," he said.

About 350 cuttlefish have hatched so far. Both this and the frog breeding program have been so successful and the academy is now shipping babies to other aquariums and researchers around the country.

"It's always rewarding when you are able to breed anything, but especially things that are a little more challenging," Freiermuth said.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney