California Academy of Sciences: The Rainforest in my Back Yard

Bird in rainforest
Photo courtesy the California Academy of Sciences

My favorite rainforest is less than four miles from downtown San Francsico. I’ve visited rainforests around the world—in Argentina and Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, in the mountains of Madagascar, and in Queensland, Australia. Each has its charms: rare plants, endangered animals, gorgeous butterflies. But they also come with swarms of hungry mosquitoes, hairy spiders the size of a dinner plate, and leeches in search of warm bodies they can cuddle up to.

The rainforest in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, however, has all the beauty without the beasts. Not only is it conveniently located, it also is designed with the visitor in mind. Enter the 90-foot diameter glass-domed enclosure and you’ll immediately feel the rainforest’s warm, humid atmosphere; it’s carefully controlled to be comfortable to humans an well as to rainforest denizens: 82º – 85º and at least 75% humidity. Pause to get your bearings and butterflies will appear overhead, sunlight illuminating the spots and stripes of their bright crimson, chartreuse, or iridescent blue wings. Stand still, and they may land right on you.

A spiraling stairway around the perimeter of the dome provides visitors an eye-level view of each of the rainforest’s vertical layers, beginning at ground level and moving up through the shrub layer, the understory (about 45 feet high), and the canopy to the light-filled emergent overstory (up to 150 feet high in an actual rainforest). Beneath it all is a “flooded forest” aquarium, home to pirannah, electric eels, and freshwater stingrays.

More than 1,600 animals live in the rainforest dome, so you don’t need to look far to find wildlife. The lazy, sinuous movement of a four-foot-long catfish occasionally breaks the surface of the crystal-clear aquarium waters. Birds nest amidst epiphytes, on rough lianas or soft mosses; I watched some bright yellow ones ferry nesting materials to a branch high in the canopy. A tiny strawberry poison dart frog carries newly hatched tadpoles on her back and deposits each into its own individual bromeliad pool. The mother frog will return to these high-rise nurseries regularly to feed the tadpoles with her own unfertilized eggs. Seeing the animals up close enhances my appreciation of rainforest diversity, as well as my concern for the world’s rapidly deteriorating habitats.

The plants are fascinating, as well: from towering trees to dainty tendrils seeking structural support, from seed pods the size of a man’s fist to sprays of delicate cream-colored flowers, the lush rainforest includes species representative of plants from rainforests around the world. Bromeliads, orchids, begonias, pitcher plants, and giant philodendrons are among my favorites.

The exhibit appeals to a wide variety of visitors, and is a great experience for families to share. While I was there, a small boy called excitedly, “Dad, come here! I want you to see the anthill!” Teenaged boys marveled at a tiny lizard: “The texture looks just like a branch; it’s beautiful.” (When was the last time you heard a teenaged boy marvel at anything?) A girl was fascinated with the exhibit of golden mantella frogs, and protested when her mother announced it was time to leave. Fortunately, this rainforest will still be here tomorrow, and we’ll be back to visit.

For more information: California Academy of Sciences The rainforest exhibit opens at 10:00 am Sunday through Friday and 9:30 am on Saturdays, holidays, and free Wednesdays.

© 2009 Laurie McAndish King. This article originally ran in Examiner.com on April 17, 2009.