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April 22, 2010

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Maggots munch for science

WATCH maggots munch on liver. Stand in the path of a flash flood. Roam around a kelp forest. Nearly 10 years in the making, the US$165 million Ecosystems Experience opened recently with its one-of-a-kind view of the world at the California Science Center. And it's free.

Plants, animals and do-it-yourself science take up nearly every inch of the two-story, 4,180-square-meter exhibit in Exposition Park, south of downtown. Temperatures, lighting and learning change in the 11 environments on display in this combination aquarium, zoo, school and arcade.

The highlight is a 7.3-meter-long transparent tunnel through a 711,640-liter tank that puts you face to face with 1,500 horn sharks, swell sharks, giant sea bass, wolf eels, bat rays and other fish swimming in a kelp forest.

Most people know kelp as the "slimy stuff covered with flies that piles up on beaches," says ecology curator Charles Kopczak, aka "Dr Kelp." But viewing scores of 6-meter fronds that grow as much as a foot a day is enlightening and awe-inspiring.

"The beautiful golden brown color with sunlight filtering through, fish swimming calmly between the fronds, creates a very beautiful image," he says.

Kids amazed or grossed out to learn that kelp can be found in everything from beer to toothpaste to ice cream may also get a charge out of the Rot Room - with its flesh-eating beetles, maggots, camel crickets, sow bugs, millipedes and roaches.

"These larvae are ravenous," says Shawna Joplin, keeper of the arthropods, as she looked in on beetles. The smallest of her charges is an ant and the largest a "really cool," 20-centimeter giant Sonoran centipede.

Forensic entomology, made popular on shows like "CSI," "NCIS" and "Bones," is a huge draw for kids. For example, the beetles are the same used by forensic teams to clean skeletons and the flies are those used to determine time of death.

In the Desert and Flash Flood area, a "splash zone" puts you in the path - but out of harm's way - of a torrent. It all starts with lightning, thunder and a trickle, then 13,250 liters of water gush down, smash into some fake rocks, and flow into a filtering system that prepares it to strike 10 minutes later.

A few feet away, desert tortoises, chuckwallas that sit on heated rocks and scorpions give visitors a close look at desert dwellers.

The kelp forest was the biggest challenge to create because salt water had to be hauled by barge and truck, but the critters had to clear red-tape hurdles. Most every fish, animal and organism required a permit or license.

"For many insects and things, especially those that like to eat crops, the USDA is very concerned about you having them and the permit process takes longer than you expect," Kopczak says.

A group of Cub Scouts working on a restocking project donated their young trout to a display in the River Zone, where the fish munch on water striders, giant water bugs and dragonfly nymphs.

In the Extreme Zone, visitors learn how species adapt to the harshest of conditions, the Island Zone shows how species behave in isolation, and the Global Zone looks at the way heat, population and wind patterns affect the world.

The science center was already the most attended museum in Southern California with 1.4 million visitors a year, says Jeffrey N. Rudolph, president and CEO of the science center. Ecosystems nearly doubled the exhibition space and Rudolph says they expect at least 2 million people in the coming year.

The museum is unique in a lot of ways, but it's got something shared by a lot of museums these days: debt. The museum still needs US$20 million in donations to pay off bonds purchased to build it. Rudolph is confident, though, people will give when they see it.

Susan Hackwood, executive director of the California Council on Science and Technology, says the cost was "dollars well spent."

"The whole notion of hands-on, getting your hands wet, bringing the learning environment right up front and personal so you can smell the kelp so to speak, is exactly correct and makes a big difference in a child's life," she says.

Ecosystems is the second phase of a three-part, 25-year master plan to reinvent the former California Museum of Science and Industry.


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