It is not the strongest, nor the smartest species that survive, Charles Darwin once said, "but the one most responsive to change."
Amid the menagerie of brightly colored and well-camouflaged creatures on display at the new California Academy of Sciences, it may be the building itself that best illustrates Darwin's assertion.
What's being heralded as the greenest museum building in the world opens its doors to the public on Sept. 27. The new academy in Golden Gate Park is insulated with nontoxic, second hand blue jeans and capped with a 2.5 acre living roof planted in native wildflowers. Thousands of live species of flora and fauna and 20 million specimens are housed in the new building.
On a recent afternoon, an albino alligator snoozed on a heated rock, schools of silvery sardines slipped along the aquarium glass, a boisterous group of penguins followed a wet-suit clad scientist and a 160-pound sea bass swam slow circles with a pair of moray eels.
The museum opened several exhibits a week early, offering a sneak peak to museum members, which is how third grader Sammy Hitomi, 9, ended up nose-to-nose with a bright red fish from the South China Sea.
Peering into the world's deepest live corral exhibit, forehead to the glass, Sammy said the highlight of his day thus far was the spiky lionfish. He still remembers creatures he encountered as a 3-year-old at the academy's old building.
"Cool" was the word Sammy chose to describe the new building. "It's got dirt all around it," he explained.
The world-famous Italian architect Renzo Piano designed the California Academy of Science's new $488 million building. From the outside, the structure's elegant profile blends in with the city's rounded green hilltops and the park's expansive lawns.
"With this design Renzo wanted to lift up the landscape and slide a museum underneath it," said Frank Almeda, the museum's senior botany curator, standing atop the roof. The wild strawberries and other species planted there will capture some 3.6 million gallons of rainwater each year, preventing storm runoff, and providing habitat for local wildlife.
Inside, visitors look up through shiplike portals to the sky.
On the ground floor of the rain forest exhibit, tropical fish swim in the flooded roots of trees. Then an elevator takes visitors up, into the canopy where birds fly free in a giant glass dome.
In the piazza, the breeze that ruffled a woman's skirt was not air conditioning, but cool Pacific Ocean air blowing in through the building's skylight portals which are opened and closed using a high-tech system of temperature monitors and computers. Photovoltaic solar cells generate up to 10 percent of the building's already low energy needs and recycled steel provides the building's structural skeleton.
The U.S. Green Building Council is poised to give the museum a "LEED platinum" rating, the council's highest mark for sustainability.
The new academy is not likely to be a favorite hangout for creationists or climate change naysayers. The new academy was designed to investigate two basic questions: "How did life evolve?" and "How will it survive?" And almost 150 years after Charles Darwin wrote his seminal book, "On the Origin of Species," some 38 percent of Americans in a 2005 poll said they would prefer that creationism, rather than evolution, was taught in the country's schools.
The National Academy of Sciences calls evolution "the central concept of biology," and all exhibits at the museum underscore that message.
In the African Hall, alongside taxidermy dioramas, a wall panel takes passers-by through the centuries of Homo sapiens evolution from that continent. Further on, a children's game allows kids to play with wooden replicas of Galapagos finches.
A dizzying digital tour of the cosmos at The Morrison Planetarium uses the most current data from NASA satellites to recreate stars and planets, and remind viewers how rare habitable real estate is in the universe.
"I want people to leave this place knowing that life is special and that we have to do all we can to preserve it," said Greg Farrington, the academy's executive director.