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San Diego Natural History Museum Hosts 'Coast to Cactus' Exhibit

Pictured is a tank with fresh water, fish, amphibians and insects in the exhibition Coast to Cactus in Southern California at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Pablo Mason
Pictured is a tank with fresh water, fish, amphibians and insects in the exhibition Coast to Cactus in Southern California at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
San Diego Natural History Museum To Open 'Coast to Cactus' Exhibit
San Diego Natural History Museum To Open 'Coast to Cactus' Exhibit
Coast To Cactus: New Exhibition Opening At The NAT GUESTSMichael Hager, CEO and president, San Diego Natural History Museum Erica Kelly, exhibition developer, San Diego Natural History Museum

Maureen Cavanaugh: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. The county in the United States with the most diverse number of environments and species is San Diego. It’s a little hard to believe if you spend your days traveling back and forth from work to home along the freeway, but step out to coast or the mountains or the desert areas of San Diego and you begin to experience whole new worlds. That’s just what a new exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum wants to highlight. The exhibit is called Coast to Cactus. It’s a new permanent display and it’s part of the 2015 Balboa Park Centennial celebration. Joining me is Michael Hager. He is CEO and president of the San Diego Natural History Museum. Mike, it’s nice to see you again. Thanks for coming in. Michael Hager: Thank you. Maureen Cavanaugh: And Erica Kelly is the exhibit developer. Erica welcome. Erica Kelly: Thank you for having us. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, Michael it’s surprising to many people that we have such a diverse environment, isn’t it? Michael Hager: Yeah, it is. But the reason we have such a diverse environment is because of the geology, the topography, and the climate. We have this cold Japanese current off our coast that’s makes fog and keeps us cool in the summer. We have mountains between us and the desert that traps moisture on the side of the mountains and it creates a rain shadow desert on the other side and we’ve streams that dissect out mesas into these deep canyons that extend all throughout the county. All of those make for a diverse habitat and hence a wide diversity of flora and fauna. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now Erica you took on the responsibility of sort of representing this biodiversity in San Diego County. First of all, I know that our region is designated as one of the 35 global biodiversity hotspots. What exactly does that mean? Erica Kelly: So these biodiversity hotspots are areas around the world where we have just this exceptionally rich species diversity and biodiversity and places where that biodiversity is under threat for some reason due to habitat loss. And so San Diego County as you mentioned earlier there is no region of comparable size in the continental US that has just such a richness of species diversity in terms of sheer numbers and we don’t have a number but we have a couple of examples. Maureen Cavanaugh: Sure. Erica Kelly: Just in our deserts alone for example there are 600 species of native bees that’s just bees and just the deserts. Maureen Cavanaugh: You didn’t bring them into the museum, did you? Erica Kelly: We have, we do have some but they’re not alive. Maureen Cavanaugh: Okay. Erica Kelly: But you can just a few of those bees. So these are some of these kinds of surprises I think when people think biodiversity, they think of maybe a rain forest or a coral reef or something kind of lush and green, and that’s not what we have here, but as Dr. Hager said what we have is many different habitats in a relatively small area. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now Michael Hager Coast to Cactus is a permanent exhibition at the NAT, where did the idea come from? Michael Hager: When we did the edition on to the new building we always wanted to represent the habitats of San Diego from the prehistoric past to the biologic present as part of our permanent exhibits and we have had requests for many years during my whole tenure of 23 and a half years from teachers we need to have habitats representing our region to teach about. And really any project we have undertaken in our research division as is an atlas of birds and atlas of plants or reptiles, amphibians and mammals so that we can document exactly what is here and when we started that plan on this project we had 2200 known species of plants in the county and today there’s over 2500 known, many of the new species some in many invasive many migrants north and south. So we’re providing data on all of that and that’s what’s represented in the exhibition. Maureen Cavanaugh: I think most people are familiar with the kind of dioramas you see in a lot of natural history museums representing everything from environments to the way primitive people used to live, but you have approached this in a kind of 21st century kind of way, can you walk us through the exhibit a little bit, Erica where does it begin? Erica Kelly: Sure, it begins with as you walk up to the exhibition you’ll see a couple of things that are welcoming you. One is a large touchable topographic map of Southern California, kind of giving you a glimpse of this Coast to Cactus transect that will be taking you on a journey through. And then the other thing welcoming you at the entrance is a big mamma grizzly bear and her cubs and that might be kind of a surprise to a lot of people but there is a grizzly on our state flag once up on a time that was the big kind of apex predator mammal in our state. And that’s not the case anymore, grizzlies aren’t extinct but they don’t live in California anymore which is a kind of a message that we’ve woven through the exhibition as this idea of change over time. We want people to fall in love with this place, either anew or again, if whether they’re visiting or whether they’re from here and also to start to consider the dramatic changes to these habitats that have happened over the last century or so. And then as you enter, you’re greeted with a kind of a giant, kind of nature walk signpost that directs you towards all of these different habitats. Maureen Cavanaugh: Oh, that’s interesting. Like you’re actually going on a nature walk? Erica Kelly: Yeah, you can go to the coast, you can go to the chaparral habitat which is kind of California’s signature scrub habitat or you can go visit the deserts, you can go to the mountains or you can go to our urban canyons which is another part of that change of a time story. We didn’t just include the pristine habitats that these places all were before we got here, we included every creation of a kind of mid-century ranch style Southern California patio as if you were kind of spending an evening on your patio looking out over a canyon and we’ve included both the species that are here that are native and some that we’ve brought here because we create habitat too just by living here. Maureen Cavanaugh: Just by living here and having our homes overlooking these visitors. What do we see if we go to the desert? Erica Kelly: If you go to the desert you see a couple of things. One is this glorious vista of the Anza-Borrego desert in bloom as you would see it after a good year of rain which we haven’t had in a while but we’ve seen it enough to know what it looks like and we create it. And then you’ll see a little piece of a palm oasis habitat with these big dramatic boulders and our only– California’s only native palm, which is the California fan palm which is found in the deserts and you’ll see mountain lions facing a bighorn sheep. And right in the center of the space you’ll see a very charming miniature airstream trailer, yeah miniature– big enough for people to walk in but it’s still a little fourteen footers which are so cute and you can actually step inside and kind of explore skulls and pelts and fossils and things that you find in the desert habitat. Maureen Cavanaugh: Lots of new exhibits and museums are interactive. They involve you’ve already mentioned a couple of things, people can stand on the patio and look out and they can go into the airstream, how else can people get involved in this, Michael? Michael Hager: One of my favorite parts about the desert is the desert at night. And so that the airstream trailers backed up against the Ramada that provide shade and when you go in there we’ll take a look at the desert at night and so there’s a couple of little kids camped in a tent and they have one just trying to scare the other and talk about the animals in the desert and then you see them, and there’s a little object theater so there’s– you actually see some of the animals that are there in the evening. It’s really a delightful part of the exhibition, my favorite part of the interactive. But then we have other things– another of my favorites is in the mountain section, there is a section that deals with pine trees. So 20,000 years ago pine used to exists from the mountain tops all the way down into the valleys, hundred years ago they were on the ridges and the mountains tops and today they are only on the mountain tops in what we call sky islands. And those are the result of climate change over many years but there is an interactive so you turn a wheel and pine trees come up in this model and you get to see it. Maureen Cavanaugh: You get to see the way it was and the way it is now? Michael Hager: Yeah, correct. Maureen Cavanaugh: I see. And for children Erica how can kids take part in this? Erica Kelly: There are all kinds of things to touch, lots of full body experiences and things that you can crawl through. Maureen Cavanaugh: Crawl through? Erica Kelly: Yeah. One of our favorites is we’ve taken kind of a segment if you were go down to one of our coastal wetlands like Penasquitos Lagoon or some places like that and take a segment of the intertidal mud from that tidal zone and blow it out a gazillion times its size what would you see. And there are these crabs and worms and you can kind of crawl inside this sort of giant core sample and explore some of the critters that lived there and waive the claw of the fiddler crab. Maureen Cavanaugh: Uh huh, all of the things that kids love to do? Erica Kelly: Uh yes. Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, Michael Hager was it challenging to put this exhibition together, I read that planning for it started back in 1998? Michael Hager: Yeah, when we plan the new facility we planned the exhibits that were going to be in it, and that’s when we started planning the Coast to Cactus exhibition on paper. We applied for and received a $7 million grant from the State of California under the Proposition 84 Water Bond and that allowed us to really get serious about it. But we needed to do more than what the state could provide so we had to raise another $2 million to make it possible and all of that time we were doing the planning. So most people look at that cost and say wow that’s really something because you could build a really nice home for $200 a sq. ft. but exhibits are of $1000 to $1200 a sq. ft. and we’re really proud of it. I would like to think of the museum now because of the fossil mysteries and this habitat exhibit as kind of the visitor center for the region. Maureen Cavanaugh: Well that goes my question I was going to ask you even though this is a permanent exhibition, how do you see that it ties in with the 2015 Balboa Park celebration? Michael Hager: We purposely opened during the celebration kind of as our gift to the community. And not only have we done this $9 million permanent installation but we have the King Todd exhibition which is open through April, and then Maya hidden cultures revealed from mid-June to the end of the year. Those are huge major traveling exhibitions and again were plans to coincide with the 2015 celebration. Maureen Cavanaugh: I want to let everyone know that the Coast to Cactus exhibition opens this Saturday, January 19 at the San Diego Natural History Museum. I have been speaking with Michael Hager CEO, President of San Diego Natural History Museum the NAT and Erica Kelly the exhibit developer. Thank you both very much. Michael Hager: Thank you very much. Erica Kelly: Thank you.

The San Diego Natural History Museum recently unveiled its newest permanent exhibition — one that has been decades in the making.

Coast to Cactus in Southern California celebrates San Diego's rich biodiversity. Southern California is one of 35 global biodiversity hot spots, meaning areas that have the highest concentration of different species of any geographic area of similar size, according to the museum.

The exhibit takes visitors on a journey through the county's four major habitats — coast, inland valleys, mountains and desert — and showcases the region's abundant plant and animal life along the way.


"The reason we have such a diverse environment is because of the geology, the topography and the climate," Michael Hager, CEO and president of the museum, told KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday. "We have this cold Japanese climate off the coast. We have mountains between us and the desert. And, we have streams that dissect our mesas. All of those make for a diverse habitat."

Erica Kelly, exhibition developer for the museum, said the county's desert has 600 species of bees alone.

"There's no region of comparable size in the continental U.S. that has such a richness of diversity," Kelly said. "What we have is many different habitats in a relatively small area."

Hager said the museum has always wanted to host an exhibit that educates the public about the region's diversity.

“Coast to Cactus has been a labor of love for many years, making this grand opening very special for us,” said Michael Hager, president and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum. “We see this as a gift to the community, especially during Balboa Park’s centennial. Our hope is to share with visitors how special this region is, and inspire them to get out and explore it for themselves."


The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission prices range from $11 to $17.

A great blue heron takes flight to escape a gray fox in a recreation of a coastal lagoon in the exhibition Coast to Cactus in Southern California.
Michael Field
A great blue heron takes flight to escape a gray fox in a recreation of a coastal lagoon in the exhibition Coast to Cactus in Southern California.

Exhibition Highlights:

• An oversized replica of a segment of mud from a local tidal flat. Young visitors can crawl inside, where they will discover animals that survive in the mudflats in spite of tough intertidal conditions.

• A recreation of a residential patio overlooking an urban San Diego canyon, exploring how humans share space with nature and bringing to light the impact of introduced species on native plants and animals.

• An immersive virtual storybook that tells the tale of the dynamic chaparral ecosystem and how periodic fires are a natural part of life in this signature California habitat.

• A multimedia experience that includes a real Airstream Bambi and transports visitors to the desert at nighttime, when the sun goes down, temperatures drop, and the seemingly barren landscape springs to life as animals come out to hunt.

• Exhibits highlighting the work of people, past and present, whose efforts help us better understand how the habitats of southern California have changed over time and what we can do to help sustain the plants and animals that live here.

• All exhibit elements are presented in both English and Spanish.