Monday, October 16, 2017

Downtown Organisms

By C.J. Hirschfield

During a lunch break last week, I had the opportunity to view, up close, the gonads of a flatworm. How could I pass that up?

When I was young, I dreamed of being a naturalist. So when the California Center for Natural History sent an e-mail describing a “Pop-Up Aquarium” within walking distance of Fairyland, I jumped at the opportunity.

Here was their pitch:

“Come see all of the wonderful critters that call the waters of Lake Merritt home. During the summer months Oakland’s jewel blooms with all sorts of exciting marine organisms ranging from bat rays to shrimp!”

The event was held in front of the Lake Chalet restaurant at noon, to coincide with a lunch break for the State of the Estuary Conference at the Scottish Rite Temple across the street.

That’s how I found myself exploring the contents of a table full of trays displaying a number of species that just that day had been plucked from Lake Merritt. A few examples: sponges, isopods, tubeworms, mussels, sea squirts, nudibranches and clams. And, of course, the flatworm.

Top row, left to right: Flatworm, Ficopomatus enigmatus tube worm, sea anemone, sea vase. Bottom row, left to right: Soft-shelled clam, Sphaeroma quoianum, bryozoan colony,  Japanese littleneck clam.

My tour guide was Damon Tighe, who works as a curriculum and training specialist at Bio-Rad Laboratories, where he helps high school and community college teachers bring biotech materials into their classrooms. He is the ultimate naturalist nerd, and I mean that in a hugely complimentary way. The fact that he is committed to making citizen scientists and biotech fans out of students puts him in my rock-star category.

Some of Damon’s amazing photos are featured on a website that every Oakland resident, and especially every parent, should know about: merritt. The site, which is under the aegis of the California Academy of Sciences, is “a place where you can record what you see in nature, meet other nature lovers and learn about the natural world.”

A bat ray (Myliobatis californica) spotted in Lake Merritt. Photo from the website.

To date, more than 230 people have contributed almost 5,000 observations of natural phenomena in and around the lake. Think about the possibilities of using this site with your kids: Take a walk around the lake, observe and photograph what you see—then identify birds and wildlife on the site, or add a photo of a creature that you found!

An example from my own experience: The other day I took a photo of a curious-looking spider by my mailbox in the Adams Point neighborhood, near Lake Merritt. A photo on the iNaturalist site taught me that it was a false black widow.

Visitors enjoyed viewing the creatures featured in last week’s Pop-up Aquarium at Lake Merritt.

Damon wants to take all this enthusiasm for the dynamic Lake Merritt ecosystem to the next level, with a new “Barcode the Lake” project. He’ll literally go deeper by working with community members to sequence the DNA of Lake Merritt’s organisms.

His new project has three goals: to engage at least 50 citizen scientists to use iNaturalist to document organisms around the lake per year; to increase participants’ knowledge of the diversity of life around the lake and their effects on us, and us on them; and to allow at least 25 people to have hands-on experience extracting, amplifying and sequencing DNA from in and around Lake Merritt.

He wants to focus on fungi first, and hopes to have the first samples sequenced in November. He’d like to locate the project at the soon-to-be-reopened Rotary Nature Center, but I told him that in a pinch, I’m sure Fairyland could find the space.

If you’re interested in finding out just what a nudibranch is, and learning about these cool projects, you’ll have an opportunity on Sunday, Oct. 22, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Lake Merritt amphitheater (1064 Lake Merritt Blvd.), where CalNature will present Accessible Lake Merritt: Pop-Up Aquarium and Birding! Binoculars will be available; a $20 donation is requested. By signing up at, you can receive notice about all their events.

Just three days after my great pop-up aquarium experience, my husband and I enjoyed a dinner at Sidebar, a favorite spot of ours with a view of the lake. I had the mussels; he had clams. The irony was not lost on me.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 15 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.


  1. Your opening sentence: "During a lunch break last week, I had the opportunity to view, up close, the gonads of a flatworm." was the ultimate hook. How could anybody in their right mind resist reading further. Congratulations on another wonderful column and also thank you for the Damon Tighe shout-out. His photos are extraordinary and I'm pleased to see that he is continuing to share his enthusiasm for our natural world.