...why we have so many animals?

An Ever Wonder? podcast from the California Science Center

Chuck Kopczak stands on the deck of a boat, with a slice of ocean and a rocky piece of land visible in the background. His mustached face peeks out of his hooded wetsuit, which is festooned with gear for a dive.
Courtesy of Chuck Kopczak, PhD

Back when the California Science Center opened in 1998, our guests could see a few small animals (like snakes, insects, and spiders) on display here and there. But when we opened Ecosystems in 2010, a whole bunch of new creatures joined the Science Center family. Our kelp tank alone is home to more than 40 different species!

If you count up all the fish, insects, and other critters on display, we now take care of thousands of animals. Do you ever wonder why we have so many animals?

We talk to Chuck Kopczak, curator of life sciences, about why we display animals at the Science Center and what goes into selecting different species for display. As the curator of our Ecosystems gallery, Chuck is directly involved in picking which animals we present in our exhibits, while working with our team of professionals who care for each of them.

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Perry Roth-Johnson: 00:06

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. Back when the Science Center opened, our guests could see a few small animals like snakes, insects, and spiders on display here and there. But when we opened ecosystems in 2010, a whole bunch of new creatures joined the science center family, just looking at our kelp tank alone. It's home to more than 40 different species. Now, if you count up all the fish, insects and other little critters on display, we now take care of thousands of animals. You ever wonder why we have so many animals? Well, I've invited Chuck Kopczak to the show to talk about why we display animals at the Science Center and what goes into selecting different species for display. As a curator of our Ecosystems gallery, Chuck is directly involved in picking which animals we present in our exhibits while working with our team of professionals who care for each of them.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 01:05 

So Chuck, you're the curator of life sciences at Science Center. You're in charge of the Ecosystems exhibition. Welcome to the show.

Chuck Kopczak: 01:12 

Thank you. Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 01:15 

Thanks. So correct me if I'm wrong, like you're a curator and you're directly involved in picking which species we present, but not directly involved in the care and feeding of the animals. That's what our living collections department does. You're trying to convey in an exhibit, some scientific message. So you try to pick an animal that will help you tell that story and then you work and then kind of hand that off to living collections to make sure that that animal can have a good life, be cared for, be happy while promoting learning with our guests. Is that how the two, the handoff between the two departments work?

Chuck Kopczak: 01:49

Yeah, yeah. That's exactly. Yeah. And it's a, you know, it's a collaborative effort, you know, uh, each one of our, within Ecosystems, each one of the galleries in Ecosystems has one particular ecological concept or principle that we're trying to communicate. So as you said, we try to select species that help to communicate that readily. Uh, but then it goes through the filters of, well, can we, can we care for this? If we get this, can we care for it? Actually, the first question is, can we obtain this species? Uh, you know, and can we get it from primarily from another zoo or aquarium someone already has it. And ideally something that's been raised in human care, not collected from the wild.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 02:26 

Why do we have animals at the Science Center? Does it promote more learning for our guests or enjoyment for our guests? What's, what's the rationale behind that?

Chuck Kopczak: 02:33 

Yeah, I think the promotion of learning is an important part of it. I mean, it does that and it, it really is the, uh, the idea that we're, we're making connections. We're letting people make connections with real things. Um, real living things in this case. I mean, we've always, the Science Center has always used that as a major thing that we have real things for people to see. And even if you're separated by a thick piece of acrylic, there's something about, for instance, seeing that black sea bass hanging in the window of the tank that is a… in coming, really, almost face to face with it, essentially that wouldn't caught couldn't possibly be the same if we showed that on video or just a picture of it. So that idea of that, that ability to come in contact with the real thing is important. So we look at our animals as being ambassadors for their species that we hope will, uh, generate in our guests, the desire to want to learn more about them, but also then hopefully want to protect them and help conserve their habitat.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 03:31 

Is it common for science centers to have animals? My impression is you see them at zoos and aquariums.

Chuck Kopczak: 03:39 

When we started Ecosystems, it was, it was as far as I know is relatively rare. I mean, to have them, at the extent, to the extent that we have them today was very rare. Uh, lots of science centers have small things. I mean, we even had, you know, before we opened Ecosystems, we had, you know, a few snakes and a couple of mammals and stuff in the, in the World of Life Discovery Room, uh, you know, maybe a dozen species, mostly small things and insects and spiders and things. And that's, that's fairly common. The common scale that, that science centers would have things. Uh, I'm not sure the extent and I don't want to sound like we are, we're the greatest, we're the best. I think ours is probably the most extensive collection given the aquatic stuff we have with the Kelp Forest and all of that, but they're all, they're all a little different than they all provide their guests. A great experience.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 04:29 

Diving a little deeper in Ecosystems. We have a mixture of hands-on exhibits along with these live animals. So how do you decide which one's better suited for a good guest experience?

Chuck Kopczak: 04:40 

Well, you know, one of the things that we've, um, that we did rather with Ecosystems, we had three main, three main goals as we started to design the, the, the basic concept. And one of course was to do the interactive exhibits that we'd always done. The second was to introduce a component of live animals, to an extent that really had not been done by a science museum or science center before. And then the third thing was the creation of these, what we, you know, these, what we call these immersive environments, uh, the Island Zone, I think is a good example where we have, well, we've recently changed the exhibit, but we started off in there with a set of species of, uh, anole lizards, uh, that are found all over the Caribbean and in various places, uh, even in the US but they, they had gone through what's called an adaptive radiation. They, they evolved from a single species probably and radiated out to fill a whole bunch of different niches, which ended up in unique species that looked very different and occupied different places in the trees or on the ground where they live. And so we have interactives that help to try to explain how that kind of thing happens. How, how differences in food supply or differences than the shape of your beak might influence what food supply you might be able to eat. And if that food supply disappears well, you're likely to disappear with it type of thing.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 06:05

Well, let's pivot over to the Kelp Forest. Like how did you pick those animals and make sure that they would mostly be in harmony even though to my limited understanding, like we do have a little bit of a predator prey relationship in there.

Chuck Kopczak: 06:20

We came up with a different Ecosystems that was largely an exercise of geography, where on Earth do we want people to visit? Because we wanted to take people to different places—that was some of the early focus group work we did. We asked people who were visitors and who were, you know, a whole range of different people, you know, where do you want to go on Planet Earth? What would you want to see? What would you want to do? And, and, or, you know, how would you experience this? It was like, I want to be there. I want to be in this place. And I still remember one gentleman said, you know, I just want to open my eyes and be in the middle of the rainforest. Um, we then overlaid that geography with these principles or, or, uh, uh, concepts of ecological science that we thought each this concept would go well with this ecosystem. So the Kelp Forest was always going to be about species diversity. And how, and why do ecosystems maintain certain levels of, of diversity? So, given that we wanted to show the diversity of a, of a Southern California kelp forest. It was actually pretty easy to decide that we need everything, you know, all the fish and everything, um, which as I'm happy to, uh, admit to. And I tell the aquarists, I apologize to the aquarists all the time is that, you know, any of the other big aquariums here in California, primarily exhibit either the large predatory species that don't normally prey on each other, or they exhibit the smaller prey species, they don't mix them. But the crazy curator involved in Ecosystems decided that they wanted to show all the diversity. So we do have both, and it is a challenge. Uh, our, our, uh, living collection staff, our aquarists do a great job. The, the approach is to try to keep the animals well fed, to suppress their natural, that the larger predator species, predatory species to suppress that desire or need to have to go after other fish.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 08:18 

I know that you're, uh, a long time scuba diver, like was your vision to kind of replicate within the Science Center, a scene that you might see if you were scuba diving in the ocean somewhere.

Chuck Kopczak: 08:29 

Right? Yeah. That, that was definitely part of it. Um, the rock work in the tank, which I was, uh, I sort of art directed is really based on sort of the rock, the geological structures that you find on the Channel Islands, uh, big layered rocks. And that's why it's all sort of cracked and tilted and all this stuff.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 08:47 

Oh, cool.

Chuck Kopczak: 08:48 

Yeah. The other thing that too, that was important, uh, which I was happy that we did was that we included a tunnel into the tank, which at least among the kelp forest exhibits here in California, where I think we're the only one that has a tunnel. Uh, and that's important because as a scuba diver, you experienced the, the kelp forest or any marine ecosystems, obviously sort of in a horizontal way, cause you're swimming around through it. And, you know, we have our great big window, which I love, and it's a beautiful view of the Kelp Forest, but you're largely standing there experiencing it vertically because you can't move. Whereas with the tunnel, you're, you're surrounded by the Kelp Forest, you're in the middle of it essentially, which is really the view that a diver gets. And so I hope we give our guests sort of that feeling. We don't actually necessarily interpret things that way for them, which maybe we should, but, uh, but that's, that's that experience of being sort of a diver and being in the middle of a kelp forest.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 09:47 

So it's, it's obvious, you know, you, you are super passionate, excited about, uh, all of these species and it seems like one of your goals, uh, by presenting these to our guests, um, is to convince people not only that the sciences is important to learn, but to want to preserve these animals in their natural habitats. Uh, like where did that feeling come from?

Chuck Kopczak: 10:14

I think for me, it goes back to my undergraduate work in college. You know, you come across the textbooks that you use in classes. And it, it always struck me that, that most of the books, especially the ones about ecology or the environment typically, you know, had all this stuff, all these chapters. And then at the very end of the book, usually there'd be one or two chapters about how humans fit into this. And it, um, that sort of struck me, it's like weird because it's like, we're why are we separated out as something at the end that the implication being well, did any of this stuff in the first part of the book apply here or what, you know? As human beings is the way we've looked at the world around us, of course, over history has changed. Even pre-history has changed. I mean, we, there were times when humans looked at the world as this scary, weird, magical place where, you know, what is lightning? What is this? That's, this is, these are dangerous things. And there's some thing or somebody is trying to harm us. And so we saw the world as this magical place. Then we begin to see the world in different ways. And at some point with, with Newton, we started to see the world as a machine. But in all of this, we've always sort of separated ourselves from whatever it is we're looking at out there. We, we seem to have a feeling and maybe this is more of a Western thing. I don't want to necessarily say that it's every culture in the world, but we've always sort of stood apart in our own minds from nature. And, and I don't see how that can possibly be. Not that I agree with the metaphor anymore. We're part of this machine, you know, we're part of nature. Uh, and that for me really is encapsulated in a large way in the L.A. Zone at the end, that's the only gallery we want that we definitely want people to go through at a particular time, which is at the end of the exhibit when they leave, that was by, it was purposely put where it was. I'm trying to pose the question: are our cities are the habitats that we built for ourselves, are they ecosystems, or are they influenced or governed by these same principles you've just learned in the rest of ecosystems? Do those things apply here? And to me, the answer is obviously yes. And so, you know, I want people hopefully to come away, we want to bring them back to an ecosystem with which they're most familiar, the urban environment and come away with knowing that, Oh yeah, all that stuff back in there applies here and things, I do influence the environment.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 12:45 

So it sounds like, uh, I I've seen this question posed, are humans part of nature or are they separate from nature? It sounds like from everything you've just said humans are part of nature.

Chuck Kopczak: 12:55 

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 12:57 

Well, Chuck, I think that's a good note to end on. Thanks so much for sharing stories about the Ecosystems exhibit and you know, why we pick which animals to display. And, and that is really important to kind of get people to think about humans are part of nature and hopefully motivate folks to try to preserve these animals in their natural habitat and conserve that.

Chuck Kopczak: 13:18 


Perry Roth-Johnson: 13:18

So thanks for coming on the show, Chuck.

Chuck Kopczak: 13:20 

This has been great. Thank you very much.

Perry Roth-Johnson: 13:21

Well, that's our show. And thanks for listening until next time. Keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Jennifer Castillo. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nicholas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review or tell a friend about it. Now our doors may be closed, but our mission to inspire science learning in everyone continues. We're working hard to provide free educational resources online while maintaining essential operations like onsite animal care and preparing for our reopening to the public. Join our mission by making a gift at californiasciencecenter.org/support.