Rich Ross

Han Shot First

Academy biologist is fishes best friend


Richard Ross of the California Academy of Sciences is responsible for the well being of fish in the academy's coral reef exhibit
Richard Ross of the California Academy of Sciences is responsible for the well being of fish in the academy’s coral reef exhibit
Few biologists would put a live octopus on their heads, but Richard Ross isn’t just any biologist.

Working with a group of fishermen who were worried that the Octopus would bite, Ross decided to ally their fears with a demonstration.

“I dropped the octopus on my head to show that they didn’t bite and luckily it didn’t bite me,” he said. Ross, who serves on the staff of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, is involved with another eight legged creature now but he doesn’t wear it on his head. He cares for the Larger Pacific Striped Octopus, a small but unique cephalopod that lives in the Animal Attraction exhibit in the academy’s Steinhart Aquarium. The creature is only one of a host of marine creatures Ross cares for and studies in Steinhart’s 212,000 gallon Philippine Coral Reef Tank one of the deepest exhibits of live corals in the world. His job can be really busy at times but is one of the most important in the running of the aquarium. Ross checks the elaborate water system that sustains the exhibit tanks, makes certain that the fish are fed and properly cared for and helps plan work on the coral reef habitat. He sometimes can be seen scuba diving in the exhibit moving rocks around, checking the corals and observing the colorful fish. Among the octopuses of the world, the Pacific Striped has two unusual characteristics. During mating these animals join beak to beak, unlike their counterparts who don’t stay near each other during spawning. Females don’t die after laying a clutch of eggs, unlike other species and can go on to reproduce again, Ross said. These animals living in the tank now were collected off the coast of Central America and live in depths of around 100 to 200 feet. A related species, the Lesser Pacific Striped Octopus is found in tidal flats and is no bigger than a thumbnail, Ross said. It’s unknown why these creatures species mate the way they do, Ross said. “The why is the hard part, “he said. “There is some kind of negotiation going on. While are they mating face to face the male has to be big enough to overpower her, but if he is too small, she won’t mate with him,” he said Working at Steinhart is a dream come true for Ross who holds a bachelors degree in philosophy from UC Davis and has worked as a juggler at Fisherman’s Wharf during his career. Growing up in Chicago, Ross’s family had a large fish tank in the basement and he fell back into the hobby after the family returned to the states from some years living overseas. At one point, he had as many as 20 tanks in his bedroom and his parents were not angry when one of his tanks sprung a leak one day. “A lot of water was on the floor and it was raining on the lower floor,” he said. In later years, Ross juggled for while and became a stay at home dad when his daughter was born. But his love for the aquatic world did not wane. Ross was became a co founder of a local reef club, took part in coral propagating projects, wrote articles and lectured to other clubs throughout the country. He became involved with the academy through a friend while the institution was being housed temporarily south of Howard Street during its reconstruction. Ross volunteered, working on the smaller reef tank and was chosen to move with the Steinhart team when the academy reopened in its present building in 2008. His knowledge of how to grow corals no doubt helped. “That was great,” he said. “What hobbyist would not want to work at a local aquarium,” he said. “I’ve never had a real job except for stints in fish stores,” he added, “It’s always been a performing life. Fortunately it all came together in such a way that they wanted me to get the job.” Ross breeds fish and cephalopods in his Alameda home. Along with a display tank, he also works in what he calls his “secret home lab.” The foundation under the home is a maze of water circulation equipment. Fortunately, Ross’ family is tolerant of his passion for marine life, even if it means sharing the house with them. “My wife likes the mad scientist part of it and is willing to help so she’s very supportive and so is my daughter,” he said. To see a photo of Ross wearing on Octopus, visit