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Nature Gardens at NHM: LA's Urban Nature

November 12, 2014

The Real L.A. Noir: The True-life Insect Cannibals and Murderers in our Midst

The coffin fly. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey.

As you get into your car in the parking lot of the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, you might just be within arm’s reach of cannibals. Not the human kind – but the insect variety.

Inside a wasp that is buzzing around a nearby bush dwells a bug known as the twisted wing parasite. These tiny insects are genetically close to flies and resemble nothing so much as a small black speck. But placing that speck under a microscope reveals huge, orb-like eyes that, as entomologist Emily Hartop puts it, look like sinister purple boysenberries.

Although the twisted wing parasite’s name comes from the seemingly malformed wings of the male of the species, the female has no wings. In fact, she has no legs, not even functional mouthparts – she is literally...


October 31, 2014

We Found a Western Red Bat in the Nature Gardens: A Small Visitor with Big Implications

Western red bat, Lasiurus blossevillii, photo by Ted Weller, US Forest Service.

Happy bat week everybody—we have bat-tastic news to share with you just in time for Halloween!  Over the month of September we recorded not just one, but TWO new species of bats that had never before been detected in the Museum’s Nature Gardens. Firstly we found the non-migratory and somewhat urban-adapted canyon bat, Parastrellus hesperus. This bat is common throughout the southwest and is strongly associated with rocky crevices found in canyons. Because they roost in these dark places and are able to remain in the same location year-round, this may mean they can adapt to roosting in urban spaces in L.A.—anything from cracks in concrete underpasses to crevices on hillsides that are...


October 9, 2014

We Found Bats Living at the La Brea Tar Pits!

If you’ve ever been to the La Brea Tar Pits you might have wondered if bats were around during the last Ice Age when saber-toothed cats (Smilodon fatalis), Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi), and dire wolves (Canis dirus) roamed the land that is now our city. Well, we’re happy to tell you that the answer is yes, and we’ve recently discovered that bats are still flying over the tar pits on a regular basis!

Me hanging out with a pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) during field work—one of only two species of bats recovered from the prehistoric Tar Pits.

But how do we know that bats are still living in the Miracle Mile? It’s all thanks to bat detectors. Bat detectors are devices myself and other scientists use to record the ultrasonic calls—remember echolocation from...


June 6, 2014

Mega-moths in the City

Have you see this moth flying around Los Angeles?

My friend Kat has. She got up-close and personal with one when it flew in through her balcony window a few months ago.

It was a sultry spring evening and Kat was minding her own business until something flew into her Mid-Wilshire apartment. At first she thought it was a hummingbird as they're always flying outside her window, but as she got closer she realized it wasn't a hummingbird at all, but rather a large moth. Being a fellow nature-lover, she captured the creature under a glass jar, snapped a picture, and helped it back outside.

Saving the moth. Photo courtesy of Kat Superfisky.

Then, she texted me the picture with this caption: "what is it?" Instead of trying to write a lengthy response, I called her and told her all about hummingbird moths —...


April 7, 2014

California Towhees in the Nature Gardens

Have you ever seen this bird?

California Towhee visits the Natural History Museum. Image courtesy of Kimball Garrett

Okay, so unless you are a birder type, you may look at this picture and think, "How the heck do I know? It just looks like a dull, brown bird to me." This is almost exactly what I thought when I saw the picture in my inbox recently. However, after reading the e-mail it was sent in, I realized this is a bird I see, and hear, in Griffith park all the time. You see, this bird can be much easier to identify when it is alive—scratching around in the leaf litter in front of your eyeballs, and chirping away close to your earholes.

First rule of bird nerd club, you gotta look at more than just color and pattern!

Kimball, teaches this and an array of other tricks and tips...


March 21, 2014

Urban Foraging: Carp Caviar from the L.A. River!

Ask me where my favorite spot to explore urban nature is in Los Angeles, and I'll almost always say the river. This is particularly true during, and after, our seasonal rain storms. We're used to extreme heat episodes, wildlfires, and the odd earthquake* or two. But, by and large, us Angelenos are unaffected and unimpressed by the elements. Going down to the river after a good rain, you get a rare chance to see, hear, and feel the raw power of nature.

*Anyone else wake up abruptly last Monday morning after the 4.4 trembler, wondering how much water you could salvage from your toilet's holding tank?

River patrol after the El Nino rains in January 2010

During our most recent rain storms (February 28-March 2) I, along with a number of other people, ventured down to the river to watch all that...


February 7, 2014

Hawk Attacks Snake and Epically Fails!

Guest Blog by our very own Dr. Greg Pauly:

For local wildlife, living in the big city can be rough. Encounters with people and their dogs, cats, and cars all present threats not experienced by critters living outside of urban areas. Plus, these city dwellers still have to contend with many of the usual threats like predators and weather extremes. Here are two photos celebrating the scrappiness it takes to be a city dwelling reptile, and also celebrating the incredible opportunities to observe urban nature in action.

"David A." sent this photo to theeastsiderla.com of an adult San Diego Gopher Snake, Pituophis catenifer, schooling a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, near Elysian Park.

There are so many cool things going on in this photo. Cool factoid 1: Elysian Park!...


January 13, 2014

Second Ant-decapitating Fly Found in Glendale

Our scientists found another species of ant-decapitating fly in Glendale, Pseudacteon amuletum!

Pseudacteon amuletum. Photo credit: Phyllis Sun

Here's an account of this tiny, yet impressive fly, by Lisa Gonzalez, one of our BioSCAN entomologists:

"For those of you who missed Lila’s exciting account of the moment Dr. Brian Brown first spotted an ant-decapitating fly in one of our BioSCAN samples as it was being sorted in front of our visitors in the Nature Lab, please enjoy this post. As Lila so eloquently described, ant decapitating flies are tiny but mighty little phorid flies that lay their eggs inside of the bodies of, you guessed it, ants. Many of these specialized...


January 3, 2014

New Year: New Bird

"175," responds Kimball Garrett, the Museum's ornithology collections manager and resident bird nerd, when someone asked him how many birds he's documented around the Museum. In the last few days of 2013 Kimball checked off another bird that had never before been documented in Exposition Park, this brought Kimball's ever growing list to its current pinnacle.

Kimball behind the scenes in Ornithology

Although Kimball has been keeping track of birds in Exposition Park for 30 years now (WOW), this is nothing compared to his track record for Los Angeles. Kimball grew up in the Hollywood Hills where his parents had a bird feeder in their backyard. As a teenager Kimball would explore further and further afield, all the while documenting his bird observations in a journal.

Here's one of my favorite...


December 23, 2013

Twelve Days of Los Angeles Nature: 2013

Let's celebrate another year of L.A.'s AMAZING BIODIVERSITY. The benevolent blogger that I am, here are your gifts:

Twelve Rattlers Rattling


Eleven Potter Wasps Piping


Ten Flies Decapitating (decapitating ants that is)


Nine...