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Nature in L.A.

February 2, 2016

When it Rains in L.A.: My Quest for Mushrooms, Snails, and Dog Vomit Slime Mold

You know that earthy smell that comes just as it begins to rain after a dry spell? It has a name. Scientists call it petrichor.

When I smell petrichor, I get excited: Rain is a personal and professional obsession. I begin keeping close tabs on the window while I check weather reports for the forecast. As the manager of citizen science (getting the community involved in scientific studies) at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I start making a list in my mind to share with others. What mushrooms and slime molds and snails and slugs will I be likely to find? I imagine all of the places I should check to find these uncommon organisms that only come out when the soil is moist.

Brown garden snail, found in Hancock Park.

Where I grew up—England—rain was not at all a rare event. As a kid, I’d follow the...

January 26, 2016

L.A.’s Friendly Neighborhood Spider Woman (and the Spiders from Mars?)

I have an incurable case of arachnophilia. Ever since early childhood, even before reading “Charlotte’s Web,” my mother constantly scolded me to stop picking up spiders (good advice if you don’t know what kind it is) and to just observe them instead. Where others scream, “Kill it with fire!” I said, “Let’s feed her crickets.” To me they are delicate long-legged ballerinas, caring mothers, industrious homebuilders, and astonishingly clever predators.  Alas, arachnophilia is very rare. Fear of spiders, on the other hand, is so prevalent, it made every “top ten” list of phobias I could find, and one study showed that arachnophobia even affects many entomologists (6 legs good, 8 legs bad?)!
 
 
The author unabashedly, unapologetically in love with an orb-weaving spider from the...

January 19, 2016

A Baby Owl or a Goatsucker at Esperanza Elementary?

A CRYPTIC HALLOWEEN VISITOR
written by fifth-grade Esperanza Elementary School students Kaya Johnson and Cristian Torres with their principal, Brad Rumble
 
"Mr. Rumble, there's a baby owl on the playground!" exclaimed Robbyn, a first-grade student at Esperanza Elementary School on Wilshire Blvd. just west of downtown Los Angeles. It was the day before Halloween 2015 and Mr. Rumble, the school's principal, thought this might be a Halloween prank. But, as any birder would, he went with Robbyn to take a look.
 

Unbelievably, there, on the asphalt of a corner of the playground, was not an owl but a Common Poorwill. It was 9:15 a.m. and in fifteen minutes 130 first-graders would be playing four-square mere feet from our unexpected visitor. What to do? Cordon off the area...

January 12, 2016

A Pomace Fly Invasion

The beautifully-striped African fig fly, Zaprionus indianus. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

We always say that biodiversity is constantly changing in the Los Angeles area, but few groups of insects show this as blatantly as "pomace flies" do. This group, more formally known as Drosophilidae, includes the famous laboratory fly, Drosophila melanogaster, whose genetics have been the source of many of our advances in medicine and cell biology. Most of us know these flies because they "magically" appear when bananas become overripe on the kitchen counter, or they suddenly appear when a bottle of wine is opened. Their attraction to fermentation is also historical, with the first records of these flies in the literature noting that they are found in wine cellars. Growing up, we always called them "fruit flies...

January 5, 2016

L.A.'s Frogs, Toads, and Salamanders Can't Wait for El Niño

Imagine you are a local amphibian. Maybe you are a Pacific treefrog (Pseudacris regilla), the most widespread native frog in Southern California. Or maybe you are a garden slender salamander (Batrachoseps major), a species commonly found in front and backyard gardens across much of the L.A. Basin (hence, its name).
 
Male Pacific treefrog calling to attract a mate, afer a rainstorm. 

These last few years of drought have been really tough on you. For amphibians, a large amount of oxygen uptake and water exchange is done through the skin, but the skin must be kept moist for proper functioning. This presents a major problem in a prolonged drought. Because of the lack of rain, most amphibians have not been able to leave their hiding spots. As a result, you and your amphibian brethren have had to largely stay below ground where it...

December 29, 2015

Have You Seen "Canary-winged Parakeets" in Los Angeles?

Yellow-chevroned Parakeets feeding on dates in a date palm. Photo by Kimball Garrett.

Hearing a group of screeching Yellow-chevroned Parakeets (Brotogeris chiriri) flying over the NHM café patio at lunchtime is hardly unusual.  This native of South America thrives in much of the Los Angeles region, including Exposition Park where they especially favor the seeds of the floss-silk trees that are widely planted in the area.  But on Tuesday, October 27, a group of us, including myself (Ornithology Collections Manager Kimball Garrett) and Herpetology Curator Greg Pauly, noticed that two of the birds in a small flock overhead were distinctly different, showing large white patches on the inner half of the wings.  These were White-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris versicolurus) — close relatives of the Yellow-chevroned.  In fact...

December 17, 2015

Citizen Scientists Discover New Slug in Los Angeles

Arion hortensis/distinctus (Image courtesy of silversea_starsong)

In November, three citizen scientists reported observations to our @NHMLA SLIME project of a handsome looking slug, known as the garden arion, in three different neighborhoods of Los Angeles. No one had ever recorded these slugs in L.A. before!
 
The garden arion is a smallish slug, measuring between 40- 50 millimeters – a little less than half the length of a ballpoint pen. It has a blue/black body, a bumpy mantle (a cape-like fleshy covering near the head), and an amazingly yellow/orange underside (a.k.a. foot). From this foot it makes yellow slime!
 
Garden arion slugs include two species found in California, Arion hortensis and Arion...

December 15, 2015

Super Citizen Scientist Charlotte and the Hunt for the Elusive California Pink Glowworm

Charlotte, NHM Super Citizen Scientist, and her bearded dragon Flamey (she also has a tarantula named Nightmare). Photo by Emily Hartop.

Charlotte McDonald, Age 8, is one of the NHM’s Super Citizen Scientists. Recently, Charlotte made an incredible find: a California pink glowworm, Microphotus angustus! I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life and I have never seen one of these lovely creatures. In fact, I didn’t even know they existed until my college years when my friend (and now BioSCAN colleague) Lisa Gonzalez gave me a copy of Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. In this magical book I learned that we have four local species of fireflies (beetles in...

December 7, 2015

Backyard Bobcats of L.A.

“Miguel, I found a dead bobcat!” It was 8:30 in the morning when I received a call from my friend Jessie Jennewein. Jessie and I work together at the Natural History Museum and share a passion for urban carnivores, such as pumas and bobcats.  So you can imagine that this news got our day off to a bad start.

Bobcat repeatedly spotted using the same backyard near Griffith Park for over a year. Photo Credit: Susan Swan


Although Jessie’s news was sad, it didn’t surprise me.  I’ve lived on the edge of Griffith Park for many years and have studied bobcats and other carnivores from the park.  In this line of work I’ve seen a lot. I’ve set up camera traps and used radio-tracking to learn where...

December 1, 2015

Oothe-whata?

"What is that?” That was the question I asked my supervisor, Lila Higgins, back in the fall of 2012 when she brought in a strange looking object attached to a stick. “This is an ootheca, an egg case” she replied.

Ootheca seen on a Lion's Tail plant (Leonotis leonurus) Nov 3, 2015 in the Nature Gardens at NHM. Photo credit: Richard Smart

The ootheca was attached to a stick that Lila had brought inside to our office. Lila saw the stick lying on the ground in our Nature Gardens. Originally, she was going to place the stick into a nearby garden bed, but as she looked closer she noticed the ootheca. She recognized the shape of the ootheca to be that of a mantid egg case. Lila decided she would help the mantid babies by bringing...