December 24, 2012
New Fly Species Likes to Party It Up Poolside in Brentwood
I've been scratching my head for a story to tell in this week's blog. At 6:20 last night it hit me! I've never related our Curator of Entomology, Brian Brown's, story of how he discovered a brand new species of fly, right here in Los Angeles! That's right folks, undiscovered fly species are here right under your noses — oh and don't forget that one that flew into your eyeball, maybe that was new to science too, I guess next time you should try to save it!
All kidding aside, there are likely hundreds of new species scientists have never discovered before, right here in L.A.. Brian is famous here at the Museum for saying, "It's just as likely to find a new species to science in L.A., as it is in Costa Rica [where he does a lot of his research], 100%."
All you have to do is look at the numbers. Scientists have described almost a million different species of insects. However, they estimate that there may be anywhere between 9 and 29 million yet to be described! And this is just the insects we're talking about people. A New York Times article that came out last year noted that, "A single spoonful of soil may contain 10,000 different species of bacteria, many of which are new to science."
Back to Brian and his flies. Not everyone believed Brian when he told them he could find loads of interesting and new species here in L.A.. To prove that urban environments can be a frontier of discovery, he set up an experiment.
In a Brentwood backyard, he set up a Malaise trap — a tent-like device that captures flying insects in a large jar of alcohol, a.k.a. "jar of death." One week later he visited the backyard again, collected the jar full of insects, took it back to the lab, and separated out all the phorid flies (that's the family of flies that Brian is a world specialist on).
Poolside Malaise Trap
"Jar of death"
Sitting at his microscope, Brian pulled out a small (~2mm in length) yellow phorid fly that looked interesting. To identify these flies, you have to dissect them and take them through a special fly key, that asks the you to look for crazy characteristics like laterally flattened hind femoras. So Brian popped the head off the fly and stuck it under the microscope. He took the small fly through the entire key and it didn't match anything — this was a brand new species to science, it had never been described before, and it was the very FIRST fly he had looked at!
Brian's new fly species
Brian pulled out a second fly from the sample and repeated the process. This specimen was similarly small, but brown instead. It also had a characteristic he recognized, the penultimate tarsal segment (a.k.a. second to last segment of an insect leg) was shorter than the last one. This is a characteristic common to a species only known from Europe. Brian took it through the key, and it was indeed the European species. Which, might I add, had never before been recorded in the U.S.!
European flies have a certain je ne sais quoi!
Wait, wait there's more! Seriously, as Brian kept looking he found a third interesting fly in the sample. This fly was a male from the genus Chonocephalus. This fly is from both coasts of Africa, the Seychelles and Canary islands to be exact. This was the very FIRST time it had been discovered outside of that native range!
Chonocephalus, African phorid fly
So, by looking at only three, seemingly inconsequential flies, Brian had made three scientific discoveries, which have since then been published in well-known journals. Imagine what a month of sampling might uncover, or a year, or what about three year's worth of sampling!
This is exactly what the Museum has funded Brian and a group of other Museum scientists to do. Brian and his crew have dubbed the project BioSCAN (BIOdiveristy Science: City And Nature
Here's what the BioSCAN website has to say about the project:
"This first-of-its-kind scientific investigation will discover and explore biodiversity in and around one of the world's largest cities: Los Angeles. In three years of sampling from the urban core right out through less-urban surrounding areas, we will focus on the insects, the most diverse group of animals on our planet.
We will discover and document the diversity of insect species living with us in Los Angeles as well as test intriguing hypotheses about how natural areas around the city affect its biodiversity, and specifically, how light in the urban environment is affecting its inhabitants."
Wow! I can't wait to hear what they find.