NHM.org


Nature in L.A.

March 1, 2016

Deep L.A. History at the Tar Pits

Today let's reflect on the biodiversity of Los Angeles from a deep time perspective.

Los Angeles has a unique resource for tracing the legacy of many of the animals that we still see around in this region: the celebrated Tar Pits. Mired in sticky asphalt seeping up to the surface through cracks deep underground, the remains of countless creatures are found at this site in the heart of our city. The gruesome deaths endured by saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and giant ground sloths as they starved fighting to free themselves from their gooey trap are nearly unimaginable. However, such carnage has left us with the most vivid image of Ice Age L.A., a fossil record that, in addition to various large mammals, includes a myriad of tiny animals. There are also plant remains—branches of all sizes, seeds, and even pollen—which, together with the spectacular record of the animals that once lived in and around what’s today Hancock Park, provide us with...

February 23, 2016

Studying Lizard Love Through Citizen Science

Regular readers of this blog know that we are very passionate about studying Southern California’s urban biodiversity. Because this region is so big and so much of it is private property where we can’t easily do surveys, we enlist people (aka citizen scientists) all across the region to help us study the local biodiversity.
 
Alligator lizard courtship observed February 17, 2014 by citizen scientist mothernaturesdaughter and submitted to iNaturalist.

Much of this citizen science research focuses on understanding where species can be found. But photographs can also document interesting and unusual behaviors. For example, photographs from a few lucky citizen scientists documented some incredible predation fails. In science jargon “predation fails” is termed antipredator...

February 16, 2016

Ladybug Love Fest on Top of the World

Valentine’s Day came early this year for these amorous Convergent ladybugs. Photo credit: Lila Higgins.

Last weekend on a hike to Sandstone Peak, the highest point in the Santa Monica mountains, fellow bug enthusiast Lila Higgins came across a brazen beetle Bacchanalia in full midday swing. Hundreds of ladybugs had gathered on a rotting log where they had previously been “chilling out” for several months. Hippodamia convergens, known as the Convergent ladybug, exhibits this adaptive behavior; these ladybugs will migrate in the fall to higher elevations to overwinter in large aggregations consisting of thousands of individuals. Just as the unseasonably sunny weather inspired Lila to go for a hike, the ladybugs awoke from their rest feeling frisky and ready for...

February 4, 2016

Bird Counts and Mobile Apps—For Science!

 “Raise your hand if you think it is a Bushtit.”

“There are four by this feeder and five at that one, so that’s nine altogether.”

“I think it’s sparrow-sized or smaller”

“Are you sure that isn’t a fake bird?”


These are questions and statements made during the Nature Navigator program on Saturday, January 23. Jeff Chapman, Manager of Interpretation and Training, and Richard Smart, Coordinator of Citizen Science, were leading a group of kids, ages 10-12 years old, on a bird walk through the NHM Nature Gardens. The bird walk was a training to help the kids gain more experience looking for birds, identifying them, and reporting their observations. By...


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...