May 17, 2016
Ms. Denner and her third grade Super Citizen Scientists in the school garden.
Third graders at Billy Mitchell Elementary School in Lawndale are looking at the world a bit differently now, thanks to their participation in NHM’s urban research SuperProject! For the past six months, the three third-grade classrooms led by Ms. Denner, Ms. Bradley, and Ms. Courtnell have been conducting observations in their school garden, and they have made some amazing discoveries along the way!
Students have documented many garden creatures, including Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, pillbugs, earwigs, White Cabbage and Gulf Fritillary butterflies, and milkweed bugs! Students even submitted a photo of larva (likely from the family Chironomidae) they found in the garden’s pollinator and bird water source and received help from the iNaturalist community on its identification!
Ms. Bradley and her third grade Super Citizen Scientists in the school garden.
Billy Mitchell Elementary is one of eight schools in the Lawndale school district. Each institution has a school garden and has built curriculum and activities into their garden program. Billy Mitchell Elementary also has a seed-to-fork program in which students get to eat what they grow and simultaneously learn about nutrition and health.
By working together in the garden, students at Billy Mitchell learn about the entire ecosystem, from the fungi in the soil to beneficial bugs, from worm bins and composting to important concepts like balance in nature. It was a natural fit to have the students incorporate observations on the wildlife in the garden to contribute to NHM urban nature research.
Juan Gutierrez (left) and Isaac Rosales (right) in the garden with their Super Citizen Scientist notebook in hand.
Twice a month, each classroom headed out to the garden to make observations on the animals living there. Every student was armed with a data sheet, a clipboard, and an enhanced sense of wonder. Each discovery led to the children’s increased excitement about urban nature, and a greater appreciation for the ecosystem thriving alongside the students on school grounds!
A Southern Alligator Lizard is spotted!
With the end of the school year approaching, the students were conducting their final observations as third graders. One of the students, Vincent Le (pictured below), made an exciting find: the papery moult from a Southern Alligator lizard! Since this species had not yet been found in the school garden, the hunt was on! Soon, Vincent’s perseverance (and a little help from Garden Volunteer Kris Lauritson) led to the school’s first alligator lizard record (above).
Vincent Le, the third grade Super Citizen Scientist who discovered the shed skin of an alligator lizard —and subsequently the lizard itself!
The students at Billy Mitchell Elementary now have a lizard record that will get uploaded to iNaturalist and become an important data point for scientists. Equally important, these students have spent months getting to know their urban ecosystem and have a new appreciation for the nature around them. We are excited to have been a part of this opportunity for young minds to get involved with L.A. nature!
Note: Our thanks go out to Kris Lauritson, a UC Master Gardener who has worked with these third graders and their teachers to incorporate NHM research into the school garden programming and was kind enough to share this story and her photos! Kris will be observing the garden with summer program students and will get new students involved in the fall! Keep up the good work!
**All photos by Kris Lauritson
April 29, 2016
This week's blog is written by one of our @NHMLA citizen scientists, Eric Keller:
If I were to make a list titled, “Accomplishments I Never Really Planned On But Achieved Anyways,” I think having a species of phorid fly named after me would have to be at the very top. And how did I manage to do this? Simple, I just volunteered as a citizen scientist by giving a little time and a small patch of real estate to Dr. Brian Brown and his BioSCAN team at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and as a nice thank you the museum dubbed one of their newly discovered species “Megaselia kelleri”.
Digital model of a Coffin Fly, Conicera tibialis.
But this is not all I got out of the experience. In fact, much more valuable to me than the eponymous fly species is the connection that my participation in BioSCAN gave me to the museum itself. I have been involved in the science for many years acting as a digital illustrator, creating graphics and animations for researchers and for science educators. I started out on the East coast in the late 90s working for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute creating animations for “BioInteractive” a free resource of animations, interactives, and lectures. In 2005 I moved out to Hollywood to study the art of visual effects from the leading artists in the field. To earn a living I became a freelance animator and digital artist working in a number of studios around town, most recently I had the opportunity to create some digital monsters for JJ Abram’s latest scif fi horror movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane”. But getting into the production houses in Hollywood did not necessarily mean abandoning science. In fact, I have been lucky enough to bounce between animation jobs in both the entertainment industry and in science. One of my proudest achievements was being a lead animator and artist for E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth which is a digital biology textbook available for free on the Apple iPad. I worked on this project with a team of talented scientist-animators at a small company called Digizyme Inc. which is led by my good friend Gael McGill, a Harvard scientist, professor, and all-around digital visionary.
Digital model of a jumping spider (somewhat fictional species), that I created for an article in 3D Artist magazine.
In preparing to work on Dr. Wilson’s book, Gael encouraged me to familiarize myself with his work, so I started reading Dr. Wilson’s books. Almost immediately, within the first few chapters of Biodiversity I became aware of the astonishing world of insects, especially ants. His writing inspired me to dive deeper into the world of entomology and in my spare time I started creating insectoid creatures from my imagination using my modeling and rendering software. I created animations of what I imagined insect life would look like on other worlds and this work generated a kind of creative feedback loop. To make better animations I needed to learn more about existing earthling insects which in turn inspired more fantastic imaginary insects. I began to concoct detailed physiology for my creatures and I wrote up descriptions of life cycles striving to make them as fantastic as possible but also completely plausible. I soon discovered that no matter how far-fetched my imaginary entomological creations were, I could soon find a real world example of an insect or arachnid more incredible than anything I could dream of. So I finally gave up trying to out-do the creative genius of mother nature and instead I decided to just dive head first into studying this new amazing world where it seems as though there is an endless supply of inspiring stories to draw from.
Digital models of black garden ants, Lasius niger.
I became a bug addict. I needed more information on insects and I needed expert eyes to help me correct mistakes in my digital insect models. My good friend Inna-Marie Strazhnik, who is an amazing scientific illustrator and oil painter got a job at the Natural History Museum. She took me on a behind the scenes tour to show me where she worked and I got to see the insect collection first hand. It was an incredible experience, drawers and drawers filled with fantastic creatures from all over the world. She also introduced me to Brian Brown whom I had read about in an article in the LA Times. I was a little bit star struck when I met him but very excited. Over several months I met more of the staff at NHM and around the same time my wife and I became home owners in Eagle Rock. When the museum put out the call for volunteers for the BioSCAN project I was more than happy to offer up a small part of my new backyard for a chance to be part of an actual scientific study.
Digital model of the head of a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.
Becoming part of BioSCAN made it clear to me that the museum is much more than a storehouse for dinosaur bones. It’s a place where real research is going on and, even more importantly, a place that directly connects the general public with the practice of science. I think being able to interact with people like Emily Hartop and Lisa Gonzalez is the best part of my connection to the museum. Its painfully obvious that most people think of scientists in a very narrow stereotype. Popular culture paints a picture of researchers as being obsessive robots, ivory tower academics, or even worse, sociopathic madmen. Getting to know scientists as individuals who enjoy sharing their curiosity with the rest of the world is incredibly valuable. And even more so, spreading the word that everyone can be a part of scientific discovery, regardless of their age, experience, or academic training is something that the museum can do better than any other public institution I can think of.
A fictional alien beetle I created just for the fun of it.
I take pride in being able to say that I am playing an integral roll in advancing mankind’s knowledge of the world. Even though most of the real work is being done by Emily and Lisa. I’m hoping to be a part of more projects through the Museum. I’ve also started an online web animation series called “Entomology Animated” that explores various topics in insect physiology. This is something I do in my spare time and I’m hoping teachers and students find it a useful resource, its absolutely inspired by my connection to the Museum. I’ve promised Lisa, Emily, and Brian an animation on Phorid flies, getting the anatomy of my digital model up to their standards is proving to be a pretty big challenge. The task is made a little bit easier since I know there is one species of phorid fly that literally has my name on it!
Interested in more? Eric's website can be found here.
**All photos and animations by Eric Keller.
August 2, 2016
April 26, 2016
Although we had less than average rainfall this winter, SLIME citizen scientists became iNaturalist superstars and logged 1,225 observations of Southern California's land snails and slugs for our El Niño #SnailBlitz.
There are many highlights from the effort, but of particular note is this rare snail.
Tight Coil Snail (Pristiloma sp.)
This Tight Coil snail was found by Cedric Lee, on March 20, 2016. He found it in the San Gabriel Mountains near the Pacific Coast Trail. It is likely Pristiloma gabrielinum or Pristiloma chersinella, both species are native to Southern California, but are difficult to tell apart. These snails are TINY: less than half the width of a pencil eraser at around 3 mm in diameter. Pristiloma gabrielinum is considered critically imperiled and Pristiloma chersinella is listed by NatureServ as a vulnerable species.
VERY little is known about the biology of either of these snails. Cedric's comment that he found it under the bark of a fallen pine tree adds to the basic understanding of how these snails live.
...and other interesting finds:
Tawny Beehive Snail (Euconulus fulvus)
This Tawny Beehive snail was also observed by Cedric Lee, on March 20, 2016 in the San Gabriel Mountains. This photo is the first I've ever seen of its kind alive!
Small Pointed Snail (Cochilcella barbara)
This snail was observed by Emily Han, on April 8th and 10th, 2016 in Mount Washington. Previously, only known from nearby San Diego and Santa Barbara counties, this observation is the first record for Los Angeles County! This snail has a Pest B rating by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which includes the prediction that this snail is highly likely to become established widely throughout the State. Only nine samples of these snails have been identified in California over the last 40 years, making this observation the 10th. Emily found these snails in abundance, which means their population is likely well-established.
A Possible Budapest Slug (Tandonia sp.)
I found this slug on March 16, 2016 while doing a #SnailBlitz hunt with Ms. Griffith's 8th grade science class, at Arroyo Seco Museum Science Magnet School in Mount Washington. This slug is a conundrum! Either is it a variant of the more common non-native slug, Milax gagates, or it is of the genus Tandonia, which would be a county and possibly state record. Because internal anatomy and/or DNA analysis are the only ways to determine the identity of this slug, this animal was sacrificed and tested for its barcoding gene (called CO1) and dissected to specifically look at its reproductive anatomy. Results are forthcoming.
The Unnamed Slug (Hesperarion hemphilli)
This unnamed slug was observed by Annette Mercer and Brian Brown, on February 20, 2016 in Griffith Park. As mentioned in a previous blog post this species is a Southern California native and is so poorly known it doesn't even have a common name!
Snail Behavior 101
And finally, some photos displayed snails galloping (technically called loping)! Citizen scientists @littlecrane13 and Rob Kutner and Sasha Kutner (age 7) observed Cornu aspersum moving with a loping gait, in which the snail makes a dashed line of mucus instead of a continuous one. What is fascinating about this behavior is that snails will lope when moving on dry surfaces like concrete or wood, but not on a smooth surface like glass.
Loping and adhesive crawling (when a snail or slug leaves a continuous slime trail) move the snail at the same pace, but loping uses less mucus and possibly saves the snail from getting too dry when moving on a porous surface. Rob and Sasha Kutner observed loping on concrete and @littlecrane13 observed this phenomenon on tile.
These and other observations are not only fascinating, but scientifically important. The photos taken are data points of biological diversity and species distribution. Many are also exquisitely beautiful, showcasing these animals as they are often not seen or appreciated. El Niño #SnailBlitz was a great success, thanks to all the citizen scientists out there. While the #SnailBlitz is now over, the SLIME project continues. So keep the observations coming!
April 7, 2016
**This week's blog is written by students and faculty from Occidental College**
This year, at Occidental College in northeast LA, we decided to do something about documenting the nature on our campus by organizing a BioBlitz (an event that focuses on documenting as many species as possible in a place over a short period of time). It seemed like the perfect time to get people engaged in documenting the biodiversity on campus, seeing as the theme for this year at Oxy is sustainability. As part of that commitment to sustainability, the college supported the BioBlitz in several ways, including a new Spring semester class that focused on citizen science to help us prepare.
Co-author Marlaina and fellow citizen scientist get excited about the BioBlitz!
Los Angeles is one of the most biodiverse cities in the world. Its geographic location makes Los Angeles a biodiversity hotspot, and some of the species living here are found nowhere else in the world. It is also incredibly urbanized, with a population of over 10 million people in Los Angeles County! This poses a lot of challenges for documenting nature in such an urbanized area: for example, a lot of the land is private property, and biologists can’t just walk into people’s yards to see what lives there. Even if they could, the sheer number of people it would take to pick through people's yards, blocks of houses, and hidden gardens and parks is huge! Citizen science is one great solution to large-scale monitoring problems. Getting people involved in scientific data collection promotes community education and empowerment, while providing usable data for ecological projects.
We spent most of the semester listening to guest speakers (including citizen science experts from the Natural History Museum), reading scientific papers, combing through iNaturalist and eBird (two citizen science data gathering platforms), and taking our own pictures of the organisms on campus. Then on April 2, we left the fate of our project in the hands of the citizen scientists who showed up. Nature gets up early, so we started at 6:30 am!
Oxy students use the iNaturalist app and field guides to identify and upload their observations.
The bird diversity on Oxy’s campus has been well documented and is designated as an eBird hotspot, with 97 species known from campus. Impressively, in a single day, student citizen scientists documented 45 species—nearly half of those on the list! We also found something surpristing--a new species for our campus, a Cassin’s Vireo, Vireo cassinii. As dozens of citizen scientists scoured Oxy’s nooks and crannies for birds throughout the day, the species continued to roll in, while students and community members got the chance to learn from experts from Oxy’s Moore Lab of Zoology about local bird species, and spot some exciting birds themselves.
Cassin's Vireo, a new species record for campus!
Early participants got great looks at a flock of eight Yellow Chevroned Parakeets which landed in a small tree on campus. We also heard the raucous chatter of groups of Red-Crowned and Lilac-Crowned parrots overhead. These parrot and parakeet species are native to Central and South America, but over the years, escaped and released pets have established wild populations. We recorded five non-native bird species including parakeets, parrots, red whiskered bulbuls, and house sparrows. That means roughly 10% of the bird species recorded on the day of the BioBlitz were non-native, which tells the tale of human influence in the Los Angeles area. It will be fascinating to see whether the prevalence of non-native and invasive bird species increases or decreases going forward, and hopefully future BioBlitzes on campus can help document these indicators of human influence.
Mid-morning, participants spotted four different species of warblers, including an all-time campus high count of 30 Yellow-rumped Warblers. These species are all currently in the midst of their spring migration, and their presence may indicate that the lush foliage of campus serves as an intriguing stop-over spot for migrating birds.
Black-throated Gray Warbler found during BioBlitz
Later sessions had the privilege of observing three species of raptors around campus. Red-tailed Hawks were seen soaring overhead in the warm afternoon sun. A breeding pair of Cooper’s Hawks perched in a Eucalyptus tree overlooking the entrance to Oxy’s Campus, and a pair of Red-shouldered Hawk’s patrolled their territory near Oxy’s organic community garden. The presence of these birds indicates that the mature trees lining Oxy’s campus for the past century provide quality habitat for multiple raptor species. With continuing expansion of campus infrastructure, and issues of disease and infestation currently affecting campus trees, it will be fascinating to see whether our resident birds of prey relocate their territories in the near future.
In addition to multiple bird surveys, we documented several other species. We had some of our first sightings of the native Valley Carpenter bee, or as some people like to call it, the flying teddy bear. If you have ever seen a giant black or yellow buzzing ball of fuzz zipping around, you’ve seen a carpenter bee. They are fairly harmless unless you have found holes in your home from their nests. Our bee-research lab on campus had been looking for them and EUREKA! We found both females (the giant black fuzzballs) and males (giant yellowish-brown fuzzballs). We were able to net some to add to Oxy’s insect collection which dates back to the 1980’s.
Citizen scientists ready to go find some insects
Citizen scientists look for bees
The most common reptile on campus was the Western fence lizard that you can find all over Southern California, but we did find a few exciting things in the reptile and amphibian surveys. Not one, but two(!) species of slender salamander—the Garden and Black-bellied slender salamanders—co-exist in Sycamore Glen, a wooded area just behind our Biology building. We also found a gopher snake. While the gopher snake seems like a reasonable resident of the restored habitat area attached to campus, no recent records exist of snakes being found there, so this was an exciting find!
A young citizen scientist finds a gopher snake!
Over 100 people showed up to help out, with a total of 344 observations made, and at least 80 species identified. We’ve officially declared the 2016 BioBlitz at Occidental College a triumph. Because of the amazing turn out that we had, we are hoping to make the Oxy BioBlitz an annual project, and continue educating citizens and fostering the relationship between Oxy’s science department, the Natural History Museum, and the community. We hope that annual BioBlitzes will continue to gain popularity with both Oxy students, and members of the surrounding communities. In the future, we also hope to enhance our ability to document campus biodiversity by integrating camera traps, a bat call detector (the same one NHMLA uses!), and pitfall traps for insects, into our efforts.
With thanks to Occidental College, the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Oxy, and the staff of the Natural History Museum, and everyone who came to the BioBlitz and helped make it a great day!
Photos credited to James Maley, Beth Braker, Amanda Zellmer McCormack, and Jessica Blickley
March 15, 2016
The Dodgers or the Giants? The Hollywood sign or the Golden Gate Bridge? Palm trees or redwood trees? The City of Angels or the City by the Bay? Where will your allegiance lie on the first ever National Citizen Science Day?
Centered around National Citizen Science Day and Earth Day, two of California’s leading natural history museums are asking residents of and visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County to explore nature all around them and document the species they find.
Friendly Foes with Much in Common
Despite–or possibly because of–being in the same state, Los Angeles and San Francisco have a long-standing rivalry. You can find an almost infinite number of debates on which city is better. However, even with all of our differences, these two California cities have a lot in common. We share life next to the Pacific Ocean and the complications of living with the infamous San Andreas Fault. We are the two most-populated urban centers in our state, with 10 million people in Los Angeles County and 7.1 million people in the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties, and on the whole we each have a very environmentally-minded populace.
California: Living in a Biodiversity Hotspot
Maybe our most important similarity–S.F. and L.A. both sit in a global biodiversity hotspot–the California Floristic Province. On par with places like the island of Madagascar and the Tropical Andes, biodiversity hotspots are, according to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership, the richest and most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on Earth. Unfortunately, our state’s spectacular biodiversity is threatened: at least 75% of the original habitat has already been lost. But through citizen science–in which members of the general public participate in scientific research–we can help make a difference. Quite often, citizen scientists provide scientists with data by taking measurements or digital photos of plant and animals that people see in their neighborhoods. By having Californians submit pictures, scientists can develop a new baseline of California’s nature and track how change is happening. The collected data can be used to improve our cities, to make them work better for humans and for wildlife. Scientists can not do this alone–California is too big with too much private property. Citizen science is the best way to gain a better understanding of California’s current wildlife community in urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Young citizen scientists help to document wildlife in the heart of Los Angeles
Citizen Science and Natural History Museums
Luckily one of the other things Los Angeles and San Francisco have in common are our stellar natural history museums! Both the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County have been engaging the public in citizen science for decades. Angelenos and San Franciscans have been documenting and sharing the nature they find everywhere–in backyards, in schoolyards, in parks, even growing in the cracks of the sidewalk–to help build a comprehensive current picture of nature in California. And also luckily, our citizen science teams at the Academy and at NHM have been collaborating for years (Lila from NHM and Alison from CAS were co-chairs of the inaugural Citizen Science Association conference in 2015). Oh and did we mention we are good friends? So when we heard about National Citizen Science Day, our brains started turning–why not jump on this chance to have a friendly rivalry between our two cities and start a competition to further the study of California biodiversity. This is how the City Nature Challenge was born!
Citizen scientists checking out an insect found during a bioblitz in San Francisco
So what is this citizen science throwdown all about?
The First Ever LA vs. SF Citizen Science Throwdown
Our museums are spearheading the effort to document as many species as possible using the free iNaturalist citizen science tool. It all starts at noon on Thursday, April 14 and runs through noon on Thursday, April 21. Not only will these observations help build up the baseline of California biodiversity, but it also provides data for our local scientists, land managers, and governments about the areas they study and care for. On Earth Day, Friday, April 22, we’ll compare the stats. Who will come out on top? Which city will have the most species found, the most observations, the most citizen scientists involved: Los Angeles or San Francisco?
If you are going to be in Los Angeles County or the San Francisco Bay Area during this time, we’d love to have you participate in the City Nature Challenge. All you have to do is submit your observations to us. Upload them to iNaturalist, come to one of the local events, or organize your own event. If you are in LA you can also send us your observations via e-mail email@example.com, or tag them on social media with #NatureinLA! In SF, make sure to upload your observations to iNaturalist but also feel free to share your photos and experiences on social media using #NatureInTheBay. If you’re not going to be in L.A. or S.F., you can still help by providing identifications on the organisms people are uploading photos of, or just following along to see what’s being found!
San Francisco Bay Area: http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-s-f-vs-l-a
Los Angeles County: http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-l-a-vs-s-f
February 2, 2016
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 slime trails of snails to chase them down among the bushes, then carefully take them to the designated snail house—a crook in a tree. Somehow the snails would always escape! I would walk across the farm fields around my house looking for mushrooms growing in circles, which my grandma told me were called fairy rings.
One day I was exploring a hollow tree and a huge puffball mushroom exploded in my hair. It happened as I climbed up inside the dark recess and spotted a large creamy white orb about the same size as my 7-year old head. As I wiggled through the hollow, trying to pull myself through, I brushed against the puffy mass and it burst. It was white and gooey and made my curly hair stick to my head. My family thought it was hilarious.
In Los Angeles, I have to wait months and months for a good rain. With El Niño 2016 upon us, I am on alert for the new slimy city that springs up after a rain, whenever I hike, walk to the bus stop, or bike through Koreatown.
Fungi live most of their lives underground, hidden from our eyes. Here in the arid Southwest they are easy to miss, only showing themselves for the briefest of moments after rains, or on irrigated lawns and mulched garden beds. Hiking in Griffith Park after a storm, I look along the sides of the trail hoping to spot spectacular fruiting bodies—what most of us think of as mushrooms. In Southern California, there are almost 400 species of fungi, including wicked poisonous ones like the western destroying angel, and delicious chanterelles, which sell online for $24 a pound. If you are really lucky you might even stumble upon a jack o’lantern, a bright-orange-gilled mushroom that glows in the dark! This is real bioluminescence. It contains the enzyme luciferase, the same as in fireflies.
A few years ago, I found a puffball mushroom in Griffith Park. It was much, much smaller than the one that popped on my head as a child, but I still couldn’t resist taking a closer look and marveling at the white bumpy flesh. This time, I touched it with my finger—and a faint puff of brown “smoke” seemed to be exhaled. Just like a raindrop, I had triggered the spores to release so the puffball’s genetic material could carry on.
Slime molds are even more alien than fungi and just as fun to hunt down. Take the dog vomit slime mold, for example. The name comes from its common incarnation as a bright yellow or pink oddly puffy aggregation on lawns, paths, or walls. It can be found all over the city, and I’ve found it in mulch along the L.A. River, and in planters in Koreatown. Most of the time the dog vomit slime mold lives as a single cell, surviving underground or inside dead wood and engulfing food. It’s when times are tough—for instance, when they run out of food—that the cells come together to move around in these large masses called slugs. Scientists have been studying their movement—watching them solve mazes or making them grow interstate highway systems on maps! After the slime mold goes through sexual reproduction, they produce and release spores and then turn black. The spores are caught by the wind and blown away, landing on new territory where they can go through the cycle again.
Dog vomit slime mold, found in a Koreatown planter.
Thirty years later, I am still chasing snails. A few days ago, after a rain, I went on a work field trip with museum herpetologist Greg Pauly in search of snails and slugs. In celebration of the museum’s SLIME (Snails and Slugs Living in Modified Environments) project and our El Niño #SnailBlitz, I was bent on getting pictures for this citizen science project. We strolled through West Coyote Hills in Orange County and kept our eyes peeled. At the bottom of a mountain biking trail, Greg and I began gently flipping over old bits of rubble.
After 30 seconds, we found snails. I took a look and immediately thought they might be interesting. They didn’t look like the regular brown garden snails (the big ones that were introduced from Europe for escargot) that are found all over town. Instead, they had a chocolate brown stripe that followed the swirl of the shell and they had a much darker body. We took pictures, hoping we could get the snail identified by the museum’s malacologist—a.k.a. snail/slug/clam/squid/octopus scientist—Jann Vendetti. Later that evening I got a two-word text message from Greg.
Southern California shoulderband snail, found in West Coyote Hills.
These are the types of texts you get when scientists are your friends. Greg had shown the photo to Jann, and she had been able to make a positive identification. These two words carried a lot of weight. It meant the snails we found were native Angelenos—Southern California shoulderband snails, to be exact. It meant we had found another population of this under-studied group. It also meant the pictures Greg and I had taken could be valuable citizen science data points. We both shared our photos to the SLIME project on iNaturalist (like FaceBook for nature nerds) so Jann can better study these snails, which are at risk of extinction. Our local native snails are L.A.’s version of the canary in the coalmine, if the snails are not doing well, our environment is not doing well.
When it’s very hot or dry, snails aestivate—which means they retreat into their shells to use as little energy or water as possible. Some species can even excrete a liquid that becomes a barrier—Jann calls it an epiphragm—sealing themselves (and their moisture) inside. And then they just hunker down waiting for the rain to return.
A rain shadow in the Museum's Nature Gardens.
Sometimes I’m so excited when the rain returns that I lie down on dry pavement or dirt, so the rain can darken the ground around me to make a “rain shadow.” I’ve noticed that some raindrops feel sharp and prickly; others splash on my face in huge droplets. As I lie on the ground and really feel the rain, I wonder, what must this feel like to other creatures, who’ve been waiting so long for this manna to fall from heaven?
This essay was originally written for Zocalo Public Square.
*All photos by Lila Higgins
December 17, 2015
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 distinctus. Both are originally from Europe and have been found as invasive species throughout much of North America, where they are associated with human-planted areas like gardens, parks, and farms. In California, these slugs have been common in greenhouses and nurseries in San Francisco and Oakland as early as the 1940s, and recently have been confirmed as established in Riverside and Santa Barbara counties. Without vigilant citizen scientists, there would be no record of the garden arion from Los Angeles County. Thankfully there ARE vigilant and observant citizen scientists contributing to the SLIME project.
To thoroughly establish the extent of this species in Los Angeles County, we need more help from you! We would like to know the geographic extent of the garden arion throughout Los Angeles AND we would like specimens to add to our collection as vouchers, or representatives of the populations living here.
This is where you can help: if you go slug hunting please take pictures of the garden arion, should you find it, and send us your pictures. You can add them directly to SLIME on iNaturalist, or you can e-mail us your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. If social media is more your thing, you can tag them #natureinLA. Keep track of exactly when, where, and who found the slugs, and any other details about where you found it (under wood pile, on sprinkler, etc.) would be extremely helpful. For example, is this slug found in the open after it rains or does it prefer to stay under flowerpots or rocks?
Likewise, if you find this slug and want to bring it to the Museum, our ticketing staff will be happy to receive it. Just put your garden arion slug in a plastic container with a piece of damp paper towel and something to eat (lettuce is a favorite). Include a label with your name and the location details of where you found your slug. You’ll be a big part of documenting the presence and range of an introduced and potentially invasive species, one of the primary goals of our urban biodiversity research!
Special thanks to iNaturalist SLIME contributors cedric_lee, silversea_starsong, and mckernink.
December 15, 2015
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 the family Lampyridae) and one of them, Microphotus angustus, is pink in both the larval and adult female forms. This instantly became the insect I wanted to find. So when Charlotte found one during her recent SuperProject observation, I knew I had to join her on her next nature walk!
I invited NHM’s Citizen Science Manager, Lila Higgins, to accompany me to Altadena to meet with Charlotte to hunt for this elusive creature. Pink glowworms are uncommon, and are most often seen by hikers at night in the late spring and early summer. They can be fairly easily spotted if they are out as they emit a continuous glow to attract mates (click here for a video of them glowing). Larval stages are black with pink margins (like the one Charlotte saw, above). Females eventually turn all pink, but look like larvae their entire lives (we call this larviform). Males metamorphize into your typical firefly beetle shape, and emit a faint glow when disturbed (see an iNaturalist observation of adult males and females together here).
When we arrived at Charlotte’s house we got to hear the story of her discovery firsthand over some pre-hunt coffee and cider (see her written account above). During the very first observation period for the SuperProject, Charlotte had asked her mom to lift a rock so she could see what was under it. When she saw the pink grub, she snapped a picture of it and showed her mom. Neither of them knew what it was, but luckily Charlotte’s grandfather was able to identify it for them. Lila and I were excited to see if we might be lucky enough to find another one with Charlotte’s help! Before we headed out, Charlotte and her parents carefully reviewed their project notebook and planned for that day's observations.
We then headed outside for our hunt! Charlotte left no stone (or log or board) unturned as she searched for observations.
We saw lizards for RASCals, snails and a slug for SLIME, and some other great finds like a black field cricket and a Jerusalem cricket (below).
Charlotte showed exemplary technique in taking observations. When she saw a lizard she approached it slowly, taking a photo each step. When it finally spooked, she knew she had taken the closet photo possible. She also worked closely with her parents to be ready to snap photos as each rock, log, and board was overturned (sometimes things run away very quickly when uncovered). Near the end of our walk we were all excited to check underneath the rock where Charlotte had spotted her glowworm!
As the rest of us looked on, Charlotte got ready to take photos and Amelia carefully lifted the rock…we all eagerly scanned underneath, but no pink glowworm. We searched nearby rocks and logs, but the elusive pink glowworm evaded us that day! Perhaps it is meant to remain a mystery to me.
Many thanks to the McDonald family for allowing us to join them on their nature walk!
January 10, 2017
December 7, 2015
“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 bobcats live in the park and neighborhoods near my house. I’ve kept a roadkill bobcat in my freezer for a UCLA Ph.D. student. Once, I helped try to recapture a bobcat that was sick with mange due to exposure from rat poison. I expected Jessie to tell me she found it near my apartment on a street just outside of Griffith Park. However, the bobcat was actually found closer to Elysian Park. Elysian Park (0.94 square miles) was considered too disconnected from known bobcat populations, and too small for a typical territorial bobcat, which requires 3 square miles of space if it is male and 1.5 if it is a female.
Camera trap video (motion triggered camera) captured of a bobcat marking its territory in a remote portion of Griffith Park. Video Credit: Griffith Park Connectivity Study
The unexpected location of the dead bobcat initially made me worried about the status of this urban-sensitive species and how to study an elusive species in an urban landscape filled with private property. However, the opportunities to study them with citizen science left me hopeful about their future.
It all happened as Jessie was on her way home from my P-22 (the famous Griffith Park puma) themed party the night before (yes, I love P-22 that much!). As Jessie was about to get on the 2 freeway near Elysian Park, she noticed a dead bobcat on the side of the road. The next day, the specimen was brought to our NHM Mammalogy Collections Manager Jim Dines, who also recognized the significance of the locality. Jim and I had recently been discussing how our camera traps in the Atwater section of the L.A. River hadn’t captured any images of bobcats. Our study site wasn’t too far from where Jessie made her discovery.
Jim Dines speaking to Jessie Jennewein about the significance of the location where Jessie discovered the deceased bobcat near Elysian Park.
Before one can truly understand the significance of a dead bobcat on the side of the Glendale Freeway, it is important to have a little background about local bobcat research and ecology. Unlike other urban carnivore species with more flexible diets and social structures (e.g., coyotes and raccoons), bobcats are solitary and have a strictly carnivorous diet. However, they are able to eat a wide variety of small prey.
Research by the National Park Service shows that local bobcats prefer to eat small natural prey such as rabbits (first choice), gophers, ground squirrels, and woodrats. Griffith Park camera traps have also captured bobcats consuming Eastern fox squirrels and mice. Many of these small prey species live in backyards, presenting new opportunities and new challenges to urban bobcats.
Bobcat carrying the remains of an Eastern fox squirrel in the Hollywood Hills. Bobcats are important predators that help regulate small mammal populations. Photo Credit: Griffith Park Connectivity Study
Like most urban mammals, bobcats avoid humans by being more nocturnal. Researchers in both the Santa Monica Mountains and Orange County have documented bobcats and other urban carnivores coming out much later in areas with more human activity. Their small stature and brown spotted coloration also allows them to hide in thick backyard vegetation during the evening and the day and usually out of sight from home owners. The National Park Service has even documented female bobcats using suburban backyards as den sites, perhaps to protect kittens from coyotes that are more abundant in park interiors. Their small-size and stealthy behavior allow them to stay out of sight and out of mind of the media who tend to portray local carnivores as dangers to humans and pets. The National Park Service has studied over 300 bobcats in the L.A. area and none have ever been documented killing pets.
Regardless of their stealth, urban bobcats are still vulnerable in areas with poor habitat connectivity. The bobcat Jessie found was likely attempting to cross a matrix of freeway lanes to reach the L.A. River or perhaps some backyard hunting grounds in the neighborhood across the street. Even if they can safely cross a highway or street, bobcats face many other dangers, such as rat poison exposure which makes them more vulnerable to contracting and dying from mange.
Biologists have learned a great deal about the ecology and urban dangers facing bobcats in the Santa Monica Mountains, Orange County, and Riverside including areas as urban as Irvine and the Hollywood Hills. However, their range and population health further into L.A.’s urban core has remained a mystery. Will occasional roadkill fatalities, like the bobcat Jessie found, remain our only proof of their persistence in more urban areas dominated by concrete and private property or will we use these unfortunate clues as a call to action?
After a local community activist shared Jessie’s story with a local newspaper, local residents began sharing bobcat sightings with the same newspaper and the NHM citizen science team. A bobcat was reported in the Los Feliz neighborhood and three reports came from the Silver Lake neighborhood, including an ear-tagged individual sighted a few months later in a small greenspace between Silver Lake and Elysian Park-very close to where Jesse found the dead bobcat a few months earlier. The ear-tag was very exciting because unique ear tag colors allow researchers to more easily identify individuals!
Bobcat B-253 in Franklin Hills backyard near Griffith Park. Researchers were able to identify the individual as B-253, originally tagged in Griffith Park, by using the unique numbers and color combinations of the ear tags. Photo Credit: Shirley Mims
Upon seeing the ear-tag, I contacted Laurel Serieys, former UCLA Ph.D. who studied Santa Monica mountains bobcats and is now a post doc studying urban caracals in Cape Town, South Africa. Unfortunately, we couldn’t read the ID number or tell the true color on the ear-tags, so Laurel was only able to confirm that it was a bobcat that she either tagged in Griffith Park near the L.A. Zoo or it was a bobcat that she or NPS tagged in the Santa Monica Mountains west of the 101 freeway. Either way, it had an amazing journey.
I was relieved to learn that the dead bobcat wasn’t the last bobcat of the Elysian Valley. Intrigued by the wide ranging behavior of these bobcats, I decided to place a camera trap in Elysian Park. It took a few months due to widespread human activity but eventually I captured camera trap footage of an untagged bobcat! The experience probably created more questions than answers about Elysian Park and Silver Lake bobcats, but the main lesson was clear! Neither I nor anyone else can practically search for bobcats in L.A.’s urban core without citizen science. There is too much private property to cover without the help of local residents.
First photographic evidence of a bobcat in Elysian Park. Video Credit: Miguel Ordeñana
Fortunately another local biologist by the name of Erin Boydston feels the same way. Erin is a Research Ecologist with the USGS who focuses most of her research on urban bobcats. Following an iNaturalist training led by myself and Richard Smart, Erin set up a citizen science project based on iNaturalist called “Backyard Bobcats” that requests participants to submit georeferenced photos of bobcats from their backyards. Unlike other backyard carnivores, bobcats have unique spot patterns that allow researchers to identify individual bobcats even without ear-tags. Therefore, it is possible to not only document their presence but also their population density. As citizen scientists from L.A.’s urban core, such as Silver Lake and Elysian Park residents, continue sharing bobcat data from their backyards, Erin’s search will continue to expand deeper into more urban neighborhoods.
One of many bobcat photographs shared with Miguel by fellow Griffith Park neighborhood residents. Photo Credit: Susan Swan
Once Erin’s project gathers steam, population patterns may become more apparent, such as which bobcat individuals from rural areas also use backyards. Perhaps the habitat value of previously overlooked urban parks, such as the Silver Lake reservoir or small fragments in more underserved areas like Elysian Park or Highland Park, will be identified. Additionally, crucial habitat connections and corridors like the L.A. River and Arroyo Seco may be increasing the habitat value of these small parks by linking them together, creating a single, larger, and more functional ecosystem. Are bobcats using urban areas due to a lack of resources and space in local open spaces or are these bobcats thriving in certain backyard habitat? The public can help scientists like Erin map the health (e.g., photos of mangy bobcats) and distribution of bobcats throughout rural and urban areas by submitting their photos to Backyard Bobcats and the L.A. Nature Map.
Jessie’s discovery, while sad, did lead to the gathering of more data and increased awareness of urban bobcats in Los Angeles. My hope is that more people will send their bobcat photos to Erin’s project. It is only through data collected and submitted by Citizen Scientists that we will understand the role these charismatic wild cats have in our shared ecosystem and help us ensure that they have a long future in the City of Angels.
How to participate: Send backyard bobcat photos with date, time, and location information to the Backyard Bobcats and L.A. Nature Map using one of three methods:
December 13, 2016
September 10, 2015
Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) is cast as one of the most iconic concrete jungles, with skyscrapers, cars, and miles of concrete. Many think of this as a place bereft of nature. But, over the last number of years pocket parks have been built, landscapes have been changed (think City Hall), and street-side planters have been added (though the habitat value of the plants in the Broadway bump-outs is questionable at best). Nature has always been here, and will continue to be so. But the often cited examples of urban nature, rats, pigeons, and ants, aren’t the only ones calling DTLA home.
At our recent BioBlitz L.A. event at City Hall we worked to document the wildlife in downtown. With a dedicated crew of 9 citizen scientists, we managed to document 28 species in 1 ½ hours. From orb weaver spiders and argentine ants, to flower flies and fox squirrels.
At that event I met Michael. Michael is one of our repeat citizen scientists. This year he participated in our ButterflySCAN project and I’ve often seen his posts on our L.A. Nature Map. As you can imagine, I was pretty excited that he was going to join us.
Michael had walked over to the event from his nearby apartment where he lives on the fourth floor. We got to talking and he told me about the wildlife he sees every day from his living room windows. Michael has two window gardens with 2, 24-inch wooden planter boxes outside of each window. Each planter box contains different types of flowers. Michael knew his garden would attract the bees, butterflies, and other pollinators he’d seen flying around DTLA.
Shortly after putting in his window garden, Michael looked out of his window and began thinking about installing a bird feeder.
“I was trying to decide if I wanted to put up a feeder with seeds in it, or a hummingbird feeder. I was pretty much resigned to putting up the seed feeder because I hadn't seen any hummingbirds in the area of downtown where I live. I hesitated though, because seed feeders can get pretty messy. Suddenly, just as I was about to make my decision, a hummingbird flew up from below my window, stopped about 3 feet from me and stayed for about 10 or 15 seconds while looking straight at me, as if to say, "Of course there are hummingbirds here!’”
Inspired by this nature sighting, Michael purchased and installed one hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds found the feeder (and his garden), and overtime Michael increased his feeders to four. At times there have been over a dozen hummingbirds visiting at once. As Michael put it, “I’m visited all day long by the beautiful flying citizens of downtown Los Angeles.”
Michael has documented two species of hummingbirds using his feeders: Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) and Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin). Michael thinks that he may have seen a Rufous Hummingbird, but he couldn’t verify it since it didn’t stay long.
When Michael shared that he had four hummingbird feeders installed, I was a bit surprised since that seemed like a lot. I asked him what the largest number of hummingbirds he has ever seen feeding at one time.
“One cloudy spring afternoon earlier this year, at dusk, there were 26 hummingbirds feeding or perched in my south-facing garden, and another 10 or 11 were doing the same outside my west-facing window. I was so awed by so many hummingbirds in my garden at the same time that I just stood there and stared, counting. I don't think I even got any photos of that special afternoon!”
Can you imagine seeing 36 hummingbirds outside a window in DTLA? I wonder if people walking on the sidewalk below had any idea there was a charm (yes, that’s what a group of hummingbirds is called) of hummingbirds flittering around above their heads.
For those of you who have or had hummingbird feeders, you know that it can be a lot of work to maintain them. It is recommended that feeders are cleaned and changed every 5 days to prevent bacterial growth. Michael works hard to follow that protocol.
“Now, with so many birds feeding here… I end up cleaning and refilling them about every two or three days because the birds have eaten all of the nectar already! Sometimes it's a lot of work keeping up with my little, energy-hungry neighbors.”
Clearly this must be a labor of love for Michael. He doesn’t have to work so hard to maintain a healthy habitat for these DTLA hummingbirds. So why does he do it?
“They make me happy. I love to listen to them all day long while I'm working in my home office, and love to watch them dance through the skies here. In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm sitting 3 feet from a hummingbird outside my west-facing window.”
Michael’s story resonates with me, because it shows that if wildlife friendly habitats are built then wildlife will come. The window gardens that Michael installed are visited by bees and butterflies, and his feeders help provide food for hummingbirds. I want to thank Michael for beautifying DTLA with his gardens, for providing habitat for wildlife, and for inspiring me to do more to help nature in L.A. I live in an apartment in Hollywood, and surely I can create a mini-garden of my own. I wonder what animals will visit me and my garden.
Check out Michael’s Flickr page to view more of his stunning photos.
Michael posted some of his hummingbird photos, and other wildlife photos, to NHM’s L.A. Nature Map.