Nature in L.A.

Showing posts from : 2014

December 23, 2014

First Lizard Found in Museum's Nature Gardens!

On November 19, 2014 something happened at work that I’ve been waiting three and half years for. Unfortunately, I wasn’t here to witness it, but thanks to citizen science I was able to celebrate the discovery, even though I was 6,187 miles away.

On that day, newly turned citizen scientist Toni Castillo documented the first lizard in the Museum’s Nature Gardens.

Photo courtesy of Toni Castillo

The lizard in question was a Western Fence Lizard, Sceleporus occidentalis, and Toni, a Museum staffer, just happened to see it as she was walking through the gardens.

“I was walking next to the Living Wall and saw something in the pathway. At first I thought it was a leaf or a stick, but then I looked closer and realized it was a lizard.”

Toni knew that this was a unique find—she’d heard...

December 11, 2014

Plant Clocks: Telling Seasonal Time in the Nature Gardens

Want to know the time of day? Look no further than your wristwatch, clock, computer, or cell phone. For the time of year, though, look to nature. Like a reliable timepiece, certain plants and animals signal the change of season. Just like learning to tell time, anyone can learn to read nature’s seasonal clock. As with so many things here in the Golden State, nature is decidedly different from the rest of the country — our spring really begins in autumn!

The current three-year drought aside, L.A’s Mediterranean climate is usually characterized by cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. California’s native plants have adapted over thousands of years to this cycle and, even before the first raindrops fall from the sky, some plants begin to emerge from their summer resting phase, sprouting new leaves or bursting into bloom.

Manzanita in...

December 2, 2014

Brainwashed Bees

By Brian Brown Some of you might have heard about the "ZomBee" project, both at our museum and perhaps at its source. It appears that honey bees parasitized by a phorid fly called Apocephalus borealis change their behavior and fly to lights in the evening. I witnessed this phenomenon myself in Pasadena a couple of nights ago, where dozens of bees were circling a porchlight and crawling on the side of a house at 8pm. Apocephalus borealis, the "zombie fly" Apocephalus borealis, the "zombie fly"This is just a reminder that if you see or hear about this type of abnormal bee behavior, please let us know so we can investigate....

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...

September 13, 2014


Every once in a while, those of us here at BioSCAN actually venture beyond the borders of Los Angeles. Sometimes when we do, we come back with insects. I was particularly excited by a couple of common, yet beautiful, insects I picked up in the South-Eastern Sierras this summer, so I thought I'd share them with you! Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.
Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption] The beauty above is a cicada, family Cicadidae. Although they are not commonly found in Los Angeles (although we did hear, and then locate, one in the NHM Nature Garden not long ago), cicadas of many species are found throughout California. Most cicadas have a lifespan between 2 and 5 years, with the lifespan of some species as long as 13–17 years! I collected this beauty at my annual family campout in...

September 5, 2014

The Shrunken Headed Spider Stalking Fly!

Today’s parasitic fly marvel comes in the form of an absurdly cute group of round, woolly bodied insects known as the small-headed flies (family Acroceridae). A handful of specimens of Turbopsebius diligens, the only species known west of the Rocky Mountains, turned up in only two of our BioSCAN traps, in Hollywood and University Park, an area just north of the USC Campus. At first glance, T. diligens might look like an oddly shaped bee, but to my eye, it’s as if someone took two craft pom-poms to make a miniature snowman, stuck a small fly head with giant fly eyes on top, added 6 legs and voila! To add to this bizarre image, picture this little fuzzball in motion, as humorously described by entomologist F.R. Cole: “(T. diligens) has a floating sort of flight, rather undulating and uncertain. It has the habit of buzzing around in circles when it falls over on its back on a smooth surface, often doing this for some time before it can regain...

August 28, 2014

Collembollanesque Wasp

wasp_id (1)At first glance, you might think the BioSCAN specimen above is a collembolan, or springtail (Wikipedia on springtails here.). As is often the case in the insect world, however, we find that truth is stranger than fiction. The insect above is Neodusmetia sangwani, and it's actually a flightless wasp in the family Encyrtidae. These little critters were disseminated by aircraft in 1971 as part of one of the most massively successful biological control projects of all time. Introduced from India into the Southern United States in 1964 for the control of another insect, the Rhodes grass scale, they can now be found all the way from the U.S. to Brazil. Rhodes grass scales infect (guess what?) grasses and were a very problematic pest...

August 8, 2014

BioSCAN Blues

While insects from the tropics like the famous Morpho butterfly get most of the credit for their stunning iridescent colors,  insects from more Mediterranean climates such as Los Angeles can also exhibit striking metallic exoskeletons. One such dazzling discovery, pictured below in all its glimmering azure glory, is a mason bee that has turned up from only 2 sites: our Museum's Nature Garden and our LA River adjacent site in Atwater. Solitary mason bees, like their close cousin the leaf cutter bee, use materials from their environment such as mud, leaves, or flowers to line the cells where they provision and protect their young.  This specimen stands out like a beacon (or a bee-con?)  when surrounded by mostly dark to earth-toned specimens in the sample, which prompts the question about this little flying jewel: what's the purpose of all this showiness? [caption id="attachment_500" align="alignnone" width="572...

June 12, 2014

No, it's Not an Ant!

Photo by Kelsey Bailey. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption]At first glance, the gangly creature above looks remarkably like an ant, but it is actually a flightless wasp from the family Dryinidae. Unlike ants, these wasps are solitary. They are parasitoids of insects in the order Hemiptera, the order we call "true bugs". This order includes cicadas, leafhoppers, and all manner of other plant eaters. As parasitoids, the females use a sharp ovipositor (egg laying projection) to pierce into the host hemipteran. The larva begins to grow inside the host insect, but soon begins to protrude like a giant tumor from the host body. A tough, leathery covering develops to protect the growing larva. Eventually, the larva pupates and a new adult emerges to begin the cycle anew. As you might imagine, things do not go well for the host...

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...

June 5, 2014

Faces of BioSCAN: The Amazing Adam Wall

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

By Emily Hartop When the BioSCAN Project moved into the Marine Biodiversity Center, the whole team soon realized the project required myriad people, talents, and skills. Adam Wall, Assistant Collections Manager of Crustacea, has a keen interest in problem solving, and soon found himself helping USC students seek answers to BioSCAN-related questions. Adam comes from a fascinating background in electrical engineering. He previously worked for JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a part of NASA) on robotics. I was excited to learn that he worked on walking robots called "spiderbots" — which even pre-BioSCAN he realized would be more accurately termed "insectbots", due to their having six legs instead of eight. These walking robots were being developed as alternatives to the more...

May 22, 2014

The Coffin Fly

Photo by Kelsey Bailey. Photo by Kelsey Bailey. 

As you well know, we are fly obsessed here at BioSCAN. Particularly, we are phorid obsessed. I am particularly obsessed with the macabre species Conicera tibialis, commonly known as the Coffin Fly. Perhaps it's the shadowy lighting as I view them under the microscope, but these flies, with their dark velvety bodies and (almost sinister looking) conical antennae (males only, females have round antennae), appeal to me tremendously. Photo by Kelsey Bailey. Photo by Kelsey Bailey

A number of phorid species are known to colonize humans remains, but C. tibialis...

May 15, 2014

Molten Aluminum + Ants = BUG FAIR!

A note about specimen sacrifice: We do not advocate needless killing of any creature, big or small. Unfortunately, there are aspects of science that we are unable to examine without sacrifice.
Photo by Doug Booher.
Photo by Doug Booher.
A note about specimen sacrifice: We do not advocate needless killing of any creature, big or small. Unfortunately, there are aspects of science that we are unable to examine without sacrifice. The ant nest that was used for our cast was sacrificed to create an amazing and permanent research and educational tool. The loss of one nest allows us tremendous insight into this species, which will benefit future efforts at understanding and conserving these native insects. As a reseach natural history museum, specimens are prepared and maintained at the highest museum standards, so that they will...

May 8, 2014

Going Native

A local bumble bee, photographed by BioSCAN Principal Investigator Brian Brown.

By Emily Hartop Out of the hundreds of bee species found in Los Angeles County, a single species gets most of our attention: Apis mellifera, the European honey bee. This species has a relationship with man that has existed for centuries. It is an exotic species that was introduced to North America. In addition to being widespread in the wild, they are widely used for pollination of commercial crops, as well as for honey — that sweet elixir of regurgitated nectar that is excellent in tea, cookies, breads, cakes, and all manner of other culinary delights. If you would like to know more about this species, we suggest the fun read "Sweetness and Light" by Hattie Ellis — what we'd like to focus on here are the many ...

May 1, 2014

Faces of BioSCAN: World Traveler & Accidental Bug Lady Jennifer Camello

Photo by Phyllis Sun. Photo by Phyllis Sun.

By Emily Hartop This week we feature another of BioSCAN's amazing USC students, Jennifer Camello. Jennifer is a junior at USC majoring in Anthropology. She plans to go to medical school with the admirable goal of being a leader in global health advocacy, helping to make the world a more equitable place. Jennifer came to our lab "squeamish around insects". Although she admits that she is still working on not panicking when there are bees or wasps around, she now finds herself intrigued by most of the insects she encounters. Not only does Jennifer identify the insects she sees to the level of order (part of what she does for the project), but she even tries to examine the genitalia of flies to determine the sex. We have trained her well. Her favorite part about the BioSCAN...

April 24, 2014

Up Close and Personal with Fly Genitalia

SEM Photography by Emily Hartop SEM by Emily Hartop

By Emily Hartop As many of you know, a principal research focus of the BioSCAN project is the phorid fly. Although a majority of us encounter phorids everyday, we are mostly oblivious to their existence due to their small size. Luckily, scientists have tools that allow us to enter the microscopic world of the phorid in order to study them in detail. Three of these techniques: scanning electron microscopy (SEM), slide mounting with compound microscopy, and stereo microscopy are the subject of this week's blog. The photo above is the male genitalia of a species of phorid of genus Megaselia taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). This specimen came from a BioSCAN trap, and was dried from its ethanol-soaked state with a chemical called HMDS. Entomologists use...

April 17, 2014

Faces of BioSCAN: Research with the Remarkable Regina Wetzer

Photo by Phyllis Sun Photo by Phyllis Sun

By Emily Hartop This week, I am pleased to better acquaint you with BioSCAN's Co-Principal Investigator, and Associate Curator & Director of the Marine Biodiversity Center, Dr. Regina Wetzer. Regina was a natural fit for the BioSCAN project. She is a marine biologist with a passion for taxonomy and biodiversity. She is also an accomplished ambassador — she works closely with both professors and students at USC and has colleagues across disciplines and around the globe. She understands deeply how collaborations allow researchers to accomplish bigger, greater goals than what they could achieve individually. As Co-Principal Investigator of this project, she supervises much of the day-to-day activity of the BioSCAN lab — including advising our many USC students on...

April 10, 2014

The Mesmerizing Eyes of Eristalinus taeniops

By Emily Hartop This week, we bring you a visual treat from BioSCAN's Principal Investigator, Curator of Entomology, and Photographer Extraordinaire, Dr. Brian Brown.Photo by Dr. Brian Brown Photo by Dr. Brian Brown

By Emily Hartop This week, we bring you a visual treat from BioSCAN's Principal Investigator, Curator of Entomology, and Photographer Extraordinaire, Dr. Brian Brown. His beautiful photo (above) of Eristalinus taeniops was taken in the NHM's Nature Garden, home to BioSCAN Site #1. This species is commonly known as the Stripe-Eyed Flower Fly, from the family Syrphidae, commonly called Flower or Hover Flies from their habit of hovering hummingbird-style over flowers in search of nectar. Although syrphid flies are quite common in the BioSCAN traps, this particular species has not yet...

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...

April 3, 2014

The Faces of BioSCAN: Photography with Kelsey Bailey

Photos by Kelsey Bailey Photos by Kelsey Bailey

BioSCAN Buzz is excited to bring you the first in a new series of blog features: "The Faces of BioSCAN". We will be interspersing these posts, illuminating the amazing folks we have working behind the scenes, with continued coverage of exciting news from the project. This week, we begin our series by featuring the woman behind the amazing insect photographs you see on the blog: Kelsey Bailey. Photo by Phyllis Sun Photo by Phyllis Sun

Kelsey is a senior political science student at USC, minoring in photography and social change. After graduation, Kelsey aspires to find a job that will utilize her diverse talents and allow...

March 25, 2014

Flat-headed Fig Invaders from Outer Space!

Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey

Disclaimer: To our knowledge fig wasps are not really from outer space, they just look like miniature aliens. To understand the tiny wasps in the family Agaonidae, you must first understand their inverted-flower “spaceships of reproduction”: figs. A fig, although it masquerades as a simple fruit, is actually an inside-out inflorescence (cluster of flowers). This inflorescence, once pollinated, becomes an infructescence (cluster of fruits) that contains the fig tree’s seeds. Pollinating this “calzone of the flower world” is no easy task: enter the fig wasp. These flat-headed wonders of fig pollination measure out at a slender two millimeters in length, and have an obligate mutualism with fig trees —meaning the...

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...

March 20, 2014

The Twisted Adventures of the Scintillating Strepsiptera

Photo by Kelsey Bailey Photo Credit: Kelsey Bailey

Shrouded in dusky, voluminous wings, a male strepsipteran catches the pheromone trail of a potential mate. With only hours to live, his first and only priority is to reproduce; his boysenberry-like eyes gleam as he heads upwind. As his hideously twisted hind wings plow through the air, lifting him into the sky, he reflects on his life. Born inside his mother's body cavity, this strepsipteran spent his early days with his siblings, consuming his mother from the inside out...

Without eyes, wings, or legs, his dear mother had made her home in the abdomen of a wasp. She had found this host when she was but a small, mobile larva, and burrowed into its abdomen. There she had matured, cloaking herself with host tissue grown...

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 27, 2014

Bloodsucking Flies Terrorize Pigeons in Gardena

Photograph of dorsal, lateral and ventral views of Pseudolynchia canariensis. Pseudolynchia canariensis. Photo: Kelsey Bailey.

This week, the BIOSCAN team brings you… a squashed fly from Gardena?! This may be what it looks like but we are excited to share with you our first specimen from the fly family Hippoboscidae, commonly referred to as louse flies. This particular species, Pseudolynchia canariensis, is a parasite on pigeons and doves, a bird louse fly. The BioSCAN team was thrilled to see this specimen appear in one of the site samples, not only because these flies are relatively rare, but because many flies in this family are flightless, and some are without wings at all. Obviously, wingless species are unlikely to be caught in a Malaise trap designed for flying insects, so we were lucky to catch...

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 9, 2014

Second Species of Ant Decapitating Fly Found in Glendale!

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 flies have been the focus of our Entomology Department’s research as conducted in other, more tropical locales, so it may come as a surprise to hear that we have these incredible phorids right here in LA.  These parasitoids (a term we use to describe organisms that eventually consume and kill their host) will not just lay an egg in any ant they come across, but instead target a particular species....

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.