Lizard Fieldwork is Just a Metro Ride Away in Los Angeles

January 19, 2017

TAP Cards and Lizard Nooses—Required Gear of the Urban Field Biologists

Where does a field biologist work? You are probably thinking of some distant place, like a rainforest or desert. But biodiversity discoveries can also be made right here in urban Los Angeles. Regular readers of this blog know that with the help of citizen scientists, Natural History Museum (NHMLA) researchers are often discovering species not previously known to be in this area.  Frogs, lizards, snails, slugs, flies, and spiders—new discoveries are regularly being made, and our field sites are quite often front and back yards.

Green anole population found near Culver City.

Since its initiation in 2013, the RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) Citizen Science Project here at NHMLA has led to the discovery of more than a dozen new populations of lizards living in Southern California. The only catch is these lizards don’t belong here; they’ve come from other parts of the world and could negatively impact our local species by preying upon smaller species or outcompeting our native lizards. 

How are these discoveries made? Usually the story starts with a citizen scientist, like Robert Asahina. This past June, Mr. Asahina, who lives in the Palms neighborhood near Culver City, emailed the RASCals project with photos of two lizards seen in his backyard. Mr. Asahina correctly identified the lizards as green anoles (Anolis carolinensis), and noted “…they’re proliferating in our yard.” Green anoles are native to the Southeastern United States, but not to California. We have documented several populations of green anoles in Southern California, mainly in Orange County, so we were excited, but also alarmed by a potential new population in Los Angeles. The key question was to determine whether this was an established, breeding population.

Being environmentally-friendly scientists, we decided to ride the Metro Expo Line, which conveniently stops at both the Natural History Museum and Palms, to the field site.

We used our TAP cards to enter the Metro station

 

Waiting for the Metro Expo Line train to arrive

We might have stood out in our bright orange NHM Urban Nature Research Center t-shirts and ‘field clothes’, but we were on a mission. If you see people wearing these bright orange shirts on the Metro or walking around in public, they are doing urban ecology research! Stop and say ‘hi’ and ask what they are studying. You might be surprised by the diversity of research that is being done in your own neighborhood.

Greg with all his field gear about to board the train

We made it to the neighborhood after a very relaxing Metro ride (no traffic!) and indeed found some suspicious lizards lurking about. We caught a few green anoles and found several juveniles, which indicates that this population is breeding and growing in number. If these lizards spread to areas where native lizards occur, they could negatively impact the local species. We have seen native lizards disappear from other areas where anoles have invaded. 

Can you spot the anole in this picture? These lizards can change color from brown to bright green and back to brown again.

 

Greg has spotted an anole and is attempting to catch it using a noose tied to the end of a fishing pole.

We documented many green anoles in Palms, and as such know that a population is established and is likely spreading. Now that it is winter, the anoles are inactive and waiting for spring and warmer temperatures to arrive. When that occurs, we will go back to determine how widespread they are and if they are interacting with any native lizard species.

This green anole has a light stripe that runs along the back. When we caught it, it was brown, but has since changed to green.

Because Mr. Asahina reported this unusual looking lizard to the RASCals project, we were able to document the second established population of this nonnative lizard in L.A. County. There are almost certainly additional anole populations elsewhere in L.A., just waiting to be discovered by other observant citizen scientists. If you see strange lizards in your yard or neighborhood, email a picture of them to nature@nhm.org, tag them #natureinLA on social media, or submit an observation to our RASCals project on iNaturalist .

**All photos by Bree Putman

(Posted by: Bree Putman and Greg Pauly)


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

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.

Helminthoglypta tudiculata

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


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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

January 5, 2016

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 is cooler and more humid. Only the occasional rainstorm has provided appropriate conditions for you to come to the surface and seek out food, a potential mate, or new habitats to explore (all very exciting things for amphibian you). But most of the time, you have just been resting and waiting for better conditions.

 

Fortunately, this situation might just be changing. El Niño forecasts suggest higher than normal rainfall. As hopeful and excited as humans are that the El Niño rains might alleviate our drought, amphibians must have a thousand-fold more excitement (assuming they’ve read the forecast). With rains, frogs will emerge and congregate at breeding sites, and salamanders will come to the surface searching for insect prey and potential mates.

 

The few recent rains that have fallen in Southern California have provided a small glimpse into what may come. Submissions of Pacific treefrogs and garden slender salamanders to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) citizen science project have already started to increase. With more rains, here is what you should be looking for in your backyard, neighborhood natural area, or elsewhere across Southern California.

A Pacific treefrog recently photographed by Cedric Lee and submitted to the RASCals citizen science project.

The Pacific treefrog is a pretty famous frog. Of the 6,600 species of frogs in the world, this is the only frog that actually says “ribbit.” Because it is loud and common in the L.A. area, it has been dubbed into movies and TV shows, with the result being that people worldwide think that all frogs say “ribbit” when in fact, only this one does. This small green or brown frog has a dark mask that runs through its eyes. It can be found in a huge variety of wetland sites from backyard ponds to our bigger lakes and rivers. The easiest way to found one is to listen for their calls in the evenings after rainstorms.

A garden slender salamander photographed by Stevie Kennedy-Gold and submitted to the RASCals citizen science project.

The garden slender salamander is much more cryptic than the treefrog. Look for it in the same places you might look for an earthworm. Often it is found beneath pots, rocks, or stepping stones in backyard gardens. With a quick glance, you might think you are seeing an earthworm, but four small legs and a head with two biggish eyes will make the identification obvious.

If you do see a salamander or treefrog, take a photo or record the frog’s call and submit that to the RASCals project via iNaturalist, by e-mailing the photo and the location to nature@nhm.org, or by tagging on social media #NatureinLA. 

 


(Posted by: Greg Pauly)


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Los Angeles is Being Invaded by Frogs!

September 8, 2015

Sunday, September 6, 7:54 pm, my phone vibrates with an incoming text message. I look down and see a photo of a frog taken in Hollywood. This isn’t an unusual occurrence. When you study urban biodiversity and spend big portions of time telling anyone that will listen that they can make the next big urban biodiversity discovery, this is the happy result—incoming photos of critters to identify. Usually it is a native frog, lizard, or snake, but with alarming and increasing frequency, the photographed critter is a nonnative species.

 

The mystery frog as found in Hollywood and photographed by Elizabeth Long.

In this photo, the critter is a frog. But is it a common native or an unusual nonnative? Unfortunately, smartphones aren't great at taking nighttime photographs of frogs, and I can't yet be sure of the identification. However, I can see that the eyes look big and the pattern looks unusual. I text back, “Bag it please. Photo looks strange.”

Normally this wouldn’t be my response, but the person texting me is another scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Long, the Museum’s butterfly expert and fellow urban biodiversity aficionado. Unfortunately, by then the frog had been caught and released, but Elizabeth adds another piece of info: the eyes were red. I get more excited with that info as it further suggests it is a nonnative. Our native frogs do not have red eyeshine, but some tropical frogs that get moved around in the nursery plant trade do.

 

A few minutes later, the next clue: Elizabeth tells me her husband Zach’s eyes are watering.

Amphibian skin secretions often have defensive chemicals in them to ward off predators. This is why you always want to wash your hands after touching an amphibian; otherwise, if you rub your eyes, lick your fingers, or pick your nose, you might be in for a very unpleasant experience. But in some frog species, these skin secretions are capable of causing a reaction even at a distance. A potential mammalian predator can’t mount much of an attack if his eyes are watering and nose is running. Zach is pretty sure he didn’t rub his eyes, and because none of our native frogs have this ability, maybe this is a nonnative frog? This info should have been enough for me to make the identification. I was already pretty sure the frog was a Cuban treefrog, but having caught them in Florida, I never had a reaction to their skin secretions so I wasn’t sure yet.

 

The problem was solved a few minutes later. Elizabeth and Zach re-found the frog and sent some more photos. My response:

"We are officially one screwed up state! We are Florida. Bring on the boas and pythons."

The frog is a Cuban treefrog, Osteopilus septentrionalis. And a quick internet search confirms that they are capable of the reaction Zach experienced. I guess I was lucky when I was catching them in Florida. Zach, on the other hand, felt the effects for nearly an hour! Pretty impressive for a little frog.

 

Cuban treefrog, photo by Zach Smith

The Cuban treefrog, as its name suggests, is native to Cuba and also the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. The frogs showed up in South Florida in the 1920s likely as stowaways on cargo ships and then spread rapidly throughout southern Florida. The frogs also show up occasionally in other places after hitching rides in nursery plant shipments. In Southern California, the most likely route of dispersal is through the nursery plant trade and the occasional individual has shown up previously at Southern California nurseries in shipments originating from Florida. Elizabeth’s discovery, however, is the first I am aware of in which the frog was found out and about in a neighborhood.

 

Here’s the key question: If among my group of friends, we can find new records of nonnative species in Southern California, how many more nonnative reptiles and amphibians occur across Southern California that have never been documented?

 

WE NEED YOUR HELP!!!

This is where citizen science comes in. We need people all across Southern California to help us document these nonnative, and potentially invasive species. If you see a reptile or amphibian in Southern California, take a photo, and e-mail it to rascals@nhm.org. Alternatively, you can upload your observation directly to the iNaturalist project page, or tag it #NatureinLA on social media.

RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) is a citizen science project that documents and tracks nonnative species. In the past two years, we have documented the first record of an invasive reptile or amphibian population established in Southern California five times, all thanks to citizen scienctists like you. We then worked with the citizen scientist(s) to publish the findings in peer-reviewed papers, with them as co-authors!

 

Cuban treefrogs are just one of many nonnative reptiles and amphibians showing up in Southern California. Here are some other nonnative species we are also tracking. One of these nonnatives could very well be thriving in your backyard, or tucked under the leaves of the tropical plant you just brought home from your local nursery. If you see one of these, please let us know.

 

Brown Anole

The brown anole, Anolis sagrei, is also native to Cuba. Brown anoles first showed up in Florida in 1887, and were likely introduced to the major seaports of Florida numerous times. The anole lizards then caught a ride over to Hawaii where they have rapidly expanded. Brown anoles have been occasionally showing up in Southern California for several decades either as escapees from the pet trade or as stowaways on nursery plants, but populations either did not become established or did not get reported to scientists and wildlife officials who document them. In the past few years, however, established brown anole populations have been recorded in San Diego County. And just in the past two months, I have documented the first established brown anole populations in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. I expect that there are many more out there, so please keep an eye out and your smartphone camera ready.

A male brown anole displaying his red dewlap, photo by mgiganteus​

Green Anole

Another anole that is showing up in our region is the Carolina anole or green anole, Anolis carolinensis. This species is native to the southeastern U.S. it has also become established in Hawaii and many other places. Through both the pet trade and the nursery plant trade, green anoles find their way to Southern California, and there are now multiple populations here. Interestingly, in areas like Hawaii and Florida where both brown and green anoles occur, the brown anoles often outcompete the green anoles in the lower parts of the habitat forcing the green anoles to stay higher up in the vegetation.

 

A male green anole found in Los Angeles County, photo by Lila Higgins

Brahminy Blind Snake (No, it's not an Earthworm)

Whereas Florida’s invasive snake problem involves one of the largest snakes in the world, California’s invading snake is one of the smallest snakes in the world. The Brahminy blind snake, Ramphotyphlops braminu, is a tiny, harmless, brown snake, frequently mistaken for an earthworm. Earthworms are segmented and have moist skin, whereas these snakes are dry and covered with small scales. The Brahminy blind snake gets moved around in soil, which is how it also gets the name the flowerpot snake. This snake has likely been getting moved around by people for thousands of years, which is why its native range is unknown though certainly includes South Asia and India. In Southern California, look for them in backyard mulch piles or crawling across the sidewalk just after the sprinklers have gone off. Earthworms can be found in the same places, so take a close took to see if it is the tiniest snake you have ever seen!

 

Brahminy blind snake, RASCals photo by citizen scientist Mickey Long 

Cuban treefrogs, brown anoles, green anoles, and the Brahminy blind snakes are just a few of the nonnative reptiles and amphibians showing up in Southern California. Coqui frogs and multiple species of house geckos are also becoming incrasingly common here. If you see any of these species, please help document their spread—take a photo and submit it to rascals@nhm.org. Understanding the impacts of these nonnative species requires first documenting where they are, and that can only happen with the help of citizen scientists like you.

 


(Posted by: Greg Pauly)

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Arroyo #Chubwatch 2015

July 2, 2015

After three long years of planning, 45 arroyo chub were finally released into the Nature Garden's pond last week. 

Arroyo chub (it's alive, don't worry!) held for a quick photo op before release into the pond! Photo by Richard Hayden.

Arroyo chub, Gila orcuttii, are a native freshwater minnow found only in the coastal streams of Southern California, says Chris Thacker, Museum Curator of Ichthyology (fishes). They are classified as threatened in this native range and are noticeably missing from the lower reaches of the Los Angeles river. So, when it came time to think about fish in the Nature Gardens pond, all our scientists and educators wanted Arroyo chub.

 

The chub were transported from the Riverside Corona Resource Conservation District in an extra large cooler. Photo by Jason Goldman.

Our philosophy about purposefully introducing animals into the Nature Gardens is pretty strict-we generally don't do it. However, we knew we were going to make an exception for fish in the pond. Why? Because, mosquitoes!

Although we're fascinated by all nature here at the Museum, we are definitely taking a stance against breeding mosquitoes in our pond. Which is a good thing, because the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District would step in and solve the problem for us if we didn't. Their solution would involve releasing 6-10 mosquitofish, Gambusia affinis, into our pond. But, we didn't want mosquitofish, we wanted a fish that was native to Los Angeles, something that could tell a better story about nature in L.A..

Arroyo chub have a great story.

According to Thacker, "these minnows were historically found in arroyos and rivers in Southern California, but are now only known from the upper reaches of our watersheds." This is true for the highly altered and concretized LA River, where the chub are noticeably absent. When Friends of the Los Angeles River studied the fish of the river in 2007, they found zero arroyo chub and 668 mosquitofish, more than any other sort of fish!

Although, these non-native fish are helping us to keep mosquito-borne disease cases down, they're also impacting other creatures that live in our rivers and streams. Museum herpetologist (reptiles and amphibians), Greg Pauly explains, "the name mosquitofish makes one think they are highly specialized on mosquitos, when in fact they are actually broad generalists and consume native amphibian eggs and non-target insects." The chub on the other hand are much more effective at eating mosquito larvae and predate less often on the frogs, toads, and native insects we are trying to encourage in our waterways. Because we wanted to encourage as much biological diversity as possible in our pond–especially all those dragonfly and damselfly nymphs–we pushed for chub.

So why don't vector control use chub instead of mosquitofish? There are a few reasons. Chub are much harder to rear in captivity than mosquitofish, and it's therefore easier for vector control facilities to keep up with demand. More importantly, as a native fish arroyo chub require permits from California Department of Fish and Wildlife for us to keep them. Interesting that no permits are needed for the non-native mosquitofish. 

So, if you want to meet our new arroyo chub, come on down to the Museum. Thacker advises you to be patient, "They are skittish little fish and like quiet spots in the pond, so they will often be hiding, but can hopefully be spotted with a bit of dedicated observation." 

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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First Lizard Found in Museum's Nature Gardens!

December 23, 2014

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 from other Museum staff that no lizards had been documented in the Nature Gardens before—and realized she had to get proof.

“I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I was really excited and kept thinking, it’s a lizard here! It was like seeing a unicorn. Luckily I had my phone in my back pocket and I was able to pull it out and snap some pictures.”

Later that day word spread. Toni told a few other Museum staff and sent them pictures. Everyone was excited—we had built the Nature Gardens as a refuge for wildlife in the city, but we’d still never documented a lizard in the space. The last time anyone had documented a lizard in Exposition Park was in March of 2010, when some citizen science volunteers observed two Western Fence Lizards on the south steps of the Museum.

Dr. Greg Pauly, the Museum’s curator of herpetology was another one delighted by the observation, and has high hopes that the lizard will stick around.

“This Western Fence Lizard appears to be a male and he is a bit beaten up with a stump-tail.” But, even with these apparent injuries, Greg is still optimistic. “Let’s hope he finds a female and our Gardens become populated with young fence lizards next summer.”

This lizard sighting is important for many reasons. Not only is it a first for our Nature Gardens and possibly the beginning of a Museum lizard population, but it is also one of only a few urban L.A. records in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) project. The project has been running for 18 months and has received close to 5,000 observations, but only a very small number of these records are from urban areas. Toni's observation is another small step to helping Greg better understand how lizards and other reptiles and amphibians survive in Los Angeles.

So while you’re out and about exploring urban L.A. over the holidays, take a moment to snap pictures of any lizards you see and send them into RASCals to help us make another small step (nature@nhm.org). We really need your help!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Urban Foraging: Carp Caviar from the L.A. River!

March 21, 2014

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 to the river to watch all that water flowing through the concrete channel.

 

View of the river and the Fletcher avenue bridge March 1, 2014

Unfortunately, the above pictures just don't do it justice. They don't let you feel the power of that much water flowing past you. Maybe this photo collage, created by Damian Robledo, can do a better job?

Damian works right next to the river in Elysian Valley (aka Frogtown), and was able to duck outside his office at RAC Design Build, to document the dramatic change.

As you can see, the river filled the channel almost to the very top. Which, according to The River Project, means a flow rate of about "183,000 cubic feet of water per second," or in terms easier to understand that's, "40 million garden hoses going full blast," or, "14 times the flow of New York's Hudson River!" Whoa, that is one heck of a lot of water flowing through the heart of Los Angeles and on out to the Pacific Ocean. While watching this spectacle, I couldn't help but wonder about the animals that live in the river. What happens to them when 14 Hudson rivers are forced between the river's banks?

Obviously, some creatures, like the white egret pictured above (long-necked bird hanging out in the middle of the frame), can just fly out of the river and hole up until the storm is over. Other fauna native to California, have evolved different strategies to deal with our sudden influxes of water. According to Dr. Greg Pauly, our curator of Herpetology, amphibians are much better than we are at sensing changes in barometric pressure. When they sense cues that a storm is coming (i.e. a drop in barometric pressure), frogs and toads will hop out of the watercourse and find a place to shelter, like under a nice big bush, or down an abandoned ground squirrel burrow. Some amphibians even thrive after massive disturbances like winter floods. Greg told me that after the Mount Saint Helens eruption, Western Toad, Bufo boreas, populations exploded.

But, what about the water-bound creatures, do they fare as well? In the case of this introduced carp species, Cyprinus carpio, not so well:

I found this fish while exploring the river on March 2nd, during an ethnobotany tour put on by River Wild. Although, we were focusing on urban foraging of edible plants, none of us could help taking time to marvel at this massive fish. As you can see, it was was lying there dead, with much of its insides spilling out, including the roe (all those orange bits are fish eggs)! Apparently, carp roe are sold as a caviar substitute, but I just wasn't willing to try them early on a Sunday morning. Yes, a part of me worried that they could be contaminated with toxins present in stormwater*, but mostly it was because I grew up vegetarian in England and accidentally ate taramasalata at a friend's birthday party. Incidentally, taramasalata, is a Greek or Turkish dip made from vinegar, olive oil, lemon juice, and taramas (aka preserved roe). As you can imagine, this has permanently affected my taste for carp caviar!

*In 2008 FoLAR (Friends of the L.A. River) commissioned a fish study to determine species presence and toxicity levels. They sent five L.A. river carp to a lab to be tested for mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) levels. All the fish tissue tested came back with mercury and PCB levels below those designated by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment's for fish contaminants.

But, how did this impressive creature die, and how did it end up in a dry side channel of the river? I think, one of two things happened. Either, the carp was battered around and killed by debris during the flood, and was then deposited in the side channel as the water receded. Or maybe, the water receded so quickly that the fish was stranded and then, unfortunately suffocated. Either way, post-mortem, it seems that another animal came along to have a snack, apparently wild creatures are into carp caviar too! Then, for some reason (maybe we disturbed them), the epicurious scavenger fled the scene of the crime and left this mighty fish to decompose on the river bank.

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Hawk Attacks Snake and Epically Fails!

February 7, 2014

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! Smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles, just minutes from downtown, are two big native vertebrates in a life or death struggle.

Cool factoid 2: The where. This photo was taken in the middle of Scott Avenue in Echo Park. Scott Avenue runs through Elysian Park, which this gopher snake likely called home. David stated that the hawk "...just came down with the snake in the street."

The likely scenario is that this juvenile hawk spotted the snake and thought it would be a tasty meal.  However, while tasty, a snake of this size is not necessarily an easy meal for a young hawk. A big snake means a big defense.  Any misplaced grab by the hawk, in which the talons are far back on the snake means that the snake gets multiple loops around the bird to constrict it. This appears to be what is happening here with the gopher snake constricting the hawk's abdomen and apparently pinning back one talon. The defense was enough to impair flight and the pair ended up in the middle of the street. David observed the pair for five minutes, during which time the snake slowly freed itself, and both eventually departed the area.

Cool factoid 3: The when. The photo was taken Friday, Dec 27. That's right, winter.  Or at least what the calendar tells us is winter. With our unseasonably warm weather, the temp that day was 82 in Echo Park after multiple days of warm weather and mild evenings. So while the calendar says it is winter, that doesn't mean our local reptiles are not active.

Cool factoid 4: Added bonus coolness—Look closely at the snake's neck.  It is dramatically flattening its neck. This is a common, stereotyped defensive display used by gopher snakes and other snakes to look bigger.

Cool factoid 5: there's more! Here's another recent attempted predation event on a reptile, this time by a California Striped Racer, Masticophis (Coluber) lateralis, on a Southern Alligator Lizard, Elgaria multicarinata.

This photo was taken by hiker Rainer Standke on January 22 at Hollywood Reservoir. He gave the photo to Gerry Hans, President of Friends of Griffith Park, who submitted it to the Museum's Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern Calfifornia (RASCals) project.  Striped Racers are huge lizard predators and certainly eat a good number of alligator lizards. But it is hard to eat an alligator lizard when the lizard is clamping your jaws shut! We don't know the outcome of this interaction. Maybe the lizard lived, or maybe the snake made a comeback and ended up with a big meal. Again, this is a "wintertime" observation, in which the snake was warm enough to be actively hunting and assured enough of warm temperatures over the next few days to think that it could digest a large lizard meal.

And as with the hawk-gopher snake interaction, this observation was made right here in urbanized areas of Los Angeles.

If you make your own local reptile or amphibian observations, please share them with us by participating in the RASCals project either by visiting the project page or emailing your photo and date and location observed to rascals@nhm.org.


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Lizards, Snakes, and Frogs Oh My!

April 27, 2012

This last Saturday we held the second annual Lizard Hunt at Malibu Creek State Park! Dr. Greg Pauly, Museum Herpetologist, and Dr. Bobby Espinoza, CSUN Herpetologist, took a group of 25 lucky people out to observe, catch, and identify local herps.

Are you looking at me?Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentatlisHere is a list of all the herps we encountered:Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalisCommon Side-blotched Lizard, Uta stansburianaTiger Whiptail, Aspidoscelis tigrisWestern Skink, Plestiodon skiltonianusSouthern Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus helleriGophersnake, Pituophis cateniferStriped Racer, Masticophis lateralisPacific Treefrog, Pseudacris regilla (heard calling)American Bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana (heard calling)

Dr. Greg Pauly lets an aspiring herpetologist touch a Western Fence Lizard

Dr. Bobby Espinoza shows off a striped racer, Masticophis lateralisOne of the primary goals of this field trip is to increase participation in our Lost Lizards of Los Angeles (LLOLA) project. Currently we have about 250 submissions, but for us to be able to do anything interesting with the data, we need at least 2,000 submissions. Hopefully we were able to inspire at least 25 more people to participate at this field trip. Are you inspired? One last thing for all you ultra herp-nerdsyou can now get your daily herp dose by visiting the Museum's new herpetology section facebook page. Go get 'em Tiger Whiptail!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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