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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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
September 25, 2015
There is a new citizen science project in town and we need your help to document the snails and slugs that call Los Angeles home. SLIME (Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments) kicked off earlier this year, and we are already making some interesting discoveries about life in L.A.'s slow lane.
White Italian snails on a sprinkler at the White Point Nature Center, San Pedro, Los Angeles County. Notice the variation in color and pattern. Photo by Austin Hendy.
There are about a dozen common land snails in Los Angeles County. If you’ve hiked within the Palos Verdes peninsula, or up to the Baldwin Hills Scenic overlook you’ve probably seen two of the most common snails in urban Southern California. Like most Angelenos, they thrive in a Mediterranean climate and, in fact, ARE from a Mediterranean climate. The white Italian snail (Theba pisana) and milk snail (Otala lactea), hail from Southern Europe and reproduce abundantly in our neighborhoods, their adopted home. They are often found clustered on the same plant stem, sprinkler, sign, or fence, and in numbers from the dozens to hundreds.
Despite this presence, and close proximity to people in Los Angeles parks and along hiking trails, they are often confused for each other or misidentified as other species. Here's why.
Both are highly variable in color and in pattern. The next time you seen a bunch of them, take a close look. In white Italian snails, shell color can range from white to tan with varying degrees of banding, zigzags, and stripes of variable thickness.
Likewise, the milk snail’s shell can range from almost totally white to heavily banded with brown and tan stripes, which can be solid or stippled. And, to add to the confusion of the casual snail-watcher, these species sometimes overlap in habitat, as in the gardens of the White Point Nature Center in San Pedro.
Milk snail on a twig at the White Point Nature Center, San Pedro, Los Angeles County.
So how do you tell the difference?
The white Italian snail (Theba pisana) is the smaller of the two species and at maturity is about the size of a dime. As an adult, its umbilicus, or the center of the underside of the shell, is partially covered by the lip of the shell.
The milk snail (Otala lactea) is the larger of the two species and about the size of a quarter at maturity. As an adult its umbilicus and part of the underside of the shell is glossy and brown in color.
Easily distinguing a milk snail (left) from a white Italian snail (right) by examining the underside, or umbilical view of the shell.
Such confusion is not limited to sizable snails you’d find hiking, but makes distinguishing two tiny Los Angeles snails tricky as well. If you look under rocks, among leaf litter, or in the soil of potted plants, you might find two more snail doppelgangers: the orchid snail (Zonitoides arboreus) and the glass snail (Oxychilus sp.). They share the same two-toned gray-colored bodies, and flattened amber-colored shell, but can be distinguished by size and subtle differences in the shell.
Glass snail (top) and orchid snail, tiny snails with subtle differences.
When in doubt, which is most of the time even for seasoned snail observers, the best way to photograph a snail for identification is to take images of the shell from three different angles; the top (apical view), the side (apertural view), and the bottom (umbilical view).
The 3-view approach to photographing milk snails apical (top), apertural (middle), and umbilical (bottom) views.
So next time you find a snail (or slug for that matter) take pictures and send them into the SLIME project. You can submit them directly to iNaturalist, e-mail them to email@example.com, or tag them #natureinLA on social media. Either way, you will be able to put your new-found snail identification skills to the test, and I might get to help with the tricky taxonomy of terrestrial molluscs.
September 30, 2016
September 20, 2015
Being a resident of the most filmed city in the world, there are some buildings that I have as much familiarity with from portrayals on the silver screen as I do from my daily commute home. One such building is our iconic City Hall, completed in the 1920s in a fashion one architect described as an architectural hybrid “Modern American” style. Built from concrete taken from sand from all 58 Californian counties and mixed with water from all 21 Missions, this classy behemoth has been featured in dozens of films and TV shows (my personal favorite cameo is Carpenter’s 1980s classic, “Escape from L.A.”).
Photos above by Estella Hernandez. All photos below by Kelsey Bailey.
Standing at 450 feet, L.A.’s City Hall is a structural symbol of the growth and prosperity of its time, but to an urban biologist, the grounds surrounding it have a different potential; the opportunity for discovery of our wonderful wildlife. It was with this curious spirit that the NHM BioSCAN team partnered with LA City Councilmember Paul Koretz. We erected several insect traps on the grounds, in the trees, and on the south roof to see what types of bugs call City Hall their home. From just one summer month, we have so far identified several hundred species from over 90 families!
Some of the insects collected are very common backyard residents that most would recognize (Argentine ants, green lacewings, European honey bees), but the vast majority are surprising dwellers at the core of the city! Below are just a select few of the thousands of insects we found from our brief survey.
Ants, bees, and wasps (all in the insect order Hymenoptera) are the largest group found in these traps in terms of diversity, but also the smallest in terms of size. Thousands of microscopic wasps only a few millimeters in size were collected, as well as 6 different species of bee. Low ant diversity was expected: the traps we used mainly to collect flying, not crawling, insects. Above, micro-wasps associated with figs in the families Pteromalidae and Agaonidae. Below, metallic sweat bee (genus Agapostemon).
Flies to tantalize your eyes! This astonishingly diverse group of insects in the order
Diptera do everything from pollinating flowers to decomposing, to preying on other insects.
Measuring at almost 1 inch in length, predatory robber flies were some of the largest insects we collected (below).
Some flies like to make love on the wing, as was evidenced by the two pollen-feeding “window” flies collected in our trap in copula (below).
The third most common group we collected from City Hall include a wide variety of insects such as aphids, hoppers, assassin bugs and stink bugs, to name a few. Although some are pests on plants, many have beautifully colored markings and ornate stained-glassed patterned wings, such as this lace bug and the smoketree sharpshooter (below).
August 9, 2016
May 27, 2015
Have you recently seen lizards in L.A. that appear to be biting each other, or maybe they are trying to eat each other?
If you have, you are not alone. Citizen scientist, Diana Beardsley, saw these two in her lizard-filled backyard and sent us this picture. It became the latest data point in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California project (RASCals) which helps us understand the state of urban lizard populations. It also helped us realize a pattern!
Diana was not the only one to send us a picture of one lizard biting another. Many of the people who sent us these pictures were not sure exactly what they were witnessing–were they fighting, trying to eat each other, or doing something else entirely?
Turns out it was something else.
What looks like a fight between two lizards, is actually a form of lizard courtship, a lizard love bite if you will. Museum herpetologist, Dr. Greg Pauly says, "male alligator lizards bite the female behind the head during mating, which holds her in place until she is ready." Lizards have been observed in this position for a long time—sometimes over an hour, and oftentimes moving through open spaces which makes them easily visible. Some people speculate that the mating hold is a show of strength by the male, to prove how worthy of a mate he is. However, as Greg points out, there's no data to support this claim but he concedes that it could prove to be true.
All of this might sound a little harsh to some people, but this mating behavior has not been known to harm the female. If you see lizards engaged in this behavior, please do not try to separate them or move them, as this could harm the lizards. This is their normal behavior, and an integral part of their mating ritual.
When Greg saw Diana's photo he wasn't surprised, "it's mating season and this is a typical mating hold exhibited by alligator lizards." Southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) are the most widespread lizards in urban L.A., but they can be secretive and fast, which sometimes make them hard to photograph. However, during the breeding season finding two lizards out in the open—one biting another—leads to lots of curious people taking photos. All told, we received seven photos of lizards mating in March and April, which is about 10% of all RASCals submissions during the time period.
Here are some more pictures of alligator lizards in the mating hold:
On March 19, Louise Whitaker saw these Alligator lizards and sent the photo in to our firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail.
On March 27, Ron Matumoto submitted this picture to the RASCals project on iNaturalist:
Finally, on April 22, Jean Brandt sent in this photo.
These images provide photographic evidence that lizards in these areas are healthy enough to support breeding populations. If the photos come from urban and suburban areas, then Greg and other scientists can study them to understand why lizard populations are able to survive despite the proliferation of human development.
Greg says, "As we grow RASCals, we should get dozens of these mating entries. Once we have them, I think I will be able to write a paper about breeding behavior of these lizards entirely based on citizen science observations. It will be awesome."
So if you see lizards entangled in a love bite (or doing anything at all, Greg's really not that picky) please take a photo and send them to email@example.com. Your photos will help us better understand lizards in L.A.
Co-authored by Richard Smart and Lila Higgins
August 2, 2016
July 19, 2016
November 12, 2014
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 just a sac containing eggs and fat cells.
Twisted wing parasite. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey.
When she is ready to mate, she partially burrows out of her wasp host’s rear end, exposing her head and shoulders. She sends out an alluring chemical scent, a pheromone, to attract her mate, who flies in from afar and expertly inseminates her behind the head. She waits patiently for her eggs to develop and hatch. Then, she becomes a host of sorts: Her larvae slowly devour her as they thrive. When they are ready to search for their own wasp hosts, they wriggle out from behind her head, leaving her shell-like exoskeleton behind. Each female twisted wing parasite can bear 2,590 offspring this way. (The wasp survives the entire ordeal relatively unscathed; its only scar is that it is now sterile.)
This is one of the true tales of L.A. noir unfolding around you – down in the depths of the soil, around the corners of buildings, and under the bushes of Southern California’s dark underbelly. I know about these monsters because I study insects at the Natural History Museum, where I work alongside the entomologists and volunteers (we call them “citizen scientists”) who trap and find them. I can tell you that L.A. is no City of Angels so far as insects are concerned.
Death Becomes Her
Some of my favorite bugs congregate around dead bodies. One place you might find them is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, possibly circling around the head of the Johnny Ramone statue. To the untrained eye, they might look like any old gnat. But each of these bugs has a pair of huge eyes that look like they’re covered in mesh, long slender legs, and transparent wings. Couples like to meet in the air and fall to the ground in a moment of insect ardor. They are Conicera tibialis, more famously known as coffin flies.
After the mating pair has parted, the female fly locates dead or decaying tissue (by smell, scientists presume) so she can lay her eggs. She can burrow almost seven feet underground, which is good because, if she’s looking for human tissue, it is often, as the adage says, about six feet under.
She lays her eggs in the nooks and crannies around the coffin, and lets her maggots do the stealthy work of sneaking into the actual casket. If all this seems like a lot of work, it is. Oftentimes these flies eschew the dead humans and instead go for easy pickings such as the pet dog you buried in the backyard last week.
Murder in the L.A. River
As the runners, bikers, and strollers make their way along the path next to the Los Angeles River in Frogtown, the water gurgles by and the bushes gently rustle in the wind. But this idyllic scene masks murders happening just beneath the water’s surface.
Dragonfly nymph. Image courtesy of Chris Goforth.
Baby dragonflies, otherwise known as nymphs, are voracious predators. Measuring from the size of a peppercorn up to an inch and half, these muted brown bugs blend in nicely with the muddy bottom at this part of the L.A. River. When prey swims by – it could be a fish, a tadpole, or a dragonfly sibling — the nymph unleashes its hidden jaws-of-death. Within a microsecond, the jaws snap onto the stunned victim and pull it in to be eaten alive. Nymphs can consume multiple meals a day in the watery depths—they are true cold-blooded serial killers.
Off With Their Heads
Another of my favorite ghoulish insects was discovered last November in Glendale in the big yards of the big houses sitting snugly up against the Verdugo Mountains. There, a large ant serves as the mansion of tiny Pseudacteon californiensis, or the ant-decapitating fly. These ants, known as velvety tree ants, make for nice homes because they are larger than the usual black ants you find invading your cat’s food bowl or committing suicide in your freezer during a heat wave. And they also have curb appeal: a velvety black abdomen and reddish-orange thorax. Perhaps that’s why P. californiensis has evolved to infect this ant and no other.
Ant decapitating fly. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey.
Instead of a U-Haul, the female P. californiensis moves into her host by inserting her needle-like egg-laying device (ovipositor) into a weak point between two of the ant’s abdominal plates. She lays one solitary egg and flies away.
Inside the ant, the egg hatches, and the maggot journeys to the ant’s head, where it chews its way through various tissues. Eventually, the ant is decapitated and dies—and the adult fly emerges through the oral cavity in a scene reminiscent of a horror film.
Zombies are all the rage in Hollywood—but real zombified bees might actually be invading Los Angeles any day now. Since 2011, infected bees have been spotted from Seattle to Santa Barbara. We’re not sure if they’ve arrived here already, but we recently set out traps in the Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens to find out.
“Zombees” begin their lives as normal honey bees, Apis mellifera. But when they meet a tiny honey-colored fly with dark eyes known as the zombie fly, Apocephalus borealis, these bees begin living a nightmare.
The tiny female zombie flies insert their needle-like ovipositor into the abdomens of their bee hosts. They typically deposit a number of eggs, which hatch into maggots after a few days. Up to 15 maggots can survive inside of one honeybee, eating the bee’s insides. Right before the maggots are ready to turn into pupae, the next stage of their development, the zombee is somehow inspired to leave its hive at night—for what some call a flight of the living dead.
These zombified bees are attracted to light, circling porch lights or writhing under lit windows in the early hours of the morning. About seven days later, the maggots erupt en masse from the neck region of the bee. They then crawl a short distance away, pupate, and emerge as adult flies nine days later, ready to find their next victim.
When I pull dragonfly nymphs out of the L.A. River, or when I look at a zombie fly under a microscope, I revel in the fact that I’m privy to a tiny world that often goes unnoticed. Some people are afraid of bugs – and if you know what they’re doing to each other, it’s not hard to understand why. But bugs define our city as much as people do. If we don’t understand their lives and worry about their future, we’re not planning for our own future, either. And in a town that’s full of sequels and remakes and adaptations, the true stories of their lives are much stranger than our Hollywood fiction.
With special thanks to the Museum’s BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science City and Nature) staff, particularly principal investigator Dr. Brian Brown, who designed and implemented the study of L.A.’s insects that discovered many of the creatures highlighted in this article. For more information about BioSCAN, check out the project page.
*This was originally written for Zocalo Public Square
December 23, 2013
Let's celebrate another year of L.A.'s AMAZING BIODIVERSITY. The benevolent blogger that I am, here are your gifts:
Twelve Rattlers Rattling
Eleven Potter Wasps Piping
Ten Flies Decapitating (decapitating ants that is)
Nine Dragons Dancing (in the L.A. River)
Eight Mantids a Milking
Seven Planarians a Swimming
Six Lizards a Laying
Five Foxes Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!
Four Glowing Worms (yes, they're glowworm beetles)
Three French Opossums
Two Turtle Newts
and P-22 in the Hollywood Hills
Here's to another year full of amazing Los Angeles nature discoveries!
*P-22 image courtesy of the Griffith Park Connectivity Study
July 26, 2013
What is the grossest thing that can happen to you while you are biking? Give up? Being splattered by freshly killed roadkill juice that’s what—did I mention it was a skunk?
This was my luck the other day as I was heading over to a picnic at the newly opened Echo Park Lake. Needless to say this trauma has caused me to extra vigilant and observant of roadkill of late. So much so, that I’ve even taken to participating in roadkill science—see it’s not creepy to get up close and personal with roadkill—it’s science!
Tuesday, on my day off, I drove around town looking for roadkill. I found two unfortunate animals who tried to cross the road (okay one of them was crossing a parking lot, but that makes for a terrible joke). I took pictures of them and submitted them to the California Roadkill Observation System (CROS). It was really easy, and I liked the fact that I didn’t have to sign up or make an account. Here are the entries:
A pigeon that expired in an In-N-Out parking lot:
An Eastern Fox Squirrel that didn’t cross the road, in the Larchmont area:
But what’s the bigger picture here? Why do scientists care about roadkill observations? Why has Fraser Shilling, biologist at UC Davis’ Road Ecology Center, bothered to create CROS?
“According to the Humane Society of the United States, over a million animals are killed every day on our roads and highways. We have created CROS to provide a way for people like you to report roadkill so that we can understand and try to influence the factors that contribute to roadkill.”
When I read, “a million animals a day,” I was pretty floored. And then I realized this was just North America we’re talking about! I feel a bit powerless in this situation. I guess the best I can do is ride my bike a bit more, and try to stop and take a picture of roadkill when I see it. Then maybe, just maybe, the research findings can influence design of sustainable transportation systems that will mitigate impacts on natural landscapes and the wildlife that calls it home.
April 3, 2013
Hey Angelenos, did you know you live in a biodiversity hotspot? That's right, our city is home to a MASSIVE amount of awesome, and sometimes rare, life. Life that is under threat and needs to be studied. We here at the Museum have been studying the life in our hotspot for a hundred years. To continue this tradition and to take it to the next level, we are inviting you to join us. Today we are launching a new initiative that will do this, NHM Urban Safari. We are going to map the wildlife that lives all over our city. From places like Griffith Park and the L.A. River, to your backyards and school yards. To help us do this we have applied for a $100,000 grant through the LA 2050 competition. This is a huge project that involves all of us, and you can start helping today by voting for NHM.Take a moment to imagine what L.A. could be like in 2050 if everyone in our city helped to study the AMAZING and AWESOME wildlife that lives here! School children would be studying wildlife in their own school yards, which would also be safe places to play. Families all over the city would have planted habitat and documented the return of all 500 native bees. Hikers would have trekked all over Griffith Park and discovered and documented rare species which we thought were lost. Kayakers would be floating down our beautiful river and snapping pictures of the birds, dragonflies, and frogs they see. Finally, visitors to our fine city won’t just be coming for a Hollywood starlet sighting, they’ll also be coming to experience nature in this biodiversity hotspot. Wow! Watch our video to learn more about the project and to cast your vote. All you need to do is click the blue button marked "vote" and follow the instruction.
California newt, Taricha torosaTell all your friends! Our nature is in your hands.