February 14, 2017
Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is in the air, but for more species than just Homo sapiens. While you might be thinking of roses, chocolates, and a candlelit dinner, our local alligator lizards are devising their own romantic plans. Valentine’s Day happens to be around the start of the alligator lizard breeding season in Southern California, and we need your help to study their breeding biology.
Alligator lizards are the most widespread lizard species in Southern California—your backyard, the landscaping around your apartment complex, you very likely have these lizards in the green spaces around your home. They don’t make it into our desert regions, but they can be found just about everywhere else including in the most urbanized parts of our cities. Nevertheless, these lizards don’t get seen all that frequently because they don’t bask in the sun like many other local lizards. Instead, alligator lizards prefer cooler, more hidden areas, hanging out in gardens, shrubs, and wood piles. Gardeners should be thankful because these lizards eat lots of pests like slugs and caterpillars as well as many other insects and spiders. In more natural habitats, they can be in grassland, chaparral, or forest and are especially fond of cooler, grassy areas along creeks.
Starting as early as February 9, alligator lizards in Southern California start mating. Many people who see their courtship behavior might think the lizards are fighting or that one is even cannibalizing the other, but in fact this is alligator lizard love. The male bites the female on her neck or head and then uses his tail to attempt to lift the female’s tail. The female may refuse these advances hoping instead a male more to her liking comes along and displaces the first male. As a result, the pair may stay in this position for more than a day. If the female does decide to mate, she lifts her tail allowing the male to insert his hemipenis into the female’s cloaca.
What’s a hemipenis? It’s the intromittent organ (an external organ specialized to deliver sperm while mating) in male lizards and snakes. In other words, it’s the lizard equivalent of the mammalian penis, except that lizards and snakes have two and can use the left or right hemipenis depending on which side is closest to the female. In some species, the hemipenes (this is the plural of hemipenis) are covered in barbs and spines, but in alligator lizards, the hemipenes are relatively smooth and lack these structures.
In 2015, I started using the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) project to study the breeding behavior of these lizards. One of the main questions is to understand whether urban and rural lizards breed at the same time. Urban areas tend to heat up more than surrounding rural areas; this is termed the urban heat island effect. If the lizards are using temperature as a cue for when to mate, we might then expect that urban lizards breed earlier.
The challenge with studying the breeding biology of these lizards is that it would be very difficult to get a large number of observations across different habitat types. However, we can solve this problem by crowdsourcing; we can ask thousands of people to keep an eye out and document any breeding observations by sending us photos.
Local citizen scientists documented 19 cases of breeding behavior in 2015, and 20 in 2016. We have also received a number of photos from earlier years, all the way back to 2008. Based on these observations, breeding in coastal areas of Southern California can be as early as February 9th, or as late as April 30th, but the peak of breeding tends to be mid-March through mid-April. We are already seeing some interesting patterns. In 2015, 13 of the 19 observations occurred in a single peak of activity between March 17 and April 1. In 2016, we saw two peaks of activity—breeding activity increased in mid-March, but then ceased as a series of cold fronts in late March and early April passed through Southern California. We then had a second peak of activity in mid-April with the return of warmer temperatures and sunny skies.
What will the breeding season be like in 2017? We should know the answer soon, but only with the help of citizen scientists like you! HERE IS WHERE WE NEED YOUR HELP. If you see courting or mating alligator lizards, please take a photo and submit it to the RASCals project. You can do this through iNaturalist, or by emailing the photo to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by using #NatureinLA on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), or by texting us your photos at (213) 663-6632. If you have photos from previous years, please submit those as well. And while you are searching for those amorous alligator lizards, we encourage you to send in photos of any other reptiles and amphibians you come across.
(Oh and don't forget about snails and slugs too for our #Snailblitz photo contest).
**All photos for this blog were taken during the 2016 breeding season and submitted by citizen scientists to the RASCals project.
February 6, 2017
It is that time of year again, winter in Southern California, and our rainy weather brings out some of LA’s most interesting residents, snails and slugs! Pull out your cameras (or smart phones) for SnailBlitz 2017! From February 1- March 31, 2017, we invite you to send us your photographs of local snails and slugs. You can upload them directly to the SnailBlitz 2017 project on iNaturalist, e-mailing us at email@example.com, texting us at (213) 663-6632, or tag your photo on social media (Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook) using #SnailBlitz. The goal is to reach 1,000 images by midnight on March 31!
Like last year, our scientific goal is to use the power of citizen science + rainy weather (that tends to bring out the snails and slugs) to accelerate our efforts to catalogue the biological diversity of terrestrial gastropods (land snails and slugs) in greater Southern California. These efforts improve our knowledge of species ranges and distribution, and allow us to document rare species and species never before found in Southern California. Last year we had some spectacular finds of rare snails. Not only will your snail or slug observation be useful to science, it could win our SnailBlitz photo contest. Check out our winners from last year. Every observation** will be automatically entered into our #SnailBlitz photo contest. On April 7 we will announce the winners in these categories:
• Grand Prize Winner
• Best Snail Photo
• Best Slug Photo
• Best snail/slug Meme (must be generated using #SnailBlitz eligible photo)
• Rarest snail/slug Photo
• Grand Prize Winner will receive: free lunch and behind the scenes tour with Jann Vendetti (NHMLA Curator of Malacology) for you and 3 friends, and one free annual family membership to NHMLA (includes membership for two adults and up to four children age 17 and under)
• Winners in all other categories will receive 4 general admission tickets to NHMLA
Here’s hoping for rainy weather and lots of snail and slug sightings!
**Terms and conditions apply, check the project for details.
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.
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 might have stood out in our bright orange NHMLA 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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, tag them #natureinLA on social media, or submit an observation to our RASCals project on iNaturalist .
**All photos by Bree Putman
January 10, 2017
The Museum's Nature Gardens continue to be the gift that keeps on giving by providing precious habitat to wildlife living in the urban core of LA. Last November, we not only had our second alligator lizard sighting, but we also uncovered a rarely seen flower fly from our Malaise trap that collects insects as part of the BioSCAN project. This project has examined over 2,000 flower fly specimens representing 35 species in LA so far, but this rare fly from the garden, Myolepta cornelia, is the only one we have seen so far!
Before you dismiss this finding as “just another fly,” take a minute to ponder the many talents of these mini-marvels. Faster than a hummingbird, clocking in at 250 wing beats per second (!!!), flower flies spend their day revelling in the garden’s floral buffet. They can fly backwards as easily as they do forwards, or can be spotted hovering perfectly still in mid air, like little meditating, levitating yogis. Just like the beloved bee, they pollinate the flowers they feed upon. In fact, as hymenopteran (the bee, wasp, and ant group) mimics many are mistaken for a wasp or a bee, a trait that offers protection from potential predators.
Their ecological importance does not end there. As wee little fly babies (the maggot or larval stage, in other words), they act as beneficial predators or decomposers, depending on the species. The activity of the larva of our rare special fly M. cornelia is still a mystery to entomologists! We know that many of their close relatives feed on rotting wood in the larval stage and have a preference for oak woodlands, so it is possible that M. cornelia is helping to break down dead wood in the Nature Gardens.
Special thanks to Jim Hogue and Martin Hauser for their identification skills and syrphid fly insight!
Brown, Brian, James N Hogue and F. Christian Thompson. "Flower Flies of Los Angeles County". Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. 2011.
Reemer, Menno, Martin Hauser and Martin C. D. Speight. "The genus Myolepta Newman in the West-Palaearctic region (Diptera, Syrphidae)." Studia dipterologica 11 (2004) Heft 2: 553-580.
January 3, 2017
It is a sparkling New Year! But have you sat down and thought long and hard about a New Year's resolution yet? We know that they can be overwhelming, and some people think they're cliche, but we are here to help. The only catch is, it might be a bit unconventional...
NHMLA's recommended New Year's resolution:
I will dedicate my waking hours to looking for snails and slugs in Southern California.
Here's how to get started:
1) Go outside (after it rains can be particularly fruitful).
2) Look for snails and slugs. Damp spots are best--under bushes, among wood pieces in wood piles, between and under rocks or bricks, on tree bark, on plants, among leaves, along wet sidewalks, and popping out of mushrooms! Remember if you flip a log or rock, put it back the way you found it (it is likely an animal's home).
3) Take pictures of any snail and slugs you find. Snails and slugs move slowly, so it is fairly easy to take multiple shots that are in focus. Also, try to take pictures from different angles, particularly for snails. Getting images of the top and sides of the shell can be helpful. If it is a snail-less shell, they can often still be identified. Try to get an image of the shell opening. Don't forget to take note of where you are and the day/time.
4) Send us your pictures. You can submit them directly to iNaturalist (using the free smartphone app, or on your home computer), e-mail them to email@example.com, or tag them #natureinLA on social media.
We are interested in any and all snail/slugs you might find. But because you are not going to do anything by halves with your New Year's resolution, keep on the look out for these five species. If any of these were found in Southern California (and submitted to the SLIME project) they would be new records for the region. They are all native to far off places but may be closer than we think...
Common names: Zachrysia provisoria-Cuban brown snail, Meghimatium bilineatum-Chinese slug, Parmarion martensi-yellow-shelled semi-slug, Boettgerilla pallens-worm slug, and Veronicella cubensis-Cuban leatherleaf slug.
December 28, 2016
The museum's Nature Garden is a great place to see birds. Not necessarily one-in-a-lifetime type birds, but enough of a variety that beginners and photographers can find lots to appreciate. Here are some photographs I took on 20 December, 2016 to show that, at a time when much of the country is covered in snow or miserably shivering because of the cold, we here in Los Angeles have an almost unbelievable opportunity to observe colorful wildlife in the center of the city.
December 13, 2016
Baby opossum season is thankfully coming to a close, but only for a short while! We get quite a few calls here in the Live Animal Programs office when these bumbling troublemakers are out looking for a new place to call home.
Photo by Jill Franklin
A few years back, a young opossum made its home in the engine block of a Museum pool vehicle that hadn’t been used for a while. You can see with the leaves he dragged in, it was a perfectly cozy den. Luckily for him we didn’t start the engine and he was an easy eviction. More recently, a friend of an NHMLA Staffer wrote in a panic questioning how to get an opossum out of her house. It had pulled off a window screen and attempted to make itself at home.
Photo by Leslie Gordon
But we’re lucky. According to one rehabber I know, she gets calls several times a day early February/March and July/August. Of course, the young marsupials aren’t really looking for trouble, but they absolutely find it in our yards, homes, sheds, garages, engine blocks… you name it.
When they emerge from mom’s pouch and start riding on mom’s back, or tagging along behind her is the time when they start getting into trouble. If the mom did not become roadkill, and her scampering young were not grabbed up by a dog or cat, (the former scenarios comprise most of the rehabbers’ calls to rescue babies) they eventually start to look for a place to call their own. And they can call anything a home--under your garage, porch---almost anywhere.
We get our fair share of calls, but the reason it gets especially crazy for rehabbers is because opossums are virtual baby factories. Unlike many mammals, the baby season can happen multiple times a year, and at around 13 babies a litter, that’s a lot of babies! And they are in a hurry, too. They gestate for just 12 days, and when they are born (the size of honeybees), they have just a few minutes to race to one of 13 teats in mom’s pouch. They latch on and nurse for about 100 days, but toward the end of that period, they get large and start riding on mom’s back garbage-man-style. And at just about 3 to 4 months of age they are ready to go on their own! It is shocking to most people to see how small they are when they are technically ready to go. But remember--for an animal that lives maybe 3 years tops, every month is rather like 3 years of ours. And those first few months out of the pouch are clearly a real obstacle course for them.
So what to do if you run into one of these little kiddos when the next season comes around?
#1 Please don’t attract them by feeding. We strongly discourage feeding most any wild animals, especially nonnatives like opossums.
#2. If they are discovered in your trash cans, typically either gaping their giant mouths or playing dead, simply tip the can so they can get out, or put in a ”ladder” so they can escape. This can be a branch, an actual ladder, a crate, almost anything. Often they fall in and get stuck there. Remember, the playing dead routine is very effective. They go stiff, emit an odor and even allow flies to land on their open eyes! If you are unsure, walk away and ensure privacy/escape for at least 2 hours. If it is still there, you may have a dead opossum. If not, your ladder probably helped it get to freedom.
#3. If they are in your home, you can typically treat them like an equivalent-sized cat. If simply shooing them out with a broom didn’t work and they are very small, throwing a towel over them usually works. Wear heavy gloves if you are worried. If they are larger, your presence is usually enough. But leave a clear, unobstructed exit back out of your home and you'll make outdoors seem more appealing. Just make sure a curious dog or neighbor isn’t blocking the path.
The best advice is to be patient. They’re slow, but they really don’t want to tangle with humans.
City of Los Angeles Animals Services – Wildlife
Coast and Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation
County of Los Angeles Animal Control – Wildlife
Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA – Wildlife
December 6, 2016
These monstrous looking pinchers are the mouthparts of a dragonfly larva imaged with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Amazingly, this image wasn’t taken of the animal itself, but rather of its abandoned exoskeleton (called an exuvium) that the larval and freshwater-living dragonfly (or naiad) leaves behind when it becomes a winged dragonfly. This dragonfly and the ones below are from the family Aeshnidae.
Below is the whole exuvium in glorious detail. You can find these shed exoskeletons on rocks and vegetation at the border of freshwater ponds, steams, and lakes. I found this one amond the reeds in NHMLA's Nature Garden pond.
Image taken, with thanks, by Kelsey Bailey on a Keyence VHX-5000 digital microscope.
January 10, 2017
September 20, 2016
August 30, 2016
November 29, 2016
At the border of the Hollywood Hills and Los Feliz neighborhoods is an enchanting, tree-shaded half-mile trail of Griffith Park that meanders along a trickling stream dotted with ponds. This verdant paradox in the city of Los Angeles has an appropriately puzzling name: Ferndell Nature Museum. If you go there looking for “the Museum,” there isn’t one; the collection of plants and animals living there IS the Museum.
The history of this Griffith Park canyon and what became “Ferndell” or “Fern Dell” includes the natural spring that feeds the stream, a village site of the native Tongva/Gabrielino people, planting of much of the canyon’s greenery in the early 1910s, development of the trails and bridges by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, disrepair in the 1980s, and refurbishment and restoration (in stages) up until today. This human history complements Ferndell’s unique biological composition: it hosts a diverse flora and fauna that, much like nature elsewhere in developed Los Angeles, is a mosaic of native and introduced species.
The ferns of Ferndell are plentiful and include Adiantum and Athyrium, some of which are California natives, but others are non-native. Button and snail ferns (Tectaria sp.), leatherleaf ferns (Rumohra sp.), and tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi) hail from Africa, South America, and Australia. Elephant-ear plants (Colocasia sp. from East, South, and Southeast Asia) and Philodendron selloum (from South America) shade the trail and provide a tropical ambience. Native coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), western sycamore (Platanus racemosa), and California bay (Umbellularia californica) round out a geographically disparate forest that also includes a huge Roxburgh fig tree (Ficus auriculata), climbing English ivy (Hedera helix), and California coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens).
Under this diverse canopy are some of Ferndell’s most charismatic residents, the animals. In the ponds and along the trail are red-eared slider turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans), crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis), large koi (Cyprinus carpio), goldfish (Carassius auratus), guppies (Poecilia reticulata), Corbicula fluminea (prosperity clam), and Oxychilus sp. snails. While many Angelenos are familiar with these residents of magical Ferndell, not one of the aforementioned animal species is native to Los Angeles or even to California!
The “prosperity clam,” Corbicula fluminea, for example, is native to Eastern-Southeastern Asia, Africa, and Australia. In California and elsewhere, this non-native mollusc is also invasive, whereby it easily colonizes and greatly alters freshwater environments changing them profoundly for native species. In Los Angeles County, Corbicula fluminea has been recorded from (among other sites) Lincoln Park Lake, Lake Balboa, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, Frank Bonelli Regional Park, and the Los Angeles River. iNaturalist observations and our collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County are both essential for documenting the occurrence and spread of this species throughout Los Angeles County. As far as we know, our October 2016 discovery of Corbicula fluminea in Ferndell is the first from this location.
Ferndell also hosts diverse native animals including insects (dragonflies, water striders, bees, butterflies), birds (Cooper’s hawk, Nuttall’s woodpecker, California towhee, among many others), mammals (gray and fox squirrels, coyote, bobcat, mule deer, raccoon, rabbits, skunk), and reptiles and amphibians (western fence lizard, Pacific tree frog). Discovering the relationships between native and non-native species, especially in the urban environment of Los Angeles, is one of the goals of NHMLA’s Urban Nature Research Center.
If you haven’t explored Ferndell, I’d recommend it. The trail is a unique and surprising pocket of Los Angeles that is easily accessible, a good entry point for the rest of Griffith Park, and fun for kids. The unusual “Museum” of Ferndell’s flora and fauna almost guarantees to “wow” first time (and repeat) visitors with what is a microcosm of the city’s biodiversity: a complex mix of species that are established and new, native and foreign.
November 3, 2016
Earlier this month, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine asking if I wanted to adopt “a tame squirrel.” I paused and re-read her sentence, and then saw a photo of an extremely cute baby squirrel.
Through several e-mail exchanges I learned that my friend’s coworker saw the baby squirrel in a park near her home, and was surprised at how unafraid it was of people (it came right up to her and let her touch it). Worried that this squirrel was a lost or abandoned pet, she picked up the squirrel, placed it in a box, and took it to her office. Everyone in her office was amazed that the squirrel was not afraid of people, and that it would let them touch it. That’s when I received the e-mail about the squirrel.
My first thought was, “Oh no! Why was that squirrel picked up?” I did some chastising since I told them that the baby squirrel may not have been lost or abandoned, and that since it was a baby that could explain why it wasn’t afraid of people. I knew that the person who picked up the squirrel thought she was helping, but taking an animal away from its home is not recommended. My friend asked if they should release the squirrel at a nearby golf course, and I quickly said, “No!”
Animals in a successful habitat know where food and water can be found, they know where they can take shelter to avoid predators and the weather, and have enough space to avoid high rates of competition. If this squirrel was placed in that golf course it would not have been familiar with its surroundings, would not know where food, water, or shelter could be found, and it is not likely that the squirrels living in that golf course would have accepted it. Also, if animals are successful in establishing themselves in new areas, they can have a negative effect on the animals already there (example 1, example 2, example 3).
I spoke with Leslie Gordon, who is one of the Managers in NHMLA’s Live Animal Program, and she had some great insight about "helping" wild animals:
It is not just unwise, it is illegal to keep a wild animal without a permit. Squirrels especially make terrible pets. Even those dedicated to raising them (with permits) note they are flighty, inconsistent, difficult, and …well…”squirrelly”.
Fear is a healthy thing for animals- friendliness is not. Wild squirrels (or any animal) can carry a plethora of zoonoses (diseases or parasites that can spread to humans). Squirrels, in particular, can also carry the plague. So when you see one that seems “unafraid”, that doesn’t necessarily mean it wants to be pals- It may be very ill.
A lack of fear can also mean it has been habituated to humans by feeding. If you have ever heard the term “a fed (blank) is a dead (blank)” that is what it refers to. Squirrels become habituated to humans and unafraid of them. When this happens they become food aggressive and begin to chase any human they find. It begins a loop of aggression (squirrels especially seem to find it satisfying when we run away screaming) that ends up with a squirrel being trapped by the City due to complaints and killed, or worse a kid getting bit. This is why rehabbers go to great lengths to avoid the animal seeing them or associating them with food, so it can be released again and keep its fear of humans. Don’t feed squirrels (or any wild animal)!
If you see an animal who is unafraid it is not wrong to leave it alone, especially if it seems otherwise safe, and simply report it to City animal control. They do bring animals to rehabbers when they can. If it seems in danger of being killed or injured, and you feel you can keep yourself safe from disease or bites, it is okay to bring it to a rehabber or shelter yourself.
I encouraged my friend and her coworker to call a wildlife rehabilitation center, and they found one in Malibu that specializes in squirrel rescues, Coast & Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation. The rehabilitation center was able to accept the squirrel, and through the care of their trained wildlife rehabilitators they believe it will be able to be reintroduced successfully into the wild.
If you see a wild animal that you think needs help, it is recommended that you contact a wildlife rehabilitation center and/or animal control, rather than to try and help the animal on your own. Below is a list of places you may contact.
California Wildlife Center
City of Los Angeles Animals Services – Wildlife
Coast and Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation
County of Los Angeles Animal Control – Wildlife
International Bird Research & Rescue Center
Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA – Wildlife
South Bay Wildlife Rehab
Squirrelmender Wildlife Rehab
Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center
December 28, 2016
September 27, 2016
September 13, 2016