Immortal Worms Found in L.A. Pond!

October 24, 2013

Yay, we just found flatworms in the Museum pond! You know, the worms that some of us (I'm not naming names) might have cut up with a knife in high school biology class. But don't worry! These worms are, "immortal under the edge of a knife." At least, that is how the noted flatworm specialist, John Graham Dalyell Esquire, described them in 1814.

An Immortal Worm, also known as a Planarian.

Dalyell goes on to describe their regenerative capabilities, in his distinctive early 1800s prose:

"Certain animals, though liable to perish by simple evaporation of their surrounding fluid, can, in other circumstances, endure privations apparently inconsistent with life itself. What prove deathly wounds to the majority of creation, only serve to awaken in them the active principle of an inexhaustible reproductive power. The perpetuation of their race is effected by means most remote from those that usually regulate the origin of animated existence. A shapeless fragment is disjointed from the body of the parent ; it remains in quiesence more resembling the state of death : but new organs are gradulally evolved—motion is resumed—and all the qualities successively displayed which belong to the primitive whole."

Okay, so scientists thought planarians were cool in 1814, but are they still cool today? Well, I can think of at least six reasons off the top of my head.

1) They are a non-parasitic worm—which means they aren't going to burrow into our bodies and cause elaphantiasis of the nether regions!

2) They are hermaphrodites—they have both male and female sex glands—and they can reproduce asexually by fragmenting off parts of their body!

3) They are really easy to keep as pets! All you need to do is lure them out of their freshwater environs by dangling a bit of beef liver tied to a string (at least that is what the author of planarians.org did when he was a kid—sounds like my type of guy).

4) Not all of them live in water! There's a weird land planarian, Bipalium kewense, originally from Asia, that has been introduced into Los Angeles and can reach up to 18 inches in length.

5) You can buy a planarian mousepad. This 100% prooves they are cool!

6) Planarians can learn.  When a planarian encounters a negative stiumli (i.e. hot temperatures or toxic chemicals) it will, when encountering the stiumui again, move away from it. Even cooler—when that planarian is cut into several pieces, the "new" planarians, in many cases, “remember” the learned response of the original planarian.

Whoa! So, go out buy some beef liver and go "fishing" for planarians. Get to know them! And, since it's Halloween next week why don't you go and make yourself an immortal worm costume that'll be sure to impress all your friends.

*Thanks to Richard Hayden, Head Gardener, for the photograph, and to Kirk Fitzhugh, Museum Curator of Polychaetous Annelids, for identification help.

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Green Anoles in Hancock Park!

October 18, 2013

Dr. Greg Pauly, the Museum's intrepid curator of herpetology, just found a previously undocumented population of green anole lizards, Anolis carolinensis, in Hancock Park! This is the latest discovery in our increasingly popular RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) citizen science project.

One of the Green Anoles, Anolis carolinensis, Greg found in Hancock Park.

But how did Greg find these little fellas? It's all down to a birder with a keen eye for wildlife in his backyard! Here's Greg with the story:

"This past December, Kimball Garrett, was leading a Christmas Bird Count. One of the other birders participating in the count told him about some anoles he had been seeing in the yard of his Hancock Park home near the Wilshire Country Club. Kimball alerted me to this observation, and I worked with the homeowner to find a time to do an anole hunt in his neighborhood. It took some time to find a day to search, but in early October I headed out to the neighborhood. We spotted our first anole as we took our first step up the driveway, and within 90 minutes, we observed nine anoles on both sides of the street across three large lots. We saw males, females, and juveniles so it was clear this was an established population. Further, a resident informed us she had been seeing the anoles for all 12 years she had spent in the neighborhood."

Twelve years—no way! This makes me wonder if these lizards showed up after a kid came back from the L.A. County Fair. I've heard from multiple sources that you used to be able to buy "little green lizards" at the fair. You'd give the vendor your money and they would pin a "leashed" lizard to your shirt and you would watch it change color. They were sold as chameleons, but they were actually anoles!

According to Greg Green Anoles are well known for this and a few other reasons:

"First, like chameleons anoles can change their skin color to better match their background. Second, they have dewlaps which are basically little brightly colored flaps of skin that they extend from their throat. The pattern in which they flash these bright colored throat fans and the colors themselves are species-specific. We typically think of dewlaps as being a male trait, but in many anole species the female also has a dewlap, though it tends to be smaller and less brightly colored than in the male. Scientists do not yet know exactly why females also have dewlaps. Males use their dewlaps primarily to announce territory ownership and to advertise to potential mates. The third reason that anoles are well known is that several anole species, especially the Green Anole, are common in the pet trade."

Mmm, so it's all seeming to add up.

But who really cares about these lizards? Greg does! He says this find is significant because it is the first time anoles have been documented to be established in Los Angeles County. He also says that it is only the third known introduced population in the entire state. Now that he knows about them, he can study them, aksing quetsions about what impacts they might have on native species of lizards and insects. He tells me that introduced anoles on the Bonin Island have been found to have large impacts on the native insect fauna (because they eat them). This new population may also be harboring parasites that could be transmitted to our native lizards. Whoa!

If you want to find out more about anoles and RASCals come to RAAD (Reptile and Amphibian Appreciation Day) this Sunday. You can visit our RASCals table to get details on how to help with the project, and you might even get to meet Greg!

Dr. Pauly showing this male anole's dewlap!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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We Have a Bat Detector, and Bats Too!

October 2, 2013

Guess what? We have bats in the Nature Gardens! And we have proof, thanks to two of our intrepid scientists, Jim Dines and Miguel Ordeñana.

Here's the proof, in sonogram format:

Keep reading to find out what bat these blue and green blobs belong to!

Here's what Jim and Miguel have to say about our bat detector:

"Colleagues: Last Friday we installed newly acquired bioacoustic monitoring equipment near the pond in the Nature Gardens in the hope of documenting nocturnal aerial visitors. Yes, we’re talking about bats! Beyond expectation, our equipment has already recorded two different species of bats foraging in the Nature Gardens: the Mexican Free-tailed Bat and a Myotis species. Detectors like the one we are using are a great way to passively monitor for bat activity. The device records the ultrasonic echolocations that bats make, allowing us to later convert them into sonograms (graphic representations of the sounds) that can be analyzed using special software. Since bat echolocations are species specific, we can identify the species of bat based on their sonogram. Attached is a sonogram from the Free-tailed Bat we recorded. More than 20 species of bats occur in the greater Los Angeles area, but most of them are thought to inhabit non-urban habitats like outlying deserts and mountains. The Free-tailed Bat and the Myotis Bat we just documented are new records for Exposition Park. They join just one other bat species previously documented here based upon prepared specimens in the Museum’s mammal collection: the Hoary Bat.

Jim Dines, Mammalogy, Collections Manager

Miguel Ordeñana, Lead Gallery Interpreter, Field Biology"

After making this awesome discovery, Miguel added the sonogram as an observation to our L.A. Nature Map!

Mexican Free-tailed Bat, Tadarida brasiliensis

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Green Lacewings: Eat, Prey, Love Biocontrol

September 24, 2013

We've added a new insect delicacy to the menu for the dwellers in our Spider Pavilion. That's right, usually the ladies (and few gents), that call the spider pavilion home, get fed butterflies, crickets, and flies, but as of this week we've added green lacewings!

Whitebanded Crab Spider, Misumenoides formosipes, getting ready to eat a Green Lacewing, Chrysoperla rufilabris.

Green lacewings, belong to the insect order Neuroptera, also known as nerve-wings. Not only does this mean that most people have never heard of them, it also means they have complex designs, or "nerves" in their wings. Some might think that this translates into flying well, but alas, this group of insects are notoriously poor fliers. However, what they lack in flight, they make up for in mouthparts. Big scary-looking mouthparts! Especially, if you're a small soft-bodied garden pest. I mean, check out the green lacewing's cousin the dobsonfly. Those are some killer mouthparts!

Male Dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus, photo by Dehaan

Immature green lacewings (aka aphidlions) are such good predators, they have to lay their eggs on stalks, or they'd get cannibalized!

Not a very good picture, but you get the idea!

Gardeners and farmers have learned to capitilize on the lacewing's voracious appetite, by using them as biological control agents. They eat, on average, 200 aphids a week, and can also be found eating other insect eggs, mealybugs, thrips, immature whiteflies, and even small caterpillars. So next time you have a pest infestation in your garden, hope you have some Green Lacewings out there making friends with those ladybugs!

 

 

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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I Found a Huge Green Spider in My Garden!

September 20, 2013

Ever found a large green spider in your garden? Chances are, if you're in the Los Angeles area, the spider you've found is a Green Lynx Spider, Peucetia viridans.

Here's one that NHMLA staffer, Richard Smart, found in our Nature Gardens on Wednesday:

Photo taken by NHMLA's own Spider-Woman, Cat Urban.

This was perfect timing, as we desperately needed one for display in our Spider Pavilion, which opens to members today and to everyone on Sunday. As many of you know, this exhibit is a place to get up close and personal with spiders in a safe and garden-like setting.

To prime visitors for the experience of walking amongst hundreds of free, web-spinning spiders (that's right, the Spider Pavilion is an immersive experience), we display about 13 spiders in enclosures in an exhibit area. This helps most people acclimate, though many arachnophobes swear this doesn't make a lick of difference. For those who are brave, they can peruse the various spiders we have collected and reared, and learn a bit about their natural history.

So why did we pick this spider to display? Firstly, she's GREEN! There aren't many creatures here in Los Angeles, that can camouflage this well in our gardens. Secondly, she is a voracious and cat-like predator, hence the name. If you're lucky, you might get to see her being fed a cricket when you visit! Finally, although this spider looks fat, she is not. She is actually toting an almost fully developed egg case in her abdomen, which contains hundred of developing spiderlings! There really aren't many things cooler than coming to work and finding that a spider you've collected has laid an egg sac!

So why don't you come on down and visit her and all her other spidery friends?

 

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Nature's Tiniest Potters

September 9, 2013

Did you know there are small wasps here in Los Angeles that are potters? No, I don't mean some sort of weird waspish Harry Potter fan club—although that sounds like something I'd be totally into—I mean wasps that use mud to make miniature pots. Take a look at the craftsmanship, the sharply narrowed neck and that wide fluted rim, exquisite!

Photo taken by NHMLA Head Gardener Richard Hayden, with my fingertip for some perspective!

This "pot" was constructed by a small wasp (one of those solitary wasps that are not prone to stinging us humans), which entomologists call potter wasps. However, this wasp wasn't just being artistic, she constructed this pot for a purely utilitarian function—it is actually a nest for an egg!

A few weeks ago during a California Naturalist training, I spotted this beauty on one of our Baccharis plants in the Nature Gardens. Richard snapped a picture for me, as I was hoping there would be a way to identify the species of wasp that made this piece of pottery. I posted the picture to the Bugguide website, and had some luck!

According to Ken Wolgemuth this nest was constructed by a potter wasp in the genus Eumenes, which literally translated from Greek means "gracious, kindly." Although if you were an immature moth or beetle, you wouldn't necessarily think so well of them. In fact you might find another explanation for  the name more appropriate, even if it is less likely to be true. Some say the name is derived from Eumenides, the Greek winged goddesses of a vengence, and since these winged wasps provision their nests with caterpillars and grubs, it seems like poetic justice to me!

After the nest has been constructed, the female wasp lays an egg, and then flies off to find and sting small caterpillars or grubs. The paralyzed prey is deposited in the pot alongside the egg, and the pot is sealed up. Which eerily reminds me of scenes from horror films where people are buried alive! Soon after the egg hatches and devours the still fresh insect meat, and then pupates. The adult wasp emerges to complete the cycle over again and lend a hand in controlling pesky moths and beetles in your garden!

Dying to see what these wasps look like? Here's a picture to satisfy your curiosity:

Photo of a Floridian potter wasp, Eumenes fraternus, from What's That Bug website

 

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Take a Moment to Listen to the Trees

August 21, 2013

Trees don't have heartbeats. You can't put a stethoscope up to a tree trunk and expect to hear that familiar dull thumping that gently insists, "I am alive." At least I'm pretty sure you can't, no matter what hardcore LOTR fans say, Ents do not exist! However, this doesn't mean you shouldn't try putting a stethoscope up to a tree and listening.

What do you think you would hear?

Alex Metcalf knows.

Okay, so I know that silver trumpety thing isn't a stethoscope, but it would be really gross for a Museum to let thousands of school children and other visitors use the same stethoscope to listen to a tree. Since we're so considerate of our visitors and we really wanted everyone to be able to listen to the inner workings of a tree, we worked with British artist, Alex Metcalf. He created a listening tree installation in our new Nature Gardens by hooking up microphones to one of our coast live oaks, Quercus agrifolia.

When you put your ear up to one of the four trumpets Alex installed, you'll hear one of two things. First, there's a deep rumbling sound that is the amplified sound of the oak vibrating. If you're lucky enough, especially if you are visiting on a warm day, you'll likely also hear some tiny popping that is the sound of "water passing through the cells of the Xylem tubes and cavitating as it mixes with air on its way upwards."

Xyle-what you say? You see, trees have a system a bit like our veins that moves water, dissolved nutrients, and food between the leaves, trunk, and roots. Botanists call it a vascular system and it consists of two main cell types, xylem (ZI-lem) and phloem (FLO-em). Xylem tubes are the main way trees and other vascular plants get water from roots to leaves and other parts. Alex explains, "as the leaves lose the water through evaporation the cells below the leaf become drier and they in turn pull water from the next cells below, this carries on down the tree all the way down to the roots. The water molecules cling together and form a water chain from the leaves to the roots under tension-cohesion."

He continues, "The Tree Listening Project aims to provide an experience that links both science and art by engaging the public with what happens inside a tree, and to excite and inspire a keen interest in trees."

Hopefully this has inspired a keen interest in visiting our Nature Gardens to listen for yourself. So go grab your bike, jump on a bus or the train, or put the pedal to the metal in your car and come on down to the Nature Gardens and hear our oak tree telling you, "I am alive!"


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Los Angeles Meet Hollywood the Mountain Lion

August 15, 2013

Check out this never before seen image of our now famous Griffith Park mountain lion, Puma concolor, referred to by scientists as P-22.

P-22 (aka Hollywood) caught on camera by L.A. City Park Ranger Adam Dedeaux

Here's what Miguel Ordeñana, a field biologist and colleague of mine here at the Museum has to say about P-22:

"For those of you who don’t know, there is a mountain lion living in Griffith Park.  You may have seen some of his pictures on the Nature Lab [our latest Museum exhibit] screen.  My research team (Griffith Park Connectivity Study) first discovered him with one of our camera traps about a year and a half ago.  This was the first photographic evidence of a mountain lion in Griffith Park.  He was captured, collared, released, and named (P-22/Puma 22) soon after by National Park Service biologists.  He is now the most urban mountain lion known to exist and an awesome ambassador for Griffith Park and urban wildlife conservation.

Two years ago (when P-22 was two years old), I gave one of my first talks about the Griffith Park Connectivity Study.  At the time, documenting a mountain lion in Griffith Park seemed out of the question because we thought the park was too isolated from larger open spaces that bordered the park.  An L.A. City park ranger was interested in camera trapping and asked me how to increase his chances of capturing a bobcat (the most elusive Griffith Park predator at the time) on camera.  I gave him a few tips on how to increase his chances of capturing bobcats.  He eventually purchased his own camera trap and 2 years later he captured one of the best videos of P-22 that I have ever seen."

Wow thanks Miguel! Last Friday I had the pleasure of being on a panel for Zocolo Public Square titled, Does L.A. Appreciate Its Wild Animals? Our moderator Kathryn Bowers, author of the book Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health, asked the panelists and the audience, "what should be the official animal of Los Angeles?" As an entomophile I went straight for harvester ants, since they're social, they work together, they create their own cities, and they can protect themselves with an impressive sting! However, I was in the minority, many of the audience voted for P-22. One gentleman even stood up and advocated for a new name. I mean P-22 isn't very catchy or charismatic, right?

A number of names were suggested, including Hollywood and Jimmy (a reference to the James Dean statue in Griffith Park). Although I am a fan of Rebel Without a Cause, I think this lion has a cause. I mean obviously he is trying to live his life like all the rest of us are – trying to find food, water, shelter, and at some point a mate. But to me it is more than that, against the odds (and the traffic on the 405 and 101 freeways) he has chosen L.A.'s largest city park as his home. Just like many of us in Los Angeles this lion is not a local, he is from wilder and more open country, but has chosen to live in the city now. So why not have this lion help us represent a new Los Angeles? A Los Angeles that embraces the wildlife from its urban core all the way out to its wild edges, and maybe even upto that big old sign that reads Hollywood! So here's to you Hollywood the Mountain Lion, represent our city and let the world know we've got more than just the movies here. Heck we've got awesome nature too!

Check out the video here!

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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L.A.'s Endangered Nature: Giant Flower-loving Flies

August 9, 2013

Ever heard of a fly that is big enough to be mistaken for a small hummingbird? Don’t worry this is not some horror movie featuring an overly large arthropod (think The Fly, Them, or the upcoming Big Ass Spider movie) this is real-life nature! Also, this is rare nature for Los Angeles; these flies are very, very uncommon in our region.

Ever seen this exhibit?

Some of you may have heard of the Delhi Sands Flower-loving Fly, Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis, a federally listed endangered species. In fact, this is the only fly on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) endangered species list for the continental U.S. (there are a bunch of listed flies from Hawaii). We even have a whole exhibit dedicated to these flies in a somewhat hidden stairwell (close to the ground floor elevators—have I ever mentioned how much I love our hidden exhibits?). However, the fly I’m talking about was thought to be extinct until recently!

The coastal dunes in southwestern L.A. used to be home to a population of the El Segundo Flower-loving Flies, Rhaphiomidas terminatus terminatus.  It was thought that this subspecies was totally extinct, since there had been no sightings of the fly since 1965. However, research conducted in 2001, by George and Mattoni, found a small colony on the upper Malaga sand dune (on the Palos Verde peninsula). How could we have thought these flies were extinct for 36 years?

It is not an easy question to answer. Maybe the entomologists weren’t out there looking (funding for research isn’t always available), or maybe they were looking in the wrong place, or at the wrong time. The biology of these flies is pretty intriguing. Adult flower-loving flies emerge in the summer for a period of only about two weeks! The rest of their lives are spent underground as eggs and larvae. The only way to find larvae is to a dig a large pit, and sift through lots and lots of soil. As you can imagine, this isn’t always feasible, especially in sensitive dune habitats that support other rare species. No wonder these flies went unnoticed for so long.

If you are a visual person like I am, you can see how the range of the El Segundo Flower-loving Fly has changed over the last 100 years in our new Nature Lab. Check out our Life on the Edge interactive (directly underneath the taxidermied mountain lion). Here’s a teaser:

Guess what happens to the range of this fly when you press the "Today" button?

Now that scientists have confirmed this fly is not extinct, I would have thought that it too would be on the USFWS’s endangered species list, but it is not. I am not sure why, something to contemplate and look into deeper mmmm...


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Roadkill Science and the Dangers of Biking in L.A.!

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.


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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