June 14, 2016
Just in time for summer, baby Arroyo chub have hatched in our Nature Garden pond! Sharp-eyed Will Hausler from live animal programs spotted dozens of tiny black fish darting around in the shallows at one end of the pond. He shared his discovery with Leslie Gordon, our live animal programs manager, who arranged the chub introduction and has been keeping tabs on them.
The tiny chub in the pond (left) and darting out of the photo (right). Chub have a black stripe on the side which is very obvious in the juveniles. Photo credit: Will Hausler, Chris Thacker.
Her first thought was that they must be the offspring of the chub we released in March, but she wasn’t sure. It’s hard to tell what kind of fish you’re looking at when you only see it from above, especially if it’s tiny and fast. So I got to pull out my aquarium nets and go do some field work just steps from my office! The little guys were indeed zippy, but I captured one and confirmed the identification: definitely baby Arroyo chub (Gila orcutti). The adult chub are very elusive and rarely seen, and we were unsure whether or not they liked their new home. Confirmation that they are breeding is very good news, because it means they are thriving and have found places to spawn in the vegetation.
Arroyo chub are a kind of minnow, and they are one of Los Angeles’ few native freshwater fishes. They only live here in Southern California, where they are classified as threatened. Urbanization has reduced Arroyo chub populations in the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana rivers, where they were once common. The amazing thing about chub is how well-adapted they are to our natural cycle of hot, dry summers and occasional floods in rainy winters. Before the rivers were channelized with concrete, they would overflow their banks in years of heavy rain, and spread in wide puddles across the flatlands. These intermittent floods were a fantastic opportunity for Arroyo chub, allowing them to move between our rivers and creeks, mix, and even found new populations. For a fish, dispersing like that is a big gamble, and chub are experts at it because they can tolerate tough conditions like wide variations in water temperature and low oxygen levels. They will eat any tiny thing they can get, mostly insects and algae. They are also great at controlling mosquitos by eating their larvae, which is why we brought them into our pond in the first place.
Preserved Arroyo chub from our Ichthyology collection. They still have the black stripe on the side, but it's not as distinct. Photo credit: Chris Thacker.
The ways that animals move and invade new habitats are things we think about a lot here at the Museum. We study many species of lizards, frogs, snails, spiders, squirrels and insects that have come from somewhere else and made a home in Los Angeles. These new arrivals have to contend with different environments, food, and predators than they are used to, and many don’t survive. The ones that do tend to be generalists, easygoing about tolerating various environments and the food and conditions they find there. Our chub are natives here, but they share those same characteristics, making them tough invaders and good adapters to new habitats. When they get to a new place, they can quickly reproduce and increase their numbers, which is exactly what they’ve done in our Nature Garden.
June 2, 2016
In the entomological world, “scavenger” can be a dismissive term, hurled at animals that seem to feed indiscriminately on any available garbage or rotting material. The ultimate scavengers are indeed those insects that frequent trash bins and dumpsters: unsophisticated diners on our scraps and leftovers, annoying infesters of our cities and houses.
The image of an unsavory “scavenger” can obscure some fascinating and extremely specific matters of lifestyle that defy the notion of a creature with wholly undiscerning habits. One example is our previously featured “coffin fly” (Conicera tibialis), a tiny phorid that burrows through the soil to reach its buried prize. This fly is perfectly capable of going through its life cycle in test tubes, feeding on meat, but in nature it is virtually never found in an unburied corpse.
I was reminded about scavengers by the submission to the Museum of some fly pupae, found in the shells of dead snails by SLIME participant Cedric Lee. We reared the pupae to adulthood, and each one yielded an adult sarcophagid fly. The flies of this family (Sarcophagidae; often shortened to “sarcs” by dipterists—i.e., fly specialists) are commonly called “flesh flies” due to their breeding in dead bodies and attraction to nearly all types of noxious decaying material: carrion, dung, dead insects, etc. They are large flies, with gray and black striped bodies and red eyes. The fact that, at least externally to a non-expert, most sarcs look extremely similar leads to their often being labeled as “just” scavengers. In fact, sarcs are among the most diverse families of flies when it comes to the types of lifestyle they employ. The larvae of various species are: scavengers (often highly specialized), predators (that feed on and kill more than one host), parasitoids (that feed on and kill a single host), and true parasites (that feed on but do not kill a host).
Unfortunately, for me, sarcs are also among the most disgusting flies. I know my colleagues who work on sarcs—and who are as fond of them as I am of phorid flies—might be dismayed by my contempt, but I can’t help being revolted by their reproductive process. Sarcs are ovoviviparous, meaning that the eggs hatch within the female abdomen and the female deposits larvae, rather than eggs, on the food source. When studying phorids associated with millipedes, I have frequently been repulsed by the arrival of female sarcs, who immediately spew several maggots on the scene, ruining my experiments. The larvae enthusiastically crawl into the millipede body and start feeding. Of course, the most gut-churning sarcs are the parasites, some of which infest incapacitated humans and cause noteworthy and alarming medical conditions.
Most people interact with sarcs soon after noticing the smell of something dead under their house or in the walls. They’ll start to see large, clunky sarcs flying around their windows, trying to escape the house. These flies are the offspring of a female who somehow found a way to lay larvae on or close to whatever died, and who have helped to get rid of the body. I am often asked by homeowners how to eliminate these flies, and my answer is to let them do their scavenging, so that in a few days all the decaying material will be gone.
Circling back to my original point, Cedric’s flies are not just scavengers—they are probably highly specialized feeders on dead molluscs (several sarcs are known to do this). I say “probably” because it takes a specialist to identify sarcs, and we will have to send ours out to one of the three or four people in the world qualified to tell us what they are. Such unusual natural history discoveries can depend on the thoughtful observance of Citizen Science participants like Cedric. One of our top citizen scientists, Cedric will likely contribute to one of the first records of a species breeding in dead snails!
May 31, 2016
Metallic sweat bee (Agapostemon texanus) (Left) and Mason bee (Osmia sp.) (Right). Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey
Backyards are not what they used to be. As an urban biologist who has spent countless hours exploring yards in L.A., I have seen lawns and rose gardens replaced by succulents and sages, bug zappers exchanged for hummingbird feeders, and swing sets coupled with bee hotels. More and more Angelenos are seeing their personal green space as not just a place to rest and play, but as integral habitat to share with local wildlife. Our Museum’s Nature Gardens are living proof that even in the core of the city, planting with purpose can have a profound beneficial effect. The area that was predominantly a concrete parking lot less than ten years ago is now home to 10 mammal species, 168 bird species, and heaps of insect species that we are continually discovering.
Sample of insects collected in mid-May of 2010 during the construction of the Gardens, next to sample collected in mid-May of this year. What a huge difference! Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey
One group we are diligently observing are the bees. Los Angeles boasts over 500 (yes, FIVE HUNDRED) species of bees. The European honey bee gets most of the media exposure, but other bees are in need of our attention as well. Having created a pollinator-friendly Nature Garden through the careful selection of host plants and the provision of proper nesting areas, we can now document 15 species of bees that make the garden their home! The majority of these bees nest underground, so patches of bare dry soil are crucial for their survival. Others are cavity nesters, meaning they will use hollowed-out twigs or make use of holes drilled into wood, also known as bee hotels. Buckwheat, poppies, mallows and sunflowers are but a few of the flowers that we provide as essential food for these beautiful pollinators.
Leafcutter bees (Megachile sp.) in a bee hotel (Left) and Sunflower bee (Diadasia sp.) collecting pollen on mallow (Right). Photo credit: Brian Brown
Many of our garden’s bees fly under the visual radar of the casual observer due to their small size. Small carpenter bees, mining bees and sweat bees are only a few millimeters, but they are just as important for pollinating flowers as their larger counterparts.
Mining bee (Perdita sp.) (left) and Small carpenter bee (Ceratina sp.) (Right). Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey
Our most commonly collected and observed bees in the Nature Gardens are European honey bees and sweat bees in the Subgenus Dialictus. Many people are aware of the issues facing populations of honey bees that are raised and kept in captivity, but do not realize that feral (the bees that have escaped from captivity) honey bee numbers are quite high, often greatly outnumbering all other species of bees in our L.A. area insect surveys.
European honey bee (Apis mellifera) (Left) and Sweat bee (Dialictus sp.) (Right). Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey
Expanding your sense of what bees do and how they appear (going “beyond the honey bee”), will open your eyes to a whole hidden world of beauty. Some bees glisten like shiny blue and green jewels, while others are completely fuzzy, adorable teddy bears with wings. Now that spring has arrived, we will be peeking inside flowers, checking our bee hotel and looking through our insect trap to see if we can add to our impressive list of bee species that call the Nature Gardens their home.
Mining Bee (Anthophora sp.) (Left) and Bumble bee (Bombus sp.) (Right).
Nests for Native Bees
Pollinator-Friendly Plant List for California
May 24, 2016
Immature ladybug eating flower fly larva, photo by Brian Brown.
Urban Nature Research Center (UNRC) co-director Dr. Brian Brown recently wandered out of his home into his Monrovia backyard and caught sight of something unexpected on the outside of his insect trap: an immature ladybug (also known as a larva or grub) consuming the larva of a flower fly (also known as a maggot). The large, tent-like Malaise trap—used in the UNRC's BioSCAN project to collect and study flying insects from multiple sites across Los Angeles—has a sloped, white mesh cover that serves as a perfect backdrop to capture an image of a bristly black and orange ladybug larva mid-meal.
Brian’s Malaise trap sits at the foot of an old, towering Valencia orange tree, which thrives and produces massive amounts of citrus despite hosting armies of what most of us consider garden pest enemies.
“The tree is festooned with scale insects, aphids and whitefly,” Brian says.
The tree is never sprayed with any kind of pesticide or treatment, and for that reason beneficial insects, with their smorgasbord of dinner options, are a year-round presence in Brian's garden. The larvae of both ladybugs and flower flies are voracious predators, eating hundreds of soft-bodied, sap-sucking pests and are prized inhabitants of his garden.
“Ladybugs are thought of as cute, storybook creatures. They're actually lions, ferocious predators as larvae and adults.”
What struck him about the vision of a ladybug larva chowing down on a fellow beneficial bug? It's not often, he says, you see one beneficial insect consuming another. “It challenges how we think about what it means to be beneficial.”
May 17, 2016
Ms. Denner and her third grade Super Citizen Scientists in the school garden.
Third graders at Billy Mitchell Elementary School in Lawndale are looking at the world a bit differently now, thanks to their participation in NHMLA’s urban research SuperProject! For the past six months, the three third-grade classrooms led by Ms. Denner, Ms. Bradley, and Ms. Courtnell have been conducting observations in their school garden, and they have made some amazing discoveries along the way!
Students have documented many garden creatures, including Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, pillbugs, earwigs, White Cabbage and Gulf Fritillary butterflies, and milkweed bugs! Students even submitted a photo of larva (likely from the family Chironomidae) they found in the garden’s pollinator and bird water source and received help from the iNaturalist community on its identification!
Ms. Bradley and her third grade Super Citizen Scientists in the school garden.
Billy Mitchell Elementary is one of eight schools in the Lawndale school district. Each institution has a school garden and has built curriculum and activities into their garden program. Billy Mitchell Elementary also has a seed-to-fork program in which students get to eat what they grow and simultaneously learn about nutrition and health.
By working together in the garden, students at Billy Mitchell learn about the entire ecosystem, from the fungi in the soil to beneficial bugs, from worm bins and composting to important concepts like balance in nature. It was a natural fit to have the students incorporate observations on the wildlife in the garden to contribute to NHMLA urban nature research.
Juan Gutierrez (left) and Isaac Rosales (right) in the garden with their Super Citizen Scientist notebook in hand.
Twice a month, each classroom headed out to the garden to make observations on the animals living there. Every student was armed with a data sheet, a clipboard, and an enhanced sense of wonder. Each discovery led to the children’s increased excitement about urban nature, and a greater appreciation for the ecosystem thriving alongside the students on school grounds!
A Southern Alligator Lizard is spotted!
With the end of the school year approaching, the students were conducting their final observations as third graders. One of the students, Vincent Le (pictured below), made an exciting find: the papery moult from a Southern Alligator lizard! Since this species had not yet been found in the school garden, the hunt was on! Soon, Vincent’s perseverance (and a little help from Garden Volunteer Kris Lauritson) led to the school’s first alligator lizard record (above).
Vincent Le, the third grade Super Citizen Scientist who discovered the shed skin of an alligator lizard —and subsequently the lizard itself!
The students at Billy Mitchell Elementary now have a lizard record that will get uploaded to iNaturalist and become an important data point for scientists. Equally important, these students have spent months getting to know their urban ecosystem and have a new appreciation for the nature around them. We are excited to have been a part of this opportunity for young minds to get involved with L.A. nature!
Note: Our thanks go out to Kris Lauritson, a UC Master Gardener who has worked with these third graders and their teachers to incorporate NHMLA research into the school garden programming and was kind enough to share this story and her photos! Kris will be observing the garden with summer program students and will get new students involved in the fall! Keep up the good work!
**All photos by Kris Lauritson
May 10, 2016
In Southern California, rattlesnakes can be seen year round, but spring and summer have the most rattlesnake activity. This also means that these months generate the most concerns about rattlesnake bites. The good news, however, is that here in the United States, the fear of venomous snakebite seems to far outweigh the actual chance of being bitten. Let’s take a closer look at the statistics behind venomous snakebites.
A typical Southern California rattlesnake encounter. Here, a large Southern Pacific Rattlesnake crosses a dirt road in the Santa Monica Mountains.
In the U.S., the snakes typically involved in human fatalities include native species like rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths as well as a number of nonnative species that are sometimes kept as pets, both legally and illegally, and zoo animals. There are also three species of coral snakes in the U.S., but with their small mouths and fangs, bites to people are rare and usually involve a person handling the snake. To avoid being bitten by a coral snake, follow this simple rule: don’t pick it up. Here in Southern California, there are seven species of rattlesnakes (making this herpetologist quite happy to live here). Most are found in the deserts, but the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake is common in the foothills and mountains surrounding the larger coastal cities.
Each year, around 7,000–8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. This may sound like a large number, but given that the U.S. population is quickly approaching 324 million people, this represents a tiny proportion of the population (less than 0.0025%). Of these 8,000 or so bites, on average, 5–6 result in fatalities (Table 1). This means, you are 6 times more likely to die from a lightning strike or a dog attack, 8 times more likely to die from a TV set or other large furniture falling on you, 14 times more likely to die falling out of a tree, and 95 times more likely to die falling off a ladder. Of course all of these numbers pale in comparison to risks posed by car accidents (over 30,000 fatalities per year) or of dying of heart disease or cancer, which are the two leading causes of mortality in the U.S. (Table 1). Despite the reality of the low risks from animal attacks in the U.S., snakebites and also shark bites (less than one fatality per year in the U.S.) get a huge amount of attention in the popular press.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Wonder database for the most recent year available (2014) except as noted by the asterisk, for which information is from the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission for 2011.
How do venomous snakebites happen? The sad reality is that many (very likely most) bites result from poor decisions by people. Bites are divided into two categories, legitimate and illegitimate. If the person never recognized the snake or was in the process of moving away from it when he/she was bit, it is considered legitimate. But if the person recognized the snake but did nothing to move away, it is termed illegitimate. Many of these illegitimate bites involve people handling or harassing the snake. Studies that reviewed U.S. hospital records have found that over 50% of venomous snakebites are illegitimate (up to 67% in one study), meaning the person put her or himself (usually him—see below) in harm’s way. In other words, the snakes are getting blamed for people making bad choices. These illegitimate bites include people keeping venomous pet snakes, religious snake handlers, professional snake handlers, and people who aggravated a snake in the wild such as by trying to catch or kill it.
Not surprisingly, most of these illegitimate bites occur to the hands, and the victim is usually a male. In one review of 86 rattlesnake bite victims in Arizona, males accounted for 87% of bite victims. Many of the people who get bitten while intentionally interacting with a venomous snake were also intoxicated at the time (up to 57% of illegitimate bites in one study).
For legitimate bites, most occur to the lower extremities because the victim did not see the snake and walked up to it or accidentally stepped on it. The intoxication rate is also much lower for legitimate bites.
So what are the take-home messages from these numbers? GET OUTSIDE! Go for a hike, a bike ride, or a jog. Regular exercise helps to prevent heart disease, the number one cause of death in the U.S., and also reduces the risk of diabetes. But on your way to and from the trailhead, drive carefully! Sure there are some critters out there that can inflict pain and possibly even cause death, but if you stay observant, watch your step, and treat wildlife with appropriate respect, you can avoid most of these uncommon threats.
And if you do come across a venomous snake, let it be. This seems so obvious, yet it is likely that more than half of the venomous snakebites in the U.S. happen because people didn’t follow this commonsense practice. Take a few steps back and then take some photos. Enjoy the opportunity to see such a beautiful animal. And, of course, if you are in Southern California, please submit that photo to our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California citizen science project.
For more info:
An excellent blog that examines both U.S. and global concerns about venomous snakebite:
Curry, S. C., D. Horning, P. Brady, R. Requa, D. B. Kunkel, and M. V. Vance. 1989. The legitimacy of rattlesnake bites in central Arizona. Annals of Emergency Medicine 18:658–663.
Morandi, N., and J. Williams. 1997. Snakebite injuries: Contributing factors and intentionality of exposure. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 8: 152–155.
Spano, S., F. Macias, B. Snowden, and R. Vohra. 2013. Snakebite Survivors Club: Retrospective review of rattlesnake bites in Central California. Toxicon 69:38–41.
January 19, 2017
February 23, 2016
April 29, 2016
This week's blog is written by one of our @NHMLA citizen scientists, Eric Keller:
If I were to make a list titled, “Accomplishments I Never Really Planned On But Achieved Anyways,” I think having a species of phorid fly named after me would have to be at the very top. And how did I manage to do this? Simple, I just volunteered as a citizen scientist by giving a little time and a small patch of real estate to Dr. Brian Brown and his BioSCAN team at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and as a nice thank you the museum dubbed one of their newly discovered species “Megaselia kelleri”.
Digital model of a Coffin Fly, Conicera tibialis.
But this is not all I got out of the experience. In fact, much more valuable to me than the eponymous fly species is the connection that my participation in BioSCAN gave me to the museum itself. I have been involved in the science for many years acting as a digital illustrator, creating graphics and animations for researchers and for science educators. I started out on the East coast in the late 90s working for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute creating animations for “BioInteractive” a free resource of animations, interactives, and lectures. In 2005 I moved out to Hollywood to study the art of visual effects from the leading artists in the field. To earn a living I became a freelance animator and digital artist working in a number of studios around town, most recently I had the opportunity to create some digital monsters for JJ Abram’s latest scif fi horror movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane”. But getting into the production houses in Hollywood did not necessarily mean abandoning science. In fact, I have been lucky enough to bounce between animation jobs in both the entertainment industry and in science. One of my proudest achievements was being a lead animator and artist for E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth which is a digital biology textbook available for free on the Apple iPad. I worked on this project with a team of talented scientist-animators at a small company called Digizyme Inc. which is led by my good friend Gael McGill, a Harvard scientist, professor, and all-around digital visionary.
Digital model of a jumping spider (somewhat fictional species), that I created for an article in 3D Artist magazine.
In preparing to work on Dr. Wilson’s book, Gael encouraged me to familiarize myself with his work, so I started reading Dr. Wilson’s books. Almost immediately, within the first few chapters of Biodiversity I became aware of the astonishing world of insects, especially ants. His writing inspired me to dive deeper into the world of entomology and in my spare time I started creating insectoid creatures from my imagination using my modeling and rendering software. I created animations of what I imagined insect life would look like on other worlds and this work generated a kind of creative feedback loop. To make better animations I needed to learn more about existing earthling insects which in turn inspired more fantastic imaginary insects. I began to concoct detailed physiology for my creatures and I wrote up descriptions of life cycles striving to make them as fantastic as possible but also completely plausible. I soon discovered that no matter how far-fetched my imaginary entomological creations were, I could soon find a real world example of an insect or arachnid more incredible than anything I could dream of. So I finally gave up trying to out-do the creative genius of mother nature and instead I decided to just dive head first into studying this new amazing world where it seems as though there is an endless supply of inspiring stories to draw from.
Digital models of black garden ants, Lasius niger.
I became a bug addict. I needed more information on insects and I needed expert eyes to help me correct mistakes in my digital insect models. My good friend Inna-Marie Strazhnik, who is an amazing scientific illustrator and oil painter got a job at the Natural History Museum. She took me on a behind the scenes tour to show me where she worked and I got to see the insect collection first hand. It was an incredible experience, drawers and drawers filled with fantastic creatures from all over the world. She also introduced me to Brian Brown whom I had read about in an article in the LA Times. I was a little bit star struck when I met him but very excited. Over several months I met more of the staff at NHMLA and around the same time my wife and I became home owners in Eagle Rock. When the museum put out the call for volunteers for the BioSCAN project I was more than happy to offer up a small part of my new backyard for a chance to be part of an actual scientific study.
Digital model of the head of a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.
Becoming part of BioSCAN made it clear to me that the museum is much more than a storehouse for dinosaur bones. It’s a place where real research is going on and, even more importantly, a place that directly connects the general public with the practice of science. I think being able to interact with people like Emily Hartop and Lisa Gonzalez is the best part of my connection to the museum. Its painfully obvious that most people think of scientists in a very narrow stereotype. Popular culture paints a picture of researchers as being obsessive robots, ivory tower academics, or even worse, sociopathic madmen. Getting to know scientists as individuals who enjoy sharing their curiosity with the rest of the world is incredibly valuable. And even more so, spreading the word that everyone can be a part of scientific discovery, regardless of their age, experience, or academic training is something that the museum can do better than any other public institution I can think of.
A fictional alien beetle I created just for the fun of it.
I take pride in being able to say that I am playing an integral roll in advancing mankind’s knowledge of the world. Even though most of the real work is being done by Emily and Lisa. I’m hoping to be a part of more projects through the Museum. I’ve also started an online web animation series called “Entomology Animated” that explores various topics in insect physiology. This is something I do in my spare time and I’m hoping teachers and students find it a useful resource, its absolutely inspired by my connection to the Museum. I’ve promised Lisa, Emily, and Brian an animation on Phorid flies, getting the anatomy of my digital model up to their standards is proving to be a pretty big challenge. The task is made a little bit easier since I know there is one species of phorid fly that literally has my name on it!
Interested in more? Eric's website can be found here.
**All photos and animations by Eric Keller.
April 26, 2016
Although we had less than average rainfall this winter, SLIME citizen scientists became iNaturalist superstars and logged 1,225 observations of Southern California's land snails and slugs for our El Niño #SnailBlitz.
There are many highlights from the effort, but of particular note is this rare snail.
Tight Coil Snail (Pristiloma sp.)
This Tight Coil snail was found by Cedric Lee, on March 20, 2016. He found it in the San Gabriel Mountains near the Pacific Coast Trail. It is likely Pristiloma gabrielinum or Pristiloma chersinella, both species are native to Southern California, but are difficult to tell apart. These snails are TINY: less than half the width of a pencil eraser at around 3 mm in diameter. Pristiloma gabrielinum is considered critically imperiled and Pristiloma chersinella is listed by NatureServ as a vulnerable species.
VERY little is known about the biology of either of these snails. Cedric's comment that he found it under the bark of a fallen pine tree adds to the basic understanding of how these snails live.
...and other interesting finds:
Tawny Beehive Snail (Euconulus fulvus)
This Tawny Beehive snail was also observed by Cedric Lee, on March 20, 2016 in the San Gabriel Mountains. This photo is the first I've ever seen of its kind alive!
Small Pointed Snail (Cochilcella barbara)
This snail was observed by Emily Han, on April 8th and 10th, 2016 in Mount Washington. Previously, only known from nearby San Diego and Santa Barbara counties, this observation is the first record for Los Angeles County! This snail has a Pest B rating by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which includes the prediction that this snail is highly likely to become established widely throughout the State. Only nine samples of these snails have been identified in California over the last 40 years, making this observation the 10th. Emily found these snails in abundance, which means their population is likely well-established.
A Possible Budapest Slug (Tandonia sp.)
I found this slug on March 16, 2016 while doing a #SnailBlitz hunt with Ms. Griffith's 8th grade science class, at Arroyo Seco Museum Science Magnet School in Mount Washington. This slug is a conundrum! Either is it a variant of the more common non-native slug, Milax gagates, or it is of the genus Tandonia, which would be a county and possibly state record. Because internal anatomy and/or DNA analysis are the only ways to determine the identity of this slug, this animal was sacrificed and tested for its barcoding gene (called CO1) and dissected to specifically look at its reproductive anatomy. Results are forthcoming.
The Unnamed Slug (Hesperarion hemphilli)
This unnamed slug was observed by Annette Mercer and Brian Brown, on February 20, 2016 in Griffith Park. As mentioned in a previous blog post this species is a Southern California native and is so poorly known it doesn't even have a common name!
Snail Behavior 101
And finally, some photos displayed snails galloping (technically called loping)! Citizen scientists @littlecrane13 and Rob Kutner and Sasha Kutner (age 7) observed Cornu aspersum moving with a loping gait, in which the snail makes a dashed line of mucus instead of a continuous one. What is fascinating about this behavior is that snails will lope when moving on dry surfaces like concrete or wood, but not on a smooth surface like glass.
Loping and adhesive crawling (when a snail or slug leaves a continuous slime trail) move the snail at the same pace, but loping uses less mucus and possibly saves the snail from getting too dry when moving on a porous surface. Rob and Sasha Kutner observed loping on concrete and @littlecrane13 observed this phenomenon on tile.
These and other observations are not only fascinating, but scientifically important. The photos taken are data points of biological diversity and species distribution. Many are also exquisitely beautiful, showcasing these animals as they are often not seen or appreciated. El Niño #SnailBlitz was a great success, thanks to all the citizen scientists out there. While the #SnailBlitz is now over, the SLIME project continues. So keep the observations coming!
April 7, 2016
**This week's blog is written by students and faculty from Occidental College**
This year, at Occidental College in northeast LA, we decided to do something about documenting the nature on our campus by organizing a BioBlitz (an event that focuses on documenting as many species as possible in a place over a short period of time). It seemed like the perfect time to get people engaged in documenting the biodiversity on campus, seeing as the theme for this year at Oxy is sustainability. As part of that commitment to sustainability, the college supported the BioBlitz in several ways, including a new Spring semester class that focused on citizen science to help us prepare.
Co-author Marlaina and fellow citizen scientist get excited about the BioBlitz!
Los Angeles is one of the most biodiverse cities in the world. Its geographic location makes Los Angeles a biodiversity hotspot, and some of the species living here are found nowhere else in the world. It is also incredibly urbanized, with a population of over 10 million people in Los Angeles County! This poses a lot of challenges for documenting nature in such an urbanized area: for example, a lot of the land is private property, and biologists can’t just walk into people’s yards to see what lives there. Even if they could, the sheer number of people it would take to pick through people's yards, blocks of houses, and hidden gardens and parks is huge! Citizen science is one great solution to large-scale monitoring problems. Getting people involved in scientific data collection promotes community education and empowerment, while providing usable data for ecological projects.
We spent most of the semester listening to guest speakers (including citizen science experts from the Natural History Museum), reading scientific papers, combing through iNaturalist and eBird (two citizen science data gathering platforms), and taking our own pictures of the organisms on campus. Then on April 2, we left the fate of our project in the hands of the citizen scientists who showed up. Nature gets up early, so we started at 6:30 am!
Oxy students use the iNaturalist app and field guides to identify and upload their observations.
The bird diversity on Oxy’s campus has been well documented and is designated as an eBird hotspot, with 97 species known from campus. Impressively, in a single day, student citizen scientists documented 45 species—nearly half of those on the list! We also found something surpristing--a new species for our campus, a Cassin’s Vireo, Vireo cassinii. As dozens of citizen scientists scoured Oxy’s nooks and crannies for birds throughout the day, the species continued to roll in, while students and community members got the chance to learn from experts from Oxy’s Moore Lab of Zoology about local bird species, and spot some exciting birds themselves.
Cassin's Vireo, a new species record for campus!
Early participants got great looks at a flock of eight Yellow Chevroned Parakeets which landed in a small tree on campus. We also heard the raucous chatter of groups of Red-Crowned and Lilac-Crowned parrots overhead. These parrot and parakeet species are native to Central and South America, but over the years, escaped and released pets have established wild populations. We recorded five non-native bird species including parakeets, parrots, red whiskered bulbuls, and house sparrows. That means roughly 10% of the bird species recorded on the day of the BioBlitz were non-native, which tells the tale of human influence in the Los Angeles area. It will be fascinating to see whether the prevalence of non-native and invasive bird species increases or decreases going forward, and hopefully future BioBlitzes on campus can help document these indicators of human influence.
Mid-morning, participants spotted four different species of warblers, including an all-time campus high count of 30 Yellow-rumped Warblers. These species are all currently in the midst of their spring migration, and their presence may indicate that the lush foliage of campus serves as an intriguing stop-over spot for migrating birds.
Black-throated Gray Warbler found during BioBlitz
Later sessions had the privilege of observing three species of raptors around campus. Red-tailed Hawks were seen soaring overhead in the warm afternoon sun. A breeding pair of Cooper’s Hawks perched in a Eucalyptus tree overlooking the entrance to Oxy’s Campus, and a pair of Red-shouldered Hawk’s patrolled their territory near Oxy’s organic community garden. The presence of these birds indicates that the mature trees lining Oxy’s campus for the past century provide quality habitat for multiple raptor species. With continuing expansion of campus infrastructure, and issues of disease and infestation currently affecting campus trees, it will be fascinating to see whether our resident birds of prey relocate their territories in the near future.
In addition to multiple bird surveys, we documented several other species. We had some of our first sightings of the native Valley Carpenter bee, or as some people like to call it, the flying teddy bear. If you have ever seen a giant black or yellow buzzing ball of fuzz zipping around, you’ve seen a carpenter bee. They are fairly harmless unless you have found holes in your home from their nests. Our bee-research lab on campus had been looking for them and EUREKA! We found both females (the giant black fuzzballs) and males (giant yellowish-brown fuzzballs). We were able to net some to add to Oxy’s insect collection which dates back to the 1980’s.
Citizen scientists ready to go find some insects
Citizen scientists look for bees
The most common reptile on campus was the Western fence lizard that you can find all over Southern California, but we did find a few exciting things in the reptile and amphibian surveys. Not one, but two(!) species of slender salamander—the Garden and Black-bellied slender salamanders—co-exist in Sycamore Glen, a wooded area just behind our Biology building. We also found a gopher snake. While the gopher snake seems like a reasonable resident of the restored habitat area attached to campus, no recent records exist of snakes being found there, so this was an exciting find!
A young citizen scientist finds a gopher snake!
Over 100 people showed up to help out, with a total of 344 observations made, and at least 80 species identified. We’ve officially declared the 2016 BioBlitz at Occidental College a triumph. Because of the amazing turn out that we had, we are hoping to make the Oxy BioBlitz an annual project, and continue educating citizens and fostering the relationship between Oxy’s science department, the Natural History Museum, and the community. We hope that annual BioBlitzes will continue to gain popularity with both Oxy students, and members of the surrounding communities. In the future, we also hope to enhance our ability to document campus biodiversity by integrating camera traps, a bat call detector (the same one NHMLA uses!), and pitfall traps for insects, into our efforts.
With thanks to Occidental College, the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Oxy, and the staff of the Natural History Museum, and everyone who came to the BioBlitz and helped make it a great day!
Photos credited to James Maley, Beth Braker, Amanda Zellmer McCormack, and Jessica Blickley
March 26, 2016
Pond life in motion. Video by Kelsey Bailey.
When we planned the Nature Gardens, there was never really any doubt that we would include a pond. Water sources are highly attractive to wildlife, so even while the concrete was being scraped off the work site, we began to imagine the creatures that might use ours. We were particularly interested to see what types of microscopic animals might arrive, as when they are properly displayed (and magnified), they present to the public a stunning and unfamiliar fauna.
In 2012 the pond was established as an essentially barren pool of rock with a few planters. Over the years the garden team has carefully added additional substrate on the bottom, more planters, and balanced the flow of the pumps and waterfall to make for quiet areas of micro habitats. What has grown is a pond that is rich with possibility for different groups of animals to utilize. The shallow shelf above the waterfall is an ideal place for yellow-rumped warblers to bathe and groom, and the faster moving water under the bridge are potential places for our native chub to hide and spawn. Like most urban habitats, however, the microscopic world of pond life has been little studied.
One chironomid larva eating another. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.
Recently, we took a sample of the debris gathered in the base of the plant by the dock, looking for those long imagined microscopic creatures. We found a lively community of strange, active animals that surprised even us with its diversity and beauty. The most easily visible are the snakelike immature stages (larvae) of non-biting midges of the family Chironomidae. Chironomid larvae are common in our pond, where they feed on algae, smaller organisms, or sometimes even each other! They attach their posterior end to a twig or root and wave around, looking for food in a mesmerizing, never-ending dance.
Also common in the pond are tiny crustaceans called ostracods, which look like animated seeds that scurry along the bottom, looking for food. Their patterned exterior is clamshell-like, with their many appendages extending between the “shells," propelling them rapidly through the water.
Water mite. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.
Unlike the ostracods that zoom around in the samples, the water mites are slow and tanklike in the water. They look like heavy-bodied spiders and they plod through the vegetation
Planarian flatworm. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.
Other, lightly less common creatures are the freshwater copepods, that dart through the water in jerky spurts, often carrying a pair of egg sacs behind them. We saw one planarian flatworm (though 2 ½ years ago, another staffer found one and wrote this blog about them), a comical looking animal that appears perpetually cross-eyed, a caddisfly larva with its case, and a few things that defy identification at this time.
Besides the photos displayed here, have a look at the accompanying video to get an idea of what this stuff looks like in real time. It’s an easy and fun way to get a look at an alien ecosystem that occurs on our own planet.
August 12, 2016
August 9, 2016