Los Angeles is Being Invaded by Frogs!

September 8, 2015

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Cuban treefrog, photo by Zach Smith

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

 

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

 

WE NEED YOUR HELP!!!

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

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

 

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

 

Brown Anole

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

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

Green Anole

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

 

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

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

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

 

Brahminy blind snake, RASCals photo by citizen scientist Mickey Long 

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

 


(Posted by: Greg Pauly)

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Fieldwork Fails Attributed to Black Witch Moth in Los Angeles

August 13, 2015

Museum herpetologist, Dr. Greg Pauly, has been experiencing a spate of bad luck recently. He purchased losing lottery tickets and had some epic #FieldWorkFails—science really isn't always as glamorous as everyone makes out. But, can all this bad luck really be traced back to Greg's encounter with a giant moth?

On August 5, Greg was walking through the Museum's Nature Gardens and snapped this picture of, "a really giant moth." Not knowing what it was, he sent the photo around to Museum entomologists. Dr. Brian Brown was the first to respond with an e-mail of only two words—Brian is well know for his brevity in such matters—"black witch." 

The black witch moth, Ascalapha odorata, is a large, dark-colored moth only infrequently found in L.A. However, starting in late July the moth often migrates north from its home range in Central and northern South America. In some instances citizen scientists have even found the moth as far north as Churchill, Manitoba in Canada! They are identifiable by their large size, bat-shape, dark coloration, and the tell-tale "comma" pattern in their forewings. Males and females can easily be told apart, males are larger (up to 6.3 inches) than females (up to 4.7 inches) and females have a distinctive purplish-white band that extends across their hind and forewings (pictured above is a male).

Wherever these moths go, they excite many stories and myths—most of them centering around the idea that the moth brings death, spirits, or just plain bad luck. For instance in Mexico and Costa Rica the moth is known as mariposa de la muerte, or butterfly of the dead. If it lands on you it could mean you are about to face an untimely end. Alternatively, if it flies over your head it might mean you are going to lose all of your hair. In Jamaica the moths are called duppy bats—duppy means ghost in the Jamaican dialect, and they are believed to be malevolent spirits returning to inflict harm upon the living. On the brighter side, in Hawaii the moths are thought to be the spirits of loved ones who are coming back to say their goodbyes. And in some parts of the Caribbean and South Texas the moth is thought to be lucky. If one lands on you it means you will come into money. Being a man of science, Greg decided to put this last myth to the test, so he bought a lottery ticket.

#FieldWorkFail Number One

Right before Greg bought the ticket he went into the field to survey turtles in Ballona Creek. As you can imagine, this is generally dirty work. Urban turtle trapping has its own set of worries because the creek water is often from various urban sources, and isn't exactly clear mountain stream water. You get wet and muddy, and oftentimes the gasses that are released from the underwater mud are none too pleasant. However, on this occasion the smell was the least of it. When Greg and his scientist fellows got out of the creek, they found huge globs of tar on their legs and worse by far, beneath their swimwear! Not a fun day of fieldwork. As Greg put it, "clearly, the tar was the work of the Black Witch Moth!" 

That night he stopped at a liquor store and bought a lottery ticket. Maybe he thought his luck would change. It was a losing ticket.

#FieldWorkFail Number Two 

A few days later, Greg's luck was put to the test again on a frog finding mission. Myself and 17 others had been invited to search for invasive frogs in a secret location (discoveries of new introduced species populations can often be big scientific news). We all converge outside of a locked gate at 8pm with our headlamps ready and our excitement palpable. As we are waiting, we can hear the frogs and I'm wondering how many we'll be able to find. As the time ticks by, it becomes clear that the black witch is clearly at work again. Greg's collaborator forgot to tell the owner of the property what time to meet us to unlock the gate, all our efforts were thwarted. 

I know Greg doesn't really believe that the black witch moth has brought him bad luck. In fact, I know he was happy to make this discovery—it is the very first time anyone has documented this moth in the Museum's Nature Gardens. In true citizen science fashion, Greg uploaded his photograph of the black witch to our LA Nature Map. His data point, and the nine others from our region help us to easily see the pattern of the moth's migration alluded to above (most observations are between July 9th and August 25th). This shows the power of citizen science. The LA Nature Map alone has over 26,000 wildlife observations, these data points can help scienitsts better underestand the way nature works in our city, and indeed they can help us begin to tell the story of nature in LA.

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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'Tis the Season for Baby Lizards

July 28, 2015

Over the last few weeks, baby lizards have been hatching out of their eggs throughout Southern California. Most of these baby lizards are one of two widespread species, the Western Fence Lizard and the Side-blotched Lizard, but it is also hatching season for many of Southern California’s other lizard species.

Father and son citizen scientists Drew and Jude Ready observed a baby Western Fence Lizard in Claremont on June 30th. Jude carefully picked up the tiny lizard, while Drew took a photo that he then submitted to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) citizen science project. 

Western Fence Lizards are also frequently called “blue belly” lizards because of the bright blue patches on their abdomen and chin. If you are in the L.A. area and see a lizard on a rock doing “push up” displays, it is this lizard. In Southern California, Western Fence Lizards breed in mid to late March and the females lay eggs 2–4 weeks after that. After about two months, these eggs hatch, resulting in the many baby Western Fence Lizards we can observe in late June and July. 

Western Fence Lizard females can lay up to three clutches of eggs per year. As a result, we can expect more tiny baby lizards for the next couple of months as subsequent clutches hatch. Hatchlings are about 1 inch long, or “1 inch SVL” in herpetological lingo. SVL stands for snout to vent length. Because many lizard species can easily drop their tails, scientists measure lizard body size excluding the tail. Thus, lizard body size is measured from the tip of the snout to the vent (aka the cloaca). 

Stevie Kennedy-Gold, who has been working on several Museum field projects this spring and summer, has also been documenting lizards for the RASCals project. She photographed this baby Side-blotched Lizard in the Baldwin Hills. Side-blotched Lizards take on a different strategy than Western Fence Lizards. Whereas Western Fence Lizards live for several years, the Side-blotched Lizard is largely an annual species, meaning they tend to live for only about one year. Female Side-blotched Lizards can produce as many as eight clutches with up to eight eggs per clutch! 

Like the Western Fence Lizards, Side-blotched Lizards start breeding in mid to late March, lay eggs a few weeks later, and these eggs hatch after 1.5–2 months. The babies are extra small with a SVL of 0.8 to 1 inch. The telltale side-blotch, which is found just behind the armpit, is often not yet very obvious in the babies, as you can see (or really…as you can’t see) in the photo above. To differentiate Western Fence Lizards from Side-blotched Lizards, you often have to use relative scale size; scales are larger and pointier in the Western Fence Lizard, whereas the scales on the backs of Side-blotched Lizards are smaller, almost with a pebble-like appearance. If you have trouble telling the two apart, don’t worry, just send in a photo and I or others participating in the RASCals project can help you out. 

As you wander around Southern California, if you see any baby lizards, or any other lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, or salamanders, please take a photo and email it to rascals@nhm.org so your observation can be added to the RASCals project. Happy lizarding!


(Posted by: Greg Pauly)

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The Midday Sunflower Long-Horned Bee Huddle

July 16, 2015

The life of the bee as we often think of it is one of constant motion: buzzing, dancing, collecting, feeding, searching, and digging is all in a days work for the “busy bee.”  What many may not realize is that this perception of the bee is mainly from our frequent encounters with the females of the species which must not only feed themselves but also take care of their young.  Honeybees, which are highly unusual in their behavior compared to most bees, have workers that are specialized in gathering pollen and communicating its location through dance, building and cleaning the waxy hive, and taking care of their larval sisters. The vast majority of bee species, unlike the honeybee, are solitary: One female alone must take care of her young; there is no queen or workers to do all the grunt work.

 

Long-horned bee, photo by Kelsey Bailey

What is the male’s role in all of this? Unlike the females, which spring into action after they emerge from the pupal stage, male bees tend to loiter around the nesting sites or find a patch of flowers where the females are gathering in hopes of attracting a mate, the bee equivalent of scoping out the scene at the club. We observed a cluster of hopeful bee bachelors in a sleeping aggregation along the edges of the common sunflowers in the Nature Gardens. These ground-nesting, solitary bees are in the genus Melissodes, commonly called Long-Horned bees, which feed on sunflowers, daisies and asters.  The males of the species have noticeably longer antennae than the females. Additionally, the female’s hind legs are more conspicuous than the males, having specialized clusters of "hair" for gathering pollen, resulting in what looks like a fabulous pair of bright yellow leg warmers.  All tuckered out from the morning's activities, we were too late in the day to observe any male bees passionately pounce on any of the females who visited the sunflowers for a quick drink, but we did enjoy watching them “nap around the rosie” like hairy ornaments accenting the radiating petals.

Male Mellisodes bees on a sunflower in the Nature Gardens, photo by Carol Bornstein.


(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez)


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Walnuts, anyone?

July 9, 2015

by Carol Bornstein

Photo by Carol Bornstein

Squirrels and humans have something in common – both love nuts. If you skip the added salt and oil, these tasty “fruits” are good for you, too. And if you are interested in foraging – with permission and proper identification, of course - several of California’s native trees and shrubs offer up some mighty flavorful nuts. Just ask the squirrels!

For centuries, Native American tribes throughout California have harvested native hazelnuts, pine nuts, and walnuts. Birds, squirrels, and other wildlife also feast upon these nutritious foods. Here in the Los Angeles Basin, southern California black walnuts (Juglans californica) are still relatively easy to find in the Santa Monica Mountains, growing among coast live oak, toyon, elderberry, sycamore, and other woodland or chaparral vegetation. This deciduous tree is an important food source for Western gray squirrels (Sciurus griseus) and ground squirrels, and many kinds of birds use cavities in older trees as nesting sites. It is ironic that wild populations of this native tree, so widely used as rootstock for commercial walnut orchards, are threatened by urbanization. Recognizing this, the city of Los Angeles added southern California black walnut to its short list of protected tree species in 2006. 

If you visit the museum’s Nature Gardens, you can see a thriving young tree just east of the bird-viewing platform (see map above for location, indicated by the yellow arrow). We planted it two years ago from a 15-gallon container and since then it has tripled in size (although at one point we almost lost it thanks to Eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) chewing on the tender trunk).

Imagine my surprise when I noticed a crop of young walnuts on our tree this past spring. Six round, bright green nuts were beginning to ripen among the leafy branches. What fun! A couple weeks later, only three were left. Suspecting that the squirrels were helping themselves, we tied protective cloth bags around the remaining nuts so that visitors would have a chance to see mature walnuts on the tree. Well, somehow a squirrel managed to get two more nuts, further evidence that the Nature Gardens are indeed habitat for wildlife!

Even if the solo remaining walnut disappears, we are confident that the tree will produce another, bigger crop next year. It would be fun to use the husks for dye and to share the oil-rich nutmeats with some lucky visitors.

 

 


(Posted by: Emily Hartop)

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Arroyo #Chubwatch 2015

July 2, 2015

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Arroyo chub have a great story.

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

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

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

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

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Museum Makes Room for Nesting Cliff Swallows

June 23, 2015

Cliff swallows have moved onto, rather than into the Museum! Last week, Kimball Garrett, Museum bird expert, reported finding a nest under the eaves of the building directly facing the historic LA Memorial Coliseum. As he got close enough to snap this photograph, Kimball observed a pair of young swallows peering out of their finely crafted mud dwelling.

Check out that architecture! The adult breeding pair work together to collect mud pellets from the immediate area and use their bills to transport and mold them into a viable nest.  

Cliff swallows, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, have historically nested on our building–back in the 80s and 90s Kimball would see them every year–but recently they have been noticeably absent. We are not sure what has caused them to return, but we're definitely tracking their progress and hope they return next year.

As their name implies, before humans came along these birds would build their mud nests on vertical cliff faces. Today, they are just as easily found nesting under freeway bridges, and in the eaves of buildings. Locally, cliff swallows are remembered fondly as the, "famous Mission San Juan Capistrano birds." For two centuries a celebration has been held for the annual appearance of these birds at the mission. The story goes that like clockwork the birds would show up on March 19th, Saint Joseph's Day, to nest on the old church buildings. But recently, due to urbanization, the birds have been bypassing the mission and nesting elsewhere.

Although we don't have hundreds of swallows nesting at the Museum, we are an attractive enough site to host a nest–we have everything they need. A building where they can find good attachment points with physical protection from above, a decent supply of flying insects to eat, and mud for constructing their nest.

However, as Kimball points out life in the city isn't easy for a cliff swallow, there are aggressive animals to deal with. The two creatures of concern are house sparrows, Passer domesticus, and unfortunately, us humans. 

In the bird world, house sparrows are notorious aggressors. They steal nests, destroy eggs, throw baby birds out of nests, and generally wreak havoc on all manner of other birds. Because house sparrows are not native to North America (they were purposefully introduced to the US in the 1850s) and are such a threat to native bird species, some bird enthusiasts choose to actively deter them and/or remove them from their property. It is important to note that, because house sparrows are an introduced species and therefore not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, people are allowed to remove house sparrows and their nests. Not true for the native cliff swallows. However, many home and business owners chose to illegally knock down swallows nests constructed on their buildings. 

We here at the Museum choose to celebrate our cliff swallows and all of the nature that calls our Nature Gardens home. 

 

 

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Rare Nine-spotted Ladybug Found in L.A.!

June 17, 2015

During Bug Fair, I found a ladybug in the Museum’s Nature Gardens, that didn’t look familiar. It didn’t have any spots, but it somehow looked different than all the other no-spotted ladybugs I’d seen before. I took its photo, posted it to our Nature Gardens Survey on iNaturalist, and then totally forgot about it.

Nine-spotted ladybug, photo taken by Harsi Parker

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, while I was preparing for a behind-the-scenes tour in entomology that something made me come back to that photograph. I was planning to talk about a big discovery made by a citizen scientist back in 2009—the time Harsi Parker discovered a rare nine-spotted ladybug in L.A.

Harsi Parker standing in Webb Canyon circa 2009​

Today Harsi lives in Washington State, but back in 2009, Harsi lived in Claremont, right on the edge of L.A. and San Bernardino counties. On a summer day in 2009, Harsi went for a walk in Claremont’s Webb Canyon. As she passed a stand of mustard plants, she noticed an insect out of the corner of her eye. She looked closer and realized it was a ladybug—one she had never seen before. Not having her camera on her, and worrying she’d never find the ladybug again if she ran home to get it, Harsi picked the sprig of invasive mustard (she wouldn’t have done this if it was a native flower). She slowly and carefully walked the sprig with its precious cargo all the way back to her house. Once she was home Harsi immediately took photos of the ladybug, and began searching through her field guides to try and identify it. When she turned to the page with the nine-spotted ladybug, Coccinella novemnotata, Harsi got really excited—these are very rare ladybugs.

Nine-spotted ladybugs are native to North America, but their population numbers declined tremendously in the 1970s and 80s. Numbers declined so low that many scientists thought they were locally extinct in many parts of the U.S.

Knowing that nine-spotted ladybugs are rare, Harsi realized she had to share her find with the scientific community. She posted her photo to Cornell’s Lost Ladybug Project and promptly got confirmation that her ladybug was indeed a rare nine-spotted specimen. This was only the second time this lost ladybug had been reported to the project for the entire state of California!

While doing my research about Harsi’s story, I got a chance to really study her nine-spotted ladybug photographs. As I looked at them closely I realized they reminded me of the ladybug I had found in the Nature Gardens during Bug Fair.

My photo on the left; Harsi Parker's photo on the right

I put our photos side by side, and noticed that they both had a black line running down their back, they both had the same black-and-white pattern on the pronotum (the shield-like covering above a ladybug’s head), and they had the same white line between their eyes. Just like Harsi, I got really excited, “Did I just discover a ‘lost ladybug’ here in the Nature Gardens?”

Turns out my ladybug was a lost ladybug too! Within 24 hours, staff from Cornell responded to my picture and told me I had found the fourth nine-spotted ladybug in California. I couldn’t believe it! The odds of me finding a nine-spotted ladybug are small, but finding one while researching another nine-spotted finding was just too incredible.

I emailed Harsi to let her know what was taking place and she was thrilled. I told Harsi that our photos are forever linked, because if I hadn’t been researching her story then I wouldn’t have realized what I had seen. This goes to show that the power of citizen science is not only helping scientists collect valuable data points, but it is also connecting people through science and helping them to make big discoveries about the world we live in.

Photos from the Lost Ladybug tour during the First Fridays program on June  5.

Feeling inspired? We encourage all of you to look for ladybugs this summer. Take their photos and send them to us at nature@nhm.org. You may not find a nine-spotted ladybug, but you will be contributing to our understanding of nature in L.A.

Written by Richard Smart


(Posted by: Richard Smart)

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Lizard Love Bites

May 27, 2015

Have you recently seen lizards in L.A. that appear to be biting each other, or maybe they are trying to eat each other? 

If you have, you are not alone. Citizen scientist, Diana Beardsley, saw these two in her lizard-filled backyard and sent us this picture. It became the latest data point in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California project (RASCals) which helps us understand the state of urban lizard populations. It also helped us realize a pattern!

Diana was not the only one to send us a picture of one lizard biting another. Many of the people who sent us these pictures were not sure exactly what they were witnessing–were they fighting, trying to eat each other, or doing something else entirely?

Turns out it was something else.

What looks like a fight between two lizards, is actually a form of lizard courtship, a lizard love bite if you will. Museum herpetologist, Dr. Greg Pauly says, "male alligator lizards bite the female behind the head during mating, which holds her in place until she is ready." Lizards have been observed in this position for a long time—sometimes over an hour, and oftentimes moving through open spaces which makes them easily visible. Some people speculate that the mating hold is a show of strength by the male, to prove how worthy of a mate he is. However, as Greg points out, there's no data to support this claim but he concedes that it could prove to be true. 

All of this might sound a little harsh to some people, but this mating behavior has not been known to harm the female. If you see lizards engaged in this behavior, please do not try to separate them or move them, as this could harm the lizards. This is their normal behavior, and an integral part of their mating ritual.

When Greg saw Diana's photo he wasn't surprised, "it's mating season and this is a typical mating hold exhibited by alligator lizards." Southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) are the most widespread lizards in urban L.A., but they can be secretive and fast, which sometimes make them hard to photograph. However, during the breeding season finding two lizards out in the open—one biting another—leads to lots of curious people taking photos. All told, we received seven photos of lizards mating in March and April, which is about 10% of all RASCals submissions during the time period.

Here are some more pictures of alligator lizards in the mating hold: 

On March 19, Louise Whitaker saw these Alligator lizards and sent the photo in to our nature@nhm.org e-mail.

On March 27, Ron Matumoto submitted this picture to the RASCals project on iNaturalist:

Finally, on April 22, Jean Brandt sent in this photo.

These images provide photographic evidence that lizards in these areas are healthy enough to support breeding populations. If the photos come from urban and suburban areas, then Greg and other scientists can study them to understand why lizard populations are able to survive despite the proliferation of human development.

Greg says, "As we grow RASCals, we should get dozens of these mating entries. Once we have them, I think I will be able to write a paper about breeding behavior of these lizards entirely based on citizen science observations. It will be awesome."

So if you see lizards entangled in a love bite (or doing anything at all, Greg's really not that picky) please take a photo and send them to rascals@nhm.org. Your photos will help us better understand lizards in L.A.

Co-authored by Richard Smart and Lila Higgins

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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The Flight of Monarch Butterfly 64365

May 20, 2015

Somewhere in L.A. a monarch egg hatched and out popped a tiny girl caterpillar. That caterpillar ate, and ate, and ate. She ate milkweed, the only plant she could, until she molted her skin. All told, she molted four times until she was a big, fat, stripy caterpillar with black tentacles. She made one last molt and formed a bright green chrysalis with shining golden spots. Two weeks later she emerged from that chrysalis as an adult, and then she flew. On November 17, 2014 she was spotted in the Museum’s Nature Gardens. She was caught in a net, and gently removed by skilled hands. A small, circular, paper sticker was affixed to her hind wing with the numbers 64365 printed on it. She was released and flew off into the distance. We knew there was a good chance that we’d never see her again.

Monarch caterpillar by Courtney Celley/USFWS.

If you’ve roamed our Nature Gardens over the past few months you may have noticed tags on our monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). No, these aren’t fashion accessories like dog outfits—they’re actually a citizen science tool for tracking monarch movements. The small paper stickers are like a butterfly license plate and allow us to find out where the monarch butterflies in our garden are going. Very little is known about monarch populations of Los Angeles and urban areas in general.

It is pretty well known that some monarch butterfly populations migrate—we’ve all heard of the monarchs east of the Rockies that fly thousands of miles down to central Mexico to overwinter. Monarch populations west of the Rockies overwinter along the California coast between Sonoma and Baja. But, our L.A. monarchs are a bit of a mystery, it is not clear which migration path our monarchs follow, or if they migrate at all. Our tagging efforts in the Nature Gardens are part of the Southwest Monarch Study, a group dedicated to identifying and describing the migration and breeding patterns of monarch butterflies in the Western United States, and promoting monarch butterfly conservation.

We began tagging last fall in October, during one of our citizen science programs. Forty-four intrepid citizen scientists were trained how to safely capture, handle, and tag monarchs. That day we managed to tag 16 butterflies, and participants took extra tags home to continue the effort in their own neighborhoods. But, we still had a lot of tags left, and didn’t want to send them back.

We came up with an idea that would bring citizen science to our visitors! During our afternoon nature walks in the gardens, visitors learned how to tag monarchs with our staff. We showed them how to catch the butterflies, how to affix the tiny sticker, and how to record the data. Between October 2014 and March 2015 our visitors tagged over a 100 monarch butterflies.  

Of the 102 butterflies tagged, 33 were recaptured in the gardens including one that was caught two months and 24 days later. Then, on December 27, Donna N., a local Angeleno, found a butterfly on her car in Boyle Heights. She noticed the small sticker and called the phone number on it. She reported the finding and became LA’s newest citizen scientist. Turns out this butterfly was our female, monarch 64365! Although, her seven mile trip isn’t as harrowing as that of P-22, the famous Griffith Park mountain lion that crossed the 405 and 101 freeways, our little monarch had to fly over the 110 freeway. We’ll never know her exact route, or where she went in those intervening 30 days. But, we can hope she found some milkweeds and laid some eggs along the way.

The need to put monarchs on everyone’s radar is especially relevant now as they are currently under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Although the season for tagging monarchs is over for the year, our effort to better understand and protect them is not. Our Monarch Waystation (next to the Butterfly Pavilion) recently opened for the year, our garden volunteers are continuing to care for the over 500 nectar and milkweed plants that monarchs rely on in our gardens, and we'll be tagging monarchs again in the fall. Ultimately all these efforts help to ensure that the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of monarch 64365 have a place to thrive in Los Angeles.

**If you want to help us protect our L.A. monarchs send an e-mail to nature@nhm.org. We’ll send you details on the monarch citizen science/volunteer opportunities and programs you can sign up for.

Co-authored by Lila Higgins, and Miguel Ordeñana

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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