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lisa gonzalez with malaise trap in LA bioscan community science
We set up Malaise traps at sites across the L.A. Basin. Site hosts monitor the traps and remove the sample once a month.

What is BioSCAN?

In 2012, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County launched a new research initiative: NHM Biodiversity Science: City and Nature (NHM BioSCAN).

This first-of-its-kind scientific investigation is discovering and exploring biodiversity in and around one of the world’s largest cities: Los Angeles. In sampling from the urban core right out through less-urban surrounding areas through mid-2015, we focused on insects, the most diverse group of animals on our planet. We are discovering and documenting the diversity of insect species living with us in Los Angeles as well as testing intriguing hypotheses about how natural areas around the city affect its biodiversity and, conversely, how urban areas may be affecting their surroundings. NHM BioSCAN is taking full advantage of our museum base by directly engaging the public in the discovery and exploration of their home city.

Biodiversity in the city

BioSCAN is the world’s largest urban biodiversity study; biodiversity is the sum of all biological diversity. We often focus on biodiversity at the level of species diversity, but biodiversity exists at other levels, such as multiplicity of habitats and biomes, or genetic variation within species or populations. Today’s biodiversity descends from the few lineages successful enough that they managed to reproduce in every single generation through four billion years of diversification and relentless winnowing by natural selection. Earth’s biodiversity is the library of best answers to all the questions our environment has posed since life began.

Contrary to preconceptions that nature exists only in exotic TV locales, urban life abounds in the form of insects, spiders, and other tiny creatures. Academic scientists, too, hold preconceptions about where nature is worth studying: surprisingly little research has been done on urban biodiversity, despite it’s obvious importance to most of the world’s population.

The city of Los Angeles is a subtropical paradise for wildlife, but in spite of its status as one of the most important cities in the world, the goods and services provided by its biodiversity remain poorly explored. Pollination for plants, predation of herbivorous insects, decomposition of all types of organic material, aeration for the soil, and filtering of freshwater are only a few of the products of urban biodiversity. All are essential for human life, and are typically given no value in the world's economy, partly because we have spent little effort to understand their role in urban life.

As humans increasingly influence natural systems, it is critical that we understand these relationships. We need to discover who lives here, learn how urbanization affects urban communities, and understand how the urban and surrounding less-urban areas affect each other. 

The Project

In 2012, Entomology Curator Brian Brown bet an museum trustee that he could find a new species anywhere. The challenge was then put to him to find one in the trustee’s backyard in West L.A., and the pressure was on! Dr. Brown did find a new species from her backyard, and this discovery prompted the creation of the BioSCAN project, an in-depth look at insect biodiversity in Los Angeles.

Phase I of the project was completed in mid-2015 and sampled millions of insects from 30 sites in urban Los Angeles along a gradient from more natural areas to the urban core. These 30 sites were mostly private backyards, but also included one community garden, one school garden, the Los Angeles Ecovillage, and the Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum. Analysis of this phase is ongoing, but has already yielded the description of 30 new species of flies from urban Los Angeles. Our discovery was featured by the many news outlets from local to international (see our "news" section, at left). In addition, BioSCAN has found several species not previously known from the region (see our "resources" section, at left). Ecological analysis from the project is forthcoming, but will make use of the over 43 thousand phorid flies that have been identified from the BioSCAN samples.

In 2015 BioSCAN joined forces with RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California), SLIME (Snails and slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments), and the Southern California Squirrel Survey to form the NHM's first ever SuperProject. The last phase of the project began in Fall 2018 and featured a gradient of sites across Southern LA including San Pedro, Gardena, Inglewood, and Watts.