August 14, 2017
Choose your outfit carefully before you go on a nature walk. The animals you want to see might be paying attention, such as western fence lizards. Recent research showed that these lizards were least reactive when people wore dark blue — the color most similar to the lizards’ blue patches that earned them their nickname, the blue-belly.
It all started when Breanna Putman, a postdoctoral researcher in the Herpetology Department, was given a neon orange shirt to wear when she was doing fieldwork around Los Angeles. With its bright color and visible Urban Nature Research Center and NHMLA logos, it’s a great way to assure people that you’re a scientist and not a criminal lurking in alleys for nefarious reasons. Within the UNRC, they’re called “don’t-shoot-me shirts,” because they were inspired by a particularly eventful evening when Herpetology Curator Greg Pauly was searching for nocturnal, introduced geckos in Orange County and two sheriffs approached him with guns drawn.
“With a bag full of geckos already in hand it was pretty easy to convince them we were biologists,” said Pauly. “But it was clear that we needed to do something to make ourselves look more conspicuous and official.”
But Putman was concerned about the possible effects the orange UNRC shirt might have on her study species. “I wondered if wearing them in urban habitats and not wearing them in rural habitats would mess up my results,” she said.
To test this, Putman went “lizard hunting” wearing one of four different colored shirts: light blue, dark blue, gray, and red. For each lizard she saw, Putman measured the “flight initiation distance”— a measure of how close an animal lets a researcher approach before it runs away — and recorded whether or not she was able to capture the lizard.
Just as she suspected, Putman found that lizards did indeed behave differently based on what color shirt she wore. She was able to get closer to lizards, and was more likely to catch them, when she wore dark blue.
Blue is an important color for western fence lizards because it’s their signaling color. Males use them to display to other lizards — both to announce their ownership of a territory to other males, and to try to attract females.
When Putman wore red, the lizards ran away sooner, and she was less likely to catch them.
And surprisingly, the lizards responded similarly to red and gray shirts, even though gray is a more muted, neutral color than red. It seems that just because a color appears dull to us does not necessarily mean it will have the least effect on an animal.
This is the first study to show that a lizard species responds differently to various colors, something that had before only been observed in birds. But does wearing a species’ signaling color always mean scientists can get closer? The team plans to do follow-up studies on lizards that use other colors, such as the green anole which has a reddish-pink flap of skin on its neck called a dewlap.
But already, this research has big ramifications for biologists who are studying animal behavior, and nature lovers and ecotourists who want to observe or photograph wildlife. It suggests that certain bright colors and loud patterns so often featured on outdoor apparel might actually be affecting wildlife. And researchers have another factor to consider when doing fieldwork. The color of their clothing can absolutely affect the outcome of their experiments — whether they’re measuring how close animals let them approach or are trying to capture animals.
“Now I always wear the same colored shirt across all my study sites,” said Putman, who still wears her neon orange, “don’t-shoot-me shirt.”
“I don't mind having a lower capture success as long as I don't get police called on me.”
See the full research publication in PLOS ONE.
Love Lizards? Submit obvservations to the RASCals Project (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California). Find out how!
January 19, 2017
TAP Cards and Lizard Nooses—Required Gear of the Urban Field Biologists
Where does a field biologist work? You are probably thinking of some distant place, like a rainforest or desert. But biodiversity discoveries can also be made right here in urban Los Angeles. Regular readers of this blog know that with the help of citizen scientists, Natural History Museum (NHMLA) researchers are often discovering species not previously known to be in this area. Frogs, lizards, snails, slugs, flies, and spiders—new discoveries are regularly being made, and our field sites are quite often front and back yards.
Since its initiation in 2013, the RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) Citizen Science Project here at NHMLA has led to the discovery of more than a dozen new populations of lizards living in Southern California. The only catch is these lizards don’t belong here; they’ve come from other parts of the world and could negatively impact our local species by preying upon smaller species or outcompeting our native lizards.
How are these discoveries made? Usually the story starts with a citizen scientist, like Robert Asahina. This past June, Mr. Asahina, who lives in the Palms neighborhood near Culver City, emailed the RASCals project with photos of two lizards seen in his backyard. Mr. Asahina correctly identified the lizards as green anoles (Anolis carolinensis), and noted “…they’re proliferating in our yard.” Green anoles are native to the Southeastern United States, but not to California. We have documented several populations of green anoles in Southern California, mainly in Orange County, so we were excited, but also alarmed by a potential new population in Los Angeles. The key question was to determine whether this was an established, breeding population.
Being environmentally-friendly scientists, we decided to ride the Metro Expo Line, which conveniently stops at both the Natural History Museum and Palms, to the field site.
We might have stood out in our bright orange NHMLA Urban Nature Research Center t-shirts and ‘field clothes’, but we were on a mission. If you see people wearing these bright orange shirts on the Metro or walking around in public, they are doing urban ecology research! Stop and say ‘hi’ and ask what they are studying. You might be surprised by the diversity of research that is being done in your own neighborhood.
We made it to the neighborhood after a very relaxing Metro ride (no traffic!) and indeed found some suspicious lizards lurking about. We caught a few green anoles and found several juveniles, which indicates that this population is breeding and growing in number. If these lizards spread to areas where native lizards occur, they could negatively impact the local species. We have seen native lizards disappear from other areas where anoles have invaded.
We documented many green anoles in Palms, and as such know that a population is established and is likely spreading. Now that it is winter, the anoles are inactive and waiting for spring and warmer temperatures to arrive. When that occurs, we will go back to determine how widespread they are and if they are interacting with any native lizard species.
Because Mr. Asahina reported this unusual looking lizard to the RASCals project, we were able to document the second established population of this nonnative lizard in L.A. County. There are almost certainly additional anole populations elsewhere in L.A., just waiting to be discovered by other observant citizen scientists. If you see strange lizards in your yard or neighborhood, email a picture of them to email@example.com, tag them #natureinLA on social media, or submit an observation to our RASCals project on iNaturalist .
**All photos by Bree Putman
September 8, 2016
People all over L.A. have been finding baby lizards lately. Here are a few of my favorites:
Okay, so this one was found by me, but I mean come on is there anything cuter than a baby western fence lizard? Found while hiking in Griffith Park (August 9), I moved him off the trail so he wouldn't get stepped on.
My friend Yara Zair posted this picture to her Instagram account @califlorescence of a wee alligator lizard found while watering her garden in Hermon (August 26).
This baby lizard came via text message from fellow @nhmla staffer Laurel Dickow. Her cat found it in her Highland Park kitchen (August 17). She gently helped it to the out-of-doors, with the aid of a plastic cup. Want to find out more about baby lizards? Check out NHMLA herpetologist, Greg Pauly's blog about them. More importantly, send us your baby lizard pictures. Not only will we create the cutest baby lizard collage you have ever seen, but it will also help science. Our RASCals citizen science project aims to better understand reptiles and amphibians in the region, including when they reproduce. You can share your baby lizard pics (or any reptile or amphibian photo for that matter) on social media using #NatureinLA, or send them via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or upload them directly to our project page on iNaturalist. Happy lizarding!
February 23, 2016
Regular readers of this blog know that we are very passionate about studying Southern California’s urban biodiversity. Because this region is so big and so much of it is private property where we can’t easily do surveys, we enlist people (aka citizen scientists) all across the region to help us study the local biodiversity.
Alligator lizard courtship observed February 17, 2014 by citizen scientist mothernaturesdaughter and submitted to iNaturalist. Much of this citizen science research focuses on understanding where species can be found. But photographs can also document interesting and unusual behaviors. For example, photographs from a few lucky citizen scientists documented some incredible predation fails. In science jargon “predation fails” is termed antipredator behavior, but the word “fail” seems to better capture the look of this hawk that incorrectly assumed a Gopher Snake would be an easy meal.
A Gopher Snake successfully defending itself from the attack of a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk is one example of how citizen science observations can help document uncommonly observed animal behaviors. Photo by David A. Right now, we are entering my favorite time of year for using citizen science to document interesting behaviors in a local species. It’s alligator lizard mating season, and we need YOUR help in studying their breeding biology! I bet you’ve never heard a sentence like this before. But we are not kidding. We really do need your help, and the help of other citizen scientists across Southern California to document mating behavior in alligator lizards. What are we talking about? In the late winter and early spring, alligator lizards mate. Alligator lizards are found throughout Southern California except in the deserts and are the most widespread lizard species across the Los Angeles Basin. Many Angelenos have these lizards in their yard, even though they may not see them very often. Be happy if you do have alligator lizards around because they are the gardener’s best friend eating slugs, spiders, caterpillars, and lots of other insects and small invertebrates. These lizards prefer cooler, moister conditions so you won’t find them prominently basking on rocks like some of our local lizards (this is why you may not see them even when they are in your yard); instead they will be more hidden under plants and debris, or in cooler, grassy areas along streams and in canyon bottoms, or even using their long tails to help them climb up into bushes in search of food. Starting as early as February, alligator lizards in our area start mating. Many people who see their courtship behavior might think it is a fight or even cannibalism, but in fact this is alligator lizard love. The male bites the female on her neck or head, and they may stay in this position for more than a day. It’s possible that they stay paired up for so long because the female is testing the strength of the male, but more research needs to be done on this. If they are not disturbed by a predator or other male suitor, usually the pair ends up mating.
Two alligator lizards about 3 feet off the ground in a rosemary bush. Observation made by Cheryl Patterson (aka CSPNL) and submitted to the RASCals project. Cheryl was an especially observant citizen scientist finding paired up lizards five times between March 17th and 29th and all in her front or back yards. Last year, I realized that observations submitted to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) project could be used to study the breeding behavior of these lizards. We put out our first call for such observations (read last year’s blog post here), and we have tallied 24 such observations submitted to RASCals so far. Based on these 24 observations, breeding in Southern California can be as early as February 9th, or as late as April 22nd, but appears to peak between mid-March and early April. As we accumulate more records this year and in coming years, we can ask questions like how much variation is there in the timing of the breeding from year to year. Does the breeding season start earlier further south? Does it start earlier at lower elevations? Do lizards in urban areas breed at the same time as lizards in rural areas? Of course, understanding the breeding biology is dependent on having lots of data points. This is why we need your help. If you see courting or mating alligator lizards, please take a photo and submit it to the RASCals project. You can do this through iNaturalist, or by emailing the photo to email@example.com, or by using #NatureinLA on social media. And while you are searching for those mating alligator lizards, we encourage you to send in photos of any other reptiles and amphibians you come across.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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 email@example.com. Your photos will help us better understand lizards in L.A. Co-authored by Richard Smart and Lila Higgins
December 23, 2014
On November 19, 2014 something happened at work that I’ve been waiting three and half years for. Unfortunately, I wasn’t here to witness it, but thanks to citizen science I was able to celebrate the discovery, even though I was 6,187 miles away. On that day, newly turned citizen scientist Toni Castillo documented the first lizard in the Museum’s Nature Gardens.
Photo courtesy of Toni Castillo The lizard in question was a Western Fence Lizard, Sceleporus occidentalis, and Toni, a Museum staffer, just happened to see it as she was walking through the gardens. “I was walking next to the Living Wall and saw something in the pathway. At first I thought it was a leaf or a stick, but then I looked closer and realized it was a lizard.” Toni knew that this was a unique find—she’d heard from other Museum staff that no lizards had been documented in the Nature Gardens before—and realized she had to get proof. “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I was really excited and kept thinking, it’s a lizard here! It was like seeing a unicorn. Luckily I had my phone in my back pocket and I was able to pull it out and snap some pictures.” Later that day word spread. Toni told a few other Museum staff and sent them pictures. Everyone was excited—we had built the Nature Gardens as a refuge for wildlife in the city, but we’d still never documented a lizard in the space. The last time anyone had documented a lizard in Exposition Park was in March of 2010, when some citizen science volunteers observed two Western Fence Lizards on the south steps of the Museum. Dr. Greg Pauly, the Museum’s curator of herpetology was another one delighted by the observation, and has high hopes that the lizard will stick around. “This Western Fence Lizard appears to be a male and he is a bit beaten up with a stump-tail.” But, even with these apparent injuries, Greg is still optimistic. “Let’s hope he finds a female and our Gardens become populated with young fence lizards next summer.” This lizard sighting is important for many reasons. Not only is it a first for our Nature Gardens and possibly the beginning of a Museum lizard population, but it is also one of only a few urban L.A. records in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) project. The project has been running for 18 months and has received close to 5,000 observations, but only a very small number of these records are from urban areas. Toni's observation is another small step to helping Greg better understand how lizards and other reptiles and amphibians survive in Los Angeles. So while you’re out and about exploring urban L.A. over the holidays, take a moment to snap pictures of any lizards you see and send them into RASCals to help us make another small step (firstname.lastname@example.org). We really need your help!
April 27, 2012
This last Saturday we held the second annual Lizard Hunt at Malibu Creek State Park! Dr. Greg Pauly, Museum Herpetologist, and Dr. Bobby Espinoza, CSUN Herpetologist, took a group of 25 lucky people out to observe, catch, and identify local herps.
Are you looking at me?Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentatlisHere is a list of all the herps we encountered:Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalisCommon Side-blotched Lizard, Uta stansburianaTiger Whiptail, Aspidoscelis tigrisWestern Skink, Plestiodon skiltonianusSouthern Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus helleriGophersnake, Pituophis cateniferStriped Racer, Masticophis lateralisPacific Treefrog, Pseudacris regilla (heard calling)American Bullfrog, Rana catesbeiana (heard calling)
Dr. Greg Pauly lets an aspiring herpetologist touch a Western Fence Lizard
Dr. Bobby Espinoza shows off a striped racer, Masticophis lateralisOne of the primary goals of this field trip is to increase participation in our Lost Lizards of Los Angeles (LLOLA) project. Currently we have about 250 submissions, but for us to be able to do anything interesting with the data, we need at least 2,000 submissions. Hopefully we were able to inspire at least 25 more people to participate at this field trip. Are you inspired? One last thing for all you ultra herp-nerds—you can now get your daily herp dose by visiting the Museum's new herpetology section facebook page. Go get 'em Tiger Whiptail!
August 16, 2011
Instead of spending a cozy night in, reading Biology of Spiders (did I mention we're opening our Spider Pavilion at the end of September?), I went to Chatsworth on a gecko hunt! At 8:30pm I parked on a dark street to meet up with a bunch of other lizard geeks (or Herpers, as they much prefer to be called). Among the party was my Museum colleague, Leslie Gordon (a self-proclaimed lizard lady and manager of our live vertebrate program), and Dr. Bobby Espinoza, Cal State Northridge's professor and researcher in the Laboratory of Integrative and Comparative Herpetology.
Mediterranean House Gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus, trying to hide in a crackWe were here in deepest, darkest suburbia, looking for Mediterranean House Geckos (MHG), an introduced species of lizard from, you guessed it, the Mediterranean. As mentioned in an earlier post this is the first population of these lizards found in Los Angeles, and a boon to Bobby for his research. We were collecting the lizards so Bobby could sprint them down a racetrack! Seriously, Bobby is looking at temperature dependent performance in multiple gecko species. This will be the first batch of MHGs that Bobby has sent down the track. In total we collected 14 individuals. I wonder how they'll fare on the track?Here are some pictures from our adventure:
Herpers looking high and low
Me showing off my awesome headlamp and geckos!
Bobby and one of his students counting lizards
June 1, 2011
So I get back to work yesterday morning after the long weekend, and this is what I find on my desk!
Yes, that is indeed a dead lizard and a peanut can full of mushrooms! To be more precise it is an Alligator Lizard, Elgaria multicarinata, and shaggy parasol mushrooms, Chlorophyllum rhacodes. I am not sure exactly how they turned up on my desk, but in this line of work it's pretty common for people to drop off interesting things for you to identify. This is especially true when you start to survey urban biodiversity through citizen science projects like Lost Lizards of Los Angeles (LLOLA). Myself and a number of other Museum staffers frequently return to our desks to discover dead lizard specimens. However, don't be compelled to follow suit. It is much more valuable to the project to follow the instructions and submit only your lizard photographs. Check out the LLOLA website for instructions on how to participate.
May 13, 2011
It has been a week of lizard happenings at NHMLA! We've had a confirmed sighting of another Western Fence Lizard in Exposition Park, we're installing underground lizard tubes in the North Campus, and over the weekend we held our first Lost Lizard Spotting field trip.Lizarding at Malibu CreekThis past Saturday morning a group of NHMLA staffers, and our good friend Dr. Bobby Espinoza, from Cal State University Northridge, led the first ever Lost Lizard field trip. Malibu Creek turned out to be the perfect location for this event and the group of kids and their families had a great time catching and identifying lizards. We found a number of species including Western Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis), Side-blotched Lizards (Uta stansburiana), and Western Whiptails (Aspidoscelis tigris). Hopefully the trip inspired all the participants to become Lost Lizard Citizen Scientists. If you're interested, find out more at the Museum's Lost Lizard site.
Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis
Bobby showing proper lizard handling techniqueThe Lizard UndergroundMeanwhile, in the North Campus, we are getting ready to install an Underground system. Unlike London's tube system, this system of tubes is designed for lizards and not humans. They are being installed in the Living Wall, in the hopes that when lizards move into the North Campus, they'll have lots of good spots for hiding, nesting, and escaping from predators like Raccoons.
Model lizard tubes at the San Diego ZooWhy Did the Lizard Cross Exposition Boulevard?To get to the North Campus, or at least this is what we hope will happen in the future. Last week our fearless Bug Guy, Brent Karner, was walking back from a lunch outing, and saw a lizard on the curb! As he got closer he identified the lizard as a Western Fence, Sceloporus occidentalis. This is the third lizard record for Exposition Park in the recent past, the first two occurring over a year ago at our Exposition Park Herp Survey. Stay tuned for photographic documentation as Brent sends me the picture he took with his not-so-smartphone.