UNRC Discoveries

We asked, you helped, and now we are tallying the wondrous wildlife of our city. On this page, we’ll spotlight some notable observations and recount how citizen scientists found them.

Unusual weather reveals new discoveries about toads

   UNRC co-director Dr. Greg Pauly and National Park Service biologist Dr. Katy Delaney report that an observation of western toad tadpoles from November 2015 is the latest breeding activity ever observed in that species.  Tadpoles, some already transforming into frogs, were photographed by Delaney in a pond in Ventura County.  She submitted these photos to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) citizen science project, which allowed Pauly to confirm her suspicions that this was a very strange time of year to see breeding activity.  Usually western toads breed from January to July, but an unusually dry winter, followed by a rare rain event as remnants of Hurricane Linda passed over the Los Angeles area, filled a seasonal pond and triggered breeding activity very late in the year.  Some toads were probably able to breed in the pond in September, and the tadpoles were nearly frogs by the time they were observed in November.  This observation illustrates how much we still have to learn about local wildlife and also the potential for biological discoveries to be made from photographs, whether they are taken by professional biologists or citizen scientists.
 

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Lizards frightened by unfamiliar colors

   UNRC postdoctoral fellow Dr. Bree Putman and coauthors including UNRC co-director Dr. Greg Pauly have shown that how close a scientist can get to a lizard, and how likely that lizard is to be caught, are both affected by shirt color.  Bree performed trials on urban lizards while wearing four different shirt colors, and found that for the western fence lizard, she could get closest and had the highest catch rate when wearing a dark blue shirt (rather than red, grey, or light blue).  This may be because the lizards themselves have dark blue on their bellies, so they might not find the color threatening.  These results show that it's important to wear consistent clothing when observing animal behavior, and best of all to wear colors that the animals find familiar.

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Museum Records from Citizen Science

UNRC herpetologist Dr. Greg Pauly, in collaboration with colleagues Dakota Spear and Dr. Kristine Kaiser from Pomona College, has published a study comparing specimen records generated by the RASCals Citizen Science Project with those in the VertNet database of natural history museum collections. They find that for four species that differ in being terrestrial vs aquatic, common vs uncommon, and native vs nonnative, records contributed by RASCals participants far exceed records added to VertNet since 1990, and that the RASCals records are particularly strong in observations from urban and suburban areas. These results demonstrate just how important citizen science efforts are in documenting urban wildlife, and show that records from citizen scientists provide a valuable complement to museum records for investigating the effects of urbanization on local populations.

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Citywide Fly Diversity Patterns

UNRC entomologists Dr. Brian Brown and Emily Hartop have reported on patterns they've discovered from a year of BioSCAN fly samples collected across Los Angeles. They identified 99 species of flies in the family Phoridae from the traps, after sorting and examining 42,480 specimens. They found that five species were collected at all sites, but that the entire fauna was dominated by a common fungus-feeding fly,  Megaselia agarici, which made up a quarter of the entire catch. Other fungus-feeding species were also abundant, and flies with this life history made up 40% of all phorid flies collected. The map shows the BioSCAN trap sites, with red circles indicating high diversity and blue low diversity.

 

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Citizen Science Outcomes

Citizen science is a fantastic tool for studying urban biodiversity, but does it help with conservation? UNRC herpetologist Dr. Greg Pauly and Citizen Science Manager Lila Higgins collaborated with scientists from UC Davis, the Natural History Museum, London, and the California Academy of Sciences to find out.  They categorize and compare citizen science programs at three natural history museums, and confirm that they do enhance conservation efforts, including contributions to management, policy, research, and education.  Their study also highlights ways to improve citizen science projects, and discusses how Natural History Museums are ideal places for citizen science and engagement.

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Snail on Campus

Citizen scientist and UCLA undergraduate Cedric Lee searches for snails and slugs on campus. One day, he found Lauria cylindracea, the "common chrysalis snail” dotting the sidewalk. The tiny snail is about the size of a dull pencil point and hails from Europe, not North America. Cedric’s discovery was the first observation of this snail in California. SLIME participants have so far identified two new land snail records for the state and four snail and slug records for Los Angeles County.


A Squirrel Turf Battle

We are monitoring the turf war between our two tree squirrel species in Southern California. The Western gray squirrel is disappearing from its historic range due to its sensitivity to urbanization and being outcompeted by the more adaptable Eastern fox squirrel, introduced to the area in the early 1900s. Citizen scientists have recently spotted some Western gray Squirrels in the Verdugo Mountains, where Museum scientists didn’t expect to find them.


Coffin Fly

The BioSCAN Project found a number of flies from the genus Conicera from one of the project's backyard sites in Los Angeles. The most well-known, Conicera tibialis, is called the Coffin fly—it has been known to dig six feet down to buried corpses! So far, 43 species of flies new to science have been described from the project and several new records to the area have been recorded.


Gecko Finders

Citizen scientist Glen Yoshida photographed a gecko on the front porch of his Torrance home in April 2013, a photo that resulted in the discovery of Indo-Pacific geckos in California for the first time. In the first four years of our reptile and amphibian citizen science research, we have discovered three other species never before reported from California and 16 first-time county documentations.