Do you have Museum Malaise?

May 2, 2013

You better not! However, just in case you do I have a line of curative agents perfect for any and all afflicted with such exhibit ennui. The elixirs I speak of are our new L.A. nature exhibits, Nature Lab and Nature Gardens, and they're about to open on June 9! I've written loads of posts about both exhibits, so I thought it might be interesting to have a guest writer this week (I swear it's not because I'm too busy)! Dean Pentcheff from our Research and Collections staff is going to answer the question that everyone will be asking when the Nature Gardens open, who's camping in that tent out there? "Peek between the bushes in the Nature Garden and you’ll see what looks like someone’s overnight camping spot. We do host overnight sleepovers at NHMLA but we don’t do it in the garden (at least not yet). What’s going on here?

Photo by Phyllis Sun   The “tent,” as it turns out, is actually an insect trap. It is no coincidence that it looks like a tent. Its inventor, René Malaise, was inspired by watching insects in his own tent while he was on tropical collecting trips. Insects bumping into an obstruction, like a tent wall (or the vertical mesh of the Malaise trap), tend to fly up to escape. The conical top deflects them up further to the topmost part of the cone. There, our arthropod guests find a hole to a plastic jar full of ethanol — their last drink, and a preservative that lets us keep them for the Museum’s collection in good physical condition and with their DNA available for genetic research. Why such an elaborate insect trap in the Nature Gardens? This trap is one of about thirty that we’re setting up between downtown L.A. and the Griffith Park area as part of our BioSCAN project (BioSCAN stands for Biodiversity Science: City and Nature). Our goals are to develop a good inventory of L.A. insect diversity and to see how insect diversity differs between inner urban areas and outer less-urbanized areas. That’s the reason for the mini-weather station next to every trap. Measuring physical parameters like temperature, humidity, soil temperature, and moistness will help us develop explanations for the diversity differences we will see.

Dean explaining BioSCAN   The beauty of the Malaise trap, as René Malaise put it in his original publication, is that they can “… catch all the time, by night as well as by day, and never be forced to quit catching when it was best because dinner-time was at hand.” That also means that we’ll have thousands of samples to sort. You can come watch us do it (and volunteer to help, if you want) in the Nature Lab when that opens in June." Thanks Dean So if you're interested in finding out what a robber fly really looks like, and how many of them we've caught in our Malaise trap, stop by the Museum on or after June 9 and ask us...you never know Dean might actually be the scientist you get to talk too. p.s. he's awesome!  

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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New Fly Species Likes to Party It Up Poolside in Brentwood

December 24, 2012

I've been scratching my head for a story to tell in this week's blog. At 6:20 last night it hit me! I've never related our Curator of Entomology, Brian Brown's, story of how he discovered a brand new species of fly, right here in Los Angeles! That's right folks, undiscovered fly species are here right under your noses oh and don't forget that one that  flew into your eyeball, maybe that was new to science too, I guess next time you should try to save it!All kidding aside, there are likely hundreds of new species scientists have never discovered before, right here in L.A.. Brian is famous here at the Museum for saying, "It's just as likely to find a new species to science in L.A., as it is in Costa Rica [where he does a lot of his research], 100%." All you have to do is look at the numbers. Scientists have described almost a million different species of insects. However, they estimate that there may be anywhere between 9 and 29 million yet to be described! And this is just the insects we're talking about people. A New York Times article that came out last year noted that, "A single spoonful of soil may contain 10,000 different species of bacteria, many of which are new to science."Back to Brian and his flies. Not everyone believed Brian when he told them he could find loads of interesting and new species here in L.A.. To prove that urban environments can be a frontier of discovery, he set up an experiment. In a Brentwood backyard, he set up a Malaise trap  a tent-like device that captures flying insects in a large jar of alcohol, a.k.a. "jar of death." One week later he visited the backyard again, collected the jar full of insects, took it back to the lab, and separated out all the phorid flies (that's the family of flies that Brian is a world specialist on).

Poolside Malaise Trap 

"Jar of death"Sitting at his microscope, Brian pulled out a small (~2mm in length) yellow phorid fly that looked interesting. To identify these flies, you have to dissect them and take them through a special fly key, that asks the you to look for crazy characteristics like laterally flattened hind femoras. So Brian popped the head off the fly and stuck it under the microscope. He took the small fly through the entire key and it didn't match anything this was a brand new species to science, it had never been described before, and it was the very FIRST fly he had looked at! 

Brian's new fly speciesBrian pulled out a second fly from the sample and repeated the process. This specimen was similarly small, but brown instead. It also had a characteristic he recognized, the penultimate tarsal segment (a.k.a. second to last segment of an insect leg) was shorter than the last one. This is a characteristic common to a species only known from Europe. Brian took it through the key, and it was indeed the European species. Which, might I add, had never before been recorded in the U.S.!

European flies have a certain je ne sais quoi!Wait, wait there's more! Seriously, as Brian kept looking he found a third interesting fly in the sample. This fly was a male from the genus Chonocephalus. This fly is from both coasts of Africa, the Seychelles and Canary islands to be exact. This was the very FIRST time it had been discovered outside of that native range! 

Chonocephalus, African phorid flySo, by looking at only three, seemingly inconsequential flies, Brian had made three scientific discoveries, which have since then been published in well-known journals. Imagine what a month of sampling might uncover, or a year, or what about three year's worth of sampling!This is exactly what the Museum has funded Brian and a group of other Museum scientists to do. Brian and his crew have dubbed the project BioSCAN (BIOdiveristy Science: City And Nature). Here's what the BioSCAN website has to say about the project:"This first-of-its-kind scientific investigation will discover and explore biodiversity in and around one of the world's largest cities: Los Angeles. In three years of sampling from the urban core right out through less-urban surrounding areas, we will focus on the insects, the most diverse group of animals on our planet. We will discover and document the diversity of insect species living with us in Los Angeles as well as test intriguing hypotheses about how natural areas around the city affect its biodiversity, and specifically, how light in the urban environment is affecting its inhabitants."Wow! I can't wait to hear what they find.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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North Campus Insect Survey

April 22, 2011

Survey Fun     As mentioned in an earlier post New Fly for North Campus, we've been trapping insects on the North Campus for a while now. This week however, is a milestone for NHMLA as we held our first quarterly insect survey. Our aim was to go after the insects that our Malaise trap wasn't sampling, like large flying insects such as crane flies and bumble bees and ground dwelling insects like earwigs and beetles.  Since this was our first time and the site is still an active construction zone, we limited participation to NHMLA staff and partners. As the specimens get prepared and sorted, I'll keep you all up to date on the species we identify.  

Brent "the bug guy" Karner demonstrates proper use of a beating sheet to our USC partners.  

Brian Brown showing off his aspirator (aka pooter) skills. Look closely, I swear there's an insect there!  

A common insect, but nonetheless an impressive catch. Female carpenter bee in the genus Xylocopa   Special thanks to Cordell Corporation for allowing us to access the site.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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