When it Rains in L.A.: My Quest for Mushrooms, Snails, and Dog Vomit Slime Mold

February 2, 2016

You know that earthy smell that comes just as it begins to rain after a dry spell? It has a name. Scientists call it petrichor. When I smell petrichor, I get excited: Rain is a personal and professional obsession. I begin keeping close tabs on the window while I check weather reports for the forecast. As the manager of citizen science (getting the community involved in scientific studies) at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I start making a list in my mind to share with others. What mushrooms and slime molds and snails and slugs will I be likely to find? I imagine all of the places I should check to find these uncommon organisms that only come out when the soil is moist.

Brown garden snail, found in Hancock Park. Where I grew up—England—rain was not at all a rare event. As a kid, I’d follow the slime trails of snails to chase them down among the bushes, then carefully take them to the designated snail house—a crook in a tree. Somehow the snails would always escape! I would walk across the farm fields around my house looking for mushrooms growing in circles, which my grandma told me were called fairy rings. One day I was exploring a hollow tree and a huge puffball mushroom exploded in my hair. It happened as I climbed up inside the dark recess and spotted a large creamy white orb about the same size as my 7-year old head. As I wiggled through the hollow, trying to pull myself through, I brushed against the puffy mass and it burst. It was white and gooey and made my curly hair stick to my head. My family thought it was hilarious. In Los Angeles, I have to wait months and months for a good rain. With El Niño 2016 upon us, I am on alert for the new slimy city that springs up after a rain, whenever I hike, walk to the bus stop, or bike through Koreatown. Fungi live most of their lives underground, hidden from our eyes. Here in the arid Southwest they are easy to miss, only showing themselves for the briefest of moments after rains, or on irrigated lawns and mulched garden beds. Hiking in Griffith Park after a storm, I look along the sides of the trail hoping to spot spectacular fruiting bodies—what most of us think of as mushrooms. In Southern California, there are almost 400 species of fungi, including wicked poisonous ones like the western destroying angel, and delicious chanterelles, which sell online for $24 a pound. If you are really lucky you might even stumble upon a jack o’lantern, a bright-orange-gilled mushroom that glows in the dark! This is real bioluminescence. It contains the enzyme luciferase, the same as in fireflies. A few years ago, I found a puffball mushroom in Griffith Park. It was much, much smaller than the one that popped on my head as a child, but I still couldn’t resist taking a closer look and marveling at the white bumpy flesh. This time, I touched it with my finger—and a faint puff of brown “smoke” seemed to be exhaled. Just like a raindrop, I had triggered the spores to release so the puffball’s genetic material could carry on. Slime molds are even more alien than fungi and just as fun to hunt down. Take the dog vomit slime mold, for example. The name comes from its common incarnation as a bright yellow or pink oddly puffy aggregation on lawns, paths, or walls. It can be found all over the city, and I’ve found it in mulch along the L.A. River, and in planters in Koreatown. Most of the time the dog vomit slime mold lives as a single cell, surviving underground or inside dead wood and engulfing food. It’s when times are tough—for instance, when they run out of food—that the cells come together to move around in these large masses called slugs. Scientists have been studying their movement—watching them solve mazes or making them grow interstate highway systems on maps! After the slime mold goes through sexual reproduction, they produce and release spores and then turn black. The spores are caught by the wind and blown away, landing on new territory where they can go through the cycle again.

Dog vomit slime mold, found in a Koreatown planter.  Thirty years later, I am still chasing snails. A few days ago, after a rain, I went on a work field trip with museum herpetologist Greg Pauly in search of snails and slugs. In celebration of the museum’s SLIME (Snails and Slugs Living in Modified Environments) project and our El Niño #SnailBlitz, I was bent on getting pictures for this citizen science project. We strolled through West Coyote Hills in Orange County and kept our eyes peeled. At the bottom of a mountain biking trail, Greg and I began gently flipping over old bits of rubble. After 30 seconds, we found snails. I took a look and immediately thought they might be interesting. They didn’t look like the regular brown garden snails (the big ones that were introduced from Europe for escargot) that are found all over town. Instead, they had a chocolate brown stripe that followed the swirl of the shell and they had a much darker body. We took pictures, hoping we could get the snail identified by the museum’s malacologist—a.k.a. snail/slug/clam/squid/octopus scientist—Jann Vendetti. Later that evening I got a two-word text message from Greg. Helminthoglypta tudiculata

Southern California shoulderband snail, found in West Coyote Hills.  These are the types of texts you get when scientists are your friends. Greg had shown the photo to Jann, and she had been able to make a positive identification. These two words carried a lot of weight. It meant the snails we found were native Angelenos—Southern California shoulderband snails, to be exact. It meant we had found another population of this under-studied group. It also meant the pictures Greg and I had taken could be valuable citizen science data points. We both shared our photos to the SLIME project on iNaturalist (like FaceBook for nature nerds) so Jann can better study these snails, which are at risk of extinction. Our local native snails are L.A.’s version of the canary in the coalmine, if the snails are not doing well, our environment is not doing well. When it’s very hot or dry, snails aestivate—which means they retreat into their shells to use as little energy or water as possible. Some species can even excrete a liquid that becomes a barrier—Jann calls it an epiphragm—sealing themselves (and their moisture) inside. And then they just hunker down waiting for the rain to return.

A rain shadow in the Museum's Nature Gardens.  Sometimes I’m so excited when the rain returns that I lie down on dry pavement or dirt, so the rain can darken the ground around me to make a “rain shadow.” I’ve noticed that some raindrops feel sharp and prickly; others splash on my face in huge droplets. As I lie on the ground and really feel the rain, I wonder, what must this feel like to other creatures, who’ve been waiting so long for this manna to fall from heaven? This essay was originally written for Zocalo Public Square. *All photos by Lila Higgins

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Kid Citizen Scientist Finds First Snail for Project S.L.I.M.E.

March 18, 2015

A few weekends ago, citizen scientists from all over L.A. came to the Museum to see what they could find hiding in the damp and cool shadows of our Nature Gardens. Twenty people joined Museum experts (Lindsey Groves and Florence Nishida) to search for slugs, snails, and fungi—those often overlooked decomposers that break down dead and decaying material. They were also the first people to test out our latest and greatest citizen science project, S.L.I.M.E. (Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments). Within ten minutes, one of our youngest citizen scientists made the first S.L.I.M.E. discovery - a glass snail (Oxychilus draparnaudi) in the Pollinator Garden.

Check out what else we found: A bunch of turkey tail fungus on a dead log:

A pile of dog's vomit slime mold on the edge of a path:

Florence shows off some inky capped mushrooms found by Christopher Lanus (which he later submitted to iNaturalist):

And our Project S.L.I.M.E. results included 45 vials of snails and slugs:

There were 18 glass snails, like this one here:

Eleven gray field slugs (Deroceras reticulatum), like this one here:

And 27 banded garden slugs (Lemannia valentiana), like this one here:

Wow, so many specimens! We learned a lot from this test of Project S.L.I.M.E. Firstly, all of the snails and slugs we found are non-native to Los Angeles! Secondly, the group found most specimens in the Pollinator Garden, but none of the gray field slugs were found there at all!  Perhaps gray banded slugs don't like the plants in that part of the garden? As you can tell see this test has raised a lot of questions for us; How does the diversity of snails and slugs we found in the Nature Gardens compare to the diversity in the surrounding neighborhoods and the rest of the L.A. basin? Are most of L.A.’s urban snails and slugs non-native?  How are our native snails and slugs fairing throughout the L.A. basin? Right now we don't know the answers, but when we publicly launch Project S.L.I.M.E. we'll be able to begin answering these questions because of citizen scientists like this group:

**Thanks to Jann Vendetti, Project S.L.I.M.E.'s creator! She couldn't join us for the event as she was giving birth to her daughter. Congratulations Jann! Written by Miguel Ordeñana  

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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More L.A. Mushrooms

August 24, 2012

As I proclaimed in last week's blog, it's been hot! Not the sort of weather you would expect to be finding mushrooms in the arid Southwest. However, Carol Bornstein, Director of North Campus and  gardens found mushrooms on her way into work on Monday morning. As she parked her car, she noticed some yellow patches under a citrus tree. Upon closer investigation, Carol discovered they were clumps of emerging yellow mushrooms! Needless to say, I was out there quick as a flash to snap some photos. This is what I found:  

  When I parked the next morning the mushrooms had completely changed!  

 Picture taken by Patrick Tanaka, Museum outreach instructor   According to Florence Nishida, Museum research associate and L.A. Mycological Society member, this mushroom is likely Leucocoprinus birnbaumii. Although it doesn't have a common name, it is often encountered in potted houseplants and sometimes in mulch outside! Through my research, I have discovered that people can get quite frantic upon finding these mushrooms in their homes. In particular, MushroomExpert.com has an entire article about frantic questions received from homeowners worried about the dangers of this mushroom.   The good news is, they are practically harmless. The plant is in no way affected by this cohabitant and as long as no person or pet eats it, everyone will be safe and sound. So next time you find yourself wondering if you should pick and eat that little yellow mushroom, stop yourself and remember safety first!    

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Thanksgiving for Mushrooms!

November 23, 2011

We're never going to spot a Wild Turkey in the North Campus, but I still wanted to post something related to the Thanksgiving holiday this week. Ah ha! Mushrooms, I thought. Not the Campbell's soup kind, but real honest-to-goodness wild mushroomslike the ones that are popping up all over L.A. after our recent autumnal rains.In preparation for this blog post I went out searching for mushrooms in the North Campus. What I found was this:

Unidentified little brown mushroom (LBM)Not being a mycologist, I had no idea what this small non-descript brown mushroom was, so I took it to the experts. Last night, the L.A. Mycological Society (LAMS) held their monthly meeting at the Museum. The meeting is a place for all things fungithere's a lecture (last night's touched on the insect zombification powers of some fungi!), mushroom show and tell, and of course snacks.During the mushroom show and tell, I politely asked a LAMS member to identify my mushroom. Not missing a beat he told me it was an LBM. A what? A little brown mushroom! He continued to explain that there are hundreds of species of small brown mushrooms, and it was impossible to identify my mushroom without  a much more in depth process. I almost left disappointed, but then I took a gander at the other mushrooms people had found throughout Los Angeles.

 An array of mushrooms found on a mushroom foray

 Earthstar, Geastrum spp. andWestern Destroying Angel, Amanita ocreata (small white mushroom)        

Jack O'lantern, Omphalotus olivascensThis musrhoom actually glows in the dark!       

Massive puffball mushrooomWow, what diversity! In the coming months I am working with the LAMS to do a formal survey of fungi in the North Campus. This survey will generate a species list for the site. Apparently there are almost 400 species of mushrooms and other fungi in Southern California, I wonder how many we'll find in the Museum's backyard?

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Today on the North Campus

October 24, 2011

I went out for a walk around the North Campus today and this is what I saw: They are filling the pond to make sure there aren't any leaks and that the waterfall cascade is level.  

I went out for a walk around the North Campus today and this is what I saw: They are filling the pond to make sure there aren't any leaks and that the waterfall cascade is level.  

Underneath the pedestrian footbridge is the best spot for mushrooms. I think this is a morel, Morchella esculenta. I am consulting with some mushroom experts to see if they can make a positive identification.    

Apparently the Monarch caterpillar I found two weeks ago made its pupal case on a wall. I just love how green they are!            

       

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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I Love My Job

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. 

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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