August 9, 2013
Ever heard of a fly that is big enough to be mistaken for a small hummingbird? Don’t worry this is not some horror movie featuring an overly large arthropod (think The Fly, Them, or the upcoming Big Ass Spider movie) this is real-life nature! Also, this is rare nature for Los Angeles; these flies are very, very uncommon in our region.
Ever seen this exhibit? Some of you may have heard of the Delhi Sands Flower-loving Fly, Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis, a federally listed endangered species. In fact, this is the only fly on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) endangered species list for the continental U.S. (there are a bunch of listed flies from Hawaii). We even have a whole exhibit dedicated to these flies in a somewhat hidden stairwell (close to the ground floor elevators—have I ever mentioned how much I love our hidden exhibits?). However, the fly I’m talking about was thought to be extinct until recently! The coastal dunes in southwestern L.A. used to be home to a population of the El Segundo Flower-loving Flies, Rhaphiomidas terminatus terminatus. It was thought that this subspecies was totally extinct, since there had been no sightings of the fly since 1965. However, research conducted in 2001, by George and Mattoni, found a small colony on the upper Malaga sand dune (on the Palos Verde peninsula). How could we have thought these flies were extinct for 36 years? It is not an easy question to answer. Maybe the entomologists weren’t out there looking (funding for research isn’t always available), or maybe they were looking in the wrong place, or at the wrong time. The biology of these flies is pretty intriguing. Adult flower-loving flies emerge in the summer for a period of only about two weeks! The rest of their lives are spent underground as eggs and larvae. The only way to find larvae is to a dig a large pit, and sift through lots and lots of soil. As you can imagine, this isn’t always feasible, especially in sensitive dune habitats that support other rare species. No wonder these flies went unnoticed for so long. If you are a visual person like I am, you can see how the range of the El Segundo Flower-loving Fly has changed over the last 100 years in our new Nature Lab. Check out our Life on the Edge interactive (directly underneath the taxidermied mountain lion). Here’s a teaser:
Guess what happens to the range of this fly when you press the "Today" button? Now that scientists have confirmed this fly is not extinct, I would have thought that it too would be on the USFWS’s endangered species list, but it is not. I am not sure why, something to contemplate and look into deeper mmmm...
June 6, 2013
This Sunday our brand new Nature Lab opens for every Angeleno to enjoy. Aside from all the other fun stuff that will be in the exhibit — live animals, camera trap footage, awesome taxidermy — it's going to be a place to tell stories about L.A.'s surprising biodiversity. During the development of the Nature Lab we would often find ourselves sitting around a table telling stories of the crazy nature encounters we'd had. Like the time my friend Kristin left her favorite bar in downtown and saw a deer walking down the street! Seriously. Kristin's L.A. nature memory illustrated by Martha Rich:
To encourage visitors to recount their own L.A. nature memories we captured 16 unique stories (including Kristin's) and had six amazing illustrators (Brian Rea, Mark Todd, Martha Rich, Liz Burrill, Lizzie Swift, and Anne Field) draw memory maps for them. My favorite of all the memory maps, tells the story of 17 students from Leo Politi Elementary school and the wildlife they have experienced in their super-urban schoolyard habitat. To make sure the school, the students, and their principal, Brad Rumble were properly represented in this memory map, I had to take a field trip. I like field trips! First, I got to see their amazing habitat. Did I mention they were able to do this because of L.A. Audubon and that you can almost throw a rock at the skyscrapers in downtown?
Then, I got to hang out with the kids in their special Scientific Illustration classroom!
In the classroom, I led the kids through an activity so they could create their own memory maps of their school yard habitat. Here's an example by 5th grader Marlon:
I really liked Marlon's memory map because of the mental images it evoked. I can picture the kids getting excited the day a hummingbird got stuck in their classroom. I can also imagine how the kids must have reacted when they saw a Red-tailed Hawk eat a pigeon in the Big Yard! I brought all 17 of the carefully drawn memory maps back to the Museum and shared them with illustrator Liz Burrill. She worked her illustrative magic and created this:
I really can't wait to see the kid's reactions when they see their memories on display in the Nature Lab, when they see their school, their principal, their habitat, their memories, and their illustrated selves in the exhibit! Come by to check out the rest of the stories and then take some time to share your own memories with us.
June 4, 2013
There are only ten days left until our new exhibit, Nature Lab, opens. Last week, I introduced you to some babies that are moving in, and this week I want to introduce you to rescued contraband! This is Obsidian, our new Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus helleri.
Obsidian chilling with his morning paper! Snakes, particularly rattlesnakes, are often maligned and misunderstood. But hold on a minute, any creature that is cultured enough to enjoy the Los Angeles Times should be given a second chance – surely. Let me give you the back story first; Obsidian is a rescued pet from a drug bust that took place in Riverside. Although, his previous owners were purported drug dealers, he was extremely well cared for. So much so, that when the police gave the owner the option of having the rattlesnake put down or being adopted, he chose adoption. Okay, so maybe the fact that an alleged drug dealer cared about rattlesnakes isn't convincing you to have a change of heart. Here are some other reasons to give Obsidian, and all other rattlers, a second chance: 1) We feed Obsidian 1-2 rats every two weeks. He is currently 5 years old and will likely live for another 20 years. That means he has the potential to eat 1,300 rats in his lifetime. Imagine a world where rat populations were not kept in check by natural predators? 2) Although Obsidian isn't part of the National Institute of Health's funded Natural Toxins Research Center some of his cousins are! Scientists at this institution milk venom from snakes reared on site and send them to researchers who are developing medicines to fight medical conditions such as cancers, strokes, and high blood pressure. Who knows what health benefits Southern Pacific Rattlesnake venom might have. 3) Rattlesnakes were one of this Nations first symbols! They appear on Gadsden's flag, with the moniker "Don't Tread on Me." As a Brit, I saw this flag and thought it was an environmental statement. Oh dear Lila, how wrong you can be sometimes!
4) Last but not least, they are just plain cool – I mean how many other animals can grow their own rattle! Most people think that this rattle is only used as a warning device, but this isn't always the case. Leslie Gordon, our Vertebrate Live Animal Program Manager, related a nice little story to me. As she was heading out for the evening a few weeks ago, she stopped to check on Obi (that's what she calls him for short). He was curled up sleeping. He opened his mouth in a yawning gesture and seemed to stretch. As he did this he gently rattled his rattle and then settled down to sleep. Now if that doesn't seem cute to you, I don't know what will. Maybe picturing him doing the Times' Sunday crossword puzzle?
May 29, 2013
There are only 17 days left until our Nature Gardens and Nature Lab exhibits open! This makes me extremely excited and a little bit nauseous. To cope with the craziness, all I have to do is go and visit our new Nature Lab babies. Just in case you're feeling stressed out too, here's some baby love for you: This is our new program opossum, Didelphis virginiana. She is a rescue animal that we were lucky enough to get from a local rehabber. She is blind in one eye (from a dog attack) which makes her unreleasable, and therefore our newest and cutest ambassador for L.A. wildlife.
Look she smiles, even though she's blind in one eye! We also have 14 baby Norway rats, Rattus norvigicus! They are currently in training to move into their new home which will be decked out with lots of toys including ladders, wheels, tubes, and a see-saw or two.
Our baby rats snuggle up for a nap You've already met our harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex spp., but here is a much better close up of the babies, aka larvae. You'll be able to visit them in the Nature Lab and watch their older sisters caring for them.
Antlings are cute too! Recently one of our crayfish, Procambarus clarkii, had about 100 babies hatch. The fry (that's what you call a baby crayfish...not because they're good eating though) are about the size of a quarter and they zip around tank town like anything. This is mostly because they are looking for food, and trying to escape being eaten by the adults. What can I say, it's a hard life!
Biggy-baby and not-so-biggy-baby hanging out together. Last but not least, here is one of our California Newts, Taricha torosa. Did you know that baby newts are called efts? If you are an avid L.A. Times crossworder, then you already know this, I swear eft is in the puzzle, like every other week!
Who could say no to one of our baby newts? Want to meet our new babies? Come by the Nature Lab after it opens on June 9!
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!
February 23, 2013
A few weeks ago, this ant nerd traveled to the wilds of Arizona to pick up two ant colonies. Yes, myself and Leslie Gordon (the Museum's live animal queen), drove over 1000 miles in under two days to bring a few hundred ants back to the Museum. Why?
Our new harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex rugosus, taking down a wax worm! Well, these ants are for display in the Museum's new Nature Lab exhibit, which is opening this June. That's right, we're going to have a live colony of harvester ants, a.k.a. Pogos (the ultra cool, ant nerd way to refer to this ant genus), inside the Museum! . Since the exhibit isn't opening for another four months, we're keeping the ants in our super secret insect quarantine space. Here's a photo of our set-up, check out those sexy, glass nest chambers. The ants seem to really like them, they've been laying lots of eggs.
It's true people, these ants pack a mean punch, uh I mean sting! Leslie and our animal keepers have become an expert ant housekeepers. Here she is, diligently sweeping up the ant's trash pile which includes uneaten grain, dead ants, and the odd cricket leg that wasn't so juicy.
Leslie is an ant queen. Well, not the one laying all the eggs! Inspired to visit the ants? Come visit the Nature Lab this June!