Meet a Citizen Scientist: Eric Keller

April 29, 2016

This week's blog is written by one of our @NHMLA citizen scientists, Eric Keller: If I were to make a list titled, “Accomplishments I Never Really Planned On But Achieved Anyways,” I think having a species of phorid fly named after me would have to be at the very top. And how did I manage to do this? Simple, I just volunteered as a citizen scientist by giving a little time and a small patch of real estate to Dr. Brian Brown and his BioSCAN team at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and as a nice thank you the museum dubbed one of their newly discovered species “Megaselia kelleri”.

Digital model of a Coffin Fly, Conicera tibialis. But this is not all I got out of the experience. In fact, much more valuable to me than the eponymous fly species is the connection that my participation in BioSCAN gave me to the museum itself. I have been involved in the science for many years acting as a digital illustrator, creating graphics and animations for researchers and for science educators. I started out on the East coast in the late 90s working for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute creating animations for “BioInteractive” a free resource of animations, interactives, and lectures. In 2005 I moved out to Hollywood to study the art of visual effects from the leading artists in the field. To earn a living I became a freelance animator and digital artist working in a number of studios around town, most recently I had the opportunity to create some digital monsters for JJ Abram’s latest scif fi horror movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane”. But getting into the production houses in Hollywood did not necessarily mean abandoning science. In fact, I have been lucky enough to bounce between animation jobs in both the entertainment industry and in science. One of my proudest achievements was being a lead animator and artist for E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth which is a digital biology textbook available for free on the Apple iPad. I worked on this project with a team of talented scientist-animators at a small company called Digizyme Inc. which is led by my good friend Gael McGill, a Harvard scientist, professor, and all-around digital visionary.

Digital model of a jumping spider (somewhat fictional species), that I created for an article in 3D Artist magazine. In preparing to work on Dr. Wilson’s book, Gael encouraged me to familiarize myself with his work, so I started reading Dr. Wilson’s books. Almost immediately, within the first few chapters of Biodiversity I became aware of the astonishing world of insects, especially ants. His writing inspired me to dive deeper into the world of entomology and in my spare time I started creating insectoid creatures from my imagination using my modeling and rendering software. I created animations of what I imagined insect life would look like on other worlds and this work generated a kind of creative feedback loop. To make better animations I needed to learn more about existing earthling insects which in turn inspired more fantastic imaginary insects. I began to concoct detailed physiology for my creatures and I wrote up descriptions of life cycles striving to make them as fantastic as possible but also completely plausible. I soon discovered that no matter how far-fetched my imaginary entomological creations were, I could soon find a real world example of an insect or arachnid more incredible than anything I could dream of. So I finally gave up trying to out-do the creative genius of mother nature and instead I decided to just dive head first into studying this new amazing world where it seems as though there is an endless supply of inspiring stories to draw from.

Digital models of black garden ants, Lasius niger. I became a bug addict. I needed more information on insects and I needed expert eyes to help me correct mistakes in my digital insect models. My good friend Inna-Marie Strazhnik, who is an amazing scientific illustrator and oil painter got a job at the Natural History Museum. She took me on a behind the scenes tour to show me where she worked and I got to see the insect collection first hand. It was an incredible experience, drawers and drawers filled with fantastic creatures from all over the world. She also introduced me to Brian Brown whom I had read about in an article in the LA Times. I was a little bit star struck when I met him but very excited. Over several months I met more of the staff at NHMLA and around the same time my wife and I became home owners in Eagle Rock. When the museum put out the call for volunteers for the BioSCAN project I was more than happy to offer up a small part of my new backyard for a chance to be part of an actual scientific study.

Digital model of the head of a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Becoming part of BioSCAN made it clear to me that the museum is much more than a storehouse for dinosaur bones. It’s a place where real research is going on and, even more importantly, a place that directly connects the general public with the practice of science. I think being able to interact with people like Emily Hartop and Lisa Gonzalez is the best part of my connection to the museum. Its painfully obvious that most people think of scientists in a very narrow stereotype. Popular culture paints a picture of researchers as being obsessive robots, ivory tower academics, or even worse, sociopathic madmen. Getting to know scientists as individuals who enjoy sharing their curiosity with the rest of the world is incredibly valuable. And even more so, spreading the word that everyone can be a part of scientific discovery, regardless of their age, experience, or academic training is something that the museum can do better than any other public institution I can think of.

A fictional alien beetle I created just for the fun of it. I take pride in being able to say that I am playing an integral roll in advancing mankind’s knowledge of the world. Even though most of the real work is being done by Emily and Lisa. I’m hoping to be a part of more projects through the Museum. I’ve also started an online web animation series called “Entomology Animated” that explores various topics in insect physiology. This is something I do in my spare time and I’m hoping teachers and students find it a useful resource, its absolutely inspired by my connection to the Museum. I’ve promised Lisa, Emily, and Brian an animation on Phorid flies, getting the anatomy of my digital model up to their standards is proving to be a pretty big challenge. The task is made a little bit easier since I know there is one species of phorid fly that literally has my name on it! Interested in more? Eric's website can be found here. **All photos and animations by Eric Keller.

(Posted by: Eric Keller)

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The Real L.A. Noir: The True-life Insect Cannibals and Murderers in our Midst

November 12, 2014

The coffin fly. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey. As you get into your car in the parking lot of the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, you might just be within arm’s reach of cannibals. Not the human kind – but the insect variety. Inside a wasp that is buzzing around a nearby bush dwells a bug known as the twisted wing parasite. These tiny insects are genetically close to flies and resemble nothing so much as a small black speck. But placing that speck under a microscope reveals huge, orb-like eyes that, as entomologist Emily Hartop puts it, look like sinister purple boysenberries. Although the twisted wing parasite’s name comes from the seemingly malformed wings of the male of the species, the female has no wings. In fact, she has no legs, not even functional mouthparts – she is literally just a sac containing eggs and fat cells.

Twisted wing parasite. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey. When she is ready to mate, she partially burrows out of her wasp host’s rear end, exposing her head and shoulders. She sends out an alluring chemical scent, a pheromone, to attract her mate, who flies in from afar and expertly inseminates her behind the head. She waits patiently for her eggs to develop and hatch. Then, she becomes a host of sorts: Her larvae slowly devour her as they thrive. When they are ready to search for their own wasp hosts, they wriggle out from behind her head, leaving her shell-like exoskeleton behind. Each female twisted wing parasite can bear 2,590 offspring this way. (The wasp survives the entire ordeal relatively unscathed; its only scar is that it is now sterile.) This is one of the true tales of L.A. noir unfolding around you – down in the depths of the soil, around the corners of buildings, and under the bushes of Southern California’s dark underbelly. I know about these monsters because I study insects at the Natural History Museum, where I work alongside the entomologists and volunteers (we call them “citizen scientists”) who trap and find them. I can tell you that L.A. is no City of Angels so far as insects are concerned. Death Becomes Her Some of my favorite bugs congregate around dead bodies. One place you might find them is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, possibly circling around the head of the Johnny Ramone statue. To the untrained eye, they might look like any old gnat. But each of these bugs has a pair of huge eyes that look like they’re covered in mesh, long slender legs, and transparent wings. Couples like to meet in the air and fall to the ground in a moment of insect ardor. They are Conicera tibialis, more famously known as coffin flies. After the mating pair has parted, the female fly locates dead or decaying tissue (by smell, scientists presume) so she can lay her eggs. She can burrow almost seven feet underground, which is good because, if she’s looking for human tissue, it is often, as the adage says, about six feet under. She lays her eggs in the nooks and crannies around the coffin, and lets her maggots do the stealthy work of sneaking into the actual casket. If all this seems like a lot of work, it is. Oftentimes these flies eschew the dead humans and instead go for easy pickings such as the pet dog you buried in the backyard last week. Murder in the L.A. River As the runners, bikers, and strollers make their way along the path next to the Los Angeles River in Frogtown, the water gurgles by and the bushes gently rustle in the wind. But this idyllic scene masks murders happening just beneath the water’s surface.

Dragonfly nymph. Image courtesy of Chris Goforth. Baby dragonflies, otherwise known as nymphs, are voracious predators. Measuring from the size of a peppercorn up to an inch and half, these muted brown bugs blend in nicely with the muddy bottom at this part of the L.A. River. When prey swims by – it could be a fish, a tadpole, or a dragonfly sibling — the nymph unleashes its hidden jaws-of-death. Within a microsecond, the jaws snap onto the stunned victim and pull it in to be eaten alive. Nymphs can consume multiple meals a day in the watery depths—they are true cold-blooded serial killers. Off With Their Heads Another of my favorite ghoulish insects was discovered last November in Glendale in the big yards of the big houses sitting snugly up against the Verdugo Mountains. There, a large ant serves as the mansion of tiny Pseudacteon californiensis, or the ant-decapitating fly. These ants, known as velvety tree ants, make for nice homes because they are larger than the usual black ants you find invading your cat’s food bowl or committing suicide in your freezer during a heat wave. And they also have curb appeal: a velvety black abdomen and reddish-orange thorax. Perhaps that’s why P. californiensis has evolved to infect this ant and no other.

Ant decapitating fly. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey. Instead of a U-Haul, the female P. californiensis moves into her host by inserting her needle-like egg-laying device (ovipositor) into a weak point between two of the ant’s abdominal plates. She lays one solitary egg and flies away. Inside the ant, the egg hatches, and the maggot journeys to the ant’s head, where it chews its way through various tissues. Eventually, the ant is decapitated and dies—and the adult fly emerges through the oral cavity in a scene reminiscent of a horror film. ‘Zombees’ Zombies are all the rage in Hollywood—but real zombified bees might actually be invading Los Angeles any day now. Since 2011, infected bees have been spotted from Seattle to Santa Barbara. We’re not sure if they’ve arrived here already, but we recently set out traps in the Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens to find out. “Zombees” begin their lives as normal honey bees, Apis mellifera. But when they meet a tiny honey-colored fly with dark eyes known as the zombie fly, Apocephalus borealis, these bees begin living a nightmare. The tiny female zombie flies insert their needle-like ovipositor into the abdomens of their bee hosts. They typically deposit a number of eggs, which hatch into maggots after a few days. Up to 15 maggots can survive inside of one honeybee, eating the bee’s insides. Right before the maggots are ready to turn into pupae, the next stage of their development, the zombee is somehow inspired to leave its hive at night—for what some call a flight of the living dead. These zombified bees are attracted to light, circling porch lights or writhing under lit windows in the early hours of the morning. About seven days later, the maggots erupt en masse from the neck region of the bee. They then crawl a short distance away, pupate, and emerge as adult flies nine days later, ready to find their next victim. When I pull dragonfly nymphs out of the L.A. River, or when I look at a zombie fly under a microscope, I revel in the fact that I’m privy to a tiny world that often goes unnoticed. Some people are afraid of bugs – and if you know what they’re doing to each other, it’s not hard to understand why. But bugs define our city as much as people do. If we don’t understand their lives and worry about their future, we’re not planning for our own future, either. And in a town that’s full of sequels and remakes and adaptations, the true stories of their lives are much stranger than our Hollywood fiction. With special thanks to the Museum’s BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science City and Nature) staff, particularly principal investigator Dr. Brian Brown, who designed and implemented the study of L.A.’s insects that discovered many of the creatures highlighted in this article. For more information about BioSCAN, check out the project page. *This was originally written for Zocalo Public Square

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Second Ant-decapitating Fly Found in Glendale

January 13, 2014

Our scientists found another species of ant-decapitating fly in Glendale, Pseudacteon amuletum!

Pseudacteon amuletum. Photo credit: Phyllis Sun Here's an account of this tiny, yet impressive fly, by Lisa Gonzalez, one of our BioSCAN entomologists: "For those of you who missed Lila’s exciting account of the moment Dr. Brian Brown first spotted an ant-decapitating fly in one of our BioSCAN samples as it was being sorted in front of our visitors in the Nature Lab, please enjoy this post. As Lila so eloquently described, ant decapitating flies are tiny but mighty little phorid flies that lay their eggs inside of the bodies of, you guessed it, ants. Many of these specialized flies have been the focus of our Entomology Department’s research as conducted in other, more tropical locales, so it may come as a surprise to hear that we have these incredible phorids right here in L.A. These parasitoids (a term we use to describe organisms that eventually consume and kill their host) will not just lay an egg in any ant they come across, but instead target a particular species.

Pseudacteon californiensis. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey For instance, Pseudacteon californiensis, the first ant decapitator to turn up in a BioSCAN sample, preferentially seeks out the native velvety tree ant, small ants with an orange thorax that nest beneath bark and in tree cavities. Some ant decapitating flies, like zombie hunters, “aim for the head,” but P. californiensis has been observed hovering over the abdomens of velvety tree ant workers where they appear to “lift” the abdominal segments to insert an egg into the host. The larvae must then travel towards the head, making their way through the occipital foramen (the very narrow opening containing the connective tissue between the thorax and head), to complete their development in the head capsule, which eventually is separated from the body by enzymes released by the developing maggot. Our second Pseudacteon discovery from the same site in Glendale is P. amuletum, named from the Latin word for amulet due to its distinct horseshoe shaped oviscape that is reminiscent of a charm or pendant. One may also infer a deeper meaning of the name beyond shape but also of function: amulets can protect, and this species of Pseudacteon is important as a form of biological control against fire ants. A close relative of P. amuletum has been used to help control the spread of the imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta due in part for its rate of parasitism, but mainly because of how it affects the ant’s behavior. Solenopsis ants assume a very strange position when they detect Pseudacteon flies by lifting up their bodies and tucking their abdomens under and forward into a “C” shape with the same incredible skill of a Cirque de Soleil contortionist. It is believed that this helps protect the abdomen from egg invasion, but the trade-off is reduced foraging by the ant, which puts it at a disadvantage in relation to other more industrious, less preoccupied ant species. In this way, Pseudacteon contributes to a reduced fire ant population, which is greatly appreciated by those who know the alarming pain of a fire ant sting." I don't know about any of you, but I can't wait to hear if we find a third species of ant decapitating fly. For breaking news on what they're finding in the other BioSCAN traps, check out their blog.

(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez)


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Ant-decapitating Fly Found in Glendale!

November 18, 2013

I just found out we have ant-decapitating flies here in Los Angeles! Dr. Brian Brown, the Museum's Curator of Entomology and one of the world's foremost experts on flies, made a chance discovery by looking right under the nose of an unsuspecting USC student. It all started last Friday, while we were enjoying a nice stroll through the Nature Gardens. First, we checked out the Malaise trap that Brian and his staff set up as part of the BioSCAN project, which aims to survey the insect biodiversity here in Los Angeles. Then, we headed into the Nature Lab to see insects from this trap, and the 25 others that have been placed all over Los Angeles, being sorted.

As we got close to the demo table, Brian was suddenly transfixed. He'd seen something interesting on the screen that shows visitors the insects our scientists are sorting under the microscope. By some amazing coincidence, the USC student who was sorting a sample collected in Glendale, just happened to be looking at a phorid fly. Phorids, aka humpbacked flies, are the group of flies that Brian studies, and according to him, they are a mega-diverse family. How mega, you might ask? Apparently, there are estimated to be 40,000-50,000 species of phorid flies, and only 4,000 have been described by scientists so far. Wow!

But, it wasn't just any phorid fly. After taking a look through the microscope himself, Brian nonchalantly walks back over to me and said, "Yep, it's an ant decapitating fly." Whoa, what? I had no idea we had ant-decapitating flies (ADFs) here in L.A.! How could he have neglected to mention this exciting fact during all of our insect musings? Sure he's regaled me with stories of ADFs from Costa Rica and Brazil, always with devilish decapitating detail. But, he never mentioned we have phorids in the genus Pseudacteon, also known as fire ant decapitating flies, here in L.A. Fire ant decapitating flies do just as their name implies. When a female is ready to lay an egg, she locates an unsuspecting worker ant and injects her egg into the thorax. As the larva develops it migrates into the head capsule and molts a number of times. Through this entire process the ant behaves normally. However, just before pupation, the maggot begins to consume the tissue inside the ant's head, which causes the ant to act oddly, and soon after, to expire. The head falls off and the mouth parts are pushed out, so the oral cavity is clear. As the larva pupates, the adult fly emerges from the now-clear oral cavity of the ant. How's that for an alien ant birth? Later that day, Brian wrote an e-mail to the homeowner where the trap was located in Glendale: "Your backyard trap got something unusual- a phorid fly (the group of insects I study) of the genus Pseudacteon. The flies in this genus are all ant parasites, developing in the ant's head, and are referred to as 'ant-decapitating flies.' Usually, in suburban areas, the ant hosts of Pseudacteon are eliminated by the introduced Argentine ant, but you must have (or be close to) a healthy native ant fauna!" This, as Dr. Luis Chiappe, Vice President of the Museum's Research and Collections Department, put it, "is the power of science!" The presence of this parasite, allowed Brian to infer the presence of the host. If we went out to Glendale today, we'd likely be able to find native fire ants somewhere close by! And I know you all dying to join me on that adventure.    

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Twelve Days of Christmas 2012

January 4, 2013

Since tomorrow is the twelfth day of Christmas, I thought I'd give you your belated gifts. Of course they're all part of L.A.'s surprising biodiversity, yes even those turtle wasps! Twelve weevils wandering  

Eleven pepsis wasps piping    

Ten spiders-a-leaping              

Nine ground squirrels dancing    

Eight ants-a-milking (though technically they should be milking aphids)        

      Seven spittlebugs-a-spitting  

  Six roaches-a-laying (down that is)  

  Five under wings  

  Four warbling birds  

  Three French (phorid) flies  

  Two turtle wasps  

  And a hawk in a pear infested pond  

Wishing you a happy New Year...what urban nature will we find this year?

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

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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