December 1, 2015

"What is that?” That was the question I asked my supervisor, Lila Higgins, back in the fall of 2012 when she brought in a strange looking object attached to a stick. “This is an ootheca, an egg case” she replied.

Ootheca seen on a Lion's Tail plant (Leonotis leonurus) Nov 3, 2015 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Richard Smart

The ootheca was attached to a stick that Lila had brought inside to our office. Lila saw the stick lying on the ground in our Nature Gardens. Originally, she was going to place the stick into a nearby garden bed, but as she looked closer she noticed the ootheca. She recognized the shape of the ootheca to be that of a mantid egg case. Lila decided she would help the mantid babies by bringing them indoors, so they could develop without interference from predators or people.

I was very curious on how long it would take for the mantids to hatch out, and I wondered just how many and how large the young mantids would be when they emerged.

Days of checking the ootheca, turned into weeks, which turned into months. Then finally, in March of 2013, I heard Lila happily exclaim, “The ootheca hatched!” I ran over and was fascinated to see miniature mantids on her desk. They looked like the much larger mantids I was used to seeing, but teeny tiny. They were unbelievably cute. Lila even wrote her own blog post about it.

Baby mantid seen March 29, 2013. Photo credit: Lila Higgins

That experience made quite an impression on me, and it came to mind recently when I saw an ootheca attached to a Lion’s Tail plant in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. My colleague, Richard Hayden, also recently posted an ootheca to Instagram, and that got me thinking that others were likely seeing these in L.A. and perhaps they didn’t know what they were.

Backside of an ootheca seen on a Catalina Perfume plant (Ribes viburnifolium) November 18, 2015 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Richard Hayden

An ootheca can blend in very well with the plant they are attached to, so many people may not see them. Or people may think they are a sign of a sick or injured plant, and may remove the branches they are attached to, not realizing they were removing baby mantids from their gardens. Mantids are considered to be a beneficial insect since they will eat many garden pests such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, and aphids – you want mantids in your yard. The egg case actually starts as a frothy mass, but hardens to form a tough capsule that protects the growing young inside. Depending upon the mantid species, there can be anywhere from dozens to hundreds of mantids inside the ootheca, so by picking up sticks with an ootheca attached to them can help out a lot of mantids. 

Ootheca on wire fence, Nov 23, 2013 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Lila Higgins

Are you seeing oothecae in your part of L.A.? If so, I encourage you to let them be. The egg case will protect them from rain and temperature changes. If you see an ootheca attached to a broken stick laying on the ground then kindly place the stick in an area where they are less likely to be damaged by people. You can also take photo of the egg cases, and tag us using #NatureinLA so we can add your #ootheca photos to our L.A. Nature Map!



(Posted by: Richard Smart)


Immortal Worms Found in L.A. Pond!

October 24, 2013

Yay, we just found flatworms in the Museum pond! You know, the worms that some of us (I'm not naming names) might have cut up with a knife in high school biology class. But don't worry! These worms are, "immortal under the edge of a knife." At least, that is how the noted flatworm specialist, John Graham Dalyell Esquire, described them in 1814.

An Immortal Worm, also known as a Planarian.

Dalyell goes on to describe their regenerative capabilities, in his distinctive early 1800s prose:

"Certain animals, though liable to perish by simple evaporation of their surrounding fluid, can, in other circumstances, endure privations apparently inconsistent with life itself. What prove deathly wounds to the majority of creation, only serve to awaken in them the active principle of an inexhaustible reproductive power. The perpetuation of their race is effected by means most remote from those that usually regulate the origin of animated existence. A shapeless fragment is disjointed from the body of the parent ; it remains in quiesence more resembling the state of death : but new organs are gradulally evolved—motion is resumed—and all the qualities successively displayed which belong to the primitive whole."

Okay, so scientists thought planarians were cool in 1814, but are they still cool today? Well, I can think of at least six reasons off the top of my head.

1) They are a non-parasitic worm—which means they aren't going to burrow into our bodies and cause elaphantiasis of the nether regions!

2) They are hermaphrodites—they have both male and female sex glands—and they can reproduce asexually by fragmenting off parts of their body!

3) They are really easy to keep as pets! All you need to do is lure them out of their freshwater environs by dangling a bit of beef liver tied to a string (at least that is what the author of planarians.org did when he was a kid—sounds like my type of guy).

4) Not all of them live in water! There's a weird land planarian, Bipalium kewense, originally from Asia, that has been introduced into Los Angeles and can reach up to 18 inches in length.

5) You can buy a planarian mousepad. This 100% prooves they are cool!

6) Planarians can learn.  When a planarian encounters a negative stiumli (i.e. hot temperatures or toxic chemicals) it will, when encountering the stiumui again, move away from it. Even cooler—when that planarian is cut into several pieces, the "new" planarians, in many cases, “remember” the learned response of the original planarian.

Whoa! So, go out buy some beef liver and go "fishing" for planarians. Get to know them! And, since it's Halloween next week why don't you go and make yourself an immortal worm costume that'll be sure to impress all your friends.

*Thanks to Richard Hayden, Head Gardener, for the photograph, and to Kirk Fitzhugh, Museum Curator of Polychaetous Annelids, for identification help.


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Ladybugs Make Me Smile

January 18, 2013

A few weeks ago, I was having a terrible day at work. The next day, my friend and colleague, Kristina Lockaby,  brought me a card that said, "Ladybugs make me smile." This is so true.

A recent ladybug that made me smile REALLY big, was one that our Head Gardener, Richard Hayden, found. He was out in the urban wilderness and stopped a moment to take a closer look at one of the willow shrubs. He noticed lots of aphids and a few ladybugs too. One in particular stood out to him. It was all black with two red spots on it, something he had never seen before on a ladybug.

He put the little beetle in a snap top jar and brought it up to our shared office. "Lila, I have a present for you!" he exclaimed as he came in. I immediately stopped staring blankly at my computer screen and turned to see what booty he was bringing in from the garden. He silently handed me the jar, I took a look, and I smiled.

Richard had collected a twice-stabbed ladybug. These ladybugs are so named for their color and pattern. Unlike most ladybugs, they are black with red spots. Two red spots to be precise, and that according to some, look like the poor little beastie had been stabbed by some sadistic Homo sapiens.

I'd previously found one of these ladybugs in a similar location, but before the garden had even been planted. However, taking a close look at the specimen Richard had handed me, I realized it was a little bit different. The spots were much larger, of a slightly different shape, and overall there was just something that made me think, "Mmmmmm, maybe this is a different type of twice-stabbed ladybug."

And it was!


Twice-stabbed Ladybug, Chilocorus cacti

This brings the total number of ladybugs in the garden to eight! Check out one of our previous ladybug blogs to see what other species we have found, or how about this one?

Check out our submission on the Lost Ladybug project website!








(Posted by: Lila Higgins)



Weevil is as Weevil Does: Total Agave Meltdown

December 13, 2012

I don't know about you, but I'm not freaking out about the end of the world on December 21. Though, I can tell you "who" should be those agave plants, that's who! So much so, that if I was magically turned into an agave plant tomorrow, I'd totally start partying it up in preparation for total meltdown. Seriously though, agave meltdown is no joke. It's a very real disease that is highly lethal to agave plants and we've just discovered it in the Museum's garden!It all came about last week. Richard Hayden and Daniel Feldman, the Museum's garden staff, noticed that some of our Agave americana plants weren't looking so hot. Some plants had a few leaves that were wrinkled and beginning to discolor, others were so bad they weren't able to stand up straight anymore. Experimentally, Daniel tugged on a leaf of one of the sick agaves, and surprisingly the entire plant came out of the ground in his hand! What they discovered beneath the surface was not pretty. The roots had become completely unattached and the heart of the plant was a goopy mess of rottenness. Something indeed was rotten in the heart of the Museum Garden!What sort of "evil" could cause such destruction? Weevil evil, that's what! Upon closer inspection, Richard and Daniel found an aggregation of largish black weevils (about ½ inch long) hanging out in between the plants' leaves. To be specific, they were agave snout weevils, Scyphophorus acupunctatus, and they're proving to be a big problem in the agave world.Here's what The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix has to say about agave snout weevils:"The females chew their way into the plant base, often between leaf attachments, leaving bacteria (Erwinia sp.) as they go. They lay eggs in the bacteria-infected tunnel. When the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow and eat their way into the rotting heart of the agave. After the grub-like larvae have sufficiently fed and matured they will pupate and emerge as the next generation of adults. The entire life cycle can be completed in six to twelve weeks. Adults are approximately 1/2" in length with dull brown to black stout bodies and characteristic long snouts. The rotund legless grubs are cream color with dark heads.Most often a snout weevil infestation is not apparent until the damage is severe. As larvae start to feed at the bacterial-infested plant bases and the roots, leaves begin to wrinkle. Shriveling will increase with time and as the plant continues to rot. A putrid odor can develop as bacterial infection creeps through the heart of the plant. In many cases a majority of the leaves collapse to the ground leaving only the central spike of leaves standing. The plant might be loose if wiggled and can easily fall apart. At this stage rescue is unlikely."When the Museum garden staff realized that this was likely the fate of many of our agaves, they, needless to say, weren't very happy. In just a short week they've wholeheartedly joined the ranks of agave snout weevil haters everywhere. Of course, they have been madly searching for ways to deal with this pest. Most of the literature out there advises continued applications of the insecticide imadacloprid. This chemical is applied around the base of a plant and is taken up via the roots which then imparts toxicity to any insect that happens to eat the plant (including pollinators when they sip nectar). Needless to say, we want to stay away from chemical pesticides as much as possible. Unfortunately, we haven't found any good leads on organic controls, but we'll keep looking.After hearing all this, being the good friend and coworker that I am, I offered to buy the garden staff a bottle of Mezcal! No, it wasn't to drown their unhappiness in, it was instead to take revenge! The "worm" in the bottom of a bottle of Mezcal is actually very often an agave snout weevil grub. That's right, they could relish in chomping off the head of our weevils' long lost great aunt's nephew or something. Cheers to that!

Daniel removing an infected Agave americana

Daniel dissected the above agave and this is what we found inside!

Close up of agave snout weevil, Scyphophorus acupunctatus.Even knowing the back story, I still think it's cute.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)