September 6, 2016
We are never sure what we are going to find when we go collecting in the backyards participating in the BioSCAN project. We expect the usual suspects: widows, cellar spiders, various ground spiders, orb weavers, jumping spiders, and funnel web weavers. Sometimes we find less commonly collected spiders, like green lynx spiders or crab spiders. But, every once in a while, we find a spider we have never seen before. In March and again in May, we collected a spider new to our survey in a backyard in La Mirada. Falconina gracilis (this spider has no common name), in the family Corinnidae, has been collected in small numbers in only a few locations in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties since 2013. Originally from South America, it is also found in parts of the US south. It is a ground spider usually found in damp areas under rocks, logs, wooden boards. It is medium sized, and dark brown with a characteristic pattern of light spots on the abdomen.
This is a new spider for our Los Angeles Spider Survey and the museum's collection and we will be looking for more when we go out again.
September 1, 2016
A local silver garden orbweaver, Argiope argentata, in our Spider Pavilion.
In a study published in Current Biology, researchers from two Swedish universities have used arachnophobes to demonstrate the success of "memory disruption" in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The authors set out to improve on the results of exposure therapy, in which a patient is gradually exposed to the object or context that provokes fear, anxiety or trauma. (In the study's case, subjects were exposed to photos of spiders.)
Exposure therapy works by replacing an old fear memory with a safer one. But sometimes exposure therapy fails to have a lasting effect because the "learning" during treatment is not permanent. In other words, the old lifelong spider phobia—commenced in a childhood freak-out about a spider crawling across the bedroom ceiling—creeps back into the fore of memory retrieval.
Researchers from Uppsala University and Karolinska Institutet theorized that if you could prevent that old fear from being reconsolidated in your memory, you could more successfully treat the anxiety disorder. They found that if they gave arachnophobes a "mini-exposure" designed to activate their fear memory 10 minutes before carrying out longer exposure therapy they could reduce the fear response. A simple but elegant solution to improving treatment for phobias. And spiders need all the help they can get.
Want to try your own version of exposure therapy? Stop by our Spider Pavilion exhibit this fall. You can experience spiders up close and personal, in a safe space with Museum professionals on hand to answer all your questions.
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.
January 26, 2016
I have an incurable case of arachnophilia. Ever since early childhood, even before reading “Charlotte’s Web,” my mother constantly scolded me to stop picking up spiders (good advice if you don’t know what kind it is) and to just observe them instead. Where others scream, “Kill it with fire!” I said, “Let’s feed her crickets.” To me they are delicate long-legged ballerinas, caring mothers, industrious homebuilders, and astonishingly clever predators. Alas, arachnophilia is very rare. Fear of spiders, on the other hand, is so prevalent, it made every “top ten” list of phobias I could find, and one study showed that arachnophobia even affects many entomologists (6 legs good, 8 legs bad?)!
The author unabashedly, unapologetically in love with an orb-weaving spider from the Natural History Museum’s Spider Pavilion. Photo credit: Cat Urban.
So, as you can imagine, us spider-admirers have a huge challenge. To begin to change the conversation away from, “every spider is evil and deadly” (FALSE) to, “the vast majority are harmless, beneficial predators" (TRUE), we must first provide lots of evidence, and that is exactly what Jan Kempf, the NHMLA Entomology Department’s own Incredible Spider Woman, has been doing for the past 15 years. Along with the help of Citizen Scientists who have turned in spiders from their yards, gardens and parks as part of the Los Angeles Spider Survey, Jan has single handedly looked at over 5, 500 spider specimens from L.A. and surrounding counties so far. In Los Angeles alone, 232 species of spiders have been identified from this survey, showing that even in a highly developed urban environment, spiders are highly adaptable creatures. I recently had the great pleasure of joining Jan on a spider hunt in the backyards of our BioSCAN Super Citizen Scientists. In a matter of minutes, Jan’s expert eye could find around a dozen spiders hiding under rocks, hanging out in bushes, and living in nooks and crannies of patio furniture, just waiting for a tasty insect treat to wander by for lunch. Spiders are all around us!
Jan Kempf, spider collector extraordinaire. Photo credit: Lisa Gonzalez.
A dish full of spiders collected from one of our BioSCAN sites. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey.
Think about that for a moment: If spiders are ubiquitous in our yards, patios, and parks, then how do we survive each day surrounded by these “deadly” beasties? Humans do just fine because the vast majority of spiders are harmless. Out of the 232 species Jan has identified from the survey, only two that live in the city, the black widow and brown widow, can potentially cause medical harm to humans in the rare cases that bites actually occur. There have only been two confirmed cases in Southern California of a bite from a brown widow and in both cases the reaction was fairly mild. Both species of widow spiders are very nonaggressive and typically drop to the ground, curl up, and play dead when threatened. The black widow spider has been increasingly hard to find in urban environments in the past few years (if you see one, please let us know!) since the discovery of the brown widow in L.A. ten years ago. In fact, the first record of a brown widow specimen was turned in by grade school students as part of the L.A. Spider Survey!
Black widows have a red hourglass shape and a smooth egg case. Photo credit: Steve Ryan.
Brown widows are displacing the once common black widow. They have an orange hourglass shape, banded legs, and a spiky egg case. Photo credit: James Hogue.
Both brown and black widows are very easy to recognize by the presence of the hourglass shape on the bottom of their abdomens. As mentioned earlier, they are shy creatures that usually “play dead” when threatened, but it is still important to be careful around them, especially when placing your hands or feet in small crevices or shoes left outside. The very few confirmed bites that have occurred are usually when the spider has been cornered in a tight spot. Once you recognize these two iconic spiders, you can rest easy with the knowledge that all of the other spiders in L.A. you see have venom that is only capable of hurting a wee little cricket or fly, not a human. I hope that helps those with arachnophobia to feel empowered, and maybe even helps you to stop and appreciate the struggle of the spider, just trying to survive in the big, bustling city.
I would be remiss in discussing spiders in L.A. without mentioning one of the most feared of them all: the brown recluse (Loxosceles reclusa). Due to an unfortunate misperception perpetuated by the media over a decade ago, many people are under the false impression that the brown recluse lives in California. Despite the evidence that is provided by spider surveys and many other scientific studies (see links below), people still hold tight to the misconceptions of brown recluses living in L.A. and spider bites being very common. As I mentioned before, Jan has looked at over 5,500 specimens from the L.A. Spider Survey, and not one was a brown recluse. Additionally, the University of CA at Riverside conducted a similar survey that supports the conclusion that there are no established populations of brown recluses in California.
A final note in honor of David Bowie
Bowie Altar. Photo Credit: Ray Duran
Just as there are no brown recluses in California, NASA has yet to find spiders on Mars, but that did not stop arachnologists from honoring David Bowie by naming a spider species, Heteropoda davidbowie, in 2009. At a recent tribute I attended the weekend after his death, a beautiful altar was created by the participants, complete with a jar of preserved spiders doused in glittery stardust. Is it possible that Bowie was evoking a visual comparison between a spider skillfully plucking at her web, and Ziggy’s long skinny fingers playing his guitar? I adore his use of spiders as a glamorous visual metaphor, rather than harbingers of doom. Thank you for that image, and for everything, David Bowie.
UCR Spider Research Site
““Spider Bite” Lesions Are Usually Diagnosed As Skin And Soft-Tissue Infections.” Dr. Jeffrey Ross Suchard, MD
September 24, 2013
We've added a new insect delicacy to the menu for the dwellers in our Spider Pavilion. That's right, usually the ladies (and few gents), that call the spider pavilion home, get fed butterflies, crickets, and flies, but as of this week we've added green lacewings!
Whitebanded Crab Spider, Misumenoides formosipes, getting ready to eat a Green Lacewing, Chrysoperla rufilabris.
Green lacewings, belong to the insect order Neuroptera, also known as nerve-wings. Not only does this mean that most people have never heard of them, it also means they have complex designs, or "nerves" in their wings. Some might think that this translates into flying well, but alas, this group of insects are notoriously poor fliers. However, what they lack in flight, they make up for in mouthparts. Big scary-looking mouthparts! Especially, if you're a small soft-bodied garden pest. I mean, check out the green lacewing's cousin the dobsonfly. Those are some killer mouthparts!
Male Dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus, photo by Dehaan
Immature green lacewings (aka aphidlions) are such good predators, they have to lay their eggs on stalks, or they'd get cannibalized!
Not a very good picture, but you get the idea!
Gardeners and farmers have learned to capitilize on the lacewing's voracious appetite, by using them as biological control agents. They eat, on average, 200 aphids a week, and can also be found eating other insect eggs, mealybugs, thrips, immature whiteflies, and even small caterpillars. So next time you have a pest infestation in your garden, hope you have some Green Lacewings out there making friends with those ladybugs!
September 20, 2013
Ever found a large green spider in your garden? Chances are, if you're in the Los Angeles area, the spider you've found is a Green Lynx Spider, Peucetia viridans.
Here's one that NHMLA staffer, Richard Smart, found in our Nature Gardens on Wednesday:
Photo taken by NHMLA's own Spider-Woman, Cat Urban.
This was perfect timing, as we desperately needed one for display in our Spider Pavilion, which opens to members today and to everyone on Sunday. As many of you know, this exhibit is a place to get up close and personal with spiders in a safe and garden-like setting.
To prime visitors for the experience of walking amongst hundreds of free, web-spinning spiders (that's right, the Spider Pavilion is an immersive experience), we display about 13 spiders in enclosures in an exhibit area. This helps most people acclimate, though many arachnophobes swear this doesn't make a lick of difference. For those who are brave, they can peruse the various spiders we have collected and reared, and learn a bit about their natural history.
So why did we pick this spider to display? Firstly, she's GREEN! There aren't many creatures here in Los Angeles, that can camouflage this well in our gardens. Secondly, she is a voracious and cat-like predator, hence the name. If you're lucky, you might get to see her being fed a cricket when you visit! Finally, although this spider looks fat, she is not. She is actually toting an almost fully developed egg case in her abdomen, which contains hundred of developing spiderlings! There really aren't many things cooler than coming to work and finding that a spider you've collected has laid an egg sac!
So why don't you come on down and visit her and all her other spidery friends?
October 31, 2012
I've been waiting an entire month to write this post, and maybe my entire life to entomologically riff off a Talking Heads song title! On Monday, October 1, I found a large tarantula hawk wasp (a.k.a Pepsis wasp) on some flowering Baccharis in the North Campus. This blue wasp with orange wings was the first of its kind spotted in our new gardens, and is indeed a spider killer.
Tarantula Hawk on BaccharisThis is what Insects of the Los Angeles Basin has to say about tarantula hawks preying on spiders:"When a female wasp finds a tarantula, she alights and engages it in battle. The wasp then stings the spider on the underside between the legs and usually succeeds in paralyzing but not killing it. She has previously dug a shallow burrow, using her mandibles and legs as a pick and shovel, or selected an earth crack, rodent burrow, or even the burrow of a tarantula for a nest, and she now drags the paralyzed prey into his hole, lays an egg on the victim, and then seals the tunnel with soil. A supply of fresh food is thus insured for the developing larva."Oh and let's not forget that a sting from one of these wasps can be very painful to us humans too! According to awesomely geeky entomologist, Justin O. Schmidt, this wasp's sting is among the most painful in the world. He described the pain—which lasted for about 3 minutes—as, "blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath (if you get stung by one you might as well lie down and scream)." He also rated the pain as a 4, which is at the very top of his 0-4 scale of pain. That's right folks, he has documented the pain induced from over 100 insect stings in his life—what a scientist!
January 10, 2017
September 22, 2012
Earlier this week, staff found some small circular egg cases on a gate in the North Campus. Upon closer inspection we realized they were brown widow, Latrodectus geometricus, egg sacs. But how did we know this?
Earlier this week, staff found some small circular egg cases on a gate in the North Campus. Upon closer inspection we realized they were brown widow, Latrodectus geometricus, egg sacs. But how did we know this?
Two egg sacs, each containing about 100 eggs,
notice the geometric design.
Differences between brown widows and western black widows:
Egg sacs are pale yellow and spiky (BINGO)
Egg sacs contain upto 150 spiderlings (best word ever)
Can lay 20 sacs over their lifespan
Adult females are USUALLY tan with an orange hourglass design on the underside of the abdomen
Lower incidence of medically significant spider bites
Western Black Widows
Egg sacs are pale yellow and smooth
Egg sacs contain upto 300 spiderlings
Can lay 10 sacs over their lifespan
Adult females are black (duh!) with a red hourglass design on the underside of the abdomen
Higher incidence of medically significant spider bites
Visit UC Riverside's Center for Invasive Species Research site for more information on identifying Brown Widows.
Check out this video Sam Easterson made of a brown widow tending her egg cases:
If you want to meet a brown widow up close and personal, all you have to do is visit our Spider Pavilion. The pavilion opens to the general public Sunday September 23. We have both a brown widow and western black widown on display in tightly shut enclosures! Stop by and say hello.
February 29, 2012
On Sunday, February 26, Museum Educator Anna Holden, and myself took some families out to the North Campus to collect spiders! The spiders were collected so they can be identified and preserved as part of our ongoing L.A. Spider Survey. They will also be added to our ever-growing North Campus species list.
Briana Burrows and Anna Holden
(looks like they really like collecting spiders too)
All told, we collected 17 spiders (not bad for a newly planted habitat) many of which were very small and non-descript – think tiny brown specks almost indistinguishable from a piece of dirt (did I mention these children have amazing eyesight?). However, there was one spider that stood out from the crowd. She was large, and yellow, and had oh such lovely legs! Let me introduce you to the Whitebanded Crab Spider, Misumenoides formosipes (her species name is derived from the Latin formosus = beautiful and pes = foot or leg).
Female Whitebanded Crab Spider
This group of spiders is so named for their crab-like appearance and movement. They are adept at quickly moving sideways, backwards, and forwards. This quick movement is only infrequently observed by us humans, as they are "sit and wait" predators. This means they sit very still on a flower and wait for pollinators to visit, and then, quick as a flash, they'll attack and subdue their prey. Also of note, they can change color! Watch out chameleons, these eight-legged lovelies also have the ability to better blend in with their surroundings. Although it has to be said that they can't deviate greatly from their original color and the process takes a few days to complete.
The beautiful specimen we found on Sunday was a female. The sexes are very easy to distinguish as the males are a lot smaller and much less rotund. She was collected on the bright yellow, sunflower-like flowers of Encelia californica, commonly known as bush sunflower. Next time you are in the North Campus, check out the bush sunflowers planted atop the living wall. Who knew so much drama could be unfolding on each and every flower?
Crab spider versus European Honey Bee
(It was a tie, the honey bee flew away)
Thanks to Karen Ewald for taking the spider collecting picture.
August 12, 2016
September 29, 2011
Over the past few weeks myself and Shawna Joplin, Museum Coordinator of Animal Care and Education, have been madly working to get the Spider Pavilion ready by collecting hundreds of spiders for display. This involved a trip to the swamps of New Orleans to collect the largest orb weavers in North America and also multiple collecting trips around Los Angeles for our local spider species.
Cajun Swamp Adventure
The spiders Shawna and I collected in New Orleans are golden silk spiders, Nephila clavipes, also known as banana spiders because of their banana-ish abdomen. These spiders are common in and around swampy areas and are easy to spot on their large—up to 3 feed in diameter!—golden webs (especially if you flash a bright light on them at night). Collecting them was a breeze after Zack Lemann (aka the Bug Chef from Audubon Insectarium) showed us how. All you need are small Tupperware containers, an ice pick, paper towels, a spray bottle filled with water, and a geeky headlamp! Armed with our paper towel lined containers and our trusty headlamps we set off towards the alligator infested waters looking for spiders. We didn't have to go far, the place was teeming with orb weavers. In one tree I counted 20 spiders on their webs! Thankfully, it only took us an hour and a half to collect 60 spiders. Here are some pictures of the collecting trip.
Nephila clavipes in her web on a shipping container
Me carefully collecting spiders, you don't want to squash their legs!
After collecting we got to catch frogs in the swamp!
Loitering in Parks
Although collecting spiders in our local area isn't nearly as fun as a trip to the Bayou, it inevitably still ends up being an adventure! There are lots of locations for good spider collecting around L.A., but so far we have found the best collecting site to be a men's restroom in Long Beach. Yes it's true, Shawna and I were loitering outside of a park restroom armed with a really long stick. Why the stick? No it is not for protection, it is actually a spider collecting device for those hard-to-reach web-builders. Here are some pictures from our collecting trips around Los Angeles.
Shawna collecting spiders at park restrooms
Unidentified Neoscona orb weaver at Long Beach site
Silver garden orb weaver, Argiope argentata, at Bolsa Chica