October 31, 2017
Last October, I walked out my front door and found a fox squirrel with its head in one of our jack-o-lanterns. It gave me this innocent, "Who, me?" expression before taking off into the bushes:
A couple of days later, the pumpkins got even more attention from a few of the slugs in our yard:
Are you displaying pumpkins this year? We know that they can be a seasonal delicacy for our urban wildlife, and the scientists at the NHMLA Urban Nature Research Center are wondering if you have seen any local fauna making use of your pumpkins. Please send us your observations! Add your snail and slug observations to our SLIME project, squirrels to The Southern California Squirrel Survey, and all other observations to our LA Nature Map. Or, if you prefer, email your photos to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will upload them for you.
Also, don't forget to re-use or compost those pumpkins! Birds and insects and many other animals continued to enjoy our pumpkins as we left them to rot in a corner of our garden, where they rapidly decomposed, providing us with several other wildlife observations over the next few weeks. Other animals that you might see eating pumpkins include mice, opossums, skunks, rats, racoons, and coyotes. (If you would like to recycle your pumpkins without attracting those animals to your yard, you can bury them in the ground, where they will quickly decompose and add valuable nourishment your garden.) As NHMLA Malacology Curator Jann Vendetti says, "Your rotting pumpkin just might be a source of fascinating observations." She recommends this unusual book, Rotten Pumpkin by David M. Schwartz, for your inspiration.
October 10, 2017
“We can do great things with the help of citizen scientists who extend our reach into urban areas that are generally off-limits,” said Entomology Curator Brian Brown, after he and then-Assistant Collections Manager Emily Hartop got a call out of the blue one day in April. That call was from the proprietor of a bed and breakfast in Los Angeles not far from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The B&B had some mushrooms growing in their yard that had flies all over them. Would the entomologists care to come and take a look?
Brian Brown had wondered about these little flies that often cluster around mushrooms for 30 years, but he had never been able to identify them. He could tell they were phorid flies, but identifying the exact species had proved tricky. To do that he would have to carefully inspect the male genitalia under a microscope. And that was the problem: only female flies were ever found buzzing around the mushrooms. Where were the males? No one could find them.
Meanwhile, all around the Los Angeles area, the BioSCAN Project, in which community volunteers host insect traps in their yards and gardens, had been well underway since 2012 and NHMLA scientists were discovering many new species of phorid flies. Among those new discoveries was Megaselia marquezi, a newly identified species that was named by Hartop and Brown after the Marquez family, citizen scientists who hosted a Malaise insect trap in 2014 in the Union Avenue / Cesar Chavez Community Garden. Even though these flies were frequently found in the area, the scientists had only been able to observe them after the male flies had been collected in traps, so the rest of their life cycle remained a complete mystery.
So, back to the mysterious mushroom flies. After that phone call, Hartop and Brown studied the fly-covered mushrooms at the bed and breakfast, and were able to observe the female flies laying their eggs (which is called ovipositing) between the gills of the mushroom caps.
After the eggs hatched, the larvae then developed as they fed on the fungi. Eventually, the larvae left the safe harbor of the mushroom to pupate (like butterflies in their chrysalises) in the soil before emerging as adult flies to start the process all over again.
It was the just-hatched (the scientific term is teneral) males that Brown was finally able to collect and use to confirm the species. And, to his surprise, they were the BioSCAN’s widely collected Megaselia marquezi!
The connection of these two discoveries about the life cycles of these tiny flies is not just a win for entomology but also for citizen science — the fruitful collaboration of researchers and the public. So, now there is one more Megaselia marquezi mystery to solve: Where do the adult male flies hang out after they emerge from the soil? Hopefully, some day another curious citizen scientist will lead our entomologists to the answer!
The study is published in Biodiversity Data Journal.
October 4, 2017
Hosting a bioblitz is one great way to contribute to your community and also to scientific research, as Bret Potter discovered when he organized his own bioblitz at O'Melveny Park in San Fernando with a little support from NHMLA. The 17-year-old prospective Eagle Scout describes his process here, as this week's guest blogger on Nature in L.A.:
Who knew the Diabolical Ironclad Beetle was a real thing? I didn’t before my Eagle Scout Project, which was a wildlife survey of O’Melveny Park in the San Fernando Valley. On September 9th, 2017, more than 40 people met at the second largest city park in Los Angeles (after Griffith Park!) to conduct a bioblitz. Many of them hadn’t done something like this before but were soon intrigued and engaged by their task. How did it come about?
In the Boy Scouts, the highest rank is Eagle Scout. To earn it, a scout has to organize and lead a service project. In the spring I went to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and learned about a Citizen Science program called the SuperProject and how to use iNaturalist. On April 15th, my brother Reed and I attended a SuperProject bioblitz at Hansen Dam. The event caused me to realize that I could do something similar for my Eagle Project. After talking with the Citizen Science program staff, I realized that the event would be possible. I was put in contact with Miguel Ordeñana as my Museum mentor. So after my project received necessary approvals, I set to planning. I decided on O’Melveny Park as a location because of its variety of terrain from chaparral covered hillsides to orchards to lawn-covered play areas. Before I knew it, it was the morning of the project.
On the day of the project, 43 people from all walks of life, including Museum scientists Lisa Gonzalez and Jan Kempf, gave their time to help with the bioblitz. I had previously trained my Scout Troop on how to use iNaturalist and photograph wildlife, so they were ready to go. Other volunteers were taught as they arrived, and soon the park was filled with new naturalists taking photos. In addition to the volunteers, many hikers and park visitors were interested in the commotion and asked about our project. Many were intrigued and some even volunteered on the spot.
By the end of the project, over 300 wildlife observations were made and uploaded to iNaturalist, plus an experienced birder provided a list of 36 birds seen that day. Fifty-eight species of animals have been identified so far, including the Diabolical Ironclad Beetle. All in all, the project was a total success!
A big thank you to Bret Potter, and the participants in his bioblitz! Observations like theirs contribute to NHMLA scientists' research and help to fill a data gap in our L.A. Nature Map. Observations from Bret's Eagle Scout Project were added to some of our ongoing research projects, including: SLIME, RASCals, and the Southern California Squirrel Survey, and help our scientists to better understand the biodiversity of the Los Angeles area.
September 21, 2017
These little frogs are loud — so loud that people sometimes call the police to complain, thinking it’s a broken car alarm. They’re called coqui frogs. Instead of a low, familiar “ribbit” sound, they blare a high-pitched “koh-key!” (the sound they’re named after), which can be heard from blocks away.
Originally from Puerto Rico, these small amphibians are starting to travel the world. So far they’ve found their way to Florida, Hawaii, and now, California. They get around by hiding in nursery plants that get shipped across state lines. The frogs showing up in California are coming in with nursery plant shipments from Hawaii.
When neighborhoods become new homes for coqui frogs, everyone notices. After the sun sets, the males start to sing to the females. The noise from even a single male can be so overwhelming it can interrupt people’s sleep. Introduced coqui frogs are such a nuisance, their presence can even decrease property values. After all, who wants to live next to noisy frog neighbors? (Although in their native Puerto Rico, the familiar sound of coqui frogs is so comforting that people post recordings of the frog calls online so Puerto Ricans abroad can listen to them as they fall asleep.)
Recently, biologists and volunteers from NHMLA visited a nursery in Torrance, Calif., positively riddled with coqui frogs. Headed by Herpetology Curator Greg Pauly, the team collected as many coqui frogs as possible over the course of three hours. As a scientist interested in urban nature, Pauly wants to better understand these frogs and how they’re fitting into the ecology of Los Angeles, which is no stranger to introduced species. By collecting frogs, Pauly and his collaborators can learn more about them. What are they eating? How quickly are they reproducing? Are they transporting pathogens like the chytrid fungus that could impact our native frogs?
There are still a lot of questions to answer about these introduced frogs, but the question no one needs to ask is, “Do you hear that?”
Have you heard a coqui frog in Southern California? They do show up at private residences, usually transported on nursery plants used in landscaping projects. Sometimes people think these are a crazy bird calling all night long. If you think you have heard or seen a coqui frog, please send a recording of the call or photo of the frog to Greg Pauly at email@example.com.
September 15, 2017
Exactly two years ago, an unusual summer storm drenched Southern California, making it the second wettest September day ever recorded in Los Angeles. It caused flooding, power outages, and evacuations from leaky buildings. But it also caused a stir in the Western toad population.
Western toads (Bufo boreas) are found from Baja California all the way to Alaska and from sea level to 12,000 feet in elevation. These toads usually breed in late winter and spring, when winter rains fill the ponds they need to do the deed. But in the midst of a record-breaking drought, the rain never showed up in early 2015, so the toads didn’t have a chance to breed.
With the normal breeding season long past, it seemed that 2015 just wasn’t going to work out for these toads, but in the aftermath of this unexpected late summer storm, they apparently decided to seize the rainy day.
Two months later, Katy Delaney, an ecologist with the National Park Service, spotted Western toad tadpoles in a shallow pond in the Santa Monica Mountains. Seeing tadpoles in November is practically unheard of.
“It was a strange sighting,” noted Delaney. “I thought to myself, ‘It’s the completely wrong time of year for this.’”
Delaney snapped a photo and uploaded it to iNaturalist, contributing the sighting to the RASCals Project (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California), headed by NHMLA Herpetology Curator Greg Pauly.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the latest observation of Western toads breeding,” said Pauly. "Western toads are a relatively common species, but we still lack a basic understanding of their biology. This goes to show how much we still have to learn about even the common species that surround us."
And luckily for the tadpoles Delaney found, the winter here in Southern California was mild enough for these oddly-timed tadpoles to grow and survive. At higher elevations or farther north, it would probably be too cold for these young toads to have made it through the winter.
After all, it’s Southern California. We’re not known for our punctuality. It’s quite alright to be fashionably late to the pool party.
Pauly and Delaney published the findings in the Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences.
Seen a snake? Looked at a lizard? Found a frog? Tracked a toad? Take a picture and upload it to iNaturalist. Find out how!
September 5, 2017
Most snails are “right-handed.” Well, they don’t have hands, so really, most snails are “right-shelled.” Indeed, if you look down at a snail, the shell coil is on one side, and for the majority of snail species, it’s on the right.
But not this snail. Sandy, a common garden snail (Cornu aspersum), has a left-coiling shell. The scientific term for this is sinistral. Sandy is a sinistral snail, as opposed to nearly all other garden snails, which are dextral, or “right-handed.”
How did this happen? Just like handedness in humans, the exact cause is not completely understood. No one has worked out which exact genes cause left-handedness (or left-shelledness, as it were), so it might be caused by a combination of genes and possibly environmental influences too.
Named after famous L.A. Dodgers left-handed pitcher Sanford Koufax, Sandy was discovered by Alex Bairstow, a high school senior and nature enthusiast in Escondido, CA. With a keen eye for snails, he knew Sandy was different as soon as he saw it.
“I had gotten to school early, so I decided to walk around the campus to look for snails, bugs, and lizards to add to our school's biodiversity project on iNaturalist,” said Bairstow. “I found Sandy when I noticed a snail that looked different out of the corner of my eye. I realized it was sinistral when I bent down to get a closer look, and was quite astonished to say the least!”
Bairstow snapped a photo and uploaded it to SLIME (Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments), an NHMLA citizen science project on iNaturalist — a platform where anyone can post photos of plants, animals, and fungi that scientists can use for research.
He later brought Sandy to the Museum so Malacology Assistant Curator Jann Vendetti and Collections Manager Lindsey Groves could take a closer look at this “left-handed” oddity and add it to the Malacology Collections — the first sinistral snail specimen of an otherwise dextral species.
“This is so rare, we don’t even know how rare it is,” explained Vendetti.
“I’ve never seen a live one before!” said Groves. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Oh, another garden snail.’ But then I looked closer and was really excited.”
For Sandy, being different from its fellow snails is actually a real disadvantage. Being the lone lefty among a species of righty snails means you can’t reproduce, as it’s not just the shell coil that’s on the right — garden snails’ genitalia are on the right side, too.
Most snails are hermaphrodites, which means they have both female and male genitalia. In order to mate, they need to line up in a specific way, allowing their reproductive organs to match so they can fertilize one-another.
This means it’s nearly impossible for Sandy to reproduce, since its genitalia are on the opposite side. It’s a little like trying to shake hands with someone if you use your right hand, and they use their left. It doesn’t fit together into a successful handshake. It’s just a clumsy touching of hands.
There are species of snails that are all lefties, though, such as Euhadra quasita, a Japanese land snail. These entirely sinistral species may have evolved when two left-handed snails of an otherwise right-handed population met, reproduced, and started a species all their own, passing down their “left-handedness” to their offspring.
Will Sandy the Sinistral Snail find a mate in its lifetime? Garden snails live for about six years, and Sandy’s large shell suggests it’s solidly middle-aged (or perhaps just really well-fed). Only time (and citizen science!) will tell if another left-handed garden snail will cross its slimy path. Keep your fingers crossed for this misfit mollusc.
Seen a snail lately? Submit snail and slug observations to the SLIME project on iNaturalist!
August 15, 2017
What do you love most about summers in L.A.: picnics on the beach, Griffith Park barbecues, camping in the mountains, eating hot dogs at a Dodger game? I love summers for those reasons, too, but it is also my favorite time of the year to look for insects, a lifelong obsession I can’t seem to shake. Most bugs are busy doing whatever they need to do to survive without any trouble to us humans, but sometimes uninvited insect guests show up to our summertime celebrations and help themselves to our burgers and carnitas tacos.
The biggest culprits are wasps that naturalists call yellow jackets, although I have heard people refer to them as “meat bees,” (as well as some other names I cannot mention in polite company). Yellow jackets are indeed a huge nuisance at barbecues and birthday parties; they come very boldly in large numbers to bite off pieces of meat. If a person gets in their way, they can produce a painful sting, about the same strength as a honeybee sting, but unlike honeybees, yellow jackets can sting repeatedly.
I have become so accustomed to seeing them eat “people food” that I was intrigued when I recently saw a photo on iNaturalist of yellow jackets systematically eating a Southern Pacific rattlesnake down to the bone. Yellow jackets are opportunistic predators that usually hunt spiders, and other insects like caterpillars, but they will also scavenge protein where they can find it. Whether that is a dead cow in our burger, or a dead rattlesnake on the ground, meat is not to be passed up as it is essential for the survival of their colony.
Like some other species of bees, wasps, and the majority of ants, yellow jackets have a queen. The yellow jacket queen emerges in the spring, constructs the nest from wood fibers, lays her eggs, and begins to hunt for insects and spiders to feed her offspring as soon as they hatch. Once her infertile daughters are fully grown, they will carry on as workers by providing protein sources to their younger sisters while their queen stays in the nest to lay more eggs. Males are around only in late summer to mate with potential future queens, who will start new colonies the following spring. This means that the yellow jackets you see hunting in your gardens, scavenging carrion on trails, or helping themselves to your barbecue are females that are working hard to feed their little sisters.
In the process of collecting food, yellow jackets help to keep insect populations in check, acting as what gardeners call “beneficial predators,” but they also play an important role as part of the clean-up crew of the natural world. Along with some species of beetles and flies, yellow jackets are helping to recycle nutrients by scavenging dead animals. They are even important to forensic entomologists, scientists who analyze crime scenes by studying the insects that visit corpses. Carrion feeding insects only feed on dead animals at certain stages of decompostion, so identifying the insects can serve as a clock for investigators to approximate when death occured. In studies conducted with pigs to understand the role wasps like yellow jackets play in breaking down decaying animals, researchers observed wasps clipping pieces off of pig’s ears. No wonder yellow jackets are lured in by the smell of cooked hot dogs, pig parts rolled up in a tasty, easy to bite off bundle! As predators and scavengers, yellow jackets are willing to eat a wide variety of meat, not unlike some humans. Maybe this common ground will help us to make peace with these uninvited summertime guests.
“Yellow jackets and Paper Wasps.” Landolt, Peter J. and Arthur L. Antonelli.
“Occurrence of Hymenoptera on Sus scrofa carcasses during summer and winter seasons in southeastern Brazil.” Gomes, Leonardo et al.
Special thanks to Patrick Gavit and Gary Woo for their amazing photo submissions, and to Dr. Greg Pauly who shared them with me!
August 14, 2017
Choose your outfit carefully before you go on a nature walk. The animals you want to see might be paying attention, such as western fence lizards. Recent research showed that these lizards were least reactive when people wore dark blue — the color most similar to the lizards’ blue patches that earned them their nickname, the blue-belly.
It all started when Breanna Putman, a postdoctoral researcher in the Herpetology Department, was given a neon orange shirt to wear when she was doing fieldwork around Los Angeles. With its bright color and visible Urban Nature Research Center and NHMLA logos, it’s a great way to assure people that you’re a scientist and not a criminal lurking in alleys for nefarious reasons. Within the UNRC, they’re called “don’t-shoot-me shirts,” because they were inspired by a particularly eventful evening when Herpetology Curator Greg Pauly was searching for nocturnal, introduced geckos in Orange County and two sheriffs approached him with guns drawn.
“With a bag full of geckos already in hand it was pretty easy to convince them we were biologists,” said Pauly. “But it was clear that we needed to do something to make ourselves look more conspicuous and official.”
But Putman was concerned about the possible effects the orange UNRC shirt might have on her study species. “I wondered if wearing them in urban habitats and not wearing them in rural habitats would mess up my results,” she said.
To test this, Putman went “lizard hunting” wearing one of four different colored shirts: light blue, dark blue, gray, and red. For each lizard she saw, Putman measured the “flight initiation distance”— a measure of how close an animal lets a researcher approach before it runs away — and recorded whether or not she was able to capture the lizard.
Just as she suspected, Putman found that lizards did indeed behave differently based on what color shirt she wore. She was able to get closer to lizards, and was more likely to catch them, when she wore dark blue.
Blue is an important color for western fence lizards because it’s their signaling color. Males use them to display to other lizards — both to announce their ownership of a territory to other males, and to try to attract females.
When Putman wore red, the lizards ran away sooner, and she was less likely to catch them.
And surprisingly, the lizards responded similarly to red and gray shirts, even though gray is a more muted, neutral color than red. It seems that just because a color appears dull to us does not necessarily mean it will have the least effect on an animal.
This is the first study to show that a lizard species responds differently to various colors, something that had before only been observed in birds. But does wearing a species’ signaling color always mean scientists can get closer? The team plans to do follow-up studies on lizards that use other colors, such as the green anole which has a reddish-pink flap of skin on its neck called a dewlap.
But already, this research has big ramifications for biologists who are studying animal behavior, and nature lovers and ecotourists who want to observe or photograph wildlife. It suggests that certain bright colors and loud patterns so often featured on outdoor apparel might actually be affecting wildlife. And researchers have another factor to consider when doing fieldwork. The color of their clothing can absolutely affect the outcome of their experiments — whether they’re measuring how close animals let them approach or are trying to capture animals.
“Now I always wear the same colored shirt across all my study sites,” said Putman, who still wears her neon orange, “don’t-shoot-me shirt.”
“I don't mind having a lower capture success as long as I don't get police called on me.”
See the full research publication in PLOS ONE.
Love Lizards? Submit obvservations to the RASCals Project (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California). Find out how!
July 27, 2017
** This week's blog post was written by Jenna Florio, a research assistant in the Department of Entomology about a project she is working on at the California Academy of Sciences **
Here in California, in the heat of summer, we are reminded of afternoon swims as one of the best ways to cool off from our Golden State sunshine. Anyone who enjoys swimming in an outdoor pool has had the experience of swimming around with dozens of jewel beetles that have fallen in or, if you're like me, of desperately trying to save honey bees from drowning. It was during an afternoon swim like this that one entomologist had an idea: why not collect and identify the insects that fall in swimming pools?
One way scientists collect insects to bring back to their labs is by putting down pitfall traps. These traps are usually cups or jars that are dug into the ground so that insects unfortunate enough to walk on them fall in and get trapped. It was only a matter of time before an entomologist taking a dip had the realization that a backyard swimming pool is equivalent to a giant pitfall trap. It was through this association that a new citizen science project was created.
Inspired by the success of the BioScan Project at NHMLA, Dr. Brian Fisher at the California Academy of Sciences and Dr. Neil Tsutsui at UC Berkeley teamed up to launch the citizen science California Pools Project as part of the Backyard Biodiversity Project (website here). These entomologists both specialize in ants and have a particular interest in ant diversity in California. They piloted a protocol using a backyard pool in Marin County and, although the samples collected are still being analyzed, the results are already eye-opening. When these insects were examined by a taxonomist specializing in wasps, species from four new, undescribed genera were found. Even more exciting, they found an abundance of very rare Stigmatomma aka "Dracula Ants." These rarely seen, under-studied ants are called “Dracula Ants” because workers pierce the bodies of their own larvae and consume them for sustenance.
The Backyard Biodiversity Project is now extending this project to see if they get similar results from other pools throughout California. From the seven collections they are currently processing they already have over 1500 insects! They currently have nine participants signed up in Northern California, but are looking to expand down into Southern California where swimming pools are much more common. This is why they are now looking for your help! If this project is something that interests you, please sign up by clicking here or going to www.backyardbiodiversity.org/pools.html. They will send you all the materials you need to complete and send collections back for analysis. All they ask is for you to help them by skimming your pool once a month for a year. Additionally, you will join a community of dedicated citizen scientists. So, if you have a pool, come be a part of this fun and easy activity for people of all ages. Join their team in discovering new species that live in your backyard!
July 13, 2017
In the midst of our heat wave, most of our native and non-native snails and slugs are keeping cool under rocks or in crevices during the day. Lest you forget about these creatures’ amazing abilities because they are hiding, here is a video showing the amazing ocular (eye) tentacles of a very common land slug in Southern California, Ambigolimax sp. The “sp.” here means that I don’t know the species name of this slug because there are two species of this genus (Ambigolimax) living in Los Angeles that look identical.
Watch the eyes move!
View post on imgur.com
Some notes on what you are seeing: Land-living snails and slugs have two sets of tentacles, 1) short sensory tentacles that are close to the ground and, 2) optical tentacles (or eye stalks) that are longer and higher on the head. Optical tentacles extend and retract into the head and eye retractor muscles can move each eye independently in and out of its optical tentacle. Therefore, when you watch this video (and if you look closely at a land snail or slug you find) you can see each eye move in and of its tentacle.
This characteristic (eyes in the uppermost set of tentacles) is a feature of most land snails and slugs. Conversely, many sea snails and slugs DO NOT have this feature, as their eyes are situated on their head, not in eye stalks. In the image below you can see our friend, Ambigolimax sp. with its optical tentacles outstretched (with tiny black eyes at their tips). In Aplysia californica, the California sea hare, the "tentacles" do NOT have eyes at their tips. One set is called the oral tentacles or oral lobes, and the second set is on the top of the head, are rolled, and are called rhinophores. The eyes in these sea slugs are at the base of each rhinophore.
So the next time you see a sea slug or land slug, take notice of their fascinating eyes!