It's all in the eyes (of slugs)

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!

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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!

Image not to scale. The terrestrial Ambigolimax sp. is about 3 inches long. The California sea hare (Aplysia californica) can be approximately 9 inches long. Thank you to iNaturalist users dlbowls and finatic for their excellent images. Special thanks to Kelsey Bailey for making the Ambigolimax eye stalk video. 
(Posted by: Jann Vendetti)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

A Fig with a View

June 13, 2017

Parasitic Birds Have a Choice to Make

July 6, 2017

Fledgling pin-tailed whydah (left) accompanying an adult scaly-breasted munia (right) at San Joaquin Marsh in Irvine, Orange County, California, 29 July 2014. Photo by Jeff Bray.

Los Angeles is home to introduced species from all over the world. There are Cuban lizards in Echo Park, European slugs in our gardens, and Mediterranean flies in our orchards. But have you heard the one about non-native parasitic birds?

Pin-tailed whydahs are from Africa, but —  thanks to the pet trade —  are becoming common in Southern California. These birds are obligate brood parasites, which means they can’t build their own nests, so to reproduce, they stealthily lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and let these unwitting adopted parents raise their young.

During mating season, male pin-tailed whydahs grow long black tails. Photo by Jeff Bray.

Unfortunately for the host birds who wind up with whydah eggs in their nests, it’s a pretty thankless job. They raise babies that aren’t theirs, sometimes to the detriment of their biological children. For busy parents, there is only so much food and attention to go around. 

Back home in Africa, pin-tailed whydahs take advantage of waxbill birds, seeking out their domed nests to lay their eggs. But here in Los Angeles, how are the pin-tailed whydahs managing to reproduce? What hapless bird is hosting these feathered parasites?

In an interesting urban nature twist, these introduced whydahs are parasitizing another species of introduced bird. Scaly-breasted munias from southeast Asia are playing host bird for the whydahs, whether they like it or not. 

This novel relationship was documented recently by Pasadena Audubon member and NHMLA volunteer John Garrett, NHMLA Ornithology Collections Manager Kimball Garrett (no relation), and photographer Jeff Bray.

Photo by Jeff Bray.

So how does this play out in the annals of L.A. urban nature? Is it good that an introduced parasite is going after another non-native species? Is the enemy of our enemy our friend? Nothing is ever quite so simple when ecology is concerned, so the long-term ramifications of this new relationship are unclear.

But wait, there’s more.

Yet another introduced bird is now in the mix. Orange-cheeked waxbills have arrived, one of the pin-tailed whydahs known host birds from Africa. Will the whydahs defer to their native host, or will they stay with their newly adopted host?

“We need to keep doing field work and rely also on birders and other citizen scientists to keep us apprised of what is going on,” said Kimball Garrett.

You can be a part of this urban nature drama series. Below are some of the known hangouts of pin-tailed whydahs around Southern California:

Los Angeles County

Orange County

If you see pin-tailed whydahs entering birds’ nests or young whydahs being cared for by other birds, take a picture or jot down some notes and send them to or upload observations to eBird

Watch out for those whydahs!

Fledgling pin-tailed whydah being fed by an adult scaly-breasted munia at Riverdale Park, Anaheim, Orange County, California, 6 September 2014. Photo by Jeff Bray.


(Posted by: Katie McKissick)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

A Fig with a View

June 13, 2017

Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

Behind my parents' house, atop a hill in the unmowed field, is a telephone pole where we often see a perching hawk. Bird-watching is a popular pastime in their backyard in the Santa Barbara foothills, where we have enjoyed the bright flashes of yellow or red as a Hooded Oriole or Nutall's Woodpecker swoops through the yard, and marveled over the tiny, fuzzy nests of the Allen's Hummingbirds that favor the potted ficuses under the eaves of the house. At night we hear the "hoo-hu-hu-hoo-hooo" of a Great Horned Owl, in late afternoons, the predatory cries of a Red-tailed Hawk.

On this particular afternoon, a majestic Red-tailed Hawk was making a loud and frequent chirp as it held its ground atop the telephone pole against an angry crow that circled and dove at it from above. By the time I reached the base of this pole, the crow's work was done and the hawk was aloft with its mate, gliding in slow, widening circles above the hills.

On a sunny afternoon with all of that natural wilderness at hand, were my Los Angeles children climbing trees and cavorting in the fields? No, they were in a dark, curtained room watching an absurd cartoon about the Ice Age. Under mild duress, one seven year old, Julio, was convinced to join his parents for a quick exploration.

Back at the telephone pole we examined the broad, clear circle where wild oat grass and fennel had been mowed, and there in the gravel we made a great discovery. Under the frequent perch of that Red-tailed Hawk was a rodent bone-yard. Everywhere we looked and stepped were the skeletal remains of dozens of hawk meals, the dried bones of pocket gophers, voles, lizards and mice. Searching through the remains, we found tiny jaws full of teeth, cracked femurs, miniature toe bones. My son excitedly gathered a handful of bones, examining them carefully. He professed his admiration of the hawk and the bones, stepped cautiously over the remains, and knelt to inspect tiny patches of dried fur and digested insects while the paired hawks soared in the distance.

When we returned to the house, bones in hand, his grandfather asked him about the expedition. Julio brightly told of our adventure, ending his story with an enthusiastic, "That was so gross... and so FASCINATING!"

(Posted by: Maiz Connolly)


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A Fig with a View

June 13, 2017

A Fig with a View

June 13, 2017

Growing sideways out of a palm tree about fifty feet in the air in the middle of Los Angeles, is a young fig tree, Ficus microcarpa. Often seen lining the streets in this neighborhood, these ficus trees, commonly known as Indian laurels, grow to substantial heights. Their sticky figs stain the surrounding sidewalks that are usually disrupted by the trees' extensive root systems, roots so intrusive that they can damage nearby walls and inconveniently work their way into plumbing pipes in search of water. They are not epiphytes, air plants that harmlessly attach themselves to other trees while gathering their nutrients from sun, rain, and air. Indian laurels need water, and lots of it.

An Indian laurel growing horizontally approximately 50 feet up a palm tree!

So, what is going on here? Is it a parasite? How did it get there and how does it survive? These are questions I posed to NHMLA Head Gardener, Richard Hayden, who helped me to unravel the mystery of this unusual aerialist.

The ficus, based on its size, is approximately 10 to 20 years old, although its growth may have been stunted by its unusual location. The palm, a Canary Island palm, Phoenix canariensis, is a variety that was commonly planted in Los Angeles when this Mid City neighborhood was built. It stands in front of a house that was built in 1925, so it is likely 90-100 years old. At any rate, the palm was already very tall when our fig was planted, probably by a bird or squirrel.

Young Indian laurel growing on an approximately 90-100 year old Canary Island palm tree.

Up, high in the palm, the crevice where the fig landed must have collected enough debris and moisture for the fig to sprout, thrive, and eventually, to send its extensive root system to work. Spreading around the outside of the palm tree, the roots have anchored the ficus sturdily to its perch. But apparently, hidden from view inside the trunk of the palm, the ficus roots in search of water found their way into the palm tree's vascular system. Much like working their way into plumbing pipes, the ficus roots have likely reached into the palm's complex bundles of vascular tissues, the phloem and xylem, that transport water and nutrients like countless tiny pipes up and down the long trunk of the tree.

The roots of the Indian laurel anchor it securely to the Canary Island Palm

The ficus must have found what it needed, for it now appears healthy and thriving and causing no apparent harm to the unusual host with which it shares its spectacular view.

I have marveled over these joined trees for years, theorizing with friends and neighbors about how they grew in this unique configuration. They are a wonder that many will pass right under without ever noticing. Have you found any natural oddities in your neighborhood? Send us your observations, and we will do our best to help you answer the hows and whys of these remarkable organisms.

(Posted by: Maiz Connolly)


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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

Calling All Lizard Lovers: We Need Your Lizard Pictures!

June 7, 2017

We are one week into #RASCalsBlitz 2017, and what a week it was. What is RASCalsBlitz 2017? It is a two-month long reptile and amphibian nature count and photo contest in support of our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) citizen science project.

Male Western Fence Lizard (sometimes called "bluebelly") showing off brightly colored abdominal patches to announce territory ownership and attract females. photo: Eric Cleveland

It is easy to participate. All you need to do is take a digital photo of any reptile or amphibian in Southern California between June 1 and July 31, 2017, and send it to the RASCals project. There are four easy ways to do this (email, text, tagging #RascalsBlitz on social media, or posting directly to iNaturalist). To learn more about the contest categories and the different ways to submit observations visit our RASCalsBlitz 2017 page.

You don't have to be a pro to enter this contest. We are looking for photos of unusual animals and behaviors, as well as beautiful shots. Each observation is a data point representing the sighting of an animal at a specific place and time, that will help scientists, including me, Greg Pauly, to study the biodiversity here in Southern California.

Winners in each contest category will receive four general admission tickets to the Natural History Museum. One Grand Prize Winner will receive an annual family membership and a free lunch and behind-the-scenes tour of the Herpetology Research Collection with me, NHMLA's Curator of Herpetology. I promise, you will have an amazing time!

RASCalsBlitz 2017's goal is to receive 2,000 observations and have at least 250 people participate. During the same time period last year, the RASCals project received 1,224 observations so we need your help to dramatically increase the number of observations during this period.

The contest has already received a number of exciting submissions. In the first week, we received 272 observations from 95 people. And some of these are sure to be contenders in the prize categories.

Kim Moore had the incredible luck to observe two kestrels harassing a red-tailed hawk that was flying off with the remains of a gopher snake, sure to be a strong contender in our “Best Action/Behavior” category. 
Another “Best Action/Behavior” contender is this photo by Shahan Derkarabetian of a nesting red-eared slider turtle on the San Diego State University campus. These turtles are not native to the western United States, but they are common in the pet trade and often illegally abandoned in urban ponds.
RASCals regular Chris DeGroof took this photo in the San Gabriel Mountains of a Southern Pacific Rattlesnake climbing through the root ball of a tree before settling in for some glamour shots.

Keep the observations coming! And stay tuned for more highlights from RASCalsBlitz 2017 as well as the announcement of our winners in August.

(Posted by: Greg Pauly)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

Winning Snails and Slugs

May 12, 2017

The results of our record-breaking #SnailBlitz 2017 are in! From tiny eggs, to monster snail jaws, people were paying careful attention to these often overlooked land-loving molluscs. These prize-winning photos, selected from 1,619 observations that were submitted by over 280 citizen scientists in February and March, include some unusual details, interesting interactions, and lots of slime. Speaking of slime, these SnailBlitz 2017 observations will all be included as biogeography data points in our ongoing SLIME Project, giving us a unique opportunity to study the distribution of these species with the help of our growing team of citizen scientists.

And this year's winners are...

Grand Prize Winner: Image by @ajzellmer

Slug eggs!  Here are (likely) two species of slug eggs and one snail, Discus rotundatus.

Runner up: Image by @finatic

Three for one. This photo shows the native snail species Rothelix lowei (far right), slug Limacus flavus (center), and a salamander (left).

Best Snail Photo Winner: Image by @alex_bairstow

This photo shows a possible predatory encounter between Rumina decollata and Cornu aspersum. Rumina decollata was specifically introduced to control populations of Cornu aspersum that were eating Southern Californian citrus.

Runners up: both by @alex_bairstow

Look at those snail jaws (common garden snail, Cornu aspersum)!
Predatory decollate snail, Rumina decollata, pretending to be a faucet?

Best Slug Photo Winner: Image by @dlbowls

Hold on for the ride buddy! This photo shows a species of Deroceras, the smooth land slug with its slime trail, and an accompanying aphid.

Runner up: Image by @kimssight

Photo of another smooth land slug, unidentified species of Deroceras.

Rarest Snail/Slug Photo Winner: Image by @silversea_starsong

This photo shows an unidentified species of slug—an observation that inspired much conversation among iNaturalist users.

Thank you to all who participated in #SnailBlitz 2017, we look forward to seeing even more slimy photos next year!

(Posted by: Jann Vendetti)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

City Nature Challenge 2017: A Win For Urban Nature Across the Country

May 5, 2017

Which city in the United States can observe the most nature? This is the question staff at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and California Academy of Sciences tried to answer a few weeks ago through a nationwide effort called the City Nature Challenge.

Turns out the winning city was Dallas, Texas. Like they say, "Don't mess with Texas!" 

Students from Esperanza Elementary School help us kickoff City Nature Challenge 2017. Photo by Mario de Lopez


Last year, the challenge was brand new and began as a rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Both cities sit in a biodiversity hotspot, the California Floristic Province, which makes the perfect backdrop for a biodiversity showdown. Although San Francisco was ahead for the majority of the challenge, L.A. made a late comeback thanks in part to our famous mountain lion, P22. All told L.A. and S.F. made almost 20,000 observations engaging 1,018 people, with L.A. beating out San Francisco by only 934 observations.

How could we top that?

Because staff at both museums are ambitious, and because we had so much fun last year, we decided to expand the project for 2017. We put a call out to colleagues and talked about it at geeky museum conferences, and we even tweeted about it. There was a lot of interest from all over the country, with 16 cities signing up. Fifteen of them were really hoping to knock L.A. out of the top spot. After months of planning, people from Seattle to Miami were ready and raring to get started, and the challenged kicked off at 12:01 am the morning of April 14.

Some people were so dedicated they even woke up at midnight to make their first few observations!

Keelback slug spotted by this author (@lhiggins) at 12:06 am April 14


All told the challenge ran five days, and ended at 11:59 pm on April 18. In that 120 hour timeframe, 4051 people banded together and searched for nature in their cities. 

We made some amazing nature discoveries! 

Large bull orca with his mother, picture taken from shore by iNaturalist user @kersti-e-muul 


Someone in Seattle observed a pair of orcas. iNaturalist user @al10, from New York, documented a sunken disk lichen in Central Park. This species of lichen had never been recorded in the park before. Finally, Hunter Yarbrough from Texas found an extremely rare golden-cheeked warbler in Austin. This bird isn't just rare in Texas, it is rare throughout the United States.  

Golden-cheeked warbler observed by iNaturalist user @hunteryarbrough


The wildlife we found was often beautiful and sometimes rare, however, some might say the numbers are even more impressive. Collectively we made 124,092 new wildlife observations of 8557 species. These numbers also represent the five biggest days the iNaturalist community has ever clocked!

...and the winners are:

City with the most observations: Dallas/Fort Worth with 23,957 
City with the most species found: Houston with 2419 
City with the most participants: Los Angeles with 1034 (also includes people who submitted via social media)

It really goes to show what an impact we can make collectively. Thanks to everyone who participated this year, and stay tuned for next year because the City Nature Challenge is going international!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins )

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

California Native Bees in the Nature Gardens

April 28, 2017

The beautiful male Agapostemon bee above was photographed by our Curator of Entomology, Dr. Brian Brown. It is just one of the native bees you can currently find buzzing around the NHMLA Nature Gardens. Agapostemon is in the family Halictidae, commonly known as "sweat bees," as many species are attracted to human perspiration (but not the species above!). You can tell that this bee is male because of its striped abdomen; females are completely metallic green.

You can find these beautiful bees in the mallow that is blooming in the pollinator meadow in the NHMLA Nature Gardens. Unlike honey bees, these bees are solitary. This means they are comparitively docile (as they don't have a hive to defend). They are also quite small (about half the size of a honey bee), making a sting from one of these bees extremely unlikely.

Another type of native bee making its first appearance of the year is the leafcutter bee in the family Megachilidae. These bees have been pupating in the bee hotels in the Nature Gardens all winter and are now emerging, as seen in the photo above (by Dr. Brian Brown). Leafcutter bees line the burrows in the bee hotels with small bits of leaves, and lay a single egg in a cell at the end of the cavity. The cell is stocked with food (pollen) and is then closed off with building materials and another cell is built closer adjacent to it. In this way, a female can lay several eggs in the same cavity. The larvae hatch and have a comfortable home with a ready food supply. They grow within their cell, eventually pupating and emerging from the cavity as adults in the spring. 

A distinguishing feature of the Megachilidae is the scopa, a pollen-carrying structure on the underside of the abdomen that is made up of many densely situated hairs. Unlike many other bees that carry pollen on their legs, the Megachilidae can often be seen buzzing from flower to flower with a bright yellow belly full of pollen (as above)!

Speaking of lots of pollen, the long horned bees are out this spring, and the females can be seen with legs covered in pollen (as in the photo by Dr. Brian Brown, above). Long horned bees are in the family Apidae, the same family that the honey bee is in, but the female long horned bees carry much more pollen than you would see a honey bee with. The males of these bees have exceptionally long antennae, thus the name "long horned" (as in the photo below, also captured by Dr. Brian Brown). They are solitary bees that nest in the ground, emerging in the spring. 

These are just a few of the native bees you can find in the NHMLA Nature Gardens right now. More bees will emerge later in the year, but come visit soon and catch these spring bees in action!

(Posted by: Emily Hartop)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

Chasing Plain Wildflowers: Super Bloom at the Carrizo Plain

April 19, 2017

California’s native plants are getting a lot of attention this spring, thanks to some of the best wildflower displays in decades. The recent rainy season is a gift that keeps on giving, with once-brown hillsides now carpeted in a rainbow of colors. Heeding a friend’s advice to drop everything and go, I headed to the Temblor Range on Easter Sunday with a few plant-loving pals. We were hoping to catch scenes like this:

Temblor Range Wildflowers, photo by Tim Fross.

And this:

Common hillside daisy, photo by Tim Fross.

The Temblors define the northern rim of the Carrizo Plain, hugging the boundary between San Luis Obispo and Kern counties. Although peak bloom was just past, Nature’s splendor was still worthy of gasps and swoons. Here are a few of the highlights from our day.

Common hillside daisy up close, Monolopia lanceolata.

We were definitely impressed!

A painterly tapestry of California poppy, tansy-leaf phacelia, and Fremont pincushion.

Pink and orange rub some people the wrong way, but Nature doesn’t follow rules when it comes to color combinations. Satiny orange San Joaquin blazing star (if you look really close, you can see beetles nestled in the petals) comingle with mauve pink Parry’s mallow.

San Joaquin blazing star (center) and Parry’s mallow.

I’ve never seen such exuberant displays of Parry’s mallow and will hunt for a seed source to sow in the Museum’s Nature Gardens next fall. I’m sure it will be wonderful in bouquets, judging by how well its desert relatives – Indian and apricot mallow – have performed for us. And a good source of pollen for bees and other insects.

Apricot mallow, Sphaeralcea ambiqua in the NHMLA Nature Gardens

But perhaps the most stunning display of the day was huge swaths of desert candles, Caulanthus inflatus. This bizarre member of the mustard family, with its swollen chartreuse stems and deep maroon flower buds, is truly spectacular. Solitary plants are a marvel, but seeing acres of them was simply incredible. I wonder if they glow in the dark!

Desert candle, Caulanthus inflatus, with two crane flies on the candle-like stalk.

Although we’re a long way from France, one can imagine scenes like these inspiring George Seurat to perfect his pointillist painting technique.

Our spirits restored by all that beauty and in awe of the massive seed bank that created these jaw-dropping scenes, we reluctantly turned toward home, stopping to coax this tarantula off the road and out of harm’s way.

California ebony tarantula, Aphonopelma eutylenum.

**All photos by Carol Bornstein unless otherwise noted.




(Posted by: Carol Bornstein)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

L.A.'s Super Bloom

April 4, 2017

Are some of your friends posting selfies and artful Instagram pics of wildflower scenes? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes. After five+ years of drought in Southern California, we are experiencing a spectacular seasonal wildflower show all over the Southland. Here are some pictures taken by Museum staffers on their recent Spring wildflower adventures:

Head Gardener Richard Hayden recently visited Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Here's a compilation of some of the wildflowers he found in bloom there.

Anza Borrego #superbloom montage. Photo by Richard Hayden @naturegardener

Curious to know what they are? Here's a quick rundown, top to bottom, left to right:

If you're into our State Flower, the California poppy, check out Lead Gardener, Daniel Feldman's photo from the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

A field of golden California poppies, Eschscholzia californica. Photo by Daniel Feldman @deejayeff

Maybe you are looking for some celestial flower inspiration. Out on the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecologial Preserve, just along the trail to the vernal pools (seasonal ponds) I found a patch of purple shooting stars, Primula clevelandii (formerly Dodecatheon clevelandii). Making sure not to step on any flowers, I crouched down on the path and snapped this photo.

A field of shooting stars. Photo by Lila Higgins @colilaoptera

If you're looking for blooms closer to home, look no further than the trees on your street. Jann Vendetti, our Museum Malacologist (she studies snails and other mollusks), has been getting to know her street trees. Below are some of the flowering trees she's been seeing lately:

Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis, native to western North America and planted as a street tree, bee pollinated, attracts hummingbirds. Photo by Jann Vendetti.


American sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, native to eastern North America and planted as a street tree, wind pollinated. Photo by Jann Vendetti.


Pink trumpet tree, Handroanthus impetiginosus, native to eastern Central and South America and planted as a street tree, bee pollinated. Photo by Jann Vendetti.
(Left) California coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, native to California and planted as a street tree, wind pollinated. (Right) Carrotwood tree, Cupaniopsis anacardioides, native to Australia and planted as a street tree, bee pollinated. Photos by Jann Vendetti.

Or maybe you want to stop by the Museum and check out the blooms in the Nature Gardens. Museum Volunteer Program Manager Elizabeth Andres took a break from sitting at her desk and wandered outside in the Nature Gardens and found this beautiful California lilac, Ceanothus cyaneus, in bloom. If you can't find the time to head out to Anza Borrego, or other wildflower hot spots, why not plan a trip to the Museum to see what's blooming?

Sierra blue, California lilac blooming in the Museum's Nature Gardens. Photo by Elizabeth Andres @libbyteal

**Special thanks to Carol Bornstein, Director of the Museum's Nature Gardens, for her plant identification help. 

(Posted by: Jann Vendetti and Lila Higgins)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017