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!
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:
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.
We were definitely impressed!
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.
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.
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!
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.
**All photos by Carol Bornstein unless otherwise noted.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
**Special thanks to Carol Bornstein, Director of the Museum's Nature Gardens, for her plant identification help.
March 30, 2017
Glancing down one street in Los Angeles County reveals no less than seven tree species native to Northeastern Australia (Bottlebrush and Carrot wood tree), East Asia (Camphor tree), the Mediterranean (Italian cypress), eastern North America (Tulip tree), and California (Coast live oak and California sycamore).
Continuing a block in each direction are loquat fruit trees from east Asia, spongy-barked Cajeput trees from Southeast Asia, delicate-looking Peruvian Pepper trees from South America, and an impressive stand of Canary Islands pines. Nearby stands a stately Californian coast redwood, a small grove of Mediterranean olive trees, a large blue atlas cedar native to the Himalayas, and a dazzling Norfolk Island monkey puzzle tree.
What kind of botanical garden-like neighborhood is this?
The monkey puzzle tree grows on the grounds of a bank. Canary Island pines neatly line the perimeter of the Target parking lot. Small olive trees adorn the local children’s playground. There's a lone loquat tree standing next to the bus stop, camphor tree roots crack the sidewalk near the Home Depot, and cajeput trees border the 7-11. The redwood is in my neighbor’s front yard and the Peruvian pepper trees arch over the ramp to the 5 freeway. In other words, this is an unremarkable neighborhood, but like all neighborhoods in Los Angeles County, it has a remarkable diversity of street trees.
It is very likely that the street trees where you live and those growing in the landscaped grounds of your local grocery store, coffee shop, library, and school, amount to dozens of species. When you add to this the number of trees you pass while traveling through greater Los Angeles, that total can easily exceed 75, even 100 species, some of which are island endemics, and most of which are not native to California. In a way, generations of urban planning, time, and horticultural trends have made each city block in Southern California a diverse and haphazard botanical garden.
On one hand, this artificial urban and suburban tree diversity (of mostly non-native species) doesn’t necessarily fulfill the needs of many of our native animal species (though sometimes it does). On the other hand, such breathtaking botanical diversity essentially allows anyone to “travel” around the world just by exploring their neighborhood. Not planning to visit Siberia? What about Argentina? Greece? New England? New Zealand? No matter! You can see trees native to all of these places in ONE DAY, or even in a few blocks of your neighborhood! Southern Californians often boast about how someone could ski and surf in the same day here. True, but I find it far more compelling to be able to see native California fan palms and Kentia palms from Lord Howe Island (naturally found more than 7,000 miles away from each other) on one Southern Californian city block!
The trees around us, often just greenery in the background of whatever we are doing, have stories to tell: natural histories, lessons in geography, tutorials on evolution, case studies in survival. For me, learning about Southern California urban trees has enhanced my urban life. Traffic on the 110 became an opportunity to notice (and ponder the provenance of) Hong Kong orchid trees blooming along the margin of the freeway. A book on urban trees inspired a realization that the tree growing (almost impossibly) out of a crack in the cement at the Cal State L.A. train station must be the Chinese tree of heaven. Walks with my dog and daughters became collecting expeditions aimed at finding other-worldly-looking seedpods, which we discovered were from the Kurrajong tree of Eastern Australia.
What do the tree leaves smell like when crushed? Which trees change color? Which ones flower? Which trees produce fruit that I’ve never noticed? What time of year do their new leaves start to grow? Suddenly my neighborhood is nothing but remarkable—and so is yours.
March 23, 2017
SnailBlitz 2017 is in full swing and concludes at the end of March. Our goal is to get 1,500 photos of snails and slugs from over 250 people. So we need your help! The iNaturalist observations so far have been and fascinating and beautiful! Here are some highlights:
Thanks to citizen scientists silversea_starstong, alex_bairstow, and madtiller.
Thanks to citizen scientists cedric_lee, jaykeller, jkang5678, and jafuentes.
Thanks to citizen scientist pileated.
Keep the observations coming! Participating is easy, and there are prizes for the best photos submitted!
E-mail your photo to email@example.com
OR text them to (213) 763-6632
OR tag them on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook using #SnailBlitz
OR Post directly to the SnailBlitz project on iNaturalist, http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/snailblitz-2017
March 14, 2017
If I asked you to describe a wasp, what would come to mind? Maybe something about the size of a honeybee, with similar yellow and black stripes, that lives in a paper nest attached to a building? Or you might think of the pesky “meat bees” that swarm campsites or picnic areas, hoping to get a bite of your delicious barbecue? Paper Wasps and Yellow Jackets are just 2 kinds of wasps that share our city with us, but there are thousands of species of miniature “micro” wasps that most folks are completely unaware of.
At just the size of a small pebble, these wasps may seem delicate and inconsequential, but in actuality they play an integral role in the health of our backyard habitats and the success of our state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. How can something only a few millimeters in size have such an impact? The key is their unique, extraordinary life habits coupled with the sheer number of species that exist: their diversity, in other words. Many of these wasps are parasitoids, a word that describes a type of parasite that eventually kills its insect host. They lay their eggs in a wide variety of different insects, such as caterpillars, fly larvae, aphids, other wasps, beetles… the list goes on and on. Most of these wasps are very picky about their hosts, meaning the relationship is species specific. This is important because if a farmer wants to get rid of a particular pest, she or he can release the species of wasp that only parasitizes that pest. This is targeted, environmentally friendly pest control that is very effective and beneficial!
The photos above are of some of my favorite wasps that we have collected from yards all over LA and surrounding counties as part of the BioSCAN Project. These species exhibit a type of physical adaptation that is common with many small wasps. Their hind legs are greatly enlarged, almost comically so like Popeye’s arms after he eats a can of spinach, and are edged with a row of grasping teeth. With female wasps, these powerful hind legs allow them to get a firm grip on their hosts, and in some cases, help them to stand upright so they can more effectively administer the “death blow” as they inject eggs into the host’s body. Some females even use their hind legs to get into epic back-to-back battles, not unlike playing a round of “Street Fighter” where each opponent chooses Chun-Li. (As far as I am aware, no one has named a parasitic wasp after Chun-Li, but there are several named after Star Wars and Harry Potter characters, as well as the recent Crypt Keeper wasp for those who love bugs AND horror.)
I reached out to two of my favorite entomologists, Drs. Doug Yanega and Roger Burks, to help identify and get more insight into these miniature marvels. I was specifically curious about why these hind legs have evolved multiple times in wasps that are not that closely related, a clear case of convergent evolution. Roger eloquently replied: “Seems like these modified hind legs must be really valuable to all of these species, because whenever they are separately evolved they don't ever seem to be lost in the lineages. This is my guess for why they show up so often in unrelated groups. Seems sort of like one of Doug's favorite quotes: ‘When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’ When the only really special morphological tool that these insects have is a set of totally weird hind leg modifications, every problem gets solved by some application of the hind legs.”
The next time you stop to smell the flowers, keep your eyes open for these tiny miniature wasps with powerful He-Man legs. They are the unsung heroes that help keep our pest bug populations in check!
February 28, 2017
January 10, 2017
March 8, 2017
Here in Los Angeles we've been getting some heavy rains over the last few months. This is good news for us and for the drought, but it's been making it tough for us to get out and enjoy nature around here. Finally, a few weekends ago, we had some gloriously sunny weather, so we went out to enjoy the wildlife and took a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. The trails were clear, the hills soaked in green...but it was still so cold that we saw very few animals. It turned out that the best nature we would see that day would be found in the parking lot of a strip mall where we stopped for lunch. Behold, the acorn woodpecker, scientific name Melanerpes formicivorus.
We parked right under an oak tree, leafless but teeming with woodpeckers. We heard them before we saw them, up to six at a time, all swooping around this tree and hammering at the bark. That splendid fellow is a male, you can tell by how the red feathers in his cap reach all the way down to the white on his face. The females have a black band between the red and white, like this charmer.
Both males and females were swarming this tree, but what were they doing? As we watched them, it seemed they were probing around in the tree bark and jamming acorns into the tree. The entire tree was studded with holes and stuffed with acorns.
It turns out that this is a granary tree, a dead tree that these woodpeckers take over, shove full of acorns, and use as a pantry when acorns are scarce. They will defend this tree and watch over their store of nuts, and I can confirm that they drove off a crow who tried to get in on the feast. I was impressed by how thick the acorns were in the tree bark, but even more delighted when I noticed the lamppost right next to the tree.
Never ones to waste an opportunity, the woodpeckers had jammed acorns into the seam of the light fixture and were defending it just as vigorously as the tree. These crafty birds, like the crows, jays, and even grackles we see in L.A., have adapted to our urban landscape and figured out how to exploit the new opportunities it offers. Our city is full of urban nature interactions like this one, even in a humble strip mall parking lot. So look closer when you move around Los Angeles, and don't miss all the creatures that live here with us, figuring out how to make the most of the city.
All photos credit Daniel Geiger
February 28, 2017
Please enjoy this week's blog, by guest writer Olivia Chambliss. We met Olivia at our recent Community Wildlife Hunt in South L.A.. When she told us she was an aspiring science blogger, we offered her a guest writing role. We're excited to share her words with you today, and please share your words of encouragement with Olivia in the comments below or on social media @NatureinLA.
It was a gloomy Saturday morning in South Los Angeles as I made my way to Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park for the wildlife hunt coordinated by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The park lies ensconced in a neighborhood filled with abandoned factories and old warehouses. On that damp, granite gray morning AFH Nature Park stood out like a sore, green thumb.
It's hard to believe that this verdant 8.5 acres of park land once was a water and sewer pipe storage yard for the Department of Water and Power. The park was dedicated in 2000 and was named after the first African American congressman elected west of the Mississippi, Augustus F. Hawkins.
Just past the park entrance is the Evan Frankel Discovery Center, an interpretation center that resembles a mini natural history museum — complete with taxidermy California fauna (think bobcats and coyotes), a display on the life cycle of the yucca plant, and cases of rocks and minerals. On the morning of the wildlife hunt it was bustling with the activity of NHMLA staff and volunteers as they rushed to set up their own animal specimens for display.
The wildlife hunt at AFH Nature Park is part of an effort by the NHMLA citizen science team to include L.A. communities not yet reached by the program. According to Lila Higgins, an educator and manager of the Museum's citizen science team, the wildlife hunt served as a sort of vanguard for future citizen science projects. This morning the goal was not so much to collect data for any given project but to get to know the community and be influenced by the community’s needs.
Though the event was supposed to kick off at 9 am, participants slowly began to trickle into the Discovery Center around fifteen minutes after the hour. A gaggle of young children raced into the meeting room and were followed by their parents. Some adults arrived alone, curious about the event after spotting a sign up table outside. The new arrivals browsed the tables set up by the staff. There were preserved lizards in glass jars, live snails in little containers, the pelts of small native mammals, a display case containing butterflies of Southern California, and one stuffed squirrel.
After a group of about fifteen participants had gathered, two NHMLA staff members, Lisa Gonzalez and Miguel Ordeñana, introduced themselves and informed the group they would lead the hunt. We were told to be on the lookout for any type of wildlife — that included insects, fungi, and larger living creatures — and to alert the group to our find. Once Miguel and Lisa explained some basic guidelines for the wildlife hunt (i.e., take only pictures, leave only footprints) we were off!
The nature hike was straightforward and surprisingly casual. Lisa encouraged us to turn over leaves and rocks for bugs and to dig through the soggy earth with our hands. The children participating in the hike were especially zealous and thorough in this process, excitedly calling out “I found something!” whenever they happened upon an insect, worm, or spider. One child pointed to every mushroom he found and proudly declared he had found a “marshmallow." The enthusiasm was contagious.
Miguel and Lisa were attentive guides. They identified the wildlife that the participants discovered along the hike and brought our attention to things we may not have otherwise noticed. They validated each find the adult participants uncovered and cheerfully engaged with the energetic younger ones. It was an excellent opportunity for the community to hang out with a scientist in an informal and fun environment. One boy breathlessly explained to Miguel that he loved bugs and wanted to be an entomologist when he grew up, his eyes shining with a passion that would make anyone listen.
As the walk wound down I wandered back to the Discovery Center where a fresh group of participants had arrived. Here, I had the chance to speak with some of the other staff involved in the event. Richard Smart, a coordinator for citizen science at NHMLA, had his laptop set up to show off iNaturalist, a platform (and free app) that crowdsources photos of wildlife and plants that anyone can upload. Scientists can then use these data to map out the distribution of wildlife in urban areas. This seemed like a no brainer way for people of all stripes to become part of the scientific process. Indeed, when I later spoke with Miguel he said that this app has proved useful in collecting data for NHMLA’s SuperProject and has connected local communities with science.
By the end of the program the group recorded 45 species in the park, and they were all on iNaturalist for people to see! In addition, 21 year-old Jose Luis Sandoval created a bird list that had 18 species of birds that he saw!
Citizen science projects around the world – like the ones coordinated by NHMLA – as well as the presence of nature parks in urban areas are both important ways to inspire people to get involved in science. Additionally, outreach to local communities by scientific and research institutions creates a space for youth to get excited about their interests and meet professionals that work in that field. So when a child says, “Hey, I really like bugs, and I want to learn more about them!” they can point to someone they know who studies insects for a living. It can be difficult to imagine yourself in a role if you do not know that the role itself even exists. Miguel summed it up best himself when he said that the wildlife hunt was “… a way to bring the Museum to the people.” And in the same way that a natural space can be coaxed to grow out of a former pipe yard, communities can be transformed when given access to the right tools.
February 21, 2017
Rachel Ann Arias’ story is one of the best examples of how education and citizen science can inspire curiosity and enthusiasm in young people for the natural world. Hers is a story about a 12-year-old person with focus and thoughtfulness beyond her years, who is on a calculated mission to share her newfound knowledge of L.A. natural history with her peers and community.
I was fortunate to meet Rachel Ann in 2015, through our NHMLA Nature Navigators program. Nature Navigators is a preteen program meant to empower youth between the ages of 9 and 12 through experience-based nature education and citizen science at NHMLA and the La Brea Tar Pits Museum. The program acts as a club for preteens to come together with their peers and expand upon their knowledge and experience in the field of citizen science and wildlife research. Nature Navigators is one of a few nature education programs offered by NHMLA during the school year that cater to specific age groups.
Nature Navigators and the other programs provide a nurturing environment where students develop a better understanding of various citizen science projects and local natural history but also foster long-lasting friendships between young individuals that share unique interests. Let’s be honest—citizen science and nature exploration have not historically been the most popular hobbies for kids of the Greater L.A. area. I know this because I grew up in L.A. and, fearing ridicule, felt as if I had to hide my passion for wildlife from friends who had no interest in the outdoors.
So when Richard Smart, my colleague and the Nature Navigators program leader, invited me to share my passion for camera traps with students, I jumped at the opportunity. I presented my work studying carnivores with camera traps, and then the students and I headed out to the Nature Gardens for some hands-on experience. I explained the process of choosing a location as we set up a camera trap and the importance of tracking when studying nocturnal and elusive species. We then created replicas of carnivore tracks I had taken in Griffith Park, including that of P-22. I answered their enthusiastic questions and then the students reunited with their parents, with whom they excitedly shared their animal track casts.
Approximately one year later, Richard shared a surprising e-mail. One of the Nature Navigators, a quiet and studious participant named Rachel Ann, wrote that my interaction with the class had left a lasting impression on her (no pun intended). Rachel Ann had realized that a camera trap would enable her to solve her own backyard wildlife mysteries. Previous to learning about camera traps, Rachel Ann, like the other young naturalists, relied on digital cameras or smart phones to document diurnal wildlife, which she then submitted to iNaturalist as a data point.
Unfortunately, those tools weren’t helpful in trying to document elusive and timid species that are mainly active at night when most people, especially kids her age, are inside or asleep. Rachel Ann decided to ask for a camera trap for her birthday, which her grandparents generously provided. She immediately began exploring various locations in her backyard— located in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains—for nocturnal mammal activity, hoping to spot a wild carnivore. Her backyard exploration, however, resulted in mostly unremarkable domestic cat and bird images.
A family trip to Yellowstone National Park provided her with an idea for improving her chances to document wildlife and share her passion with people in her community. Rachel Ann got to meet a Yellowstone biologist who gave her important tips on using her camera trap—like leaving the camera for a longer period in contiguous habitat in order to catch more diverse species. Most importantly, the biologist showed Rachel Ann a track guide! She then began camera-trapping on a friend's property in a canyon near her home, which gave her a better chance for detecting larger mammals. Rachel Ann was excited to discover the presence of bobcats, coyotes, and even bears!
The footage made Rachel Ann hungry not only for greater exploration but to share her discoveries with others, and she set her sights on a nearby open space called the Rosemont Preserve in the La Crescenta foothills. She believes it is important for the Preserve’s visitors to be more aware of, and thus invested in, their natural surroundings, which will inspire them to support the conservation of the region's other important open spaces. She gave a formal presentation to the Rosemont Preserve Board of Advisors, in which she proposed a Girl Scout project that would use camera traps and animal track photos to create a nature guide for visitors. Her presentation was well-received and accepted by the board. She is currently gathering information on local tracks and scat (animal poop) and using her camera to create a library of wildlife images for her guide.
Rachel Ann recently told me about her goals and this is what she said:
My goal with the Wildlife Guides is for people in my community and other visitors of Rosemont Preserve to see evidence of wildlife, be able to identify them and appreciate wildlife.
Since taking the Nature Navigator classes, I think citizen science is a lot of fun. I enjoy helping scientists and I also enjoy seeing how citizen scientists like me can gather a wide range of observations. I think I would like be an ecologist or wildlife biologist when I grow up so I can continue to work with wildlife and work with other people like me who enjoy citizen science and wildlife. For now, I am thinking about starting a citizen science club at my middle school next year. I am still trying to figure out the details of how to do that.
As an environmental educator, I can only hope that some of the children with whom I interact will be inspired to serve as future stewards of the environment and possibly even pursue a career in science. It’s my great fortune to work with thoughtful and conscientious students like Rachel Ann. As a proud new father of a baby girl, it is great to know there are young, empowered female environmental leaders who are standing up for nature. I can’t wait to see how Rachel Ann’s project turns out and what she accomplishes next!
**With special thanks to Richard Smart (former Nature Navigators program leader), Lindsey Kelly (current Nature Navigators program leader), and Gabe Sjoberg (Nature Navigators program manager).
February 14, 2017
Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is in the air, but for more species than just Homo sapiens. While you might be thinking of roses, chocolates, and a candlelit dinner, our local alligator lizards are devising their own romantic plans. Valentine’s Day happens to be around the start of the alligator lizard breeding season in Southern California, and we need your help to study their breeding biology.
Alligator lizards are the most widespread lizard species in Southern California—your backyard, the landscaping around your apartment complex, you very likely have these lizards in the green spaces around your home. They don’t make it into our desert regions, but they can be found just about everywhere else including in the most urbanized parts of our cities. Nevertheless, these lizards don’t get seen all that frequently because they don’t bask in the sun like many other local lizards. Instead, alligator lizards prefer cooler, more hidden areas, hanging out in gardens, shrubs, and wood piles. Gardeners should be thankful because these lizards eat lots of pests like slugs and caterpillars as well as many other insects and spiders. In more natural habitats, they can be in grassland, chaparral, or forest and are especially fond of cooler, grassy areas along creeks.
Starting as early as February 9, alligator lizards in Southern California start mating. Many people who see their courtship behavior might think the lizards are fighting or that one is even cannibalizing the other, but in fact this is alligator lizard love. The male bites the female on her neck or head and then uses his tail to attempt to lift the female’s tail. The female may refuse these advances hoping instead a male more to her liking comes along and displaces the first male. As a result, the pair may stay in this position for more than a day. If the female does decide to mate, she lifts her tail allowing the male to insert his hemipenis into the female’s cloaca.
What’s a hemipenis? It’s the intromittent organ (an external organ specialized to deliver sperm while mating) in male lizards and snakes. In other words, it’s the lizard equivalent of the mammalian penis, except that lizards and snakes have two and can use the left or right hemipenis depending on which side is closest to the female. In some species, the hemipenes (this is the plural of hemipenis) are covered in barbs and spines, but in alligator lizards, the hemipenes are relatively smooth and lack these structures.
In 2015, I started using the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) project to study the breeding behavior of these lizards. One of the main questions is to understand whether urban and rural lizards breed at the same time. Urban areas tend to heat up more than surrounding rural areas; this is termed the urban heat island effect. If the lizards are using temperature as a cue for when to mate, we might then expect that urban lizards breed earlier.
The challenge with studying the breeding biology of these lizards is that it would be very difficult to get a large number of observations across different habitat types. However, we can solve this problem by crowdsourcing; we can ask thousands of people to keep an eye out and document any breeding observations by sending us photos.
Local citizen scientists documented 19 cases of breeding behavior in 2015, and 20 in 2016. We have also received a number of photos from earlier years, all the way back to 2008. Based on these observations, breeding in coastal areas of Southern California can be as early as February 9th, or as late as April 30th, but the peak of breeding tends to be mid-March through mid-April. We are already seeing some interesting patterns. In 2015, 13 of the 19 observations occurred in a single peak of activity between March 17 and April 1. In 2016, we saw two peaks of activity—breeding activity increased in mid-March, but then ceased as a series of cold fronts in late March and early April passed through Southern California. We then had a second peak of activity in mid-April with the return of warmer temperatures and sunny skies.
What will the breeding season be like in 2017? We should know the answer soon, but only with the help of citizen scientists like you! HERE IS WHERE WE NEED YOUR HELP. If you see courting or mating alligator lizards, please take a photo and submit it to the RASCals project. You can do this through iNaturalist, or by emailing the photo to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by using #NatureinLA on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), or by texting us your photos at (213) 663-6632. If you have photos from previous years, please submit those as well. And while you are searching for those amorous alligator lizards, we encourage you to send in photos of any other reptiles and amphibians you come across.
(Oh and don't forget about snails and slugs too for our #Snailblitz photo contest).
**All photos for this blog were taken during the 2016 breeding season and submitted by citizen scientists to the RASCals project.