Calling All Snail and Slug Lovers: SnailBlitz 2017 is On!

February 6, 2017

It is that time of year again, winter in Southern California, and our rainy weather brings out some of LA’s most interesting residents, snails and slugs! Pull out your cameras (or smart phones) for SnailBlitz 2017! From February 1- March 31, 2017, we invite you to send us your photographs of local snails and slugs. You can upload them directly to the SnailBlitz 2017 project on iNaturalist, e-mailing us at slime@nhm.org, texting us at (213) 663-6632, or tag your photo on social media (Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook) using #SnailBlitz. The goal is to reach 1,000 images by midnight on March 31!

Milky slug, Deroceras reticulatum, winner of the best slug photo category. Photo by Emily Han 

Like last year, our scientific goal is to use the power of citizen science + rainy weather (that tends to bring out the snails and slugs) to accelerate our efforts to catalogue the biological diversity of terrestrial gastropods (land snails and slugs) in greater Southern California. These efforts improve our knowledge of species ranges and distribution, and allow us to document rare species and species never before found in Southern California. Last year we had some spectacular finds of rare snails. Not only will your snail or slug observation be useful to science, it could win our SnailBlitz photo contest. Check out our winners from last year. Every observation** will be automatically entered into our #SnailBlitz photo contest. On April 7 we will announce the winners in these categories:

• Grand Prize Winner 

• Best Snail Photo

• Best Slug Photo

• Best snail/slug Meme (must be generated using #SnailBlitz eligible photo)

• Rarest snail/slug Photo

Brown Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum, the most commonly submitted snail in last year's SnailBlitz. Photo by Lila Higgins

Prizes

• Grand Prize Winner will receive: free lunch and behind the scenes tour with Jann Vendetti (NHMLA Curator of Malacology) for you and 3 friends, and one free annual family membership to NHMLA (includes membership for two adults and up to four children age 17 and under)

• Winners in all other categories will receive 4 general admission tickets to NHMLA

Here’s hoping for rainy weather and lots of snail and slug sightings! 

Three for one! Grand prize winner, Jose Cabellero, took this great shot of a Garden Arion slug, Arion hortensis, with a tiny LA-native vertigo snail, Vertigo sp., hitching a ride. Finally, there was a Disc snail, Discus rotundatus, on the same piece of wood.

**Terms and conditions apply, check the project for details. 

(Posted by: Jann Vendetti)


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April 4, 2017

Lizard Fieldwork is Just a Metro Ride Away in Los Angeles

January 19, 2017

TAP Cards and Lizard Nooses—Required Gear of the Urban Field Biologists

Where does a field biologist work? You are probably thinking of some distant place, like a rainforest or desert. But biodiversity discoveries can also be made right here in urban Los Angeles. Regular readers of this blog know that with the help of citizen scientists, Natural History Museum (NHMLA) researchers are often discovering species not previously known to be in this area.  Frogs, lizards, snails, slugs, flies, and spiders—new discoveries are regularly being made, and our field sites are quite often front and back yards.

Green anole population found near Culver City.

Since its initiation in 2013, the RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) Citizen Science Project here at NHMLA has led to the discovery of more than a dozen new populations of lizards living in Southern California. The only catch is these lizards don’t belong here; they’ve come from other parts of the world and could negatively impact our local species by preying upon smaller species or outcompeting our native lizards. 

How are these discoveries made? Usually the story starts with a citizen scientist, like Robert Asahina. This past June, Mr. Asahina, who lives in the Palms neighborhood near Culver City, emailed the RASCals project with photos of two lizards seen in his backyard. Mr. Asahina correctly identified the lizards as green anoles (Anolis carolinensis), and noted “…they’re proliferating in our yard.” Green anoles are native to the Southeastern United States, but not to California. We have documented several populations of green anoles in Southern California, mainly in Orange County, so we were excited, but also alarmed by a potential new population in Los Angeles. The key question was to determine whether this was an established, breeding population.

Being environmentally-friendly scientists, we decided to ride the Metro Expo Line, which conveniently stops at both the Natural History Museum and Palms, to the field site.

We used our TAP cards to enter the Metro station

 

Waiting for the Metro Expo Line train to arrive

We might have stood out in our bright orange NHMLA Urban Nature Research Center t-shirts and ‘field clothes’, but we were on a mission. If you see people wearing these bright orange shirts on the Metro or walking around in public, they are doing urban ecology research! Stop and say ‘hi’ and ask what they are studying. You might be surprised by the diversity of research that is being done in your own neighborhood.

Greg with all his field gear about to board the train

We made it to the neighborhood after a very relaxing Metro ride (no traffic!) and indeed found some suspicious lizards lurking about. We caught a few green anoles and found several juveniles, which indicates that this population is breeding and growing in number. If these lizards spread to areas where native lizards occur, they could negatively impact the local species. We have seen native lizards disappear from other areas where anoles have invaded. 

Can you spot the anole in this picture? These lizards can change color from brown to bright green and back to brown again.

 

Greg has spotted an anole and is attempting to catch it using a noose tied to the end of a fishing pole.

We documented many green anoles in Palms, and as such know that a population is established and is likely spreading. Now that it is winter, the anoles are inactive and waiting for spring and warmer temperatures to arrive. When that occurs, we will go back to determine how widespread they are and if they are interacting with any native lizard species.

This green anole has a light stripe that runs along the back. When we caught it, it was brown, but has since changed to green.

Because Mr. Asahina reported this unusual looking lizard to the RASCals project, we were able to document the second established population of this nonnative lizard in L.A. County. There are almost certainly additional anole populations elsewhere in L.A., just waiting to be discovered by other observant citizen scientists. If you see strange lizards in your yard or neighborhood, email a picture of them to nature@nhm.org, tag them #natureinLA on social media, or submit an observation to our RASCals project on iNaturalist .

**All photos by Bree Putman

(Posted by: Bree Putman and Greg Pauly)

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Museum Scientists Discover Very Rare Flower Fly in Los Angeles!

January 10, 2017

The Museum's Nature Gardens continue to be the gift that keeps on giving by providing precious habitat to wildlife living in the urban core of LA. Last November, we not only had our second alligator lizard sighting, but we also uncovered a rarely seen flower fly from our Malaise trap that collects insects as part of the BioSCAN project. This project has examined over 2,000 flower fly specimens representing 35 species in LA so far, but this rare fly from the garden, Myolepta cornelia, is the only one we have seen so far!

Rare Myolepta cornellia spotted feeding on flowers in the Fullerton Arboretum. Used with permission by photographer Ron Hemberger. 

Before you dismiss this finding as “just another fly,” take a minute to ponder the many talents of these mini-marvels. Faster than a hummingbird, clocking in at 250 wing beats per second (!!!), flower flies spend their day revelling in the garden’s floral buffet. They can fly backwards as easily as they do forwards, or can be spotted hovering perfectly still in mid air, like little meditating, levitating yogis. Just like the beloved bee, they pollinate the flowers they feed upon. In fact, as hymenopteran (the bee, wasp, and ant group) mimics many are mistaken for a wasp or a bee, a trait that offers protection from potential predators.

Flower flies are incredibly diverse! From left to right, top to bottom: Syritta pipiens, Eristalinus taeniops, Orthonevra flukei, Rat-tailed larva, Copestylum marginatum, and Chrysotoxum sp. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey.

 

Their ecological importance does not end there. As wee little fly babies (the maggot or larval stage, in other words), they act as beneficial predators or decomposers, depending on the species. The activity of the larva of our rare special fly M. cornelia is still a mystery to entomologists! We know that many of their close relatives feed on rotting wood in the larval stage and have a preference for oak woodlands, so it is possible that M. cornelia is helping to break down dead wood in the Nature Gardens.

Myolepta cornelia headshot, photo by Lisa Gonzalez

Special thanks to Jim Hogue and Martin Hauser for their identification skills and syrphid fly insight!

Resources:

Brown, Brian, James N Hogue and F. Christian Thompson. "Flower Flies of Los Angeles County". Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. 2011.

Reemer, Menno, Martin Hauser and Martin C. D. Speight. "The genus Myolepta Newman in the West-Palaearctic region (Diptera, Syrphidae)." Studia dipterologica 11 (2004) Heft 2: 553-580.    

(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez)


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L.A.'s Super Bloom

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Your New Year's Resolution: Look for more Snails and Slugs

January 3, 2017

It is a sparkling New Year! But have you sat down and thought long and hard about a New Year's resolution yet? We know that they can be overwhelming, and some people think they're cliche, but we are here to help. The only catch is, it might be a bit unconventional...

NHMLA's recommended New Year's resolution:

I will dedicate my waking hours to looking for snails and slugs in Southern California.

Keelback slug (Genus Ambigolimax) emerging from a stinkhorn mushroom (Family Phallaceae), found in NHMLA's Nature Gardens.

Here's how to get started:

1) Go outside (after it rains can be particularly fruitful).

2) Look for snails and slugs. Damp spots are best--under bushes, among wood pieces in wood piles, between and under rocks or bricks, on tree bark, on plants, among leaves, along wet sidewalks, and popping out of mushrooms! Remember if you flip a log or rock, put it back the way you found it (it is likely an animal's home).

3) Take pictures of any snail and slugs you find. Snails and slugs move slowly, so it is fairly easy to take multiple shots that are in focus. Also, try to take pictures from different angles, particularly for snails. Getting images of the top and sides of the shell can be helpful. If it is a snail-less shell, they can often still be identified. Try to get an image of the shell opening. Don't forget to take note of where you are and the day/time.

4) Send us your pictures. You can submit them directly to iNaturalist (using the free smartphone app, or on your home computer), e-mail them to slime@nhm.org, or tag them #natureinLA on social media.

We are interested in any and all snail/slugs you might find. But because you are not going to do anything by halves with your New Year's resolution, keep on the look out for these five species. If any of these were found in Southern California (and submitted to the SLIME project) they would be new records for the region. They are all native to far off places but may be closer than we think... 

Common names: Zachrysia provisoria-Cuban brown snail, Meghimatium bilineatum-Chinese slug, Parmarion martensi-yellow-shelled semi-slug, Boettgerilla pallens-worm slug, and Veronicella cubensis-Cuban leatherleaf slug.

(Posted by: Jann Vendetti)


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A California Winter For the Birds

December 28, 2016

Male Allen's Hummingbird on a feeder

The museum's Nature Garden is a great place to see birds. Not necessarily one-in-a-lifetime type birds, but enough of a variety that beginners and photographers can find lots to appreciate. Here are some photographs I took on 20 December, 2016 to show that, at a time when much of the country is covered in snow or miserably shivering because of the cold, we here in Los Angeles have an almost unbelievable opportunity to observe colorful wildlife in the center of the city.

Male house finch
Male lesser goldfinch
Mourning dove
Male yellow-rumped warbler (immature)
Allen's hummingbird on palo verde flowers along the Living Wall
(Posted by: Brian Brown)


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Baby Opossums in Your House!

December 13, 2016

Baby opossum season is thankfully coming to a close, but only for a short while! We get quite a few calls here in the Live Animal Programs office when these bumbling troublemakers are out looking for a new place to call home.

Photo by Jill Franklin

A few years back, a young opossum made its home in the engine block of a Museum pool vehicle that hadn’t been used for a while. You can see with the leaves he dragged in, it was a perfectly cozy den. Luckily for him we didn’t start the engine and he was an easy eviction. More recently, a friend of an NHMLA Staffer wrote in a panic questioning how to get an opossum out of her house. It had pulled off a window screen and attempted to make itself at home.

Photo by Leslie Gordon

But we’re lucky. According to one rehabber I know, she gets calls several times a day early February/March and July/August. Of course, the young marsupials aren’t really looking for trouble, but they absolutely find it in our yards, homes, sheds, garages, engine blocks… you name it.

When they emerge from mom’s pouch and start riding on mom’s back, or tagging along behind her is the time when they start getting into trouble. If the mom did not become roadkill, and her scampering young were not grabbed up by a dog or cat, (the former scenarios comprise most of the rehabbers’ calls to rescue babies) they eventually start to look for a place to call their own. And they can call anything a home--under your garage, porch---almost anywhere.

We get our fair share of calls, but the reason it gets especially crazy for rehabbers is because opossums are virtual baby factories. Unlike many mammals, the baby season can happen multiple times a year, and at around 13 babies a litter, that’s a lot of babies! And they are in a hurry, too. They gestate for just 12 days, and when they are born (the size of honeybees), they have just a few minutes to race to one of 13 teats in mom’s pouch. They latch on and nurse for about 100 days, but toward the end of that period, they get large and start riding on mom’s back garbage-man-style. And at just about 3 to 4 months of age they are ready to go on their own! It is shocking to most people to see how small they are when they are technically ready to go. But remember--for an animal that lives maybe 3 years tops, every month is rather like 3 years of ours. And those first few months out of the pouch are clearly a real obstacle course for them.

So what to do if you run into one of these little kiddos when the next season comes around?

#1 Please don’t attract them by feeding. We strongly discourage feeding most any wild animals, especially nonnatives like opossums.

#2. If they are discovered in your trash cans, typically either gaping their giant mouths or playing dead, simply tip the can so they can get out, or put in a ”ladder” so they can escape. This can be a branch, an actual ladder, a crate, almost anything. Often they fall in and get stuck there. Remember, the playing dead routine is very effective. They go stiff, emit an odor and even allow flies to land on their open eyes! If you are unsure, walk away and ensure privacy/escape for at least 2 hours. If it is still there, you may have a dead opossum. If not, your ladder probably helped it get to freedom. 

#3. If they are in your home, you can typically treat them like an equivalent-sized cat. If simply shooing them out with a broom didn’t work and they are very small, throwing a towel over them usually works. Wear heavy gloves if you are worried. If they are larger, your presence is usually enough. But leave a clear, unobstructed exit back out of your home and you'll make outdoors seem more appealing. Just make sure a curious dog or neighbor isn’t blocking the path.

The best advice is to be patient. They’re slow, but they really don’t want to tangle with humans.

City of Los Angeles Animals Services – Wildlife
323-225-9453

Coast and Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation
310-480-1760

County of Los Angeles Animal Control – Wildlife
562-728-4882

Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA – Wildlife
626-792-7151

(Posted by: Leslie Gordon)


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Dragonfly Mouthparts Under the Microscope...the Scanning Electron Microscope

December 6, 2016

These monstrous looking pinchers are the mouthparts of a dragonfly larva imaged with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Amazingly, this image wasn’t taken of the animal itself, but rather of its abandoned exoskeleton (called an exuvium) that the larval and freshwater-living dragonfly (or naiad) leaves behind when it becomes a winged dragonfly. This dragonfly and the ones below are from the family Aeshnidae. 

A green darner dragonfly at NHMLA's Nature Garden. This is a female ovipositing (egg-laying) in the vegetation.

Below is the whole exuvium in glorious detail. You can find these shed exoskeletons on rocks and vegetation at the border of freshwater ponds, steams, and lakes. I found this one amond the reeds in NHMLA's Nature Garden pond.  

Image taken, with thanks, by Kelsey Bailey on a Keyence VHX-5000 digital microscope.

(Posted by: Jann Vendetti)


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The Scoop on Ferndell: Griffith Park's Enchanted "Nature Museum"

November 29, 2016

At the border of the Hollywood Hills and Los Feliz neighborhoods is an enchanting, tree-shaded half-mile trail of Griffith Park that meanders along a trickling stream dotted with ponds. This verdant paradox in the city of Los Angeles has an appropriately puzzling name: Ferndell Nature Museum. If you go there looking for “the Museum,” there isn’t one; the collection of plants and animals living there IS the Museum.

Ferndell trail now (left) and then (right), early 1900s: photo courtesy of Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Frederic Hamer Maude (1858-1959) Collection, ca.1890-1920.

The history of this Griffith Park canyon and what became “Ferndell” or “Fern Dell” includes the natural spring that feeds the stream, a village site of the native Tongva/Gabrielino people, planting of much of the canyon’s greenery in the early 1910s, development of the trails and bridges by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, disrepair in the 1980s, and refurbishment and restoration (in stages) up until today. This human history complements Ferndell’s unique biological composition: it hosts a diverse flora and fauna that, much like nature elsewhere in developed Los Angeles, is a mosaic of native and introduced species.

The ferns of Ferndell are plentiful and include Adiantum and Athyrium, some of which are California natives, but others are non-native. Button and snail ferns (Tectaria sp.), leatherleaf ferns (Rumohra sp.), and tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi) hail from Africa, South America, and Australia. Elephant-ear plants (Colocasia sp. from East, South, and Southeast Asia) and Philodendron selloum (from South America) shade the trail and provide a tropical ambience. Native coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), western sycamore (Platanus racemosa), and California bay (Umbellularia californica) round out a geographically disparate forest that also includes a huge Roxburgh fig tree (Ficus auriculata), climbing English ivy (Hedera helix), and California coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens).

Some exotic plants along Ferndell trail. Clockwise from left: Philodendron selloum, elephant-ear plants (Colocasia sp.), and climbing English ivy (Hedera helix). 

Under this diverse canopy are some of Ferndell’s most charismatic residents, the animals. In the ponds and along the trail are red-eared slider turtles (Trachemys scripta elegans), crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis), large koi (Cyprinus carpio), goldfish (Carassius auratus), guppies (Poecilia reticulata), Corbicula fluminea (prosperity clam), and Oxychilus sp. snails. While many Angelenos are familiar with these residents of magical Ferndell, not one of the aforementioned animal species is native to Los Angeles or even to California!

Clockwise from left: crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), Corbicula fluminea, Oxychilus sp., and mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) along Ferndell trail. 

The “prosperity clam,” Corbicula fluminea, for example, is native to Eastern-Southeastern Asia, Africa, and Australia. In California and elsewhere, this non-native mollusc is also invasive, whereby it easily colonizes and greatly alters freshwater environments changing them profoundly for native species. In Los Angeles County, Corbicula fluminea has been recorded from (among other sites) Lincoln Park Lake, Lake Balboa, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, Frank Bonelli Regional Park, and the Los Angeles River. iNaturalist observations and our collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County are both essential for documenting the occurrence and spread of this species throughout Los Angeles County. As far as we know, our October 2016 discovery of Corbicula fluminea in Ferndell is the first from this location.

Ferndell also hosts diverse native animals including insects (dragonflies, water striders, bees, butterflies), birds (Cooper’s hawk, Nuttall’s woodpecker, California towhee, among many others), mammals (gray and fox squirrels, coyote, bobcat, mule deer, raccoon, rabbits, skunk), and reptiles and amphibians (western fence lizard, Pacific tree frog). Discovering the relationships between native and non-native species, especially in the urban environment of Los Angeles, is one of the goals of NHMLA’s Urban Nature Research Center.

If you haven’t explored Ferndell, I’d recommend it. The trail is a unique and surprising pocket of Los Angeles that is easily accessible, a good entry point for the rest of Griffith Park, and fun for kids. The unusual “Museum” of Ferndell’s flora and fauna almost guarantees to “wow” first time (and repeat) visitors with what is a microcosm of the city’s biodiversity: a complex mix of species that are established and new, native and foreign.

Special thanks to Ryan Ellingson, Miguel Ordenana, Chris Thacker, Lindsey Groves, iNaturalist contributors (cedric_lee, bbunny, and dlbowls), Cooper Ecological Monitoring, and the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. 

(Posted by: Jann Vendetti)


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Abandoned Baby Animals: What Should You Do?

November 3, 2016

Earlier this month, I received an e-mail from a friend of mine asking if I wanted to adopt “a tame squirrel.” I paused and re-read her sentence, and then saw a photo of an extremely cute baby squirrel.

Photo of the baby fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) - an introduced species to the L.A. area.

Through several e-mail exchanges I learned that my friend’s coworker saw the baby squirrel in a park near her home, and was surprised at how unafraid it was of people (it came right up to her and let her touch it). Worried that this squirrel was a lost or abandoned pet, she picked up the squirrel, placed it in a box, and took it to her office. Everyone in her office was amazed that the squirrel was not afraid of people, and that it would let them touch it. That’s when I received the e-mail about the squirrel.

My first thought was, “Oh no! Why was that squirrel picked up?” I did some chastising since I told them that the baby squirrel may not have been lost or abandoned, and that since it was a baby that could explain why it wasn’t afraid of people. I knew that the person who picked up the squirrel thought she was helping, but taking an animal away from its home is not recommended. My friend asked if they should release the squirrel at a nearby golf course, and I quickly said, “No!”

Animals in a successful habitat know where food and water can be found, they know where they can take shelter to avoid predators and the weather, and have enough space to avoid high rates of competition. If this squirrel was placed in that golf course it would not have been familiar with its surroundings, would not know where food, water, or shelter could be found, and it is not likely that the squirrels living in that golf course would have accepted it. Also, if animals are successful in establishing themselves in new areas, they can have a negative effect on the animals already there (example 1, example 2, example 3).

I spoke with Leslie Gordon, who is one of the Managers in NHMLA’s Live Animal Program, and she had some great insight about "helping" wild animals:

It is not just unwise, it is illegal to keep a wild animal without a permit. Squirrels especially make terrible pets. Even those dedicated to raising them (with permits) note they are flighty, inconsistent, difficult, and …well…”squirrelly”.

Fear is a healthy thing for animals- friendliness is not. Wild squirrels (or any animal) can carry a plethora of zoonoses (diseases or parasites that can spread to humans). Squirrels, in particular, can also carry the plague.  So when you see one that seems “unafraid”, that doesn’t necessarily mean it wants to be pals- It may be very ill.

A lack of fear can also mean it has been habituated to humans by feeding. If you have ever heard the term “a fed (blank) is a dead (blank)” that is what it refers to. Squirrels become habituated to humans and unafraid of them. When this happens they become food aggressive and begin to chase any human they find. It begins a loop of aggression (squirrels especially seem to find it satisfying when we run away screaming) that ends up with a squirrel being trapped by the City due to complaints and killed, or worse a kid getting bit. This is why rehabbers go to great lengths to avoid the animal seeing them or associating them with food, so it can be released again and keep its fear of humans.  Don’t feed squirrels (or any wild animal)! 

If you see an animal who is unafraid it is not wrong to leave it alone, especially if it seems otherwise safe, and simply report it to City animal control. They do bring animals to rehabbers when they can.  If it seems in danger of being killed or injured, and you feel you can keep yourself safe from disease or bites, it is okay to bring it to a rehabber or shelter yourself.

I encouraged my friend and her coworker to call a wildlife rehabilitation center, and they found one in Malibu that specializes in squirrel rescues, Coast & Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation. The rehabilitation center was able to accept the squirrel, and through the care of their trained wildlife rehabilitators they believe it will be able to be reintroduced successfully into the wild.

If you see a wild animal that you think needs help, it is recommended that you contact a wildlife rehabilitation center and/or animal control, rather than to try and help the animal on your own. Below is a list of places you may contact.

California Wildlife Center

818-591-9453

City of Los Angeles Animals Services – Wildlife

323-225-9453

Coast and Canyon Wildlife Rehabilitation

310-480-1760

County of Los Angeles Animal Control – Wildlife

562-728-4882

International Bird Research & Rescue Center

310-514-2573

Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA – Wildlife

626-792-7151

South Bay Wildlife Rehab

310-378-9921

Squirrelmender Wildlife Rehab

805-338-0481

Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center

714-374-5587

 

(Posted by: Richard Smart)


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L.A.'s Weirdest Halloween Costume: An Insect Disguised as a Ball of Lint

October 27, 2016

Green lacewing larva disguised as a tiny lint ball, walking up our den wall. Photo by: Martin Schlageter

The other night, as I was walking through the house turning out lights and locking up, I saw a weird, tiny ball of debris—the kind of thing you see in the corner of a house that has multiple pets and an idle vacuum cleaner—making its way up the wall. I called for my husband and said, “What in the world is going on? Does that dust bunny have legs?”

For the next 20 minutes we watched it slowly traverse our wall and tried to capture photographs of it on our small point-and-shoot, hoping to get a closer look on the computer (blurry photo above). The next day my husband submitted a couple of photos of it to iNaturalist and received a prompt answer: green lacewing larva.

Lacewings are beneficial insects in the garden. Their larvae are voracious predators called aphid lions, as aphids are a preferred meal. They also eat a number of other soft-bodied insects, like mealybugs and immature whiteflies, that are considered garden pests. I am always gratified to find their distinctive eggs—individually laid on a minuscule silken stalk—on plants in my garden. It's not unusual to find adult lacewings at night near a porch light, to which they are attracted.

Their larvae look like little alligators, with ferocious sickle-shaped mandibles that are used to capture prey. What my husband and I didn't know was that the larvae also use debris, including the corpses of their victims, to camouflage themselves from both predators and prey. Amazingly, that behavior dates back to the early-to-mid Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago.

Green lacewing larva eating whitefly nymphs. Photo by: Jack Dykinga, courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

Earlier this year, an international team of researchers published a study in which they examined 35 insects, including lacewing relatives, preserved in amber from Myanmar, Lebanon, and France. The researchers were astonished to find the broad range of camouflage already used by insects in the Cretaceous.

"It is very surprising how early in evolution such complex insect behavior developed: The larvae had to search actively for suitable 'camouflage material,' pick it up, and cloak themselves with it," said Dr. Bo Wang, who led the research team, in the study's press release. Dr. Jes Rust, a paleobiologist at the University of Bonn, which participated in the study, explained that camouflage, with its distinct advantages, was 'invented' multiple times in different insect species during evolution.

My husband gently captured the wondrous little ball of lint and took it outside, where we hope it will continue its valued work in our garden.

 

(Posted by: Karen Klabin)


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