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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Keep the observations coming! And stay tuned for more highlights from RASCalsBlitz 2017 as well as the announcement of our winners in August.
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
Runner up: Image by @finatic
Best Snail Photo Winner: Image by @alex_bairstow
Runners up: both by @alex_bairstow
Best Slug Photo Winner: Image by @dlbowls
Runner up: Image by @kimssight
Rarest Snail/Slug Photo Winner: Image by @silversea_starsong
Thank you to all who participated in #SnailBlitz 2017, we look forward to seeing even more slimy photos next year!
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!"
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!