Selfie Sticks and Hummingbird Nests

January 7, 2015

We found another hummingbird nest in the Nature Gardens! On December 28th Miguel Ordeñana, Museum Citizen Science Coordinator, found an Allen's Hummingbird, Selasphorus sasin, nest in our cork oak tree.

Female Allen's Hummingbird, photo courtesy of Felipe Lepe. As you can see she's (only female hummingbirds build nests and care for the young) sitting pretty in her nest, but are there any eggs? Over the last few weeks we've observed her sitting in the nest for extended periods of time. This behavior led us all to believe that there were definitely eggs in there. But, we wanted to be sure. As luck would have it, I received a late Christmas present last night–a selfie stick. It was sort of a joke gift, I am a vocal selfie stick hater! I mean, I just can't imagine using one without feeling like a total idiot! However, upon opening this metal and plastic item made in China, my mind immediately went to the hummingbird nest. Would it be long enough to help me see inside, to find out how many eggs were in there? This was something I wouldn't feel like an idiot doing. First thing this morning, I excitedly walk over to the cork oak and telescope my selfie stick out to its maximum length. I get my remote ready, but the thing just wasn't long enough! I trudge back into the Museum, retrieve a step ladder and head back out.

In my opinion this is the ONLY valid use of a selfie stick, notice how my face is NOT in the shot! As I get back to the nest the mother hummingbird was nowhere to be seen. I erect the ladder, slowly wobble upto the top step and hold my selfie stick aloft. It's really hard to keep a long pole with a smartphone steady, but after a few seconds I get a number of shots. I carefully lower my monopod device and look at the pictures. Right there, in the heart of her nest sat two tiny and perfect eggs! Soon after this the mother returned to the nest, and began incubating the eggs again. Although a bit blurry, the image also gives a great view of the fluffy inner lining of the nest. This soft, inner sanctum in comprised of varying natural materials collected by the mother and includes spider webs. That's right, hummingbirds use spider webs to line their nests so they can stretch over time. As the eggs hatch and the two nestlings grow, the nest becomes, as you can imagine rather full. The spider webs help the nest to stretch with the babies! Over the coming weeks (eggs take about three weeks to hatch and the young take just over another three weeks to leave the nest), we'll be keeping a careful eye on this nest. We'll keep you posted and let you know if the eggs hatch successfully, because who doesn't like cute little baby birds? In the meantime, I hope that you, just like me, have a warm fuzzy feeling right next to that selfie stick loathing! p.s. Please feel free to share any nature related #selfiestickhacks #naturespy!  

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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First Lizard Found in Museum's Nature Gardens!

December 23, 2014

On November 19, 2014 something happened at work that I’ve been waiting three and half years for. Unfortunately, I wasn’t here to witness it, but thanks to citizen science I was able to celebrate the discovery, even though I was 6,187 miles away. On that day, newly turned citizen scientist Toni Castillo documented the first lizard in the Museum’s Nature Gardens.

Photo courtesy of Toni Castillo The lizard in question was a Western Fence Lizard, Sceleporus occidentalis, and Toni, a Museum staffer, just happened to see it as she was walking through the gardens. “I was walking next to the Living Wall and saw something in the pathway. At first I thought it was a leaf or a stick, but then I looked closer and realized it was a lizard.” Toni knew that this was a unique find—she’d heard from other Museum staff that no lizards had been documented in the Nature Gardens before—and realized she had to get proof. “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I was really excited and kept thinking, it’s a lizard here! It was like seeing a unicorn. Luckily I had my phone in my back pocket and I was able to pull it out and snap some pictures.” Later that day word spread. Toni told a few other Museum staff and sent them pictures. Everyone was excited—we had built the Nature Gardens as a refuge for wildlife in the city, but we’d still never documented a lizard in the space. The last time anyone had documented a lizard in Exposition Park was in March of 2010, when some citizen science volunteers observed two Western Fence Lizards on the south steps of the Museum. Dr. Greg Pauly, the Museum’s curator of herpetology was another one delighted by the observation, and has high hopes that the lizard will stick around. “This Western Fence Lizard appears to be a male and he is a bit beaten up with a stump-tail.” But, even with these apparent injuries, Greg is still optimistic. “Let’s hope he finds a female and our Gardens become populated with young fence lizards next summer.” This lizard sighting is important for many reasons. Not only is it a first for our Nature Gardens and possibly the beginning of a Museum lizard population, but it is also one of only a few urban L.A. records in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) project. The project has been running for 18 months and has received close to 5,000 observations, but only a very small number of these records are from urban areas. Toni's observation is another small step to helping Greg better understand how lizards and other reptiles and amphibians survive in Los Angeles. So while you’re out and about exploring urban L.A. over the holidays, take a moment to snap pictures of any lizards you see and send them into RASCals to help us make another small step (nature@nhm.org). We really need your help!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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The Loudest Frogs Around

September 21, 2017

Plant Clocks: Telling Seasonal Time in the Nature Gardens

December 11, 2014

Want to know the time of day? Look no further than your wristwatch, clock, computer, or cell phone. For the time of year, though, look to nature. Like a reliable timepiece, certain plants and animals signal the change of season. Just like learning to tell time, anyone can learn to read nature’s seasonal clock. As with so many things here in the Golden State, nature is decidedly different from the rest of the country — our spring really begins in autumn! The current three-year drought aside, L.A’s Mediterranean climate is usually characterized by cool, wet winters and warm, dry summers. California’s native plants have adapted over thousands of years to this cycle and, even before the first raindrops fall from the sky, some plants begin to emerge from their summer resting phase, sprouting new leaves or bursting into bloom.

Manzanita in bloom Manzanitas are among these “first responders”. Here in the Nature Gardens, two types of manzanitas started to bloom well before that marvelous, soaking rain around Thanksgiving: the white-flowered ‘John Dourley’ and the pink-flowered ‘Lester Rowntree’. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees were spotted visiting these early blossoms to get a dose of sugary nectar, inadvertently pollinating the dainty, fragrant flowers. After pollination, the tiny, apple-like fruits (manzanita means little apple in Spanish) will begin to form and will eventually be eaten by mammals, birds, and even humans. Wherever manzanitas grow, food foragers are rediscovering what many Native American tribes learned centuries ago — manzanita berries and flowers are tasty. You can make cider, jam, and a sugary powder with them.

More than 50 kinds of manzanita (Arctostaphylos species) grow wild in California, typically in sunny areas with fast-draining soils. Intrepid hikers can find them clinging to coastal bluffs or steep mountain slopes or forming impenetrable thickets in chaparral. In the Los Angeles area, head to the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains for the best chance of seeing them. Look for their tell-tale smooth, reddish bark and sinuous branches. For adventure seekers of the gardening sort, stroll into a local nursery or botanic garden, where you’ll find a tempting selection of manzanitas, from groundcovers to large upright shrubs. On your next trip to the Museum, make time to explore the Nature Gardens so you can discover these beautiful manzanitas and other signs of fall, or should I say spring? What a grand way to connect with this uniquely Californian season. Written by Carol Bornstein

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

Brainwashed Bees

December 2, 2014

By Brian Brown Some of you might have heard about the "ZomBee" project, both at our museum and perhaps at its source. It appears that honey bees parasitized by a phorid fly called Apocephalus borealis change their behavior and fly to lights in the evening. I witnessed this phenomenon myself in Pasadena a couple of nights ago, where dozens of bees were circling a porchlight and crawling on the side of a house at 8pm.

Apocephalus borealis, the "zombie fly"

Apocephalus borealis, the "zombie fly"This is just a reminder that if you see or hear about this type of abnormal bee behavior, please let us know so we can investigate.  

(Posted by: Emily Hartop)


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The Real L.A. Noir: The True-life Insect Cannibals and Murderers in our Midst

November 12, 2014

The coffin fly. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey. As you get into your car in the parking lot of the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, you might just be within arm’s reach of cannibals. Not the human kind – but the insect variety. Inside a wasp that is buzzing around a nearby bush dwells a bug known as the twisted wing parasite. These tiny insects are genetically close to flies and resemble nothing so much as a small black speck. But placing that speck under a microscope reveals huge, orb-like eyes that, as entomologist Emily Hartop puts it, look like sinister purple boysenberries. Although the twisted wing parasite’s name comes from the seemingly malformed wings of the male of the species, the female has no wings. In fact, she has no legs, not even functional mouthparts – she is literally just a sac containing eggs and fat cells.

Twisted wing parasite. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey. When she is ready to mate, she partially burrows out of her wasp host’s rear end, exposing her head and shoulders. She sends out an alluring chemical scent, a pheromone, to attract her mate, who flies in from afar and expertly inseminates her behind the head. She waits patiently for her eggs to develop and hatch. Then, she becomes a host of sorts: Her larvae slowly devour her as they thrive. When they are ready to search for their own wasp hosts, they wriggle out from behind her head, leaving her shell-like exoskeleton behind. Each female twisted wing parasite can bear 2,590 offspring this way. (The wasp survives the entire ordeal relatively unscathed; its only scar is that it is now sterile.) This is one of the true tales of L.A. noir unfolding around you – down in the depths of the soil, around the corners of buildings, and under the bushes of Southern California’s dark underbelly. I know about these monsters because I study insects at the Natural History Museum, where I work alongside the entomologists and volunteers (we call them “citizen scientists”) who trap and find them. I can tell you that L.A. is no City of Angels so far as insects are concerned. Death Becomes Her Some of my favorite bugs congregate around dead bodies. One place you might find them is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, possibly circling around the head of the Johnny Ramone statue. To the untrained eye, they might look like any old gnat. But each of these bugs has a pair of huge eyes that look like they’re covered in mesh, long slender legs, and transparent wings. Couples like to meet in the air and fall to the ground in a moment of insect ardor. They are Conicera tibialis, more famously known as coffin flies. After the mating pair has parted, the female fly locates dead or decaying tissue (by smell, scientists presume) so she can lay her eggs. She can burrow almost seven feet underground, which is good because, if she’s looking for human tissue, it is often, as the adage says, about six feet under. She lays her eggs in the nooks and crannies around the coffin, and lets her maggots do the stealthy work of sneaking into the actual casket. If all this seems like a lot of work, it is. Oftentimes these flies eschew the dead humans and instead go for easy pickings such as the pet dog you buried in the backyard last week. Murder in the L.A. River As the runners, bikers, and strollers make their way along the path next to the Los Angeles River in Frogtown, the water gurgles by and the bushes gently rustle in the wind. But this idyllic scene masks murders happening just beneath the water’s surface.

Dragonfly nymph. Image courtesy of Chris Goforth. Baby dragonflies, otherwise known as nymphs, are voracious predators. Measuring from the size of a peppercorn up to an inch and half, these muted brown bugs blend in nicely with the muddy bottom at this part of the L.A. River. When prey swims by – it could be a fish, a tadpole, or a dragonfly sibling — the nymph unleashes its hidden jaws-of-death. Within a microsecond, the jaws snap onto the stunned victim and pull it in to be eaten alive. Nymphs can consume multiple meals a day in the watery depths—they are true cold-blooded serial killers. Off With Their Heads Another of my favorite ghoulish insects was discovered last November in Glendale in the big yards of the big houses sitting snugly up against the Verdugo Mountains. There, a large ant serves as the mansion of tiny Pseudacteon californiensis, or the ant-decapitating fly. These ants, known as velvety tree ants, make for nice homes because they are larger than the usual black ants you find invading your cat’s food bowl or committing suicide in your freezer during a heat wave. And they also have curb appeal: a velvety black abdomen and reddish-orange thorax. Perhaps that’s why P. californiensis has evolved to infect this ant and no other.

Ant decapitating fly. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey. Instead of a U-Haul, the female P. californiensis moves into her host by inserting her needle-like egg-laying device (ovipositor) into a weak point between two of the ant’s abdominal plates. She lays one solitary egg and flies away. Inside the ant, the egg hatches, and the maggot journeys to the ant’s head, where it chews its way through various tissues. Eventually, the ant is decapitated and dies—and the adult fly emerges through the oral cavity in a scene reminiscent of a horror film. ‘Zombees’ Zombies are all the rage in Hollywood—but real zombified bees might actually be invading Los Angeles any day now. Since 2011, infected bees have been spotted from Seattle to Santa Barbara. We’re not sure if they’ve arrived here already, but we recently set out traps in the Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens to find out. “Zombees” begin their lives as normal honey bees, Apis mellifera. But when they meet a tiny honey-colored fly with dark eyes known as the zombie fly, Apocephalus borealis, these bees begin living a nightmare. The tiny female zombie flies insert their needle-like ovipositor into the abdomens of their bee hosts. They typically deposit a number of eggs, which hatch into maggots after a few days. Up to 15 maggots can survive inside of one honeybee, eating the bee’s insides. Right before the maggots are ready to turn into pupae, the next stage of their development, the zombee is somehow inspired to leave its hive at night—for what some call a flight of the living dead. These zombified bees are attracted to light, circling porch lights or writhing under lit windows in the early hours of the morning. About seven days later, the maggots erupt en masse from the neck region of the bee. They then crawl a short distance away, pupate, and emerge as adult flies nine days later, ready to find their next victim. When I pull dragonfly nymphs out of the L.A. River, or when I look at a zombie fly under a microscope, I revel in the fact that I’m privy to a tiny world that often goes unnoticed. Some people are afraid of bugs – and if you know what they’re doing to each other, it’s not hard to understand why. But bugs define our city as much as people do. If we don’t understand their lives and worry about their future, we’re not planning for our own future, either. And in a town that’s full of sequels and remakes and adaptations, the true stories of their lives are much stranger than our Hollywood fiction. With special thanks to the Museum’s BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science City and Nature) staff, particularly principal investigator Dr. Brian Brown, who designed and implemented the study of L.A.’s insects that discovered many of the creatures highlighted in this article. For more information about BioSCAN, check out the project page. *This was originally written for Zocalo Public Square

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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We Found a Western Red Bat in the Nature Gardens: A Small Visitor with Big Implications

October 31, 2014

Western red bat, Lasiurus blossevillii, photo by Ted Weller, US Forest Service. Happy bat week everybody—we have bat-tastic news to share with you just in time for Halloween!  Over the month of September we recorded not just one, but TWO new species of bats that had never before been detected in the Museum’s Nature Gardens. Firstly we found the non-migratory and somewhat urban-adapted canyon bat, Parastrellus hesperus. This bat is common throughout the southwest and is strongly associated with rocky crevices found in canyons. Because they roost in these dark places and are able to remain in the same location year-round, this may mean they can adapt to roosting in urban spaces in L.A.—anything from cracks in concrete underpasses to crevices on hillsides that are too steep for development. However, even more exciting was the detection of a second species. In fact, I was so surprised to see this bat turn up that I had to get a second and third opinion. Behold the western red bat, Lasiurus blossevillii, which hasn’t been recorded near the Museum since 1941!

Western red bat in the Museum's Mammalogy collections. Unlike the canyon bat and other urban bats, western red bats are especially sensitive to urbanization.  The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has included them in the state’s list of sensitive species, and many local bat experts considered this bat to be absent from the Los Angeles basin. However, back in 2007 some of my scientist colleagues, Dan Cooper and Stephanie Remington, detected red bats in Griffith Park, which finally proved that these bats can persist in the city. I didn’t expect red bats to be found in the Nature Gardens. Although the detection in Griffith Park and a few more in other parts of the Santa Monica Mountains, gave me hope, I was still pessimistic about detecting red bats at the Museum. Our gardens are much smaller than the wild spaces in the Santa Monica Mountains, and we’re much deeper in the urban core.  Also, the bat detector I help to manage in Griffith Park hasn’t detected any red bats since it was installed in 2012. Everything changed on September 1, 2014. After I downloaded the data from the bat detector in the gardens, I noticed an interesting recording that I thought matched the call of a western red bat.  I shared the call with bat echolocation monitoring experts, Ted Weller from the U.S. Forest Service and Joe Szewczak from Humboldt State University—they were surprised by the recording. They both leaned towards identifying it as a red bat but it wasn’t the best quality recording so they recommended that I waited until I had a second one to make a more informed identification. I anxiously waited a few days and then recovered the next two weeks of data. Bingo! On September 12, we got another recording and this one was able to be positively identified as a western red bat!  I sent my bat colleagues the call and they unanimously decided that the Nature Gardens had indeed visited by a red bat, possibly on two separate occasions. Years ago, red bats used to migrate south from Canada and overwinter here in Southern California. However, much has changed over the last hundred years in the region, and urbanization and western red bats don’t mix so well. So, It will be interesting to see if the bat—or maybe it was two red bats—sticks  around the Nature Gardens and stays with us or the winter, or if it continues to head further south. The detection of this tree roosting specialist points towards the importance of conserving natural habitat in cities because places like the Nature Gardens at the Museum can provide valuable habitat that these species still need in urban areas. It is also an indication that our little and wild oasis (3 ½ acres) is meeting its goal as both an urban wildlife research site and valuable habitat for wildlife in our city. Written by Miguel Ordeñana  

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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We Found Bats Living at the La Brea Tar Pits!

October 9, 2014

If you’ve ever been to the La Brea Tar Pits you might have wondered if bats were around during the last Ice Age when saber-toothed cats (Smilodon fatalis), Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi), and dire wolves (Canis dirus) roamed the land that is now our city. Well, we’re happy to tell you that the answer is yes, and we’ve recently discovered that bats are still flying over the tar pits on a regular basis!

Me hanging out with a pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) during field work—one of only two species of bats recovered from the prehistoric Tar Pits. But how do we know that bats are still living in the Miracle Mile? It’s all thanks to bat detectors. Bat detectors are devices myself and other scientists use to record the ultrasonic calls—remember echolocation from biology class—that bats use to communicate, hunt, and find their way around in the dark. I then use special computer programs that turn the calls into sonograms so I can visualize the call. Because each bat species’ call is distinct, I can then tell which bats have been flying near my detector.

Here are some sonograms of bats I detected at the L.A. Zoo: Pictured top is the canyon bat (Parastrellus hesperus), and below is the Western mastiff (Eumops perotis). In early July, I set up a bat detector along the shore of the big lake at the Tar Pits. I knew the site seemed like great bat habitat because it has a body of water which helps to support insects (a.k.a. bat food), and there are lots of trees for bats to roost in. However, this still felt like a big gamble to me. There are no bat specimens from the Tar Pits or Hancock Park in the Museum’s Mammalogy collection, and this is really expensive gear. But after communicating with our paleontologists that work at the Page Museum, I learned that bats did in fact use the area during the last Ice Age. Research conducted by Bill Akersten (former curator at the Page Museum) in the late 1970s found that unlike the hundreds of dire wolves that have been found at the Tar Pits, bat fossils were rarely recovered because they are fragile and small. Only two bat species have been confirmed at the Tar Pits, the pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus), and the hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus).  Although the environment has gone through dramatic changes since then, I find it remarkable that these two species still live in our region. But how many bats call the Tar Pits home today? Just two months after I installed our bat detector in July 2014, we have discovered four species of bats at the Tar Pits! The detector has recorded the following species big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), canyon bat (Parastrellus hesperus), Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis), and Yuma myotis (Myotis yumanensis). I don’t find it that surprising that we didn’t record the pallid, or hoary bat as these species are more sensitive to urbanization. However, I’m hopeful that the gardens we’ve been planting at both the Tar Pits, and the Nature Gardens at NHMLA will provide good habitat for more species of bats. Case in point—in September 2013, the Museum’s Mammalogy Collections Manager, Jim Dines, and I set up a bat detector in the Museum’s Nature Gardens. Over the last year, we’ve recorded four species of bats in the gardens. If you want to hear that story, you’ll have to wait until later this month during National Bat Week! So turn your echolocation on and stay tuned, and in the mean-time take a moment to think about the bats that fly over the Tar Pits and your neighborhood nightly, and what life would have been like for bats, birds, and bees in the Ice Age!

(Posted by: Miguel Ordenana)

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Beneath the Perch

June 23, 2017

Bugs OUTSIDE of BioSCAN

September 13, 2014

Every once in a while, those of us here at BioSCAN actually venture beyond the borders of Los Angeles. Sometimes when we do, we come back with insects. I was particularly excited by a couple of common, yet beautiful, insects I picked up in the South-Eastern Sierras this summer, so I thought I'd share them with you!

Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption] The beauty above is a cicada, family Cicadidae. Although they are not commonly found in Los Angeles (although we did hear, and then locate, one in the NHMLA Nature Garden not long ago), cicadas of many species are found throughout California. Most cicadas have a lifespan between 2 and 5 years, with the lifespan of some species as long as 13–17 years! I collected this beauty at my annual family campout in the Sierras; from what we remember, we have a "cicada year" about every 6 or 7 years. We know as soon as we step out of our cars at the campsite when the cicadas are around — the noise is deafening! The discarded shells of the immature cicadas (called exuviae) can be found on sagebrush and pinyon pines everywhere (below is a photograph of one on a pinyon trunk).

Photo of cicada exuvia by Emily Hartop.

Photo of cicada exuvia by Emily Hartop. The majority of a cicada's life is spent underneath the ground as a flightless immature, munching on plant roots. Once the cicadas emerge from the ground, crawling up shrubs and trees to molt into the beautiful winged adults, they only live a few days. As with quite a number of insects, the one job of the adult insect is to mate. The specimen up top and the one below were actually collected after the cicadas had passed away of natural causes.

Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey. Don't let the beautiful eyes of this next insect fool you, these flies give a nasty bite! They are deer flies from the family Tabanidae, but I have known them since childhood simply as the dreaded "green flies" of summer.

Photo of tabanid by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo of tabanid by Kelsey Bailey.One look at the mouthparts of these critters and it's no surprise the bite hurts — tabanids use their mouthparts to slash at your skin and then lap up the blood. Luckily for my family at our campout, they are also incredibly slow and easily killed. Family members managed to swat quite a few of these flies for me to take home as specimens!

Banded-Wing Dragonfly photo by Emily Hartop.

Banded-Wing Dragonfly photo by Emily Hartop.I'll leave you with a picture of a beautiful banded-wing dragonfly that perched on my car antenna. This was the closest I got before it flew away, it would have been lovely to grab a better image. Dragonfly nymphs live in running water, and are amazing predators (watch this video and I guarantee you will be impressed!). This dragonfly probably lived in the South Fork of the Kern River, not far from where I spotted it at the campsite. ...and that concludes bugs OUTSIDE of BioSCAN. We'll be back to our normally scheduled programming next week.

(Posted by: Emily Hartop)


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A Fig with a View

June 13, 2017

The Shrunken Headed Spider Stalking Fly!

September 5, 2014

Today’s parasitic fly marvel comes in the form of an absurdly cute group of round, woolly bodied insects known as the small-headed flies (family Acroceridae). A handful of specimens of Turbopsebius diligens, the only species known west of the Rocky Mountains, turned up in only two of our BioSCAN traps, in Hollywood and University Park, an area just north of the USC Campus. At first glance, T. diligens might look like an oddly shaped bee, but to my eye, it’s as if someone took two craft pom-poms to make a miniature snowman, stuck a small fly head with giant fly eyes on top, added 6 legs and voila! To add to this bizarre image, picture this little fuzzball in motion, as humorously described by entomologist F.R. Cole: “(T. diligens) has a floating sort of flight, rather undulating and uncertain. It has the habit of buzzing around in circles when it falls over on its back on a smooth surface, often doing this for some time before it can regain its feet; most of the time it is making a high, thin humming sound.”

Acroceridae 15271_newedit copy 2

Turbopsebius diligens. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption] Delightful as that may be, small-headed flies do not just clown around town amusing those lucky enough to spot one; they are diligently on the hunt for other organisms that they can use as a resource to carry on their species. Their target is a spider, specifically spiders known as funnel weavers such as the common Hololena curta and Rualena sp.

Funnel web spider image

Example of a funnel web spider. Photo Copyright 2008 by sree314.[/caption] As you may now know from previous posts about parasitoid behavior, often the mother will inject a single egg or multiple eggs into the host using a modified structure at the end of her body called an ovipositor, but not the small-headed fly! They do things a bit differently. Instead, the fly mama will lay her eggs nearby the spider, even on the "front doormat" of the entry way to the spider's funnel. When the eggs hatch, the emerging larvae are free-living, so called planidial larvae, meaning they need to wiggle their way around the web and penetrate the spider's body, often mainly through the leg joints. Once inside, the larva moves to the spider's lungs where it can then enter a dormant stage , waiting it out (sometimes for several years!) until the spider is an adequate size for its parasite's development to be complete. Once the spider is large enough, the larva itself begins to grow and reach its final molt. At this point, the spider suddenly falls under the spell of the small-headed fly's Jedi mind tricks and spins its final web around itself, forming a protective cocoon so that the larva can consume the spider and finish its final stage of metamorphosis in peace and safety. Eventually a new generation of bumbling fuzzballs will emerge, and the story of the small-headed fly will carry on. Special thanks to Chris Borkent for the identification and information, and Emily Hartop for her impressive alliterative skills. References Cole, F. R. 1919. The dipterous family Cyrtidae in North America. Transactions of the American Entomological Society 45(1): 1–79. Marshall, Stephen A. 2012. Flies: the natural history and diversity of Diptera. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books.

(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez )


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Collembollanesque Wasp

August 28, 2014

wasp_id (1)

At first glance, you might think the BioSCAN specimen above is a collembolan, or springtail (Wikipedia on springtails here.). As is often the case in the insect world, however, we find that truth is stranger than fiction. The insect above is Neodusmetia sangwani, and it's actually a flightless wasp in the family Encyrtidae. These little critters were disseminated by aircraft in 1971 as part of one of the most massively successful biological control projects of all time. Introduced from India into the Southern United States in 1964 for the control of another insect, the Rhodes grass scale, they can now be found all the way from the U.S. to Brazil. Rhodes grass scales infect (guess what?) grasses and were a very problematic pest for both the turf and cattle industries beginning in the 1940s. Since its introduction in the 1970s, Neodusmetia sangwani has been saving those industries billions. So next time you enjoy a lawn, golf course, baseball field, steak, or hamburger… know that this little wasp has helped that happen! Many thanks to John Noyes for supplying identification and information.

(Posted by: Emily Hartop )

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