Load More

Straighten Up and Fly Right, “Collective Wisdom” in Pigeon Flocks

September 27, 2016


Our fearless, GPS-tracked homing pigeon leader, poised to steer the flock astray. Photo by: Zsuzsa Ákos

In a recent study published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers from the University of Oxford have discovered that pigeons have more reasoning capacity than urban-dwelling humans have ever credited them.

It was previously thought that “bad” flock leaders that made navigational mistakes would propagate their errors down through a hierarchical decision-making system in species that travel together, like the homing pigeon (above and below). 'Lo and behold, the researchers found that those fast but not necessarily competent avian captains can be overruled by the collective wisdom of the group. Yo, Aristotle!

Lead author Isobel Watts explains in the University's news release that the researchers were interested in how much control the “top” bird actually exerted over its inferiors. Flock leaders were in essence jet-lagged using a "clock-shifting" technique that scrambled their sense of direction, and then, with their flock study-group partners, fitted with GPS trackers. The study found that the “misinformed” leaders tended to lose their place at the top of the hierarchy, and the flock would generally correct its faulty homing instinct and stay on course. Watts says that “[t]he exact mechanism by which a flock is able to correct for misinformation coming from its leader is still unclear. However, we can speculate that it may be due to either misinformed flock leaders doubting their own abilities and paying more attention to what their flockmates appear to be doing, or the flock members recognizing weakness in the leader and taking more control themselves."

Clearly, this is not a confident-looking pigeon. Photo by: Zsuzsa Ákos

Co-author Dr. Dora Biro points out that the ability of the group to correct a mistake of a wayward leader would be “particularly important in migratory bird species, where getting lost during a trip could be a matter of life and death.” Collective wisdom is also the soul of our democracies, although the human experiment is ongoing.







(Posted by: Karen Klabin)


Late Summer in the NHMLA Nature Gardens

September 20, 2016

Dioprosopa clavata. Photo by Brian Brown.

With the flowering of the buckwheats almost completely finished, the insect activity has temporarily dropped off in the Nature Gardens. I say temporarily because the coyotebush, Baccharis 'Centennial,' is almost ready to flower, and when it does the 1913 Garden becomes an insect photographer's paradise. 

Green fig beetles (Cotinis mutabilis). Photo by Brian Brown.

Until that happy event, only a few days away, the action is now best seen in the Edible Garden. Not only are the Green Fig beetles (above) swarming all over flowers and fruits, other insects are also concentrating on the relatively large number of flowers available. 

Anthomyiid fly. Photo by Brian Brown.

Some of them are what what we consider pests, like the larvae of the anthomyiid flies (adult pictured above), which are known as root maggots for their feeding on onions and other buried bulbs. Others we look at more benignly, like the flower flies, such as the Dioprosopa clavata (top), whose larvae feed on aphids. All of them, however, are part of our urban biodiversity, which makes the Nature Garden the best place in Los Angeles to photograph and see insects!


(Posted by: Brian Brown)

1 Comment


Mutant Snail!

September 10, 2016

Take a close look at this Brown Garden Snail, Cornu aspersum. Instead of the usual two optical tentacles (a.k.a. eye stalks), this snail has three! The photo was sent to us by one of our citizen scientists, Rhondi Ewing and added to our Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments project. There aren't many records of land snails with this sort of mutation, but a number of sea slugs (nudibranchs) have been recorded with forked appendages. Check out the iNaturalist page Amazing Aberrants. The project aims to collect observations of any "organism that differs in colour pattern or another visual trait due to genetics. This includes any albino, leucistic or melanistic creature as well as gynandromorphs." 

p.s. Gynandromorphs are organisms that exhibits both male and female characteristics. 



(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


We Want Your Baby (Lizard) Photos!

September 8, 2016

People all over L.A. have been finding baby lizards lately. Here are a few of my favorites: 

Okay, so this one was found by me, but I mean come on is there anything cuter than a baby western fence lizard? Found while hiking in Griffith Park (August 9), I moved him off the trail so he wouldn't get stepped on.

My friend Yara Zair posted this picture to her Instagram account @califlorescence of a wee alligator lizard found while watering her garden in Hermon (August 26).

This baby lizard came via text message from fellow @nhmla staffer Laurel Dickow. Her cat found it in her Highland Park kitchen (August 17). She gently helped it to the out-of-doors, with the aid of a plastic cup.

Want to find out more about baby lizards? Check out NHMLA herpetologist, Greg Pauly's blog about them. More importantly, send us your baby lizard pictures. Not only will we create the cutest baby lizard collage you have ever seen, but it will also help science. Our RASCals citizen science project aims to better understand reptiles and amphibians in the region, including when they reproduce. You can share your baby lizard pics (or any reptile or amphibian photo for that matter) on social media using #NatureinLA, or send them via e-mail to rascals@nhm.org, or upload them directly to our project page on iNaturalist.

Happy lizarding!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


L.A. Spider Survey News: Locally Rare Ground Spider Found in La Mirada Backyard

September 6, 2016

We are never sure what we are going to find when we go collecting in the backyards participating in the BioSCAN project.  We expect the usual suspects: widows, cellar spiders, various ground spiders, orb weavers, jumping spiders, and funnel web weavers.  Sometimes we find less commonly collected spiders, like green lynx spiders or crab spiders.  But, every once in a while, we find a spider we have never seen before.  In March and again in May, we collected a spider new to our survey in a backyard in La Mirada.  Falconina gracilis (this spider has no common name), in the family Corinnidae, has been collected in small numbers in only a few locations in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties since 2013. Originally from South America, it is also found in parts of the US south. It is a ground spider usually found in damp areas under rocks, logs, wooden boards. It is medium sized, and dark brown with a characteristic pattern of light spots on the abdomen.

This is a new spider for our Los Angeles Spider Survey and the museum's collection and we will be looking for more when we go out again.


(Posted by: Jan Kempf)


Breaking Arachnophobia News!

September 1, 2016

A local silver garden orbweaver, Argiope argentata, in our Spider Pavilion. 

In a study published in Current Biology, researchers from two Swedish universities have used arachnophobes to demonstrate the success of "memory disruption" in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The authors set out to improve on the results of exposure therapy, in which a patient is gradually exposed to the object or context that provokes fear, anxiety or trauma. (In the study's case, subjects were exposed to photos of spiders.)

Exposure therapy works by replacing an old fear memory with a safer one. But sometimes exposure therapy fails to have a lasting effect because the "learning" during treatment is not permanent. In other words, the old lifelong spider phobia—commenced in a childhood freak-out about a spider crawling across the bedroom ceiling—creeps back into the fore of memory retrieval.  

Researchers from Uppsala University and Karolinska Institutet theorized that if you could prevent that old fear from being reconsolidated in your memory, you could more successfully treat the anxiety disorder. They found that if they gave arachnophobes a "mini-exposure" designed to activate their fear memory 10 minutes before carrying out longer exposure therapy they could reduce the fear response. A simple but elegant solution to improving treatment for phobias. And spiders need all the help they can get. 

Want to try your own version of exposure therapy? Stop by our Spider Pavilion exhibit this fall. You can experience spiders up close and personal, in a safe space with Museum professionals on hand to answer all your questions.


(Posted by: Karen Klabin)


Moth Flies Living in Your Drain?

August 30, 2016

Is this guy in your drains, too? Moth fly larva. Photo by: Kelsey Bailey

Have you ever gone into your bathroom and noticed tiny, dark, gnat-like bugs flitting around your sink? If you try to drown one with a spray of the faucet, it miraculously rises from the deluge like a minuscule, winged Lazarus. You may regularly find the gnats hanging out on the bathroom wall, and because they are relatively sedentary and witless, unlike your wily common house fly, you can leisurely grab a square of toilet paper and smush them, which leaves a dark smudge on your wall. It is the kind of bug for which you instinctively have disaffection. More so when you know the reason for their presence in your bathroom: their larvae are living in your drain.

Moth fly larva, lover of "bacterial slime." Photo by: Kelsey Bailey

The bugs, aptly named Clogmia albipunctata (family Psychodidae) and commonly known as moth or drain flies, thrive in dark, moist environments, like drains and sewers, or outdoors in fetid, mucky little pools of water (called phytotelmata, which is where the larva pictured above was found). One adult female moth fly can lay masses of 30-100 eggs, from which the larvae emerge within two days. Garden Insects of North America describes the ideal larval environment as a place “where stagnant water supports growth of bacterial slime,” which, if you're like me, will alarm you about the condition of your bathroom drains. Fortunately, while the brown, bristly, worm-like larvae inhabit those concealed sludgy environments, you'll only encounter them in their fuzzy adult form as they emerge into the light looking for a mate. They are known as moth flies because they have dense hairs on their wings that shed like a moth's scales. This is the debris left on your wall when you smush them. Because they are tiny flies, with wingspans of only 3-5 mm (half the length of the larvae), it's impossible to see with the naked eye their amazing resemblance to a moth. 

The moth fly is undeniably cute in magnification. Photo courtesy of: Sanjay Acharya, Wikimedia Commons

Providing the moth flies steer clear of my toothbrush, I'll agree to a ceasefire. 

---Karen Klabin

Postscript by NHMLA curator of entomology Brian Brown: "I have considerably more affection for moth flies, which I think of as squatting, sedentary, gnome-like little flies that don't hurt anyone or anything. That their dragon-like larvae can live out of sight and beyond our notice within our plumbing makes me happy that an otherwise unoccupied habitat in my house is being used."






(Posted by: Karen Klabin)

1 Comment


Monarch Chrysalis Gets a Hotel Upgrade

August 25, 2016

Many people know that camera traps capture photos of mammals, but few people know that they are also good at detecting the presence of other animals. Camera traps are motion-activated cameras used mainly to target terrestrial mammals.  Surprisingly, I regularly detect insects and other arthropods as well. Not in the pictures but inside the actual camera trap—because they make homes out of the camera trap housing! When checking cameras, I've been surprised to find everything from large black widows to hundreds of earwigs flowing from the camera trap case. In fact, a select few of the spiders even become data points for the NHMLA Spider Survey!

The Urban Nature Research Center is currently surveying 17 backyards between Santa Monica and Riverside for a variety of taxonomic groups. We have installed a number of specialized collecting tools, such as Malaise traps to sample for flying insects and camera traps to detect mammals that may go unnoticed by homeowners. We were checking on a site in Gardena where Ron Matsumoto, the homeowner, has transformed his backyard into a wild butterfly garden. Ron has planted his landscape with an assortment of host plants that accomodate different butterfly species. Checking the inside of one of my camera traps in his yard, I noticed a beautiful monarch chrysalis! 

Camera trap security case containing a monarch chrysalis.

Closer look at monarch chrysalis.

Unfortunately, it was loosely attached to a web and fell out of the box as I was checking the camera. No problem! Lisa Gonzalez, Entomology Collections Manager, was on the case. At first I considered putting the chrysalis back in the box, but Lisa and I thought the butterfly would have better luck emerging in an unenclosed space. She used a sewing kit to thread a string through the top of the chrysalis and then hung it on a nearby branch. 

Lisa threading the chrysalis with a string.

Lisa choosing a safe spot to hang the relocated chrysalis.

Chrysalis hanging in its new location.

Ron wasn't with us during our visit, but because he keeps a close eye on his butterfly garden he discovered the chrysalis on his own. He even let us know that we hung it on a Copper Canyon daisy (Tagetes lemmonii) and sent us a picture that suggests the monarch emerged successfully from the chrysalis!  

Empty chrysalis. Photo Credit: Ron Matsumoto

I was impressed with the resilience of the chrysalis, not to mention Lisa's ingenuity and sewing skills. If the monarch made it, Ron has provided an array of plants for its feeding and reproduction. 

I am always excited to see photos captured by a camera trap, and the occasional surprises in the camera housing only add to the suspense!



(Posted by: Miguel Ordeñana)


A Campus Trek, Wildlife Camera In Hand

August 23, 2016

Esparanza elementary school students wrote about another one of their urban wildlife explorations on campus with the help of their renaissance principal, Brad Rumble. Once again, they knocked it out of the park! I spent an afternoon with some students to talk about the ins and outs of camera trap research. From finding an optimal location, the technology, why camera traps are handy tools for assessing the health of an ecosystem, to cool local discoveries already made with camera traps (obviously I talked about P-22 our Griffith Park Mountain Lion).

Miguel introduces students to camera trap technology.

The initial idea of the camera trap was to revisit an outreach initiative I tried out at Brad's previous school, Leo Politi Elementary. I had donated a camera trap to Leo Politi, which was a big hit until it was stolen a few months later.

A Virginia Opossum detected by a camera trap at Leo Politi elementary school.

The idea for the Esperanza camera was to monitor their new campus habitat as part of a campus BioBlitz (which was reported on by PC Magazine article). However, the idea expanded into involving the students in tracking the progress of the garden as plants establish and new wildlife species are attracted to the area.   

Kevin talking to Miguel about the interesting white color of the poppies.


Miguel reviewing camera trap photos with the students.

Students were so excited about writing this blog, that they came in on their summer vacation to work on it. Their previous article about their encounter with a poorwill was equally special but this article was personally special because I had the wonderful honor to be included in their story. Needless to say, it was a very moving experience to hear them tell the story in front of me.  When you read it, you may enjoy it even more if you imagine two young voices reciting the story in sync.

Kevin and Jennifer reciting their stories with assistance from their principal, Brad Rumble.

"Wildlife cameras are really cool, so it was a happy problem for us to walk the campus with Miguel Ordeñana of NHMLA to find the best place to install one.

We first considered the courtyard, where we’d been observing a Mourning Dove on her nest high in a coral tree for a week or so. Sure enough, her long tail feathers were evident far outside the nest.

Esparanza students showing Miguel a mourning dove in a nest.

From there we visited the southwest corner of campus, where a bungalow and the asphalt below it were removed, making room for the native California habitat we will plant this November. Here two camouflaged Mourning Doves who were foraging on the ground startled us when they suddenly fled. Among the scores of California golden poppies in bloom there, one plant stood out because all its blooms were a brilliant white. None on this plant were orange. Why not? We decided to research this on another day.

An interesting patch of biodiversity is our newly planted trio of palo verde trees on W. 7th Street, so we headed there to take a look. The trees’ bright yellow flowers were teeming with pollinators, including carpenter bees, paper wasps and European honey bees. Would a motion-activated wildlife camera be able to capture it all?

Carpenter bee pollinating a Palo Verde.

As we walked towards another potential site for the camera, a large black bird flew above us. Quickly we narrowed it down to an American Crow or Common Raven. Bigtime bird detective Yonatan happened to be playing near us. He explained that he was sure it was a Common Raven because of its wedge-shaped tail. Plus it was circling lazily in the sky.

You would think a parking lot on Wilshire Boulevard is not where the wild things are, but ours is different. Right along its north edge there is a 100-foot strip of dirt. There’s even a big native plant called mule fat there. Just as we started discussing where a camera might be installed, a lizard darted by. It probably was interested in the ladybeetle larvae we observed in the soil. Not a bad place to put a wildlife camera! As for that lizard, we still are curious whether it was a Western Fence Lizard or Southwestern Alligator Lizard.

When you take a closer look at your schoolyard, you won’t believe all the places where a wildlife camera would be busy. In the end, we decided the best place for ours is in the area where we are going to create a native California habitat. Miguel didn’t just install the camera there. He guided us, and today the camera remains.

Walking to camera trap location we chose as a group.


Kevin and Marvin help test camera by pretending to be raccoons.


Final camera trap location.

With the camera mounted, we all headed upstairs to our school library to dig in to our books on natural history. They’re in Non-fiction--the 500’s. Miguel had us talking about our local coyotes and mountain lions, including P-22. We don’t expect our school’s wildlife camera to capture any images of them--but you never know!"

Kevin and Miguel having a discussion about pumas after they go through a puma natural history book together.

So far we have detected cats, rats, opossums and birds. 

Opossum walking past camera trap just like the students predicted.

The camera has yet to detect P-22 or any large carnivores but there is still plenty of time. After all, limitations seem to vanish under Brad’s leadership.  Brad Rumble has had a history of uplifting schools and communities by raising funds for campus habitat restoration. He also arranged for the schoolyard to be open after hours to provide the community with a safe gathering place and to keep kids out of trouble.

I have no doubt the garden at Esparanza will be just as successful as the one at Leo Politi. Now that the pavement has been ripped out and the plants are being planted, it is only a matter of time until this garden transforms an entire school and community's relationship with nature. 


(Posted by: Kevin Aguilar and Jennifer Gamino, 5th grade students at Esperanza Elementary, with their principal, Brad Rumble)

1 Comment