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.
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."
April 28, 2017
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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?
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.
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!"
So far we have detected cats, rats, opossums and birds.
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.
August 18, 2016
Wasp-mimicking beetle in the genus Necydalis found in Monrovia, CA. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey
If you spot a brightly colored, slender, 1 inch-long insect in your yard, you might hesitate to get too close. It is not uncommon for residents of L.A. to come into contact with large wasps that have bright orange or yellow warning coloration, letting you know that they can sting if threatened. Colors can be misleading however, as you can see with this impressive longhorned beetle that was recently collected in Monrovia as part of the BioSCAN Project. The insect may have the same general shape (that characteristic thin wasp "waist") and bright orange body that screams out "I'm a wasp! Don't touch me!," but in reality it is completely incapable of stinging. This form of mimicry benefits the beetle as it deters potential predators from turning it into a crunchy afternoon snack!
August 16, 2016
Pacific Gaper Clam: A large, common bivalve that inhabits sandy areas of bays along an open coast, often buried a foot or more. Today it ranges from Humboldt Bay northern California to Punta Rompiente, Baja California Sur.
Asphalt soaked fossils are not new to the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles and most residents are already familiar with the iconic mammoths, saber-tooth cats, and dire wolves on exhibit at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum that are between 11,000 and 40,000 years old. However, in 2014 during test excavations for a future Metro Purple Line Station at the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Ogden Dr., a deposit of late Pleistocene marine fossils (120,000 to 300,000 years old) was excavated.
Big News for L.A.
The find made the front page of the Los Angeles Times and indicated that more fossils would likely be discovered as construction continues. What made this fossil collection unique from other marine Pleistocene deposits in the Los Angeles Basin is that the fossils are saturated with gooey asphalt much like the specimens collected from the La Brea Tar Pits. However, at 120,000 to 300,000 years old, these fossils are much older than those from the tar pits and were deposited much deeper. How did this occur? Asphalt migrated towards the surface along a buried fault, possibly the San Vicente Fault, from the Salt Lake Oil Field beneath Hancock Park. As it rose the asphalt encountered marine fossils in strata of the “San Pedro Formation” and saturated them completely. The asphalt eventually reached the surface where the tar pits ultimately formed.
A California Butter Clam found during Metro Purple Line construction. A large, common bivalve that lives in muddy/sandy areas of bays. Its modern range is from Kodiak, Alaska to Bahía Magdalena, Baja California Sur.
A Marine Fossil Bonanza
The 2014 discovery included a suite of invertebrates (animals without a backbone) that are indicative of a shallow-marine environment very much like that of modern Santa Monica Bay. In fact, large numbers of near-shore species such as the Pacific Gaper Clam (Tresus nuttallii) and the California Butterclam (Saxidomus nuttalli) indicate that the shoreline may have been in the Hancock Park area over 100,000 years ago! Over 60 species of mollusks, sea urchins and sand dollars, barnacles and crabs, worm tubes, moss animals, and encrusting hydrozoans were identified from this exploratory site that is 60 to 80 feet below street level.
One Extinct Species
With one exception all of these invertebrate species are still living. The single extinct species is a large Slipper Shell (Crepidula princeps). In 1970 paleontologists James Valentine and Jere Lipps reported a small assemblage of asphalt soaked marine invertebrates from a construction site just east of the current excavation. Unfortunately, the collection was lost, but field notes made available by Jere Lipps indicate that these two faunal assemblies are very similar. As subway construction proceeds westward it is anticipated that there will be a lot more of these marvelously preserved fossils unearthed for ongoing and future research.
So … over a 100,000 years ago the surf was indeed up in Hancock Park! Cowabunga dudes!
A tray of Pacific Gaper Clam specimens, ranging from juveniles to adults.
**Writing and photographs by Lindsey Groves, @Malacology Collections Manager.
Valentine, J.W. and Lipps, J.H. 1970. Marine fossils at Rancho La Brea. Science 169(3942):277-278, fig. 1.
August 12, 2016
Despite being the type of vegetable gardener who studies tomes on best practices, I have a hippy family that nurtures the welfare of tobacco hornworms (Manduca sexta). The big green caterpillars—considered major garden pests—feast and fatten like Henry VIII on the leaves, stems and fruit of the tomato plant. The caterpillars are masters of camouflage, blending into the dense, green foliage while clinging to the underside of leaves, and you often don't know that they're there until you spot their sizable dark droppings, the swift defoliation of your plant, or the mauled flesh of ripening tomatoes.
Caught in the act. Tobacco hornworm enjoying a black cherry tomato. Photo by: Candice Kim
You might consider the caterpillars, with their menacing red tail spike, unsympathetic garden inhabitants. The larvae, however, transform into the striking sphinx, or hawk, moth. Sphinx moths (family Sphingidae) are so large that species that hover while feeding on flower nectar have been mistaken for hummingbirds. Our local tobacco hornworms metamorphose into a mottled gray moth with an impressive four-plus-inches wingspan.
My family has raised numerous hornworms to their glorious adult form. Gently disengaged from our tomato plants, the caterpillars are given a new home in a small, pink-lidded terrarium, with a supply of fresh tomato plant branches and a moist bed of soil. Because they are mature caterpillars by the time we spot them and prepare their temporary plastic quarters, they are usually ready to pupate in the terrarium soil only a couple days after joining our household. Most have typically emerged weeks after pupating, but once we had a moth emerge ten months later.
Our hand-raised sphinx moth, released after 10 months' pupation in a terrarium on top of the refrigerator. Photo by: Karen Klabin
Recently, I found a tobacco hornworm on the back of a tomato plant only because I could actually hear it in battle with a sarcophagid fly. The parasitic fly, unappealingly called a “flesh fly,” is ovoviviparous, meaning it deposits its progeny—maggots—in, among other places, the flesh of other creatures. The maggots then eat their way out of the reluctant host, thereby, in the case of the caterpillar, killing it (an event most gardeners would welcome). I watched the fly buzz and dart around the caterpillar, which squirted a dark liquid and twisted and seemingly snapped at the fly to try to keep it at bay. After a few minutes of battle, the dauntless fly landed successfully on the caterpillar, presumably depositing its larvae. I left the caterpillar on the tomato plant to fulfill its martyrdom as a maggot buffet.
The perp up close. The sarcophagid fly takes a break from attacking the hornworm. Photo by: Martin Schlageter
After returning from a short trip, I examined the tomato plant and failed to find the hornworm itself but did find the evidence of its diligent employ: a number of perfectly ripe tomatoes marred by gnawed and moldy flesh. The tomatoes weren't salvageable. And so the thought of the hornworm being parasitized by the sarcophagid fly did not break my heart. Nor those of my hens, who enjoyed the ruined tomatoes.
The ladies enjoying a hornworm-ravaged tomato. Photo by: Karen Klabin
August 11, 2016
The orange spots on this Moorish Wall Gecko foot are not gecko bling. They are tiny parasitic mites that wedge between the gecko's scales to suck blood. Lizards often have mites, but rarely do I see infestations like this. These geckos are native to the western Mediterranean Region (southern Europe and North Africa), but I recently found an established population here in Southern California. Some of the geckos had as many as 286 mites, most of which were wedged between toes or on the soft skin around the eye (up to 52 mites around one eye!).
Do they impede the geckos from walking on walls and ceilings? This has not been well studied, but probably not. The incredible grip that allows geckos to walk on walls is caused by tiny hair-like structures called setae on the underside of the foot, and hardly any mites take up residence there.
That itchy feeling you have right now...sorry about that...
August 10, 2016
We have written before about bird louse flies (hippoboscids), but I never get tired of their flat, creepy look. Recently, our ornithology collections manager, Kimball Garrett, contacted me and said "Hey, Brian, are you interested in some hippoboscids from a least bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) from Malibu",- of course I was, what an unusual host from which to get hippos (what us entomologists endearingly call them)!
Let me note here that although they are called "bird louse flies, they are actually more like fleas, with the ability to easily move from one host to another (unlike their wingless, more sedentary namesakes). They feed on the blood of their bird "hosts".
Anyway, keying them out with my trusty "Manual of Nearctic Diptera", I came easily to the name Ornithoica, of which there were supposed to be two North American species. Intrigued enough to continue further, I looked up the latest key to species (which was from 1966!) and confirmed that the 5 flies all belonged to the species Ornithoica confluenta, known only from South America, the Caribbean, and southern Florida. At least, that was their known distribution in 1966; things might have changed, but it is undoubtedly a rare record!
(Photos by Kelsey Bailey)
August 9, 2016
Mulitcolored Asian ladybug, Harmonia axyridis, collected from the roof of Angel City Brewery in Downtown LA. Ladybug date night? Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey
A Curious Growth on a Ladybug
Sometimes I feel like I have seen it all when it comes to the bizarre happenings of the bug world. Like some sort of insect inception (insection?), there are insects that live on insects, insects that live inside other insects as parasites, and even parasites on the parasites of those insects! I see evidence of these strange phenonmena regularly as I sort samples of insects from Los Angeles, but recently I came across a ladybug that had something I had never seen before. On top of the hardened wing covers, which entomologists call elytra, were oblong projections that covered the beetle like a tacky orange shag rug. Were they eggs of a ladybug parasite? Or some sort of mite? I immediately asked our talented photographer, Kelsey Bailey, to take photos of this specimen so that I could share the image in hopes of unraveling the enigma.
A Sexually Transmitted Fungus
The astounding answer came from a colleague at the UC Riverside Entomology Research Museum, Dr. Doug Yanega. The mystery fuzz was identified as the parasitic Laboulbeniales fungus, which incredibly feeds off of internal vital fluids. This fungus is unlike any other; it is only found living on the exoskeletons of hard-bodied creatures like beetles and their kin, and must be spread by direct body-to-body contact. Fortunately for the fungus, some insects like to take it slow when it comes to mating, allowing for that direct contact needed for the fungus to spread. Certain ladybug species stay locked in copulation for a minimum of 30 minutes and as a group are known to have many different partners throughout their adult lifetime. These behaviors can benefit ladybugs in that they assist in successful sperm transfer and maximize genetic diversity, but they also give parasites ample time to hop ship from one ladybug lover to the other.
Seven spotted ladybugs, Coccinella septempunctata, mating via GIPHY
It Feeds on Blood!
The realization that the Laboulbeniales fungus, despite its flowery name, is essentially an insect STD, blew wide open my notion of what makes a fungus a fungus. While most fungi are important ecologically as decomposers and nutrient recyclers, Laboulbeniales are one of the most unusual, intriguing, and unfortunately poorly studied fungi. They do not form fruiting bodies, what most people know of as mushrooms, but consist only of a simple finger-like structure that attaches and bores into the exoskeleton. The insects’ version of blood, called hemolymph, contains nutrients that the fungus happily sucks up. This is the living version of a pointed straw that you pierce into a child’s juice box, but instead of fruit punch, in this case it’s beetle blood!
Macrophotographs of the Laboulbeniales fungus.
A Non-lethal Dose
Fear not for the life of the ladybug who has been shagged by the Laboulbeniales fungus! Moderate infections do not appear to be lethal to the infected individual. A study done on yet another ladybug STD, a sexually transmitted mite, showed that the ladybug’s life span was too short to succumb to the pressure of the parasite. In other words, they die of old age before the infections become serious. This ensures that future generations of ladybugs will continue to congregate and live out their free-love lifestyle in peace and harmony.
April 4, 2017
August 2, 2016
Los Angeles is a stunningly metamorphic place. A vast, industry- and people-dense metropolis, L.A. lives in the global psyche as the frontier of opportunity and personal transformation. Everything about L.A.—its geographic boundaries, the contours of its built environment, the languages and culture and impulses of its residents—is in a permanent state of flux. The city becomes nearly unrecognizable from one generation to the next.
Our planet is in a state of equally dramatic transformation.
The Earth is rapidly being reconfigured into sprawling urban centers, like L.A. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The urban population in 2014 accounted for 54% of the total global population, up from 34% in 1960, and continues to grow.” Interestingly, WHO notes that the growth is concentrated in less developed regions of the world.
For that reason, the May 20, 2016 edition of the journal Science was dedicated to our “Urban Planet.” The introduction to the special issue, titled “Cities are the Future,” describes the impact of global urbanization. “The implications are sobering. The land area needed to provide city residents with food, energy, and materials is expanding; this ecological footprint is often 200 times greater than the area of a city itself. The resulting carbon emissions, added to those from cities themselves, mean that urbanization is now the main driver of climate change.”
A “perspective” in Science’s blowout issue, written by Terry Hartig and Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and titled “Living in Cities, Naturally,” addresses some of the physical and psychological malaise that urban residents can experience when they are disconnected from the natural world. They also discuss an impact of urbanization that may be more subtle but far-reaching.
When city dwellers are divorced from nature and a sense of the richness of the natural world, they start to normalize environmental degradation in what Hartig and Kahn call “environmental generational amnesia.” “[P]eople do not feel the urgency or magnitude of problems because the experiential baseline has shifted.” In other words, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, urban dwellers don’t know what they don’t know about environmental change. They have no real reference point. They can only measure changes to their natural environment based on vague memories of childhood experiences. “Providing opportunities for people to experience more robust, healthy, and even wilder forms of nature in cities offers an important solution to this collective loss of memory and can counter the shifting baseline,” Hartig and Kahn write.
L.A. Can Lead the Way
Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology and co-director of NHMLA’s Urban Nature Research Center (UNRC), grew up in a suburban neighborhood near San Jose, California. He spent his afternoons wandering the nearby hills searching for lizards. He also rescued and rehabilitated a menagerie of three-legged, no-tailed lizards that had been maimed by neighborhood cats. His early relationship with these lizards, and the acute awareness of the natural and unnatural environments which they navigated, spurred his desire to study and protect them.
“When my father was growing up in Pasadena, horned lizards were a common part of the landscape. That species is now entirely gone from the L.A. basin. At the UNRC, we’re trying to understand how species have responded to urbanization and how their distributions are changing.”
Once common, the majestic horned lizard is no longer found in the L.A. Basin. Argentine ants have displaced native ant species on which the horned lizard feeds. The well-camouflaged lizard above was recently photographed in Kern County. Photo by: Martin Schlageter
“Los Angeles is a biodiversity hotspot,” says UNRC co-director Brian Brown. “It’s an area of great diversity, but it is also under great threat. Through collaborations and access to scientific resources, UNRC is creating the world’s largest urban biodiversity survey. Our research can help inform urban planning policies to minimize impacts on native species.”
We are well past the era of boosters selling the young L.A. as a utopia of unbridled innovation, opportunity and wellness. And we are also beyond the bleak, Blade Runner-esque dystopian vision of L.A. that dominated in the latter half of the past century. Like all cities, Los Angeles, even at its urban core, remains a dynamic, living ecosystem. Understanding, protecting and promoting the region’s biodiversity is our next frontier.
If you’d like to be involved in efforts to document and protect L.A.’s biodiversity, check out our Citizen Science program. Or you can donate to the UNRC.