February 2, 2016
You know that earthy smell that comes just as it begins to rain after a dry spell? It has a name. Scientists call it petrichor.
When I smell petrichor, I get excited: Rain is a personal and professional obsession. I begin keeping close tabs on the window while I check weather reports for the forecast. As the manager of citizen science (getting the community involved in scientific studies) at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I start making a list in my mind to share with others. What mushrooms and slime molds and snails and slugs will I be likely to find? I imagine all of the places I should check to find these uncommon organisms that only come out when the soil is moist.
Brown garden snail, found in Hancock Park.
Where I grew up—England—rain was not at all a rare event. As a kid, I’d follow the slime trails of snails to chase them down among the bushes, then carefully take them to the designated snail house—a crook in a tree. Somehow the snails would always escape! I would walk across the farm fields around my house looking for mushrooms growing in circles, which my grandma told me were called fairy rings.
One day I was exploring a hollow tree and a huge puffball mushroom exploded in my hair. It happened as I climbed up inside the dark recess and spotted a large creamy white orb about the same size as my 7-year old head. As I wiggled through the hollow, trying to pull myself through, I brushed against the puffy mass and it burst. It was white and gooey and made my curly hair stick to my head. My family thought it was hilarious.
In Los Angeles, I have to wait months and months for a good rain. With El Niño 2016 upon us, I am on alert for the new slimy city that springs up after a rain, whenever I hike, walk to the bus stop, or bike through Koreatown.
Fungi live most of their lives underground, hidden from our eyes. Here in the arid Southwest they are easy to miss, only showing themselves for the briefest of moments after rains, or on irrigated lawns and mulched garden beds. Hiking in Griffith Park after a storm, I look along the sides of the trail hoping to spot spectacular fruiting bodies—what most of us think of as mushrooms. In Southern California, there are almost 400 species of fungi, including wicked poisonous ones like the western destroying angel, and delicious chanterelles, which sell online for $24 a pound. If you are really lucky you might even stumble upon a jack o’lantern, a bright-orange-gilled mushroom that glows in the dark! This is real bioluminescence. It contains the enzyme luciferase, the same as in fireflies.
A few years ago, I found a puffball mushroom in Griffith Park. It was much, much smaller than the one that popped on my head as a child, but I still couldn’t resist taking a closer look and marveling at the white bumpy flesh. This time, I touched it with my finger—and a faint puff of brown “smoke” seemed to be exhaled. Just like a raindrop, I had triggered the spores to release so the puffball’s genetic material could carry on.
Slime molds are even more alien than fungi and just as fun to hunt down. Take the dog vomit slime mold, for example. The name comes from its common incarnation as a bright yellow or pink oddly puffy aggregation on lawns, paths, or walls. It can be found all over the city, and I’ve found it in mulch along the L.A. River, and in planters in Koreatown. Most of the time the dog vomit slime mold lives as a single cell, surviving underground or inside dead wood and engulfing food. It’s when times are tough—for instance, when they run out of food—that the cells come together to move around in these large masses called slugs. Scientists have been studying their movement—watching them solve mazes or making them grow interstate highway systems on maps! After the slime mold goes through sexual reproduction, they produce and release spores and then turn black. The spores are caught by the wind and blown away, landing on new territory where they can go through the cycle again.
Dog vomit slime mold, found in a Koreatown planter.
Thirty years later, I am still chasing snails. A few days ago, after a rain, I went on a work field trip with museum herpetologist Greg Pauly in search of snails and slugs. In celebration of the museum’s SLIME (Snails and Slugs Living in Modified Environments) project and our El Niño #SnailBlitz, I was bent on getting pictures for this citizen science project. We strolled through West Coyote Hills in Orange County and kept our eyes peeled. At the bottom of a mountain biking trail, Greg and I began gently flipping over old bits of rubble.
After 30 seconds, we found snails. I took a look and immediately thought they might be interesting. They didn’t look like the regular brown garden snails (the big ones that were introduced from Europe for escargot) that are found all over town. Instead, they had a chocolate brown stripe that followed the swirl of the shell and they had a much darker body. We took pictures, hoping we could get the snail identified by the museum’s malacologist—a.k.a. snail/slug/clam/squid/octopus scientist—Jann Vendetti. Later that evening I got a two-word text message from Greg.
Southern California shoulderband snail, found in West Coyote Hills.
These are the types of texts you get when scientists are your friends. Greg had shown the photo to Jann, and she had been able to make a positive identification. These two words carried a lot of weight. It meant the snails we found were native Angelenos—Southern California shoulderband snails, to be exact. It meant we had found another population of this under-studied group. It also meant the pictures Greg and I had taken could be valuable citizen science data points. We both shared our photos to the SLIME project on iNaturalist (like FaceBook for nature nerds) so Jann can better study these snails, which are at risk of extinction. Our local native snails are L.A.’s version of the canary in the coalmine, if the snails are not doing well, our environment is not doing well.
When it’s very hot or dry, snails aestivate—which means they retreat into their shells to use as little energy or water as possible. Some species can even excrete a liquid that becomes a barrier—Jann calls it an epiphragm—sealing themselves (and their moisture) inside. And then they just hunker down waiting for the rain to return.
A rain shadow in the Museum's Nature Gardens.
Sometimes I’m so excited when the rain returns that I lie down on dry pavement or dirt, so the rain can darken the ground around me to make a “rain shadow.” I’ve noticed that some raindrops feel sharp and prickly; others splash on my face in huge droplets. As I lie on the ground and really feel the rain, I wonder, what must this feel like to other creatures, who’ve been waiting so long for this manna to fall from heaven?
This essay was originally written for Zocalo Public Square.
*All photos by Lila Higgins
January 26, 2016
I have an incurable case of arachnophilia. Ever since early childhood, even before reading “Charlotte’s Web,” my mother constantly scolded me to stop picking up spiders (good advice if you don’t know what kind it is) and to just observe them instead. Where others scream, “Kill it with fire!” I said, “Let’s feed her crickets.” To me they are delicate long-legged ballerinas, caring mothers, industrious homebuilders, and astonishingly clever predators. Alas, arachnophilia is very rare. Fear of spiders, on the other hand, is so prevalent, it made every “top ten” list of phobias I could find, and one study showed that arachnophobia even affects many entomologists (6 legs good, 8 legs bad?)!
The author unabashedly, unapologetically in love with an orb-weaving spider from the Natural History Museum’s Spider Pavilion. Photo credit: Cat Urban.
So, as you can imagine, us spider-admirers have a huge challenge. To begin to change the conversation away from, “every spider is evil and deadly” (FALSE) to, “the vast majority are harmless, beneficial predators" (TRUE), we must first provide lots of evidence, and that is exactly what Jan Kempf, the NHMLA Entomology Department’s own Incredible Spider Woman, has been doing for the past 15 years. Along with the help of Citizen Scientists who have turned in spiders from their yards, gardens and parks as part of the Los Angeles Spider Survey, Jan has single handedly looked at over 5, 500 spider specimens from L.A. and surrounding counties so far. In Los Angeles alone, 232 species of spiders have been identified from this survey, showing that even in a highly developed urban environment, spiders are highly adaptable creatures. I recently had the great pleasure of joining Jan on a spider hunt in the backyards of our BioSCAN Super Citizen Scientists. In a matter of minutes, Jan’s expert eye could find around a dozen spiders hiding under rocks, hanging out in bushes, and living in nooks and crannies of patio furniture, just waiting for a tasty insect treat to wander by for lunch. Spiders are all around us!
Jan Kempf, spider collector extraordinaire. Photo credit: Lisa Gonzalez.
A dish full of spiders collected from one of our BioSCAN sites. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey.
Think about that for a moment: If spiders are ubiquitous in our yards, patios, and parks, then how do we survive each day surrounded by these “deadly” beasties? Humans do just fine because the vast majority of spiders are harmless. Out of the 232 species Jan has identified from the survey, only two that live in the city, the black widow and brown widow, can potentially cause medical harm to humans in the rare cases that bites actually occur. There have only been two confirmed cases in Southern California of a bite from a brown widow and in both cases the reaction was fairly mild. Both species of widow spiders are very nonaggressive and typically drop to the ground, curl up, and play dead when threatened. The black widow spider has been increasingly hard to find in urban environments in the past few years (if you see one, please let us know!) since the discovery of the brown widow in L.A. ten years ago. In fact, the first record of a brown widow specimen was turned in by grade school students as part of the L.A. Spider Survey!
Black widows have a red hourglass shape and a smooth egg case. Photo credit: Steve Ryan.
Brown widows are displacing the once common black widow. They have an orange hourglass shape, banded legs, and a spiky egg case. Photo credit: James Hogue.
Both brown and black widows are very easy to recognize by the presence of the hourglass shape on the bottom of their abdomens. As mentioned earlier, they are shy creatures that usually “play dead” when threatened, but it is still important to be careful around them, especially when placing your hands or feet in small crevices or shoes left outside. The very few confirmed bites that have occurred are usually when the spider has been cornered in a tight spot. Once you recognize these two iconic spiders, you can rest easy with the knowledge that all of the other spiders in L.A. you see have venom that is only capable of hurting a wee little cricket or fly, not a human. I hope that helps those with arachnophobia to feel empowered, and maybe even helps you to stop and appreciate the struggle of the spider, just trying to survive in the big, bustling city.
I would be remiss in discussing spiders in L.A. without mentioning one of the most feared of them all: the brown recluse (Loxosceles reclusa). Due to an unfortunate misperception perpetuated by the media over a decade ago, many people are under the false impression that the brown recluse lives in California. Despite the evidence that is provided by spider surveys and many other scientific studies (see links below), people still hold tight to the misconceptions of brown recluses living in L.A. and spider bites being very common. As I mentioned before, Jan has looked at over 5,500 specimens from the L.A. Spider Survey, and not one was a brown recluse. Additionally, the University of CA at Riverside conducted a similar survey that supports the conclusion that there are no established populations of brown recluses in California.
A final note in honor of David Bowie
Bowie Altar. Photo Credit: Ray Duran
Just as there are no brown recluses in California, NASA has yet to find spiders on Mars, but that did not stop arachnologists from honoring David Bowie by naming a spider species, Heteropoda davidbowie, in 2009. At a recent tribute I attended the weekend after his death, a beautiful altar was created by the participants, complete with a jar of preserved spiders doused in glittery stardust. Is it possible that Bowie was evoking a visual comparison between a spider skillfully plucking at her web, and Ziggy’s long skinny fingers playing his guitar? I adore his use of spiders as a glamorous visual metaphor, rather than harbingers of doom. Thank you for that image, and for everything, David Bowie.
UCR Spider Research Site
““Spider Bite” Lesions Are Usually Diagnosed As Skin And Soft-Tissue Infections.” Dr. Jeffrey Ross Suchard, MD
January 19, 2016
A CRYPTIC HALLOWEEN VISITOR
written by fifth-grade Esperanza Elementary School students Kaya Johnson and Cristian Torres with their principal, Brad Rumble
"Mr. Rumble, there's a baby owl on the playground!" exclaimed Robbyn, a first-grade student at Esperanza Elementary School on Wilshire Blvd. just west of downtown Los Angeles. It was the day before Halloween 2015 and Mr. Rumble, the school's principal, thought this might be a Halloween prank. But, as any birder would, he went with Robbyn to take a look.
Unbelievably, there, on the asphalt of a corner of the playground, was not an owl but a Common Poorwill. It was 9:15 a.m. and in fifteen minutes 130 first-graders would be playing four-square mere feet from our unexpected visitor. What to do? Cordon off the area around the bird, grab a bunch of field guides and create an impromptu observation site for an autumn migration species.
A member of the Goatsucker family, the Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) usually is nocturnal. As students read about the poorwill they hypothesized that our bird was just trying to get some shut-eye during its southbound migration. Its cryptic color pattern helped it camouflage so well that some students thought they were looking at a pine cone. No one could believe this species actually hibernates during winter.
Even though there were nearly 900 students on campus, not one of them disturbed the bird. One complication: at 1:15 p.m. hundreds of students, parents and staff members would gather on the poorwill's playground for the annual Halloween parade. Student leaders and educators debated what to do. In the end not even Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and scores of super-heroes and princesses could disturb our nocturnal visitor's slumber.
That evening, as Mr. Rumble was leaving campus, he observed the poorwill suddenly lift off and begin to fly low into the night. Though on campus just the one day, this bird captivated an entire school community and left us wanting to know more about it. For us, the Common Poorwill is anything but common.
**All photos by Brad Rumble
January 12, 2016
The beautifully-striped African fig fly, Zaprionus indianus. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.
We always say that biodiversity is constantly changing in the Los Angeles area, but few groups of insects show this as blatantly as "pomace flies" do. This group, more formally known as Drosophilidae, includes the famous laboratory fly, Drosophila melanogaster, whose genetics have been the source of many of our advances in medicine and cell biology. Most of us know these flies because they "magically" appear when bananas become overripe on the kitchen counter, or they suddenly appear when a bottle of wine is opened. Their attraction to fermentation is also historical, with the first records of these flies in the literature noting that they are found in wine cellars. Growing up, we always called them "fruit flies", but that name is more properly reserved for another fly family, the Tephritidae, which includes the famous med fly. Thus, the common names "pomace flies", or "vinegar flies" are more appropriate and less confusing (once you know why).
Of course, like many other insects, the association of one species, in this case Drosophila melanogaster, with fermentation is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of life histories and diversity of species. Some drosophilids (the way we refer to members of a family like Drosophilidae is to call them "drosophilids") are associated with fungi, and can be seen in clouds over mushrooms on damp logs. Others are parasitoids, whose larvae attack and kill spittle bug larvae (a type of bug that produces a frothy mass to live in–they are often seen on Rosemary plants) . Still others attack plants, as leaf miners (literally living under the surface of the leaf and burrowing through the cells) or flower feeders, and one tropical group feeds on the embryos of frogs! According to my colleague, and world expert on the family, Dr. David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, most pomace flies are not associated with fruits.
Last year (2015), we reported on two unusual drosophilids from the BioSCAN project: one was a species previously known only from a handful of specimens from Central America, the other previously known only from Australia. Because of this, Lisa Gonzalez (one of the collection managers working on the BioSCAN project) keeps a close watch on the drosophilids from our samples. When I asked her a couple of years ago to watch out for the newly recorded Asian species Drosophila suzukii (the spotted-winged pomace fly), she quickly returned with specimens.
More recently, last year, we received a bulletin from the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioners office about yet another newly recorded pomace fly, Zaprionis indianus, a beautiful orange colored fly with a couple of white stripes through its body. Although present in low numbers in the past, Z. indianus populations seem to have exploded in the last 6 months. The bulletin from Thursday, August 20, 2015, in part, read:
The African fig fly Zaprionus indianus was found in backyard figs in Downey. It is a generalist drosophilid that breeds on fallen fruit and fruit on the tree. It is known to infest fruits of 70+ species of plants. Can possibly become a problematic pest for our fig industry.
I brought this bulletin to Lisa's attention, and she relatively quickly found one from a Malaise trap sample from L.A. City Hall.
Z. indianus range as of 2010. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Fast forward to today, with our initiation of phase 2 of the project, and suddenly Lisa finds these flies in virtually every Malaise trap sample in our "ocean to desert" transect! It is incredible how quickly this fly has gone from first recognition to complete colonization of the Los Angeles area. Because we've been looking for pomace flies in hundreds of samples over the last few years, we are able to track and recognize this explosive range expansion.
It is sobering to think about how many other insects are being introduced, and rapidly spreading throughout the Los Angeles area, without anyone noticing. How large is the insect fauna of Los Angeles? Does the fact that this fauna is highly modified, with many native species negatively affected by urbanization, make it more susceptible to invasions like that of the African fig fly? How much turnover in species occurs among these tiny, and inconspicuous insects? Does the introduction of species like the African fig fly affect populations of other native or introduced pomace flies here? These are all questions that we hope to begin to address with our ongoing study
January 5, 2016
Imagine you are a local amphibian. Maybe you are a Pacific treefrog (Pseudacris regilla), the most widespread native frog in Southern California. Or maybe you are a garden slender salamander (Batrachoseps major), a species commonly found in front and backyard gardens across much of the L.A. Basin (hence, its name).
Male Pacific treefrog calling to attract a mate, afer a rainstorm.
These last few years of drought have been really tough on you. For amphibians, a large amount of oxygen uptake and water exchange is done through the skin, but the skin must be kept moist for proper functioning. This presents a major problem in a prolonged drought. Because of the lack of rain, most amphibians have not been able to leave their hiding spots. As a result, you and your amphibian brethren have had to largely stay below ground where it is cooler and more humid. Only the occasional rainstorm has provided appropriate conditions for you to come to the surface and seek out food, a potential mate, or new habitats to explore (all very exciting things for amphibian you). But most of the time, you have just been resting and waiting for better conditions.
Fortunately, this situation might just be changing. El Niño forecasts suggest higher than normal rainfall. As hopeful and excited as humans are that the El Niño rains might alleviate our drought, amphibians must have a thousand-fold more excitement (assuming they’ve read the forecast). With rains, frogs will emerge and congregate at breeding sites, and salamanders will come to the surface searching for insect prey and potential mates.
The few recent rains that have fallen in Southern California have provided a small glimpse into what may come. Submissions of Pacific treefrogs and garden slender salamanders to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) citizen science project have already started to increase. With more rains, here is what you should be looking for in your backyard, neighborhood natural area, or elsewhere across Southern California.
A Pacific treefrog recently photographed by Cedric Lee and submitted to the RASCals citizen science project.
The Pacific treefrog is a pretty famous frog. Of the 6,600 species of frogs in the world, this is the only frog that actually says “ribbit.” Because it is loud and common in the L.A. area, it has been dubbed into movies and TV shows, with the result being that people worldwide think that all frogs say “ribbit” when in fact, only this one does. This small green or brown frog has a dark mask that runs through its eyes. It can be found in a huge variety of wetland sites from backyard ponds to our bigger lakes and rivers. The easiest way to found one is to listen for their calls in the evenings after rainstorms.
A garden slender salamander photographed by Stevie Kennedy-Gold and submitted to the RASCals citizen science project.
The garden slender salamander is much more cryptic than the treefrog. Look for it in the same places you might look for an earthworm. Often it is found beneath pots, rocks, or stepping stones in backyard gardens. With a quick glance, you might think you are seeing an earthworm, but four small legs and a head with two biggish eyes will make the identification obvious.
If you do see a salamander or treefrog, take a photo or record the frog’s call and submit that to the RASCals project via iNaturalist, by e-mailing the photo and the location to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by tagging on social media #NatureinLA.
February 14, 2017
January 19, 2017
December 29, 2015
Yellow-chevroned Parakeets feeding on dates in a date palm. Photo by Kimball Garrett.
Hearing a group of screeching Yellow-chevroned Parakeets (Brotogeris chiriri) flying over the NHMLA café patio at lunchtime is hardly unusual. This native of South America thrives in much of the Los Angeles region, including Exposition Park where they especially favor the seeds of the floss-silk trees that are widely planted in the area. But on Tuesday, October 27, a group of us, including myself (Ornithology Collections Manager Kimball Garrett) and Herpetology Curator Greg Pauly, noticed that two of the birds in a small flock overhead were distinctly different, showing large white patches on the inner half of the wings. These were White-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris versicolurus) — close relatives of the Yellow-chevroned. In fact the two were formerly treated as a single, variable species called the “Canary-winged Parakeet”, with Yellow-chevroneds hailing from central Amazonia and White-wingeds from the southern Amazon basin.
Two White-winged Parakeets were foraging alongside Yellow-chevroned Parakeets in the floss-silk trees next to the NHMLA Car Park on December 15, 2015. On the left, notice the white feathering behind the yellow wing patch – this white is conspicuous in flight as a large white triangular patch. On the right, notice the grayish color between the eye and the bill (this area is bright green in the Yellow-chevroned Parakeet). Photos by Kimball Garrett.
White-winged Parakeets were established in small numbers in the Los Angeles area — especially around San Pedro and the Palos Verdes Peninsula — in the 1970s, and small numbers continued to be reported into the 1990s. But Yellow-chevroned Parakeet numbers began to boom in the Los Angeles Region in the 1980s (probably reflecting a changing source of imported birds), and for the past 30 years it has been the widespread and common member of this species pair in this area. We don’t know if the decline in White-wingeds was related to the establishment and proliferation of Yellow-chevroneds.
Specimens from the NHMLA collection show the differences between White-winged parakeets (above) and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets (below). Photo by Kimball Garrett.
Recent sightings of White-winged Parakeets in Exposition Park (I saw another flock of 6 on September 18) suggest that small populations still survive in the area, or perhaps that there have been recent instances of birds escaping or being released. In any case, having these two closely-related but normally allopatric (non-overlapping ranges) species together in Southern California creates an interesting ecological experiment that will surely receive ongoing study. Your sightings of both species — uploaded to iNaturalist or eBird (alternatively you can e-mail us your observations email@example.com, or tag them #natureinLA on social media)— will help us track their ever-changing fates.
Yellow-chevroned Parakeet feeding at a seed pod of one of the floss-silk trees on the NHMLA grounds. Photo by Kimball Garrett.
Yelow-chevroned Parakeets can be seen most of the year in Exposition Park — look especially in the large floss-silk trees on the north side of the car park (see photo above). Another great place to find them is Echo Park, with noisy flocks seemingly always present around the north side of the lake. Other prime sites include the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, Legg Lake in South El Monte, and the Rosedale Angelus Cemetery west of downtown Los Angeles. A map of sightings from the eBird citizen science project shows their occurrence here in much more detail — just zoom in on the Los Angeles area until individual sightings appear on the map.
December 17, 2015
In November, three citizen scientists reported observations to our @NHMLA SLIME project of a handsome looking slug, known as the garden arion, in three different neighborhoods of Los Angeles. No one had ever recorded these slugs in L.A. before!
The garden arion is a smallish slug, measuring between 40- 50 millimeters – a little less than half the length of a ballpoint pen. It has a blue/black body, a bumpy mantle (a cape-like fleshy covering near the head), and an amazingly yellow/orange underside (a.k.a. foot). From this foot it makes yellow slime!
Garden arion slugs include two species found in California, Arion hortensis and Arion distinctus. Both are originally from Europe and have been found as invasive species throughout much of North America, where they are associated with human-planted areas like gardens, parks, and farms. In California, these slugs have been common in greenhouses and nurseries in San Francisco and Oakland as early as the 1940s, and recently have been confirmed as established in Riverside and Santa Barbara counties. Without vigilant citizen scientists, there would be no record of the garden arion from Los Angeles County. Thankfully there ARE vigilant and observant citizen scientists contributing to the SLIME project.
To thoroughly establish the extent of this species in Los Angeles County, we need more help from you! We would like to know the geographic extent of the garden arion throughout Los Angeles AND we would like specimens to add to our collection as vouchers, or representatives of the populations living here.
This is where you can help: if you go slug hunting please take pictures of the garden arion, should you find it, and send us your pictures. You can add them directly to SLIME on iNaturalist, or you can e-mail us your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. If social media is more your thing, you can tag them #natureinLA. Keep track of exactly when, where, and who found the slugs, and any other details about where you found it (under wood pile, on sprinkler, etc.) would be extremely helpful. For example, is this slug found in the open after it rains or does it prefer to stay under flowerpots or rocks?
Likewise, if you find this slug and want to bring it to the Museum, our ticketing staff will be happy to receive it. Just put your garden arion slug in a plastic container with a piece of damp paper towel and something to eat (lettuce is a favorite). Include a label with your name and the location details of where you found your slug. You’ll be a big part of documenting the presence and range of an introduced and potentially invasive species, one of the primary goals of our urban biodiversity research!
Special thanks to iNaturalist SLIME contributors cedric_lee, silversea_starsong, and mckernink.
December 7, 2015
“Miguel, I found a dead bobcat!” It was 8:30 in the morning when I received a call from my friend Jessie Jennewein. Jessie and I work together at the Natural History Museum and share a passion for urban carnivores, such as pumas and bobcats. So you can imagine that this news got our day off to a bad start.
Bobcat repeatedly spotted using the same backyard near Griffith Park for over a year. Photo Credit: Susan Swan
Although Jessie’s news was sad, it didn’t surprise me. I’ve lived on the edge of Griffith Park for many years and have studied bobcats and other carnivores from the park. In this line of work I’ve seen a lot. I’ve set up camera traps and used radio-tracking to learn where bobcats live in the park and neighborhoods near my house. I’ve kept a roadkill bobcat in my freezer for a UCLA Ph.D. student. Once, I helped try to recapture a bobcat that was sick with mange due to exposure from rat poison. I expected Jessie to tell me she found it near my apartment on a street just outside of Griffith Park. However, the bobcat was actually found closer to Elysian Park. Elysian Park (0.94 square miles) was considered too disconnected from known bobcat populations, and too small for a typical territorial bobcat, which requires 3 square miles of space if it is male and 1.5 if it is a female.
Camera trap video (motion triggered camera) captured of a bobcat marking its territory in a remote portion of Griffith Park. Video Credit: Griffith Park Connectivity Study
The unexpected location of the dead bobcat initially made me worried about the status of this urban-sensitive species and how to study an elusive species in an urban landscape filled with private property. However, the opportunities to study them with citizen science left me hopeful about their future.
It all happened as Jessie was on her way home from my P-22 (the famous Griffith Park puma) themed party the night before (yes, I love P-22 that much!). As Jessie was about to get on the 2 freeway near Elysian Park, she noticed a dead bobcat on the side of the road. The next day, the specimen was brought to our NHMLA Mammalogy Collections Manager Jim Dines, who also recognized the significance of the locality. Jim and I had recently been discussing how our camera traps in the Atwater section of the L.A. River hadn’t captured any images of bobcats. Our study site wasn’t too far from where Jessie made her discovery.
Jim Dines speaking to Jessie Jennewein about the significance of the location where Jessie discovered the deceased bobcat near Elysian Park.
Before one can truly understand the significance of a dead bobcat on the side of the Glendale Freeway, it is important to have a little background about local bobcat research and ecology. Unlike other urban carnivore species with more flexible diets and social structures (e.g., coyotes and raccoons), bobcats are solitary and have a strictly carnivorous diet. However, they are able to eat a wide variety of small prey.
Research by the National Park Service shows that local bobcats prefer to eat small natural prey such as rabbits (first choice), gophers, ground squirrels, and woodrats. Griffith Park camera traps have also captured bobcats consuming Eastern fox squirrels and mice. Many of these small prey species live in backyards, presenting new opportunities and new challenges to urban bobcats.
Bobcat carrying the remains of an Eastern fox squirrel in the Hollywood Hills. Bobcats are important predators that help regulate small mammal populations. Photo Credit: Griffith Park Connectivity Study
Like most urban mammals, bobcats avoid humans by being more nocturnal. Researchers in both the Santa Monica Mountains and Orange County have documented bobcats and other urban carnivores coming out much later in areas with more human activity. Their small stature and brown spotted coloration also allows them to hide in thick backyard vegetation during the evening and the day and usually out of sight from home owners. The National Park Service has even documented female bobcats using suburban backyards as den sites, perhaps to protect kittens from coyotes that are more abundant in park interiors. Their small-size and stealthy behavior allow them to stay out of sight and out of mind of the media who tend to portray local carnivores as dangers to humans and pets. The National Park Service has studied over 300 bobcats in the L.A. area and none have ever been documented killing pets.
Regardless of their stealth, urban bobcats are still vulnerable in areas with poor habitat connectivity. The bobcat Jessie found was likely attempting to cross a matrix of freeway lanes to reach the L.A. River or perhaps some backyard hunting grounds in the neighborhood across the street. Even if they can safely cross a highway or street, bobcats face many other dangers, such as rat poison exposure which makes them more vulnerable to contracting and dying from mange.
Biologists have learned a great deal about the ecology and urban dangers facing bobcats in the Santa Monica Mountains, Orange County, and Riverside including areas as urban as Irvine and the Hollywood Hills. However, their range and population health further into L.A.’s urban core has remained a mystery. Will occasional roadkill fatalities, like the bobcat Jessie found, remain our only proof of their persistence in more urban areas dominated by concrete and private property or will we use these unfortunate clues as a call to action?
After a local community activist shared Jessie’s story with a local newspaper, local residents began sharing bobcat sightings with the same newspaper and the NHMLA citizen science team. A bobcat was reported in the Los Feliz neighborhood and three reports came from the Silver Lake neighborhood, including an ear-tagged individual sighted a few months later in a small greenspace between Silver Lake and Elysian Park-very close to where Jesse found the dead bobcat a few months earlier. The ear-tag was very exciting because unique ear tag colors allow researchers to more easily identify individuals!
Bobcat B-253 in Franklin Hills backyard near Griffith Park. Researchers were able to identify the individual as B-253, originally tagged in Griffith Park, by using the unique numbers and color combinations of the ear tags. Photo Credit: Shirley Mims
Upon seeing the ear-tag, I contacted Laurel Serieys, former UCLA Ph.D. who studied Santa Monica mountains bobcats and is now a post doc studying urban caracals in Cape Town, South Africa. Unfortunately, we couldn’t read the ID number or tell the true color on the ear-tags, so Laurel was only able to confirm that it was a bobcat that she either tagged in Griffith Park near the L.A. Zoo or it was a bobcat that she or NPS tagged in the Santa Monica Mountains west of the 101 freeway. Either way, it had an amazing journey.
I was relieved to learn that the dead bobcat wasn’t the last bobcat of the Elysian Valley. Intrigued by the wide ranging behavior of these bobcats, I decided to place a camera trap in Elysian Park. It took a few months due to widespread human activity but eventually I captured camera trap footage of an untagged bobcat! The experience probably created more questions than answers about Elysian Park and Silver Lake bobcats, but the main lesson was clear! Neither I nor anyone else can practically search for bobcats in L.A.’s urban core without citizen science. There is too much private property to cover without the help of local residents.
First photographic evidence of a bobcat in Elysian Park. Video Credit: Miguel Ordeñana
Fortunately another local biologist by the name of Erin Boydston feels the same way. Erin is a Research Ecologist with the USGS who focuses most of her research on urban bobcats. Following an iNaturalist training led by myself and Richard Smart, Erin set up a citizen science project based on iNaturalist called “Backyard Bobcats” that requests participants to submit georeferenced photos of bobcats from their backyards. Unlike other backyard carnivores, bobcats have unique spot patterns that allow researchers to identify individual bobcats even without ear-tags. Therefore, it is possible to not only document their presence but also their population density. As citizen scientists from L.A.’s urban core, such as Silver Lake and Elysian Park residents, continue sharing bobcat data from their backyards, Erin’s search will continue to expand deeper into more urban neighborhoods.
One of many bobcat photographs shared with Miguel by fellow Griffith Park neighborhood residents. Photo Credit: Susan Swan
Once Erin’s project gathers steam, population patterns may become more apparent, such as which bobcat individuals from rural areas also use backyards. Perhaps the habitat value of previously overlooked urban parks, such as the Silver Lake reservoir or small fragments in more underserved areas like Elysian Park or Highland Park, will be identified. Additionally, crucial habitat connections and corridors like the L.A. River and Arroyo Seco may be increasing the habitat value of these small parks by linking them together, creating a single, larger, and more functional ecosystem. Are bobcats using urban areas due to a lack of resources and space in local open spaces or are these bobcats thriving in certain backyard habitat? The public can help scientists like Erin map the health (e.g., photos of mangy bobcats) and distribution of bobcats throughout rural and urban areas by submitting their photos to Backyard Bobcats and the L.A. Nature Map.
Jessie’s discovery, while sad, did lead to the gathering of more data and increased awareness of urban bobcats in Los Angeles. My hope is that more people will send their bobcat photos to Erin’s project. It is only through data collected and submitted by Citizen Scientists that we will understand the role these charismatic wild cats have in our shared ecosystem and help us ensure that they have a long future in the City of Angels.
How to participate: Send backyard bobcat photos with date, time, and location information to the Backyard Bobcats and L.A. Nature Map using one of three methods:
December 1, 2015
"What is that?” That was the question I asked my supervisor, Lila Higgins, back in the fall of 2012 when she brought in a strange looking object attached to a stick. “This is an ootheca, an egg case” she replied.
Ootheca seen on a Lion's Tail plant (Leonotis leonurus) Nov 3, 2015 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Richard Smart
The ootheca was attached to a stick that Lila had brought inside to our office. Lila saw the stick lying on the ground in our Nature Gardens. Originally, she was going to place the stick into a nearby garden bed, but as she looked closer she noticed the ootheca. She recognized the shape of the ootheca to be that of a mantid egg case. Lila decided she would help the mantid babies by bringing them indoors, so they could develop without interference from predators or people.
I was very curious on how long it would take for the mantids to hatch out, and I wondered just how many and how large the young mantids would be when they emerged.
Days of checking the ootheca, turned into weeks, which turned into months. Then finally, in March of 2013, I heard Lila happily exclaim, “The ootheca hatched!” I ran over and was fascinated to see miniature mantids on her desk. They looked like the much larger mantids I was used to seeing, but teeny tiny. They were unbelievably cute. Lila even wrote her own blog post about it.
Baby mantid seen March 29, 2013. Photo credit: Lila Higgins
That experience made quite an impression on me, and it came to mind recently when I saw an ootheca attached to a Lion’s Tail plant in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. My colleague, Richard Hayden, also recently posted an ootheca to Instagram, and that got me thinking that others were likely seeing these in L.A. and perhaps they didn’t know what they were.
Backside of an ootheca seen on a Catalina Perfume plant (Ribes viburnifolium) November 18, 2015 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Richard Hayden
An ootheca can blend in very well with the plant they are attached to, so many people may not see them. Or people may think they are a sign of a sick or injured plant, and may remove the branches they are attached to, not realizing they were removing baby mantids from their gardens. Mantids are considered to be a beneficial insect since they will eat many garden pests such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, and aphids – you want mantids in your yard. The egg case actually starts as a frothy mass, but hardens to form a tough capsule that protects the growing young inside. Depending upon the mantid species, there can be anywhere from dozens to hundreds of mantids inside the ootheca, so by picking up sticks with an ootheca attached to them can help out a lot of mantids.
Ootheca on wire fence, Nov 23, 2013 in the Nature Gardens at NHMLA. Photo credit: Lila Higgins
Are you seeing oothecae in your part of L.A.? If so, I encourage you to let them be. The egg case will protect them from rain and temperature changes. If you see an ootheca attached to a broken stick laying on the ground then kindly place the stick in an area where they are less likely to be damaged by people. You can also take photo of the egg cases, and tag us using #NatureinLA so we can add your #ootheca photos to our L.A. Nature Map!
November 10, 2015
On a recent visit to San Pedro, the Natural History Museum’s Kimball Garrett crossed paths with a nonnative red fox (Vulpes vulpes) near the 22nd Street Landing . Although unusual now, red fox sightings were commonplace in many parts of coastal Southern California just a few decades ago.
Photo courtesy of Kimball Garrett
If red foxes aren’t native, how did they get to Southern California in the first place? Not surprisingly, their introduction was anthropogenic, the result of human activities. From 1905 to 1919, red foxes from the eastern US were imported into Orange County specifically for the sport of fox hunting. Simultaneously, the farming of imported foxes for the fur industry was becoming widespread throughout California. More than 100 fox farms existed across the state by the 1940s. Escapees and deliberate releases from both enterprises quickly became comfortable in their new environs, reproducing and expanding their population and distribution. Museum specimen records show that by the 1970s red foxes had become established widely throughout the region, with salvaged road kill specimens collected from North Hollywood, Glendale, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and nearby beach cities.
Red foxes, like many introduced species that become successfully established, are generalists that easily adapt to new environments. They are capable of surviving—even thriving—in diverse habitats and on widely variable diets. More often than not, however, the success of an introduced species is to the detriment of native wildlife.
The population of red foxes boomed in Southern California in the 1980s and 90s, inflicting ecological devastation along the way. Red foxes actively preyed upon native species, many of which were already in trouble due to habitat loss. This included ground-nesting shorebirds and songbirds, lizards, snakes, rabbits, and native mice. At Orange County’s Seal Beach Naval Weapons Reserve and Bolsa Chica Wetlands, as well as the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles County, populations of endangered bird species such as the light-footed clapper rail, the least tern and Belding’s Savannah sparrow, were brought to the verge of extinction. Red foxes were also likely responsible for causing the local extinction of the Pacific pocket mouse from habitats like the El Segundo Dunes.
Efforts by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to eliminate the nonnative red fox were met with harsh criticism by animal rights activists, despite the looming threat to the endangered native fauna. Lawsuits ensued and much time and money was lost defending the effort to eradicate the nonnative predators. In the end, a lower profile program that targeted red foxes in specific areas resulted in a rebound of the native bird colonies in the late 1990s.
In addition to their hunting prowess, red foxes easily spread and thrived in Southern California due to their ability to adapt to just about any environment. While urban infrastructure is an impediment to species like the mountain lion, to the red fox it presents opportunity. Research published in 1999 by Jeff Lewis and Rick Golightly, of Humboldt State University, documented how red foxes in Southern California use flood control channels, freeway underpasses, railroad and highway corridors, and powerline right-of-ways to move around and expand into new territories. They are also comfortable making their dens in culverts, at golf courses and parks, or even alongside busy freeways.
In light of their extraordinary adaptability, why have red fox sightings remained uncommon? One possibility is that coyotes actively suppress and kill red foxes. As coyotes have expanded into urban areas, they are taking over the same niche formerly occupied by the red foxes. It very well might be that the native coyote is succeeding where frustrated wildlife managers couldn’t: eliminating the introduced red fox.