May 17, 2016
Ms. Denner and her third grade Super Citizen Scientists in the school garden.
Third graders at Billy Mitchell Elementary School in Lawndale are looking at the world a bit differently now, thanks to their participation in NHMLA’s urban research SuperProject! For the past six months, the three third-grade classrooms led by Ms. Denner, Ms. Bradley, and Ms. Courtnell have been conducting observations in their school garden, and they have made some amazing discoveries along the way!
Students have documented many garden creatures, including Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars, pillbugs, earwigs, White Cabbage and Gulf Fritillary butterflies, and milkweed bugs! Students even submitted a photo of larva (likely from the family Chironomidae) they found in the garden’s pollinator and bird water source and received help from the iNaturalist community on its identification!
Ms. Bradley and her third grade Super Citizen Scientists in the school garden.
Billy Mitchell Elementary is one of eight schools in the Lawndale school district. Each institution has a school garden and has built curriculum and activities into their garden program. Billy Mitchell Elementary also has a seed-to-fork program in which students get to eat what they grow and simultaneously learn about nutrition and health.
By working together in the garden, students at Billy Mitchell learn about the entire ecosystem, from the fungi in the soil to beneficial bugs, from worm bins and composting to important concepts like balance in nature. It was a natural fit to have the students incorporate observations on the wildlife in the garden to contribute to NHMLA urban nature research.
Juan Gutierrez (left) and Isaac Rosales (right) in the garden with their Super Citizen Scientist notebook in hand.
Twice a month, each classroom headed out to the garden to make observations on the animals living there. Every student was armed with a data sheet, a clipboard, and an enhanced sense of wonder. Each discovery led to the children’s increased excitement about urban nature, and a greater appreciation for the ecosystem thriving alongside the students on school grounds!
A Southern Alligator Lizard is spotted!
With the end of the school year approaching, the students were conducting their final observations as third graders. One of the students, Vincent Le (pictured below), made an exciting find: the papery moult from a Southern Alligator lizard! Since this species had not yet been found in the school garden, the hunt was on! Soon, Vincent’s perseverance (and a little help from Garden Volunteer Kris Lauritson) led to the school’s first alligator lizard record (above).
Vincent Le, the third grade Super Citizen Scientist who discovered the shed skin of an alligator lizard —and subsequently the lizard itself!
The students at Billy Mitchell Elementary now have a lizard record that will get uploaded to iNaturalist and become an important data point for scientists. Equally important, these students have spent months getting to know their urban ecosystem and have a new appreciation for the nature around them. We are excited to have been a part of this opportunity for young minds to get involved with L.A. nature!
Note: Our thanks go out to Kris Lauritson, a UC Master Gardener who has worked with these third graders and their teachers to incorporate NHMLA research into the school garden programming and was kind enough to share this story and her photos! Kris will be observing the garden with summer program students and will get new students involved in the fall! Keep up the good work!
**All photos by Kris Lauritson
May 10, 2016
In Southern California, rattlesnakes can be seen year round, but spring and summer have the most rattlesnake activity. This also means that these months generate the most concerns about rattlesnake bites. The good news, however, is that here in the United States, the fear of venomous snakebite seems to far outweigh the actual chance of being bitten. Let’s take a closer look at the statistics behind venomous snakebites.
A typical Southern California rattlesnake encounter. Here, a large Southern Pacific Rattlesnake crosses a dirt road in the Santa Monica Mountains.
In the U.S., the snakes typically involved in human fatalities include native species like rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths as well as a number of nonnative species that are sometimes kept as pets, both legally and illegally, and zoo animals. There are also three species of coral snakes in the U.S., but with their small mouths and fangs, bites to people are rare and usually involve a person handling the snake. To avoid being bitten by a coral snake, follow this simple rule: don’t pick it up. Here in Southern California, there are seven species of rattlesnakes (making this herpetologist quite happy to live here). Most are found in the deserts, but the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake is common in the foothills and mountains surrounding the larger coastal cities.
Each year, around 7,000–8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. This may sound like a large number, but given that the U.S. population is quickly approaching 324 million people, this represents a tiny proportion of the population (less than 0.0025%). Of these 8,000 or so bites, on average, 5–6 result in fatalities (Table 1). This means, you are 6 times more likely to die from a lightning strike or a dog attack, 8 times more likely to die from a TV set or other large furniture falling on you, 14 times more likely to die falling out of a tree, and 95 times more likely to die falling off a ladder. Of course all of these numbers pale in comparison to risks posed by car accidents (over 30,000 fatalities per year) or of dying of heart disease or cancer, which are the two leading causes of mortality in the U.S. (Table 1). Despite the reality of the low risks from animal attacks in the U.S., snakebites and also shark bites (less than one fatality per year in the U.S.) get a huge amount of attention in the popular press.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Wonder database for the most recent year available (2014) except as noted by the asterisk, for which information is from the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission for 2011.
How do venomous snakebites happen? The sad reality is that many (very likely most) bites result from poor decisions by people. Bites are divided into two categories, legitimate and illegitimate. If the person never recognized the snake or was in the process of moving away from it when he/she was bit, it is considered legitimate. But if the person recognized the snake but did nothing to move away, it is termed illegitimate. Many of these illegitimate bites involve people handling or harassing the snake. Studies that reviewed U.S. hospital records have found that over 50% of venomous snakebites are illegitimate (up to 67% in one study), meaning the person put her or himself (usually him—see below) in harm’s way. In other words, the snakes are getting blamed for people making bad choices. These illegitimate bites include people keeping venomous pet snakes, religious snake handlers, professional snake handlers, and people who aggravated a snake in the wild such as by trying to catch or kill it.
Not surprisingly, most of these illegitimate bites occur to the hands, and the victim is usually a male. In one review of 86 rattlesnake bite victims in Arizona, males accounted for 87% of bite victims. Many of the people who get bitten while intentionally interacting with a venomous snake were also intoxicated at the time (up to 57% of illegitimate bites in one study).
For legitimate bites, most occur to the lower extremities because the victim did not see the snake and walked up to it or accidentally stepped on it. The intoxication rate is also much lower for legitimate bites.
So what are the take-home messages from these numbers? GET OUTSIDE! Go for a hike, a bike ride, or a jog. Regular exercise helps to prevent heart disease, the number one cause of death in the U.S., and also reduces the risk of diabetes. But on your way to and from the trailhead, drive carefully! Sure there are some critters out there that can inflict pain and possibly even cause death, but if you stay observant, watch your step, and treat wildlife with appropriate respect, you can avoid most of these uncommon threats.
And if you do come across a venomous snake, let it be. This seems so obvious, yet it is likely that more than half of the venomous snakebites in the U.S. happen because people didn’t follow this commonsense practice. Take a few steps back and then take some photos. Enjoy the opportunity to see such a beautiful animal. And, of course, if you are in Southern California, please submit that photo to our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California citizen science project.
For more info:
An excellent blog that examines both U.S. and global concerns about venomous snakebite:
Curry, S. C., D. Horning, P. Brady, R. Requa, D. B. Kunkel, and M. V. Vance. 1989. The legitimacy of rattlesnake bites in central Arizona. Annals of Emergency Medicine 18:658–663.
Morandi, N., and J. Williams. 1997. Snakebite injuries: Contributing factors and intentionality of exposure. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 8: 152–155.
Spano, S., F. Macias, B. Snowden, and R. Vohra. 2013. Snakebite Survivors Club: Retrospective review of rattlesnake bites in Central California. Toxicon 69:38–41.
February 14, 2017
April 29, 2016
This week's blog is written by one of our @NHMLA citizen scientists, Eric Keller:
If I were to make a list titled, “Accomplishments I Never Really Planned On But Achieved Anyways,” I think having a species of phorid fly named after me would have to be at the very top. And how did I manage to do this? Simple, I just volunteered as a citizen scientist by giving a little time and a small patch of real estate to Dr. Brian Brown and his BioSCAN team at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and as a nice thank you the museum dubbed one of their newly discovered species “Megaselia kelleri”.
Digital model of a Coffin Fly, Conicera tibialis.
But this is not all I got out of the experience. In fact, much more valuable to me than the eponymous fly species is the connection that my participation in BioSCAN gave me to the museum itself. I have been involved in the science for many years acting as a digital illustrator, creating graphics and animations for researchers and for science educators. I started out on the East coast in the late 90s working for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute creating animations for “BioInteractive” a free resource of animations, interactives, and lectures. In 2005 I moved out to Hollywood to study the art of visual effects from the leading artists in the field. To earn a living I became a freelance animator and digital artist working in a number of studios around town, most recently I had the opportunity to create some digital monsters for JJ Abram’s latest scif fi horror movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane”. But getting into the production houses in Hollywood did not necessarily mean abandoning science. In fact, I have been lucky enough to bounce between animation jobs in both the entertainment industry and in science. One of my proudest achievements was being a lead animator and artist for E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth which is a digital biology textbook available for free on the Apple iPad. I worked on this project with a team of talented scientist-animators at a small company called Digizyme Inc. which is led by my good friend Gael McGill, a Harvard scientist, professor, and all-around digital visionary.
Digital model of a jumping spider (somewhat fictional species), that I created for an article in 3D Artist magazine.
In preparing to work on Dr. Wilson’s book, Gael encouraged me to familiarize myself with his work, so I started reading Dr. Wilson’s books. Almost immediately, within the first few chapters of Biodiversity I became aware of the astonishing world of insects, especially ants. His writing inspired me to dive deeper into the world of entomology and in my spare time I started creating insectoid creatures from my imagination using my modeling and rendering software. I created animations of what I imagined insect life would look like on other worlds and this work generated a kind of creative feedback loop. To make better animations I needed to learn more about existing earthling insects which in turn inspired more fantastic imaginary insects. I began to concoct detailed physiology for my creatures and I wrote up descriptions of life cycles striving to make them as fantastic as possible but also completely plausible. I soon discovered that no matter how far-fetched my imaginary entomological creations were, I could soon find a real world example of an insect or arachnid more incredible than anything I could dream of. So I finally gave up trying to out-do the creative genius of mother nature and instead I decided to just dive head first into studying this new amazing world where it seems as though there is an endless supply of inspiring stories to draw from.
Digital models of black garden ants, Lasius niger.
I became a bug addict. I needed more information on insects and I needed expert eyes to help me correct mistakes in my digital insect models. My good friend Inna-Marie Strazhnik, who is an amazing scientific illustrator and oil painter got a job at the Natural History Museum. She took me on a behind the scenes tour to show me where she worked and I got to see the insect collection first hand. It was an incredible experience, drawers and drawers filled with fantastic creatures from all over the world. She also introduced me to Brian Brown whom I had read about in an article in the LA Times. I was a little bit star struck when I met him but very excited. Over several months I met more of the staff at NHMLA and around the same time my wife and I became home owners in Eagle Rock. When the museum put out the call for volunteers for the BioSCAN project I was more than happy to offer up a small part of my new backyard for a chance to be part of an actual scientific study.
Digital model of the head of a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.
Becoming part of BioSCAN made it clear to me that the museum is much more than a storehouse for dinosaur bones. It’s a place where real research is going on and, even more importantly, a place that directly connects the general public with the practice of science. I think being able to interact with people like Emily Hartop and Lisa Gonzalez is the best part of my connection to the museum. Its painfully obvious that most people think of scientists in a very narrow stereotype. Popular culture paints a picture of researchers as being obsessive robots, ivory tower academics, or even worse, sociopathic madmen. Getting to know scientists as individuals who enjoy sharing their curiosity with the rest of the world is incredibly valuable. And even more so, spreading the word that everyone can be a part of scientific discovery, regardless of their age, experience, or academic training is something that the museum can do better than any other public institution I can think of.
A fictional alien beetle I created just for the fun of it.
I take pride in being able to say that I am playing an integral roll in advancing mankind’s knowledge of the world. Even though most of the real work is being done by Emily and Lisa. I’m hoping to be a part of more projects through the Museum. I’ve also started an online web animation series called “Entomology Animated” that explores various topics in insect physiology. This is something I do in my spare time and I’m hoping teachers and students find it a useful resource, its absolutely inspired by my connection to the Museum. I’ve promised Lisa, Emily, and Brian an animation on Phorid flies, getting the anatomy of my digital model up to their standards is proving to be a pretty big challenge. The task is made a little bit easier since I know there is one species of phorid fly that literally has my name on it!
Interested in more? Eric's website can be found here.
**All photos and animations by Eric Keller.
April 26, 2016
Although we had less than average rainfall this winter, SLIME citizen scientists became iNaturalist superstars and logged 1,225 observations of Southern California's land snails and slugs for our El Niño #SnailBlitz.
There are many highlights from the effort, but of particular note is this rare snail.
Tight Coil Snail (Pristiloma sp.)
This Tight Coil snail was found by Cedric Lee, on March 20, 2016. He found it in the San Gabriel Mountains near the Pacific Coast Trail. It is likely Pristiloma gabrielinum or Pristiloma chersinella, both species are native to Southern California, but are difficult to tell apart. These snails are TINY: less than half the width of a pencil eraser at around 3 mm in diameter. Pristiloma gabrielinum is considered critically imperiled and Pristiloma chersinella is listed by NatureServ as a vulnerable species.
VERY little is known about the biology of either of these snails. Cedric's comment that he found it under the bark of a fallen pine tree adds to the basic understanding of how these snails live.
...and other interesting finds:
Tawny Beehive Snail (Euconulus fulvus)
This Tawny Beehive snail was also observed by Cedric Lee, on March 20, 2016 in the San Gabriel Mountains. This photo is the first I've ever seen of its kind alive!
Small Pointed Snail (Cochilcella barbara)
This snail was observed by Emily Han, on April 8th and 10th, 2016 in Mount Washington. Previously, only known from nearby San Diego and Santa Barbara counties, this observation is the first record for Los Angeles County! This snail has a Pest B rating by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which includes the prediction that this snail is highly likely to become established widely throughout the State. Only nine samples of these snails have been identified in California over the last 40 years, making this observation the 10th. Emily found these snails in abundance, which means their population is likely well-established.
A Possible Budapest Slug (Tandonia sp.)
I found this slug on March 16, 2016 while doing a #SnailBlitz hunt with Ms. Griffith's 8th grade science class, at Arroyo Seco Museum Science Magnet School in Mount Washington. This slug is a conundrum! Either is it a variant of the more common non-native slug, Milax gagates, or it is of the genus Tandonia, which would be a county and possibly state record. Because internal anatomy and/or DNA analysis are the only ways to determine the identity of this slug, this animal was sacrificed and tested for its barcoding gene (called CO1) and dissected to specifically look at its reproductive anatomy. Results are forthcoming.
The Unnamed Slug (Hesperarion hemphilli)
This unnamed slug was observed by Annette Mercer and Brian Brown, on February 20, 2016 in Griffith Park. As mentioned in a previous blog post this species is a Southern California native and is so poorly known it doesn't even have a common name!
Snail Behavior 101
And finally, some photos displayed snails galloping (technically called loping)! Citizen scientists @littlecrane13 and Rob Kutner and Sasha Kutner (age 7) observed Cornu aspersum moving with a loping gait, in which the snail makes a dashed line of mucus instead of a continuous one. What is fascinating about this behavior is that snails will lope when moving on dry surfaces like concrete or wood, but not on a smooth surface like glass.
Loping and adhesive crawling (when a snail or slug leaves a continuous slime trail) move the snail at the same pace, but loping uses less mucus and possibly saves the snail from getting too dry when moving on a porous surface. Rob and Sasha Kutner observed loping on concrete and @littlecrane13 observed this phenomenon on tile.
These and other observations are not only fascinating, but scientifically important. The photos taken are data points of biological diversity and species distribution. Many are also exquisitely beautiful, showcasing these animals as they are often not seen or appreciated. El Niño #SnailBlitz was a great success, thanks to all the citizen scientists out there. While the #SnailBlitz is now over, the SLIME project continues. So keep the observations coming!
April 7, 2016
**This week's blog is written by students and faculty from Occidental College**
This year, at Occidental College in northeast LA, we decided to do something about documenting the nature on our campus by organizing a BioBlitz (an event that focuses on documenting as many species as possible in a place over a short period of time). It seemed like the perfect time to get people engaged in documenting the biodiversity on campus, seeing as the theme for this year at Oxy is sustainability. As part of that commitment to sustainability, the college supported the BioBlitz in several ways, including a new Spring semester class that focused on citizen science to help us prepare.
Co-author Marlaina and fellow citizen scientist get excited about the BioBlitz!
Los Angeles is one of the most biodiverse cities in the world. Its geographic location makes Los Angeles a biodiversity hotspot, and some of the species living here are found nowhere else in the world. It is also incredibly urbanized, with a population of over 10 million people in Los Angeles County! This poses a lot of challenges for documenting nature in such an urbanized area: for example, a lot of the land is private property, and biologists can’t just walk into people’s yards to see what lives there. Even if they could, the sheer number of people it would take to pick through people's yards, blocks of houses, and hidden gardens and parks is huge! Citizen science is one great solution to large-scale monitoring problems. Getting people involved in scientific data collection promotes community education and empowerment, while providing usable data for ecological projects.
We spent most of the semester listening to guest speakers (including citizen science experts from the Natural History Museum), reading scientific papers, combing through iNaturalist and eBird (two citizen science data gathering platforms), and taking our own pictures of the organisms on campus. Then on April 2, we left the fate of our project in the hands of the citizen scientists who showed up. Nature gets up early, so we started at 6:30 am!
Oxy students use the iNaturalist app and field guides to identify and upload their observations.
The bird diversity on Oxy’s campus has been well documented and is designated as an eBird hotspot, with 97 species known from campus. Impressively, in a single day, student citizen scientists documented 45 species—nearly half of those on the list! We also found something surpristing--a new species for our campus, a Cassin’s Vireo, Vireo cassinii. As dozens of citizen scientists scoured Oxy’s nooks and crannies for birds throughout the day, the species continued to roll in, while students and community members got the chance to learn from experts from Oxy’s Moore Lab of Zoology about local bird species, and spot some exciting birds themselves.
Cassin's Vireo, a new species record for campus!
Early participants got great looks at a flock of eight Yellow Chevroned Parakeets which landed in a small tree on campus. We also heard the raucous chatter of groups of Red-Crowned and Lilac-Crowned parrots overhead. These parrot and parakeet species are native to Central and South America, but over the years, escaped and released pets have established wild populations. We recorded five non-native bird species including parakeets, parrots, red whiskered bulbuls, and house sparrows. That means roughly 10% of the bird species recorded on the day of the BioBlitz were non-native, which tells the tale of human influence in the Los Angeles area. It will be fascinating to see whether the prevalence of non-native and invasive bird species increases or decreases going forward, and hopefully future BioBlitzes on campus can help document these indicators of human influence.
Mid-morning, participants spotted four different species of warblers, including an all-time campus high count of 30 Yellow-rumped Warblers. These species are all currently in the midst of their spring migration, and their presence may indicate that the lush foliage of campus serves as an intriguing stop-over spot for migrating birds.
Black-throated Gray Warbler found during BioBlitz
Later sessions had the privilege of observing three species of raptors around campus. Red-tailed Hawks were seen soaring overhead in the warm afternoon sun. A breeding pair of Cooper’s Hawks perched in a Eucalyptus tree overlooking the entrance to Oxy’s Campus, and a pair of Red-shouldered Hawk’s patrolled their territory near Oxy’s organic community garden. The presence of these birds indicates that the mature trees lining Oxy’s campus for the past century provide quality habitat for multiple raptor species. With continuing expansion of campus infrastructure, and issues of disease and infestation currently affecting campus trees, it will be fascinating to see whether our resident birds of prey relocate their territories in the near future.
In addition to multiple bird surveys, we documented several other species. We had some of our first sightings of the native Valley Carpenter bee, or as some people like to call it, the flying teddy bear. If you have ever seen a giant black or yellow buzzing ball of fuzz zipping around, you’ve seen a carpenter bee. They are fairly harmless unless you have found holes in your home from their nests. Our bee-research lab on campus had been looking for them and EUREKA! We found both females (the giant black fuzzballs) and males (giant yellowish-brown fuzzballs). We were able to net some to add to Oxy’s insect collection which dates back to the 1980’s.
Citizen scientists ready to go find some insects
Citizen scientists look for bees
The most common reptile on campus was the Western fence lizard that you can find all over Southern California, but we did find a few exciting things in the reptile and amphibian surveys. Not one, but two(!) species of slender salamander—the Garden and Black-bellied slender salamanders—co-exist in Sycamore Glen, a wooded area just behind our Biology building. We also found a gopher snake. While the gopher snake seems like a reasonable resident of the restored habitat area attached to campus, no recent records exist of snakes being found there, so this was an exciting find!
A young citizen scientist finds a gopher snake!
Over 100 people showed up to help out, with a total of 344 observations made, and at least 80 species identified. We’ve officially declared the 2016 BioBlitz at Occidental College a triumph. Because of the amazing turn out that we had, we are hoping to make the Oxy BioBlitz an annual project, and continue educating citizens and fostering the relationship between Oxy’s science department, the Natural History Museum, and the community. We hope that annual BioBlitzes will continue to gain popularity with both Oxy students, and members of the surrounding communities. In the future, we also hope to enhance our ability to document campus biodiversity by integrating camera traps, a bat call detector (the same one NHMLA uses!), and pitfall traps for insects, into our efforts.
With thanks to Occidental College, the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Oxy, and the staff of the Natural History Museum, and everyone who came to the BioBlitz and helped make it a great day!
Photos credited to James Maley, Beth Braker, Amanda Zellmer McCormack, and Jessica Blickley
March 26, 2016
Pond life in motion. Video by Kelsey Bailey.
When we planned the Nature Gardens, there was never really any doubt that we would include a pond. Water sources are highly attractive to wildlife, so even while the concrete was being scraped off the work site, we began to imagine the creatures that might use ours. We were particularly interested to see what types of microscopic animals might arrive, as when they are properly displayed (and magnified), they present to the public a stunning and unfamiliar fauna.
In 2012 the pond was established as an essentially barren pool of rock with a few planters. Over the years the garden team has carefully added additional substrate on the bottom, more planters, and balanced the flow of the pumps and waterfall to make for quiet areas of micro habitats. What has grown is a pond that is rich with possibility for different groups of animals to utilize. The shallow shelf above the waterfall is an ideal place for yellow-rumped warblers to bathe and groom, and the faster moving water under the bridge are potential places for our native chub to hide and spawn. Like most urban habitats, however, the microscopic world of pond life has been little studied.
One chironomid larva eating another. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.
Recently, we took a sample of the debris gathered in the base of the plant by the dock, looking for those long imagined microscopic creatures. We found a lively community of strange, active animals that surprised even us with its diversity and beauty. The most easily visible are the snakelike immature stages (larvae) of non-biting midges of the family Chironomidae. Chironomid larvae are common in our pond, where they feed on algae, smaller organisms, or sometimes even each other! They attach their posterior end to a twig or root and wave around, looking for food in a mesmerizing, never-ending dance.
Also common in the pond are tiny crustaceans called ostracods, which look like animated seeds that scurry along the bottom, looking for food. Their patterned exterior is clamshell-like, with their many appendages extending between the “shells," propelling them rapidly through the water.
Water mite. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.
Unlike the ostracods that zoom around in the samples, the water mites are slow and tanklike in the water. They look like heavy-bodied spiders and they plod through the vegetation
Planarian flatworm. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.
Other, lightly less common creatures are the freshwater copepods, that dart through the water in jerky spurts, often carrying a pair of egg sacs behind them. We saw one planarian flatworm (though 2 ½ years ago, another staffer found one and wrote this blog about them), a comical looking animal that appears perpetually cross-eyed, a caddisfly larva with its case, and a few things that defy identification at this time.
Besides the photos displayed here, have a look at the accompanying video to get an idea of what this stuff looks like in real time. It’s an easy and fun way to get a look at an alien ecosystem that occurs on our own planet.
April 4, 2017
March 22, 2016
As I write this in mid March, Southern California is still in the grips of a historic draught. By the end of February, typically the rainiest month in Los Angeles, the city was nearly its hottest and driest on record and during what was predicted as a Godzilla El Niño winter. In contrast to our paltry 0.78 inches of rain this February, El Niño of February 1998 brought 13.68 inches of rain to Southern California!
A rare and native Los Angeles snail, Helminthoglpyta tudiculata, found by Museum citizen scientists.
How does the rain, or lack of it, influence our region’s snails and slugs? NHMLA’s El Niño #SnailBlitz was created to record this fauna during our predicted rainy winter, and has logged over 530 observations of snails and slugs since January 16th (with a wrap up date of April 14th). Given that it hasn’t been unusually rainy (yet), we haven’t documented vast numbers of snails and slugs on the wet sidewalks of our urban environments. However, one fascinating category of terrestrial gastropods (= land snails and slugs) that we have documented are those endemic to Southern California. That is, the snails and slugs that evolved here, live nowhere else, and are adapted to our Mediterranean and typically dry climate.
The first encounter with a Southern California native snail, by many El Niño #SnailBlitz contributors, was at the project’s kickoff event at Eaton Canyon Nature Center in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Empty Southern California shoulderband snail shells, found during the #SnailBlitz kickoff event at Eaton Canyon Nature Center.
The Southern California shoulderband snail, Helminthoglypta tudiculata, was the star of this survey and although this species is at high to moderate risk of extinction, it was discovered in abundance. These snails are typically not found in your garden or on wet sidewalks. They usually live among decaying vegetation that they also eat. The cinnamon-brown shell of the Southern California shoulderband has exactly that, a characteristic band, usually darker than the rest of the shell running along its “shoulder” or outer shell whorl. Their discovery, and in high enough numbers to indicate a healthy population, was exciting news for both SLIME scientists and the public.
Native slug, Hesperarion hemphilli, found during an El Niño #SnailBlitz event at Griffith Park.
The publicity from the Eaton Canyon snail survey brought out 80 intrepid snail surveyors to another Museum event in Griffith Park. Though the sightings were few, the taxa found were natives too! One in particular, a slug called Hesperarion hemphilli is a Los Angeles native that was found widely distributed throughout wooded canyons of Los Angeles and Orange counties in the 1940s. Surprisingly few records have been made of it since then, and while this slug is known generally from Santa Barbara, Orange, and Los Angeles counties, the Griffith Park survey uncovered the first record of this species in the Santa Monica Mountains and only the second observation of this species on iNaturalist! Angelenos have lived near this slug for over 75 years though most have never seen it. In fact, it is so uncommon and underappreciated, that it doesn’t even have a common name!
Snail scientist Jann Vendetti with junior snail surveyors at Griffith Park in prime snail and slug habitat.
So, keep your observations coming, rain or shine. Our native snail and slug species are an understudied group and your observations are vital to understanding our local molluscan biodiversity. Contribute snail and slug observations to SLIME via photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, post on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter tagged with #SnailBlitz, or upload directly to the El Nino #SnailBlitz project on iNaturalist.
March 15, 2016
The Dodgers or the Giants? The Hollywood sign or the Golden Gate Bridge? Palm trees or redwood trees? The City of Angels or the City by the Bay? Where will your allegiance lie on the first ever National Citizen Science Day?
Centered around National Citizen Science Day and Earth Day, two of California’s leading natural history museums are asking residents of and visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County to explore nature all around them and document the species they find.
Friendly Foes with Much in Common
Despite–or possibly because of–being in the same state, Los Angeles and San Francisco have a long-standing rivalry. You can find an almost infinite number of debates on which city is better. However, even with all of our differences, these two California cities have a lot in common. We share life next to the Pacific Ocean and the complications of living with the infamous San Andreas Fault. We are the two most-populated urban centers in our state, with 10 million people in Los Angeles County and 7.1 million people in the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties, and on the whole we each have a very environmentally-minded populace.
California: Living in a Biodiversity Hotspot
Maybe our most important similarity–S.F. and L.A. both sit in a global biodiversity hotspot–the California Floristic Province. On par with places like the island of Madagascar and the Tropical Andes, biodiversity hotspots are, according to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership, the richest and most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on Earth. Unfortunately, our state’s spectacular biodiversity is threatened: at least 75% of the original habitat has already been lost. But through citizen science–in which members of the general public participate in scientific research–we can help make a difference. Quite often, citizen scientists provide scientists with data by taking measurements or digital photos of plant and animals that people see in their neighborhoods. By having Californians submit pictures, scientists can develop a new baseline of California’s nature and track how change is happening. The collected data can be used to improve our cities, to make them work better for humans and for wildlife. Scientists can not do this alone–California is too big with too much private property. Citizen science is the best way to gain a better understanding of California’s current wildlife community in urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Young citizen scientists help to document wildlife in the heart of Los Angeles
Citizen Science and Natural History Museums
Luckily one of the other things Los Angeles and San Francisco have in common are our stellar natural history museums! Both the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County have been engaging the public in citizen science for decades. Angelenos and San Franciscans have been documenting and sharing the nature they find everywhere–in backyards, in schoolyards, in parks, even growing in the cracks of the sidewalk–to help build a comprehensive current picture of nature in California. And also luckily, our citizen science teams at the Academy and at NHMLA have been collaborating for years (Lila from NHMLA and Alison from CAS were co-chairs of the inaugural Citizen Science Association conference in 2015). Oh and did we mention we are good friends? So when we heard about National Citizen Science Day, our brains started turning–why not jump on this chance to have a friendly rivalry between our two cities and start a competition to further the study of California biodiversity. This is how the City Nature Challenge was born!
Citizen scientists checking out an insect found during a bioblitz in San Francisco
So what is this citizen science throwdown all about?
The First Ever LA vs. SF Citizen Science Throwdown
Our museums are spearheading the effort to document as many species as possible using the free iNaturalist citizen science tool. It all starts at noon on Thursday, April 14 and runs through noon on Thursday, April 21. Not only will these observations help build up the baseline of California biodiversity, but it also provides data for our local scientists, land managers, and governments about the areas they study and care for. On Earth Day, Friday, April 22, we’ll compare the stats. Who will come out on top? Which city will have the most species found, the most observations, the most citizen scientists involved: Los Angeles or San Francisco?
If you are going to be in Los Angeles County or the San Francisco Bay Area during this time, we’d love to have you participate in the City Nature Challenge. All you have to do is submit your observations to us. Upload them to iNaturalist, come to one of the local events, or organize your own event. If you are in LA you can also send us your observations via e-mail email@example.com, or tag them on social media with #NatureinLA! In SF, make sure to upload your observations to iNaturalist but also feel free to share your photos and experiences on social media using #NatureInTheBay. If you’re not going to be in L.A. or S.F., you can still help by providing identifications on the organisms people are uploading photos of, or just following along to see what’s being found!
San Francisco Bay Area: http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-s-f-vs-l-a
Los Angeles County: http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-l-a-vs-s-f
March 7, 2016
Phorid flies are 1 to 3 mm long insects that most people probably never see. They are busily at work in your backyard, decomposing, parasitizing, pollinating, and doing all the other things that small insects do. But people don’t care about them...how could they? They don’t even know they exist!
In the Urban Nature Research Center, I get comments all the time, or even looks from some of my colleagues that say “they are only flies”, or “there is more to the world than phorid flies”. Why, it is insinuated, can’t we just base conservation decisions on things people care about, like birds and mammals?
The problem with this idea is that birds and mammals are large, highly mobile creatures, like us. Although we tend to admire creatures that are most like us, in some ways they are the worst indicators for local conditions. After all, what tells you more about your backyard-a fly that never strays farther than one meter from the dead mushroom it was reared from, or the red tailed hawk that soars across half the basin in the afternoon? Small creatures give us information on a finer level than the large ones do.
Insects like phorid flies have faster generation times as well. That red tail may be five years old, but you know that fly hatched within the last year, and represents conditions that occurred this year only.
Finally, insects give us an incredible amount of knowledge because there are so many of them. In the book Insects of the L.A. Basin, Charles Hogue estimated that there were 2-to-3000 species of insects in Los Angeles. By studying phorid flies in detail, we know now that Charlie was way off. Here we can do the math: our study has found about 100 species of phorid flies in Los Angeles. Flies make up about 16% of the worlds insect biodiversity, and phorids make up about 1/40 fly species worldwide. We know that phorids are incredibly more diverse than one in 40, however, so let’s say one in 20 (.05). One hundred local species equals .05 of the 16% of insects that are Diptera, so 100 equals .05×16% of “x” (the total number of insect species). This calculates out to the staggering 12,500 species of insects in Los Angeles, most of which are probably not described! That means there are legions of tiny beetles, wasps, gall midges, and other unassuming creatures sharing our city, going about their business, maintaining the environment. It is our own private army of ecosystem service providers.
Oh, and by the way, phorid flies are incredibly cool.
All images by Kelsey Bailey.
March 1, 2016
Today let's reflect on the biodiversity of Los Angeles from a deep time perspective.
Los Angeles has a unique resource for tracing the legacy of many of the animals that we still see around in this region: the celebrated Tar Pits. Mired in sticky asphalt seeping up to the surface through cracks deep underground, the remains of countless creatures are found at this site in the heart of our city. The gruesome deaths endured by saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and giant ground sloths as they starved fighting to free themselves from their gooey trap are nearly unimaginable. However, such carnage has left us with the most vivid image of Ice Age L.A., a fossil record that, in addition to various large mammals, includes a myriad of tiny animals. There are also plant remains—branches of all sizes, seeds, and even pollen—which, together with the spectacular record of the animals that once lived in and around what’s today Hancock Park, provide us with unparalleled evidence of the environmental history of Los Angeles over the last 50,000 years.
Thousands of fossils like these have been found at the Tar Pits, in the heart of L.A.
For most people the Tar Pits conjure images of extinct mammoths and saber-toothed cats, but the surprising fact is that 90% of the species recorded in the Tar Pits are still alive today. In some ways, the Tar Pits are far more about the present than about the past! For decades, research has focused on a limited number of extinct species that have rightfully captured our imagination. Who wouldn’t daydream of a time when 10-ton mammoths walked the Miracle Mile next to herds of giant camels and huge bison as they were stalked by big cats and the piercing eyes of 10-foot-winged teratorns high in the sky?
Just 12,000 years ago, when our ancestors were experimenting with domestication and toying with agriculture, we had a sort of African drama right in our backyard. But as I mentioned above, the Tar Pits have an important role to play in understanding our time and what we will face in the future. The countless fossils of insects and tiny mollusks, small mammals, lizards, fish, and plant remains—collectively known as microfossils—carry critical information about how the environment changes over time around the last glaciation that blanketed much of North America in ice and paved the road for the arrival of humans to this continent and into Southern California. Understanding the ecological transformations of this time is critical for understanding the environmental change we are experiencing today, for such a knowledge places our time into a historical context and give us baselines against which we can compare the present. As such, the Tar Pits are much more than a window into a fascinating past; they stand as an unparalleled resource for framing environmental change in deep time.
One of the many insect microfossils found in the Tar Pits
Lately, as I see this tremendous resource waiting to be fully tapped, I have come to think of the Tar Pits as a paleontological metaphor for the Roman god Janus. Citizens of this famed empire used to place sculptures of this two-faced god along the roads, milestones looking both backwards and ahead. Our beloved Tar Pits are in many ways a Janus: one face gazes into a fascinating time, when bygone animals roamed our city, while the other provides an insightful look into today and the future, the road to come.