Museum Makes Room for Nesting Cliff Swallows

June 23, 2015

Cliff swallows have moved onto, rather than into the Museum! Last week, Kimball Garrett, Museum bird expert, reported finding a nest under the eaves of the building directly facing the historic LA Memorial Coliseum. As he got close enough to snap this photograph, Kimball observed a pair of young swallows peering out of their finely crafted mud dwelling.

Check out that architecture! The adult breeding pair work together to collect mud pellets from the immediate area and use their bills to transport and mold them into a viable nest.  

Cliff swallows, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, have historically nested on our building–back in the 80s and 90s Kimball would see them every year–but recently they have been noticeably absent. We are not sure what has caused them to return, but we're definitely tracking their progress and hope they return next year.

As their name implies, before humans came along these birds would build their mud nests on vertical cliff faces. Today, they are just as easily found nesting under freeway bridges, and in the eaves of buildings. Locally, cliff swallows are remembered fondly as the, "famous Mission San Juan Capistrano birds." For two centuries a celebration has been held for the annual appearance of these birds at the mission. The story goes that like clockwork the birds would show up on March 19th, Saint Joseph's Day, to nest on the old church buildings. But recently, due to urbanization, the birds have been bypassing the mission and nesting elsewhere.

Although we don't have hundreds of swallows nesting at the Museum, we are an attractive enough site to host a nest–we have everything they need. A building where they can find good attachment points with physical protection from above, a decent supply of flying insects to eat, and mud for constructing their nest.

However, as Kimball points out life in the city isn't easy for a cliff swallow, there are aggressive animals to deal with. The two creatures of concern are house sparrows, Passer domesticus, and unfortunately, us humans. 

In the bird world, house sparrows are notorious aggressors. They steal nests, destroy eggs, throw baby birds out of nests, and generally wreak havoc on all manner of other birds. Because house sparrows are not native to North America (they were purposefully introduced to the US in the 1850s) and are such a threat to native bird species, some bird enthusiasts choose to actively deter them and/or remove them from their property. It is important to note that, because house sparrows are an introduced species and therefore not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, people are allowed to remove house sparrows and their nests. Not true for the native cliff swallows. However, many home and business owners chose to illegally knock down swallows nests constructed on their buildings. 

We here at the Museum choose to celebrate our cliff swallows and all of the nature that calls our Nature Gardens home. 




(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Rare Nine-spotted Ladybug Found in L.A.!

June 17, 2015

During Bug Fair, I found a ladybug in the Museum’s Nature Gardens, that didn’t look familiar. It didn’t have any spots, but it somehow looked different than all the other no-spotted ladybugs I’d seen before. I took its photo, posted it to our Nature Gardens Survey on iNaturalist, and then totally forgot about it.

Nine-spotted ladybug, photo taken by Harsi Parker

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, while I was preparing for a behind-the-scenes tour in entomology that something made me come back to that photograph. I was planning to talk about a big discovery made by a citizen scientist back in 2009—the time Harsi Parker discovered a rare nine-spotted ladybug in L.A.

Harsi Parker standing in Webb Canyon circa 2009​

Today Harsi lives in Washington State, but back in 2009, Harsi lived in Claremont, right on the edge of L.A. and San Bernardino counties. On a summer day in 2009, Harsi went for a walk in Claremont’s Webb Canyon. As she passed a stand of mustard plants, she noticed an insect out of the corner of her eye. She looked closer and realized it was a ladybug—one she had never seen before. Not having her camera on her, and worrying she’d never find the ladybug again if she ran home to get it, Harsi picked the sprig of invasive mustard (she wouldn’t have done this if it was a native flower). She slowly and carefully walked the sprig with its precious cargo all the way back to her house. Once she was home Harsi immediately took photos of the ladybug, and began searching through her field guides to try and identify it. When she turned to the page with the nine-spotted ladybug, Coccinella novemnotata, Harsi got really excited—these are very rare ladybugs.

Nine-spotted ladybugs are native to North America, but their population numbers declined tremendously in the 1970s and 80s. Numbers declined so low that many scientists thought they were locally extinct in many parts of the U.S.

Knowing that nine-spotted ladybugs are rare, Harsi realized she had to share her find with the scientific community. She posted her photo to Cornell’s Lost Ladybug Project and promptly got confirmation that her ladybug was indeed a rare nine-spotted specimen. This was only the second time this lost ladybug had been reported to the project for the entire state of California!

While doing my research about Harsi’s story, I got a chance to really study her nine-spotted ladybug photographs. As I looked at them closely I realized they reminded me of the ladybug I had found in the Nature Gardens during Bug Fair.

My photo on the left; Harsi Parker's photo on the right

I put our photos side by side, and noticed that they both had a black line running down their back, they both had the same black-and-white pattern on the pronotum (the shield-like covering above a ladybug’s head), and they had the same white line between their eyes. Just like Harsi, I got really excited, “Did I just discover a ‘lost ladybug’ here in the Nature Gardens?”

Turns out my ladybug was a lost ladybug too! Within 24 hours, staff from Cornell responded to my picture and told me I had found the fourth nine-spotted ladybug in California. I couldn’t believe it! The odds of me finding a nine-spotted ladybug are small, but finding one while researching another nine-spotted finding was just too incredible.

I emailed Harsi to let her know what was taking place and she was thrilled. I told Harsi that our photos are forever linked, because if I hadn’t been researching her story then I wouldn’t have realized what I had seen. This goes to show that the power of citizen science is not only helping scientists collect valuable data points, but it is also connecting people through science and helping them to make big discoveries about the world we live in.

Photos from the Lost Ladybug tour during the First Fridays program on June  5.

Feeling inspired? We encourage all of you to look for ladybugs this summer. Take their photos and send them to us at You may not find a nine-spotted ladybug, but you will be contributing to our understanding of nature in L.A.

Written by Richard Smart

(Posted by: Richard Smart)



Lizard Love Bites

May 27, 2015

Have you recently seen lizards in L.A. that appear to be biting each other, or maybe they are trying to eat each other? 

If you have, you are not alone. Citizen scientist, Diana Beardsley, saw these two in her lizard-filled backyard and sent us this picture. It became the latest data point in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California project (RASCals) which helps us understand the state of urban lizard populations. It also helped us realize a pattern!

Diana was not the only one to send us a picture of one lizard biting another. Many of the people who sent us these pictures were not sure exactly what they were witnessing–were they fighting, trying to eat each other, or doing something else entirely?

Turns out it was something else.

What looks like a fight between two lizards, is actually a form of lizard courtship, a lizard love bite if you will. Museum herpetologist, Dr. Greg Pauly says, "male alligator lizards bite the female behind the head during mating, which holds her in place until she is ready." Lizards have been observed in this position for a long time—sometimes over an hour, and oftentimes moving through open spaces which makes them easily visible. Some people speculate that the mating hold is a show of strength by the male, to prove how worthy of a mate he is. However, as Greg points out, there's no data to support this claim but he concedes that it could prove to be true. 

All of this might sound a little harsh to some people, but this mating behavior has not been known to harm the female. If you see lizards engaged in this behavior, please do not try to separate them or move them, as this could harm the lizards. This is their normal behavior, and an integral part of their mating ritual.

When Greg saw Diana's photo he wasn't surprised, "it's mating season and this is a typical mating hold exhibited by alligator lizards." Southern alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) are the most widespread lizards in urban L.A., but they can be secretive and fast, which sometimes make them hard to photograph. However, during the breeding season finding two lizards out in the open—one biting another—leads to lots of curious people taking photos. All told, we received seven photos of lizards mating in March and April, which is about 10% of all RASCals submissions during the time period.

Here are some more pictures of alligator lizards in the mating hold: 

On March 19, Louise Whitaker saw these Alligator lizards and sent the photo in to our e-mail.

On March 27, Ron Matumoto submitted this picture to the RASCals project on iNaturalist:

Finally, on April 22, Jean Brandt sent in this photo.

These images provide photographic evidence that lizards in these areas are healthy enough to support breeding populations. If the photos come from urban and suburban areas, then Greg and other scientists can study them to understand why lizard populations are able to survive despite the proliferation of human development.

Greg says, "As we grow RASCals, we should get dozens of these mating entries. Once we have them, I think I will be able to write a paper about breeding behavior of these lizards entirely based on citizen science observations. It will be awesome."

So if you see lizards entangled in a love bite (or doing anything at all, Greg's really not that picky) please take a photo and send them to Your photos will help us better understand lizards in L.A.

Co-authored by Richard Smart and Lila Higgins


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)



The Flight of Monarch Butterfly 64365

May 20, 2015

Somewhere in L.A. a monarch egg hatched and out popped a tiny girl caterpillar. That caterpillar ate, and ate, and ate. She ate milkweed, the only plant she could, until she molted her skin. All told, she molted four times until she was a big, fat, stripy caterpillar with black tentacles. She made one last molt and formed a bright green chrysalis with shining golden spots. Two weeks later she emerged from that chrysalis as an adult, and then she flew. On November 17, 2014 she was spotted in the Museum’s Nature Gardens. She was caught in a net, and gently removed by skilled hands. A small, circular, paper sticker was affixed to her hind wing with the numbers 64365 printed on it. She was released and flew off into the distance. We knew there was a good chance that we’d never see her again.

Monarch caterpillar by Courtney Celley/USFWS.

If you’ve roamed our Nature Gardens over the past few months you may have noticed tags on our monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). No, these aren’t fashion accessories like dog outfits—they’re actually a citizen science tool for tracking monarch movements. The small paper stickers are like a butterfly license plate and allow us to find out where the monarch butterflies in our garden are going. Very little is known about monarch populations of Los Angeles and urban areas in general.

It is pretty well known that some monarch butterfly populations migrate—we’ve all heard of the monarchs east of the Rockies that fly thousands of miles down to central Mexico to overwinter. Monarch populations west of the Rockies overwinter along the California coast between Sonoma and Baja. But, our L.A. monarchs are a bit of a mystery, it is not clear which migration path our monarchs follow, or if they migrate at all. Our tagging efforts in the Nature Gardens are part of the Southwest Monarch Study, a group dedicated to identifying and describing the migration and breeding patterns of monarch butterflies in the Western United States, and promoting monarch butterfly conservation.

We began tagging last fall in October, during one of our citizen science programs. Forty-four intrepid citizen scientists were trained how to safely capture, handle, and tag monarchs. That day we managed to tag 16 butterflies, and participants took extra tags home to continue the effort in their own neighborhoods. But, we still had a lot of tags left, and didn’t want to send them back.

We came up with an idea that would bring citizen science to our visitors! During our afternoon nature walks in the gardens, visitors learned how to tag monarchs with our staff. We showed them how to catch the butterflies, how to affix the tiny sticker, and how to record the data. Between October 2014 and March 2015 our visitors tagged over a 100 monarch butterflies.  

Of the 102 butterflies tagged, 33 were recaptured in the gardens including one that was caught two months and 24 days later. Then, on December 27, Donna N., a local Angeleno, found a butterfly on her car in Boyle Heights. She noticed the small sticker and called the phone number on it. She reported the finding and became LA’s newest citizen scientist. Turns out this butterfly was our female, monarch 64365! Although, her seven mile trip isn’t as harrowing as that of P-22, the famous Griffith Park mountain lion that crossed the 405 and 101 freeways, our little monarch had to fly over the 110 freeway. We’ll never know her exact route, or where she went in those intervening 30 days. But, we can hope she found some milkweeds and laid some eggs along the way.

The need to put monarchs on everyone’s radar is especially relevant now as they are currently under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Although the season for tagging monarchs is over for the year, our effort to better understand and protect them is not. Our Monarch Waystation (next to the Butterfly Pavilion) recently opened for the year, our garden volunteers are continuing to care for the over 500 nectar and milkweed plants that monarchs rely on in our gardens, and we'll be tagging monarchs again in the fall. Ultimately all these efforts help to ensure that the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of monarch 64365 have a place to thrive in Los Angeles.

**If you want to help us protect our L.A. monarchs send an e-mail to We’ll send you details on the monarch citizen science/volunteer opportunities and programs you can sign up for.

Co-authored by Lila Higgins, and Miguel Ordeñana


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


The BioSCAN Blog has Moved!

May 8, 2015

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You can still find all our content here! More changes soon!

(Posted by: Emily Hartop)


It's a bird? It's a plane? It's a White-Lined Sphinx Moth!

April 20, 2015

At the end of every work day, before I head home into that lovely L.A. rush hour traffic, I walk through the Nature Garden at one of my favorite times of the day, the magic hour as the sun sets, the diurnal animals hunker down, and the nocturnal ones get ready for action. Even though spring time may blend into what feels like an endless L.A. summer, I see evidence of insects that have been on the down low for many months, now suddenly appearing out of hiding, full of vigor and looking for love.  One such example is the glorious White-Lined Sphinx Moth, a crepuscular creature which feeds on the nectar of a  variety of flowers. Silhouetted in the twilight with wings 3 inches wide, this insect is often mistaken for a hummingbird as it hovers in the garden.

Hyles lineata, the White-lined sphinx moth. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey.

Hyles lineata, the White-Lined sphinx moth. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey.

If you happen upon one of these beauties, take a close look at the incredible proboscis, the "straw" that they use to slurp up delicious flower juice. Sphinx moths have unusually long proboscises to access even the trickiest flower; in fact, the longest proboscis in the world belongs to a sphinx moth from Madagascar, measuring at 11 inches long! Our common local species is not quite so audacious, but it still brings to mind the problem moths and butterflies would have if they had to fly around with a long rope dangling out of their mouths. Fortunately, they can coil up their mouthparts and hold it close like Super Woman's lasso due to a unique "rubbery" material called resilin that allows it to spring back into shape after feeding.  

The larvae of the White-Lined sphinx moth. Photo credit: Elizabeth Long.

Larvae of the White-Lined sphinx moth. Photo credit: Elizabeth Long.   Just as beautiful as the adult (to me!) is the larval stage of the sphinx moth, a jumbo caterpillar which also bears white markings on its body. Sphinx moth larvae are commonly called "hornworms" due to the spines at the end of their bodies; although they resemble stingers, they are soft and are not harmful to the touch. Unlike most moth and butterfly larvae, the caterpillar of this species is not at all picky about what types of plants it eats, which is why this sphinx moth is so common throughout North America.  

Caterpillars are like hot dogs for wasps, but with more protein and healthier! Photo credit: Brian Brown

Caterpillars are like hot dogs for wasps, but with more protein and healthier! Photo credit: Brian Brown   Caterpillars can be "pests" if they eat the wrong thing (meaning, that special something a human planted to enjoy themselves), but they are also a great food source for a variety of other animals including other insects. If the caterpillar reaches its final larval stage without being eaten, it will burrow underground and begin its transformation into a pupa, where it will emerge as an adult when the weather is right. Last month brought some modest rain followed by a heat wave, which was the perfect storm for moth pupae that were overwintering.  Our BioSCAN traps started to collect heaps of sphinx moths as well as other types of moths, filling up the bottles after a few days. Nothing says "spring is here!" like a jar full of moths.

Malaise trap catches from NHMLA Nature Garden

A regular week's catch from the NHMLA Malaise trap on the left, compared with 2015's moth invasion week of March 13–20 on the right (all three jars together). Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey

(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez)


Ankle Bracelets for House Sparrows

April 10, 2015

Last week, husband and wife ornithologist team Kimball Garrett (Museum ornithology collections manager) and Kathy Molina (Museum Research Associate) partnered with citizen science staff to band house sparrows (Passer domesticus). We hope that by banding these birds, we'll be able to understand how they use our urban environment. These little brown birds are literally everywhere, yet not much is known about their local behavior.  What we do know is that they are originally from Europe and were purposefully introduced to North America starting in the 1850s. Because they are very adaptable in both urban and rural areas, their numbers have since exploded. You might recognize them as the bird that once stole your French fries!

Kimball wants to know more, "do they spend all day feeding and socializing in our Nature Gardens or do some have lunch at the Science Center and then come back?” I'm thinking they could even head over to USC for happy hour snacks! But, how do you figure out where our birds hang out, what they do? Sure, radio tracking is an option but that is expensive and difficult to pull off, especially on small birds. A cheaper, and I'd contend more engaging process, is to think about bird accessories—colored ankle bracelets, aka bird bands!  

To get this citizen science project off the ground, we had to have some birds in hand (pun intended). Although house sparrows seem super friendly, literally coming in for a landing at our cafe tables, they really don't want to be caught. We tried using potter traps (little wire mesh traps that get tripped when they go in to eat the bait we've left inside), but none of them were curious enough to hop in on this day. It was clear that we needed an additional strategy.  Kimball and Kathy decided to set up some mist nets.

We anxiously waited, becoming more and more worried that we would not catch anything, especially as school children began to crowd around our trapping areas. But then finally one flew into the net (don't worry the birds are not harmed in any way, its almost as if they're lying in a hammock)!  A female!  The challenge was still not over once it was caught.  These birds are tough and are not afraid to bite.  In fact, I had to loosen the sparrow’s beak from Kimball’s finger.

Once the bird was in hand, Kimball and Kathy quickly and deftly attached the colored bands --two bands on the left or right leg (six different colors), which gives us the option of uniquely marking up to 72 birds. They also applied a uniquely numbered metal band issued by the U.S. Geological Survey, took a wing measurement and weighed the bird.


Although, we only caught two birds on this first try, we plan to band and release many more. Eventually, the Nature Gardens and Exposition Park will have a whole flock of banded house sparrows, and that's when we'll need your help. We're going to need your citizen scientist eyes to track these banded sparrows. So on your next visit to NHMLA or Exposition Park, keep your eyes open.  If you spot a banded house sparrow, please let us know. All you have to do is send us a quick e-mail with the date, time, exact location, what the bird was doing, and what color bands you saw on their legs (remember not to mix up their left and right) to If you're fast and lucky enough to get a picture, send that along too.

We can't wait to see how this all works out!  

Written by Miguel Ordeñana


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Purple Pollen Eaters: A Honey bee's Love Affair with Phacelia

April 1, 2015

Spring is here and everyone is totally digging the wildflower display in our Nature Gardens. Casey Schreiner from Modern Hiker even gave us a shoutout on Instagram

It's a good day for #wildflowers at the @nhmla!

The two flowers vying for your attention in this photo are, according to Carol Bornstein Nature Gardens Director and native plant guru, "the white-tipped yellow blossoms of tidy tips, Layia platyglossa, and tansy leaf phacelia, Phacelia tanacetifolia." Carol goes on to explain, "the nectar-rich, sweetly scented purple flowers of this taller annual are attracting droves of bees."  Boy is this true.

Earlier this week, Museum Gallery Interpretper, Ashley Hall, witnessed this first hand. Ashely’s seen bees in the garden hundreds of times, pointed them out to visitors, and taken lots of pictures of them. But this week something was different. Ashley noticed that the bees visiting the phacelia flowers had purple pollen baskets, or as the entomologists like to call them, corbiculae. 

We all know that hungry bees visit flowers for that tasty nectar treat that will fuel their active lifestyles. Some of this nectar will be taken back to the hive to be turned into honey, so they can eat it in the leaner winter months. But to supplement their carbo-laden diet, bees also collect pollen to add a protein punch. As bees are going from flower to flower they are also inadvertently transferring pollen—“picking up” pollen grains from the male flower parts (anthers), and then “dropping them off” on the female bits (stigmas). Thanks to this act of pollination, seeds will eventually form, ripen, and fall to the ground. In our dry California climate, wildflower seeds will wait all summer long, until the rainy season comes again in the fall (keep your fingers crossed with me). This sweet, long awaited rain will stimulate germination and ensure another crop of tansy leaf phacelia in our garden.


But why is phacelia pollen purple? When we think of pollen, most people think of a bright yellow powder. But in fact, pollen comes in a whole painters’ palette—from white to orange, and green to brown and red, even bright blue, fuschia, and purple! In traditional yellow pollen, the color is mostly derived from flavonoids, chemicals found in abundance in citrus. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of research on what makes pollen purple, but my guess is another colorful compound, anthocyanin which is present in blueberries and raspberries. Boy do I wish I had paid closer in Chemistry classes. Regardless of the ultimate chemical cause of the color, we’re sure glad Ashley took a moment to look closely at the bees buzzing around the gardens. Just imagine what you’ll find next time you put your nature eyes on in LA!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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How I Discovered 30 New Species of Flies in Los Angeles

March 19, 2015

By Emily Hartop

When I came to work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I had no idea exactly what was in store for me. The NHMLA had recently initiated a massive study to search for biodiversity, or the variety of life forms in a particular area. This study wasn’t taking place in some lush tropical jungle, though; in fact, far from it. This fabulous study was (and is) taking place in the backyards of Los Angeles. I got hired to be part of the entomological team for this urban project called BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science: City and Nature) and before I knew it, I was describing 30 new species of flies collected right here in the City of Angels. Before I explain how this all happened, let’s pause and say that again: 30 new species of flies were described from urban Los Angeles in 2015. Let’s expand: these flies were caught in three months of sampling and are all in the same genus. What does this mean for us? It means that even in the very areas where we live and work, our biodiversity is critically understudied. It means that in your own backyard, or community park, live species that we do not even know exist. It means that all of those invisible ecosystem processes that occur all around us are being conducted, in part, by creatures we know nothing of. It means BioSCAN is off to a good start, but we have a lot of work to do.


My boss, NHMLA Curator of Entomology Dr. Brian Brown, has spent years working on an amazing group of flies called phorids. When I started in January 2014, I knew next to nothing about phorids; I knew they were small flies that did some cool things (like decapitating ants and killing bees and eating cadavers in coffins) and that was about it. When I came in to volunteer my time prior to my official start date, Brian sat me down with some samples from Costa Rican rice paddies and asked me to pull out all the phorids for further study. I only vaguely knew what a phorid even looked like, so I had a steep learning curve that first day. Soon, though, I could recognize a phorid as easily as picking out an orange in a bunch of apples. After I got a feel for phorids at the family level, I had to learn the Los Angeles species so that I could identify them and we could start tallying them up for our project. Brian taught me some of the genera in the family and their characteristics. Then he showed me a species called Megaselia agarici. This species has a prominent, pale protrusion on its genitalia (and speaking of genitalia: I’m going to say 90% of our identification work focuses on these for flies, we are obsessed with fly genitalia…), making it easy to pick out at the species level. Great! With my notebook in hand, I eagerly asked Brian, “So, I can pick out this species, but how do I know this group on the generic level, what is a Megaselia?” Brian’s response should have dissuaded me from this group: “Megaselia is a giant genus, about half of the phorid family. Eliminate the other genera as possibilities and if it’s not something else, it’s likely Megaselia.” A sane person would have left it alone. A sane person would have quietly learned the few Megaselia species that are well known and easy to recognize and quietly set the rest aside for someone else to deal with. But not me. I became intrigued.

Getting to work (and to tea)

The flies!  Photography by Kelsey Bailey.

The flies! Photography by Kelsey Bailey.[/caption]I started to see the same species over and over, I started to notice small differences between the flies when I would sort samples. I started to make little sketches and write notes. Gradually, I started giving these flies funny names: this one’s genitalia look like bunny ears, I’ll name it “Bunny”, this one has setae (socketed hairs or bristles) that remind me of a 1980s troll doll, I’ll name it “Troll”. I even had a species nicknamed “Hokusai” after the famous painter because its extruded genitalia looked just like details found in The Great Wave off Kanagawa. My colleague, Lisa Gonzalez, contributed by naming one I showed her “Sharkfin” because of its uniquely shaped midfemur. Slowly, the list of “species” I was able to separate grew. I started reading literature on the genus, and then I started working with the keys (identification tools) for the group. To my surprise, I couldn’t get most of my nicknamed flies to come out in the keys we had for the North American fauna. These keys were written back in the 1960s (the last time someone seriously took a look at the genus on this continent), and just a smattering of publications on the group in this region have been published since. I couldn’t really believe it, but it didn’t seem that most of my flies had been studied before. Many of the publications I had as references were written by the current world expert on the genus Megaselia, Dr. Henry Disney, who is retired (but still very active in research) from Cambridge University in England. Like my boss in L.A., Henry Disney works exclusively on phorids. And although Brian has kept very busy with other genera, Henry Disney has studied Megaselia for decades. I joked with Brian that I had to go “have tea with Disney” to learn the secrets of Megaselia. Then I realized: I wasn’t joking. No matter how many papers I read or drawings and photographs I looked at, I needed help from someone who knew these flies. A few months later, I was in Cambridge, studying with the master. I spent weeks in England side-by-side with Henry Disney identifying flies (and yes, we had tea together everyday, twice a day!). To determine if a Megaselia is new to science, you take it through every key for the genus ever written in the world. Megaselia have a way of getting transported across oceans and continents, so you never know when a species that turns up in California might be one originally described elsewhere. These keys are numerous, and in a handful of languages. Luckily for me, Dr. Disney had the whole process down to a science and we worked through all of the flies I brought with me. I left with a lot of work to do back home, but the potential to have several dozen new species!

The business of describing species

Once back home in California, I used the Natural History Museum’s collection of phorids to compare my flies with potential matches from the literature. This is done by looking at holotypes, which are “model specimens” of a species designated by an author when a species is described. After all was said and done, I ended up with 30 new species of flies in this one genus, after just three months of sampling. But my work was far from over. Next came pictures of each fly. A whole body photograph, a wing photograph, and detail photographs (I was lucky enough to have an awesome intern, Kelsey Bailey, to do these for me). The flies had to be carefully dissected (using fine pins under a microscope to carefully remove wings, legs, etc.) for detail photos. Many specimens were mounted on glass slides to be examined further. Using these slides, I carefully sketched the genitalia of each new species, and then drew clear and accurate drawings digitally from my scanned sketches. Then Brian looked over my drawings and, in the kindest way possible, told me that I had drawn certain features (like the aforementioned setae) completely wrong. So I learned how to draw all the features of my flies accurately and realistically, and then I learned some more. I can confidently say that at this point I’m a competent (perhaps even slightly accomplished) fly genitalia artist, and you can see my handiwork for these new species below.

The Genitalia!  Drawn by Emily Hartop.

The Genitalia! Drawn by Emily Hartop.[/caption] After all the sweat and tears of genitalia illustration, I designated holotypes, and secondary “model specimens”, called paratypes. I carefully detailed each species morphology, complete with dozen of measurements down to fractions of millimeters that took hours upon hours counting little scale bars through a microscope. I described where each fly keyed in the literature and how it failed to match any similar described species. In some cases this is very difficult, and in others, problems with the original specimens used for a description leave unanswered questions. The process takes a long time and it’s not easy. And then there was the issue of naming these flies (my silly nicknames, alas, weren’t fit for scientific publication). I had 30 new species and, conveniently, BioSCAN has 30 sites. This meant each of our fabulous site hosts got a fly named after them. Amazingly, Lisa was able to use our data to match each new species to a site where it had been found, and name each fly after a person or family that actually had that fly in their backyard. Since one of the 30 sites is the Nature Garden at NHMLA, the 30th species we named in honor of the Seaver family, whose foundation helps to fund BioSCAN. 


On from here

For months on end I spent my days buried in fly genitalia. I did, I became a crazy fly lady. But just a year after I started getting to know and love these flies, I’ve helped to describe 30 new species right from the heart of my city… but I’m not stopping there. Not only are there cities around the world with Megaselia just waiting to be discovered, but in the jungles of the tropics the numbers of new species go from dozens to hundreds. Beyond that, we have to figure out what all these incredible new flies are doing. If other phorids decapitate ants and eat human remains, what could these 30 new species be up to here in Los Angeles? I have a lot of work to do: I’m coming for you, Megaselia!

(Posted by: Emily Hartop)



Kid Citizen Scientist Finds First Snail for Project S.L.I.M.E.

March 18, 2015

A few weekends ago, citizen scientists from all over L.A. came to the Museum to see what they could find hiding in the damp and cool shadows of our Nature Gardens. Twenty people joined Museum experts (Lindsey Groves and Florence Nishida) to search for slugs, snails, and fungi—those often overlooked decomposers that break down dead and decaying material. They were also the first people to test out our latest and greatest citizen science project, S.L.I.M.E. (Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments). Within ten minutes, one of our youngest citizen scientists made the first S.L.I.M.E. discovery - a glass snail (Oxychilus draparnaudi) in the Pollinator Garden.

Check out what else we found:

A bunch of turkey tail fungus on a dead log:

A pile of dog's vomit slime mold on the edge of a path:

Florence shows off some inky capped mushrooms found by Christopher Lanus (which he later submitted to iNaturalist):

And our Project S.L.I.M.E. results included 45 vials of snails and slugs:

There were 18 glass snails, like this one here:

Eleven gray field slugs (Deroceras reticulatum), like this one here:

And 27 banded garden slugs (Lemannia valentiana), like this one here:

Wow, so many specimens! We learned a lot from this test of Project S.L.I.M.E. Firstly, all of the snails and slugs we found are non-native to Los Angeles! Secondly, the group found most specimens in the Pollinator Garden, but none of the gray field slugs were found there at all!  Perhaps gray banded slugs don't like the plants in that part of the garden?

As you can tell see this test has raised a lot of questions for us; How does the diversity of snails and slugs we found in the Nature Gardens compare to the diversity in the surrounding neighborhoods and the rest of the L.A. basin? Are most of L.A.’s urban snails and slugs non-native?  How are our native snails and slugs fairing throughout the L.A. basin? Right now we don't know the answers, but when we publicly launch Project S.L.I.M.E. we'll be able to begin answering these questions because of citizen scientists like this group:

**Thanks to Jann Vendetti, Project S.L.I.M.E.'s creator! She couldn't join us for the event as she was giving birth to her daughter. Congratulations Jann!

Written by Miguel Ordeñana


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)