Lizard Fieldwork is Just a Metro Ride Away in Los Angeles

January 19, 2017

TAP Cards and Lizard Nooses—Required Gear of the Urban Field Biologists

Where does a field biologist work? You are probably thinking of some distant place, like a rainforest or desert. But biodiversity discoveries can also be made right here in urban Los Angeles. Regular readers of this blog know that with the help of citizen scientists, Natural History Museum (NHMLA) researchers are often discovering species not previously known to be in this area.  Frogs, lizards, snails, slugs, flies, and spiders—new discoveries are regularly being made, and our field sites are quite often front and back yards.

Green anole population found near Culver City.

Since its initiation in 2013, the RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) Citizen Science Project here at NHMLA has led to the discovery of more than a dozen new populations of lizards living in Southern California. The only catch is these lizards don’t belong here; they’ve come from other parts of the world and could negatively impact our local species by preying upon smaller species or outcompeting our native lizards. 

How are these discoveries made? Usually the story starts with a citizen scientist, like Robert Asahina. This past June, Mr. Asahina, who lives in the Palms neighborhood near Culver City, emailed the RASCals project with photos of two lizards seen in his backyard. Mr. Asahina correctly identified the lizards as green anoles (Anolis carolinensis), and noted “…they’re proliferating in our yard.” Green anoles are native to the Southeastern United States, but not to California. We have documented several populations of green anoles in Southern California, mainly in Orange County, so we were excited, but also alarmed by a potential new population in Los Angeles. The key question was to determine whether this was an established, breeding population.

Being environmentally-friendly scientists, we decided to ride the Metro Expo Line, which conveniently stops at both the Natural History Museum and Palms, to the field site.

We used our TAP cards to enter the Metro station

 

Waiting for the Metro Expo Line train to arrive

We might have stood out in our bright orange NHMLA Urban Nature Research Center t-shirts and ‘field clothes’, but we were on a mission. If you see people wearing these bright orange shirts on the Metro or walking around in public, they are doing urban ecology research! Stop and say ‘hi’ and ask what they are studying. You might be surprised by the diversity of research that is being done in your own neighborhood.

Greg with all his field gear about to board the train

We made it to the neighborhood after a very relaxing Metro ride (no traffic!) and indeed found some suspicious lizards lurking about. We caught a few green anoles and found several juveniles, which indicates that this population is breeding and growing in number. If these lizards spread to areas where native lizards occur, they could negatively impact the local species. We have seen native lizards disappear from other areas where anoles have invaded. 

Can you spot the anole in this picture? These lizards can change color from brown to bright green and back to brown again.

 

Greg has spotted an anole and is attempting to catch it using a noose tied to the end of a fishing pole.

We documented many green anoles in Palms, and as such know that a population is established and is likely spreading. Now that it is winter, the anoles are inactive and waiting for spring and warmer temperatures to arrive. When that occurs, we will go back to determine how widespread they are and if they are interacting with any native lizard species.

This green anole has a light stripe that runs along the back. When we caught it, it was brown, but has since changed to green.

Because Mr. Asahina reported this unusual looking lizard to the RASCals project, we were able to document the second established population of this nonnative lizard in L.A. County. There are almost certainly additional anole populations elsewhere in L.A., just waiting to be discovered by other observant citizen scientists. If you see strange lizards in your yard or neighborhood, email a picture of them to nature@nhm.org, tag them #natureinLA on social media, or submit an observation to our RASCals project on iNaturalist .

**All photos by Bree Putman

(Posted by: Bree Putman and Greg Pauly)


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L.A.'s Frogs, Toads, and Salamanders Can't Wait for El Niño

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 nature@nhm.org, or by tagging on social media #NatureinLA. 

 


(Posted by: Greg Pauly)


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Super Citizen Scientist Charlotte and the Hunt for the Elusive California Pink Glowworm

December 15, 2015

Charlotte, NHMLA Super Citizen Scientist, and her bearded dragon Flamey (she also has a tarantula named Nightmare). Photo by Emily Hartop.


Charlotte McDonald, Age 8, is one of the NHMLA’s Super Citizen Scientists. Recently, Charlotte made an incredible find: a California pink glowworm, Microphotus angustus! I’ve lived in Southern California my whole life and I have never seen one of these lovely creatures. In fact, I didn’t even know they existed until my college years when my friend (and now BioSCAN colleague) Lisa Gonzalez gave me a copy of Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. In this magical book I learned that we have four local species of fireflies (beetles in the family Lampyridae) and one of them, Microphotus angustus, is pink in both the larval and adult female forms. This instantly became the insect I wanted to find. So when Charlotte found one during her recent SuperProject observation, I knew I had to join her on her next nature walk!

Charlotte’s original photo (iNaturalist observation here). 


I invited NHMLA’s Citizen Science Manager, Lila Higgins, to accompany me to Altadena to meet with Charlotte to hunt for this elusive creature. Pink glowworms are uncommon, and are most often seen by hikers at night in the late spring and early summer. They can be fairly easily spotted if they are out as they emit a continuous glow to attract mates (click here for a video of them glowing). Larval stages are black with pink margins (like the one Charlotte saw, above). Females eventually turn all pink, but look like larvae their entire lives (we call this larviform). Males metamorphize into your typical firefly beetle shape, and emit a faint glow when disturbed (see an iNaturalist observation of adult males and females together here).
 

Charlotte’s handwritten account of her find.


When we arrived at Charlotte’s house we got to hear the story of her discovery firsthand over some pre-hunt coffee and cider (see her written account above). During the very first observation period for the SuperProject, Charlotte had asked her mom to lift a rock so she could see what was under it. When she saw the pink grub, she snapped a picture of it and showed her mom. Neither of them knew what it was, but luckily Charlotte’s grandfather was able to identify it for them. Lila and I were excited to see if we might be lucky enough to find another one with Charlotte’s help! Before we headed out, Charlotte and her parents carefully reviewed their project notebook and planned for that day's observations.

Charlotte and her parents review their notebook and plan for our walk. Photo by Emily Hartop.


We then headed outside for our hunt! Charlotte left no stone (or log or board) unturned as she searched for observations.

Charlotte and her mom Amelia check underneath a cover board. Photo by Emily Hartop.


We saw lizards for RASCals, snails and a slug for SLIME, and some other great finds like a black field cricket and a Jerusalem cricket (below).

Charlotte’s dad John holds a Jerusalem cricket while Charlotte and Lila snap photos. Photo by Emily Hartop.


Charlotte showed exemplary technique in taking observations. When she saw a lizard she approached it slowly, taking a photo each step. When it finally spooked, she knew she had taken the closet photo possible. She also worked closely with her parents to be ready to snap photos as each rock, log, and board was overturned (sometimes things run away very quickly when uncovered). Near the end of our walk we were all excited to check underneath the rock where Charlotte had spotted her glowworm!

Charlotte and Amelia check under the pink glowworm rock! Photo by Emily Hartop.


As the rest of us looked on, Charlotte got ready to take photos and Amelia carefully lifted the rock…we all eagerly scanned underneath, but no pink glowworm. We searched nearby rocks and logs, but the elusive pink glowworm evaded us that day! Perhaps it is meant to remain a mystery to me. 

Lila, Charlotte and myself after our hunt (we all dressed in pink for the occasion). Photo by Amelia McDonald.


Many thanks to the McDonald family for allowing us to join them on their nature walk!

 

 

(Posted by: Emily Hartop)

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'Tis the Season for Baby Lizards

July 28, 2015

Over the last few weeks, baby lizards have been hatching out of their eggs throughout Southern California. Most of these baby lizards are one of two widespread species, the Western Fence Lizard and the Side-blotched Lizard, but it is also hatching season for many of Southern California’s other lizard species.

Father and son citizen scientists Drew and Jude Ready observed a baby Western Fence Lizard in Claremont on June 30th. Jude carefully picked up the tiny lizard, while Drew took a photo that he then submitted to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) citizen science project. 

Western Fence Lizards are also frequently called “blue belly” lizards because of the bright blue patches on their abdomen and chin. If you are in the L.A. area and see a lizard on a rock doing “push up” displays, it is this lizard. In Southern California, Western Fence Lizards breed in mid to late March and the females lay eggs 2–4 weeks after that. After about two months, these eggs hatch, resulting in the many baby Western Fence Lizards we can observe in late June and July. 

Western Fence Lizard females can lay up to three clutches of eggs per year. As a result, we can expect more tiny baby lizards for the next couple of months as subsequent clutches hatch. Hatchlings are about 1 inch long, or “1 inch SVL” in herpetological lingo. SVL stands for snout to vent length. Because many lizard species can easily drop their tails, scientists measure lizard body size excluding the tail. Thus, lizard body size is measured from the tip of the snout to the vent (aka the cloaca). 

Stevie Kennedy-Gold, who has been working on several Museum field projects this spring and summer, has also been documenting lizards for the RASCals project. She photographed this baby Side-blotched Lizard in the Baldwin Hills. Side-blotched Lizards take on a different strategy than Western Fence Lizards. Whereas Western Fence Lizards live for several years, the Side-blotched Lizard is largely an annual species, meaning they tend to live for only about one year. Female Side-blotched Lizards can produce as many as eight clutches with up to eight eggs per clutch! 

Like the Western Fence Lizards, Side-blotched Lizards start breeding in mid to late March, lay eggs a few weeks later, and these eggs hatch after 1.5–2 months. The babies are extra small with a SVL of 0.8 to 1 inch. The telltale side-blotch, which is found just behind the armpit, is often not yet very obvious in the babies, as you can see (or really…as you can’t see) in the photo above. To differentiate Western Fence Lizards from Side-blotched Lizards, you often have to use relative scale size; scales are larger and pointier in the Western Fence Lizard, whereas the scales on the backs of Side-blotched Lizards are smaller, almost with a pebble-like appearance. If you have trouble telling the two apart, don’t worry, just send in a photo and I or others participating in the RASCals project can help you out. 

As you wander around Southern California, if you see any baby lizards, or any other lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, or salamanders, please take a photo and email it to rascals@nhm.org so your observation can be added to the RASCals project. Happy lizarding!


(Posted by: Greg Pauly)

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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 nature@nhm.org 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 rascals@nhm.org. Your photos will help us better understand lizards in L.A.

Co-authored by Richard Smart and Lila Higgins

 


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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First Lizard Found in Museum's Nature Gardens!

December 23, 2014

On November 19, 2014 something happened at work that I’ve been waiting three and half years for. Unfortunately, I wasn’t here to witness it, but thanks to citizen science I was able to celebrate the discovery, even though I was 6,187 miles away.

On that day, newly turned citizen scientist Toni Castillo documented the first lizard in the Museum’s Nature Gardens.

Photo courtesy of Toni Castillo

The lizard in question was a Western Fence Lizard, Sceleporus occidentalis, and Toni, a Museum staffer, just happened to see it as she was walking through the gardens.

“I was walking next to the Living Wall and saw something in the pathway. At first I thought it was a leaf or a stick, but then I looked closer and realized it was a lizard.”

Toni knew that this was a unique find—she’d heard from other Museum staff that no lizards had been documented in the Nature Gardens before—and realized she had to get proof.

“I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I was really excited and kept thinking, it’s a lizard here! It was like seeing a unicorn. Luckily I had my phone in my back pocket and I was able to pull it out and snap some pictures.”

Later that day word spread. Toni told a few other Museum staff and sent them pictures. Everyone was excited—we had built the Nature Gardens as a refuge for wildlife in the city, but we’d still never documented a lizard in the space. The last time anyone had documented a lizard in Exposition Park was in March of 2010, when some citizen science volunteers observed two Western Fence Lizards on the south steps of the Museum.

Dr. Greg Pauly, the Museum’s curator of herpetology was another one delighted by the observation, and has high hopes that the lizard will stick around.

“This Western Fence Lizard appears to be a male and he is a bit beaten up with a stump-tail.” But, even with these apparent injuries, Greg is still optimistic. “Let’s hope he finds a female and our Gardens become populated with young fence lizards next summer.”

This lizard sighting is important for many reasons. Not only is it a first for our Nature Gardens and possibly the beginning of a Museum lizard population, but it is also one of only a few urban L.A. records in our Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) project. The project has been running for 18 months and has received close to 5,000 observations, but only a very small number of these records are from urban areas. Toni's observation is another small step to helping Greg better understand how lizards and other reptiles and amphibians survive in Los Angeles.

So while you’re out and about exploring urban L.A. over the holidays, take a moment to snap pictures of any lizards you see and send them into RASCals to help us make another small step (nature@nhm.org). We really need your help!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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Hawk Attacks Snake and Epically Fails!

February 7, 2014

Guest Blog by our very own Dr. Greg Pauly:

For local wildlife, living in the big city can be rough. Encounters with people and their dogs, cats, and cars all present threats not experienced by critters living outside of urban areas. Plus, these city dwellers still have to contend with many of the usual threats like predators and weather extremes. Here are two photos celebrating the scrappiness it takes to be a city dwelling reptile, and also celebrating the incredible opportunities to observe urban nature in action.

"David A." sent this photo to theeastsiderla.com of an adult San Diego Gopher Snake, Pituophis catenifer, schooling a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, near Elysian Park.

There are so many cool things going on in this photo. Cool factoid 1: Elysian Park! Smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles, just minutes from downtown, are two big native vertebrates in a life or death struggle.

Cool factoid 2: The where. This photo was taken in the middle of Scott Avenue in Echo Park. Scott Avenue runs through Elysian Park, which this gopher snake likely called home. David stated that the hawk "...just came down with the snake in the street."

The likely scenario is that this juvenile hawk spotted the snake and thought it would be a tasty meal.  However, while tasty, a snake of this size is not necessarily an easy meal for a young hawk. A big snake means a big defense.  Any misplaced grab by the hawk, in which the talons are far back on the snake means that the snake gets multiple loops around the bird to constrict it. This appears to be what is happening here with the gopher snake constricting the hawk's abdomen and apparently pinning back one talon. The defense was enough to impair flight and the pair ended up in the middle of the street. David observed the pair for five minutes, during which time the snake slowly freed itself, and both eventually departed the area.

Cool factoid 3: The when. The photo was taken Friday, Dec 27. That's right, winter.  Or at least what the calendar tells us is winter. With our unseasonably warm weather, the temp that day was 82 in Echo Park after multiple days of warm weather and mild evenings. So while the calendar says it is winter, that doesn't mean our local reptiles are not active.

Cool factoid 4: Added bonus coolness—Look closely at the snake's neck.  It is dramatically flattening its neck. This is a common, stereotyped defensive display used by gopher snakes and other snakes to look bigger.

Cool factoid 5: there's more! Here's another recent attempted predation event on a reptile, this time by a California Striped Racer, Masticophis (Coluber) lateralis, on a Southern Alligator Lizard, Elgaria multicarinata.

This photo was taken by hiker Rainer Standke on January 22 at Hollywood Reservoir. He gave the photo to Gerry Hans, President of Friends of Griffith Park, who submitted it to the Museum's Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern Calfifornia (RASCals) project.  Striped Racers are huge lizard predators and certainly eat a good number of alligator lizards. But it is hard to eat an alligator lizard when the lizard is clamping your jaws shut! We don't know the outcome of this interaction. Maybe the lizard lived, or maybe the snake made a comeback and ended up with a big meal. Again, this is a "wintertime" observation, in which the snake was warm enough to be actively hunting and assured enough of warm temperatures over the next few days to think that it could digest a large lizard meal.

And as with the hawk-gopher snake interaction, this observation was made right here in urbanized areas of Los Angeles.

If you make your own local reptile or amphibian observations, please share them with us by participating in the RASCals project either by visiting the project page or emailing your photo and date and location observed to rascals@nhm.org.


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Green Anoles in Hancock Park!

October 18, 2013

Dr. Greg Pauly, the Museum's intrepid curator of herpetology, just found a previously undocumented population of green anole lizards, Anolis carolinensis, in Hancock Park! This is the latest discovery in our increasingly popular RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) citizen science project.

One of the Green Anoles, Anolis carolinensis, Greg found in Hancock Park.

But how did Greg find these little fellas? It's all down to a birder with a keen eye for wildlife in his backyard! Here's Greg with the story:

"This past December, Kimball Garrett, was leading a Christmas Bird Count. One of the other birders participating in the count told him about some anoles he had been seeing in the yard of his Hancock Park home near the Wilshire Country Club. Kimball alerted me to this observation, and I worked with the homeowner to find a time to do an anole hunt in his neighborhood. It took some time to find a day to search, but in early October I headed out to the neighborhood. We spotted our first anole as we took our first step up the driveway, and within 90 minutes, we observed nine anoles on both sides of the street across three large lots. We saw males, females, and juveniles so it was clear this was an established population. Further, a resident informed us she had been seeing the anoles for all 12 years she had spent in the neighborhood."

Twelve years—no way! This makes me wonder if these lizards showed up after a kid came back from the L.A. County Fair. I've heard from multiple sources that you used to be able to buy "little green lizards" at the fair. You'd give the vendor your money and they would pin a "leashed" lizard to your shirt and you would watch it change color. They were sold as chameleons, but they were actually anoles!

According to Greg Green Anoles are well known for this and a few other reasons:

"First, like chameleons anoles can change their skin color to better match their background. Second, they have dewlaps which are basically little brightly colored flaps of skin that they extend from their throat. The pattern in which they flash these bright colored throat fans and the colors themselves are species-specific. We typically think of dewlaps as being a male trait, but in many anole species the female also has a dewlap, though it tends to be smaller and less brightly colored than in the male. Scientists do not yet know exactly why females also have dewlaps. Males use their dewlaps primarily to announce territory ownership and to advertise to potential mates. The third reason that anoles are well known is that several anole species, especially the Green Anole, are common in the pet trade."

Mmm, so it's all seeming to add up.

But who really cares about these lizards? Greg does! He says this find is significant because it is the first time anoles have been documented to be established in Los Angeles County. He also says that it is only the third known introduced population in the entire state. Now that he knows about them, he can study them, aksing quetsions about what impacts they might have on native species of lizards and insects. He tells me that introduced anoles on the Bonin Island have been found to have large impacts on the native insect fauna (because they eat them). This new population may also be harboring parasites that could be transmitted to our native lizards. Whoa!

If you want to find out more about anoles and RASCals come to RAAD (Reptile and Amphibian Appreciation Day) this Sunday. You can visit our RASCals table to get details on how to help with the project, and you might even get to meet Greg!

Dr. Pauly showing this male anole's dewlap!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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