A Fly-Hunting Expedition to the Whale Warehouse | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

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A Fly-Hunting Expedition to the Whale Warehouse

The Entomology Department looks for flies within NHMLA Collections

The whale warehouse houses large specimens in the NHMLA Mammalogy Collections and receives incoming specimens such as beached whales and dolphins. The smell inside is legendary. Lisa Gonzalez (right) and Maria Wong (left) stand next to the Malaise trap they set up in this unique space.

 

First of all, yes, there is such a place as the “whale warehouse,” and it’s pretty much what it sounds like — a giant warehouse with quite a few whale bones (and other mammals too, but “whale and other mammals warehouse” doesn’t have the same ring to it). The warehouse contains the second largest collection of whale and dolphin skeletons in the entire world, making it a priceless resource for studying marine mammals as well as for understanding marine biodiversity, past and present. The Urban Nature Research Center’s (UNRC) Assistant Collections Manager Lisa Gonzalez and Research Assistant Maria Wong paid a visit recently, not to scope out the mammals in the warehouse, but rather the insects.

a photo of a malaise trap, which resembles a camping tent, set up on the grass in front of Los Angeles City Hall
A Malaise trap collects passing insects outside Los Angeles City Hall.

The BioSCAN project, part of the UNRC, has shown their insatiable curiosity about the flies inhabiting every corner of Los Angeles by sampling on top of the US Bank building, under the Hollywood sign, and even on the front lawn of City Hall. Now they want to know what flies might be flitting around in the whale warehouse, the most pungently fragrant part of the Natural History Museum’s footprint. They set up a Malaise trap — a suspended fabric tent that directs passing insects into a jar from which they cannot escape. This is the go-to setup for entomologists who want to catch flying insects. The team is particularly interested in finding unusual flies among these whale skeletons, according to Entomology Curator and UNRC Co-Director Brian Brown.

“To find unusual flies, you have to look in unusual places,” said Brown, who has spent his career uncovering startling new behaviors in phorid flies that decapitate ants, parasitize bees, inflate their butts to attract males, and other bizarre practices. “Certain flies are attracted to bones, and the combination of decaying whale meat, rancid oil, and other biological attractants makes the likelihood of finding something interesting here pretty high. “

They’ll leave the Malaise trap in the warehouse for several weeks, and then Gonzalez and Wong will return to retrieve the trap and (hopefully) several  jars full of flies. Check back to see what they find.

 

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