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Valley Bugs and City Lizards

From the San Gabriel Mountains to the beaches, L.A. is home to plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

Kathy and John Dean in backyard
Kathy and John Dean in their backyard in South L.A.

Seven-year-old Ravenna Cadieux likes to look for teeny creatures on the hilly backyard of her West Valley home. The second grader has happened upon earthworms, tropical house crickets, and a band-eyed drone fly (“cool because it’s like a bee, but not.”) But Ravenna squeals with glee every time she spots her favorite 14-legged crustacean.

“Once I saw a bunch of roly polys on a peach, and they were a family. They are so tiny when they’re babies!”

Bug hunting is not just a summer pastime for Ravenna and her mother, Jane. The pair are methodically recording every creature they observe as participants in the Museum’s SuperProject, the world’s biggest urban biodiversity inventory, currently in full swing across L.A.

From the San Gabriel Mountains to the beaches and alongside every freeway in between, L.A. is home to plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth. And the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is increasingly focused on studying it.

In this super-charged collaborative study, operated by NHM's Urban Nature Research Center and alongside our Community Science Program staff, SuperProject volunteers tally their everyday observations of insects, spiders, reptiles, amphibians, squirrels, snails, and slugs. They go into their backyards, neighborhoods, schoolyards, and open spaces and submit photos, detailed observations, and habitat descriptions to the iNaturalist website. That constant stream of data is helping museum scientists answer questions about each creature’s habitat, which native and non-native species are thriving (or not) in an urban environment, and what steps could be taken to promote conservation.

In 2016, the SuperProject’s first year, the area of focus was from the coast to the Inland Empire. Then it was the San Fernando Valley and South L.A. The museum has enlisted participants in 85 sites, who dedicate time and attention each month to capturing on camera the crawling, scampering, buzzing, and slimy creatures in their midst.

HOME IS WHERE THE SLUGS ARE
Kathy and John Dean, a retired couple that lives in the View Heights neighborhood of South L.A., are sharp-eyed and enthusiastic participants. Their tidy backyard is ringed by fragrant and colorful greenery—ponderosa lemon and orange trees, red-flowered bottlebrush, rose bushes, and birds of paradise. As insects and birds visit the garden, John is ready with a telephoto lens. One recent afternoon, Kathy pointed out an orange peel that had a slug on it. “Before, I would say ‘Ew, slugs.’ Now I say to John, ‘Hey, take a picture.’” Kathy also thinks having a Malaise trap in the corner of their backyard garden is cool. The tent-like structure designed to capture flying insects was set up by Museum entomologists at 17 of the SuperProject sites. The traps are information-gathering tools of NHMLA BioSCAN (NHMLA Biodiversity Science: City and Nature), a first-of-its-kind scientific investigation that explores the biodiversity of insects in L.A. Since the project began, NHMLA entomologists have discovered 43 new fly species in L.A. “We enjoy having it in our backyard,” says John. “It’s something to talk about when we’re having family and friends over. That’s exciting. We’re part of science!”

ALL ABOUT LIZARDS
Crystal Tierney and her four-year-old son Nigel are passionate about the project, too. She has made it a mission to visit every park in her surrounding area with her scientifically inclined boy. “I am always looking for opportunities to get him excited about nature and science,” she says during a recent walk through Brand Park, just blocks from her home. “It’s a western fence lizard, see?” Tierney points to the reptile sidling up a concrete divider on a hill as she snaps a photo. “Classic — on the fence, that’s where you can find them.” She says Nigel gets a kick out of how animals are named for behaviors — the fence lizard sits on a fence and harvester ants carry seeds (Nigel jokes and calls a beetle a tree beetle because it sits on a tree). The pair has logged 450 total observations from March to July, including 150 species, 35 different squirrels, 20 western fence lizards, 20 common side-blotched lizards, and aquatic snails. She knows that occasionally people get to name new species if they are the first ones to find the critter. “I keep telling him to keep looking,” Tierney says. “And one of these days you might find something that no one else has seen before.”