This blog has moved it can be viewed here!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Opossums Love Tin Foil!

A few weeks ago, Sam Easterson followed a trail of tin foil and discovered the den of a Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana, underneath one of the Museum's storage sheds. Since then he set up camera traps around the den to see what was going on. This is what we found...

A night of tin foil escapades.
What on Earth are they doing with all the tin foil? Tin foil hats to ward off alien thought control maybe?

All kidding aside, it seems that this opossum has extracted a tasty morsel from inside the shiny package and is taking it down into the den.

Afternoon stroll?
The next day, one of the opossums emerges for a late afternoon jaunt in the park, and takes a peek at the camera trap!

Running away from Museum security!
Can you see the flash light?

Doing the Chores 
Finally, we caught lots of images of the opossums collecting leaves with their tails! Their prehensile tails are a great tool for grasping small objects and are sometimes used for hanging upside down in trees. Though the notion that they sleep hanging upside down is a myth, their tails are not strong enough to hold them upside down for an entire night.

Wait, there's more tin foil!

What is in store for 2012? Sam's got a few tricks up his sleeve, which I'm not willing to reveal just yet. Suffice it to say that we're all hoping there will be babies in the spring!

Happy 2012!

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Twelve Days of Christmas

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas the North Campus gave to me...

Twelve skippers skipping

Eleven pill bugs pillaging

Ten fritillaries a-feeding

 Nine gulls a-diving (dumpster diving that is)

Eight mantids a-milking

Seven caterpillars a-crawling

Six ladybugs a-laying

Five phorid (fly) wings

Four calling crows

Three French hummingbirds

Two turtle fox squirrels

 And an oak gall in an oak tree!

Wishing you a happy holiday season!

Friday, December 16, 2011

First Raccoon Recorded in North Campus

Last week, while I was away in Costa Rica finding amazing bugs of all varieties, Sam's camera trap discovered a new species of mammal for our North Campus list!

Raccoon found under bridge in North Campus

Opossums, squirrels, dogs, and cats have all been spotted in the North Campus since we planted the space, but until recently we had only suspected that raccoons were part of that mix too. Raccoons, Procyon lotor, are common urban mammals often found in the urban core. These nocturnal mammals are notorious for destroying new lawns as they try to reach the tasty grubs and other insects that come to the surface after heavy watering. They are clever little creatures and will neatly roll up the new turf to get to the tasty invertebrate morsels they are craving. Another pestiferous trait is their proclivity for dumpster diving. They can often be heard in the middle of the night knocking over trash cans and tearing into trash bags, looking for leftovers and other edible waste. Of course, the raccoons are not dumb; they want an easy meal! They'll bypass all the aforementioned nonsense if there's easily available free fooda.k.a. Fido's pet chow!
Raccoon stealing Amy's pet chow!

About a month ago, I met Amy at the Green Festival at the Los Angeles Convention Center. I had a raccoon pelt with me which prompted her to tell me about the raccoons that vist her front yard every night in downtown Long Beach to eat her pet's food. One night Amy decided she would try and foil the raccoons and put the pet chow in a sealed rolling container. However, the raccoons weren't having their free dinner taken away. They actually figured out how to open the container (even rolling it down the stairs) and gorged on the hidden food!

Something's been searching for bugs!

Luckily there's no pet chow to be had in the North Campus, but they're obviously finding plenty of food here. I'm pretty sure the raccoons are responsible for the many small divets I've seen in the mulch, as this is where the grubs and other insects are hiding. Mmmmmm tasty!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Piranhas Found in L.A.!

Piranhas are the stuff of B-movies, sensationalized nature television, and the tropical rainforest. Most would think they have little bearing on life here in L.A., however as I learned last week, this is not the case.

Taxidermied Red Piranha, Pygocentrus nattereri 
"lips" removed to accentuate teeth

Piranhas are here in L.A.! They are sometimes confiscated from pet stores and, on occasion, they are even found in our waterways. The Museum's Ichthyology collection houses over 30 confiscated piranha, and at least one that was caught in the "wild." According to the collections record, this Red Piranha (see below) was netted from "Simi Valley Public Golf Course, Lake B." It was collected on April 28, 1988 and measured 275mm (almost 10 1/2 inches)! Most interestingly the capture method box of the record states that that the "fish was in distress." I wonder if the piranha would ever have been discovered had it not been in distress?

Before any of us decide to never go fishing for our wayward golf balls with our bare hands again, I have some happy news. Even in the Amazon basin, where Red Piranhas are native, humans are extremely unlikely to be injured by them, let alone die. The image of a school of piranha stripping all flesh from a whole cow or indeed a whole human, isn't much more than a sensationalized Hollywood gimmick (think James Bond's You Only Live Twice). This is because Red Piranha are actually scavengers preferring to eat dead, not living flesh. So next time you're fishing for your golf ball in the water trap, be safe in the knowledge that you're much more likely to get bitten by your neighbor's dog!

The Simi Valley Golf course piranha

Other piranha collected in L.A. come to the Museum directly from the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG). CDFG staff often patrol pet stores and upon finding illegal creatures will confiscate them under California Law Title 14 Section 671. The fish are promptly brought to the Museum for identification and sometimes for permanent storage, though they may be taken briefly into a court of law as evidence! In May 2002, the Museum received 16 Red Piranha specimens confiscated from one pet store alone!

Red Piranha confiscated from pet store

I wonder if we'll ever find a piranha in the North Campus pond?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Scat: Owls and Opossums Oh My!

Mystery abounds in the North Campus, for who's been leaving scat under the footbridge? I discovered a vast array (about 10 pieces) of scat while I was searching for fungi a few weeks ago, and of course I snapped some pictures to try and identify our most recent visitor.

Who does this scat belong to?

My gut told me the scat belonged to either a Virginia Opossum,  Didelphis virginiana, or a Raccoon, Procyon lotor. To get a definitive answer I did two things. Firstly, I sent this picture to Jim Dines, the Museum's Mammology Collections Manager. Secondly, I put Sam Easterson on the project to set up a camera trap.

Almost caught in the act!

The trap that Sam put up over the Thanksgiving Holiday recorded at least one, if not two Virginia Opossums under the bridge! Although, we didn't capture footage of an opossum in the act so to speak, I am pretty confident we've discovered our scat provider! In concurrence was Jim, "You're right that it's probably opossum. They can have such varied diet that their scat can be hard to identify."

On the subject of scat, I have one last thing to show you! Unlike the Virginia Opossum, the Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia, we saw last week was caught in the act!

Aside from an in-depth view of owl bowel evacuation, this footage shows how Burrowing Owls are adept at standing on one leg. This isn't a circus trick, it actually allows the bird to keep the other leg warm in the feathers and only allow precious warmth to be lost from one leg at a time!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving for Mushrooms!

We're never going to spot a Wild Turkey in the North Campus, but I still wanted to post something related to the Thanksgiving holiday this week. Ah ha! Mushrooms, I thought. Not the Campbell's soup kind, but real honest-to-goodness wild mushroomslike the ones that are popping up all over L.A. after our recent autumnal rains.

In preparation for this blog post I went out searching for mushrooms in the North Campus. What I found was this:

Unidentified little brown mushroom (LBM)

Not being a mycologist, I had no idea what this small non-descript brown mushroom was, so I took it to the experts. Last night, the L.A. Mycological Society (LAMS) held their monthly meeting at the Museum. The meeting is a place for all things fungithere's a lecture (last night's touched on the insect zombification powers of some fungi!), mushroom show and tell, and of course snacks.

During the mushroom show and tell, I politely asked a LAMS member to identify my mushroom. Not missing a beat he told me it was an LBM. A what? A little brown mushroom! He continued to explain that there are hundreds of species of small brown mushrooms, and it was impossible to identify my mushroom without  a much more in depth process. I almost left disappointed, but then I took a gander at the other mushrooms people had found throughout Los Angeles.

 An array of mushrooms found on a mushroom foray

Earthstar, Geastrum spp. and
Western Destroying Angel, Amanita ocreata (small white mushroom)

Jack O'lantern, Omphalotus olivascens
This musrhoom actually glows in the dark!

Massive puffball mushrooom

Wow, what diversity! In the coming months I am working with the LAMS to do a formal survey of fungi in the North Campus. This survey will generate a species list for the site. Apparently there are almost 400 species of mushrooms and other fungi in Southern California, I wonder how many we'll find in the Museum's backyard?

Friday, November 18, 2011

First Owl Recorded in North Campus

Yesterday ,we recorded the first owl in the North Campus. This adorable Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia, was observed perching on the footbridge surveying the patrons in the Museum Cafe. However, this is not the first time a Burrowing Owl has been recorded at the Museum. A few years ago, a Burrowing Owl actually roosted in a T. rex skull that was stored on our fourth floor patio. According to Kimball Garrett, the Museum's Ornithology Collections Manager, "these owls are migrants that are coming in from more northerly or interior breeding areas the breeding population in Los Angeles Basin is gone, or virtually so."  

Coincidentally, yesterday was also the date of Kimball's annual bird walk in Exposition Park. Between 8:10 and 9:45 am the group recorded 27 species of birds including the second ever record of a Wilson's Snipe, Gallinago delicata, for the park. Not that I registered that the brown blur flying away from me was a Snipe, let alone a bird, but I took Kimball's word for it!

Looking at American Goldfinches on the Museum Feeders
(photo courtesy of Brenda Rees)

Here's the entire list including numbers of individuals seen:
Merlin (Falco columbarius)  1
Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata)  1
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis)  6
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia)  8
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  22
Yellow-chevroned Parakeet (Brotogeris chiriri)  4
Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna)  3
Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin)  4
Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii)  1
Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans)  5
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  10
Common Raven (Corvus corax)  1
Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)  20 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1
Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana)  7
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  6
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)  4
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  8
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)  20
Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothlypis celata)  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's) (Setophaga coronata auduboni)  20
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)  1
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)  1
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)  10
Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria)  1
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  20
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  10

Other notable sightings:
Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) 2
Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) 5
Korean Air Airbus A380 1 (It seems Kimball is adept at identifying aircraft also!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Niña de la Tierra: Children of the Earth

No it's not the title of a horror film, Children of the Earth is actually one of the many common names for Stenopelmatus fuscus. Other names lovingly given to this insect are Jerusalem Cricket, Potato Bug, Skull Insect, and my personal favorite, Devil's Baby!

Earlier this week Sam Easterson found one in his front yard and captured this picture and footage.

Are you Looking at Me?

These crickets are very common in Los Angeles. Consequently, my colleague Brian Brown, the Museum's Curator of Entomology, and I get calls about them all the time. I most often get calls after heavy rains, when these crickets come up from the depths of their soily abodes. They are stellar diggers (Check out their fossorial front legs, modified for digging) and live most of the summer months deep underground to escape the heat. Aside from their enlarged digging legs, their most obvious feature is their highly-domed head, which gives them an alien-like look. To continue the alien theme, these large heads contains multiple "brains!" To be scientifically correct they are actually cerebral ganglia, or masses of nerve tissue, which control the action of the chewing mouthparts, eyes, and antennae. Maybe I should propose a new name for this cricket, Alien's Devil Child?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Praying Mantis

Earlier this week I saw my first praying mantis in the North Campus! I was walking back from lunch at USC and there she was right in front of me on the path.

Female Mediterranean Mantid, Iris oratoria, running for cover

I knew she was a female because of her enlarged abdomen, males have much narrower abdomens and also longer wings. As I got really close to her to capture this picture, she went into her defensive posture. She reared up on her hind legs, extended her raptorial (modified for capturing prey) front legs, and flashed her brightly patterned black and yellow hind wings. She stayed in this posture for about 15 seconds and then ran for cover in the plantings. Hopefully she'll lay an egg case and we'll have baby mantids in the spring!

Mediterranean Mantid defensive posture
(image courtesy of What's That Bug website)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween: Bats!

To help celebrate Halloween here are some bats!

The Big Brown Bat, Eptesicus fuscus, is the most common bat in our area. They are easily seen at dusk flying around parks and water sources as they search for their insect food. We're putting up a  bat box in the North Campus in hopes that some of these bats will move in.

The Hoary Bat, Lasiurus cinereus, is another species often found in L.A. This specimen was collected at the Museum on the cafe patio a few years ago.

Last but not least here's the ghost-like Pallid Bat, Antrozous pallidus. Even though this species of bat is rarely found in the urban core, it is found in the desert regions surrounding Los Angeles. Unlike the Big Brown Bats these bats capture their food on the ground! They locate their prey by finding a perch and listening for insect footsteps (note the massive ears). When the right vibrations are heard they swoop down catch the unsuspecting insect and return to the perch to devour it!

Thanks to Jim Dines, the Museum's Mammology Collections Manager, for allowing me to photograph these awesome creatures!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dirty Work: Dead Birds, Skulls, and Macerating Flesh

Today a small group of volunteers showed up at the Museum to gut, skin, flense, and macerate birds (flensing is the process of stripping an animal of its skin).  It isn't because Halloween is next Monday; they actually do this every week.

Kimball Garrett, Ornithology Collections Manager, runs this unique volunteer program and supervises all gutting, skinning, and skeletonizing. Dead birds are acquired by the Museum through salvage on a regular basis and this group does the very dirty work of  turning the limp lifeless carcasses into scientifically useful specimens that will live in the Museum's collection.

This Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus, has just been gutted and had the carcass removed. Next it will be stuffed with cotton, mounted on a small wooden dowel, and labeled.  

These are leftover bits and pieces from the Loggerhead Shrike. Kimball and the volunteers call this snarge. The lab's centerpiece is the snarge bucket with the bits and pieces of the various birds prepared that day.  

Bacterial maceration jars!

Not all birds that come into the lab are made into study skins; some are kept for their skeletons. After the majority of the flesh has been removed by the volunteers, the remaining carcass is placed in a jar of water. Naturally occurring bacteria remove the leftover flesh and leave clean bones behind. This process takes a few weeks to a few months and gives the lab a very distinct aroma!

Harpy Eagle skull after bacterial maceration

Thanks to Kimball and his volunteers for letting me take pictures in the lab!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Today on the North Campus

I went out for a walk around the North Campus today and this is what I saw:

They are filling the pond to make sure there aren't any leaks and that the waterfall cascade is level.

Underneath the pedestrian footbridge is the best spot for mushrooms. I think this is a morel, Morchella esculenta. I am consulting with some mushroom experts to see if they can make a positive identification.

Apparently the Monarch caterpillar I found two weeks ago made its pupal case on a wall. I just love how green they are!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Flesh Flies and CSI!

Since it's October I decided to focus the rest of this month's posts on Halloween inspired themes. Wracking my brains for topics, I realized something I saw last week in the basement would fit the bill nicely. Flesh flies!

Generally the Live Animal Program doesn't keep flesh flies but Shawna Joplin, Coordinator of Animal Care and Education, brought them in as a new food source for our spiders in the Spider Pavilion (open through November 6). The species we are keeping are grey flesh flies, Sarcaphaga bullata, which get shipped to us a pupa. After about a week and a half the adult flies emerge from the puparium and are ready for us to release into the pavilion.

Grey flesh fly pupae

Our adult flesh flies feeding on banana

Flesh fly emerging from its puparium

Contrary to their common name, adult flesh flies don't feed solely on flesh. In fact they just as often eat nectar and other sugary items such as rotting fruit. All flesh flies in the family Sarcophagidae are larviparous, which means they incubate eggs internally and then seemingly give birth to live young, or maggots. It is the place of "birth" that gives these flies their common namethey are deposited on any available dead flesh! In fact these flies are some of the first visitors to roadkill, discarded innards, and even murder victims. Putting these flies to work, forensic entomologists have painstakingly studied their lifecycle, so they can assist Crime Scene Investigators in determining time of death. Because they rapidly discover a body and their development times are predictable under particular environmental conditions, the time of death can be calculated by counting back the days from the life stage of the flies found living on the body.

Next time you feel like seeing these maggots in person, just do what some of our Adventures in Nature campers have doneput out a piece of store-bought liver and wait for the maggots to show up! WARNING: This is smelly, messy work! Lots of other species of flies, beetles, and other creatures are likely to show up too. Are you prepared?

Happy Early Halloween!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

North Campus Monarchs

Yesterday afternoon myself and number of other staff members braved the heat to continue our survey of North Campus insects. On the heels of last week's Gulf Fritillary discovery, I found the site's first Monarch butterfly caterpillar, Danaus plexippus!

Monarch butterfly caterpillar

As soon as I saw the caterpillar I knew it was a Monarch: There isn't another caterpillar in our area with such yellow, black, and white banding. Also, the caterpillar was found on a narrow-leaved milkweed plant, Asclepias fascicularis, which is one of the food plants of this well-known species.

Based on its size, this caterpillar is in the second to last caterpillar stage (4th instar). Over the coming weeks it will molt to the last and final stage (5th instar), and then turn into a chrysalis.  In time for its fall migration, the adult Monarch will emerge and make its way to an overwintering site somewhere along the coast.

In the coming years I hope to tag and track the adult Monarchs that emerge in the North Campus, so we can determine the exact location(s) of our Monarchs' overwintering site(s). Tagging Monarchs is an easy process that in no way hurts the butterflies. The adults are collected with a net and then carefully held while a small sticker (approximately 2% of the butterflies weight) is attached to the hind wing of the butterfly. The butterfly is then released and flies onto its overwintering site. When the Monarchs dies the following spring (after mating) the tags are hopefully retrieved and we can answer the question, where do our North Campus Monarchs overwinter?

Demonstrating how to handle a Monarch for tagging

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

First Caterpillar Record for North Campus!

The last few weeks I have been spoiled with bloggable stories, but this week I needed inspiration. I took a stroll out to the North Campus to see what I could find, and was excited to happen upon the first North Campus caterpillar.

The caterpillar I found was in the last and final "J stage" of its larval lifecycle, just about to pupate. 

Easily recognizable, Gulf Fritillary caterpillars are striped and spiny.

24 hours later the caterpillar had metamorphosed into the pupal stage, aka chrysalis.

If you look close, you can see the developing wings.

This pupa is a Gulf Fritillary butterfly, Agraulis vanillae, native to Mexico and the southeastern United States where its passion vine food plants are also native. However, this species is now very common to our region because of all the passion vines that have been planted in yards, parks, and also in the North Campus! The species of passion vine I found the caterpillar on was Passiflora 'Lavendar Lady' cultivar, which is a cross between P. amethystina and P. caerula.

Typical alien-looking flower of passion vine, 'Lavender Lady' cultivar.

If you want to encourage these butterflies in your own yard, try planting a few passion vines of your own. Here is a list of the other passion vines we plan on planting in the North Campus:

Passiflora edulis
Passiflora caerulea
Passiflora alatocaerulas