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Monday, December 24, 2012

New Fly Species Likes to Party It Up Poolside in Brentwood

I've been scratching my head for a story to tell in this week's blog. At 6:20 last night it hit me! I've never related our Curator of Entomology, Brian Brown's, story of how he discovered a brand new species of fly, right here in Los Angeles! That's right folks, undiscovered fly species are here right under your noses oh and don't forget that one that  flew into your eyeball, maybe that was new to science too, I guess next time you should try to save it!

All kidding aside, there are likely hundreds of new species scientists have never discovered before, right here in L.A.. Brian is famous here at the Museum for saying, "It's just as likely to find a new species to science in L.A., as it is in Costa Rica [where he does a lot of his research], 100%."

All you have to do is look at the numbers. Scientists have described almost a million different species of insects. However, they estimate that there may be anywhere between 9 and 29 million yet to be described! And this is just the insects we're talking about people. A New York Times article that came out last year noted that, "A single spoonful of soil may contain 10,000 different species of bacteria, many of which are new to science."

Back to Brian and his flies. Not everyone believed Brian when he told them he could find loads of interesting and new species here in L.A.. To prove that urban environments can be a frontier of discovery, he set up an experiment.

In a Brentwood backyard, he set up a Malaise trap  a tent-like device that captures flying insects in a large jar of alcohol, a.k.a. "jar of death." One week later he visited the backyard again, collected the jar full of insects, took it back to the lab, and separated out all the phorid flies (that's the family of flies that Brian is a world specialist on).

Poolside Malaise Trap 

"Jar of death"

Sitting at his microscope, Brian pulled out a small (~2mm in length) yellow phorid fly that looked interesting. To identify these flies, you have to dissect them and take them through a special fly key, that asks the you to look for crazy characteristics like laterally flattened hind femoras. So Brian popped the head off the fly and stuck it under the microscope. He took the small fly through the entire key and it didn't match anything this was a brand new species to science, it had never been described before, and it was the very FIRST fly he had looked at! 

Brian's new fly species

Brian pulled out a second fly from the sample and repeated the process. This specimen was similarly small, but brown instead. It also had a characteristic he recognized, the penultimate tarsal segment (a.k.a. second to last segment of an insect leg) was shorter than the last one. This is a characteristic common to a species only known from Europe. Brian took it through the key, and it was indeed the European species. Which, might I add, had never before been recorded in the U.S.!

European flies have a certain je ne sais quoi!

Wait, wait there's more! Seriously, as Brian kept looking he found a third interesting fly in the sample. This fly was a male from the genus Chonocephalus. This fly is from both coasts of Africa, the Seychelles and Canary islands to be exact. This was the very FIRST time it had been discovered outside of that native range! 

Chonocephalus, African phorid fly

So, by looking at only three, seemingly inconsequential flies, Brian had made three scientific discoveries, which have since then been published in well-known journals. Imagine what a month of sampling might uncover, or a year, or what about three year's worth of sampling!

This is exactly what the Museum has funded Brian and a group of other Museum scientists to do. Brian and his crew have dubbed the project BioSCAN (BIOdiveristy Science: City And Nature).

Here's what the BioSCAN website has to say about the project:

"This first-of-its-kind scientific investigation will discover and explore biodiversity in and around one of the world's largest cities: Los Angeles. In three years of sampling from the urban core right out through less-urban surrounding areas, we will focus on the insects, the most diverse group of animals on our planet.

We will discover and document the diversity of insect species living with us in Los Angeles as well as test intriguing hypotheses about how natural areas around the city affect its biodiversity, and specifically, how light in the urban environment is affecting its inhabitants."

Wow! I can't wait to hear what they find.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Weevil is as Weevil Does: Total Agave Meltdown

I don't know about you, but I'm not freaking out about the end of the world on December 21. Though, I can tell you "who" should be those agave plants, that's who! So much so, that if I was magically turned into an agave plant tomorrow, I'd totally start partying it up in preparation for total meltdown. Seriously though, agave meltdown is no joke. It's a very real disease that is highly lethal to agave plants and we've just discovered it in the Museum's garden!

It all came about last week. Richard Hayden and Daniel Feldman, the Museum's garden staff, noticed that some of our Agave americana plants weren't looking so hot. Some plants had a few leaves that were wrinkled and beginning to discolor, others were so bad they weren't able to stand up straight anymore. Experimentally, Daniel tugged on a leaf of one of the sick agaves, and surprisingly the entire plant came out of the ground in his hand! What they discovered beneath the surface was not pretty. The roots had become completely unattached and the heart of the plant was a goopy mess of rottenness. Something indeed was rotten in the heart of the Museum Garden!

What sort of "evil" could cause such destruction? Weevil evil, that's what! Upon closer inspection, Richard and Daniel found an aggregation of largish black weevils (about ½ inch long) hanging out in between the plants' leaves. To be specific, they were agave snout weevils, Scyphophorus acupunctatus, and they're proving to be a big problem in the agave world.

Here's what The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix has to say about agave snout weevils:

"The females chew their way into the plant base, often between leaf attachments, leaving bacteria (Erwinia sp.) as they go. They lay eggs in the bacteria-infected tunnel. When the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow and eat their way into the rotting heart of the agave. After the grub-like larvae have sufficiently fed and matured they will pupate and emerge as the next generation of adults. The entire life cycle can be completed in six to twelve weeks. Adults are approximately 1/2" in length with dull brown to black stout bodies and characteristic long snouts. The rotund legless grubs are cream color with dark heads.

Most often a snout weevil infestation is not apparent until the damage is severe. As larvae start to feed at the bacterial-infested plant bases and the roots, leaves begin to wrinkle. Shriveling will increase with time and as the plant continues to rot. A putrid odor can develop as bacterial infection creeps through the heart of the plant. In many cases a majority of the leaves collapse to the ground leaving only the central spike of leaves standing. The plant might be loose if wiggled and can easily fall apart. At this stage rescue is unlikely."

When the Museum garden staff realized that this was likely the fate of many of our agaves, they, needless to say, weren't very happy. In just a short week they've wholeheartedly joined the ranks of agave snout weevil haters everywhere. Of course, they have been madly searching for ways to deal with this pest. Most of the literature out there advises continued applications of the insecticide imadacloprid. This chemical is applied around the base of a plant and is taken up via the roots which then imparts toxicity to any insect that happens to eat the plant (including pollinators when they sip nectar). Needless to say, we want to stay away from chemical pesticides as much as possible. Unfortunately, we haven't found any good leads on organic controls, but we'll keep looking.

After hearing all this, being the good friend and coworker that I am, I offered to buy the garden staff a bottle of Mezcal! No, it wasn't to drown their unhappiness in, it was instead to take revenge! The "worm" in the bottom of a bottle of Mezcal is actually very often an agave snout weevil grub. That's right, they could relish in chomping off the head of our weevils' long lost great aunt's nephew or something. Cheers to that!

Daniel removing an infected Agave americana

Daniel dissected the above agave and this is what we found inside!

Close up of agave snout weevil, Scyphophorus acupunctatus.
Even knowing the back story, I still think it's cute.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Plague of Grasshoppers on Figueroa?

Recently, our garden staff has been finding LOADS of grasshoppers, but what are they all doing here? Are grasshoppers good for our gardens, or are they destructive like the plague of locusts (a swarming variety of grasshoppers in the family Acrididae) that appear in the Bible?

On November 14, I snapped a decent picture of a grasshopper hanging out on a pitcher sage plant, Lepechinia fragrans. I thought I'd have a crack at identifying it, and hoped that, through the process, I'd be able to figure out what exactly they're doing in the garden.

Not a bad picture for my camera phone!

Armed with a trusty book, the Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States, I began my quest. It was a long and arduous quest, seriously! I spent almost an hour (okay, I know, I'm prone to hyperbole) going through the pictoral key, comparing my photo with the beautifully drawn pictures, and then cross-referencing with the species accounts, and range maps (they really helped me eliminate quite a few species straight away). Alas, it was all to no avail!

Not to be outdone by a "lowly" grasshopper (am I a dork because I couldn't write lowly without quotes? I don't want the grasshopper to feel bad), I turned to the INTERNET! to be exact. I submitted the above picture to their ID request section on November 20, at 11:55am. Eight days, 10 hours, and 17 minutes later, the quest was over. Thanks to David J. Ferguson for the species identification, and a shout out to my homie Eric R. Eaton for helping too! This is a female Melanoplus yarrowii grasshopper, a.k.a. Yarrow's spur-throated grasshopper.

Okay, so now I had an identification. "So what," you may ask? Well, first and foremost, I felt vindicated. This species wasn't even in the field guide I was using, no wonder I couldn't ID it! Secondly, now that I knew the name, I could find out what this bug was all about.

What I discovered is that this grasshopper is indeed very closely related to the plaguing locusts of yore. I also found out that, in the late 1860s, we had our very own plague of grasshoppers right here in Los Angeles, and it lasted on and off for almost three years. According to Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology, the grasshoppers responsible for the plague was most likely Melanoplus devastator, though there aren't any actual specimens for us to examine to be sure. Whatever the exact species, these grasshoppers were apparently pretty devastating.

"When they had devoured all vegetation where they originated, they took flight and, flying with the wind moved in great clouds towards the east like the locusts of Egypt, devouring everything in their course. When the destroying hosts reached the Calle de Las Chapules, the vinatero knew his grape crop for that season was doomed. The voracious hopper would not leave a green leaf on his vines, and the vineyardist considered himself fortunate if the destroying host did not devour the bark as well as the leaves." That's JM Guinn, author of The Plan of Old Los Angeles and the Story of its Highways and Byways.¹ The Calle de Las Chapules he is referring to is the former name of part of what is today Figueroa Street. That's right, it was called Grasshopper Street. Next time you're stuck in traffic on Fig, just imagine a massive swarm of grasshoppers descending on your car, I assure you, it will take away any road rage you might have!

Thankfully, the Yarrow's grasshopper I found is not of the swarming locust variety. It does feed on plants, and is likely chowing down on various shoots and leaves out there in our garden. As far as the gardeners can tell me though, they're not causing much damage. So we're leaving them there to live another day, eat some more leaves, lay a few eggs, pose for a few more pictures, and maybe a few of them will become lunch for a hungry bird!

¹ From the Historical Society of Southern California's Annual Publication Volume 3, 1893-96.

*Special thanks to Margaret Hardin, Curator of Anthropology for information on our Los Angeles grasshopper plague; Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology for identification of said grasshopper, and to Jonathan Gillet, Gallery Interpreter, for giving me the lead to the L.A. plague story!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving for the Butter-butt (but not the Butterballs)!

Hold your horses...give me a moment to clarify this title, I'm talking about birds here! When I say "butter-butt" I'm actually referring to a small grey songbird that has a bright yellow patch on its derrière (yes, this really is what dorky birders like myself call this bird when we're out birding). In particular, I'm talking about the below pictured butter-butt, that narrowly escaped death hence the giving of thanks. In contrast, all those Butterball turkeys won't be giving much thanks. But hey, maybe you'll be inclined to give some on their behalf!
If this bird had a speech bubble, what would it be saying?

This is what Museum bird expert, Kimball Garrett, has to say about butter-butts, a.k.a. Yellow-rumped warblers:

"There’s hardly a surer sign of the approach of winter in the Los Angeles Region than the arrival en masse of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) throughout our lowlands in October. These hyperactive 12 gram songbirds breed widely in conifer forests of North America, and migrate in immense numbers to the southern United States (with some continuing as far south as Central America). In our area birds of the western 'Audubon’s' subspecies predominate. One secret to the success of this species is its generalized diet. Our fall and winter birds glean insects from vegetation or the ground, but also sally into the air to catch flying insects; they’ll also take nectar from a variety of flowers (winter-flowering eucalypts are especially preferred) and take their share of small berries as well. You’ll recognize Yellow-rumped Warblers by the eponymous color patch, as well as other yellow patches on the throat, the sides, and (usually hidden) the center of the crown, and white flashes at the corners of the tail. Grayish overall in their relatively subdued basic (“winter”) plumage, males don a brighter black, yellow and white plumage for the breeding season.

Mortality in most small migratory songbirds of temperate regions is astonishingly high over the first year often approaching or exceeding 75%. In urban areas, collisions with human-built structures is an important cause of mortality, with glass windows accounting for a large proportion of these deaths. Some scientists have estimated that up to a billion birds are killed each year in the USA alone by such collisions. The hapless Yellow-rumped Warbler that hit a window by the Dinosaur Hall is, unfortunately, hardly alone."

Hapless as this butter-butt may have been, it was one of the lucky ones, it revived and flew away some hours later. I wonder where it is now, how many insects and small berriers it has eaten since, and if it's learned to stay away from windows? Although, you won't be eating any insects (at least not knowingly) at your Thanksgiving feast, and you probably aren't rejoicing in life after narrowly esaping death-by-window, you probably have a lot of other reasons to give thanks. Go give 'em!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Massive Black Fly aka Mexican Cactus Fly

Earlier this week I was outside being interviewed about Entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs. While they were setting up the camera and sound equipment I took a few moments to see what insects were visiting the bright yellow flowers on the bush I was standing next to. Among the usual honeybees, I saw a massive black fly. This fly was huge (3/4 of an inch in length) and really stood out against the yellow flowers.

It was a Mexican cactus fly, Copestylum mexicanum, feeding on nectar, and this was the first time I had seen them around the Museum!

Here's what Flower Flies of Los Angeles County book has to say about them:
"This is the largest flower fly in Southern California, with a body length of 18mm. It gets its name from the larvae that feed in wet decaying prickly pear cactus. Adults are commonly seen feeding on flowers. Although it resembles some carpenter bees this species looks more like a large horse fly. The Mexican cactus fly is found from the southern USA to Central America, but related cactus-feeding flower flies are found in Mexico and South America. Many other species of the large genus Copestylum are found in our area. None of them resemble the cactus fly; instead they mimic bees and other stinging insects. All feed on decaying organic matter."

*Thanks to Museum Curator of Entomology, Brian Brown, for identifying the fly!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Hitchikers Guide to Los Angeles

Have you ever jumped in your car and realized there was a bug on your windshield? Not a gross squished one, I mean a living one, ready for a hitchiking adventure. When this happens, you might be like me, and decide to spark up the engine and see how long that sucker can stick around for (never speeding of course)! In my extensive experience, the bugs usually manage to "hang on" for much longer than one would expect. Case in point: This bright green katydida close relative to grasshopperstraveled with Nature Lab project manager, Jennifer Morgan, all the way from Palos Verdes to Pasadena, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph!   

Katy "done" did it right!

For a better idea of what a katydid looks like, here's an image courtesy of What's That Bug:

But why are they called katydids? According to Insects of the Los Angeles Basin, "Katydids are so named because of their supposed participation in a legendary love affair. Involved were two maidens: one was fair, the other (whose name was Kate) was more on the stately side. The masculine corner of the triangle, an anonymous lad, fell in love with the fair one and scorned the passions of Kate. When he mysteriously died, the question was: "Did or didn't the proud Kate do him in?" The insect lives today as the deceased's spirit, continually proclaiming the answer each summer night "Kate-she-did," or the variation "Katy-did.""   

So next time you're standing on a freeway overpass, look at all those cars speeding by and wonder, how many invisible hitchikers are passing by under your very nose? Furthermore, what are the conseqences of such movements? What happens to all those insects that are now 70 miles from their home?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Psycho Spider Killer: What is It?

I've been waiting an entire month to write this post, and maybe my entire life to entomologically riff off a Talking Heads song title! On Monday, October 1, I found a large tarantula hawk wasp (a.k.a Pepsis wasp) on some flowering Baccharis in the North Campus. This blue wasp with orange wings was the first of its kind spotted in our new gardens, and is indeed a spider killer.

Tarantula Hawk on Baccharis

This is what Insects of the Los Angeles Basin has to say about tarantula hawks preying on spiders:

"When a female wasp finds a tarantula, she alights and engages it in battle. The wasp then stings the spider on the underside between the legs and usually succeeds in paralyzing but not killing it. She has previously dug a shallow burrow, using her mandibles and legs as a pick and shovel, or selected an earth crack, rodent burrow, or even the burrow of a tarantula for a nest, and she now drags the paralyzed prey into his hole, lays an egg on the victim, and then seals the tunnel with soil. A supply of fresh food is thus insured for the developing larva."

Oh and let's not forget that a sting from one of these wasps can be very painful to us humans too! According to awesomely geeky entomologist, Justin O. Schmidt, this wasp's sting is among the most painful in the world. He described the painwhich lasted for about 3 minutesas, "blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath (if you get stung by one you might as well lie down and scream)." He also rated the pain as a 4, which is at the very top of his 0-4 scale of pain. That's right folks, he has documented the pain induced from over 100 insect stings in his lifewhat a scientist!

Friday, October 26, 2012

What's Up Goatsucker?

Yes, the first Goatsucker has been found in our new wildlife gardens! No, I'm not talking about a weird new species of goat parasite, I'm actually talking about a type of owl-like bird. Goatsuckers, a.k.a. nightjars, are members of the family Caprimulgidae, which comes from the Latin word Caprimulgus, literally meaning goatsucker. The Latin name came about because of the mistaken belief that these birds would swoop under milking goats to steal milk from the teat!

Common Poorwill, Phalaenoptilus nuttalli,
found on North Campus
Here's what Kimball Garrett, our awesome Ornithologist, has to say about the Common Poorwill (the specific type of Goatsucker) we found:

"It certainly appears that October is the month to find Common Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttalli) around here.  The previous two Exposition Park records are for 1 October 1973 (a specimen in the collection), and 12 October 2005 (a bird seen by me and some of my volunteers along the NW wall of the Rose Garden),

Poorwills catch insect prey (mainly moths and beetles) by sallying from the ground up into the air, especially from dusk through the evening.  They’re often seen on paved roads on warm summer and fall evenings – presumably taking advantage of the warmth retained in the asphalt and perhaps elevated numbers of insect prey in that warm microenvironment.  The species is named after its call, often heard on warm evenings on the breeding grounds.

Although some individuals seem to be year-round residents, others individuals (especially those from more northerly or interior breeding populations) are migratory.  Observations and specimen evidence suggest that the main fall movement into/through the lowlands of the Los Angeles Basin occurs in October.  The nearest breeding areas are on dry chaparral slopes of Griffith Park and elsewhere in the Santa Monica Mtns. (and poorwills are even more common in rocky desert and mountain areas farther inland).  In some parts of their range poorwills are known to undergo torpor on cold winter nights, some even hibernating for extended periods."

Whoa! Did Kimball just say these birds hibernate? Remember that tidbit for your next trivia contest!
But wait there's more! Did you know birds pant sometimes, to keep themselves cool just a like dogs do? To be more precise, scientists call it gular fluttering and Sam Easterson caught a video of it:

Wow, that's an impressive gular you have there
Mr. Goatsucker!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The L.A. River is Alive: From Mudbugs to Mallards

On Sunday, I joined two amazing people, Jenny Price and Lynn Garrett, on the Hidden L.A. River Tour. Yes people, L.A. does indeed have a river, one with real flowing water, real wildlife, and people like Jenny and Lynn, who are really passionate about it. It was an awesome adventure to explore our river with such knowledeable and enthusiastic people!

The morning started bright and early at 9 am at the L.A. River Center and Gardens, where many river-based non-profits have their offices. We quickly figured out the carpool situation, since it was a driving/walking tour of the river, and got a brief introduction that outlined the six rivery stops that were ahead of us. Without much further ado, we piled in our cars and headed to our first stop on the river.

We didn't have far to travel. The first stop was only five miles north of our starting point, and as we drove we followed the river's course (though we were travelling against the current). We exited the 5 freeway and passed over the historic Los Feliz bridge (built in 1925), hung a right into a sleepy Atwater Village neighborhood, and parked at the dead end of Dover street.

As we alighted from our cars and followed the path to the river, what we saw shocked some of us. Laid out in front of us was our river, and it was so very different from the lifeless, concretized, dangerous place that it is sometimes portrayed as. In fact it was the polar opposite! 

This is what we saw:

Not your stereotypical viewof the L.A. river

As the image shows, this part of the river, a.k.a. the Glendale Narrows, is lush and full of life. It doesn't have a concrete bottomthe water table sits so high, it bubbles up on a regular basisso there are lots of plants growing and lots of animals living in this valuable urban habitat. It was also a great place to play, in fact the kids on the tour even waded in (this made me smile really big) and were looking at all the wildlife that calls this part of the river home.

While we all explored this section of the river, our leaders gave us about half an hour to do this, we saw a lot of bird life including a Great Egret, a Double-crested Cormorant, two Muscovy Ducks, and a few groups of Black-necked Stilts, American Coots, and Mallards. We also spotted some interesting invertebrate life including a few Green Darner dragonflies, 20 or so Pacific Forktail damselflies, a few Fiery Skipper butterflies, and last but not least one kid discovered a one-pincered Red Swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii, poking along the river's edge!

Crayfish, aka the one-armed bandit!

Red swamp crayfish, a.k.a. crawdads or mudbugs, are an introduced species of freshwater crustacean very common in the ponds and waterways of L.A.. These lobster look-alikes are edible and originally from the South Central United States where they have been harvested for food for many years. Today these creatures are found all over the world from Asia, to Africa, and Europe too. Their spread can be connected to purposeful introductions as a food source, and accidental introductions for a myriad of reasons including disposal of unwanted pets. Here in California few people "fish" for them (though I have seen families doing it in Ferndell Park), and few predators exist to keep their numbers in balance, consequently their populations are numerous. 

Scientists paying close attention to the impacts of this introduced crustacean have discovered they can negatively impact our local California newt, Taricha torosa, populations. Although poisonous in the adult formthese newts secrete tetrodoxin through their skin, which repels most predatorsthe egg and larval stages are non-posoinous. This renders these lifestages easy targets for predators such as crayfish and other introduced species like the American Bullfrog. Paired with habitat loss and human alteration, this cute newt is on the decline. 

And Now Back to the L.A. River Tour:

After the excitement of finding the crayfish wore off, we all packed back into our cars and meandered down river to explore five other locations. We jumped from Marsh Park in Frogtown, to the Arroyo Seco confluence under the 110 and 5 freeway interchange, then headed downtown to the famous Grease filiming location under the 6th street bridge. We briefly stopped for a cactus and mole filled lunch in Boyle Heights, and then continued exploring the most industrialized part of the river at the Maywood Riverfront park. Last but not least we concluded our tour at the Dominguez Gap Wetlands in Long Beach, a man-made wetland that helps to clean the river's waters before it recharges our groundwater. Phew!

I wouldn't want to give too much of this amazing tour away, you really have to experience it for yourself. I know I'll be taking many of my friends and colleagues down to the river, especially to the Glendale Narrows area. Check out Hidden L.A. to find out when the next L.A. River Tour is scheduled!

Maywood Riverfront Park a la Instagram!
One of the most heavily industrialized stretches of our river.

Friday, October 5, 2012

First Canada Warbler Spotted in Exposition Park

This week I got another e-mail from one of our scientists. This time it was from Kimball Garrett, our amazing Ornithology Collections Manager. He found another bird for our Exposition Park bird list, and my isn't it cute? Here's Kimball's communique from October 3rd at 1:24pm:


Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis [= Wilsonia canadensis] along the south edge of the Rose Garden just now.  First for the park, and brings the wood-warbler (Parulidae) list for the park up to 22 species and the park list to 171 species.  Sorry, no photos obtained."

But wait, Kimball, never to be outdone by a bird, sent me this e-mail at 4:38pm that same day:


I went back out late this afternoon and had much better studies of the Canada Warbler and managed to get a few (lousy) photos. Here's one:"

 Wow look at that eye ring! Thanks Kimball.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kinky Bug Found in Museum's Gardens

I just got this e-mail from our Curator of Entomology, Brian Brown.

"I asked Entomology Volunteer Franesca Zern to concentrate on identifying true bugs from the North Campus Malaise trap. She just identified (through her own research) a new record for Los Angeles County, a mirid plant bug called Coridromius chenopoderis. This tiny, 2 mm long Australian bug feeds on plants, including beets and spinach, but is considered unlikely to be a pest. According to our colleagues at L.A. County Agriculture, this is the first report from here, although it is also known from farther south in California."

Photos of the bug taken by Inna Strazhnik:


But that's not all! Brian left Museum staff with this interesting tidbit:

"One interesting thing about these bugs is that they have traumatic insemination, like bed bugs. I won't broadcast the details, but yes it is as kinky as it sounds!"

Although Brian won't broadcast the details, I will! Traumatic insemination, aka hypodermic insemination, is a mating practice employed by some kinky invertebrates, bed bugs being the most notable. The male insect pierces the female's abdomen with his sword-like penis and injects sperm into the abdominal cavity. The sperm diffuses through the hemolymph (insect blood) and eventually reaches the ovaries. Hey presto, we've got fertilization! As you can imagine this process is no cake walk for the female insect in question. It creates open wounds which often lead to infection, thus shortening life expectancy. There we have it folks, another post about kinky InSEX.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Q: What are Those Miniature Spiky Puffballs? A: Brown Widow Egg Sacs

Earlier this week, staff found some small circular egg cases on a gate in the North Campus. Upon closer inspection we realized they were brown widow, Latrodectus geometricus, egg sacs. But how did we know this?

Two egg sacs, each containing about 100 eggs,
notice the geometric design.

Differences between brown widows and western black widows:

Brown Widows
Egg sacs are pale yellow and spiky (BINGO)
Egg sacs contain upto 150 spiderlings (best word ever)
Can lay 20 sacs over their lifespan
Adult females are USUALLY tan with an orange hourglass design on the underside of the abdomen
Lower incidence of medically significant spider bites

Western Black Widows
Egg sacs are pale yellow and smooth
Egg sacs contain upto 300 spiderlings
Can lay 10 sacs over their lifespan
Adult females are black (duh!) with a red hourglass design on the underside of the abdomen
Higher incidence of medically significant spider bites

Visit UC Riverside's Center for Invasive Species Research site for more information on identifying Brown Widows.

Check out this video Sam Easterson made of a brown widow tending her egg cases:

If you want to meet a brown widow up close and personal, all you have to do is visit our Spider Pavilion. The pavilion opens to the general public Sunday September 23. We have both a brown widow and western black widown on display in tightly shut enclosures! Stop by and say hello.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Oh My, What Lovely Saddlebags You Have!

Quick Dragonfly Update!

I've documented another dragonfly visiting our pond. It was a Black Saddlebags, Tramea lacerata. My phone's camera couldn't capture a picture of this fast-flying critter, but I was able to send myself an e-mail documenting the find. Here's the e-mail:

"Saw a saddlebags by pond
August 22, 2012

This brings our total number of dragonflies and damselflies to six species! Check out this recent post to see the the other five.

Black Saddlebags perching
Photo courtesy of JerryFriedman

Friday, August 31, 2012

What's that Bird of Prey Eating?

We've had another visitor at the pond. Since it's a bird, Kimball was kind enough to write this week's post!

"Cooper’s Hawks, Accipiter cooperii, such as this adult, have frequently been recorded by Sam Easterson’s “camera traps” as they drink and bathe at the Natural History Museum’s North Campus pond.  These hawks are among the most conspicuous vertebrate predators in urban Los Angeles – a significant turn of events given that this species was on the National Audubon Society’s “Blue List” as recently as the 1970s.  The “Blue List” – a sort of early warning list of potential endangerment – included species “suffering population declines or range diminution in all or parts of their range.”  Cooper’s Hawk populations have rebounded spectacularly in part because of reductions in the use of certain pesticides, but also because they are now rarely persecuted as the pest their nickname “chicken hawk” alludes to.  

But the increasing population of Cooper’s Hawks in our region is not without ecological consequences.  These hawks, and other species in the genus Accipiter, are bird-eaters – they catch songbirds, doves, and many other kinds of birds by ambushing them with short flights over and through vegetation.  We don’t know the extent to which declines in populations of some urban bird species (such as the introduced Spotted Dove, which is now virtually gone from southern California, or the Inca Dove, whose population in the Tucson, Arizona region has plummeted) can be attributed by increased predation pressures by Cooper’s Hawks.  Careful observations by scientists and citizens – and Sam’s technological wizardry – may help us better understand the role of predators such as the Cooper’s Hawk in regulating populations of their prey species."

Thanks Kimball! Finally, here's some footage Sam's trap captured of the hawk taking a bath in the pond!

Friday, August 24, 2012

More L.A. Mushrooms

As I proclaimed in last week's blog, it's been hot! Not the sort of weather you would expect to be finding mushrooms in the arid Southwest. However, Carol Bornstein, Director of North Campus and  gardens found mushrooms on her way into work on Monday morning. As she parked her car, she noticed some yellow patches under a citrus tree. Upon closer investigation, Carol discovered they were clumps of emerging yellow mushrooms!

Needless to say, I was out there quick as a flash to snap some photos. This is what I found:

When I parked the next morning the mushrooms had completely changed!

 Picture taken by Patrick Tanaka, Museum outreach instructor

According to Florence Nishida, Museum research associate and L.A. Mycological Society member, this mushroom is likely Leucocoprinus birnbaumii. Although it doesn't have a common name, it is often encountered in potted houseplants and sometimes in mulch outside! Through my research, I have discovered that people can get quite frantic upon finding these mushrooms in their homes. In particular, has an entire article about frantic questions received from homeowners worried about the dangers of this mushroom.

The good news is, they are practically harmless. The plant is in no way affected by this cohabitant and as long as no person or pet eats it, everyone will be safe and sound. So next time you find yourself wondering if you should pick and eat that little yellow mushroom, stop yourself and remember safety first!

Friday, August 17, 2012

We've Got Flying Neon Toothpicks in Our Pond

I admit it! I totally stole the title of this week's blog from my Facebook friend John Acorn, aka The Nature Nut. To be specific, I gleaned this gem of a title from one of his books, Damselflies of Alberta: Flying Neon Toothpicks in the Grass.

Today, instead of taking lunch like a normal person, I went out to the pond with Kimball Garrett to survey for adult Odonates. Odo-what? I mean dragonflies and damselflies (the flying neon toothpicks), the jeweled predators of the sky.

Among other things, Kimball and I found damselflies for the first time. Yay! Here are some pictures of what we found:

The first ever damselfly to be found in the pond!
Pacific Forktail, Ischnura cervula

Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata, in Kimball's hand

Kimball also thought he saw a Wandering Glider, Pantala flavascens. Thankfully, Sam Easterson had snapped this picture earlier in the morning, confirming the presence of this impressive dragonfly.

Sam's shot of a Wandering Glider

So the list of Odonates in the pond has grown to 5 species:
Green Darner, Anax junius
Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata
Wandering Glider, Pantala flavascens
Variegated Meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum
Pacific Forktail, Ischnura cervula

In other Odonate news, Black Phoebes love them! Here's the proof, from one of Sam's camera traps:

Tasty dragonfly lunch for a hungry Black Phoebe

Friday, August 10, 2012

Who are Those Ants in Our Homes and Gardens?

Lots of people in the L.A. area have been complaining about the heat. Over the last week, cities in our region have been experiencing temperatures well into the 90s. On Monday, Woodland Hills reached 108 degrees!

Whenever the temperature rises like this, I start to notice ants indoors. Only this morning during our Nature Lab meeting, I found a trail of ants leading to the sink, and another leading to the snack shelf.

The ants I found are Argentine Ants, Linepithema humile. They are an introduced species from South America (Argentina and Brazil) and are now considered the most common ant in our area. According to the Insects of the Los Angeles Basin book, these ants were "introduced to New Orleans before 1891 in coffee shipments from Brazil, and it has since spread rapidly over much of the United States."

This is what the same book has to say about their pest status:

"The species is one of the most persistent and troublesome of all our house-infesting ants. Argentine Ant workers seek out and feed on almost every type of food, although they are especially fond of sweets. Making themselves most objectionable, the ants invade the house through minute crevices and cracksfiling along baseboards, across sinks, and over walls and tables in endless trails."

How do you feel about ants in your home? While writing this blog, I've found it interesting to ponder this question. As you may have noticed I am a nature lover, however I am definitely not a fan of ants in my house and will go to great lengths to remove them. Many times this feels like a losing battle, especially because I'm not one for spraying pesticides all over the place I live.

Argentine Ant about to take drink of water in our Nature Lab trailer
(It is one eighth of an inch long)

The Argies, as we "fondly" refer to them, have also been found throughout the North Campus. This isn't surprising as it is well documented that this ant species has displaced many of our native ants. According to Alex Wild, author of the Myrmecos ant blog, Argentine Ants, "can drive native arthropods to extinction, instigating changes that ripple through ecosystems. In California, horned lizard populations plummet. In South Africa, plant reproduction is disrupted. Worldwide, the Argentine Ant is a persistent house and crop pest. This is not a good ant." Here are some pictures of their activities on the North Campus:

Argentine Ants killed all the paper wasps in this nest

Argentine Ants tending citrus scales in our orange trees

When I found the ants had killed all the paper wasps in the nest pictured above, I have to admit I was disappointed. I know many would be cheering for the ants, as paper wasps are viewed as a pest themselves. However, I had already become invested in the livelihood of that particular wasp nest and would check up on it every time I was out in the gardens. I find it infinitely interesting to ponder our notion of pest. What is acceptable in some circumstances is unacceptable in others. However, I still haven't come across anyone who is a fan of Argentine Ants!

Need tips of managing ants in your home? Check out the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management website.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bugging Out in Arizona

Hey folks, I'm out of town this week at the Invertebrates in Education and Conservation Conference in Tucson, Arizona. Forgive me for not providing you with your weekly dose of L.A. urban nature, hopefully the images I'll share of the insects we're finding here in Tucson will suffice!

The conference I'm attending with Shawna Joplin, our Coordinator of Animal Care and Education, is put on by the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI). SASI is a non-profit organization devoted to fostering awareness, knowledge and appreciation of all nature through the study and interpretation of the vital roles arthropods play in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem.

I go to this conference every year to meet up with other entomologists, invertebrate educators, and of course the USDA staff who give us permits to operate our Butterfly Pavilion, and Insect Zoo. The most fun part of the conference are the field trips. Last night Shawna and I both went on one of the night lighting trips. Here are some images from our trip.

Mercury vapor night light set-up, look at all those insects! 

Male ox beetle, Strategus aloeus 

 Your author with poplar sphinx moth,
Pachysphinx occidentalis

Yes I admit it, I Instagrammed this glorious scarab beetle!
Chrysina gloriosa

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Are you Ready for the ZomBee Apocalypse?

Today, we launched our latest Citizen Science project, ZomBee Watch, in partnership with San Francisco State University. Yes, that's right folks, we want you to become a real life ZomBee Hunter! To inspire you to do so, sit back and relax while I tell you this epic story of zombification!

Dead honey bee parasitized by the Zombie Fly.
Can you see the white maggot emerging from the neck region?

In the darkness of night zombified honey bees (ZomBees) abandon their hives and embark upon a flight of the living dead! These honey bees, Apis mellifera, have been infected by the Zombie Fly, Apocephalus borealis, brethren of the nefarious ant-decapitating flies. 

Female Zombie Fly, Apocephalus borealis, 2.5 mm long
Photo courtesy of Brian Brown

It all starts when a Zombie Fly finds her way into a bee hive and lays her eggs inside of an unsuspecting bee. After a few days, the eggs hatch and the maggots slowly eat the bee from the inside out. Sensing something is amiss (really, really amiss), the ZomBee abandons its hive under the cover of darkness and "drunkenly" flies towards the light (no pun intended). The zombified bee, like real-life zombies, show symptoms of disorientation (not surprising, since the maggots may well have eaten one, if not all of their brains), such as walking in circles, the inability to stand on their legs, and a fair bit of staggering about. Check out this video:

Zombie-like staggering behavior of honey bees

After the sun rises, the stranded ZomBee slowly dies. Left undisturbed, about seven days later up to 13 maggots emerge, alien-like, from the ZomBee and pupate away from the now lifeless body.

ZomBeee with pupa
Photo thanks to John Hafernik, the scientist who discovered
that Zombie Flies are parasitzing honey bees

Zombie Fly parasitism is not new to science. We've known for a long time that these flies parasitize some of our native bumble bees and paper wasps. But now that Zombie Flies have been discovered "infecting" honey bees, scientists and beekeepers alike concerned. How will this affect the honey bee? They have already been contending with such difficulties as Colony Collapse Disorder, Varroa mites, and a plethora of other diseases and infections. Right now, we are waiting to see what the research shows us. How will this new threat affect the beekeepers’ livelihoods and our bee-dependent dinner plates?

Now that you’ve heard my gruesome tale, I am sure you are compelled, by all that is right and good, to become a ZomBee Hunter. For instructions on how to participate, check out our ZomBee Watch website.

Check out the discovery paper co-authored by Museum Curator of Entomology, Brian Brown
A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus borealis 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Do Wasps Have Free Will?

We found a new wasp species in the North Campus. The Great Golden Digger Wasp, Sphex ichneumoneous, is an impressively large (approximately one inch long), and active solitary wasp. Although many see a wasp this large and brightly coloredthe orange and black combo usually tells us to "stay away"this wasp is not aggressive and is very rarely observed stinging. Solitary Hymenopterous insects (those in the order Hymenoptera, aka bees and wasps) are not prone to stinging the same way social species are. This is because they don't have a hive to protect.  

Great Golden Digger Wasp feeding on milkweed nectar

The Great Golden Digger Wasp is actually a beneficial insect in our gardens. Here's how: 
  • They are great hunters. Their scientific name ichneumoneous, is Greek for tracker.
  • Adults feed on nectar and are often seen foraging on flowers.
  • When a female is ready to lay eggs, she digs up to six nests in exposed soil.
  • When she is ready, she captures a cricket, grasshopper, or katydid (yay, pest control)! She paralyzes the insect by stinging it, and then takes it to the nest. 
  • When she gets back to the nest, she goes in to check that everything is okay. She then emerges and drags the paralyzed insect into the hole. There she lays one egg on each paralyzed insect.
  • The eggs hatch after two to three days and begin to feed on the paralyzed insect.
  • After a few weeks to many months (depending on the time of year the egg was laid and the weather) the larvae metamorphose into adults and carry on the life cycle.
Free Will Hunting
In the 1980s, cognitive scientists, Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, used these wasps' unthinking deterministic (aka pre-programmed) behaviors to illustrate the meaning of free will. As described above, female S. ichneumoneus, check their holes before dragging the paralyzed prey item into it. Scientists tested this behavior in a controlled environment by moving the prey item while the wasp was inside the nest. When the wasp emerged, she would relocate the prey, drag it back to the nest, and then check the nest again (even though she had already done it very recently). The experiment was repeated up to 40 times, and each time the wasp would re-check the nest. 

In Dennett's 1984 book, Elbow Room, he used this behavioral study as an analogy to the opposite of free will (coined sphexish by Hofstadter), i.e. futily repeating the same actions over and over again in a pre-programmed manner. In contrast, we humans have the ability to recognize futile behavior, exercise our free will to change something, and hopefully disontinue futile activities. YAY! He even coined the term antisphexishness, the state of free will.  Try dropping that one in your next conversation with an intellectual and see what happens!