This blog has moved it can be viewed here!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Edible Nature

Last week, I collected the first garbanzo bean out of the Erika J. Glazer Family Home Garden. After showing the seed to some of my colleagues, who exclaimed, "Wow, that’s a garbanzo bean," I realized what a profound thing I was holding in my hand. From this tiny package an entire plant can spring, the potential for new life was right there in my hand.

Garbanzo bean close-up
To tell you more about this tiny seed I'll pass you over to Vanessa Vobis, one of our Gallery Interpreters that works in the garden.

Vanessa stopped working for a quick photo opp.

"When I look at garbanzo beans, Cicer arietinum, I think of humus, Indian dishes, and the story of Jack and the beanstalk. Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, are legumes with a rich and nuanced history across many cultures. Over 7,500 year-old remains have been found in the Middle East; making garbanzo beans one of the oldest cultivated vegetables! Presently, India grows the most chickpeas in the world. These climbing vines grow to about 10-20 inches tall and the beans are a good source of zinc, protein, and fiber.

If we think rhyzomatically, like the way fungi create vast webs across forest floors, we realize we are part of that food web. A larvae chews on the leaves of a garbanzo plant, that plant feeds on the nutrients and minerals in the soil, and those nutrients are made accessible by the fungi, earthworms, and micro-organisms breaking down materials. The Home Garden is not just an edible landscape, it is also a functioning habitat that provides homes and food for countless other creatures. While the plants in the Home Garden are closely linked to what we eat, we have already begun to notice insects, birds, and even squirrels that have come to feast and forge relationships with our plants. We are especially welcoming of the bees because they help pollinate our flowers, and word on the street is that bees are responsible for pollinating every third bite of the food that we eat!" 

Companion plantings to encourage pollinators
and other beneficial bugs in the garden.

Looking at this tiny bean and all the other ripening food in the Home Garden, there are many connections to be made. We can be awed by a seed's potential to spring forth new life, amazed at the intricate relationships plants and animals can have right in our own backyards, and be thankful for the sustenance a plant will give us at our next meal. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Charismatic Microfauna in the North Campus

I've been away all week in Yellowstone for work and wasn't sure how I'd manage the blog this week. While there, I was stunned by the awesome wildlife I encountered, including bison, elk, black bears, pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and even a pack of six gray wolves!

Bison jams are a common occurrence in Yellowstone!

For those in the know, these animals are called charismatic megafauna. They are beloved by most, and therefore it's easy to get people to care about them and the issues they face. In stark contrast, much of the fauna I work with, and a focus of both the North Campus and Nature Lab projects, are tiny, seemingly inconsequential, and many times a turn-off to visitors. For instance, it's hard to get people to care about insects that live in what looks like spit!

This morning I went out to see what charismatic microfauna I could find in the North Campus.

A pill bug seemingly doing a break dance move!
(It was actually caught in a spider's web.)

Aphids eating and ladybugs mating! 
(Note the soft focus on the ladybugs...I didn't want it to be too explicit.)

Immature Dusky Ladybug
(Look at that body gear)

Spittlebug retreats on our rosemary plants.

Spittlebug that lives inside the frothy retreat.

Have you seen these insects in your garden? They are a fairly common sight in L.A., and I most often find them on rosemary plants. Although these spittlebugs, a.k.a Froghoppers in the Cercopid family,  can be considered pestsby some gardeners, they don't actually do much damage to the plants. I was actually very excited when spittlebugs showed up in the North Campus, as I get a huge kick out of showing them to kids and adults alike.

Visitors are fascinated when I point out the white frothy homes on the plants and then gently remove an immature insect so they can see it up close. Through these moments of wonder and discovery, I hope I can inspire people to care, at least a little bit, about these creatures. They make our outdoor spaces more diverse, interesting, and also play a part in the intricate web of life that exists in each of our backyards.

Friday, June 15, 2012

I Have a Cockroach in My Office!

Last week, Tania Perez, who is on our Museum education staff, found a cockroach crawling on our office wall! Said roach was quickly trapped and contained and was waiting for me when I got back to my office. 

Here in North America we have 55 species of cockroach (there are 3500 total in the world)! Of these 55 species, six in California are considered pests. The American Cockroach is the largest of these six roaches, with individuals reaching a maximum of 2 inches in length. Surprisingly, this roach isn't from America at all. It actually native to Africa. The species is also known as the ship cockroach and has hitched rides on ships traveling from Africa to the U.S. A likely apocryphal story,  it paints the picture in such a way as to imply it was slave ships during the 1600s that inadvertently transported these insects to our shores.

Although this roach is sometimes found in our homes (or on our office walls) it is much more often found living in sewer tunnels, steam vents, and industrial buildings. They are prolific breeders and, according to UC Davis, a "female and her offspring can produce over 800 cockroaches in one year." Females produce egg cases that are small, brown, and bean shaped. These egg cases are deposited in sheltered spaces and after five to seven weeks, they hatch. It takes just over a year for a cockroach to develop to adulthood, and they can live another year as an adult. What makes these creatures particularly impressive is they can go two to three months without any food, one month without water, and even up to a week without their head! That's right. Cockroaches, like other insects, have a decentralized nervous system, and can therefore survive, even walk around, without their head!



After dispatching (aka freezing)...

Friday, June 8, 2012

Another New Bird for Our Bird List

170 and Counting...

Late last week, Kimball Garrett, NHM's Ornithology Collections Manager, spotted a new species for our Exposition Park bird list...drum roll please!

It was an Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea. Although Kimball had his camera with him, he was unfortunatley unable to snap a picture. Here is an image of a male Indigo Bunting, so you can at least get a sense of what they look like.

Wow, those are some seriously blue feathers!

You can also check out what they sound like from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Here's what Kimball has to say about these birds:

The Indigo Bunting is a migratory songbird that breeds commonly in the Central and Eastern United States and adjacent Canada, and in small numbers west to Arizona. A few have summered and bred in Southern California, but the handful of Indigos that turn up annually in Los Angeles County are presumed to be off-course migrants.

A male seen in the xeric garden south of the California Science Center on June 1, 2012 was the first to be found in Exposition Park; the Indigo’s close relative, the Lazuli Bunting (P. amoena), is occasionally noted as a migrant in the park, mainly in August and September (as can be seen from the seasonal bar charts based on data from the eBird website). A third member of the genus Passerina, the Blue Grosbeak (P. caerulea) has been recorded only once, in May.

Seasonal bar charts from eBird

In addition to the brilliant blue plumage of the male, Indigo Buntings gained fame as the subject of pioneering studies of celestial navigation by night-migrating songbirds by Stephen Emlen in the late 1960s . Emlen placed caged buntings in a planetarium setting to study the directionality of their migratory responses when exposed to both accurate and manipulated celestial cues. Although we now know that star patterns are important in the navigation of such migrants, the occasional appearance of an individual well away from its normal geographical range shows that such navigation is not without errors!

Thanks Kimball, that was fascinating!