L.A. museum enlists volunteers to catalog bugs, plants

John Rogers
Associated Press

Los Angeles – — Long before Southern California was paved over with freeways and covered with cars and millions of people, it was teeming with snakes, slugs, spiders, snails and uncounted other slimy, creepy, crawly creatures.

And it still is, say scientists at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum who are intent on building a better world by enlisting thousands of people to find and catalog those creatures.

On Thursday, the scientists unveiled the museum’s Urban Nature Research Center, a facility that director Lori Bettison-Varga says will serve as headquarters for the nation’s first urban biodiversity study that uses a sprawling city and its environs as a research lab.

“Everybody thinks that Los Angeles is just this big, paved-over place, but it’s not. It’s a hotbed of biodiversity,” says Lila Higgins, head of the center’s citizen-science program.

The scientists recently trained about 400 volunteers and armed some with backyard traps. Now, they will beat the bushes and other spots in their neighborhoods in search of unusual flora and fauna. Some bugs will be taken to the center and examined while many more will have their photos taken and emailed to the facility’s 12 staffers for a closer look.

The volunteers are helping with such playfully named projects as RASCAL (reptiles and amphibians in Southern California) and SLIME (snails and slugs living in metropolitan environments).

Meanwhile, the museum is encouraging anyone with a smartphone to snap a photo of interesting bugs, reptiles or plants and send it along.

The environmental group Conservation International has placed Southern California on its list of 35 biodiversity hotspots — places with a hugely diverse ecosystem that includes numerous plants, insects, lizards and the like along with large numbers of threatened flora and fauna.

In Southern California, for example, museum scientists have discovered 43 species of phorid flies in recent years that they never knew existed in the region.

“There’s nothing super-special about phorid flies, except to us of course, because we’re experts on them,” Brian Brown, the museum’s entomology curator, said with a smile Wednesday as a bunch of the flies were being meticulously examined in a ground-floor exhibit hall while a group of schoolchildren looked on google-eyed.

“But they are indicators of what might also be here, and it just points out how little known this city is,” Brown said.

“Even though there are scientific institutions that have been here over a hundred years, we still don’t know what species live here,” he added.

And of those that are known, it isn’t clear how many of them got here.

One of the most common species of fruit fly — those teeny tiny bugs with a taste for rotten bananas and an annoying dive-bombing maneuverability — in Southern California was recently discovered to have come from a species native to El Salvador. Its ancestors likely arrived here the same way as an Australian gecko discovered by the museum — hitching a ride on a plane or ship filled with plants or food.

Brown says keeping track of such transplanted insects and reptiles helps keep the ecology in balance.

“If there are 5,000 species and a nasty invasive species gets in, it’s much harder for it to get established,” he said.

Although the information collected by the Urban Nature Research Center is largely for scientists, Bettison-Varga said it can also benefit urban planners as they propose future projects for this dense area.