Two Mid-Wilshire families have agreed to devote the next three years catching bugs for the good of science.
Participating in the research initiative called “Biodiversity Science: City and Nature” (“BioSCAN”) are residents Patricia Lombard (in Fremont Place), and parents K.T. and Eric and son Brendan (Larchmont adjacent), who have opened up their yards to having special traps installed by the Natural History Museum, survey sponsor. Named after their inventor, these ”Malaise” traps are large mesh tents (the size of a camping tent) designed to deflect insects upward into a bottle filled with preservative alcohol mounted at the peak of the tent.
By the end of 2013 Natural History staff had set up traps in a total of 30 Los Angeles yards across a broad swath, from Downtown to Griffith Park. The purpose of the BioSCAN survey is to test the status of biodiversity in Los Angeles. Insects have been selected as the survey topic because of their short lifespan and quick turn over, meaning, shifts in the species that occur over multiple generations can be evident to scientists within a short period.
L.A is part of the #8 biodiversity “Hotspot” in the world (the “California Floristic Province”), qualifying for that ranking because it has lost at least 70% of its primary vegetation through urbanization, and has an unusually high and sudden loss of native species. The first of its kind to evaluate diversification in a large metropolitan area, the BioSCAN project is being watched by scientists worldwide. Per BioSCAN Coordinator, Dean Pentcheff, having residents volunteer to host traps gives scientists unparalleled access to urban backyards which form the majority of the area’s terrain.
The two local families are required to change out the trap bottles weekly, with the four sample-bottles then brought into the museum monthly for BioSCAN staff to assess the contents. A micro-climate weather station is also affixed to the tents so environmental data may be tracked, and participants are expected to keep field notes. For instance, when an oak tree had to be removed from Lombard’s front yard adjacent to the trap, Patty carefully recorded this change.
“We’ve been surprised by the samples. Casual observers wouldn’t think anything new would be discovered in their back yards.” – Emily Hartop, Assistant Collections Manager, Entomology, BioSCAN Project
Once the samples have been delivered to the Museum, scientists dissect, prepare slides and pore through existing literature to determine if the insect specimens discovered in the traps have already been recorded in the scientific literature or not. Amazingly after only a few months, in the Mid-Wilshire traps, scientists have discovered a new species of scuttle fly (or Phoridae) never before recorded.
As Hartop explains, the discovery of a new variety of scuttle fly may be bad or good. A brand new species in the area can mean a lush-enough environment exists to support growing diversity, or it can mean that other species are being surplanted. The discovery of species that are new to SoCal but have been recorded by scientists in other areas normally relates back to the large number of commercial imports into the area from overseas.
But the variety of scuttle fly identified in the two local traps is entirely new to science anywhere as determined by Dr. Brian Brown, BioSCAN Principal Investigator and one of the most prolific Dipterists (or fly specialists) in the world. Upon hearing the news, Lombard exclaimed “So cool! It is especially gratifying that we played a small part in helping Dr. Brown and the staff document a new species.” Scuttle flies are distinguished by their humpbacks and characteristically run away, rather than fly, during escape.