The flies. Cropped from photo by Kelsey Bailey of NHMLA.
The Biodiversity Science: City and Nature, or BIOScan, project at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County reports a surprising finding from a study of insects trapped in local yards. In just a three-month period, 30 new species of a particular genus of fly have been discovered — and named after the residents of the homes where the flies were collected. The discovery will be detailed in a paper to be posted in the journal Zootaxa in April. "Describing 30 species in a single paper is rare, but what's especially striking is that all these come from urban Los Angeles," the Natural History Museum says in an early look at the paper.
More from the museum:
The BioSCAN project is a three year investigation of patterns of biodiversity in and around urban Los Angeles, based on sampling the world's most diverse fauna: insects. Local residents participate in the study by hosting one of the 30 sampling sites, each of which has a continuously operating insect trap and a microclimate weather station. Every household's set of samples yielded at least one of the 30 new species, prompting the researchers to name each species after the resident in whose back yard the species was found.
The project is yielding an unprecedented biodiversity collection, consistently accumulated across space and through time, curated for permanent research availability at NHM. Lead author Emily Hartop, an entomologist at NHM, examined over 10,000 specimens of phorid flies from three months of the samples to find these 30 new species. This result clearly demonstrates the extraordinary level of biodiversity that remains to be discovered even in heavily human-influenced areas.
Dr. Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology at NHM and principal investigator of BioSCAN, has extensive experience exploring and discovering insect biodiversity in tropical areas like Costa Rica. Goaded by a bet with an NHM trustee, he set out to prove that he could discover a new species in a Los Angeles backyard. When the very first specimen he examined from a trap in that urban backyard turned out to be a new species, Dr. Brown was inspired to pursue a deeper investigation of Los Angeles urban biodiversity, leading to the BioSCAN project. "I always thought we had the potential to discover new species wherever we sample—urban, tropical, anywhere. But 30 new species from a heavily urbanized area is really astounding," Dr. Brown said.
Hartop, one of the museum's entomologists, prepared for the assignment by traveling to England to study with a retired Cambridge professor she calls "the current world expert on the genus Megaselia." Hartop introduced the findings in a blog post she called How I Discovered 30 New Species of Flies in Los Angeles. Sample:
Before I explain how this all happened, let’s pause and say that again: 30 new species of flies were described from urban Los Angeles in 2015. Let’s expand: these flies were caught in three months of sampling and are all in the same genus. What does this mean for us? It means that even in the very areas where we live and work, our biodiversity is critically understudied. It means that in your own backyard, or community park, live species that we do not even know exist. It means that all of those invisible ecosystem processes that occur all around us are being conducted, in part, by creatures we know nothing of. It means BioSCAN is off to a good start, but we have a lot of work to do.
For months on end I spent my days buried in fly genitalia. I did, I became a crazy fly lady. But just a year after I started getting to know and love these flies, I’ve helped to describe 30 new species right from the heart of my city… but I’m not stopping there. Not only are there cities around the world with Megaselia just waiting to be discovered, but in the jungles of the tropics the numbers of new species go from dozens to hundreds. Beyond that, we have to figure out what all these incredible new flies are doing. If other phorids decapitate ants and eat human remains, what could these 30 new species be up to here in Los Angeles?