Museum-quality science needs you

If you dress for work in a floral-print frock and heels, and you make your living stroking the furry belly of a hand-sized tarantula, you have a way cool job.

NHM Lila Higgins, Texas tan tarantula 6-13.jpg
Lila Higgins, manager of citizen science at the L.A. County Natural History Museum, has a way cool job. After this weekend, when the museum officially--finally!--celebrates the near-completion of a 10-year renovation cum centennial anniversary, Higgins can relax again into her role as the public face of science.

She will have lots of company. The museum's physical transformation reflects renewed interest in participatory science. Los Angeles is blessed with the perfect climate to cultivate an indoor-outdoor culture, and the museum wants us, in the words of landscape architect Mia Lehrer, to "put your nature eyes on."

The museum's "ologists," as Lehrer refers to the staff scientists, want us to invade the privacy of the city's nonhuman residents any way we can. Try Biodiversity Science: City and Nature (BioSCAN), which collects a few thousand insect specimens each week from five sampling stations. The goal is to have 30 such traps at private homes throughout the L.A. region, maybe yours among them.

"I can find a new species anywhere," said Brian Brown, curator of entomology, "even in the front lawn."

Try Lost Lizards of Los Angeles (LLOLA), and Lost Ladybug Project (LLP), and help to map their location just like many of us have been doing since 2002 with almost 6,000 specimens for the museum's L.A. Spider Survey.

Try the L.A. Butterfly Survey (LABS), and ZomBee Watch, which sticks its proboscis into the affairs of zombie flies because these murderous parasites prey on our friend, the honeybee.

There's even a link on the museum's citizen science page to an outside survey on California roadkill (seeking reports, not recipes).

Some visitors will be interested in the museum's renewed interest in "his-tor-i-ci-ty," as L.A. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas staccato-ed at a media preview earlier this week. Did you know that the NHM opened one day after William Mulholland's thirst-slaking Los Angeles Aqueduct began delivering water to the San Fernando Valley? Do you want to know how the 1913 Beaux Arts design embraced the glassy new 2013 entrance that invokes the anatomy of the fin whale skeleton looming above?

But we live in a world of Kardashian pregnancy watch, and crotch shot tweets, so some of us media morons were charmed more by the sartorial choice of architect Fabian Kremkus, who accessorized his pinstriped suit with red-polka dot socks. By Lehrer, who can wax eloquent about Rubus idaeus (Indian Summer raspberry) and Rubus ursinus (Thornless boysenberry), but who, when asked what kind of stone is in her huge ring, responded with a shrug. "Green."

Because L.A. is deemed one of only 34 worldwide biodiversity hotspots--a place of both biodiversity and a growing human population--it attracts all kinds of ologists who work at the NHM and who make you wish you were a spider farmer.

In both the new indoor Nature Lab and throughout the new outdoor gardens and water features, the nerd herd's live animal collection will regularly be on display. According to Brown, the Hallmark-cute ladybug is actually a "lion" whose voracious appetite for aphids puts her in direct competition with ants, who prefer their aphids alive in order to savor their secretions. Brown described this eat-drink-and-fight-over-which scenario as: "Aphids are the ecological commerce of the garden."

In the Nature Lab, you can meet Luis, a diminutive Mediterranean house gecko whose species was unknown in L.A. until 12-year-old Reese Bernstein and his father William observed one at a house in Chatsworth and reported it to LLOLA. It was such a profound "distributional record," as Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology, put it, that the Bernsteins' notice will be published in the September issue of Herpetological Review.

If you're lucky, you'll encounter Pauly at the new pond with his red slider turtle pal Shawna, whose invasive species he studies for its impact on our native Western pond turtles. That is, when he's not investigating the evolution of mating signals in frogs.
NHM Greg Pauly, Shawna 6-13.jpg

Ornithologist Kimball Garrett claimed that "We live in the birdiest county in the U.S.," but that "we know next to nothing about urban bird ecology." Garrett knows that the white-throated swift he just spotted east of the bird-viewing platform eats "aeroplankton"--airborne bugs--and literally flies around all day. "He won't land until night," Garrett said, inviting us to peer through the telescopes trained on avian activity throughout the gardens.

It's not all about critters, it's also about plants. The skinny, flare-topped aluminum poles that look like Jack-in-the-Box drive-in speakers are actually the opposite--the Listening Tree's root sensors enable you to hear how water moves into the xylem tissue. NHM listening tree installation 6-13.JPGYou should care, explained Carol Bornstein, director of Nature Gardens, because such intelligence can inform irrigation practices. Plants make different sounds according to how much water their roots are tapping. Popping noises, "like a straw on the bottom of a glass," Bornstein said, mean there's a lot of air in the water, and the plant is stressed.

On this day, what we heard sounded like a clothes dryer--a happy humming tree.

Citizens, your call to science issues from the Natural History Museum. Time to meet the neighbors.

Photos: Lila Higgins and an anonymous Texas tan tarantula; Greg Pauly and Shawna, the red slider turtle; Listening Tree. By Ellen Alperstein

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