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The latest buzz in the world of newly discovered insects was not in a distant jungle far away but in the bustling city of Los Angeles. On this week’s TechKnow, Phil Torres speaks with a team of experts working at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum’s BioScan project http://www.nhm.org/site/activities-programs/citizen-science/bioscan. The project uses 30 volunteers with large malaise traps to find new species of insects. This year’s BioScan project focused on flies. And at each of the sites, a new fly was discovered. It only took the first three months of the project to obtain these results
Lisa Gonzalez, Assistant Collections Manager of the BioScan project, is in charge of obtaining samples each week from the volunteers’ homes. Her field of study is the traffic and wilds of Los Angeles rather than distant jungles.
The following was adapted from an interview with “TechKnow.” It has been edited for length and clarity.
TechKnow: You guys are finding a lot of flies?
Lisa Gonzalez: Yes, actually so the new species were found just from the first three months of the collection so we’ve been collection now at all 30 sites for over a year so just from looking at the specimens. We are talking about thousands of specimens of the first three months. We found these 30 new species.
So it’s just the beginning.
So it’s just the beginning, exactly.
You guys are finding a lot of flies? It’s amazing to me that so much science can be done from someone like this in somebody’s yard.
Yes, actually so the new species were found just from the first three months of the collection so we’ve been collection now at all 30 sites for over a year so just from looking at the specimens. We are talking about thousands of specimens of the first three months. We found these 30 new species.
So it’s just the beginning.
It’s just the beginning, exactly.
It’s amazing to me that so much science can be done from someone like this in somebody’s yard.
I agree. There are lots of different ways to collect insects and this is actually a really effective way because of course we can collect many over a period of time and you don’t have to be actively collecting. You can just set this up and come back and check on it so it’s a really good way to do it.
Did it surprise you as an entomologist that a new species was found here?
As an entomologist, I wasn’t terribly surprised just because I know of the sheer numbers of insects that are out there, but I think that what has kind of been a change in my perspective of this project is looking at Los Angeles which is the city I grew up in as a new frontier of exploration. Even though as an entomologist, I knew that you could find new species if you really look for them, it was still kind of an eye opener for me to take my own curiosity about insects and apply it in a backyard versus a faraway land.
Why is Los Angeles so diverse?
Well Los Angeles is just an incredible hotspot of diversity because of the habitats here (and) because of the climate. It’s just there’s lots of different micro-habitats because of the mountains and being so close to the ocean so it’s just a perfect combination for lots of different animals to flourish, and on top of that with human alteration, we’ve brought in a lot of different plants that weren’t here before so that’s actually increased biodiversity.
Is every (volunteer) site filled with trees?
No, all the sites are different, and we did that intentionally. We wanted the sites to really reflect the diversity of backyards in LA so we have some sites where it’s just a lawn with maybe a few trees. We have other sites with higher elevations, have more plants, plants in their backyard, so we can see differences in the groups we are looking at, but it’s also kind of interesting to see which insects show up in all the sites. There are certain insects we see in LA despite those differences between the different yards.
30 different sites, 30 different new species.
(That’s) just for starters.
So is starting with smaller insects the secret to more discoveries?
That’s really where the new discoveries are to be made with the entomology. A lot of the bigger insects are already known or even with people who don’t study entomology, that’s usually what people notice. They notice the things the things they can see and it’s just this whole hidden world under our feet that we just never recognize because these things are so tiny we just dismiss it. Just think of the little gnat that is bothering us, but if you take all these little insects and you put them under a microscope, you see that they are just completely different. It’s really just this incredible eye opener when you realize just how many insects are out there.
Does the real (discovery) work begins back at the museum, under the microscope?
I would say the harder part. I don’t want to diminish what the participants do. That is also work too. A lot of these families are busy families, because they have kids and we just really appreciate that they take the time out of their day to do this, and devote the yard space too. This is not a tiny trap, this is not a small sticky trap they are putting in a tree, this is a tent size trap in their backyard so it’s a big contribution they are making.
Who are these people that sign up for this?
They are wonderful, wonderful people. They all heard about the project through the museum one way or another so we did various ways to reach out to them. We did mailers, we used Facebook, we actually came to visit the museum and talk to people one on one and we let them know that it was a project that would last several years…We’re really amazed at how many people agreed just from that initial conversation to be open to the idea of being part of a project that lasts several years.