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Backyard Citizen Scientists Unravel Richness of Urban Habitat

 Los Angeles backyards are a patchwork of natural habitats. (featured) | Still from "Earth Focus" episode on urban habitats.

Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at UCLA, with extensive contributions from faculty and MFA students in UCLA’s documentary film program in the School of Theater, Film and Television. The second storyline considers how Los Angeles has inadvertently become a sanctuary city for non-native animal species that are sometimes endangered in their native habitats. Find more Urban Ark stories here.

It could be a scene from a horror movie. Nighttime in Los Angeles, with Valentine’s Day just a few days away, a young couple on a date crawls through dense traffic to get home. As they turn off the main road, chatting about work, domestic plans, and hopes for the future, they suddenly face a bizarre scene. Three large, long-tailed lizards cross the road entangled in what appears to be a fight. While one lizard holds the other’s head, their tails twist and wind around each other. Spooked, the young woman begs the man to drive home quickly. He steps on the accelerator, but when they arrive at his house near Griffith Park, a pair of fierce bright eyes looking at them from the darkness of the yard gives her another scare. They disappear into the house before the 120-pound predator has a chance to seriously consider them for dinner.

There’s nothing fictional or horrific about these scenes. They’re part of what happens every day in Los Angeles. But we’re not talking about the inside of movie studios here. We might not know it, but the City of Angels, synonymous with concrete, urban sprawl, and traffic jams is, in fact, a vibrant nature sanctuary. And to get people to see, understand and protect it is one of the main goals of a major project led by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

“This city is a subtropical paradise for wildlife, and that is why it is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, but most people don’t see it,” says Brian Brown, curator of entomology at the museum. “In some ways, we know more about the Amazon rainforest than we do about Los Angeles biodiversity,” he says. 

Brown, who coordinates the museum’s unprecedented study of urban biodiversity, points out that most of the new discoveries about species living in Los Angeles were made in the last few years, through an intense effort that combines scientific research and community engagement. At the same time that the project helps to gather data on a wide variety of different species, it also shows that some of them, especially native ones, are in serious danger. Los Angeles is a biodiversity hotspot, which means that it is an area with high endemism — lots of species only found here and nowhere else — but also with a high risk of extinction. 

Los Angeles skyline with a green valley in the foreground. | Still from "Urban Ark Los Angeles."
Still from "Urban Ark Los Angeles" showing the Los Angeles skyline.

Birth of a SuperProject

Scanning wildlife in Los Angeles with the help of communities started in 2012, when the museum launched the BioSCAN Project, with a group of researchers installing traps — tents with collecting bottles on the top — in people's backyards in several areas of the city. “The big innovation was using a large-scale sampling method like that with the citizenry,” Brown explains. “We can’t put our traps into backyards and places around the city without landowners’ permission, and we need dense sampling to understand differences among these sites. Also, if we put those traps on the corner of the streets they are going to disappear, right? So we decided to engage communities in the project by asking for their permission to put traps in their backyards.”  

By mid-2015, the researchers had discovered 43 species of flies that were not just new to Los Angeles, but new to science. In comparison to the book “Insects of Los Angeles,” a local reference guide from the early 1990s, which estimated 3,500 to 4,000 native species of insects in the city, the BioSCAN project discovered close to 20,000. And most of these discoveries were made possible by the people who opened their backyards to the project. 

Jann Vendetti, curator of malacology at the Natural History Museum, with citizen scientist Emily Han. | Still from "Earth Focus" episode on urban habitats.
Jann Vendetti, curator of malacology at the Natural History Museum, with citizen scientist Emily Han. | Still from "Earth Focus" episode on urban habitats.

But the findings from those first years of study also indicated that this approach would not be enough to reach the museum’s main goal, which is to inventory all of the region’s urban wildlife and to mobilize citizens to help preserve the environment.  So, besides expanding the trapping to additional geographical areas, the researchers launched more taxonomically specific projects, including RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) and SLIME (Snails and slugs Living In Metropolitan Environments). They also expanded their research by engaging “community scientists” in what they ended up calling the SuperProject.

Launched in 2016, the SuperProject mobilizes people to observe, document and photograph wildlife in their homes and neighborhoods, and feed data to a new urban nature research center at the museum. “SuperProject participants join the effort for a year at a time and are trained at the beginning of the year in how to use iNaturalist (a social media platform) and the three survey formats they will use in their neighborhood: a backyard survey, a walking around their neighborhood survey, and a local open space survey,” explains Lila Higgins, the museum’s community science manager. “We encourage participants to submit observations of all wildlife (plants and animals) they find, with an emphasis on snails and slugs for the SLIME project, reptiles and amphibians (for the RASCals project), and squirrels for the Southern California squirrel project.”

Since the beginning of the project, the museum has gathered more than 15,000 images from community members who dedicate their free time to observe and submit photos of animals and plants. According to Higgins, this is an innovative and productive way of making science. “Citizen science or, as we call we call it at NHMLA, ‘community science,’ is one of a massive array of methods to conduct science. Not all research questions lend themselves well to using community science as a method for collecting data, just as some research questions are impossible to answer without community science,” she says. It is incumbent on the project managers/designers to plan their projects with this in mind and to use best practices from the field to ensure their projects balance the scientific outcomes with the educational outcomes.” 

For Brown, the educational outcome is one of the greatest benefits of the project. “The idea of getting communities involved in what we are doing is not only interesting, but it is also vital to the city. Two hundred years ago all the people that lived here would know all the biodiversity in the area because they needed it to survive, whereas today our knowledge about the biodiversity is mostly concentrated in people we call experts,” he says.  “Part of our goal with the SuperProject is training citizens to be able to see and understand the nature that surrounds them. Unless you know that something is there, you can’t see it.”

Some of the most interesting discoveries that have emerged from community science explain those scary wildlife scenes. What might look like a reptilian battle is in reality a courtship game of alligator lizards, the most widespread lizard species in Southern California,  found even in the most urbanized parts of our cities.  As part of the SuperProject, the museum launched a campaign last year asking people to observe and report these and other animals’ sexual behavior. From citizens' observations and reports, we now know that their courtship behavior occurs around Valentine's Day and involves rough attempts by the male to mate with the female: they’re making love, not war. 

And if you’re wondering about those bright predator eyes, they belong to P-22, a mountain lion who lives in Griffith Park and is well-known to Angelenos mostly because of people’s observations and his appearance on security cameras around the neighborhood. Living by himself in a small territory by the Hollywood sign, P-22 might look scary to some people, but his lonely lifestyle represents something even scarier: it shows how urbanization can put a native species in danger of entering an extinction vortex.

Hotspot Ups and Downs

One of the reasons that Los Angeles has developed its particular blend of native and exotic biodiversity is because many of the plants and animals living in the city today found their way here by plane, car, ship, and on people's clothes, beginning centuries ago. Some of them were brought on purpose, such as the more than 500 tree species from all over the world that have been planted in the Los Angeles, while others came by accident. And while some haven’t been very successful in surviving in an urban setting, others have adapted so well that they have started to disrupt native species. 

“For example,” Brown says, “about 100 years ago we accidentally introduced the Argentinian ant, which is a tiny little brown ant that everybody has in their backyards, and it wiped out other native species of ants that were here,” he says. “So that's not necessarily the kind of landscape we desire. We want more native biodiversity for some very practical reasons.” According to Brown, native species are more sustainable than introduced ones because they need fewer inputs in order to survive, such as water and fertilizer. Also, native species form an ecosystem that is more resilient, which means that it's less likely to be invaded and destroyed by organisms from other parts of the world. 

“When people talk about biodiversity, they couldn't care less about small flies or other small animals that they can't see, right? They care about birds and mammals and so on,” Brown points out. “But frankly, the majority of the world’s biodiversity, especially in cities, is the small things that people come across every day in their backyards. Getting citizens to care about the biodiversity of small flies or insects is difficult, but they are a reflection of the health of the ecosystem there.”

This is why the overall goal of the SuperProject is not just creating an inventory, but promoting better comprehension of what surrounds us and the impacts of urbanization on biodiversity. As Higgins explains, “The project is clearly helping to fill in data gaps in the Los Angeles region. As we refine our approaches, we can become better at designing projects to collect biodiversity data using citizen/community science in Los Angeles,” she says.

According to Higgins, the data collected can be used by scientists, public officials and the general public. The information can help  create baselines, monitor invasive or rare species, understand change over time, and answer many other questions about how nature works in L.A. And more than that, community science has proven to have a positive effect on how people perceive and take care of their neighborhoods. 

“We conducted a small evaluation after the end of one of the phases of the SuperProject, and many participants shared how the project changed the way they looked at nature in their yards (seeing lots more, particularly on the microscale) and how it affected the way they noticed more nature as they moved through their neighborhoods,” Higgins proudly points out. 

The biodiversity SuperProject, in this way, has become one cornerstone in the museum’s broader mission to “inspire wonder, discovery, and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds.” 

Top image: Los Angeles backyards are a patchwork of natural habitats. | Still from "Earth Focus" episode on urban habitats.

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