Despite Los Angeles being a mix of cultures from around the world, very little research has been done on its urban wildlife, especially the insects that call the wide basin home. The BioSCAN project began when Brown bet a museum administrator that he might find a new species of insect in his backyard in West Los Angeles. It did, and the project took off. In their first three years, Brown and the yard gatherer discovered 30 new species of insects and published their results. The museum team found 13 additional new species in the past two years, plus he and staff have discovered nine more since the pandemic ended.
Although BioSCAN participants have not collected any new insects since November, the painstaking work of identifying thousands of individual specimens has continued during the closure of Covid-19. It’s the scientific equivalent of cleaning your closets – tedious but ultimately rewarding.
“We can’t get into the lab right now, so we re-identify things with microscopes and look for features that are difficult to see,” says Brown. “These time-consuming tasks are faced with people who have a lot of time. The insects are 2 millimeters long, with tiny genitalia. Identifying one of those samples using morphology can take 10 minutes or 20 minutes. “
The nine new species are all phorid flies, some of which are known for their ability to traverse surfaces and enter coffins to consume carcasses. Brown and Gonzalez have also found botflies, rat parasites, and fly flies. They probably came from Central America, perhaps hitching a ride on a flowering plant or a piece of food.
With the help of tens of thousands of insects collected through the BioSCAN project, over the years, Brown and González have expanded the estimate of known insect species in the Los Angeles basin from 3,500 during the last 1993 census to around 20,000 today. “We have analyzed 100,000 specimens from the Los Angeles area,” Brown says of the phorid flies. “I am amazed at the magnitude of the new species that we encounter more and more.” In his own backyard bug trap, Brown has encountered several strangers, including one type of fly that is drawn to smoke (likely from nearby wildfires) and another that likes the scent of jasmine that blooms at night.
González says the closure and subsequent work at home have also highlighted the ecological biodiversity that exists in urban neighborhoods. “We have incredible diversity and new species that live under our noses,” she says. “That is something that most people don’t realize. Even the bugs surprised us by seeing that they had no idea that we have mantis flies in Los Angeles. ” (Mantis flies resemble a cross between a praying mantis and a wasp, although in reality they are none and are most commonly found in tropical habitats.)
González continues to work from home with the help of his 5-year-old nephew, who provided him with his own microscope. She hopes that her bug counting lab will be her sewing space again, where she makes costumes for horror events and sci-fi cosplay that she and her partner miss attending.
Brown has also grown tired of the world of working from home. Returning to the museum’s collection and the modern scientific instruments in his laboratory may not happen soon. “When you start this work at home, you think, ‘This is great because there are no distractions, and I can pull out a dozen papers,'” says Brown. “But it is amazing how having a place to go to work concentrates your efforts and attention. It is important to have people to interact with and work with, and to have the insect collection as a reference. ”
Updated 06/23/2020 12:00 pm ET: This story has been updated to clarify that the microscope González used belonged to the laboratory; that the nine new species are phorid flies; and that Brown and González have raised the estimate, not the count, of insect species in the Los Angeles basin.
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