Journal archives for November 2017

November 03, 2017

SoCal Squirrels and iNat

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA) is really doing some cool urban wildlife biology work with iNaturalist. I wrote a blog post about Greg Pauly and his RASCals project a few months ago, and wanted to highlight his colleague Miguel Ordeñana’s (@mordenana) outreach work here.

An urban wildlife biologist who specializes in mammals, Miguel discovered the famed mountain lion of Griffith Park, P-22, and also researches coyotes, bobcats, foxes, bats, and many other elusive animals - most of which can only be regularly documented using camera traps. However, he is also enlisting southern Californians to document their sightings of those ubiquitous urban rodents, squirrels. The common native tree squirrel of southern california is the western gray squirrel, but it has not adapted well to urbanization and to an introduced species from eastern North America, the fox squirrel, which is aggressive and quite at home in the city.

The Southern California Squirrel Survey, started by Miguel and his colleague Jim Dines (@jdines), is a way for anyone to contribute sightings of squirrels and help Miguel and Jim track the spread of the fox squirrel and study the western gray squirrels’ response. They’ve already amassed nearly 3,000 observations from nearly 800 contributors and the data corresponds quite well with previous “old-fashioned” scientific surveys. With continuing contributions from iNat users, they’ll be able to get up-to-date range maps and keep an eye on the western gray squirrel’s status. And as Miguel writes, “This is an opportunity to educate southern Californians about nonnative-native species ecology and the natural history of a group of mammal species that many people see almost every day.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Miguel earlier this year, and here’s a video of part of our conversation about the squirrel survey project. He’s speaks about how consistent engagement is key for maintaining strong projects, and is excited about the data they’re getting. He’s also passionate about engaging communities that otherwise might feel barriers between themselves and the scientific community, which he touches on here.

- Tony Iwane

- Here’s a profile of Miguel from the LA Weekly, and an interview with Latino Outdoors.

- iNat squirrel observations were used in this study, which projects probable squirrel range expansions in the greater Los Angeles Metropolitan area.

- Check out the trailer for The Cat that Changed America, a documentary about P-22, featuring Miguel and many others. 

Posted on November 03, 2017 06:59 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 04, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/4/17

Our Observation of the Week is this Crassula pyramidalis plant, seen in South Africa by @sallyslak!

iNat has recently received a raft of new users from South Africa who’ve been providing some fantastic observations, including the incredible plant you see above, which was documented by Sally Adam. Sally says “I can't remember a time when I wasn't [interested in nature]. My parents report having found me sitting on the back step (aged 2) with a caterpillar on a lollipop stick - when asked, I informed them I was training the creature to walk along the stick. I'm interested in anything outdoors and am always amazed at how much is going on right under one's nose - one hardly needs leave one's garden to make interesting observations.”

Sally counts himself lucky to live on 100ha of bush, “so I spend a lot of time documenting what lives on the property (project "Slakplaas"),” and is a member of CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers), a group which monitors rare plants on the Southern Cape.

During a recent break, Sally stopped on a farm in Matjiesfontein in the Great Karoo.

It has been very dry in that area and the weather was miserably cold and windy but I decided to spend a few hours wandering around the koppie (small hill) to see if any flowers were braving the conditions. There were several species of Crassula in full bloom but just the one pyramidalis - I had not seen the species before and was delighted with its squat look and orange moptop.

Crassula pyramidalis, also known sometimes as pagoda mini jade, is a fascinating succulent. Its leaves are so closely overlapping (“imbricated”) that the stem is all but hidden. The leaves’ axils are themselves are covered with hairs, which trap moisture. Once it’s done flowering, however, it will wither and die. Probably the most well known of the Crassula plants is the jade plant, which is very common in households.

An iSpot user for several years, Sally (above, with a cat friend) has only recently started up with iNaturalist and says “ I'm finding it a great place to get identifications, to store a record of things that I see and learn from what other people post. The app is fantastic for instant uploads while I'm out and about and often there's an ID before I get home.”

Using platforms like iSpot and iNaturalists has “undoubtedly” changed the way Sally has interacted with nature, and he loves the connections he makes with other naturalists:

I'm much more likely to document something knowing that there's someone out there who will be interested, while at the same time I get an identification and often additional information from an expert. I recently posted some pics of dead ants on the tips of grasses - after some nudging from fellow citizen scientists, I ended up sampling the ants and sending them off to a researcher in the field of ant entomopathogenic fungi in the US. Without the interface provided by these platforms it's unlikely I would even have photographed the ants, let alone get them into the welcoming hands of a scientist. I'm not alone when I say I would be quite lost without this site!

- by Tony Iwane

- There are nearly 900 Crassula observations posted to iNat, check out the crazy diversity of this genus!

Posted on November 04, 2017 11:06 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 10, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/9/17

Our (belated) Observation of the Week is the first spotted harlequin snake post to iNaturalist! Seen in South Africa by @alexanderr.

This Observation of the Week is actually for two weeks ago, but observer Alex Rebelo was out in the field and we weren’t able to connect until this week. Growing up “with a botanist as a father and an ecologist as a mother in South Africa,” Alex says he “was out in the field so often and could gain insight from my parents, [so] I became interested in nature.” He earned a Masters of Science in Biology with a special interest in herpetology, and is currently an intern at Bayworld Museum in Port Elizabeth, “mainly to gain experience with Werner Conradie and the herpetology collection. I'm interested in Biogeography and Ecology, not quite sure about Taxonomy yet.”

On a July weekend this year, Alex “decided to go scratch around in a nearby Nature Reserve in Port Elizabeth,” which is where he found the spotted harlequin snake under a rock. “I wasn't expecting to find it and it was a pretty surprise, luckily very chilled out so I could get some pictures.”

Spotted harlequin snakes, which are endemic to southern Africa, are semi-fossorial and love to dig and burrow in soft sand and soil, so looking under rocks is commonly how they’re found. They specialize in eating snakes and small lizards, especially legless skinks. The snakes do possess venom but are not known to be aggressive at all, and humans who have been bitten usually suffer headaches and localized swelling.

“I use Citizen Science to contribute towards Conservation and Science, but also acknowledge its value to education and public interest,” says Alex, above. “I have used Citizen Science distribution data and it is very valuable (for biogeography and climate change monitoring and others), especially in an era when Scientists/taxonomists do not go out into the field and collect specimens. It forms a major part of Red List Assessment criteria, and distribution data is sorely lacking for many species.”

- by Tony Iwane

- Here’s a nice little short video of a spotted harlequin snake in the wild.

- In Afrikaans, it’s called Gespikkelde Harlekynslang.

Posted on November 10, 2017 12:34 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 14, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/14/17

This pair of blackmouth catsharks, seen off of Spain by @gmucientes, is our Observation of the Week!

A marine biologist who’s currently researching the spatial ecology of pelagic sharks, Gonzalo Sandoval is often far away from the mainland while at work, off of the Azores or Cape Verde, so last month’s research excursion just off of northwestern Spain, was a pretty short sojourn for him.

He was conducting a survey about blue sharks, and recalls taht “while waiting for the blue sharks to appear we wondered what shark species live at the very bottom. We were able to capture two Galeus melastomus [blackmouth catsharks] individuals at 700 meters depth.” Gonzalo uses “rod and reel and longliners” to capture sharks for his surveys, and says

juveniles live in shallower waters than adults, this explains why I found these juvenile sharks in not very deep water. Adults can [dive to] 1400m. This shark is abundant in the northeast Atlantic continental slope. It is oviparous and can have several mature eggs in oviduct simultaneously. Despite fishing pressure (by-catch) populations don't seem to decline.”

Named, unsurprisingly, for the black color of its mouth tissue, blackmouth catsharks are generalist feeders, who often swim along the muddy bottoms and use the the ampullae of lorenzini in their large snouts to suss out prey - often crustaceans, fish, and cephalopods. They grow to about 67 cm (26 in) in length, and weigh about 1.4 kg (3.1 lb).

As these juvenile sharks were not a target species for Gonzalo, and were very small, they were let go without being tagged. In addition to blue sharks, he also studies shortfin mako sharks, and says he is “currently conducting a PhD in spatial ecology, feeding and fisheries of the mako. In combination with my academic activity, I regularly get involved in scientific surveys and other research projects as a professional diver or biologist consultant.”

Gonzalo (above, tagging a mako), explains that

since I was a kid, I enjoyed watching animals in their habitats and trying to understand their behaviours. First close from home. Later, on bigger exploration trips across mountains, jungles and the open ocean... I consider myself a passionate life watcher in my free time and a marine biologist at work...iNaturalist is the perfect tool to organise my field data and contribute to the ecological pool knowledge and share these observations with other people interested.

by Tony Iwane

- Here are videos of a tagged mako being released, as well as a group of juvenile blue sharks from Gonzalo’s work. 

- Gonzalo is the co-founder of Ecologia Azul, an association of people dedicated to research, exploration and conservation of nature.

Posted on November 14, 2017 11:31 PM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment

November 18, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/18/17

Our Observation of the Week is this fungus growing out of a Euryrus leachii millipede, seen in Ohio by hazelsnail!

hazelsnail remembers “the summer when I was three years old, and I got to experience the emerging of 17-year periodical cicadas. I was obsessed with them, and I have been obsessed with invertebrates ever since.” Now a 17 year-old herself, she’s already taking college courses while still in high school and plans on going into the field of genetics “so that I can continue to learn about [snails, millipedes, isopods, fungi] and continuing to share photos of the species I encounter, and the art I make that is inspired by them, I try to show others the beauty of the small, often overlooked parts of the natural world.”

The photo above, she says, is an example of that.

The species of the millipede in the picture, Euryurus leachii, is found in large numbers throughout the woods around my home. Because of this, it was one of the first millipede species I ever encountered, making it partially responsible for the interest I now have in them. When I discovered the dead millipede with the fungus under a piece of bark, I was very excited. It is always amazing to see the ecosystem in action, and this was a perfect example. Not only that, but it showed a beautiful little interaction between two of the groups I am the most passionate about, so I had to get a picture to share.

So far the iNat community hasn’t been able to identify the fungus beyond being in the Zygote family; some members of the family are parasitic, while others grow on decaying matter. The millipede species is a colorful one (when it’s alive) and like most millipedes is detritivore. According to BugGuide, it’s found almost only under and within rotting logs of non-coniferous trees.

hazelsnail (above, on a trip to Hocking Hills), says that

since joining iNaturalist [earlier this year], my identification skills have greatly improved. I also use observations to know what areas to go to see the species I am interested in when I travel. This is very handy, and has made planning trips much more efficient. Before, I would just stop at random parks and hope for the best, but now when pressed for time, I can know where the target species has been seen, and focus on that specific area. Even though I am not the most talkative person, being able to connect with others who share my interests through iNaturalist has been amazing, and something that does not often happen otherwise. I wish I had discovered it sooner!

- by Tony Iwane

- You can check hazelsnail’s drawings and nature photos on Instagram!

- Like some other millipedes, Euryurus leachii fluoresces under UV light.

Posted on November 18, 2017 07:12 PM by tiwane tiwane | 2 comments | Leave a comment

November 22, 2017

Snails, SLIME, and Conservation - Oh My!

As Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County malacologist Dr. Jann Vendetti (@jannvendetti) says, a snail is “not a panda,” and not really the type of animal one traditionally builds a conservation campaign around, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Southern California right now. The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned U.S. Fish and Wildlife to list the San Gabriel chestnut snail (Glyptostoma gabrielense - pictured above), which is listed as Imperiled Globally by NatureServe, as an Endangered Species. And because snails and slugs are sensitive to habitat change, Dr. Vendetti says the presence of endemic ones are good indicators, telling us their habitat likely holds many other native and endemic organisms.

As Dr. Vendetti explains in the interview below (which took place in May of 2017), iNaturalist observations (there are currently 43) are just about the only current range data we have for this animal - they were the first recorded sightings in about 70 years. Location data from iNaturalist is what’s being used in the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition - evidence for how critical citizen-based science can be.

These observations are part of the SLIME (Snails and slugs Living In Metropolitan Environments) project on iNaturalist, which was created by Dr. Vendetti and her colleagues to encourage documentation of mollusks in Southern California. One of the main contributors to SLIME is Museum Associate Cedric Lee (@cedric_lee), who has no doubt that “iNaturalist data is going to play a major role in science in the years to come.” Cedric, in fact, uploaded the first Glyptostoma gabrielense snail to iNat, which was identified by Dr. Vendetti. “At the time, I had no knowledge at all regarding snails in general,” he says. “That was a little over 2 years ago. Now, I'm known to some as the ‘snail and slug guy.’ It's surprising how much a single shell can change a person's life. Of course I have iNaturalist and its amazing mollusk community to thank for that.”

If you’ve uploaded a snail or slug observation to iNat, there’s a good chance either Cedric or Susan Hewitt (@susanhewitt) formerly invertzoo) added an identification or comment to it. Susan is a “serious amateur or semi-professional malacologist” and has contributed nearly 40,000 IDs to iNat already, as well as many helpful and encouraging comments to users, and is a great ambassador for these slimy invertebrates.

Mollusks are something that most people don't know much about,” says Susan. “iNaturalist is in the process of changing that I think. Once people discover that someone can put a species ID on the snails, slugs and clams that they find, even if they are just some empty dead shells, then people become more interested in recording them. I see now that if someone is visiting a new area, they will go down onto the beach and not just photograph the birds that are there, but also look down and photograph the shells that have washed up on the sand, or mollusks alive on the rocks.”

As Susan notes, gastropods (snails and slugs) are second only to insects in the number of described species worldwide, and they have powerful effects on the ecosystems in which they reside, so “it is amazing how much excellent work citizen science can do in this respect,” she says. “I have been contributing to iNaturalist since 2014. I am always delighted to see that there are new records of mollusks for me to look at every single day, from all over the world.”

This story, I think, is a great example of how iNaturalist can effect real change, both policy-wise and in the lives of iNaturalist users. Researchers who are encouraging and engaging with amateurs can create a real community of dedicated naturalists, sometimes just through one tiny snail.

- by Tony Iwane. Photo by Cedric Lee, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

- Here’s another video interview with Dr. Vendetti, discussing SLIME.

- Last year a teen iNaturalist user (and her mom) in the San Francisco Bay Area made the first sighting of a nudibranch species (that is native to Asia) in the Eastern Pacific. Here’s our Observation of the Week write-up about the find and a published article about it.

- Susan Hewitt has a great guide for photographing mollusks on her profile page and she appears in a video about love darts.

- The San Gabriel Valley Tribune wrote an article about Glyptostoma gabrielense’s possible affect on a potential housing development. It also includes Cedric Lee’s footage of the snail.

- Check out our other blog posts featuring Dr. Vendetti’s colleagues at NHMLA, Dr. Greg Pauly and Miguel Ordeñana.

Posted on November 22, 2017 10:52 PM by tiwane tiwane | 3 comments | Leave a comment

November 26, 2017

Observation of the Week, 11/25/17

Our Observation of the Week is this Athoracophorus bitentaculatus leaf-veined slug, seen in New Zealand by @shaun-lee!

An enthusiast who “works on a variety of environmental restoration and education projects” Shaun Lee says his “favourite thing to do is photograph the New Zealand bush at night.”

At night our kiwi and weta come out and the bush really comes alive. In New Zealand we don't really have venomous spiders, there are no snakes or big things with teeth so you can feel quite safe pushing through undergrowth at night.

“[And] gastropods,” says Shaun, “are pretty easy to photograph as they don't scuttle away from my headlamp.” He usually tries to wait until they put their eye stalks back out before photographing them, “but this time I did not which has emphasised the camouflage skills of the slug. I like how you can clearly see the breathing holes on leaf-veined slugs.”

While New Zealand has its share of introduced slugs, all native ones are leaf-veined slugs, members of the family Athoracophoridae. The characteristic leaf-veined patterns on their backs are believed to be for camouflage, and as Shaun points out, the breathing hole is easily seen on their backs. Unlike other slugs, leaf-veined slugs are not considered to be agricultural pests, as they eat mainly algae and fungi. They're nocturnal, but Shaun says they're pretty easy to find - this one was found “only 20 minutes drive from the centre of New Zealand’s biggest city.” In addition to New Zealand, they range through other islands in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, including New Guinea, Melaneasia, and eastern Australia.

Being an island, New Zealand’s ecosystem is quite fragile, and introduced species have significantly altered it, and continue to do so. Shaun (pictured above) says “the iNaturalist platform is perfect for documenting the spread of invasive species so we can better understand how we are changing our environment. I am very grateful to all the researchers who put so much time into iNaturalist, identifying all the weird things I find and teaching me about the world I live in.”

- by Tony Iwane

- One of Shaun’s projects is Check it out, there’s some cool info and photos/footage of New Zealand’s wildlife.

- Here are the thirteen faved leaf-veined slug observations on iNat. They are stunning creatures.

- New Zealand entomologist and photographer Gil Wizen wrote a nice blog post about leaf-veined slugs.

Posted on November 26, 2017 01:48 AM by tiwane tiwane | 0 comments | Leave a comment