The Bioscan Project: An Interview with Brian Brown from the Natural History Museum

by Rebecca L.

New species found in L.A. Eco-Village

What is the Bioscan project?

The Bioscan project is an outgrowth of looking in my backyard and seeing what I found there that was so interesting and unexpectedly diverse, and we started looking at other people’s backyards and finding things that were crazy and diverse, species from different continents such as Africa, Europe and species that were new to science, that had never been described before. We say the need to survey, the need to record what’s in LA related to the density of housing, income level of an area, types of plants and whether or not there is watering, location, how close to other natural areas. We call these the variables of urbanization and these things effect the biodiversity that surrounds us. So as an outgrowth of looking into my backyard we decided to look into 30 backyards across a wide swath of Los Angeles from the Natural History Museum (NHM) north to the Verdugo Mountains and record plant life, hard scape, etc.

What prompted the idea for the project? How did it originate?

There was a bet with a museum trustee, I bet her that I could find a new species in her backyard and she said that if I did, we would run an evening program about it. So then I thought, shoot, now I have to do this. So we set up the fly trap in her backyard. Once we got the sample out and poured it out in a dish and I pulled out a phorid fly, I realized that the first species I pulled out was a species unknown to science. The second was a species previously only found in Europe, and the third was formerly only known from both coasts of Africa. I stopped because we had enough for the evening program. Who knows what else was in those samples? That was part of the genesis of the project, is figuring out what else was in those samples [in wider area].

What are some key findings from the study?

A third of the species we have found are undescribed, new to science. It’s too early to give information about how biodiversity changes relative to the variables of urbanization, we are still analyzing that data. There are over 100 species of phoridae, and that allows us to reflect on the actual diversity of the Los Angeles area. On a worldwide basis phorids reflect 4% of all insects, so extrapolating out we can [now] estimate that there are probably 20,000 different kinds of insects in Los Angeles which is higher than we thought, it used to be that 3-4,000 were estimated for the area. There are thousands of undescribed species here, most of them small and little known. Lots of species are shared between here and Europe, we know that because the fauna of Europe is known. Sailing ships would fill up ballast in Europe with soil and rocks, and then they would shovel all that “junk” out onto the shore and fill up with timber or whatever they were trading for. That “junk” they shoveled out contained ants, spiders, flies, etc. which assimilated into our fauna here. Some species we are now finding that were previously unknown to science may be from South and Central America, but we don’t know them well enough yet.

What most surprised you and the team about what you have observed so far?

We found a couple of things that are really shocking to us. One of which is related to one of the vinegar flies (usually known as fruit flies but they’re not actually fruit flies), the family that are found hovering over rotten bananas drosophila, drosiphlidae. The second commonest species of drosiphilidae found here according to our findings was previously known from only half a dozen specimens from Central America. This has been brought here [by human migration] and it’s done well. It was shocking to us that this species is one of the rarest in the world, and it’s the second commonest here.

Another fly was previously recorded only in Australia and it turned up on the roof of the NHM building. It’s odd stuff, that we didn’t know was here. If they were agriculturally important like the mediterranean fruit fly, then it would already have been studied.

If these species aren’t agriculturally important, what is the importance of studying them?

Just because they aren’t agriculturally important, doesn’t mean they don’t do important things. We refer to biodiversity goods and services, largely just something we get from biodiversity but we don’t think about. Like cleaning up dead animals. We don’t sit there and say hooray for the blow fly, but they make a big difference in our lives. These flies can be important pollinators, and control other insects when some species get out of hand. They provide these important ecosystem goods and services, it’s just that we tend to take those for granted.

When we spoke before, you said that the Eco Village site had some interesting findings. Can you tell us what they were?

The eco village was much more diverse than other areas in the same sort of level of urbanization in terms of density of buildings. It’s of interest to us because it highlights a goal to aim for. If you’re 10 miles west of us, you maybe have 25 species of our indicator flies. At the eco village it’s closer to 50%. What are you guys doing that they’re not doing? That’s the kind of question we are trying to get at to find out how to make LA a more biodiverse place.

We’ve heard some buzz about the project potentially shaping city planning and policy related to biodiversity. Can you tell us what’s happening?

That’s an aspiration. What we’re doing right now is working with City Hall on a Bio Blitz. August 8, 2015 is the big day. We’re trying to raise awareness for biodiversity in the city and why it’s important. There’s political will there. Our challenge is to translate our finding of little flies that nobody ever sees into policies that will increase biodiversity for everybody in Los Angeles.

What are next steps and further lines of inquiry?

Next steps are to redeploy the traps in a wider range – the ocean to the desert this time. We’re going to have a couple of strings or arrays of traps from the ocean to Eastern part of LA County, maybe to Riverside. After a year of that, we will look at elevational transacts from lowlands to mountain tops, then the channel islands. That way we’ll have a real comprehensive understanding of what’s here. We know what’s in the city now, but what’s the framework in which we live? Are the rare species we’re finding in the City of LA limited to city, or are they found at higher elevations or further inland?

Anything else you want to share?

The thing I like to say is that we evolved with biodiversity and biodiversity is important for our health. Even if we don’t notice it on a conscious level, we have connections to every life form, and we we will be happier and healthier in places that have more biodiversity. Our brains are geared towards biodiversity. In an environment where there is healthy fauna of phorid flies we are going to be happier, because we need the same sorts of things they do.

For more information on the Bioscan project, contact Brian Brown at bbrown@nhm.org.

For more information on BioBlitz LA, visit http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/bioblitz-la

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