Environmental Quality / 2013
NHM Urban Safari
NHM will engage the residents of Los Angeles in an extensive program to discover and document the urban wildlife of the L. A. Basin – our local biodiversity. The environmental challenges facing Los Angeles demand innovative solutions that take into account the complex relationship between us and local plants and wildlife – the relationships that form our rich and diverse urban ecosystem. Los Angeles is actually an extremely biodiverse city. Neither scientists nor the public understand the full breadth of that biodiversity. If we, as a city, can understand the scope of the natural world that surrounds us, we will have an essential part of the toolkit to develop our city thoughtfully. Los Angeles is in the heart of North America’s only biodiversity hotspot (the California Floristic Province). More than 10 million people live here, along with more species of birds than are found in any other county in the U.S. However, our knowledge of the identities and distributions of smaller species that live here is astonishingly poor. While we know that there are many native, non-native and invasive species here, there has never been a comprehensive survey of urban biodiversity in L.A. – or any other major metropolis in the world. Why is urban biodiversity important? Biodiversity is the sum of all biological diversity living, from ecosystems to genes, representing the ultimate “survival manual,” documenting unbroken lines of evolutionary success from the origin of life on our planet through all previous mass extinctions. To understand how to manage these ecosystems, we need to know who is here so that we can decide together which species to encourage, which to discourage, and how to do so. As the world’s population becomes more urbanized, our discoveries in Los Angeles can benefit the entire planet. NHM’s public research projects will empower Angelenos to influence the future of our landscapes, plants and wildlife. We are using the evolving model of do-it-yourself science – generally known as citizen science – to engage the eyes, ears and cameras of Angelenos in the mapping and stewardship of L.A’s wildlife, the kind that lives all around us but we seldom notice. Angelenos of all ages contribute to this scientific inventory through a variety of mechanisms, from submitting photos to hosting sampling sites in their backyards. Together, our scientists and the public will work together to build place-based strategies for biodiversity conservation that are timely, rooted in local culture and cutting-edge. NHM has been leading individual citizen science projects for decades. In 1994 we launched the California Parrot Project which tracked feral parrot populations in Southern California. Since then NHM has initiated the LA spider and butterfly surveys, and a ladybug census for the city. We are greatly expanding our urban biodiversity programs to include a region-wide biodiversity map, a number of specific studies, and a three-year scientific sampling survey of insects and other invertebrates called BioSCAN. NHM is preparing to build on its extensive previous investment in citizen science projects and scale up with a wide-ranging public information and education campaign that will spur Los Angeles residents to even greater involvement with our urban ecosystems. Our newest initiative, ZomBee Watch, calls on volunteers to help NHM scientists monitor how parasitic flies lay their eggs in honeybees, causing them to abandon their hives, like zombies, in aimless night flights before dying. Understanding this phenomenon could help explain Colony Collapse Disorder (a syndrome in which worker bees quit their hives) that is threatening the world’s bee population and the future of our food supply. BioSCAN will create a transect survey of the insect populations of Los Angeles. Insects are the largest animal component of biological diversity. They are critical to our economic system. Sampling sites include sites from the urban core into the wild hills, from backyards, parks and schoolyards to industrial sites. Microclimate stations will measure variables like temperature and moisture, data which will be useful to make comparisons about how everyday things like porch lights impact our local wildlife. We fully expect to discover and describe hundreds of species during the course of this study – right here in Los Angeles. To conduct and facilitate this work we have built a dedicated team of scientists and educators. We are now building an innovative new website called Nature at NHM. Nature at NHM will provide up-to-the-minute results and information about biodiversity in Los Angeles, connect Angelenos with projects they can participate in, and invite submissions to our BioMap that will provide a long-term view of the flora and fauna of this city as experienced by its residents. This science is critical to our ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world, and the spaces we have built to study it are unprecedented.
What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?
NHM is currently in the process of the most dramatic changes in its 100-year history. The guiding vision for the $135 million NHM Next Campaign is to bring the Museum’s most important collections and ambitious discoveries out of our science labs to create new visitor experiences that explore the “big picture” of life on our planet and the interrelatedness of our natural and cultural worlds. We are only four months away from completion of this historic transformation. NHM Next is changing the way we can educate our visitor base. Each year, 200,000 visitors from local schools visit the Museum – more than a quarter of all the students in LAUSD – free of charge. NHM has the most diverse, broadest visitor base of any comparable museum in the Western U.S.
Among the seven major exhibitions that comprise NHM Next are the NHM Nature Gardens and Nature Lab. These exhibits form an expansive indoor-outdoor interface with the urban wildlife of Los Angeles, a site where visitors and researchers can study biodiversity and environmental change as it happens. Visitors will be able to observe and take part in the scientific process, and to learn valuable lessons about our environment. The Nature Lab will be the Museum’s center for Citizen Science. It is a hub of nature investigation and scientific research outfitted with interactive media and tactile “hands-on” experiences to connect the Museum’s exhibits and collections indoors to the “raw material” visitors encounter outdoors. The exhibit will invite visitors to experience the city’s rich biodiversity and give them a way to contribute to real, ongoing study of our urban ecosystem.
In addition to the massive physical accomplishments at the Museum, NHM has a team of dozens of researchers, in fields ranging from archaeology to entomology. These world-class researchers are contributing to academic and scientific discourse every day. NHM researchers are frequently published in the highest echelon of scientific journals. Some recent, notable accomplishments from the Museum’s research and collections department include Project 23, a massive, historic discovery of thousands of Ice-age fossils operating in the public eye in Rancho La Brea, in the heart of Mid-City Los Angeles; an NSF-funded biodiversity inventory in Costa Rica led by NHM Entomologist Dr. Brian Brown; and the “Pregnant Plesiosaur” displayed in NHM’s new Dinosaur Hall – NHM paleontologists discovered a perfectly preserved plesiosaur (a 72 million year-old marine reptile) with a fetus inside, that has yielded tremendous scientific knowledge about live birth in these ancient reptiles.
With NHM Next we are setting a new example of how a museum can be a part of the life of a great 21st century city. We will serve as a nature, science and culture destination in the heard of Los Angeles County. It is a transformation unprecedented in our history and designed to set the course for the next hundred years.
Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.
NHM will draw upon many of its existing partnerships to implement our Citizen Science program. USC will base nationally-funded research projects on the specimens and observations we generate. The California Academy of Sciences will work with NHM to create a statewide citizen science network. The California Science Center will share participant submitted data collected in the Science Center’s Ecosystems exhibit, and will be a leading member of the regional consortium for citizen science. The Children’s Nature Institute will host youth walks in the Nature Gardens and the organization Tree People will lead workshops that will teach visitors how to interact with and understand nature and wildlife that they encounter.
Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?
NHM is seeking to measure the health of our environment by identifying the distribution of species in the Los Angeles area. This information is the basis for broader ecosystem management strategies – informing the development of future parks and open spaces and instilling a sense of environmental responsibility towards our environment. NHM will publish the inventory of species that are discovered and described in peer-reviewed scientific journals – providing a clear, tangible research result. We are confident that we will collect and identify many hundreds of species of insects and invertebrates during the study, including dozens of entirely new species never recorded anywhere else. In total, we expect to accumulate at least 60,000 “lots” (small groups of similar specimens) in our permanent collection that can be used by scientists around the world for further research.
The Museum also will track a host of public learning and participation outcomes as well as formal education initiatives within LAUSD to ensure the project’s long-term impact. By involving everyday Angelenos in the process of scientific discovery, we will increase scientific literacy among students and adults alike, and increase a sense of stewardship among the residents of this world-class city and biological hotspot. This is particularly important as we increase by 100,000 the number of schoolchildren we expect to visit annually. NHM has begun implementing tools that will help track success as the project evolves – including baseline surveys that measure interest and knowledge about nature.
We expect that participants will gain:
- A greater interest in science and the environment. By participating in projects in their schoolyards, backyards, parks and open spaces, schoolchildren and citizens of all ages will understand the relevance of science and nature in their lives.
- An increase in scientific skills related to the project(s) they are working on.
- Deeper knowledge of science and the environment that will contribute to a change in attitude regarding the value of science to our community and larger society.
- New, healthier behaviors, especially more time spent outdoors, and engagement in their own communities. Participants will make changes to their own habitats by making their yards more wildlife friendly, by becoming more aware of the impacts of their own habits, and by becoming more involved in local politics.
NHM will grow existing relationships with LAUSD schools. We are experienced at working with teachers to develop standards-compliant educational materials and curricula. We will target biodiversity and ecosystem awareness, directly affecting not only environmental quality metrics, but education goals as well (a critical area of concern in the LA2050 report). We expect that within the next few years, we will have reached two-thirds of LAUSD.
How will your project benefit Los Angeles?
The pleasure that comes from seeing a hummingbird, hearing a songbird, catching site of a beautiful butterfly, or spying a lizard are well known to rural and suburban dwellers. These experiences are available even in the heart of L.A, where thoughtfully planted pocket parks can quickly attract a rich array of wildlife. Individuals, city planners, school builders and even factories can, with little investment, create biodiverse locations anywhere. This project will make that know-how widely available. NHM will invite and teach Angelenos to see wildlife and understand what attracts it. By engaging everyone in studying this wildlife, and by making the results of our research widely and easily accessible, we will empower everyone to understand that thoughtful planting, even of a single tree, can make all the difference.
We now know that we will spend the next century adapting to a changing climate. How we do this in cities is critically important: most people today live in cities. Quality of life depends on environmental quality, which depends not only on chemical and physical parameters, but on ecosystem health. To manage ecosystem health, we must know the players on the stage. We need to know the species that make up our regional biodiversity. Angelenos adapting to a changing climate depend on that knowledge.
Studies like LA2050 have established that a lack of green space is a detriment to many urban environments. With NHM’s Citizen Science programs, we can document the existing wildlife corridors in our city and provide planners, park designers and community members vital information that can help inform park construction, development and community programming well into the future. NHM’s Citizen Science program elevates open spaces and parks from recreational areas to legitimate biological habitats where ongoing study of our natural world can take place.
We reclaimed 3½ acres of parking lot to create a giant living laboratory and field site for the study of local wildlife in our South Los Angeles front yard. Visitors step off the Expo Line train into an oasis of L.A. nature and biodiversity in the heart of the city. Our Nature Gardens have been designed by renowned landscape architect Mia Lehrer, and seeded with dozens of plants and landscape features native to the area. It is growing into a habitat representative of wild Los Angeles. Accompanying the Nature Gardens is the 6,000 sq. ft. Nature Lab where visitors can both report and study L.A. wildlife and its distribution in their neighborhoods and across the city.
What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?
The vision of the Natural History Museum is that by 2050 all levels of decision makers in Los Angeles will incorporate biodiversity considerations into their development plans. We will choose street trees and park plants partly for their biodiversity habitat value. We will consider wildlife corridor value on new transportation right-of-ways, and do away with toxic lawn chemicals, replacing them with plants that attract beneficial bugs that help keep plants healthy. We will be a city committed to developing in a way that is always aware of the biodiversity that surrounds us. Eventually, we want tourists to visit Los Angeles not only for Disneyland and Hollywood, but to see and experience a world-class, cosmopolitan city that treasures and protects its biodiversity. Places like NHM’s Nature Gardens, the Los Angeles River, and Griffith Park will become destinations for understanding and viewing the way that large-scale human development and wildlife can co-exist.
It is critical that Angelenos as a whole be engaged in the process of understanding our local biodiversity. NHM will lead the way in modifying urban development to take better advantage of biodiversity and ecosystem services. This has to happen as a partnership between research professionals, environmentally-aware citizens, and governmental policy makers. Engaging the public in the discovery of our biodiversity will clear a path to creating an environmentally-aware social matrix.
This biological inventory of L.A. nature, undertaken by NHM in concert with our local community, will change the way we live – creating a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the often-overlooked nature of L.A. The plants we put in our gardens, the light bulbs we use in our outdoor fixtures, the permeability of our driveways, the distance we live from a park – residents will come to understand that all of these choices affect the health of our urban ecosystem, and in turn, the global ecosystem.
NHM will help Los Angeles become a beacon city for the management of biodiversity, food supply and air and water quality in the face of global warming and other environmental challenges. With our Citizen Science projects, we hope to systematically train our visitors to observe and understand the wildlife that exists in every part of our environment. By tuning in to these everyday observations, in our own neighborhoods and favorite places, our citizens will learn to see environmental change as it is happening and to make small changes to create the city we want – the future we want.