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Natural History Museum enlists local citizens to discover new species

by Jerry Gorin | Off-Ramp

Mediterranean House Gecko caught in Chatsworth on October 8, 2013. In 2010, 9-year-old Reese Bernstein spotted one of these geckos and learned it was the first sighting of the species in southern California. Jerry Gorin/KPCC

In one of the hidden back rooms of the Natural History Museum you'll find the museum's herpetology collection: that means they've got reptiles--  snakes, lizards, turtles-- and amphibians like frogs, salamanders, and these legless creatures called sicilians.  The collection features holdings from Africa, Australia and Costa Rica, and includes roughly 184,000 specimens, making it the 10th largest herpetology collection in the country.

Recently, though, curator Greg Pauly has made his focus very local.  He's interested in LA's introduced species, particularly geckos, that travel long distances to Los Angeles through no fault of their own.  Maybe they get trapped in a suitcase on a plane, or accidentally hitch a ride in the back of a truck, but soon enough these geckos make it to L.A. and then find suitable places to live. 

"The Mediterranean House Gecko was introduced in Florida in 1910," says Pauly. " It hung out there until the 50's and then spread rapidly. The thought is that as Eisenhower's highways  got up and running, you see this increase in interstate shipping.  In 1954 they showed up in Texas, and they've continued to march their way, mostly along highway corridors.  We just learned of the first population in LA County just a few years ago."

But how'd they find them?  There's no natural environment that geckos gravitate to in the area, and Pauly couldn't really do a sweep of backyards and patios across southern California.  Instead, it fell upon one young naturalist and his father, Reese and Will Bernstein of Chatsworth, to first record the Mediterranean House Gecko in Los Angeles.

"We were at a friend's house for a barbeque," says Will, "and I noticed something go scurrying across behind me. I knew it was a lizard.  I said, 'Reese, there's a baby lizard over here.' And of course he came shooting over and he started reaching underneath the screen and using his lizard catching expertise, and then he caught it."

"My dad said, 'It's a baby lizard'," says Reese. "And I said, 'No. It's not a baby lizard.' I said it was a gecko because its feet were different from all the other lizards  that live here."

Reese was right.  He and his dad flipped through an old family reptile book and thought they might have caught a Banded Gecko, but something didn't add up.  Reese, who says his friends all know him as the reptile expert, had never seen any Banded Geckos in Chatsworth.  So he and his dad took a photo and sent it to the Natural History museum to find out what it was.

"He (former Herpetology researcher Bob Espinoza) immediately wrote back, and he said, 'That's a Mediterranean House Gecko!  Where did you say you caught it?'"

Chatsworth.  In an unassuming residential neighborhood, just along one block or so, Mediterranean House Geckos are everywhere.  Once the sun goes down, Reese sets out to prove it. He and his dad, with help from Greg Pauly, set out with flashlights and look like trick-or-treaters, except they're inspecting people's porch lights and side gutters.  Geckos like places that are warm and near water.  At first they have trouble because-- the weather's just gotten cooler and geckos are seeking shelter-- but soon enough they come to what Reese calls "ground zero." There are geckos left and right.

"I found one!" shouts Reese. "Right there, this little guy."

Reese isn't the only one finding geckos these days.  In April this year Glen Yoshida of Torrance discovered an Indo-Pacific gecko in his neighborhood, and Bob Worrell of Lake Forest discovered the same species, the first population spotted in Orange County. 

"With these citizen science programs, we're learning about these populations at a rapid rate.  Every couple of weeks I get a new e-mail, a new observation. It's shocking how often this is happening right now."

And the prize?  On top of catching a gecko that'd never been seen in Los Angeles, just this month Reese was published in the Herpetological Review, a peer reviewed scientific journal

If you happen to spot a creature you've never seen, take a picture and upload it to RASCals, it's the Natural History Museum's citizen science platform.  If you've got something interesting, Greg Pauly will be at your house in no time. 

Also, come check out the Mediterranean House Geckos and lots more on Sunday October 20th, when the Natural History Museum hosts its annual Reptile and Amphibian Appreciation Day.  

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