Environment & Science

Natural History Museum launches center focused on urban wildlife

A group entering the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
A group entering the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
NHM

Inside the walls of Los Angeles County's Natural History Museum, there are millions of specimens and artifacts covering more than 4 billion years of Earth's history. Now though, the institution is setting its sights on what's outside those walls.

On Thursday, the NHM launched the Urban Nature Research Center to promote the study of wildlife in densely populated Southern California. It's considered the first project of its kind in the United States and represents a new focus for the 103-year-old institution.

With a budget of $250,000 a year, the new initiative will combine the work of NHM's Nature Garden and Nature Lab, which focus on plants and animals on museum property, with its various citizen-science projects and animal surveys.

The goal is to increase understanding of the ecosystems in L.A.'s parks, medians, mountains, streets and backyards.

"We decided we would look at the L.A. city like we look at other environments around the world," said Brian Brown, NHM curator of entomology and a co-director of the new center.  

Typically, he said, researchers travel to exotic rainforests or national parks to study new and interesting species, but in recent years there have been exciting discoveries right here in L.A., one of the most urbanized places in the world.

That includes new findings on snails, slugs, amphibians, reptiles and a survey that turned up 43 new species of fly.

Some of the new fly species found recently around Los Angeles.
Some of the new fly species found recently around Los Angeles.
NHM / Kelsey Bailey

"We are surrounded by absolutely incredible nature every moment of every day," said Greg Pauly, also a co-director of the UNRC and curator of herpetology at NHM.

It's not coincidence L.A. is full of discoveries waiting to happen, he explained. Most of California is considered a biodiversity "hotspot" -- one of only 35 in the world. Our region is known as the California Floristic Province.

It's a dubious title since it refers to the fact that there are a large number of species that occur in this region and nowhere else, but that at least 70 percent of the original habitat has been lost to urbanization.

Pauly said that's one reason it's important that researchers start making serious efforts to understand the natural world hidden in plain sight.

Armed with data on plants and animals from around Southern California, NHM researchers hope to advise planners on how to make sure future growth doesn't diminish the wildlife already here, he said.

Citizens as the new scientists

This new initiative also highlights the work NHM has done to cultivate so-called "citizen scientists." These are everyday people who participate in animal and plant surveys, often using phones to submit observations to platforms like iNaturalist

"A lot of people don't know the term 'citizen science'...that's one of our challenges," said Lila Higgins, NHM's manager of citizen science.

She's working to change that by reaching out to communities across the region and asking them to look at the animals around them.

So far her team has spearheaded a spider survey, a squirrel research program and the aptly titled SLIME project, which stands for Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments.

A submission in UNRC researcher Jann Vendetti’s SLIME project (Snails and slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments).
A submission in UNRC researcher Jann Vendetti’s SLIME project (Snails and slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments).
MARIO de LOPEZ

NHM is also launching what it's calling the world's largest biodiversity project, dubbed the SuperProject, that will examine 200 urban-nature sites from the coast to the desert.

Hundreds of citizen scientists will be tapped to collect data from backyards, school yards and elsewhere as part of the effort.

Elizabeth Merritt is the director for the Center of the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums. She called NHM's initiative part of a new trend dubbed "doing not just viewing" and said the shift is vital for museums' efforts to stay relevant in the digital age.

"There is a real rise in the desire of people to participate in museum activities, not just passively consume their products," she said.

Volunteers have always been a big part of natural history museums. They've served as guides and greeters, and early on many collections were built by passionate amateur naturalists who freely gave their time.

Thanks to smart phones, it's easier than ever for citizens to get involved, Merritt said, adding that this approach teaches people how science is done while helping museums conduct large surveys on limited budgets.

Entomologist and UNRC researcher Lisa Gonzalez checks the Malaise insect trap that is set up in Joe Hogg’s backyard. Joe is a site host in the UNRC SuperProject, the world’s largest biodiversity inventory that relies on volunteers across Southern California to collect data.
Entomologist and UNRC researcher Lisa Gonzalez checks the Malaise insect trap that is set up in Joe Hogg’s backyard. Joe is a site host in the UNRC SuperProject, the world’s largest biodiversity inventory that relies on volunteers across Southern California to collect data.
NHM

The museum of the future

NHM's new focus is part of a much larger redefinition of what a museum should be, explained Clare Brown, who teaches exhibit design at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University.

Around the world, institutions are looking for new ways to engage the public, and NHM's emphasis on having people study the world around them is part of that.

"This is on the edge of where museums are going," she said.

Other museums have tried asking the public to help curate shows, like Seattle's Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, which works closely on exhibits with the people and communities portrayed in them.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History staged an exhibition full of empty jars and asked visitors to fill them with objects symbolic of a memory. Nina Simon, executive director there, said it was scary leaving so much to chance, but people quickly embraced the idea.

Some of the memory jars created by visitors to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.
Some of the memory jars created by visitors to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.
Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Working with the public in this way is not without its challenges though.

Simon, who also runs the website Museum 2.0, pointed out that large institutions often change slowly, despite their best efforts to modernize. Working with the public this way requires a change in how museums approach their audience.

"You have to staff really differently, you have to go from an idea where it's about 'We put on the show' to saying instead we are going to be relationship managers or community managers," she said.

Citizen science also requires robust trainings and data analysis to make sure the public observations are accurate and dependable enough for peer-reviewed research journals. It's also important that studies are designed to set up volunteers for success.

Still, Lila Higgins of NHM thinks it's worth the effort if it will help more people fall in love with science.

"We're really trying to push it forward and see how we can work with our communities [...] and I think the Urban Nature Research Center is the perfect example of that," she said.