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Natural History Museum (NHM) Launches Urban Nature Research Center

Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga with Staff and Citizen Scientists launching the Natural History Museum's Urban Nature Research Center
Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga with Staff and Citizen Scientists launching the Natural History Museum’s Urban Nature Research Center

On Thursday, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) announced the launch of the Urban Nature Research Center (UNRC), the first integrative research center in the United States dedicated to urban biodiversity, and using the entire city of Los Angeles to extend scientific research and investigation beyond the perimeters of the Museum’s 3.5 acres of Nature Gardens habitat.

La County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga NHM President & Director
La County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga NHM President & Director

At the ceremony, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridey-Thomas presented Dr. Bettison-Varga with a scroll signed by all five county supervisors proclaiming April 16 Citizen Science Day. He praised the museum for creating 3.5 acres of green space where Los Angelenos can observe wildlife and noted that it inspired the county’s  efforts to engage librarians to train students to explore nature around library sites.  NHM will be celebrating Citizen Science Day this Saturday with special programming, including a family-friendly scavenger hunt where participants will interact with staff to learn about NHM’s Citizen Science projects.

NHM also announced the “SuperProject,” the world’s largest urban biodiversity inventory, employing a network of hundreds of citizen scientists trained to collect data, and submit it to NHM scientists via iNaturalist, a free citizen science app for reporting personal observations of any plant or animal species (

“There’s often a misconception that Los Angeles is a concrete jungle, when in reality the city is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world,” said Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, President and Director of NHM. “In fact, we are one of 35 biodiversity hotspots on the planet; the most urbanized, one of the richest and diverse, yet most comprised place on earth.” (“Biodiversity Hotspot” is a Conservation International designation for an area with both diverse plants and animals under extreme threat.)

NHM is uniquely capable to do this work to understand the impact on biodiversity, asserted Bettison-Varga.

“We have a different paradigm, we can see the bigger picture; we have millions of historical specimens and can use our collections to make the connection between then and now,” said Bettison-Varga. “The UNRC will unify the museum’s data collection and become a local model for environmental and urban nature studies.”

The UNRC SuperProject is collecting data across multiple species at over 200 “super sites”— backyards and schoolyards from coastal to inland environments.
Encompassed by the SuperProject are:

  • BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science: City and Nature), a large-scale insect survey of backyard insect diversity, which has already discovered 43 species new to science and several improbable new species distributions.
  • L.A. Spider Survey, a citizen science project that, through over 1,000 participants, has given us a detailed and profound glimpse into how our spider fauna has changed over the last 100 years, and continues to change today.
  • RASCals (Reptiles and Amphibians in Southern California), designed to improve knowledge of native and non-native reptiles and amphibians in Southern California, home to both 22.5 million people and dramatic urbanization and habitat modification. Results so far include four new state records and 16 new county records, as well as five papers authored or co-authored by citizen scientists.
  • SLIME (Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments), a recently-launched citizen science project with over 320 contributors so far, aiming to catalogue the biodiversity of terrestrial gastropods (land snails and slugs). NHM’s collection of land snails includes thousands of specimens from locations throughout the Los Angeles Basin and spans the last 100 years. But not much is known about this mollusk biodiversity today. Results include three new state record and seven new county records.
  • Southern California Squirrel Survey, a citizen science-based research program that catalogs the occurrence of squirrels. Although squirrels are well-known, they are often overlooked. Not many people realize that Eastern Fox Squirrels are not native to California, or that the native Western Gray Squirrel is in decline. This project’s aim is to learn more about the distribution and behavior of these species, as well as the many other understudied species in our regions.

NHM also announced the  “City Nature Challenge: L.A. vs S.F.,” an event organized by NHM and San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences that invites participants to observe wildlife and submit it to iNaturalist. The City Nature Challenge will kick off April 16, which is National Citizen Science Day, and culminates with an online announcement of results on Earth Day, April 22. Click here to view Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s City Nature Challenge call to action.

NHM also debuted “The Curiosity Show” a webcast video series hosted by Dr. Chris Thacker, Fish Curator at NHM. It features accessible and often humorous perspectives from NHM scientists about their ongoing and expanding research. Some of these episodes will investigate a broader environmental topic or species, followed by a closer look at its relevance to the biodiversity of L.A., the specific projects being conducted at the NHM, and how visitors can get involved. The three debut episodes find Chris exploring latest findings on L.A. snails, slugs; lizards; and insects. The museum is also working on a new book, L.A. City Nature Guide (working title), a comprehensive resource on how to identify and interpret elements of the L.A. environment from San Bernardino County to the Pacific Ocean, which is slated for release in 2017.

Dr. Luis M. Chiappe, VP, Research and Collections, Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, President & Director
Dr. Luis M. Chiappe, NHM VP, Research and Collections and Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, NHM President & Director
Greg Pauley,  UNRC C-o-Director and Curator of Herpetology with a gopher snake
Citizen Scientists with LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas


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Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.

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