This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Dimensions magazine.
Many people think that cities, especially ones as large and stereotyped as Los Angeles, are devoid of nature, and certainly devoid of any nature worth studying. Scientists at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM) think otherwise. “We are just as likely to find a new species of insect in Los Angeles as in the forests of Costa Rica and Brazil—that is, 100%,” said Brian Brown, NHM entomology curator. In fact, Los Angeles is located in a biodiversity hotspot, one of 34 scientifically recognized places on Earth that are home to an incredibly high level of biodiversity and that suffer high threat from human actions.
But how do you study biodiversity in a vast metropolis where much of the land is private and thousands of observations and specimens are needed? “Citizen science is the only feasible answer,” said Greg Pauly, NHM herpetology curator and project leader for Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals). The public has the time, capacity, and access to private lands (such as backyards and schoolyards) that scientists do not. The fact that scientists have a real need for help is not lost on participants. As it turns out, it is a key motivator. One participant in RASCals noted, “If I didn’t contribute, then your map of distribution would have had less data. I had to make sure that Woodland Hills [a neighborhood in Los Angeles] was represented!”