NHM Tracks Urban Insects

They may be small, but the role these flies play in the environment is critically important.

Los Angeles faces rising temperatures and a drier climate with global climate change. As it continues, it is crucial to keep track of biodiversity in urban areas. Insects are sensitive to temperature and are integral to urban ecosystems. Urban insects, such as phorid flies, which are the specialty of the Entomology Department at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM), are an interesting case study for how biodiversity is distributed across Los Angeles.

In a study published in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of scientists that included Dr. Brian V. Brown, Co-Director of the Natural History Museum’s Urban Nature Research Center (UNRC) and Curator of Entomology; Dr. Terry McGlynn, Director of Undergraduate Research and Professor of Biology at California State University, Dominguez Hills; and Dr. Emily Meineke, Postdoctoral Research Associate at Duke University and Harvard University Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; surveyed the biodiversity of phorid flies throughout the L.A. area.

Collaborating with the public, the researchers recruited volunteers to allow researchers to place insect traps in their yards. In the large study, more than 30 sites were tested over the course of a year, yielding a total of 42,480 specimens. L.A.’s microclimates offered a unique opportunity to study several environmental factors at once. The researchers examined how hard surfaces, plant cover, and temperature could impact biodiversity. They found that temperature had the biggest impact on where phorid flies were found and that the most diverse insect communities were in places where it wasn’t too hot or too cold. This suggests that as climate change causes shifts in temperatures, insect biodiversity will shift, too.

Los Angeles’ unique urban environment allowed researchers to study the effects of temperature independently of other factors, such as plant cover. As McGlynn explains, “Usually, it’s hard to disentangle the urban heat island effect from other effects of urbanization. Because of the way Los Angeles is structured and the way this experiment was designed, we separated out the effects of temperature and urbanization. We could test for the effects of temperature separately. We found that it’s the temperature in the city that matters for biodiversity, and that’s a question people haven’t really been able to answer until now.”

Meineke adds that this project is unique because, “There are so few studies that do this kind of comprehensive monitoring of insects in an urban environment. (Most) people who are interested in insect diversity are going to tropical forests, where the insects are most diverse. But the team at the Natural History Museum had the forethought to ask ‘What’s happening in our own backyard?’”

NHM’s Biodiversity Science: City and Nature (BioSCAN) project is a first-of-its-kind scientific investigation that is discovering and exploring biodiversity in and around one of the world’s largest cities—Los Angeles. BioSCAN is testing intriguing hypotheses about how natural areas around the city affect its biodiversity and, conversely, how urban areas may be affecting their surroundings. BioSCAN and other projects in the UNRC are taking full advantage of NHM’s museum base by directly engaging the public in the discovery and exploration of their home city.


About the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County: The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) include the Natural History Museum, La Brea Tar Pits, and the William S. Hart Museum. They operate under the collective vision to inspire wonder, discovery, and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds. The museums hold one of the world’s most extensive and valuable collections of natural and cultural history—more than 35 million objects. Using these collections for groundbreaking scientific and historical research, the museums also incorporate them into on- and offsite nature and culture exploration in L.A. neighborhoods, and a slate of community science programs—creating indoor-outdoor visitor experience that explore the past, present, and future.


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