Science Fest Celebrates Biodiversity in Malibu’s Backyard
• Attendance Numbers Indicate NPS Underestimated Public Interest Bugs and Bats at Night Event
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
The National Park Service underestimated the appeal of things that go bump in the night during the night science portion of the first annual Santa Monica Mountains Science Festival at Paramount Ranch in the mountains above Malibu, sponsored by the NPS and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
The event, developed to continue the citizen scientist theme of the 2008 Santa Monica Mountain’s Bio Blitz, sponsored by National Park Service and National Geographic Society, proved wildly successful.
More than 500 visitors packed the park to learn about bugs, bats, owls and the night sky. The large number of participants meant the event deteriorated at times into a kind of exuberant chaos, but patient visitors had the opportunity to observe scientists at work and learn more about some of the area’s less known inhabitants.
At the bat station, biologists were using “Anibat” technology—short-range ultrasonic object detectors that generate sonograms of passing bats, allowing the team to ID the species, while the bats, often unseen, went about their business, snatching mosquitoes, moths, midges and other insects out of the sky. “It picks up sounds higher than human ears can hear—25 kilohertz—and lowers it into the human hearing range,” bat biologist Stephanie Remington explained.
Remington said that each bat has a different signature, although some overlap. “Brown bats and Mexican free-tailed bats, two species found here, can overlap,” Remington said, comparing the bats’ vocalizations to the range of a slide trombone, “but Mexican free-tailed bats are screamers, we get a strong signature from them.” According to Remington, the Mexican free-tail is one of few local bats that can make a sound audible to humans.
The equipment not only makes the bat’s echolocation audible, but graphs it on the computer readout. The audience could see the difference between the large, robust big brown bat, and the tiny western pipistrelle, a bat that weighs no more than a penny.
According to the biology team, the Santa Monica Mountains still support a large bat population, but bat numbers are declining everywhere.
“Light pollution is a really serious problem,” Remington said. “Predators like ravens and Cooper’s hawks are now hunting at night. In Orange County [where she conducts much of her research], I haven’t seen the Milky Way in four years.”
“Many species require darkness for survival, it’s cumulative,” another member of the science team added. “We’re constantly being bothered by our own technology. Habitat loss is another major problem. Some bats adapt easily to urban life, moving into attics and empty buildings, others have zero tolerance for habitat loss. It’s a big problem. Many of California’s bats are species of special concern.”
The team reportedly caught, banded and released seven yuma myotis, a small bat that specializes in snatching insects over the surface of ponds and streams, during the evening.
The area’s owls evaded capture, but the owl team brought in a young red shouldered hawk.
The raptor was weighed, measured and banded. Bird biologist Pete Bloom was on hand to oversee the process, and gave the audience an opportunity to examine the bird at close quarters.
“This is an adolescent,” Bloom said. “He’s probably about 12 months old. The adult’s tail is black and white, and the breast turns ruby red. This is one of our most beautiful raptors.”
According to Bloom, many raptors, like bats, are currently declining. He cited rodent poison as a leading cause of death. “Rodenticide is a major issue on the urban edge,” Bloom said. Raptors that have adapted to urban life die when they ingest prey that have been poisoned, including rats and mice.
At the end of the the evening, the young hawk was fed a mouse and packed into a box for the night. “Their night vision isn’t much better than ours,” Bloom said. “We’ll release him in the morning.”
Over at the bug station, Natural History Museum biologist Brent “The Bug Guy” Karner was pleased to have encountered a type of brown lacewing reportedly not previously ID-ed west of Tennessee.
“There are 1.5 million described species [of insects]. If you want to find a new species, collect bugs, you may not have to look farther than your backyard to find something new.”
Karner’s special mercury vapor and black lights attracted not only insects, but a record crowd of children. A large, beautifully marked tiger moth drew gasps of awe, and even the humble crane fly—a large but harmless mosquito-like insect—met with a rapt and enthusiastic audience. Nearby, a table offered a look at live examples of some of the area’s most impressive-looking species, including native tarantulas and scorpions.
“We’ve had cool stuff tonight,” Karner said. “Even though everything has been late this year. I hope they ask me to come back in June.”
“We had 500 people on Friday night and 2150 on Saturday,” National Park Service public relations officer Lauren Newman told the Malibu Surfside News, after the event. It was amazing. Our goal was just 1000 total. We’re very excited and are planning to do this again next year.”