Los Angeles native Emily Hartop thought she knew her city pretty well. She has a resident’s affection for the Hollywood sign, the slow-moving traffic, the chaotic clash of people and pavement — the kind of love a city can only elicit from the people who call it home.
And Hartop, an entomologist at Los Angeles’s Natural History Museum, thought she knew flies. After all, she was hired specifically to identify fly samples for the museum’s urban biodiversity project.
It turned out both her city and her specialty could surprise her.
In a paper due to be published in the journal Zootaxa next month, Hartop will announce the discovery of 30 previously unknown species of fly, all captured during a brief, three-month scan of local backyards and gardens.
“It’s one of those situations where you have to keep pinching yourself,” Hartop said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “I’d be less surprised to find hundreds of new species of Megaselia [a common genus of fly] at a remote site in Costa Rica than I was to find 30 new species right here in L.A.”
The new species were uncovered as part of the Natural History Museum’s BioSCAN project (the acronym stands for “Biodiversity Science: City and Nature”). Launched in 2012, the project was inspired by a bet with a museum trustee, who didn’t believe that principal investigator Brian Brown could discover a new species amid L.A.’s sprawl of smog and concrete.
“I always thought we had the potential to discover new species wherever we sample — urban, tropical, anywhere. But 30 new species from a heavily urbanized area is really astounding,” Brown said in a museum press release.
Volunteers for the project set up 30 insect traps across the greater L.A. region — mostly in backyards, but also in a community garden, at an elementary school, at a local cooperative called the “Los Angeles Eco Village” and in the museum’s own nature garden. Apparently undaunted by the prospect of dealing so closely with creepy, six-legged critters, they emptied the traps each week and delivered the contents to Hartop, who was responsible for identifying and cataloging them.
(Aaron Pomerantz/The Next Gen Scientist)
Hartop quickly became adept at distinguishing among species of fly, mostly based on their genitalia — such is the glamorous life of an entomologist. She often gave them silly nicknames to help her remember them, calling one species “Troll” because its bristly body reminded her of a 1980s troll doll, another “Hokusai” because its private parts looked like the 19th century Japanese painting “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.”
But, to her consternation, Hartop was unable to find most of her nicknamed species among lists of North American insects — many of which haven’t been updated since the 1960s.
“Cosmopolitan species are really understudied,” she said. “You have this age-old problem of scientists who want to study the world around them — but by ‘the world around them,’ they really mean someplace exotic like the tropics or some beautiful mountaintop. Unfortunately, a lot of scientists haven’t actually studied the cities where they live.”
After repeated failed attempts to find “Troll” and “Hokusai” in already published studies, Hartop began to suspect she had found something — or several somethings — entirely new. To confirm her suspicion, she turned to Henry Disney, a retired Cambridge University professor and the world’s foremost expert on Megaselia flies.
Hartop packed her fly samples and flew across the Atlantic to Cambridge, where she whiled away several weeks — and dozens of cups of tea — comparing her notes with every species identification key ever written for the genus. There are well over 1,000 known species of Megaselia, “so it was a daunting task,” Hartop said.
Having concluded her flies were indeed new to science, Hartop and her colleagues carefully created their own keys for the 30 new kinds of fly, taking detailed anatomical notes and minuscule photographs of their varied but equally unsightly forms. Each was named for a family or site where it was found — who wouldn’t want their name to be immortalized via a species of bug? — so the annals of entomology are now populated with Megaselia severorum, named for the family who funded the research, a Megaselia mikejohnsoni and a Megaselia armstrongorum, among others.
Hartop expects they’ll soon be joined by more discoveries.
“We’ve been collecting data for a little over a year now and we’re only just beginning to look at everything and see what we’re dealing with,” she said. “… I definitely anticipate there’ll be new species in other groups. Los Angeles has a lot going on in terms of biodiversity that you’d never expect.”