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Citizen Scientists Finding New Reptile Species in Southern California

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An Indo-Pacific gecko in Glen Yoshida's Torrance yard | Photo: © Jason Goldman

This is the first in a series of articles on citizen science KCET Redefine will be bringing you as a way of celebrating the first-ever Citizen Science Day on April 16.

On August 14, 2013, Glen Yoshida snapped a photo of a lizard clinging to a wall on his front porch. He uploaded the photo to iNaturalist, a website and smartphone app that allows users to submit photos of animals and plants. "This Indo-Pacific Gecko lives somewhere on my front porch. She comes out usually after it gets dark outside and when the weather is on the warm side," wrote Yoshida, an IT specialist at a nursing home, who lives in Torrance. The photo caught the eye of Greg Pauly, a herpetologist at LA's Natural History Museum.

As their name suggests, Indo-Pacific geckos, Hemidactylus garnotii, aren't supposed to be found in Torrance, or in the Americas at all. They're native to Southeast Asia, India, the Philippines, Australia, and parts of Polynesia. But the species reproduces asexually. Females lay eggs and they hatch without male fertilization. That makes it amazingly easy for the lizards to settle in a new home. All it takes is one individual to stow away in a potted plant or to escape from a pet store, and if she can find a safe place to live, she can found her own little gecko family.

Thanks to iNaturalist's commenting feature, Pauly was able to ask Yoshida to record some additional information. "Great observations Glen," he wrote in a comment on a photo taken in October 2013. "It would be great if you could also include the high temp for that day." By providing that data, a photo Yoshida took of a juvenile in March of 2014 allowed Pauly to discover that the geckos' eggs could successfully incubate and hatch during the colder winter months, and that the geckos were active at temperatures into the mid-50s. That was something of a surprise for a tropical species. "A single photo told us, oh my gosh, this tropical gecko is breeding over the course of our southern California winters," he says. "It's not what anybody would have predicted."

After working with Yoshida to collect as much data as possible, Pauly published the finding in the journal Herpetological Review. "New county and state record," reads the article. "Searches of this urban neighborhood suggest that the geckos are largely confined to a single house lot with gecko activity observed on the house and the cinder block walls around the lot."

This wasn't the first time that non-scientists had helped Pauly to understand the reptiles of southern California. In 2010, a father and son from Chatsworth snapped a photo of a lizard that they found in their yard. They too submitted their photo to the NHM. Pauly knew then as well that the lizard was special as soon as he saw the photo: it was a Mediterranean house gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus. Like the Indo-Pacific gecko, it's an interloper, an invader. It wound up being the first scientifically documented record of this species for Los Angeles County.

These are examples of a sort of scientific collaboration that have become increasingly common. Scientists work with each other all the time, but more and more they find themselves turning to the public for help.

"If you're a conservation biologist, you're either interested in a place, and you want to know what are the animals that occur in that place," Pauly explained to me in a basement conference room at the museum, "or you're interested in a species, and you want to know its distribution." Historically, the way to investigate those questions has been to look through natural history collections preserved at museums.

But funding for natural history collections is drying up. Just this month, the National Science Foundation suspended its support of its "Collections in Support of Biological Research" program for 2016. "During this time the program is being evaluated for the long term resource needs and research priorities in the Biological Sciences Directorate," says the official announcement. As a result of this trend, the number of new specimens coming into natural history museums has declined, and has been since the 1970s.

"No biologist was ever going to find the gecko living in Glen Yoshida's yard. Glen Yoshida had to find it."

Yet earlier this month RASCals (the museum's herpetology-based citizen science effort stands for Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California) got its ten thousandth contribution. That's ten thousand reptile or amphibian photos submitted to the museum, each containing geographical information thanks to the geo-tagging capabilities built in to smartphones. What that means, says Pauly, is that "just for LA County, in three years, we have received more of these photo-vouchered records of where things occur than we have physical specimens collected in the last thirty-five years."

Physical specimens can't be replaced entirely by photos snapped by curious citizens. Specimens offer information on wildlife health, parasites, diet, and reproduction that photos typically can't offer, for example. Likewise, photos submitted by citizen scientists allow researchers to answer some of the most basic questions in conservation biology that specimens alone are insufficient to address.

How has the range of "lizard X" changed over the course of urbanization, and where does it occur now? "Prior to citizen science, we did not have the data to answer those most basic questions," says Pauly. Even if it were possible for him and his colleagues to collect enough specimens from across the Southern California region to begin to investigate those questions, it would necessarily involve collecting animals from private property.

Citizen science allows researchers indirect access to tens of thousands of backyards without trespassing in the name of science. It can also direct researchers to search for interesting critters in particular places rather that casting an impossibly wide net. Yoshida, for example, allowed Pauly to capture geckos from his yard to add to the museum's collections as physical specimens. Each method of data collection – citizen science and traditional specimen acquisition – can support the other.

Most of the photos submitted to the RASCals project feature commonly encountered locals: western fence lizards, side-blotched lizards, alligator lizards, and the rest. As well they should. But with the help of citizen scientists, Pauly has documented an impressive number of non-native species that were not yet known to be established here. He documented four species never before recorded in California: Indo-pacific geckos thanks to Yoshida, plus flat-tailed house geckos, common house geckos, and tropical house geckos.

He also established sixteen new records for Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura counties, like the Mediterranean house gecko, thanks to help from citizen scientists.

There's also the green anole, documented in Hancock Park near the Wilshire Country Club. Following a tip from a citizen scientist, Pauly visited the area and counted at least nine anoles in just an hour and a half. "We saw males, females, and juveniles so it was clear this was an established population. Further, a resident informed us she had been seeing the anoles for all 12 years she had spent in the neighborhood," he wrote in a blog post about the discovery.

Another is the coqui frog, of which hundreds were found croaking loudly inside a single greenhouse in Torrance.

Brahminy blind snake, many times life size | Photo: Mark Yokoyama, some rights reserved

And then there's the brahminy blind snake, a critter that's so small its easily confused for an earthworm. It was first documented in Southern California in February 2000, and scientists documented on average one snake per year since then. They're likely widespread, but because they live their lives underground and are so easily mistaken for worms, they're hard to spot. But then quite a bit of rain fell last September, coaxing the critters to the Earth's surface. Thanks to citizen scientists, suddenly the NHM was receiving two observations every week for more than a month! "These records will be included in a scientific paper documenting the rapid spread of this species in Southern California," Pauly wrote in another blog post.

So far he's published five scientific papers with citizen scientists listed as co-authors thanks to observations submitted to the RASCals project. In the early days of citizen science, such projects were touted as important ways to engage regular people with science, as useful tools for outreach and education. That's all true, but what researchers have also learned is that regular people can be instrumental for building new scientific knowledge. "No biologist was ever going to find the gecko living in Glen Yoshida's yard, it just wasn't going to happen," says Pauly. "Glen Yoshida had to find it."

Greg Pauly examines a gecko in Torrance. | Photo: © Jason Goldman

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