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The Natural History Museum Wants Your Help To Track Urban Wildlife

The Butterfly Pavilion at the Natural History Museum (Photo by gunthersalami via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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While it may be easy to feel removed from the great outdoors if you're stuck in traffic, a new center at the Natural History Museum wants to help reconnect Angelenos with the wildlife that surrounds them.The new Urban Nature Research Center at the musuem will focus on SoCal's urban wildlife and offer visitors a chance to participate in citizen-science projects and animal surveys, according to KPCC. Launching today, the new project is the first of its kind in the U.S. and is part of a larger goal of the museum to more actively engage with the public. The initiative will combine the work of NHM's Nature Garden and Nature Lab and focus on animals and plants around the property, as well as parks, streets and backyards across the city.

"We decided we would look at the L.A. city like we look at other environments around the world," Brian Brown, NHM curator of entomology and a co-director of the new center, told KPCC.

Rather than looking to far off locales to study new species, the scientists have been finding exciting new discoveries right here in L.A., including a recent survey that turned up 43 new species of fly.

"We are surrounded by absolutely incredible nature every moment of every day," said Greg Pauly, also a co-director of the UNRC and curator of herpetology at NHM.

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As it turns out, most of our state is considered a biodiversity hotspot, known as California Floristic Province, which is only one of 35 in the world. Of course, sadly, at least 70 percent of the natural habitat in the region has been lost to urbanization. NHM researchers hope that the renewed focus on urban wildlife can help advise planners to minimize impact on plants and animals over the course of future development.

The program will also utilize NHM's recent efforts to recruit "citizen scientists." These volunteers from the general public who can take part in plant and animal surveys by reporting observations using their phone and platforms like iNaturalist. So far the museum has used reports from citizen scientists for a spider survey, a squirrel research program and a project called SLIME, aka Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments.

NHM is also launching the SuperProject, which will look closely at 200 urban-nature sites from the coast to the desert, which will also utilize citizen scientists. It is considered by the museum to be the largest biodiversity project in the world.

"There is a real rise in the desire of people to participate in museum activities, not just passively consume their products," Elizabeth Merritt, director for the Center of the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums, tells KPCC. Merritt sees the shift that NHM is taking towards engaging visitors as citizen scientists as part of a larger trend that is leading a renewed focus for museums.

NHM is also working to help better educate their citizen scientists to ensure observations are accurate and dependable enough to be used by peer-reviewed research journals. Lila Higgins, NHM's manager of citizen science told KPCC, "We're really trying to push it forward and see how we can work with our communities [...] and I think the Urban Nature Research Center is the perfect example of that."