Local Ph.D big on area’s biodiversity

By Kathy Day

Next time you’re out surfing or walking along the beach, look to the east and imagine what it looked like 200,000 years ago when camels roamed the land.

That’s a favorite part of the speech Michael Wall, Ph.D., likes to include when he’s talking about the San Diego Natural History Museum – which is now known as The Nat – and the biodiversity of the north coastal part of San Diego.

The Solana Beach resident has been the Balboa Park museum’s curator of entomology since January 2006. He is also the director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias (BRCC), as well as vice president of research and public programs. He worked on the 2010 BioBlitz at Torrey Pines State Reserve where 530 different species of insects were identified along with 11 of the 25 species of amphibian and reptiles that have been documented in the reserve.

“There is a lot of biodiversity in our backyard,” he said in a recent interview, adding that the BRCC is truly the scientific research center of Southern California and Baja California. “People typically think of the tropics or the Great Barrier Reef” when they think of biodiversity.

In Wall’s roles he keeps a close watch on the changes the region is seeing – everything from changes in the ant population to the influx of invasive species. With research and exploring the region at the center of his work — and his personal interest in entymology — he is well positioned to tell the story about what’s being done at The Nat.

And while the public probably thinks of the museum as just that – a repository for the specimens found around the region and a place to study them – it is also a place where scientists are called on to work on special projects, Wall explained in a recent interview.

“We do a lot of work for hire,” he said. “We might get a special request from the Torrey Pines State Park or the county, the state or the fairgrounds, and even sometimes the cities.”

Often, the agencies need survey work done to meet regulatory requirements so the museum contracts to do such jobs as having its paleontologists keep an eye out for fossils during grading or having its botanists look for rare and endangered plant species.

Among the specimens found over the years in the San Dieguito River Valley, for example, were a mammoth, a ground sloth and camels which had lived in the region as much as 200,000 years ago, giving Wall fodder for his public speaking engagements.

The variety of what has been found and catalogued by the staff and volunteers since the museum was founded in 1874 can be seen in a cursory survey of its records for the Del Mar region by the museum’s staff done for this newspaper:

• In the botany collection there are 2,094 specimens, including 28 sensitive species.

•The herpetology collection includes 103 specimens from Del Mar-Carmel Valley, 52 from Rancho Santa Fe, 27 from Cardiff, 31 from Encinitas and 38 from Leucadia, reports Bradford Hollingsworth, curator of that collection.

•There are 272 specimens of birds of 137 species from the area.

•Forty-one species of algae and diatoms were found to have washed up on the beach during 24 hours of bioblits.

•In the mammal collection, museum experts mentioned one specimen that stands out – a kit fox, collected in 1931 at Rancho Santa Fe on Douglas Fairbanks’ Ranch. Today it is found mostly in desert habitat.

Scott Tremor, a mammalogist in the Department of Birds and Mammals, said via email that “Frank Stephens, noted in his 1921 annotated list of the mammals of San Diego County, California, that it was reasonably certain that the kit fox formerly occurred in the region between the sea and the mountains in San Diego County and that a few probably still persisted there. The 1931 specimen proved his theory.”

There are other tales of unusual finds, including one told by Philip Unitt, who has been curator of birds and mammals since 1988.

“I think the most notable is the Newell’s Shearwater found alive at Del Mar on Aug. 1 2007 — the first of this Hawaiian seabird found on the continent of North America,” he wrote. A piece he wrote for the museum’s website details the rare find by Charles Swanson, an Escondido man who was working with a crew to stabilize the bluffs along the railroad tracks in Del Mar “when he noticed a bird dive-bombing a co-worker. Suspecting the bird was attracted by the light from the headlamp on his hardhat, Swanson suggested he turn the light off. He did so, but the bird continued to dive at him. The bird suddenly flew in front of him, landed, and squawked.”

The story continues, with the bird coming back at Swanson’s co-worker, who ducked only to have the bird crash into a metal box nearby. “Thinking the bird was probably stunned or possibly hurt, Swanson picked it up carefully, finding it very docile, and placed it in a bed of iceplant along the cliff.”

After a brief flight, the bird returned and Swanson left it in the iceplant when his shift ended. It was till there the next day, sitting by the metal box. At the end of his shift he took it home, eventually turning it over to Project Wildlife in Carlsbad.

Many of the specimens in the museum’s collection have been contributed by the “citizen scientists” who play a key role in the effort to document the area’s biodiversity, Wall said. One particular approach they have used is having volunteers like Del Mar’s Karen Rich “adopt” grid squares – a 3-mile-by-3-mile area – where they walk and document what they see. This approach has been used to create a Bird Atlas and a Plant Atlas.

“We get baseline data to compare the past to use in the future,” Wall said, adding that between the 2010 BioBlitz and the Plant Atlas the area has been well covered. “We found several things that we thought were locally gone and new things that unfortunately included many invasive species.”

When the Plant Atlas project began in 2003, the museum had 527 specimens; now the collection numbers 1,567.

When you visit The Nat, you only see a tiny part of the work being done there. There’s much more behind the scenes and, from the exhibits to the research efforts, the staff aims, according to the, “to interpret the natural world through research, education and exhibits; to promote understanding of the evolution and diversity of Southern California and the peninsula of Baja California; and to inspire in all a respect for nature and the environment.”

For Wall, it’s a personal and professional mission that he says gives them an eye on species “living on the edge” and a greater understanding of the local ecosystem.

Read Phil Unitt’s tale and research about the Newell’s Shearwater at

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