Fairfax Scientist Larry Serpa’s Life Work — a Collection of Aquatic Invertebrate Specimens — Finds a New Home at the California Academy of Sciences

Even in the wake of losing her husband, scientist Lynn Lozier of Fairfax recognizes her great fortune. For 44 years, Lozier was able to work alongside her husband, Larry Serpa, at environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy (TNC), she as a program director, he as an aquatic ecologist. As Lozier reflects on her life with Serpa, who passed away last May, she is especially grateful that she was also able to help with his personal life’s work: discovery and documentation of aquatic invertebrates across California.

While Lozier knows other scientists who spend their days in dark caves or out on a freezing tundra pursuing their passion, Serpa’s project entailed spending vacations on an ecological scavenger hunt, searching for insects in the remote waterways of California. “Because Larry always wanted to know what was where, we spent years playing in mountain meadows, the most gorgeous places in the world,” Lozier says.

collecting insects

According to Lozier, in 46 years, Serpa amassed more than 3,000 collections of aquatic insects in 54 California counties, from the coast to 11,000 feet in elevation, finding some insects that were thought to be extinct. He gathered, analyzed and documented more than 200,000 specimens representing 1,500 different species. In January, Lozier donated her late husband’s entire private collection to the California Academy of Sciences (CAS), creating the Larry E. Serpa Western North America Aquatic Invertebrate collection in the Department of Entomology, the largest private aquatic invertebrate collection the Academy of Sciences has ever received: 52 drawers of pinned insects, 5 drawers of non-insect invertebrate specimens, 80 drawers of insects in ethanol vials, and 30 bulk crates of specimens in vials. Along with the insect specimens, Lozier donated Serpa’s notebooks, filled with detailed collecting notes and field codes, as well as an electronic database of the collecting events and inventory of the collection. “This is very much a unique collection,” says Chris Grinter, collection manager of entomology at the academy, who spent two days with a van and a flatbed truck transporting the collection from Serpa’s “lab” — his garage in Fairfax.

collecting insects

“Larry was able to go places that were very remote. It’s the most important snapshot of California aquatic biology that anyone in the world has.” Serpa’s fascination with creeks and streams began in Marin County during his youth. He spent much of his childhood in San Rafael where, according to Lozier, he explored the hills and wildlands of Marin. “Larry and his brother would climb all over Mt. Tam, always looking for snakes and lizards and bugs,” Lozier says. He attended San Rafael High School and met Lozier during a school field trip to the desert. With a shared affinity for the natural world, they both studied biology in college, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sonoma State University. As they pursued their advanced degrees, the couple managed a property the university leased called the Fairfield Osborn Preserve, located on Sonoma Mountain near Santa Rosa, designing and building 5 miles of trails, surveying animals and plants, maintaining weather records and creating displays. In 1976, The Nature Conservancy, which owned the land, asked the couple to establish an environmental education program for Sonoma.

van of insects
Photo by Lynn Lozier

County children on the preserve. The program Serpa and Lozier created was the first of its kind in the county, and it continues today. The geology of Fairfield Osborn preserve is such that Copeland Creek, which Lozier describes as “quite a dramatic small stream,” tumbles down the western side of Sonoma Mountain. Serpa became interested in identifying and characterizing the insects in the waters of Copeland Creek, which he recognized as foundational species contributing to biodiversity of the region, and found it was a difficult task. His master’s thesis at Sonoma State was entitled “The Rearing Imperative,” a name derived from the complexity involved with identification of these aquatic insects as they go through “gradual metamorphosis,” with nymphs shedding their skin as they grow in stages to their adult form. It’s not until their last molt when they are adults that they become identifiable by their genitalia. Recognizing the critical role these invertebrates play in the food chain, and also how little is known about them, Serpa began his personal study. “In order to match the larva to the adult it becomes, Larry reared 90 different species from juvenile nymphs to identifiable adult insects and wrote a key to assist future researchers in identifying the immature stages,” Lozier says.

Serpa at Sage Hen Creek

Serpa’s decades-long passion for collecting aquatic insects ran in parallel with his career at The Nature Conservancy. There, his duties included management of natural spaces, con-ducting distribution surveys and leading field studies. His position meant that he regularly had access to private property to conduct studies. “He carried an insect net and, you know, a butterfly net is the universal symbol of a harmless person,” Lozier says. “He was an idiosyncratic guy with a great sense of humor. He was never threatening to property owners.” Serpa especially enjoyed finding species people didn’t think were present in a given region, believing that if they existed in an area, it should be documented so that their presence was considered in conservation and management actions. “He always wanted to know who lives where,” Lozier says. Beyond the aquatic invertebrates, he documented many other rare species over the course of his career, including the California freshwater shrimp, Tomales isopod, a suite of fairy shrimp, the Delta green ground beetle, Rickseker’s water scavenger beetle and tailed frogs.

bug collector

Serpa was beloved by his colleagues and appreciated by his employer, The Nature Conservancy, which awarded a $30,000 grant to help fund the initial curation of the collection at CAS, and also established a fund to supplement this gift with the resources needed to steward the collection and make it accessible to scientists. “We’re able to maintain this collection, make it available to researchers and have this window into populations of insects that is a really unique data set,” says Grinter of CAS. “Larry was able to go to places that were very inaccessible, to collect specimens that may not be collected again for another 100 years or so. It’s probably one of the best California collections of anything we’ve received.”

bug collector

Grinter points out that scientific material relating to Californian ecologies is especially important because the state faces ongoing environmental devastation in the form of pollution, development and climate change. “When you consider the amount of work Larry put in, traveling to every corner of the state, from sea level to the peaks of the Sierras, collecting all of these insects, it was really an impressive task, a life-time of work that will now be shared with the research community.”

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Kirsten Neff

Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans.  She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.