On a breezy, overcast Saturday morning in mid-July, dozens of people parked their cars on a dead-end gravel road and gathered under a tent top on a grassy hillside. About 60 of us were volunteering for a BioBlitz organized by the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project. Our assignment: Inventory as many plant and animal species as possible within eight hours. The goal of LSP and its partners Clean Up the River Environment and the Chippewa River Watershed Project: Document species changes in this region where farmers, ranchers, and other landowners are working with private and public agencies to use grazing, prescribed burns, and other practices to conserve native prairies and grasslands.
The volunteers—farmers, children, biologists, birders, gardeners—all were eager to explore local flora and fauna on the rolling glacial hills of southeastern Pope County. We split into expert-led groups and headed off in different directions. On one side of the road, the farmer's grassland had been grazed. On the other, the Nature Conservancy's dry hill prairie had been burned in the spring. Just a few steps onto the prairie and people began to call out plant names—Echinacea angustifolia, Liatris, side-oats grama.
Like a herd of grazing bison, our small party stepped slowly with heads bowed, moving from plant to plant, bending down for a closer look. "What's this?" "Do you think it's …?" Fortunately, our leaders—Lindy Ekola, with the DNR, and her husband, Dave Jungst, with Ducks Unlimited—had recently reviewed prairie plant species on a field day with DNR botanists. But when no one knew for sure what we were looking at, Dave would take a picture for later reference. People with smartphones snapped shots and sent them to iNaturalist.org for ID and listing. We all had fun learning.
By day's end, our group had surveyed only a few acres but tallied more than 100 plant species. We'd found a male Melissa blue butterfly, a metallic-green dogbane beetle, an unknown snail, a few birds, and unidentified ants swarming on an enormous mound.
Had the world's foremost ant authority, E.O. Wilson, joined us, he might have dug into the soil not only to examine ants, but also to make the point that 99 percent of life forms are too small for us to see without magnification. The living soil supports much of the diversity we don't see, as well as what we do see above ground.
Wilson is a proponent of the BioBlitz as a catalyst for exploring the diversity of living things. His website quotes him saying, "There is no better high than discovery." A two-day BioBlitz in Central Park in 2006 celebrated the launch of his namesake biodiversity foundation.
A short film on the website shows interviews with youngsters on a 2013 BioBlitz in New Orleans. A boy tells how he scooped up a colossal spiderlike insect in a net and showed it to a naturalist, who identified it as a daddy longlegs. The naturalist explained that unlike spiders with two body segments, this close relative has one. With conviction the boy says, "Just that one spider has changed my views completely on nature."
Cultivating awe and respect for the intrinsic value of species is reason enough to host a festive biological survey. But LSP and its partners also hope the data will help land managers measure the effects of their land-use practices.
In this issue "Branching Out" discusses the critical connection of forest resource use to land protection and management. By finding new commercial uses for trees, entrepreneurs are creating incentives to keep forests healthy. DNR forest ecologist John Almendinger points out, "Using forests allows us to have a big land base, to form a biodiversity base."
Deemed not particularly useful by the timber industry, cottonwood trees have gotten little attention until recently. Field Notes reports on a National Park Service survey revealing that the riverside giants are not regenerating. Honeybees and eagles have a stake in perpetuation of this species.
Undiscovered species certainly may have unimagined importance to the health and survival of humans and other creatures. That's why Wilson and other scientists hasten to tell us that species are becoming extinct at a rate 100 to 1,000 times faster now than before 1800. With a typical time limit of 24 hours, a BioBlitz seems like a micro-demonstration of how quickly scientists must work to study and help protect our biological heritage. In small but important ways, anyone can join in the effort and have a seriously good time.
Kathleen Weflen, editor