Archive for June, 2007

A Decree That All Should be Enrolled . . .

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

A couple of weeks ago I helped with the first ever bioblitz at the Warner Nature Center. The goal is to simply tally as many species of flora and fauna over the span of 24 hours. Well actually it isn’t really so simple. There were teams of scientists, naturalists, families and high school students. It was truly an exercise of citizen science at it’s best.
It is not often that the average person gets to interface with a honest-to-goodness scientist. One could move from table to table and watch scientists going through stacks of books in trying to key out specimens or watch them peer through high-powered scopes to note minute physical characteristics.
A duo of diatom experts sat opposite each other bent over their very high priced scopes that allowed them an intimate view of these silica walled algal organisms. Not only did I walk away with a greater appreciation for diatoms but I knew this was a discipline that I would likely not pursue simply because it seems that the necessary books required each cost in the neighborhood of $200! Not to mention that scope that cost tens of thousands of dollars!
The plant folks peered through hand held magnifiers to note key plant characteristics. Most of the time they could rattle the plants off with a cursory glance, but there are those sedges that wear the genus Carex that demanded more than a glance. There were several species of plants that were placed carefully in plant presses since they were first records for Washington County.
The fungi team reminded me of some sort of Asian market place with a table full of diverse mushrooms, polypores, puffballs and other fungi. Stacks of books, scopes and heads huddled together looking for agreement.
The folks after vertebrates depended on their observation skills through visual and auditory means. Before three of us hangers-on, crawled into our tents well after midnight, we smiled when we heard a pack of coyotes sing and yap from back in the woods. We also were serenaded by barred owls.
Spotting their tracks and droppings tallied some mammals such as deer and fox. Skunk diggings betrayed their presence. Live traps, baited with peanut butter, bagged only one small mammal species: a Peromyscus or white-footed mouse.
Seines, nets and even stunning fish temporarily with an electric shocker mounted in a boat, revealed only a modest list of fish species. The abundant fish species were clearly sunfish and largemouth bass. Scores of recently hatched bass fry were captured or viewed. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these would soon become a necessary link in the food chain.
We were up before 6:00 AM and cars started pulling in. This is the magic hour to get out and spot and listen for the dawn chorus of birds. Birders hiked and canoed tallying a good number of species. A highlight for the canoeists, who also gathered some aquatic vegetation for the botanists to identify, was spotting a pair of adult sandhill cranes sneak along the shoreline with their one young bird. (Young cranes are called colts.)
After the birding session and a bagel and coffee for quick nourishment, I headed into the woods with one of the authors of the book Amphibians and Reptiles of Minnesota. Our focus was to gently turn over rotting logs and limbs to see if we could uncover any salamanders, particularly tiger and blue-spotted salamanders. The night before we had successfully captured red-belly and garter snakes and missed a fleet prairie skink. Several of the red-bellys were swollen indicating that they were gravid with a litter of young snakes.
Through the day totals of each focus groups were tallied and posted on a white board. The fungi folks and the bird group had a friendly competition going as their respective totals ran close to each other all day.
While some of the insect team was sorting through scores of tiny collected insects, others were carefully pinning specimens out on mounting boards. Insect nets, elaborate insect net traps and killing jars flanked the workers.
It was the insect team that worked well into the night hours the previous night. At 11:30 PM, after a team of entomologists put away their collection of lights, traps and sheets that they had hung in the woods with bright light splashed against them one of the scientists was still enthusiastically exclaiming about what a hoot the night had been. “I could do this every night.” The excited “Oohs!” and “Aahhs!” from the trio of bug experts as they peered into the insect speckled sheets had the same tenor as a Christmas morning and these were from adults who wore labels of graduate degrees.
Another entomologist back at the building was quite pleased with his capture of a moth fly. Turns out he caught it in the wilds of the men’s restroom. With the intention of simply trying to take a 24-hour snapshot of the biodiversity of a defined location, why is this tiny insect such a find for a bioblitz?
The dark body and wings of the moth fly are covered with tiny hairs, giving it a moth-like appearance.  The 1/8-inch spread of this Diptera (two-winged insect) appears moth like with its fat wings.
It turns out that the moth fly’s preferred habitat, which incidentally is not threatened in any way, is the film of water found in drains of sinks and urinals. The eggs hatch in less than 48 hours. The larval and pupal stage takes about two weeks of living in this human created habitat. The newly emerged fly is sexually mature when it emerges. With luck it will copulate to begin the next generation in the first hours of its emergence. Talk about early development!
By day’s end the most common species was Homo sapiens exhaustus. Though some further identification of puzzling species will take place in the next week or so, the final tally of species was clearly a record for this bioblitz, the fourth official count in Minnesota. This much we do know, over 1,200 species of flora and fauna call the nature center home during June.