Four of the 122 species of Lepidoptera collected at BioBlitz. Photo by Melody McFarland.
A Race Against Time: BioBlitz
By Michael Wall, Ph.D.
I know you’re still finding new stuff, but time is up. I need a number. Those were my words to some 50 scientists on a sunny Saturday afternoon last May in Balboa Park. Together, we had just finished a rapid biodiversity assessment of Balboa Park. How rapid is rapid? Try 24-hours rapid. Maybe not as fast as lightning, but worthy of being called a BioBlitz.
Since 1996, various organizations around the country have been doing BioBlitzes—from Washington to Central Park to Chicago. A BioBlitz is a 24-hour inventory of species found in a given area. On the surface, a BioBlitz seeks to quickly answer two simple questions: How many species are in an area, and what are their names? This is the most basic way in which we can describe biodiversity of an area, yet for most of the Earth’s surface, we have no idea. In this regard, a BioBlitz becomes a local metaphor for the larger, global biodiversity crisis. As BioBlitz scientists race against the clock to document as many species as they can in 24 hours in an urban park, so do biodiversity scientists around the globe race against the much more ominous clock of habitat destruction and climate change.
“I’ve been hiking in Florida Canyon for 30 years and I’ve never seen one of those!” Those were the words of one of the 3000 members of the public who attended our BioBlitz and saw a sun scorpion (see below). Popular wisdom is that biodiversity is synonymous with the tropical rainforest or a coral reef. These environments truly are bastions of diversity, but a BioBlitz can reveal the abundance of hidden diversity here in our own backyards.
In total, scientists and volunteers found 1035 species over the course of 24 hours in Balboa Park. The sun scorpion was just one of many interesting surprises and new discoveries from our BioBlitz. Dr. Jon Rebman and a team of botanists found four species of plants never before known from San Diego County, a previously undiscovered population of a native rare plant, and seedlings of a Mission Manzanita, a plant whose seeds have never been known to germinate. Similarly, the entomology team discovered a species of stink bug and a species of water-scavenger beetle that are new state records for California, and a rarely seen species of hairy fungus beetle.
“That is so awesome!” Those were the words of campers who night-lighted for insects, listened to bats echolocate, and slept in the San Diego Natural History Museum the night of BioBlitz. While BioBlitz has its roots firmly planted in science, its real strength is its capacity to educate and inspire people about nature.
By combining the Museum’s strengths in education, interpretation, and research, the BioBlitz in Balboa Park offered unique learning opportunities for all groups. While scientists scoured the hills of Florida Canyon with headlamps, pint-sized BioBlitz campers had the opportunity to explore Balboa Park’s natural nightlife. Campers saw white-lined sphinx moths sipping nectar and used some of the latest technology to listen to bats flying over Florida Canyon. Later in the evening, BioBlitz campers shared their discoveries with Australian BioBlitzing counterparts via a live videoconference. As the sun broke the next day, visitors to Balboa Park were greeted with expert-led nature hikes, nature crafts for kids, and a tent full of bleary-eyed scientists who were sorting through an evening’s-worth of collecting.
“Are you doing it again next year?” Those were the words of the visitors and scientists that participated in the BioBlitz in Balboa Park. The San Diego Natural History Museum is committed to continuing the tradition of BioBlitz. The event exemplifies the Museum’s mission, “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.”
This year, the Museum’s BioBlitz is moving east into Mission Trails Regional Park. Working with park staff, a team of scientists from throughout our region, a cadre of volunteers, educators, and nature interpreters, the Museum will tackle Mission Trails for another BioBlitz. The public is invited to join us on May 2 as we again race against the clock as a community to discover the biodiversity right here in our backyards. Find out how you can participate in BioBlitz at www.sdnhm.org/bioblitz.
Michael Wall, Ph.D., is the Curator of Entomology and Director of the Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Species of sun scorpion (Solifugae), a predatory spider-like animal.
Photo by Michael Wall, Ph.D.
SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY: FIELD NOTES, April 2009