20 Years of Sorting Life with Rhode Island Natural History Survey

Hymenoptera awaits further identification.

NOTE: This story originally appeared in RI Central Newspapers 6/6/19.

David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS) sits under a canopy at a long table sorting ants. There are perhaps a dozen or so that he has recently collected contained in a tiny bottle. He separates them before handing them off to an ant expert who will do the job of telling the difference between a small ant and a really small ant. At least, that’s the way it looks to an untrained eye.

Around him are piles of field guides, stacks of microscopes, pans, nets, leaves, and grasses. People in mud caked waders or binoculars stroll in and out of the area, exchanging updates on the latest find. This is BioBlitz, a 24-hour marathon of capturing, counting, sorting, and identifying as many species of living things as possible. This year, RINHS returned to Roger Williams Park, which hosted the first one decades ago.

David Gregg, executive director of RINHS, sorts ants in Science Central.

“The idea of a BioBlitz was still new 20 years ago, so not many had heard of it,” he explains. “One of our board members was also on the board of the zoo, and our goal was to show that there is biodiversity everywhere – even in an urban environment.” Gregg said he wanted to do something to reflect the history of BioBlitz, which is why this year’s event is the only repeat location.

Gregg says the RINHS event is the longest running in the world. “Other places around the world did it as a one off or had it only every few years. This sort of event embodies what a natural history survey is: a group of scientists and passionate amateurs getting together and sharing their research and information.” The first BioBlitz had about 40 attendees. This year, an estimated 140 people attended. And at this moment, many of them are in full BioBlitz mode.

“Smells like lemon”
Raul Ferreira moves patiently along the brushy edge of a pond. A catbird burbles overhead as he makes his way through the dense greenery. Ferreira carries a bulb planter, but he isn’t planting tulips. When he finds a moist spot he stops, digs a hole with the planter, and places a small plastic tub in it. He lays a screen across the top and takes

Raul Ferreira sets pitfall traps for beetles.

out a tea ball. In place of Darjeeling tea, Ferreira opens the ball and deposits a small chunk of odiferous chicken. This is a pitfall trap, and he uses it to discover the types of beetles drawn to it. He’ll create a number of these traps over the next few hours, walking, bending, digging. “I’m getting too old for this,” he says in a quiet, raspy voice. At 80, he is tan and fit. The fact that he is currently awaiting confirmation that he has discovered a new species of beetle hints that he likely still has the energy to pursue his work as an entomologist. He turns over a new gob of dirt and picks up an ant. “Give me your hand. Now squeeze the ant between your fingers. Smells like lemon, doesn’t it?”

Science Central
There is a hungry crowd lined up on the either side of a buffet table stacked with Middle Eastern food. They will sit under the canopy known as Science Central and exchange information as they eat. Later, a small group will gather in a circle to play a genre of  music known as “Old-Time”. It’s part of the social atmosphere David Gregg regards as an important element of the event.

“There are BioBlitzes all over every weekend. People have choices, but they come to ours. You have to make it so people want to come. We have several scientists who have stopped traveling around to different locations, but still return to the RINHS BioBlitzes for the sense of comradeship.

“What I like about ours is that it’s very education oriented. There are some blitzes that are mostly student oriented. Others are exclusively for scientists. Ours is in between. We have some scientists and some students, and we ask scientists to work with people who don’t have as much expertise.

Robert “Otter” Brown, left, and Ray Hartenstine sort through freshwater findings.


“We maintain a balance. It’s sort of an intergenerational contact. We have sixth graders, interns. We also have survey scientists who are in retirement who come out and join us.”

Immortality though knowledge

Little about BioBlitz has changed in the last 20 years, according to Gregg. Teams form with different specializations, such as birds or fungi. Some group leaders have passed away, and, for a time at least, no scientists may replace them.

Aya Rothermel pursues bee identification.

On the other hand, new people come up to fill in other specialization gaps, such as an ant expert who can help identify the roughly 100 species that call Rhode Island home. “We have a rotating cast, so there are always new adventures coming up.” That ongoing change is what Gregg sees as an underlying bond of each BioBlitz.
“Aren’t we all pursuing immortality? You want to pass on something to the future. You meet a kid who’s where you were some 30 – 40 years ago, and you find that you want to mentor that kid. To pass on your knowledge.”






  • Thanks for including me in with the photos of me looking for aquatic critters with my grey magnifying lenses on…Cool report…!!!

    • Glad you liked the story and pic, Ray! If you take a second look, I put a caption on your picture with your name in it!

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