BioBlitz: Counting All Creatures Great and Small

Gall on a rose bush.

Picture this: you’ve been dropped into the middle of 1000 acres of woodlands, fields, and water. Your job is to count everything. Not just the birds flying by. Not just the types of trees in the forest. Nope. Your task is to count every plant, insect, fungus, bat, snake, fish, clam, flower, in fact to count every species of every living thing that calls that region home. And you have to do this in 24 hours. Ready? Go.

This is the task that the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS) undertakes every year in the nature geek equivalent of Woodstock, one that drew some 185 participants and identified over 1000 species of living creatures. The adventure is known as BioBlitz, held this year at Snake Den State Park in Johnston. For eighteen years, RINHS has assembled a crew of scientists, naturalists, and passionate amateurs to count every species of life in a given area. It is an event that is a physical manifestation of RINHS’s raison d’être: it manages stored information about the outdoor world, and connects people who can put that information to use. The result is a highly detailed document that will inform not only biologists, but local, state, and federal agencies about which creatures live in the area and how best to preserve them. The process of gathering and identifying is part science experiment and part family reunion.

David Gregg sorts through moths as visitors look on.






The collection from midnight moths.




Amanda Freitas walks over to a pair of gentlemen bent over a microscope. In her hand is a small piece of rose bush with something unusual attached. They resemble tiny balls, green but covered with dozens of beige and red spines. These odd growths are called galls, and can be caused by a fungus, virus, or a wasp. The men can’t make the identification, but tell her there’s a “gall lady” at the other end of the tent. Freitas walks over to a woman who is also bent over a microscope. She hands the mystery object to her. “Isn’t that wonderful!” she says. The gall will have to be taken home for specific identification, but it seems likely that this one grew as a result of a wasp specie depositing eggs in the plant. Wasps often inject eggs into plants, and when this happens the plant will respond by developing the gall. “A very specific insect makes a very specific gall on a very specific plant,” she says. “That’s the wonderful thing about galls.”


And that’s the wonderful thing about BioBlitz: although the participants are divided into groups according to their specialty, there is an ongoing “cross-pollination” of bringing in interesting objects found that are outside the group’s assigned specialty. It is a time of sharing knowledge and experiences.

Some of that sharing takes place in Science Central, composed of two large canopies and filled to the bursting with microscopes, extension cords, bug nets, field guides, and people sitting quietly peering through microscopes as they go about the business of figuring out exactly what they have on their slides. Areas reserved for specialties are marked by signs: mammals, fungi, algae, moths. Four people are lined up along a table with a sign that reads “Litterbugs”. Their task, which will consume much of the 24 hours, will be to identify every tiny organism from three, one-square-foot samples of soil and debris (known as “leaf litter”; hence the team name).

Sorting through leaf litter to document every micro invertebrate found.

“What got me involved with micro invertebrates? Serendipity.” A woman looks up from a small pan of debris she’s sorting through. “Same thing with where we got these samples. One was from under a Lady slipper (flower). We also took samples from beneath a pine tree and a deciduous tree. You just take them from places that you have a feeling might be interesting.” As each piece of litter has been carefully examined under a magnifying glass, any creatures are deposited in a solution of grain alcohol to preserve them for identification. (The vast majority of ID’s are done without damaging the organism, but some are simply too subtle to be identified in the field.)

Bob Smith, a physician, stands over a microscope that illuminates two tiny creatures. “I’ve had a lifelong interest in field biology, in addition to my work in medicine,” he says. “When I started working with BioBlitz years ago, they needed people in the Litterbug team. Well, they needed volunteers and I had the microscopes, so here’s where I ended up!” One of the creatures in the scope is a False Scorpion. A close look at it unveils the reason behind the name: the animal sports a dramatic pair of pincers, similar to its namesake. “Makes you glad it’s just a tiny thing, doesn’t it?” Smith smiles. Fortunately for us, the False Scorpion is a mere half inch long, and is only capable of feeding on things like a springtails, a bug about the size of the head of a pin.

Bob Smith looks at False Scorpions and other discoveries.

This mixing of specialties is part of what makes BioBlitz interesting from a sociological standpoint. Some participants are retired biologists with decades of experience behind them. Others are the next generation, like high school student Rebecca Cusik. Cusik is joining her father in her third year with BioBlitz and is part of the “Herp Team”, which focuses on herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles. She sports a wide smile and carries a bait bucket, which holds her contribution to the process: a red line salamander. “I found it under a log that had started to rot. There was all this debris over it.” She searches through the bucket to find her treasure, which has tucked itself under a chunk of moss and soil Cusik had selected as a temporary habitat. She searches through a weighty field guide to make her ID. “He’s a cute one, too,” she smiles.


High school student Rebecca Cusik. 

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