A spurofthemoment partnership with iNaturalist.org and a feline surprise combined to make the first BioBlitz at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge a groundbreaking success.
The surprise enlivened the event with a teachable moment. The lastminute partnership added a mobile app and a whole new way to think about BioBlitzes.
First, the surprise.
On day two of the BioBlitz, moments before the schedule had promised a morning mammal release, onlookers surrounded USDA biologist Brian Popper as he stood next to a cage trap with a sheet over it. The people were waiting curiously to see what animal had been caught overnight so they could count it as a species observation. When Popper lifted the sheet to reveal a cat wearing a flea collar, adults amused expressions were coupled with kids puzzled looks.
Although the cat in the trap was unintentional, Popper seized the moment to educate the audience about why it is important not to let cats roam freely outdoors, particularly near a wildlife refuge. He explained how cats, acting on instinct, can harm birds and other wildlife.
Now, the partnership.
Over a 24hour period on a December 2011 weekend, nearly 200 people took part in the BioBlitz. They descended on the refuges Alviso Unit and documented 195 plant, avian, mammalian, fish and other species, including phytoplankton, insects and mollusks. It was a traditional BioBlitz.
But thanks to the new partnership between the refuge and iNaturalist.org, the results are recorded online; participants had the option of posting their sightings directly to a dedicated Web site; smartphone users could take photos of observed species and upload them to the site; and a map was (and is) available for everyone to see where species were found.
iNaturalist.org, a Web site where people can share nature observations, was founded in 2008 by University of California at Berkeley graduate students. Scott Loarie, codirector of iNaturalist.org and a climate change researcher at the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, CA, learned of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge BioBlitz from former refuge Student Conservation Association intern Toni Caldwell about a week before it was set to take place.
Loarie, a big believer in the cumulative power of citizen science and the Internet, saw an opportunity to stand on the shoulders of a very traditional BioBlitz and plant the seed for a new concept: that anyone with a smartphone camera can have his or her own personal BioBlitz anyplace, anytime. That there can be an ongoing BioBlitz at any refuge. That the BioBlitz of the future will be more orientation session than finite event. That an individual who doesnt even know what species he or she is observing can take a photo of it, submit the photo as a museum specimen to experts via a site like iNaturalist.org, and thereby add to the body of conservation knowledge. Such photos, Loarie says, can be a bridge between the citizen community and scientific community.
So, for the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge blitz, he volunteered to create a widget for the refuges Web site where budding citizen scientists at the event could record their sightings using an iNaturalist.org mobile app.
In the end, most participants stayed traditional and turned in their observations to refuge staff members on paper. But:
And a seed for the idea of an ongoing BioBlitz was planted.
It was just really fun, says Loarie, because it was an opportunity to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service and to do something in our backyard as well.
Carmen Minch is an outdoor recreation planner at San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.