ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team: Week 3 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Micah Jasny is a graduate student from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University working this summer as an E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation intern, as part of the ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team. His work is supported through a partnership with Discover Life in America. This summer he will try to discover new species to add to the park inventories in order to better understand park ecosystems and how to care for them. He also plans to help other scientists working in the park with their biodiversity surveys and scientific research. In the upcoming weeks, he will give weekly updates about his forays into the park and report back on his biodiversity research.

ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team: Week 3 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The BioBlitz

This week, DLiA held a BioBlitz at the Raven Rock wildlife area, near Murphy, North Carolina. I was excited for my first BioBlitz event! The first ever BioBlitz was held in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Washington D.C. in 1996 where 1,000 new species were identified. A BioBlitz refers to a period of intense biological surveying of a particular area by experts and volunteers over a set period of time (typically 24 hours). Participants are instructed to search for and collect field samples of several focal groups. Participants may collect physical samples to be identified later or simply record the presence of identifiable species while out in the field. Following the collection, experts will determine the taxonomic classifications of each sample. The end result of this process is a better understanding of the natural flora and fauna that make up the biodiversity of a specific location.

The left image of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The right image of Rattlesnake Plantains.

Left: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail collected during BioBlitz. Photograph courtesy of DLIA. Right: Rattlesnake Plantains identified during BioBlitz. Photograph courtesy of iNaturalist via Mark Sowers.

The DLiA Raven Rock wildlife area BioBlitz differed slightly from the typical DLiA BioBlitz template for two reasons. First, the BioBlitz was limited to a nine hour duration due to distance and accessibility of the BioBlitz site. Secondly, we employed a new taxonomic technology, iNaturalist, to observe, record, and identify species. The day before the BioBlitz, Jonathan Carpenter, a biodiversity specialist, led a seminar on the iNaturalist app and website. The iNaturalist app allows members to use their smart phones to capture photographs and geographic locations of interesting species. These observations are then uploaded to the iNaturalist online database where any member can help to identify the species. Members can also use iNaturalist to make taxonomic guidebooks for specific regions, delineate spatial boundaries of species occurrences, and learn what species other people are finding. There are even competitions to collect and identify the greatest number of species.

On Saturday morning, the other interns and I rose well before sunrise and drove through the park and into the western most part of North Carolina to the Hiawassee Dam. The BioBlitz location was on Tennessee Valley Authority property and contained the forested area along Hiawassee River. We arrived early to help set-up a check-in tent and collected all of the sampling vials, nets, and paperwork for the BioBlitz. The focal groups for this BioBlitz event were plants, birds, and butterflies, but since no prior inventory had been made in the Raven Rock wildlife area, we were free to collect any interesting species we found.

We split up into two groups. One group followed the nature trails along a ridge and I went with the second group through the woods adjacent to the Hiawassee River. It was unbelievable how many species can exist in just a few feet. Jonathan Carpenter was with our group and was able to identify a wide variety of plant and insect life. We found a Sourwood tree, which has edible leaves with a tangy-acidic taste. I spotted a Megarhyssa wasp which has a long neon-yellow ribbon tail that Jonathan informed me was zinc-tipped. We slowly moved through the woods, looking for species we hadn’t identified yet, collecting samples, and taking pictures of species to be uploaded to iNaturalist.

After a few hours, all of the participants brought samples back to the DLiA tent to inspect, photograph, and identify. Kevin Fitzpatrick from All Species Photography had set-up a small studio to capture high-resolution photos of our specimens. At the end of the BioBlitz, we had collected over 200 bird, insect, and plant species in just a matter of hours. It was an amazing opportunity to observe the biodiversity of a small wildlife area and great practice for our next BioBlitz on July 11th.

—Micah Jasny

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