Bioblitz 2011 (debrief)

November 3rd, 2011 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan

Bioblitz 2011 has come and gone, and like last year I find myself still thinking about how awesome it was a week.5 after the fact.  It’s a lot to pull together and 10 days seems about right as far as decompression goes.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but bioblitzes tap into so many different fibers of my genetic memory.  One of the things that has stuck with me since grad school is Howard Gardener’s multiple intelligence theory.  Gardener considered the standard IQ test limited and proposed 8 different kinds of intelligences to describe the ways people can be smart.  Originally, he only identified 7, but he went back several years later to add “naturalist intelligence” to the mix.  Self-diagnoses suggests I show strong tendencies toward this type, and I dare say many of those who attended UWBG Bioblitz 2011 last weekend express these character traits as well: “would rather be outdoors than in”, check; “can pick objects out of patterns”, check; “knows the names of plants & animals”, check; “observant of surroundings”, check.  All of us can find a little naturalist intelligence in ourselves, evolution wouldn’t have it any other way, but we seldom have golden opportunities to exercise such muscles as a bioblitz presents.

But aside from the obvious appeal to my nature-nerd side, this bioblitz hit me on a human level as well (Gardener’s “interpersonal intelligence”).  At one point on Saturday, I found myself on a mushroom team with a pair of traveling mycologist/photographers from Massachusetts, an energetic immigrant from the former Czechoslovakia, a Serbian visiting from Portland, a UW student from the French Alps, a family of four that included two inquisitive young boys, and the daughter of Fujitaro Kubota, of Kubota Gardens.  What brought this group together on this predictably soggy but clear fall afternoon?  I can’t be sure, but my hunch is that when these people heard about the opportunity to participate in biological inventory of the WPA, it triggered a response from their “naturalist intelligence” and like a moth to a flame could not help but be there.  Either that, or they were bored and in the neighborhood.

The highlight during that particular field session was the discovery of a stinkhorn fungus just off of Azalea Way.  The stinkhorns are a group of fungi that produce a smelly, slimy substance designed to attract flies.  The fly visits the source of the smell (a combination of gym socks and rotting fish), is covered in the spore-laden slime which later dries while the fly is in flight and in this way is dispersed far and wide.  Seed dispersal is a key concept discussed in our Plants 101 & 201 fieldtrips, but when we talk about spore producers like ferns and mosses, we typically teach that surface moisture is the only method of dispersal.  Stinkhorns obviously evolved a different approach every bit as advanced as the seed producers who rely on animals to get around.  I will never again sell these fascinating forest dwellers short, they are anything but primitive.

Noah showing Nikko the stinkhorn he found

Other highlights of the event included an illuminating dinner-time presentation from doctoral student, Rachel Mitchell, who spoke of the importance of and threats to biodiversity.  One thing that resonated from Rachel’s talk was the concept of redundancy – a characteristic of healthy ecosystems.  Rachel’s research focuses on meadow habitats where very similar but different grasses fill similar niches and serve similar functions.  Redundancy is an insurance policy that makes an ecosystem more resilient to environmental changes.  A slight change in temperature, for example, may be enough to affect one species of grass but not another, so while one species may crash, the ecosystem as a while continues to function properly.  This concept alone is enough to warrant our efforts to preserve biodiversity in the world.  To paraphrase E.O. Wilson, biodiversity is the fabric that holds the web of life together and when we tear at this fabric we risk having the whole web fall apart.

After the talk, we took to the water in search of the Arboretum’s nocturnal residents.  With help from our fearless leaders from Agua Verde Paddle Club, we paddled around Foster & Marsh Islands in small flotillas.  It didn’t take long to find what we were looking for as the first of many loud smacks echoed across the water.  All told, we accounted for 13 beavers, the bulk of which were hanging out by that funky metallic sculpture on the north side of 520.  The beavers’ tail slappings were punctuated by the occasional pterodactyl-like squawk of Great Blue Herons sent awkwardly skyward by our presence.  I felt a little bad about causing such a raucous and disturbing these and the other shadowy creatures of the marsh with our poking, but then again it’s only once a year.  The “owl-prowl” that followed our aquatic excursion was less eventful – only managing to scare up one brief conversation with a Barred Owl, but it was a lot of fun none the less.  On our way back to the greenhouse, we happened upon 3 of the chubbiest raccoons I’ve ever seen climbing straight up a Douglas Fir near the Visitor’s Center.  These ring-tailed residents have obviously figured out how to take advantage of our numerous trashcans.

raccoon signs: a dug-up hornets nest

The following morning, despite sideways rain at dawn, I was astonished to find a dozen eager birders ready to take the kayaks back out to observe the wetlands in the “daylight”.  They were rewarded for their tenacity with freshly made bagels from Bagel Oasis, and a nice list of birds that you can check out here on ebird.  The remainder of the day was devoted to mushrooms, insects and plants (those lists are still being compiled).  I would be remiss without sending out a big thank you to the Puget Sound Mycological Society for their participation, as well as to all the UWBG staff members who came out to help.  While there weren’t any earth shattering discoveries from the plant teams, it was a great opportunity to a) have a chance to engage with the public, and b) take a close look at our grounds in a non-work capacity.  After all, the mission of the UW Botanic Gardens is Sustaining managed to natural ecosystems and the human spirit through plant research, display, and education.  So not only does Bioblitz strike multiple chords with me personally, but it beautifully supports our reason for being.  We’ve decided to alternate yearly between spring and fall events to capture a more complete picture our biodiversity and avoid over-taxing our pool of specialists, meaning the next UWBG Bioblitz will be held in spring of 2013.  Stay tuned and I hope to see you there.

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