Banking on Bioblitzes
Cataloguing two-winged flies in Acadia National Park is just one kind of bioblitz. To get a larger picture of the phenomenon, we talked to one of the founders of bioblitzes, the eminent biologist, E.O. Wilson. Audubon recently caught up with Professor Wilson.
Audubon: Where was the first bioblitz held, and when did you come up with the concept?
Wilson: Peter Alden, who lives in Concord, Mass., and is one of the most extraordinary general naturalists, first conceived of the idea of bioblitz in the summer of 1998. I had been in touch with him for a long time, and together we pressed forward on the first bioblitz, working around Walden Pond. It was an enormous success, and within three years every school system in Massachusetts was engaged in bioblitz. And from there, through us, it spread widely. Last report is that bioblitzes have been conducted in 18 other countries.
A: How do bioblitzes help conservation?
W: It brings people together almost like a revival meeting and demonstrates that in most parts of the world there are experts on some aspect of biodiversity, often working alone or in small groups, who when the call comes to get together for a scientific picnic of this, come tumbling out in surprising numbers. That’s an example of what’s out there, much of it amateur, but nonetheless competitive.
Recently a conference on damselflies held in Concord, Mass., brought dozens of damselflies experts from around New England. I sat there fascinated while the latest distribution data and natural history were exchanged. Ordinarily, this type of engagement in natural history is not prominently publicized, but it’s there, and there’s a considerable depth of interest and knowledge that remain to be tapped.
A: How can bioblitzes serve science?
W: The naturalist who participates at the expert level in bioblitzes, and the enthusiastic who accompany them, are able to gather data on the distribution and the natural history of groups of organisms in a very short time, whereas it could take professional biologists years to accumulate that much data. Bioblitz is developing into a very promising citizen science, and information collected on field trips during bioblitz can be fed into the Encyclopedia of Life. This is a major endeavor, funded by the McArthur Foundation, and now being organized by a consortium of institutions. Smithsonian, Harvard, and others are coming in. The encyclopedia will aggregate all known data about every living species, not just the familiar. It will be an open source to check biodiversity. All flora and fauna—it’s all connected together. If you go to my website, www.eol.org, you’ll see it.
A: How do bioblitzes affect public policy?
W: Bioblitzes are organizing events that talk about local flora and fauna, and have a very significant impact in raising awareness. We need awareness, education, and participation.
A: Is there a central clearinghouse for bioblitz data?
W: Not yet. The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation is beginning to gather the information and develop plans for one.
A: Do you still participate in bioblitzes?
Occasionally I do. I was at the one held last year under the auspices of the Explorer’s Club in Central Park, and I’ll be going to one this fall in North Carolina.
A: Thank you, Professor Wilson.
W: My pleasure.
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