BioBlitz breaks records
Chris Powell has lived in Jamestown for 33 years. For 27 of those years, he sat as chairman of the Conservation Commission. There aren’t many people who have as intimate a relationship with Jamestown’s ecosystem than Powell. And still, results from last weekend’s BioBlitz surprised him.
“It went fabulous,” said Powell. “I had people telling me it was the best one yet.”
The BioBlitz is a 24-hour event where volunteers, scientists and naturalists scour a particular parcel of land with the goal of tallying every living organism. The event is sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and each year since 2000 the RINHS has chosen a host community. This year it chose Jamestown.
The event started Friday at 3 p.m. and continued straight through the night. The numbers right now are preliminary, but Jamestown has unofficially shattered two of the more significant BioBlitz records: participants and species.
The previous record of total volunteers was 195. The Jamestown event saw nearly a third more participants, with 302 enthusiastic counters coming from all over the region, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and New York City.
As for total species, the previous high mark was 1,112. The number was posted in 2008 when Westerly’s Grills Preserve hosted the BioBlitz. Last weekend, volunteers were able to record 1,340 species, including some that even shocked Powell.
“I was surprised to see the ninespined stickleback,” he said, referring to the small freshwater fish that was found in a stream between Hodgkiss and Watson farms. “It’s not rare in Rhode Island, but I didn’t expect to see in where we did.”
The parcel of land that was surveyed last week included the four farms, the Great Creek area, the Conanicut Island Sanctuary, and the South Pond reservoir. More than 600 acres in all were combed. What made Jamestown an ideal community to host the BioBlitz was its diverse habitats: a tidal creek, a salt marsh, a coastal shoreline, a small barrier beach, fresh water wetlands, wooded swamps, wet meadows, vernal pools, a reservoir, coastal scrub, herbaceous uplands, forested areas, open fields, pastures and actively farmed areas.
“[It’s] been long feared gone from mainland Rhode Island,” said Gregg, who holds a master’s degree in prehistoric archeology from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Brown. “They need large grasslands and cows raised without harsh medicines.”
Another fascinating find was a frog that is initially being identifi ed as a leopard frog. Powell said that it might be some sort of hybrid, but knew the frog was on the island because he’s seen it before. “I told them we had some on the island but nobody could find it,” he said. “So I went up to a group of children and told them whoever finds the frog first, I’ll give them $25.”
Within a half hour, Lawn Avenue School student Tim Fay was at Powell’s side, with the spotted frog in his hands. “I asked my wife she o go to the bank and get $25 so I could pay him,” said Powell.
Although the frog hasn’t been identified yet, its unique spots have some of the experts believing it may be a leopard frog. “If it is a leopard frog,” said Gregg, “it is a frog long gone from most of Rhode Island, and scientists are not really sure why.”
There were a few species that have yet to be found at any of the previous events. The drab prominent moth that was identified is more of a Midwest species of moth, according to Gregg. “It has never been found in Rhode Island before, and the nearest previous sighting is in western Massachusetts,” he said. “This find is its furthest east location. It’s a pretty dull moth to look at. The caterpillar feeds on cottonwood trees.”
Other than that, the moth count was less than satisfying. The record is 214 from the 2007 BioBlitz hosted at Trustom Pond in South Kingstown. Gregg was expecting more in Jamestown. “We were disappointed there weren’t more moths. We found 141 species, which sounds like a lot, and is on the high average number for a Rhode Island BioBlitz, but 53 of those were what are called microlepidoptera. There were relatively few of what we call the macrolepidoptera moth – 88 species. Just going on the 88 macro moths, that would be low for a BioBlitz. Weather wasn’t perfect, so that may be part of it, but this is a pattern we’re seeing in more and more places.”
Gregg said he would like to further research the pattern, first to confirm the trend, and second to look for causes.
Other species not identified in previous BioBlitzes included two plants: the milk parsley, which is a weed not native to North America, and the Indian strawberry plant, originally from Asia. “It makes a berry that looks a lot like a wild strawberry, but tastes bad,” said Gregg. “It has yellow flowers, and can be a nasty weed.”
Gregg said there was good plant diversity, which reflects the active farming that takes place on the island. “A little disturbance is a good thing as far as biodiversity is concerned. It encourages a wide range of native species by creating many minihabitat types. Also, there are many non-native plants that have accumulated around the fields having been brought in with hay, feed or animals.”
For animals, along with the leopard frog – if that’s what it is – there were four more species listed on the state’s Rare, Endangered or Species of Concern list: the ribbon snake, the osprey, the peregrine falcon and the willet, a large shorebird in the sandpiper family. According to Gregg, there were also three other birds that reflected the high-quality agricultural landscape being preserved in Jamestown: the towhee, Savannah sparrow and bobolink.
While the annual Conanicut Island Spring Bird Count routinely reaches the century mark – this year 101 species were counted – the BioBlitz’s number was lower, with just 84 species.
“When the spring count is taken,” said Powell, “it is during migration. So we have all these birds that are passing through on their way to Maine and New Hampshire. We’re passed migration now.”
Along with the lack of moths, Gregg was also disappointed at the lack of lichens. A lichen is a composite alga and fungus. Gregg describes them as the “crusty things that grow on rocks and tree bark.”
Only 59 were found on the island, despite having a qualified lichen-spotting team.
“This is nearly a record low for Rhode Island BioBlitzes,” Gregg said. “There should have been a greater diversity, but they are known to be affected by acid rain and air pollution.”
That doesn’t mean the island’s air is polluted, according to Powell. “If you took all the lichens and weighed them, it’d probably be right on par with other communities,” he said. “There’s probably just not as many species.”
While the event was a blast, more importantly, it will be benefi cial to the town, according to Powell. “For example, we identifi ed many species of algae in the town’s reservoir that we didn’t know about,” he said. “That is information the town can use in the future.”
The highlight for Powell was the kids – 65 showed up, including 32 from inner-city schools in Central Falls and South Providence.
“The biggest thrill was the kids,” he said. “They absolutely loved it. Some of them had never camped, never slept in sleeping bags, never spend a night in a tent – and they’re teens. Some have never even seen the bay.”
Powell – who slept about one hour during the event – said the kids didn’t want to go to bed because they were so excited. “It proves that all you have to do is expose them to nature,” he said. “They will absorb it like a sponge.”