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From microorganisms to mammals, BioBlitz has it covered

June 17, 2013

Even in the rain the team has some luck. They come up with a pickerel frog (above), a small member of the frog family, and a much larger green frog. (Photo by Hugh Markey)

“Every great scientific theory starts out by wandering around in the mud and the rain.” David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey stood precariously atop a folding chair. Dressed in his trademark bush hat and fly fishing vest, his lanky frame looked out over a crowd of people dressed in waders, fancy foul weather gear, plastic-bag-cheap ponchos, shorts, boots and sandals. The faces were smiling, but for some their hair was already plastered down and dripping from the heavy rains that pelted the canopy where Gregg spoke. This was the start of BioBlitz 2013, a 24-hour science marathon intended to count every living thing within the boundaries of the event, from microorganisms to plants to mammals. And it was all to take place under the punishing skies of Tropical Storm Andrea.

At 14 years old, BioBlitz Rhode Island is the oldest in the country. The event is held in a different location each year and draws a wide variety of people. There are professors, scientists and naturalists, but there are also passionate amateurs, graduate students, even middle and elementary school children. All have chosen to volunteer their time to participate in the largest gathering of the natural sciences in the state. Because of the size and scope of the event, it is held rain or shine. This year, BioBlitz’s base of operations is at the South County Museum in Narragansett. The outbuildings of the museum are converted to a welcome center and shelters, and the grounds hold both the large white canopy known as Science Central as well as “The Village,” the group of tents where some will attempt to grab some shuteye during the night.
After Gregg’s welcome, the marathon officially begins. The crowd is already divided into specialties, such as mammals, spiders or dragonflies. In some cases, teams have given themselves names, such as the Night Knights, who pursue moths, or the Litter Bugs, who meticulously sift through leaf “litter” (a segment of decaying leaves from the surface to ground level) in order to count each form of life within the sample. This year, Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, is about to lead a team dedicated to herpetology, which includes amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, along with reptiles like snakes.
The makeup of the team typifies the BioBlitz crowd: adult experts, non-experts and kids. Despite the pouring rain, the search bears fruit. The crew comes up with a pickerel frog, a small member of the frog family, and the much larger green frog. The kids get a kick out of handling the frogs, and later Perrotti makes an unexpected find: an Eastern milk snake. At about 20 inches in length, the reptile has grayish skin and a handsome pattern of chestnut diamonds on its back. Although not uncommon, Perrotti hadn’t held out much hope of finding any reptiles in the 50-degree wet weather. Several students have their first experience in snake handling, and then the animal is carefully released.
By 6 p.m., the teams have begun to reassemble for dinner. The food is restaurant quality, but the crowd is decidedly casual, squeezing under the white canopy in muddy boots and dining while perched between wet quahog rakes and beetle collections. Everyone chatters about their team’s finds, along with catching up with friends not seen since the previous year’s BioBlitz. The natural sciences community in Rhode Island is relatively small, but it isn’t often that so many scientific disciplines share a space.
In addition to the multitudes of microscopes and volumes of guides, there are two recent additions to BioBlitz: the Art Team and the Creative Writing Team. The two are dedicated to broadening the experience of nature to include creative arts, encouraging people with less attachment to taxonomy to enter the natural world. During the event, participants stop by the building, normally used to house the museum’s carpentry shop, in order to sketch plants or try their hand at a haiku poem.
Once dinner is over, there is a decision by some to temporarily surrender to the rainstorm, and they depart for the evening to hot showers and a dry bed. Other souls will persevere, muddling through (pun intended) the storm in tents. By 7 p.m., Andrea is at her most intense, and rain is pouring down in torrents. It’s a good evening to be home.
Just after dawn the next day, the tropical storm has departed the state, off to plague points north of here. The grounds in many places are a sea of mud, with plywood planks forming an ersatz boardwalk through the high traffic areas. Science Central, which has been the hub of activity since BioBlitz started, now effuses a pungent bouquet of mud, sweat and wet nature samples. None of this, though, has depleted the smiles nor slowed the work of identifying and recording samples.
By the time the event ends, BioBlitz 2013 has weathered 4.2 inches of rain, wind, cold, and then a slight overabundance of warm sun. Twenty-four hours after he began the event, director Greggs climbs his impromptu folding-chair podium.
“Science starts ‘out there’” Gregg says, pointing to the wet landscape, “and not in here. And that’s one of the wonderful things about what we do here. Any person, whether they’re a scientist, a naturalist, or just someone who is curious and wants to learn something can come out and contribute to the learning that happens here.” And just like that, a BioBlitz episode that will be the topic of many reminiscences comes to a close.


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