for National Geographic News
They came. They huddled. They "BioBlitzed." Over 350 scientists and volunteers crawled on hands and knees, climbed trees, and snorkeled ponds during a 24-hour marathon late last month to catalogue every plant and animal species they could find in New York's Central Park.
After 24 hours, the results board at BioBlitz headquarters at the North Meadow Recreation Center tallied 836 species.
"It's not just pigeons and rats, but a pretty good cross section of wildlife that prospers in the thick of things," said marine biologist Sylvia Earle. In a show of courage, the National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence dove into the murky, slime-filled waters of "the Lake" next to Bethesda Fountain.
The event was organized by the nonprofit Explorers Club and an array of New York-based park, wildlife, and conservation organizations. Its goal: to canvass all of Central Park's resident plant and animal species for the first time in its 150 year history. Organizers hoped the event would raise awareness about biodiversity.
The species tally, which will be updated as soil and water samples are analyzed, includes 393 plants, 102 invertebrates, 78 moths, 46 birds, 14 fungi, 10 spiders, 9 dragonflies, 7 mammals, 3 turtles, 2 frogs, and 2 tardigrades.
"A tardigrade is microscopic life form that lives on moss and lichen. It is a virtually indestructible life form. It can be subjected to absolute zero [degrees] and still live," said Jeff Stolzer, a spokesman for the Explorers Club, who added that tardigrades were not known to exist in the park before the BioBlitz.
Earle, one of the world's most renowned ocean explorers, has dived off the Galapagos Islands, Panama, China, the Bahamas, and in the Indian Ocean. But her expedition beneath the Lake in Central Park may have been the scariest.
"While I have had no concern about diving with sharks or killer whales or other creatures in the ocean, I did have reason to be mighty fearful of the microbes in the green pond in Central Park," she said.
But in the company of 11 other divers, Earle dove down into the mucky and murky 12-foot-deep (3.7-meter) pond. Because the of pond's high levels of nutrients, brought by runoff and rain, the algae had grown so thick that the divers couldn't see more than six inches (15 centimeters) in front of their masks.
Despite the poor visibility, Earle and her fellow pond scum enthusiasts surfaced with no dire infections and a nice list of aquatic species. "I found a snail floating by. But I'm not sure if it was a resident or if it was introduced by the nearby restaurant as an escargot," she said.
The scientists recorded their finds on tablet PCs equipped with software specially designed by Microsoft for the event.
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