"Bio-blitz" in U.S. Park Uncovers Astounding Array of Species

Mike Swift
The Hartford Courant
June 14, 2001
A group of U.S. scientists recently journeyed to an exotic—even
bizarre —world that few people see.

They found an animal that can reproduce only inside dead bodies. They captured another that has no mouth, because it never eats during its adult life. They found a third species that uses delicate-looking filaments dangling from its body to inject its parasitic young into the bodies of its hosts.

The journey was one part around-the-clock endurance race and one part slumber party for the scientists. Called a "bio-blitz," it occurred not in some distant rain forest or coral reef, but in a city park in Fairfield County, Connecticut, in early June.

It was the third consecutive year in which scientists from the University of Connecticut, Yale University, the U.S. Forest Service, and other schools and agencies gathered at an urban park in Connecticut to see how many species of animals and plants they could collect in 24 hours in one place.

This year, more than 160 scientists and other surveyors of species participated. Working relentlessly from Friday through Saturday afternoon, they collected and identified 2,519 species—obliterating last year's U.S. record total of 1,898 species collected at a park in the area.

The list included many birds, reptiles, plants, mammals, and fish. But the real stars were the array of insects and other invertebrates that make up species far more numerous—and in many cases, more exotic, even though they are literally underfoot in the suburbs and cities.

"We're starting to hear the word biodiversity a lot more, but it's always with the rain forests, the tropical areas," said Ellen Censky, director of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at the University of Connecticut, who organized the event. "This is a great way to show people that there's a huge amount of diversity in their backyards."

Competitive Spirit

The event attracted adults and children throughout the day to Tarrywile Park in Danbury, Connecticut, to watch the scientists work.

The National Geographic Society documented the "bio-blitz" for a National Geographic EXPLORER cable television program, which is scheduled to air in August on CNBC.

A few hours after dawn on Saturday, a buzz filled the tent where the species that had been collected only hours earlier were being cataloged. The buzz came from the scientists sitting at rows of microscopes, not from their subjects.

Few of the scientists were completely satisfied with the conditions. The bird people said it was two weeks past the optimum spring migration time. The fungus people said they could have used more rain. The beetle people said they were limited by the cool weather. The moth people would have preferred more humidity, with thunderstorms threatening, if possible.

Despite all that, a new record was clearly within reach.

The beetle people and the moth people had renewed their rivalry, with each side collecting more than 300 species—although each side claimed weather conditions and collection methods gave their adversary an advantage.

The day's booty included one moth, the Anna Tiger, not seen in Connecticut in 80 years, as well as other rare or unexpected bird, dragonfly, crustacean, and fish species.

Unusual Creatures

It was a fine day for parasites and those who love them.

Even though she hadn't slept all night, Janine Caira still answered to the informal title "head parasite person" with a friendly smile.

Caira, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, had too much fun to sleep at all on Friday night. She pumped her fist as she described one coup pulled off by the parasite team: scraping up in the road an opossum that had been killed by a car and extracting from its digestive system a nematode—a gray, worm-like parasite several inches long.

"All we have to do is look at organisms for 24 hours, and people care about what we see," said Caira, describing her enjoyment of the "bio-blitz." Her regular specialty is parasites that inhabit stingrays and sharks.

"The coolest fly we got is one that looks like a killer whale and doesn't have a mouth," entomologist Vicente Sanchez called out to Nick Baker, the British naturalist who will be the on-air host of the National Geographic documentary when it airs in August. The cameras swooped in to capture the bulbous, parasitic fly, oestridae, in an exquisite close-up.

(c) 2001 The Hartford Courant

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