All Species Great and Small

A 24-hour survey of local flora and fauna brings naturalists and citizen scientists to Narragansett Tribal land


“And so, the answer is 1,038!” boomed David Gregg, to the applause and cheers of lingering biologists and naturalists, who came up for air from their microscopes to fold chairs and pack up the Science Central tent after 24 hours of BioBlitzing. No, he hasn’t summed up the meaning of the universe in one neat figure (and in fact, weeks following this year’s BioBlitz, that number is still growing), but rather, it’s a count of species identified on 1,200 acres of Narragansett Tribal land in Charlestown.

But let’s rewind. For those who have never embarked on a BioBlitz, which feels both like summer camp for adults and hands-on science in the field, the goal is to take the temperature of a specific parcel’s biodiversity, inviting volunteers to fan out and leave no rock unturned (often literally) in search of as many species dwelling there as possible. From abundant ants to elusive bears, blanketing moss to towering trees, taxonomic groups led by experts and specialists identify and record their findings in this “full-contact biology” sport.

Though the tentative tally isn’t record-breaking, this year’s BioBlitz, held in early June, was special for a few reasons. Ecologically, the area included Atlantic white cedar swamplands iconic to southern Rhode Island, as well as two ponds mostly free of the groundwater pollution that many water bodies surrounded by residential development experience. “The most amazing part about it was the warmth and generosity of the Narragansett Tribe for trusting us to bring this three-ring circus to their sacred land,” says Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RINHS).

Through a partnership with the Narragansett Tribe’s Department of Community Planning and Natural Resources and director of natural resources Dinalyn Spears, RINHS brought BioBlitz to a parcel of auke ut Nahiganseck (meaning “we dwell here”), which is normally closed to the public. Opening remarks from Narragansett Tribal Councilman Cassius Spears, Jr. reminded participants that the tribe’s land once stretched far beyond reservation limits, underscoring the importance of the place they steward today.

Arriving Friday afternoon, mine and likely everyone’s first species sighting was the white and pink Mountain Laurel blooms dappling either side of the road, though a novice enthusiast and first-time BioBlitzer, I wouldn’t learn the plant’s name until tagging along with the ant team, made up of Providence College professor James Waters and students.

Turning over logs and rocks, Waters pointed out colonies of ants while students, armed with aspirators to suck up the tinier specimens into vials, collected insects to identify under microscopes later. By the end of the blitz, the team had found two species never observed there before, including a first for Rhode Island in the pheidole genus of big-headed ants, which shows us an example of a southern species moving north.

Another important figure from this year’s BioBlitz was 367: the record-breaking number of registrants – over 200 of which were newcomers. In an event that brings together both passionate field biologists and a host of amateur citizen scientists, striking a balance between facilitating meaningful discoveries and enabling the public to engage in ecological awareness is a tenuous line to walk.

RINHS program director Kira Stillwell, whose self-declared taxonomic specialty is people, shares that the event didn’t always require registration. “We made a really intentional decision, I think it was probably in ‘08, that it’s not a public event. You have to be pre-registered; you have to identify as part of a team,” she explains. “And so we’ve got the taxonomic experts and we’ve got the new folks who I call able-bodied bucket carriers.”

This also means everyone is busy. Breaking only to pitch my tent, reapply bug spray, and hear about other BioBlitzers’ highlights of the day over sketching a leaf around the art and writing table, I embraced the organized chaos of being bounced from group to group, ready to grab an insect net or specimen vial, and asking questions along the way.

I learned that nomada bees are kleptoparasites that lay their eggs in host nests, listened for frogs on a nighttime amphibian walk along the water, saw a Common Yellowthroat through binoculars, and memorized the Ovenbird’s song, activities made more resonate in the context of tribal member and PE teacher Thawn Harris’ traditional storytelling over dinner, a spread that included authentic succotash prepared by tribal member Pearl Brown. In the morning, a medicinal plant walk with Spears enlightened listeners about the uses of sassafras, wintergreen, and more, and a sketching workshop with Frances Topping and Thea Ernest challenged participants to look at natural subjects in new ways.

Between exploratory hikes, workshops, and IDing specimens even late into the night beneath the glow of Science Central (as a handful of scientists showed off their musical talents around the campfire), a flurry of naturalist activity ascended on reservation land, and in a 24-hour span that blew by, the caravan was packed up and on its way.

Gregg and Stillwell’s work continues long after the horn signals the close of BioBlitz. RINHS will share findings with Spears and her department, turning data into land management plans and conservation outreach. The selection process for next year’s BioBlitz is already underway, and the pair is busy year round operating a figurative switchboard, plugging scientists and the public into a larger network of projects.

“The survey’s general role in the environmental world in Rhode Island is that of connecting people, providing contact and acting kind of like the hub of the wagon wheel for all of the other groups,” explains Stillwell. Echoes Gregg, “Everybody has a little piece of the puzzle, but you need somebody to bring everybody together.”

At latest tally, Gregg reports 1,248 species, but more than a number, the experience is an invitation for all ages to engage with the natural world around us. This hobbyist naturalist certainly looks forward to next year’s BioBlitz.



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