Have you ever seen a large group of people take over a large conservation area or park, and they are on the ground peering through magnifying glasses, or waving around butterfly nets? You may have seen a BioBlitz in action. A bioblitz is a 24-hour event, usually, where scientists and members of the public come together to survey an area to count and record all observable species from fish in the creeks, to squirrels in the trees, to butterflies, birds, spiders, and even the grass itself that an ant climbs. BioBlitzes are about connecting the community with nature: anyone can participate whether you’re an expert, a citizen scientist, or new to nature. In fact, bioblitzes are often split into public days, and expert days. The public days are essentially expert led hikes (among other activities) but hikes that lead to tangible, and valuable data collection.
In 2012, the first Ontario Bioblitz took place in Rouge Park, before it was Rouge National Urban Park, and was organized by the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Toronto Zoo, with additional partners. The 2012 event was such a success that another bioblitz was held there in 2013, where the program once set a global record: over 1750 different species were found. The Ontario BioBlitz program led by key partners like the ROM, Toronto Zoo, Toronto Region Conservation Authority, and the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics presented events once a year in other watersheds across the Greater Toronto Area, including the Humber in 2014, Don in 2015, and the Credit in 2016. In 2017, the program returned to the Rouge for the Rouge National Urban Park BioBlitz that was a part of the BioBlitz Canada 150 Signature Project. Across all of these bioblitzes, a total of 3646 species have been counted since 2012. Every year, around 200-300 experts will participate, and new people are joining every year. At the same time these larger events starts, a movement started with smaller groups across Ontario hosting their own bioblitzes. The most recent bioblitz that Conservation Halton participated in was in partnership with Royal Botanical Gardens to survey the Cootes to Escarpment Ecopark area. The data collected informs open access databases that are used by nature enthusiasts, experts, and researchers alike.
Most bioblitzes follow a similar format of a 24-hour period, where the public and the experts start early in the morning and continue into the night. For the bigger events, in general for scientific-specific bioblitzes, there will be a separate public day, and a separate experts’ day. Most individuals will not participate for the full twenty-four hours, but some people are dedicated. Most species are catch and release. Only the experts, who have special permission (or permits), are able to take specimens back to their labs for identification. Some species need to be identified using a microscope. Flies cannot be identified until an expert takes them back and sorts them, and many spiders are the same.
People are sorted into groups to try and survey as much as possible. Families and people new to biodiversity get to participate in multiple groups to learn more widely. Each group will have a target taxon, such as mammals or fish, and are led by a dedicated expert. The expert teaches participants how to identify species, how to record data, among other things. For example, in the general insect group at large, there will be experts for moths, dragonflies, beetles, and grasshoppers. There is a non-insect vertebrate group. There are dedicated groups for nocturnal animals, and they only go out at night. There are groups for spiders, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Stacey Kerr, of Ontario Bioblitz, said the reptile and amphibian groups even go to the extent of making their own identification buttons. There are also groups for fungi, lichen, flowers, aquatic plants, trees, grasses, and sedges. In the grass and sedge group, they will bring back large stacks of different grasses, and then organize the stack into species. Kerr said, that in general, the largest quantity of species found will be in the plants and insects groups.
Brenda Van Ryswyk, Natural Heritage Ecologist, has previously been the expert for dragonflies and butterflies during a bioblitz. She told us that if she was leading one of the public hikes, she would catch dragonflies ahead of time to show her group what a dragonfly is and explain to them the identifying features of a dragonfly versus, a damselfly. She would then lead them to a spot where she knew there would be plenty of dragonflies for them to see. Then, in general, people wander around and try to catch and identify dragonflies themselves.
All ages truly come to bioblitzes. Kerr told us how once a family came into the Royal Ontario Museum and were very keen to join the event. The kids were begging to go! The moms signed up in front of her, and when the event came around in June, the family stayed the whole time. Everyone camped out. The children, between the ages of six to eleven, were all running around with little jars of spiders they had collected. Kerr had another story of a younger teenager who came out by himself to a bioblitz in 2014, and then the following year returned with his little sister in tow. “People who come out get hooked, and become addicted to bioblitzing” said Kerr. “Members of the public, scientist, they want to do them again and again”. Retirees are also turning out in numbers for bioblitzes for the expert guided hikes and the active learning experience of interacting with nature.
Competition has a habit of sneaking into the bioblitz fun for the public and experts alike. From what we heard, experts’ day is quieter in comparison to public day, and also more competitive. The experts try to find as many sightings as they can. Kerr said it is one of her favourite things about intensive blitzes (scientists only): rivalries break out between experts and even between species groups. Some species groups like the reptiles and amphibians have fewer species to find, and thus get to relax at base camp – while experts in other groups will still stay around and try to find more at night.
Some observers like to be top on the list for the most amount of species found, or to be the number one observer in a particular species group, such as bees. There is even competition between bioblitzes on who found the most species or had the most observations. On websites like iNaturalist, you can see who has found what species in your bioblitz, and the friendly rivalries can be fun!
To cross-reference the species found to existing records, Ontario Bioblitz will contact the participating conservation authorities for the species list of what they should expect to see. Once they have the lists, they will use the data to check against it, and add to the list in the event of a species sighted for the first time. Sometimes the species on the lists have not been seen in decades. For example, at the 2017 Rouge National Urban Park BioBlitz, a Slimy Sculpin (Cottus cognatus) was found. It has not been seen since the sixties which could mean a number of things. It could mean that people could not find them, or no one went to look. “Having that level of occurrence data is helpful for local scientists and conservation authorities to know what’s there. It can inform development and policy. It can help us to protect land and also inform responsible development, too” said Kerr. You cannot protect something if you do not know what is there. There may be a lack of experts formally studying in a location, and bioblitzes can inform provide information on what truly lives in an area. Van Ryswyk informed us that bee experts were surprised at the RBG Bioblitz that so many native bees were in the Cootes to Escarpment area, and that the experts were impressed by the biodiversity.
BioBlitzes can also help capture information about species at risk as well, for example, to check if the species is still in the area. The locations of species at risk are kept secret from the public because you cannot share the locations of endangered species, but the information is shared with scientists and people who help to conserve them. The data that is submitted can illuminate the existence of newly introduced species, and invasives. If invasive species are flourishing, we’ll know where they are, and are better able to monitor after the bioblitz. Kerr said that during the 2013 bioblitz in the Rouge, there was a Black Purse Web spider, a member of the tarantula family (and not dangerous), that was newly recorded for the area. As scientists were leaving the campfire for their tents at 3am, it was found walking across the road from basecamp. This example of a real-life walking across the road joke is an example of how bioblitzes can reveal what truly lives in a watershed.
After every bioblitz, experts and the public alike are expected to upload their data to open, publicly accessible databases. In 2017, many of the bioblitzes are using a website and database called iNaturalist. The website helps people identify species, and there is an app for your phone. Before the bioblitz, the organizers encourage everyone to download the iNaturalist app on to their phone. The app allows you to take a picture of a species, and it automatically provides suggestions on what it is using algorithms. It’s like Shazam, but for nature! There is a tiered structure to the website: experts can do peer review and access information not available to the public, and the public can submit their information following the template set out by iNaturalist.
iNaturalist provides a template on what information the public should be looking for. This allows for a consistent data collecting process, and thus consistent and reliable results. “The more opportunities for people to get out, the more experience they get identifying species, the better that data set becomes” said Kerr. “The better data sets they have, the better informed scientists and policy makers are to inform development decisions”. Anyone can contribute in a rigorous, methodical manner. On the website, when a member of the public submits a photo, experts can review the photos and make suggestions. The data collected from bioblitzes gives baseline information that people can use for their studies. Kerr said “iNaturalist posted a gif of trout lily records over the course of the year. You can see the emergence of trout lilies on the gif and it’s almost like watching them bloom on the map”. iNaturalist is growing and becoming more prevalent. Recently, Canada has become the third largest user base. We have our own iNaturalist Canada. Kerr says she can see it as incredibly useful for scientists and public observations. Besides iNaturalist, there are a few other databases that the bioblitzes data feeds into. Ontario BioBlitz also submits the data to the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics in Guelph, Canadensys, the ROM, and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). There are also other citizen science apps and initiatives like eBird, eButterfly, Ontario Nature Amphibian and Reptile Atlas that collect data from the public.
Not only do bioblitzes cultivate the community engagement and spur the public to engage with nature and become citizen scientists, but their efforts, alongside that of the experts, means we can build a tangible, reliable, and consistent body of records that can better inform our decisions in land management and development when protecting nature.
Joining a Bioblitz? Here’s how to prepare from expert, Brenda Van Ryswyk, Natural Heritage Ecologist:
- Come prepared for your target species. If your target species is dragonflies, you will need a bug net, and a magnifying glass
- Do not rely on your memory. Bring a clipboard, and write down everything.
- Use all of your senses, but one at a time. Experts focus on one thing at a time. If you’re looking for birds, use your hearing, and then sight.
- For certain species, you may need to be still. Birds and mammals are sensitive to movement, but insects you can move more or less freely.
- Lastly, share your data. Always put your data into some public shareable database.
Thank you to Brenda Van Ryswyk and Stacey Kerr for their contributions.
Last modified: January 26, 2018