There was a great response to our last quiz (at the time of this post >100) with 38% of the respondents thinking we will see greater than 2000 species!
We really do hope we can meet that goal. Previous BioBlitzes in the area have set the target high (the 2001 Danbury BioBlitz has the record with 2,519! with a close second in 2007 in Middletown of 2,231.)
Feel free to add your voice to the quiz, it is still going… do you think we can join these 2 BioBlitzes in breaking the 2000 mark?
Species identification (the key activity in any BioBlitz) can be a complicated task, and it has many faces, almost as numerous as biodiversity itself. Each group of organisms (butterflies, trees, birds, spiders, fungi,…) has its own techniques for scientific observation, collection and identification. A BioBlitz is a unique opportunity to see how experts on different groups work at the same time and how they apply their knowledge and expertise.
There are some organisms such as trees or birds that can be identified directly in the field. If you join a birdwatching walk you will be able to learn from an ornithologist how to distinguish the birds of the area, visiting certain places at the right hour of the day, just with the help of some binoculars or even with your ears, listening to their songs. This does not mean that birdwatching will not be a challenge: in order to maximize the number of species spotted it is necessary to know their habits, their songs and how they look like.
Other species that are shyer or inaccessible will need to be captured for a proper identification. This is the case of the small mammals or many insects. Traps will be set up for some of these animals (many with nocturnal habits) and visited regularly to check what is living in the area. Again, some species can be identified in the field and will be released immediately, although you will have the rare opportunity to see how they look like close-up if you are around.
However, there are many groups of organisms that are really difficult to identify in the field, perhaps because they are very diverse (consider that there are hundreds of species of herbs and thousands of insects in Connecticut) or because they are tiny (such as microscopic invertebrates, or algae). In those cases, the collection in the field is only the first step, followed by the identification in a laboratory, usually equipped with instruments such as microscopes and access to the bibliography that the taxonomists need to reach the right species identification.
When you come to Storrs on June 24th or 25th, make sure you drop by the laboratories in Torrey Life Sciences building. You will see entomologists dissecting the genitalia of insects (often the only way to tell apart some tricky species), botanists examining tiny details of the flowers and phycologists surveying the amazing algae diversity that can exist in a single drop of water. Every single species, big or small, counts.
In summary: light trap for insects, acoustic monitoring of bats, bird song identification, surveys of the microscopic life in the water of ponds and streams, nets to capture fishes, pressing of plant specimens,… is there any common trait in all this abundance of techniques? Although they may seem very different, they all need something: expertise. The taxonomists and naturalists leading the species identification in the BioBlitz have gained these specialized skills after many years or even decades of work and dedication. They will be there making possible for you not only to see how they work, but also to answer your questions about their organisms of interest and their activity.
All the different organisms we call “algae” pretty much span the entire tree of life, as they belong to several evolutionary lineages only distantly related to each other. The BioBlitz will provide opportunities for you to get closely acquainted with cyanobacteria, dinoflagellates, diatoms, euglenoids, chlorophytes, and others. Never heard of those? Chances are, they live right in your back yard.
For the most part, you need a microscope to discern the hundreds of species of freshwater algae occurring in New England. But there are exceptions, and they are not that hard to find once you know what to look for. For example stoneworts, or members of the green algal order Charales, are commonly mistaken for aquatic vascular plants, which they superficially resemble. Upon closer observation, however, it becomes apparent that they are not anatomically complex like “higher” plants and are instead made up of few-celled branched filaments. Two genera are currently known to occur around Storrs: Chara and Nitella. The invasive Nitellopsis obtusa (starry stonewort) is not yet known from Connecticut, but it is a major nuisance in the Midwest and definitely a species to be on the lookout for1.
Another green alga that is easily identified without a microscope does not look green at all. Thanks to their UV-protective carotenoid pigments, members of the genus Trentepohlia take on a red, orange, or yellow coloration. Moreover, they do not live in water! Instead, they inhabit tree bark (some species also grow on rocks or man-made walls) and can cover it in conspicuous reddish films that appear fuzzy upon closer examination. Around Storrs, Trentepohlia is most common on oaks and pines.
While cooling off in a stream or pond, with a fair amount of luck you might find macroscopic red algae (Rhodophyta) growing attached to rocks. Confusingly, these algae will probably look green or brownish on the outside. The soft, slimy, finely branched Batrachospermum can be found in streams or at the edge of ponds. Its somewhat elusive relative, the also branched but more robust, cartilaginous Tuomeya (photo below by Ellen Woods) grows in fast flowing streams such as the Fenton River. On rocks under dams like the Eagleville Dam you can often easily spot abundantly growing Lemanea, a rough, knobby rhodophyte belonging to the same order, Batrachospermales.
If you browse herbarium records of these macroalgae, you will likely notice a significant decrease in specimen numbers over time: most records are decades old, and many are older than a century. Despite this trend, these algae might not be all that rare, but simply aren’t being collected and reported as much now. On the other hand, given the ongoing man-induced habitat and climate changes, some of these species might indeed be declining. Thus, recording their occurrence during the UConn BioBlitz will be an important contribution to our knowledge of their current distribution in Connecticut.
1Sleith, R.S., Havens, A.J., Stewart, R.A. & Karol, K.G. (2015). Distribution of Nitellopsis obtusa (Characeae) in New York, U.S.A. Brittonia, 67, 166-172.