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Scientists give new meaning to
"urban diversity" during day-long BioBlitz
June 21, 1999

omething wild is loose in Hartford's Keney Park. And last weekend an army of nearly 100 scientists from UConn and other Connecticut institutions spent 24 intense hours trying to track it down. What they discovered was a total of 1,369 species right in the midst of Hartford.

The scientists and other volunteers were participants in Connecticut's first "BioBlitz," an all-out effort to see how many species of plants and animals could be found in an urban park in a 24-hour period.

Spearheading BioBlitz was Ellen Censky, director of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at UConn, which sponsored the event in collaboration with the Friends of Keney Park. Other sponsors included WFSB-TV, the Knox Foundation, Veeder-Root, the City of Hartford Court of Common Council, and the Hartford Mayor's Office.

Before coming to UConn last October, Censky was involved with previous BioBlitz's sponsored by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, where she was chair of the Life Sciences Division. "The main goal of a BioBlitz is to educate the general public about the diversity of life in their own backyard," said Censky. "Another product is a database that can help with future design and use of the park.

"Even more important, we hope to inspire kids," she added. "Research shows that unless people get involved with nature during childhood they are unlikely to show interest in protecting the environment as adults.

"Most people are amazed when they find out how many kinds of plants and animals make their homes within cities," she said. "Yet we spend more time focusing on how to protect the Amazon Rain Forest than on how to preserve the extraordinary ecological diversity in our own backyards."

Small World
Just how diverse is the ecology in Hartford's backyard? When Carl Rettenmeyer, founding director of the natural history museum, arrived at the park Friday evening he quietly removed from the lawn outside the Pond House a plug of mossy soil, roughly 3 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches thick.

For several hours, Rettenmeyer painstakingly inventoried the insect life in that plug. He found 23 species and a total of 89 individuals, including several kinds of springtails, the most abundant insect species in the world.

To help BioBlitz visitors understand the implications of this small community, Rettenmeyer calculated the topsoil insect population for the entire 695-acre park. His estimate? More than 35 billion creatures!

Tapeworms to Coyotes
While Rettenmeyer peered into a microscope and meticulously deconstructed the world of the springtails, other scientists - armed with traps, nets, black lights and other devices - were searching the remote corners of the park. Time, they quickly discovered, was not on their side. By 9 p.m., they had identified only 203 species.

What makes the 24-hour timeline so challenging is the work, often requiring magnification, needed to identify many species. For every large mammal or bird discovered, the typical BioBlitz inventory includes hundreds of creatures that range from tiny to infinitesimal. A truly comprehensive survey of the park's life forms might require weeks.

More than 20 scientists remained in the park all night. Janine Caira, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, headed a team specializing in invertebrates that was the first in any Bio-Blitz to identify parasites. It took all night to analyze five buckets of water drawn from the park's ponds and streams. By dissecting many of the fish found during the Bio-Blitz, the team identified 35 species of parasites, including 10 species of tapeworms.

The largest task was counting insects, a task managed by January O'Donnell, collections manager in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, whose team of 20 entomologists added the greatest number of species to the final tally.

Saturday morning, families and neighborhood youngsters began showing up to take advantage of displays and other educational opportunities (including meeting the scientists).

"The students love this," said Shirley Paddyfote, a fifth-grade teacher from nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, who brought her students. "It's a tremendous educational resource just a few blocks from the school."

When Rep. John Larson arrived to give the event his blessing, he saluted the scientists for serving as role models. Children from the Hartford Street Youth Project and other local youngsters also attended the event.

By midday on Saturday, the tote board on the bandstand outside the Pond House, where a band called Envirojazz was singing a tribute to the 18th-century botanist Carolus Linnaeus, said the scientists had identified more than 500 species.

While dignitaries including Larson, state Reps. Annette Carter and Denise Merrill, Hartford's Deputy Mayor Frances Sanchez and several members of the Hartford City Council spoke, the clock ticked on relentlessly and the scientists scrambled to complete their tally.

When Censky finally read off the totals, no one was surprised that the lion's share of animals found in Keney Park were insects. Out of the total of 1,369 species, more than 799 were insects, including 307 species of butterflies and moths ranging in size from just two millimeters to the giant silk moth, with a wingspan of some three inches, that David Wagner, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, released before the crowd.

The species identified in Hartford also included 285 plants, 33 parasites, 20 algae, 75 birds, 20 mammals, 13 fish, four reptiles, six amphibians, 78 non-insect invertebrates and 36 mushrooms. Among the more unexpected finds were a beaver, coyotes, the Pileated Woodpecker, and two thriving stands of pink Lady's Slipper orchids. The most remarkable discoveries, however, were an insect never before found in Connecticut, the Nine Bark Leaf Roller, and six species - the Red Bat, American Bald Eagle (also on the federal list of threatened species), Red-Tailed Hawk, Brown Thrasher, Tiger Beetle, and Clubtail Dragonfly - that are on the state's list of at risk, threatened or endangered species.

Jim Smith