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Stand (Swim, Wriggle, Crawl, or Fly) and Be Counted

The scientists were already massing when I arrived at Bronx River Forest on a steamy June morning.

By | July 18, 2005

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Courtesy of LCG Communications/Bronx River Alliance

The scientists were already massing when I arrived at Bronx River Forest on a steamy June morning. They were embarking on a BioBlitz. Part scientific endeavor, part publicity stunt, these events take a single-day, shotgun approach to biodiversity.

Slideshow: Welcome to BioBlitz

Join senior editor Brendan Maher as he counts everything that crawls, creeps, and swims along the Bronx River.

Looking for such diversity along the only real river in New York City would seem to require a real sense of optimism. The counts for the Bronx River have rarely been what you would call encouraging: 70 automobiles and 1,200 tires have been pulled from the 23-mile river that was described at the end of the 19th century as an "open sewer." But this rare stripe of green has been the focus of major restoration, and scientists were hopeful they would find evidence of a thriving riparian ecosystem.

Incomplete by any scientific standards, a BioBlitz offers only a snapshot of what can be found in a particular area at a particular time of year, and luck plays a big role. Small, specialized teams canvass the woods to tally species across kingdoms. BioBlitz events have been occurring across the country and abroad for nearly a decade. Last year, the main event in New York was Central Park. With sponsorship from Microsoft, Manhattan participants cataloged their finds on Tablet PCs with software developed specifically for the event, tallying well over 800 species. Here, the Bronx River Alliance, which co-organized the event with the Westchester County parks department, provided pens, paper, and clipboards.

Before the blitz began, Brandon Malara, a member of the GreenApple Corps, squatted in his muddy yellow slicker harvesting garlic mustard, a leafy green that, when crumpled, releases a pungent garlic-and-wasabi aroma. Though counting the plant before noon would be against the rules, no one would have trouble finding and identifying this invasive plant, which carpeted either side of most paths in the park. The final tally listed two species – Alliaria officinalis and Alliaria petiolata – and garlic mustard was far from the only non-native species picked up.

Indeed, much of the flora and fauna in urban parklands are introduced species: backyard, pet store, and food-market escapees that have taken root and, in many instances, supplanted natives. While seining the murky chest-high waters of the river, Peter Warny, a New York State Museum herpetologist, and Jerry Hudson, a volunteer with the Bronx River Alliance, pulled out several shells of the Asian clam, Corbicula fluminea, a persistent, freshwater bivalve. Little can be done about these invaders, but they do provide food for turtles, 150 pounds of which were pulled from a trap on the second day of the blitz. One was a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), a popular pet.

The parks department battles some invaders. Huge tarpaulins had been placed along the riverbanks to suppress Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum), a broad-leafed rhizomatous perennial that chokes out all other plant life. Many of the native species that had been planted at small openings in the tarp still carried plastic identifying tags, easing some of the taxonomic gymnastics performed by the group of students and enthusiasts from the Torrey Botanical Society and the New York Botanical Garden. Even without the tags, they worked swiftly, running out of printed sheets of paper before they'd moved more than 100 yards. But some species stumped the group, including a poplar leaning out over the river. Others produced heated debates and just a little trepidation. Steve Glenn, of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, heroically uprooted a sample of what appeared to be Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). A non-native relative to the carrot, this plant produces a noxious sap that can sensitize the skin to UV radiation, causing severe, scarring blisters.

As groups of counters passed each other, they shared stories, and, of course, compared lists. Enthusiasm was hard to squash. Warny was excited over the varieties of crayfish, dragonfly nymphs, and leeches that threatened to pinch, sting, and latch onto him. His zeal was infectious: "Peter's in-seine," joked colleague and New York City birder Robert DeCandido, when I told him of the experience.

At the end of 24 hours, some of the folks who had been owling, batting, and bugging throughout the night, met at the Bronx Zoo (also located on the river) for a media event and Internet teleconference with sister blitzers at Berlin's Tiergarten. The German 24-hour bioassessment, organized by the magazine, GEO, started and ended at 6 p.m. to coincide exactly with happenings in the Bronx.

Excitement mounted as the two cities prepared to share their findings. The official Bronx results, verified several days later: 200 scientists, volunteers, and assorted enthusiasts tallied more than 400 species. Roughly 100 scientists in Berlin counted nearly 1,000 species. Some mitigating circumstances explain the sound beating, however, including a higher concentration of experts (fewer volunteers) and the better sight-lines of a cultivated public park. Regardless, the spirit was not competition, but camaraderie. Says Tom Müller, a GEO project manager working to spread what they call "days of biodiversity" ("Blitz" is, understandably, not the popular term in Germany). "This is a really good idea because [conservation] starts in our backyard. But it can do a lot more. It can be a huge project."

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