Chances are, the word biodiversity makes you do one of two things: either immediately glaze over in a cloud of vague buzzword understanding, or call to mind far-flung exotic locations teeming with rare plants and animals that have little or nothing in common with what’s in your backyard.
For whatever reason, whether it be the subtle powers of pop culture or the late-‘80s explosion of “save the rainforest” sentiments, popular opinion has long associated biodiversity with pristine tropical destinations. Now, however, in the age of melting ice caps and the proliferation of endangered species, biodiversity has become a catch-all term for measuring the health of a particular habitat and, thus, justifying the preservation of said habitat.
By Paul Wellman
Robert Muller, director of research at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, is one of the organizers behind the first-ever Santa Barbara BioBlitz. The event, which will take place in and around the Mission Creek portion of the garden’s property, aims to identify as many living things as possible in one 24-hour period.
Places like the rain forests of Brazil or the jungles of Africa have vast biodiversity and therefore need our protection in the face of development. However, despite its now commonplace presence in our environmental vernacular, it is rare that the term ever actually gets fleshed out with specific names of particular bugs, bats, or birds, let alone be applied to something as pedestrian as, say, Oak Park or Mission Creek. As Amanda De Lucia of Santa Barbara Botanic Garden (SBBG) put it, “People use the word ‘biodiversity’ so much these days. Well, great, but so what? What is that supposed to mean to me? You know, what does that have to do with my life in Santa Barbara?”
This weekend, in the hope of answering these sorts of questions, a team of 17 scientists from throughout the state-each an expert in his or her respective field of study-will meet in the upper portions of the SBBG. For 24 straight hours they will scour a 15-acre area along the banks of Mission Creek, trying to identify as many species of flora and fauna as possible. From the garden’s upper meadow down through the redwoods, across the creek and up to Tunnel Road, they will sift the dirt for mushrooms, crawl through the bushes for flowers, capture insects, look for birds, hunt for bats, study snails, and track down raccoons all as part of Santa Barbara’s first-ever BioBlitz. And, thanks to the relatively unimpacted state of the study area, when the smoke clears Saturday afternoon, an actual real-time picture of just how biodiverse Santa Barbara is will emerge. Simply put, the buzzword will be replaced by an actual number.
Blitzing, Santa Barbara Style
“When I first heard about BioBlitzes, I figured the Natural History Museum must have been doing them for years. It is such a perfect match for our community that I couldn’t believe it had never been done before around here,” said Nancy Johnson, SBBG’s Vice President of Development and Marketing. It was last May when Johnson, attending a conference in Boston, heard the pied piper of BioBlitzes, E.O. Wilson, speak on the subject; she almost instantly started the ball rolling toward this weekend’s event. “The scientists have all been saying to me, ‘Geez, why didn’t we start doing this 60 years ago?’” said Johnson. “All I can say is, we’re doing it now and we’ll have a baseline from here on out.”
To that end, Johnson and her staff have brought in experts, many of them local, in a wide range of fields-from mosses and ferns to slugs and spiders. The team’s members will take to the rich riparian corridor that surrounds Mission Creek and showcase their individual talents in the hunt for species. Not only will the study help paint a picture of what lives in the native SBBG landscape, but it will also serve as a helpful indicator of just how healthy downstream areas -i.e., more urban-may or may not be. It is the latter that has perhaps the most significance for the community at large as it will provide a helpful context for the research already being done by the likes of the city’s Creek Council and nonprofits such as Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and Heal the Ocean.
While SBBG’s lead scientist and Director of Research Robert Muller cautions that BioBlitzes are a great tool but far from “definitive,” he has high hopes for the event. “By focusing on what our diversity is and what specifically is going on around us, [the BioBlitz] really has the potential for being a long-term meaningful data set to the community,” Muller said. “We really want to do it in such a way that it can be repeated every year or every five years.”
Besides merely logging species names, the scientists will also be recording the specific areas in which the various plants, mammals, vertebrates, and invertebrates are found as well as the conditions (e.g. time, weather, and quantity) of their discovery. From this, should the BioBlitz be held again in the future, trends-such as species concentration and variety-potentially emerge, giving an unprecedented, complete picture of Mission Creek’s native natural history-something that would, in coming years, shed new light on every thing from the impacts of global warming or drought to the side effects of urban sprawl and success of creek restoration programs. (The latter took on even more significance this week as the city announced more than $100,000 in grant funding specifically earmarked for restoring a mile of the middle stretches of Mission Creek to its natural habitat.) Alluding to this possibility, Johnson said, “Whether it is us or some other group, we certainly hope this is the first of many BioBlitzes in Santa Barbara.”
A Blitzing History
Though the Santa Barbara BioBlitz marks only the second time such an event has ever taken place in California (there was one in Cupertino in 2002), it is just the latest in a long line of similar earth-friendly events. The first-ever BioBlitz was held at one of literature’s most famously depicted habitats, Walden Pond in Massachusetts, back in 1996. Organized by renowned environmentalist and celebrated Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, that modest first BioBlitz proved to be such an enjoyable and scientifically accessible event that, in the 11 years since, it has been repeated countless times around the world. From western Australia to western Illinois, literally thousands of scientists, both amateur and award-winning, have taken to creek beds and forests, deserts and shorelines, to count the many critters-big and small-that call them home. Each time, the results have been impressive, with new species discovered, disturbing trends identified, habitats protected, and untold numbers of children-young and old-turned on to the magic of science.
Most recently, the end of April saw the first-ever international blogger BioBlitz, wherein hundreds of bloggers from around the world shared the results of their own personal blitzes in conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation’s Biodiversity Days. There has even been the unintentional emergence of a bragging competition among BioBlitz sites in which they try to outdo one another in the number of species identified. To date, the unofficial record-setter took place in Danbury, Connecticut, in 2001 when 2,519 different species of living organisms were counted-a record some feel could be in jeopardy come this weekend’s count.
However, to Wilson, who is also credited with coining the phrase “biodiversity,” and those organizing Santa Barbara’s BioBlitz, these day-long data gathering adventures are so much more than just an exercise in counting: They are a perfect way to call public attention to the vast and varied types of life thriving in our respective backyards. By inviting the pubic to join-which the SBBG is doing-a BioBlitz can offer first-hand evidence of the vibrant, and all-too fragile, web of life that not only surrounds us but also provides the foundation for our existence.
As SBBG’s Muller put it, “Santa Barbara is really unique. We are surrounded by this incredible diversity of life and most young people don’t have any understanding of all that is around us.” And then, gesturing to the currently fully blooming upper meadow at SBBG, Muller added, “An appreciation of this, all of this-from the flowers to the insects to the birds and the trees-is such an important thing [for our future].”
With this unique educational opportunity in mind, Johnson and company consciously designed the SBBG BioBlitz to be more than just an exercise in data collecting. Besides being able to watch all kinds of “-ologists” in action, there also will be opportunities for folks to join in on the survey teams and actually get their hands dirty. And, if the idea of hunting blister beetles or stinky monkey flowers doesn’t appeal to you, the BioBlitz is also offering a full lineup of educational films, slideshows, and presentations from favorite resident scientific luminaries like Bob Hallar, Bob Cummings, and Larry Friesen. Furthermore, portions of the SBBG that aren’t being blitzed will host several interactive and informational booths complete with arts and crafts, microscopes, and a perfectly disgusting water-filled horse trough, which, Muller was keen to observe, “are famous for being home to all sorts of neat things.” Muller continued: “For this to work, it really needs to meld a scientifically valid undertaking with a fun, public event.” And, as if that weren’t enough, MTD is offering free bus fare on Line 22 for all those headed out to the BioBlitz.
California has long been heralded as the most biodiverse state in the U.S. and the Santa Barbara region often gets even higher billing, frequently called a biodiversity “hot spot” of global proportions. As Muller explained, “About a quarter of all the plants that grow in California, whether they be native or exotic, grow specifically in Santa Barbara and I think the same is true for most other species.” Crunching those numbers suggests that, since California is home to some 6,000 plants, an S.B. BioBlitz could potentially identify as many as 1,500 plants alone-a number that would go a long way toward breaking the Connecticut record.
Lamenting the fact that the SBBG BioBlitz won’t have a worm or soil expert on hand, and the fact that the lack of rain will greatly reduce the mushroom count, Muller reckoned it will be difficult for this year’s event to reach such lofty numbers. That being said, he remains hopeful for some pleasant surprises and scientific drama once the counting commences. “It is very possible a new species will be found and I definitely wouldn’t rule out a few ‘Oh, wow! That’s in Santa Barbara?’-type discoveries,” contended Muller.
Though there is sure to be much pomp and circumstance at 4 p.m. on Saturday when the BioBlitz concludes and the final tally is announced, the lasting value of the event won’t be a number. It will be the peace of mind that, from here on out, no matter what happens, there will be an actual account of just what types of living things-big, small, or microscopic-were calling the upper stretches of Mission Creek home in early May 2007. And for a town that famously claims to have invented Earth Day, this is one long-overdue development. After all, what good is biodiversity if you don’t even know what it means?
On Saturday, May 12, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the public is welcome to observe and learn about the diversity of life that surrounds us in Santa Barbara’s BioBlitz. There will be displays of plants and animals, and educational opportunities for both children and adults, including demonstrations and hands-on activities. There will also be lectures and tours, specimen preparation, and computer simulations of ecosystem dynamics, or food web interactions. Visit bioblitzsb.org for more info.
To enter The Indy‘s own BioBlitz contest by counting how many creatures you can find on the cover of this week’s paper, go here.