Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Scientists Invade NE Park

24-Hour Survey Strives To Log Nature's Diversity

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 6 1996; Page J01
The Washington Post

The corner of Kenilworth Park in Northeast had been transformed into an outdoor laboratory: metal tables strewn with papers, laptop computers, microscopes and insect specimens pinned into display cases.

The occasion was a "bio-blitz," in which more than 90 scientists tried to catalogue all living species, from bacteria to bats, in the 700-acre park across the Anacostia River

from the National Arboretum. They were given 24 hours to spot, trap, net or identify by sound as many of the flora and fauna as they could in the park and Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Organizers hoped for at least 750.

By their 5 p.m. deadline Saturday, they were close, having logged more than 70 species of birds, 150 plants and trees, a dozen species of fish and more than 500 insects, including 50 species of parasitic wasp, 11 butterflies and a dozen dragonflies.

Also noted were a half-dozen mammals, from white-footed mouse to white-tailed deer. Not yet tallied were earthworms and snails, crustaceans, snakes, salamanders, frogs and more.

This was not a game-show trick but a serious scientific enterprise. Bird and butterfly groups sponsor annual counts, but blitz organizers said theirs may be the first attempt to draw up a broad inventory of species. Such a catalogue, they said, could contribute to basic knowledge of how the region's biological community functions.

Organizers said they also want to prove that the Anacostia River, given up for dead by many people, harbors a rich array of life. Park officials said they would use the blitz to update their species list and identify any rare ones that need protection.

Park officials hope to use the species list "to learn a lot about the biological diversity that we have," said Stephen Syphax, a park service official.

The event was sponsored by the National Park Service and National Biological Service, both part of the Interior Department, and officials there said other areas already have expressed interest in doing their own counts. Organizers said they planned to establish a home page describing the Kenilworth count on the Internet.

Sponsors also hoped the blitz would encourage local research by scientists whose usual work is national or international in scope. And they wanted to see what happens when scientists from different fields work together.

"There are so many specialists in large cities," said Sam Droege of the National Biological Service, which is assembling a national catalogue of species. "But they get disconnected. One of the reasons to bring everyone together was . . . to see if there is a synergy in bringing together people who are basically loners."

The scientists came mainly from federal agencies, the Smithsonian Institution and area universities. More than half, Droege said, had never been to Kenilworth Park.

The blitz began Friday evening, when the bat specialists appeared with sonar detectors and the insect-hunters brought out their black lights. Shortly after dawn, the birders went looking with binoculars.

At one metal folding table, Eric Grissell, an Agriculture Department entomologist, examined parasitic wasps under a microscope, trying to distinguish one species from another.

"They're beneficial," he said, pointing out that they kill other plant-eating insects. "Normally, I don't kill them. I try to convince people not to be afraid of them."

At mid-morning, Bill Bridgeland, a self-employed wildlife biologist, set out to see what had crawled into the traps he had placed the previous evening. He hoped for mammals or maybe a snake or two.

As he and Droege walked down a wooded path, they met up with Ray LaSala, a mushroom specialist.

"We got an oyster mushroom," LaSala said with satisfaction, displaying a large, off-white fungus. He later reported collecting "lots of bags of little brown mushrooms that we haven't identified yet."

Bridgeland wasn't so lucky. Nothing four-footed was in the first two metal box traps he opened.

"Got some slugs," he reported.

"Save those," Droege said. "I can take those to a guy in our office who does worms."

Seems that interdisciplinary cooperation already was paying off.

Bridgeland's results improved when he opened the rest of his two dozen metal traps, which were equipped with a spring door at one end and peanut butter inside. He bagged three squirming white-footed mice.

"This is a very common generalist mouse around here," he said. "It lives in all the common habitats."

Down the path, they encountered a discouraged Peter Mundel, who hadn't had much luck finding centipedes and millipedes and other crawly things. Bridgeland offered to let Mundel look inside his pitfall traps, which are dug into the ground.

Bingo. Mundel, who teaches biology at Montgomery College in Rockville, soon was happily unrolling a curled-up millipede to determine its species.

Another trap yielded a snail. A third coughed up a crab spider. Then a wolf spider.

"Now we're in business," Mundel said.

The plant hunters did not think they had bagged too many unusual specimens, although they had to bring them back to the lab to make sure.

But Stanwyn Shetler, a Smithsonian botanist, was intrigued by a magnolia seedling he saw in a wooded area. It didn't belong there. It certainly had not been planted by people.

"One of the stories that a place like this can tell is the story of plant introduction and naturalization," he said. His best guess was that the magnolia was planted by a bird dropping and that the mother plant probably was at the National Arboretum nearby.

The 24-hour blitz wasn't the end of the count. Hours of identification work in the laboratory lay ahead for scientists who collected insects, plants and some other species.

Sponsors acknowledged that the count really couldn't identify everything. A one-day count won't tally all the birds present at different seasons of the year. Some groups of species, especially the smaller ones, were not counted because appropriate specialists did not participate. And although the timing was good for some species, the dry night with a full moon was not conducive to finding moths, which prefer darkness and humidity.

Also, said Agriculture Department entomologist Chris Thompson, "most insects are in the larval stage or eggs right now. Only the adults are out."

Those shortcomings did little to quash the enthusiasm of the scientists who came out for the count. Some already were talking about trying again next year.

"What a day!" said Dick Hammerschlag, a National Park Service official. "A lot of stuff showing up. Great idea."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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