iNaturalist BioBlitz Project @ South Mountain Reservation

I’ve been asked to speak March 4th at the South Mountain Reservation Conservancy’s Annual Public Meeting   on the use of iNaturalist and the BioBlitz Project  that I setup this past June.

“iNaturalist is a citizen science project and online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe. David Alexander, Essex County Senior Naturalist, will share his successes with the application and show you how you and your family can get started identifying plants and animals in your own backyard!”

In anticipation of the 2nd South Mountain Reservation Bioblitz I setup a project on iNaturalist to try and capture in photographic evidence as many living species within the park as possible. Anyone with a smart phone would be able to snap a photo and submit their species for inclusion. With the help of Tom Pollard as an admin we took it a step further and created a geofence so any recorded observation within the reservation boundaries would be included whether the person knew about the project or not.  This is known within iNaturalist as a collection project.

The reservation is within a few miles of a foremost metropolis, NYC. It’s location and protected land act as a biodiversity hot spot within the Piedmont physiographic region of New Jersey that sits 300-400 feet above sea level at the foot of the highlands. New Jersey itself has around 319 bird species, 90 mammal species, 33 reptile species, 39 amphibian species, 2,100 vascular plants and so that is a phenomenal amount of biodiversity for the most human populated state in the nation (9 million people) and 5th smallest state (although we also have 1 out of every 4 acres as preserved land!).

Someone who wants to study biodiversity might think to travel to central america but they would be skipping over fascinating flying mammals, mole-like salamanders, wood nymph moths that mimic bird droppings, birds as odd as the timberdoodle, trees that reach almost 200 feet or 12 floors high, flowers that look like a ladies shoe or smell like skunk and many more interesting species between the Valley and Ridge to the north and the Coastal Plain to the south.

Every single recorded observation includes a “Data Quality Assessment”. The observation begin as “1. Casual Id” and other participants on the app or website can make identifications and help them upgrade to “2. Needs Identification” and finally “3. Research Grade”. We only accept 2 & 3 within the data set to maintain a level of quality

Once you look at the map, each observation gets a pin mark. You can see the color coded pin marks represent different taxa. Green is plants, purple is mushroom, arachnids are orange and so on.

Our HIGHLIGHTS as of January 2020

  • Over 4,000 individual observations
  • 699 different species observed.
  • 65 bird species, 175 fungi, 320 plants, 106 insects and more!
  • Over 2,000 observations (and more than half are research grade).

The iNaturalist observations helped us record more species than some of the individual teams were able to do within the 24 hour timeline of the bioblitz. In 2008 teams recorded 77 birds, 225 plants, 14 fish, 15 herptiles, 238 insects, 13 mammals and 39 fungi for a total of 621 species. So this data although it goes beyond the single selected calendar date for the blitz demonstrates the suburb abundance of life that uses the reservation for a part or whole of its existence.

Even though our event is over, the data is still being added daily and helping us to better understand the biodiversity within the reservation.

Thank you to all the amateur & professional naturalists recording data for scientific study!

We can now use our data in many ways.

  • Identify and report locations of invasive species for removal (Japanese knotweed, Oriental bittersweet, tree of heaven, devils walking stick, etc…) and target highly threatening new encroachment from species like Oriental Photina, Japanese Aralia, Siebold’s Viburnum and Linden Viburnum while populations are minimal.
  • Early identification and detection of invasive pests like the Spotted Lantern Fly.  This documentation of early warning of colonization by invasive non-natives could help us get funding to control them.
  • Monitor populations of sensitive native plants and find seed for propagation (Milkweed is the host plant for monarch butterflies and only found in 1 spot – planted within the wildflower preserve).
  • Recognizing the loss of historically present plants and adding them to our stewardship restoration efforts (milkweed, wild leeks, wild columbine, wild ginger, doll’s-eyes).
  • Improve and update range maps of species distribution across the mid-Atlantic region.
  • Recognize success of dam removal on Raritan river (American Eel found below Campbell’s Pond).
  • Record phenological observations of both plants and animals and study their relationship to climate change (first appearance of migratory critters, first bloom record, changing migratory patterns, creeping range into warmer climate).  Use observations to better schedule walks & talks for maximum chance of observation.
  • Recognize areas of high and low biodiversity within the reservation to manage forest health (locating areas for native plant enclosures, diverting trails away from sensitive species, targeting areas for invasive species removal).
  • Avoid Plant Blindness, “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment” In fact, “second-class citizen” status for plants is built right in to the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Listed species are protected everywhere if they are animals, but only on federal lands for plants, except to the extent that there may be additional legal protection at the State level. Whatever one may think of the merits of that difference, it does highlight how deep-seated the perceived difference is in appreciation for animals versus plants.
  • Observe, identify, study and expose ourselves to natural history for the love of it.
  • Promote nature exploration that leads to physical activity and health while avoiding nature-deficit disorder!
  • and so much more..User-curated list of scientific publications that use iNaturalist data. 

Please share your ideas for data use!! Thanks.

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