The first-ever International Socially Distant BioBlitz, held on April 5th, connected an unprecedented 346 participants who together made over 12,500 observations containing more than 3,000 species. It was such a success that the event’s organizers at Antioch University New England (AUNE) are planning another Socially Distant BioBlitz for May 3rd, and this will kick off a tri-weekly Socially Distant BioBlitz series that will last until stay-at-home and self-quarantine orders are lifted across the globe.
Plans for this event arose while Dr. Peter Palmiotto, Sara Lobdell, Steven Lamonde and Michael Nerrie were planning an in-person BioBlitz, an event where participants converge on one area to observe and identify as many species as possible, using their cell phone cameras and the iNaturalist app to log their observations in a way that makes the observations scientifically useful. These BioBlitzes are open to anyone with the iNaturalist app or website, amateurs and experts alike, and are intended both to create useful data for scientists but also to encourage awareness and knowledge of biodiversity everywhere. As Lamonde, one of the student coordinators for the event explains, “Most bioblitzes are designed to raise awareness about Earth’s biodiversity and connect people with each other and nature alike.” The BioBlitz they were planning was to be held at Glover’s Ledge, an 81-acre learning forest near Langdon, New Hampshire that is owned and managed by Antioch University New England, where Palmiotto is the Chair of Environmental Studies & Sustainability Department and where Lobdell and Lamonde are students.
Unfortunately, as government officials enacted physical distancing orders in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the four organizers realized that the in-person event would have to be canceled. This was disappointing, as they were hoping to build on the momentum of three prior successful BioBlitzes at Glover’s Ledge. As Lamonde explains, “A lot of Antioch students, staff, and faculty look forward to this event, and we always have a blast interacting with families and naturalists from around the region who participate as well.” Lobdell, the other student coordinator, felt particularly crestfallen—this was to have been her first year coordinating the Bioblitz.
But, on the same day of the cancellation, Lamonde sent out an email proposing a “backyard bioblitz,” and they soon coalesced around the idea of converting the event to a virtual format, allowing participants to join safely from their homes—wherever they are in the world. Instead of focusing on Glover’s Ledge, the data they collected could be used by scientists across the world. And, in sum, it would provide a one-day snapshot of biodiversity across the globe.
They were cautiously optimistic about how many people might participate. Says Lamonde, “I thought maybe we could attract 100 people, especially with less than two weeks to go before the event.” None of the organizers expected the outpouring of excitement and the sheer breadth of observations that would be made. The 346 participants were spread across 6 continents and 27 countries—easily outnumbering the 20-30 attendees at a usual Glover’s Lodge Bioblitz. Palmiotto notes that those taking part “spanned an incredible 115 degrees of latitude (Børsa, Norway to Puerto Natales, Chile) and 336 degrees of longitude (Lower Hutt, New Zealand to Honolulu, Hawaii).” The more than 3,000 species observed by the end of that single day also dwarf the impressive 1,294 species that have been recently recorded at Glover’s Ledge.
With such clear enthusiasm from both amateur and professional naturalists stuck at home, the team is making plans for follow-up events. Says Lobdell, “We had so much fun organizing this event that a second Socially Distant BioBlitz is planned for May 3rd, and this event will kick-off a tri-weekly bioblitz series.” The hope is that these BioBlitzes can help participants feel empowered to continue learning about the natural world and spending time in it, even as the world deals with a global pandemic.
The iNaturalist app and website are a citizen science project and online community made up of over a million scientists and naturalists. It is a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. iNaturalist allows users to upload geo-tagged photographs of plants, fungi, and animals. These photos are then analyzed by an image-processing AI that presents possible identifications. Users can read about these species and make preliminary identifications, which are later confirmed by other users. The result is an ever-evolving database of worldwide observations, all collected in a standardized format and available to any interested scientist, professional or amateur.
Holding BioBlitzes at Glover’s Ledge has been a great way, Lamonde explains, to “embody AUNE’s educational mission by providing people of all ages and backgrounds opportunities to participate in hands-on learning about nature—from microscopic fungi to landscape-scale ecosystems.” Glover’s Ledge also gets used as a resource for student projects, class visits, thesis and dissertation research, and community outreach and education.
The Socially Distant BioBlitz has allowed the organizers to continue fulfilling the mission of helping people learn experientially. “Just because normal life has been upended by the pandemic, it doesn’t mean we can’t continue to encourage experiential learning of the natural world around us,” says Lamonde. “Now is a great time to take a closer look at the critters and plants in and around our homes!” It has also raised the profile of the program, as their promotion of the BioBlitz reached more than 22,000 people on Facebook alone.
If you are interested in participating in the upcoming Socially Distant BioBlitz on May 3rd, it is easy to do so. You need to make an iNaturalist account if you don’t yet have one. (This step takes under a minute.) Then you need to visit the webpage for the Socially Distant Bioblitz and click “JOIN” in the top right corner. After that, all of your observations on May 3rd will be automatically added to the project, which will update in live time as observations come in from around the world. It’s recommended that those who have a smartphone download the iNaturalist app, which is free—and makes it as simple as aiming the camera and taking a picture to begin making observations.