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Nov. 01, 2011

Hunting for Bugs at BioBlitz

by Lisa Gardiner

A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event in which volunteers converge on a location to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible.

During Insect Discovery Tours -- part of the BioBlitz event -- elementary, middle and high school students, scientists, chaperones, and naturalists roamed areas of Saguaro National Park in small groups to hunt for insects. The scientists and naturalists worked with the students to identify the insects they found. To get a closer look, insects were sometimes coaxed into small magnifying boxes. Some insects, like a brown recluse spider, were too dangerous for a close look. Others, like beetles were safe to investigate.

The insect explorers found paper wasps, cactus flies, and fruit flies. They saw dragonflies and butterflies zooming about. And when they peered into bushes like hackberry and creosote, they saw ants, termites, and ground beetles living underneath. They even found beetles in an old soda can.

Check out the slideshow below to see what Insect Discovery Tours were like.

“It scares me when the flies try to land on me,” said one student. But the encounters with insects left most kids more excited than scared. Another student described the experience as “awesome!” It was a sunny and hot day in the desert, the type of weather that drains one’s energy, yet students asked if they could go back to the desert to look for more insects after lunch.

“For me these tours are fun because nature is fascinating and never ceases to delight,” ecologist Dr. Cara Gibson remarked after the event. Dr. Gibson was one of the scientists leading Insect Discovery Tours with students. “It is such a wonderful opportunity to share this. The Sonoran Desert is a very special place with a lot of interesting and extreme organisms,” she added. She was excited to see so much interest from citizen scientists during BioBlitz.

The insect information that students and scientists collected was part of the data gathered by thousands of people during BioBlitz to better understand the plants, animals, fungi, and microbes living in Saguaro National Park, which surrounds Tucson, Arizona and is less than half an hour’s drive from the city center.

Dr. Gibson said that one group found a wood boring beetle so large that it could hardly fit in the magnifying box. “We had to put it in on the diagonal to get it in there,” she said enthusiastically. Black and yellow, nearly the size of an adult human thumb, this was not an ordinary find.

One of her groups also found twigs that had holes along their length like a flute. The scientists told the students that the holes were drilled into the wood by a type of long horned beetle sometimes called a “flute borer.” Unlike a real flute, said Dr. Gibson, the holes are not in the twig to play music but instead so the beetle can get its waste out. That way the beetle doesn’t have to live in its own excrement. (There are no toilets twigs.)

Back at “Basecamp,” the central hub for the BioBlitz event, other fieldtrips were organized to search for wildlife like birds, plants, and lizards, as well as insects. Tents run by outreach programs provided entertaining hands-on activities too. As trips returned from the desert, they handed over notes recording the species they found to volunteers who entered the records it into the BioBlitz database.

According to BioBlitz organizer National Geographic, during the 24 hour event, more than 5000 citizen scientists identified hundreds of species of plants, animals, and fungi that had not before been found in the park. Scientists are still working to identify samples that were collected and total up how many living things were found in Saguaro National Park during BioBlitz.

 

About Lisa Gardiner

Dr. Lisa Gardiner is a writer and content creator at Spark: Science Education at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. She likes how citizen science and social media get people involved in science and is a contributing editor at SciStarter.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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