Back Issues





BioBlitz 2001: Schenley Park                  

Looking at Life in a Real World Classroom


"The world is a far more complex place than you ever thought possible."

                -- John Rawlins, entomologist

The idea of the urban BioBlitz is growing like mile-a-minute weed in Pittsburgh Parks.  The first BioBlitz--where in 24 hours scientists and the public tally as many diverse species of life as they can find and collect in an urban park-- was held in an "urban wilderness" inside Washington, D.C. in 1996.  Since then Pennsylvania has BioBlitzed  Philadelphia (98), Wilkes-Barre (99), Lebanon Valley (99), Indiantown Gap (99) and twice in Pittsburgh--Riverview Park (97), and Frick Park (98).

In the last few years, BioBlitzers have worked on parks in Oregon, North Dakota, Connecticut, Vermont, Texas, New York, as well as in Canada, Australia, Brazil and Switzerland.  Pittsburgh is planning its third and biggest one yet on June 15 and 16, in Schenley Park.  The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy sees this BioBlitz as part of its own effort to improve one of Pittsburgh's great public parks.

What's not to like about a BioBlitz?  Where else but in urban parks can you gather so many children and adults, assemble natural history experts from city museums and universities, and draw volunteers from diverse organizations that celebrate, care for, and worry about the natural world?  It's a lot of fun, as well as a crash course in biodiversity for people of all ages.

"The world is a far more complex place than you ever thought possible," says John Rawlins, associate curator of Invertebrate Zoology (i.e. bugs, slugs and creepy crawlies  to most people) at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  Like other scientists, he sees the BioBlitz as an important educational event for the public, and one that introduces the average person to biodiversity.  A BioBlitz is not a typical biological survey, which takes more time, requires documentation  throughout the seasons and across the years, and entails more detailed analysis.  As a one-day snapshot of life forms in an urban wilderness using one of the city's own big backyards, a BioBlitz is hard to beat.

Even looking at the rocks in a Pittsburgh park tells you a lot about earth history and mountains--and spares you a trip to the Rockies. Albert Kollar of the Invertebrate Paleontology section can point to the rock "outcroppings" in a city park that tell the story of earth's basic geologic processes, beginning with the Ames Limestone left behind by an ancient marine sea that covered the area 300 million years ago. You see it all from the park trails, if you know what to look for.

"A BioBlitz works for all ages, from children to grandparents.  Having once done it with a guide, you can do it all over again, on your own."

         -- Albert Kollar, invertebrate paleontologist

Insects make up the largest percentage of life forms in Pittsburgh's parks, and to appreciate them you have to open your mind to a world that most people seldom examine.  "Comparing a millipede to a centipede is like comparing a cow to a tiger," says Invertebrate Zoology collection manager Bob Davidson.  Millipedes are built like tanks-- short, squat--and are vegetation eaters. Centipedes are the reverse: fast-moving hunters with poison glands, ready to conquer and eat spiders and insects.  In the tropics, a foot-long centipede may go after small mice, lizards and toads--but in Schenley Park, the largest is probably a three-inch species.

Museum scientists have an eye for biodiversity.  Entomologist John Rawlins points out that Schenley Park's Kentucky Coffee trees are out of their normal range in this environment, yet there they are.  The pioneers used to grind up the beans of this tree like coffee beans. The first local evidence of this tree was collected in 1882 for the Western Pennsylvania Botanical Society, which eventually donated its specimens to the museum.

Scientific names are the key to species identification. The pet cat you have at home is Felis silvestris, not be confused with the similar looking bobcat, Lynx rufus, which lives in Pennsylvania's woodlands. The bobcat has tufts on its ears, a naturally bobbed tail, and is usually bigger than the housecat. Before scientists locked on the name Lynx rufus, the bobcat was casually called a wild cat, bay lynx, catamount, mountain cat, tiger cat and wolverine.  It's pretty unlikely that you'll find the rare and secretive Lynx rufus in Schenley Park.  But you never know.  The Frick Park BioBlitz in 1998 turned up a Surf Scoter on the Monongahela River, a seabird  that was passing through.

Parks are "disturbed environments"--man-made places, artifically landscaped with roads, playing fields, picnic groves, and parking lots.  The pond in Schenley Park, with its concrete perimeter and culverts, is far from a natural habitat for aquatic life and species  that colonize a natural lake.  In addition, any pond-loving species of animal has to get through the surrounding city to find the lake, and then recolonize the area. But, fascinating aquatic species will be found in the streams and waters of an urban park. Crayfish and water shrimps were collected in 1898 and 1899 and labeled "from the upper headwaters of Schenley Park." 

Species collected in a BioBlitz reflect the weather, time of day, and the season. It rained at Riverview Park during the BioBlitz, which kept the birds under cover.  During the BioBlitzes at Riverview and Frick Parks in the month of May, not as many insects had hatched as will be on the wing in Schenley Park in June.  Since bats feed on insects, at dusk on a June night there will be more bats on the wing than a month earlier.  Likewise, in June there will be fewer migrating birds than in the earlier months. 

Seeing how field scientists capture species is half the fun.  Birding is often done by hearing, not even seeing, a species.  At night you can "collect" a Screech Owl by hearing it, and with the scientist's flashlight you just might be able to see it too. Insect traps range from illuminated tent-like traps to attract flying moths and insects, to pit-fall traps buried flush in the ground to capture beetles, roaches, sowbugs, millipedes, and centipedes.  There are cone-shaped funnels to capture climbing insects, and sophisticated pheromone traps to attract specific species.  "Sugaring,"or putting a personal formula of beer, molasses, fruit, or a sweet substance on a tree in swatches also works.  The collected bugs end up dead, "but at least they go happy," says entomologist Bob Davidson. 

Mammals like squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and moles are always released, as are birds caught in a mist net. The skeleton or remains of a dead animal in the woods counts towards the tally, as do animal footprints in the soil.  Scat identification--animal waste--is something that kids find "really cool" and  "the neatest activity."

The BioBlitz itself is evolving.  In Riverview Park the Perry Traditional Academy built birdhouses and put them in the park, and local historians offered oral histories of the park.  At Frick Park there was a mini-BioBlitz for Regent Park School, and the search for life reflected environmental concerns and the stream restoration efforts at Nine-Mile Run. 

In 2001 the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy under president Meg Cheever has orchestrated the event with Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Citiparks,  and with other organizations.  Curator John Wible of the Section of Mammals organized the museum's scientific crews, and museum educator Diane Grzybek worked with other institutions to assure that science activities will be fun for the public. 

Of course for two days in June the most visible species in Schenley Park will be that friendly primate, Homo sapiens.  Afterwards, with their newfound scientific curiosity brimming over, people will want to go home to play with their own cat (Felis silvestris), or take the dog (Canis familiaris) out for a walk. 






Back Issues


Copyright (c) 2001 CARNEGIE magazine 
All rights reserved. 
E-mail:   carnegiemag@carnegiemuseums.org