Occidental’s first ever BioBlitz, an all-day event Saturday, will give community members the opportunity to record and identify various living species on campus. Their efforts will contribute to a database that will give biology students and faculty interested in on-campus research baseline data about Occidental’s biodiversity.
The biology department, in collaboration with the Center for Digital Liberal Arts (CDLA), is hosting this event, sponsored by the President’s Office, the Dean’s Office and the Core Program.
The BioBlitz will focus on different taxonomic groups throughout the day, including plants, snails and slugs, birds, butterflies, bees, reptiles and amphibians. CDLA Science Specialist Jessica Blickley said the college’s fairly urban campus contains many native wild species, particularly in areas that are not landscaped.
“I think people don’t appreciate just how many [species] there are here,” Blickley said.
BioBlitz participants will be using iNaturalist, a biodiversity website and app that enables users to upload geo-referenced images of specimens. These observations can then be identified by naturalists affiliated with the site, allowing virtually anyone to collect meaningful data, even if they are not a trained scientist. The more observations of value that contributors make, the more credibility they gain within the iNaturalist scientific community.
“I think that scientists who might have discounted public participation before are now seeing that there’s a way to make sure that people are submitting stuff that’s interesting,” Biology Professor Elizabeth Braker said.
BioBlitz is an example of citizen science, which refers to scientific data collected by everyday citizens that is now feasible due to consumer and mobile technology, according to Miguel Ordeñana, citizen science coordinator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM). Although citizen science is a relatively new term, non-scientists have aided in collecting scientific data for years, except it was then called volunteering, Ordeñana said.
“It’s important to get the public involved, not only to help our scientists, [but also to] connect them to local nature,” Ordeñana said. “Hopefully it’ll make them better stewards of their environment and neighborhoods as well.”
Members of the public have made scientific discoveries in LA County they reported to NHM. According to Ordeñana, a 9-year-old boy in Chatsworth who was one of the first laypeople to make a major observation of a non-native species that had not previously been seen in LA — the Mediterranean house gecko. His photo submission to the NHM motivated museum staff to search for the gecko population in that particular neighborhood, and they have been tracking its expansion ever since. Being aware of introduced species is important, Ordeñana said, because such species could be potential competitors to or predators of native species.
Ordeñana also described a project on phorid flies in which the entomology department of the NHM placed Malaise traps across a spectrum of 30 different urban to rural backyards. Previously undiscovered species were identified in every single one of these backyards, illustrating to Ordeñana that Angelenos should pay closer attention to biodiversity present in the immediate LA area.
Braker also thinks that the biodiversity present in LA is sometimes undervalued. She addressed a misconception that scientists need to travel to exotic, faraway locales in order to make new discoveries, arguing that LA itself has much to offer.
“One of the fantastic things about LA is that there’s so much wild and semi-wild space embedded in the city,” Braker said. “[The terrain] makes for great pockets of biodiversity.”
Occidental’s 2016 TEDx event, also Saturday, will feature a breakout session in which TEDx participants will have the opportunity to contribute to the survey of the campus’s biodiversity. Emiko Schwab (senior), a biology major and TEDx speaker curator, serves as the coordinator for this session. Her passion for citizen science stems from its ability to increase the general public’s access to the scientific community.
“[Scientists] throw a whole bunch of jargon out there that separates them from people who are not scientists,” Schwab said. “[This] takes away from the progression of science, because it should be interdisciplinary.”
According to Schwab, the BioBlitz directly relates to Occidental’s 2016 TEDx theme of sustainability in that the resulting biodiversity catalog will serve as a sustainable source of information for future studies.
Along with TEDx attendees, anyone in either the Occidental or greater LA community is welcome and encouraged to participate in the BioBlitz.
“I’m hoping we’ll get a lot of people to come even if they drop in for a short period of time,” Blickley said. “They can still do something meaningful in that time.”