24 June 2009

Bioblitz producing exciting results

Telegraph Journal

For the past week and a half, nearly 20 scientists have been getting up at six in the morning so they can spend the day thrashing through the woods looking for things that most people never even notice.

They’re taking pat in a ground-breaking “bioblitz” in the Jacquet River Gorge Protected Natural Area.

The idea behind a bioblitz is simple but the task is immense. They want to catalogue as many species as possible.

The group is headed by Dr. Donald McAlpine, Curator of Zoology at the New Brunswick Museum, Saint John.

Some years ago, the province set up 10 Protected Natural Areas. Additional ones have been added, but the Jacquet River Gorge, at 26,000 hectares remains the largest. It’s also the second least known.

“The act requires a management plan for each one of them,” McAlpine explained last week. “One of the reasons they were established was to protect biodiversity. Obviously, that’s a pretty important part of the management plan, but it’s hard to protect what we don’t know is there. The question we’re trying to answer is quite a simple one: What’s in the PNA?” Biologists will be back again next summer, but later in the year. The idea is to look for animals that may not be active this early in the summer or plants that flower in July or early August. The following year, they’ll start the process in another of the large PNAs.

McAlpine admits that the four weeks they’ll spend in the Jacquet River Gorge will only scratch the surface. In part, that’s because of the size of the area to be covered; it’s also because they’re limited to examining groups for which the experts are available.

They’ve pulled together recognized scientists from the three Maritime provinces and Ontario. The three natural history curators from New Brunswick Museum have been joined by people from the Canadian Museum of Nature, the University of New Brunswick and Acadia University and the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre. None are being paid.

“We estimate that there is something in the range of $100,000 worth of volunteer time,” McAlpine said.

There are also about half a dozen students.

Most are graduate students, meaning that they already hold at least one degree and are working on higher ones. There’s one high school student who McAlpine says is “really keen on insects.” He’s been paired with professional entomologist. He’ll be spending the rest of the summer working at the museum.

What’s there? Last week, some of the botanists returned with exciting news about patches of orchids and rare ferns they’d found. They had never seen such concentrations in the province.

McAlpine said that they have already found rare and probably endangered species. One, a small mushroom, had not been seen in Canada since about 1900, and then only in Newfoundland.

This will probably be one of a very few spots in North America where it has turned up.

As well, Dr. Stephen Clayden, Curator of Botany at New Brunswick Museum, has been making interesting lichen discoveries. Some may even be new species.

The group is also looking at vascular plants (trees, shrubs and wildflowers), amphibians, small mammals (including bats), and insects, particularly beetles but also butterflies and dragonflies.

McAlpine said that they would have liked to include other groups, but were limited by the expertise that was available.

In the case of the small mammals, they’re even cataloguing parasites from them. One grad student is working on a bat project that involves collecting fungi from the animals.

Dr. Randy Miller, Curator of Paleontology and Geology at New Brunswick Museum, also worked in the PNA and found some interesting fossil sites.

Every night, after a full day in the field, the scientists spend hours in a lab that’s been set up in a hall behind the Blue Heron Bed and Breakfast. They may be there until midnight, identifying and preparing specimens. The work doesn’t stop there.

McAlpine said that as a rule, one day in the field means two to five days in the lab. In some cases, it may take months to identify specimens. In the case of new species, it can be years before everything is complete.

McAlpine said that it isn’t just the species that are present that matters.

It may be the concentrations of them that make a particular spot important and worthy of protection. This is the case with an old foundation near Antinouri Lake. He explained that, since the Jacquet River Gorge has been set aside as a natural area, someone might decide to tear out the concrete, but this foundation is an important hibernation site for snakes and should be left untouched.

McAlpine sees the work that he and his colleagues are doing as “a foundation that we hope others will build on.” He said that they hope others will be encouraged to spend time in the PNA, perhaps graduate students working on particular projects.

Each such study will help to increase knowledge of the Jacquet River Gorge and ensure its protection.