Biological diversity: discovery, science, and management in this issue

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About the authors

Danielle Buttke is the One Health coordinator for the National Park Service, a joint position between the Wildlife Health Branch, Biological Resource Management Division, and the Office of Public Health, and can be reached at Diana Allen is chief of the NPS Healthy Parks Healthy People program. She can be reached at Chuck Higgins is director of the Office of Public Health for the National Park Service.
IUCN World Parks Conference to address values and benefits of biodiversity

The World Parks Congress will meet in Sydney, Australia, November 12–19 to focus global attention on the values and benefits of parks and protected areas, including biodiversity. This once-in-a-decade event celebrates achievements of conservation policy and practice of the past decade and launches new policy initiatives for the future. Park and protected area professionals, partners, and allies will consider opportunities to create and maintain connected ecosystems that can best halt the loss of biodiversity, adapt to climate change, provide for human health, and secure food supplies and freshwater sources. The conference aims to involve governments, businesses, and citizens in taking action to marshal the most promising solutions to achieve a healthy and sustainable planet.

Recorded sessions of the conference will be available at You can also join in an initiative to reach millions of youth and inspire connections to nature through a campaign called “No Walls” on Facebook and Twitter at and

—Diana Allen (, Chief, NPS Healthy Parks Healthy People Program

Emerging Science

Synthetic biology offers extraordinary opportunities and challenges for conservation

By Kent H. Redford

Humans have always sought to reshape nature to meet their needs: taming fire, domesticating animals and plants, building dams and nuclear power plants, and shaping and reshaping nature in countless other ways. We have been largely interested in how humans benefit from our actions with little attention to how nature is affected. To be sure, our species has affected nature in many significant ways such that historical extinction rates far exceed those in the geologic past. For example, on average, humans appropriate about 25% of potential net primary terrestrial productivity, mostly from agricultural land use and harvests (Haberl et al. 2007); we use more than half of all accessible freshwater; we apply more ammonia and nitrate than are fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems; and we are changing the atmosphere through the dramatically increased production of methane and carbon dioxide (Crutzen 2002). Clearly humans are the dominant ecological and evolutionary force on the planet (Palumbi 2001).

The Anthropocene, the geological epoch we have entered, is named for this pervasive impact humans are having on the earth. But the impacts are not just pervasive; they are also increasingly novel. Hu mans are breaching boundaries that have held throughout human evolution. Species have been moved purposefully and accidentally, resulting in new ecosystems; climate change is threatening to produce a set of novel climates; species boundaries are being breached as humans move genes about; and organisms are being created that incorporate machines and electronics as part of their bodies.

Synthetic biology arrives

Part of this new age of human impacts is the developing field of synthetic biology, or “synbio.” Synthetic biology is a hybrid of engineering and biology with an emphasis on reliably and predictably engineering the genomes of living cells to produce goods and services of use to humans. There is no universally agreed-upon definition of synthetic biology but one that is commonly referred to is (1) the design and construction of new biological parts, devices, and systems and (2) the redesign of existing natural biological systems for useful purposes (

Key elements of synbio in the field are (1) its engineering approach to natural systems (designing and fabricating “components” and “systems” using standardized and automated processes; (2) an emphasis on novelty: fabricating parts and systems that do not exist in the natural world (or redesigning and fabricating those that do); and (3) doing so to address human needs (ECNH 2010; Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues 2010). Synthetic biology can be applied to a broad range of fields, including food production, new materials and manufacturing, waste processing and water purification, ecological restoration, and human health (see -synthetic-biology/).

Synthetic biology is a rapidly developing field because of the rapid decrease in the cost of reading and writing DNA. Technologies that enable the manipulation of DNA are changing at a rate faster than the developments that led to cell phones and today’s computers, suggesting that we could see in synthetic biology a rate of change faster than that in the last decade of smartphone and associated technologies (Carlson 2013). Billions of dollars are being invested annually in synthetic biology; developments of novel applications or improvements of existing ones emerge weekly. For example, only recently we read an announcement of the creation of the first custom, synthetic chromosome using synthetic biology tools (Mosendz 2014).

The practice of synthetic biology

Media coverage about the future that synthetic biology will enable has included a great deal of hype, but significant scientific advances show some of the potential that synthetic biology may bring. Trees have had their genomes altered so that they are easier to process for pulp; vanilla and other flavorings are now being produced in factories by algae and bacteria; ACT, the most significant drug used in treating malaria, no longer must be grown from the Artemisia annua plant but is produced in factories by yeast; bacteria have been reprogrammed to construct electronic and optical materials; and a new species of fruit fly has been created specifically by altering the genes responsible for its reproduction. There are thousands of other fronts across which synthetic biology is pursued, from fuels and medicines to foods and the reanimation of extinct species.

Unlike that of many other technologies, the philosophy underlying synbio development, as practiced at least in the United States and Europe, is open access, with new techniques and approaches being put into the public domain. Associated with this philosophy is widespread experimentation with synbio by community labs, teams of undergraduates, and now even high school students. Community labs are set up by interested synthetic biologists and made available for a nominal fee to anyone who is interested in experimenting with the new technologies (see The easy accessibility of equipment and genetic sequences (many can be ordered over the Internet) has extended the practice of synbio to students in high school, college, and graduate school. A great deal of synbio work is being done in university and commercial labs, but this is a technology that is open to many segments of society, including do-it-yourself biologists.

Despite all the work on and investment in synbio, next to no attention has been given to the relationship between this emerging field and conservation. Synthetic biologists have formed collaborations to look at the implications of their work for the social sciences, law, and arts and humanities (Marris and Rose 2012), but not with the protected area community or any other type of conservationist. This lack of engagement is equally stark from the conservation side, as the conservation and global change com munities have paid virtually no attention to synthetic biology. These two fields are taking steps, though only in small ways, to talk to each other. A recent Wildlife Conservation Society meeting held in 2013 brought together the two groups (Redford et al. 2013; Redford et al. 2014), and some follow-up discussion on the intersection of the two communities is beginning to take place.

And what about biodiversity?

Synthetic biology may have a range of potential negative impacts on biodiversity: novel organisms may escape containment and cause negative impacts on natural ecosystems; land conversion for crops that were developed using synthetic biology may cause immediate, direct effects on species, ecosystems, and protected areas; and complex secondary effects on society and economy may also result (e.g., land conversion by people displaced or impoverished by first-order changes). Of equal significance, synthetic biology could provide conservationists with more effective methods of conservation, including the creation of biological tools that could help to gather and process field samples affordably or monitor for the presence of particular threats. Synthetic biology could be used to restore lost genetic variation to extant but diminished and threatened populations. Or it could be used to engineer microorganisms to create approaches to solving intractable problems facing humans, including providing clean water, restoring degraded lands, and developing better medicines—outcomes that might also have positive effects for conservation. The two fields have a great deal to discuss:

• How should conservationists think about the novel species being developed by synthetic biologists?

• How will these species interact with existing species and ecosystems?

• Will or could these new technologies be used to re-create extinct species—a process called “de-extinction?” (The Long Now Foundation 2014)

• What will it mean if extinction is no longer forever?

• What will happen to our definitions of “natural” when human-made species are created and begin to interact with “natural” species?

• What threats will synbio bring? Will the organisms produced through synbio escape industrial facilities and become invasive? Will high school students purposefully release organ isms they made as part of a class? What would happen if engineered organisms developed to fight an invasive disease evolved to attack agriculturally beneficial organisms?

• Conversely, what threats might synbio alleviate? Can it be used to develop solutions to known risks to biodiversity, such as the fungal diseases that threaten many amphibians and bats with extinction (Fisher et al. 2012)? Could we engineer disease resistance into species like the Tasmanian devil that are threatened with extinction because of a highly contagious disease?

• What would happen to the ecosystems into which new life-forms are introduced?

• Will species created through synbio be privately owned? What will this privatization do to conservation efforts?

• What will happen if synbio is used to deliver services more efficiently and at lower cost than “natural” systems?

Finally, synthetic biology organisms could directly affect existing protected ecosystems in a variety of ways by:

• Becoming invasive or otherwise affecting populations of protected species, or disrupting protected ecosystems

• Changing the economic value of land (and hence demand for land) within protected areas (e.g., making crop production possible on land currently regarded as marginal for agriculture and hence allocated as a protected area)

• Changing the way land surrounding protected areas is used and hence affecting species composition in the protected areas because of species immigration or extinction

• Accelerating (or slowing) the rate of ecosystem conversion outside protected areas and hence the relative importance of existing protected areas (e.g., reducing pressure on habitats like tropical forests and making protected areas less necessary and therefore uneconomic to run)

• Changing demand for products currently illegally harvested from protected areas (e.g., meat, timber, nontimber forest products, illegal drug crops)

Need to engage

We do not know what impacts synthetic biology will have on biodiversity and park-based conservation. Some experts are convinced the effects will be positive and an equal number are convinced they will be catastrophic. What is clear is that the future will feature synbio in many forms. One of synthetic biology’s pioneers, George Church, has written glowingly of the promises this new technology will bring, including improving human and animal health, extending the human life span, increasing intelligence, and resurrecting extinct animals, even hominids (Church and Regis 2012).

Inevitably, synthetic biology will proceed in developing new products based on new or modified organisms, despite the frequent calls for more oversight and the desire by some governments to establish regulations specific to this field (AAAS 2012). Institutions to put such restrictions in place simply do not currently exist, so the strong sense by many synthetic biologists of the imperative to create open-source architecture has led to strong calls for self-policing by practitioners. Finally, synthetic biology will not be stopped: investments in the field are huge, the potential applications are numerous, and the technology is accessible to too many.

Conservationists may choose to ignore synthetic biology, but they do so at their own risk and the risk of the natural bio diversity they are devoted to conserving. Synthetic biology is a fact and, because it is being pursued throughout the globe by governments, industries, academics, and individuals, it will be with us for a long time. But given the early stages of its development, this is a key time for the conservation community to engage and try to influence the practice and outcomes.

This scenario creates an opportunity for the National Park Service to begin to engage with the synbio community and the public about the issues raised by synthetic biology. To achieve this engagement, at a minimum the National Park Service needs to understand what is happening in the field of synthetic biology and begin to educate its key constituencies. Better still would be engagement with the synbio community to influence the development of the industry in ways that are at least benign to conservation efforts and at best beneficial to protecting national park resources and values. Perhaps there are intractable—wicked—problems that are facing the National Park Service that could be addressed with synbio solutions. Or the Park Service could consider undergoing a scenario planning exercise related to synthetic biology as it has been doing with climate change.

A sea change?

Despite local successes, conservationists have not been succeeding at their objective of conserving greater biodiversity (Butchart et al. 2010). Numerous measures have been applied to quantify this lack of success, and a general air of despair has settled over the field. The conservation community has been quick to adopt new technologies, including camera trapping or monitoring of wildlife, GPS collars, and environmental DNA capture and analysis. But by and large the community is disinclined to adopt new technologies, saying as one person said to me: “Technology is responsible for getting us into the mess in which we find ourselves. You are crazy to think that technology will do anything but make the situation worse.” In the last few years strong voices have demanded a new approach to conservation (e.g., Kareiva and Marvier 2012). But these voices have not talked about truly extraordinary changes—ones like careful and discriminating inclusion of synthetic biology approaches in our conservation toolbox such as discussed above.

The future world will not be a slightly older version of the one we currently inhabit. Rather it will have a significantly altered climate, changed sea levels, novel pests and diseases, nonanalogue ecological communities, and a human population with less interest in conservation. The costs, benefits, and risks of synthetic biology need to be considered against this backdrop, not against a projected version of the world as we now understand it.

Much of conservation is predicated on the core ideals of wilderness and nature. However, recognition of the increasing role humans play in structuring ecosystems and thereby shaping the lives of wild species has led practitioners to realize that human management may be a paradoxical but necessary part of conserving the wild. Synthetic biologists propose to further equip humans to actively and consciously engineer the living world. Aldo Leopold famously said, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” But what if we could make new cogs and new wheels? What would this mean for our attempts to mend centuries of nonintelligent destruction? The transformed world of 2050 will demand new strategies and new approaches in conservation. Should some of them involve creation of new pieces? Synthetic biology can be incorporated into these as a powerful new tool to face the powerful new challenges facing conservation. It is time to consider such extraordinary measures.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 2012. 111 organizations call for synthetic biology moratorium. Science Insider, 13 March. Available at

Butchart, S. H. M., M. Walpole, B. Collen, A. van Strien, J. P. W. Scharlemann, et al. 2010. Global biodiversity: Indicators of recent declines. Science 328:1164–1168.

Carlson, R. 2013. Planning for Toy Story and synthetic biology: It’s all about competition. Synthesis, 17 April. Available at -and-productivity-curves-plus-a-few-more -thoughts-on-moores-law.html.

Church, G., and E. Regis. 2012. Regenesis: How synthetic biology will reinvent nature and ourselves. Basic Books, New York, New York, USA.

Crutzen, P. J. 2002. Geology of mankind: The Anthropocene. Nature 415:23.

Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH). 2010. Synthetic biology—Ethical considerations. Swiss Confederation, Switzerland. Available at /e-Synthetische_Bio_Broschuere.pdf.

Fisher, M. C., D. A. Henk, C. J. Briggs, J. S. Brownstein, L. C. Madoff, et al. 2012. Emerging fungal threats to animal, plant and ecosystem health. Nature 484:186–194.

Haberl, H., K. H. Erb, F. Krausmann, V. Gaube, A. Bondeau, et al. 2007. Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104:12,942–12,945.

Kareiva, P., and M. Marvier. 2012. What is conservation science? BioScience 62:962– 969.

The Long Now Foundation. 2014. Revive and restore: Genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species.

Marris, C., and N. Rose. 2012. Let’s get real on synthetic biology. New Scientist, 11 June.

Mosendz, P. 2014. Scientists have successfully built a custom, synthetic chromosome from scratch. The Wire (Atlantic Monthly Group), 28 March. Available at

Palumbi, S. R. 2001. Humans as the world’s greatest evolutionary force. Science 293:1786–1790.

Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. 2010. New directions: The ethics of synthetic biology and emerging technologies. Washington, D.C., USA. Available at

Redford, K. H., W. A. Adams, R. Carlson, G. M. Mace, and B. Ceccarelli. 2014. Synthetic biology and the conservation of biodiversity. Oryx. doi:10.1017/S0030605314000040.

Redford, K. H., W. Adams, and G. M. Mace. 2013. Synthetic biology and conservation of nature: Wicked problems and wicked solutions. PLoS Biology 11(4):e1001530. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001530.

About the author

Kent H. Redford is principal of Archipelago Consulting, located in Portland, Maine. He was previously at the Wildlife Conservation Society headquartered in New York, where he was chief scientist. He has worked with the National Park Service on ecological restoration of bison, migratory species, and most recently on a threatened and endangered species workshop. He can be reached at
Synthetic biology and NPS policy

Management application of synthetic biology, whether at the cell, organism, population, or ecosystem level, constitutes human intervention, intervention that at the outset is contrary to policy for most management programs for natural zones of National Park System units. Synthetic biology may be within policy for addressing some problems in cultural zones of parks. Given the growing intensity and rate of change to park biota and ecosystems because of climate change, landscape fragmentation, exotic species, and other factors, park managers may find that application of synthetic biology elements may be an appropriate intervention for solving environmental problems. For example, parks already are using exotic species as biocontrol agents to reduce impacts of other exotic species, and some parks are considering use of cross-species breeding or genetic engineering to help develop blight-resistant chestnut trees to permit restoration to the eastern deciduous forest of the presence and function of the chestnut. In the future, park managers may need to consider whether to construct, or accept the unmanaged development of, novel biological communities to facilitate conservation of rare species at risk of extinction from change-forcing factors. These types of decisions will require determinations of which policy components take precedence over others to facilitate achieving desired park conditions, while recognizing that desired park conditions will constitute the best approximation of what would have been natural in the absence of the human-caused forcing factors.

—John G. Dennis, Deputy Chief Scientist, NPS Natural Resource Stewardship and Science

Engaging citizens on a large scale in biodiversity discovery

By Sally Plumb

[Photo of John Francis and Jon Jarvis at the NPS-National Geographic Society BioBlitz at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in March 2014. Credit: NPS Photo]

National Geographic Society’s John Francis receives the Ranger Hat Award from National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis at the NPS-NGS BioBlitz at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, March 2014. The award was given in appreciation of National Geographic’s long-term and multifaceted collaboration with and support of the National Park Service.

The National Park Service (NPS) is charged with protecting the biodiversity of its lands and waters, yet the majority of species remain undiscovered, including invertebrates, nonvascular plants, fungi, and microorganisms. This lack of knowledge hampers the protection of living resources from threats such as invasive species, disease, population pressure, and climate change. Indeed, changes induced by these environmental factors will likely appear in the lesser-known animal groups before they are reflected in large, iconic ones.

In an effort to identify life in parks, the National Park Service introduced “Biodiversity Discovery,” an initiative that fosters development of activities and events in which members of the public, including professional scientists, park visitors, students, seniors, and children, participate in the discovery of living natural resources.

The National Park Service has been engaging in biodiversity discovery since 1996, when a bioblitz was held at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C. The first large-scale biodiversity discovery program, an All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, began in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1997 through the coordinated efforts of the park and its nonprofit partner, Discover Life in America. Since then, many parks—large, small, urban, wild, naturally or culturally oriented—have initiated their own bio diversity discovery activities. As of 2014, approximately 118 parks have conducted work of varying levels and scopes.

As discussed in depth in the article beginning on page 106, preliminary evaluations of the visitor experience in the large-scale NPS–National Geographic Society BioBlitzes, conducted through a cooperative agreement with Texas A&M University, reveal numerous favorable results:

• Improvement in the quality of the visitor experience through development of direct connections to park resources

• An increase in public awareness and sense of stewardship in park visitors through their engagement in firsthand scientific research

• Increased relevancy and awareness of parks among the nation’s youth

• Public education about lesser-known species through educational products, services, and interaction with NPS staff

Host parks of biodiversity discovery events enumerate additional scientific and management benefits:

• More knowledge of species in national parks across the country, allowing for more informed management decisions

• Establishment of baseline knowledge of lesser-known flora and fauna against which changes can be measured

• Increased collaboration with scientists and universities that continues long after the biodiversity discovery effort has concluded

• Establishment of numerous fruitful collaborations with notable partners, such as the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, National Park Foundation, Discover Life in America, Encyclopedia of Life, and National Geographic Society

The benefits of biodiversity discovery are so apparent that when the National Park Service announced a Call to Action in 2011, item 7, “Next Generation Stewards,” envisioned the creation of a new generation of citizen scientists by conducting biodiversity discovery activities of varying levels and scopes in at least 100 parks by 2016. These activities have a proven track record of contributing to the NPS mission of resource stewardship and the Secretary of the Interior’s Youth and Diversity Initiatives. Also, they mirror the vision of the America’s Great Outdoors, Healthy People Healthy Parks, Let’s Move, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) initiatives. Moreover, they improve the quality of the visitor experience through development of a direct connection to the resources of the national parks, conserving and restoring our natural resources, working together for the good of our national parks, and encouraging involvement of the American public.

Collaboration with the National Geographic Society

The contributions of biodiversity discovery, in terms of scientific gain and public engagement, are essential to the caretaking mission of the National Park Service; hence the Park Service is taking steps to institutionalize these activities and concepts. Measures include partnering with multiple entities to initiate, plan, and execute start-up bioblitzes; mentoring park staff to host subsequent bioblitzes; engaging diverse audiences that include retired scientists, children, volunteers, subject-matter experts, and park visitors in species discovery and identification; and evaluating the experiences of participants in the NPS–National Geographic Society (NGS) BioBlitzes.

The work of the National Geographic Society and its commitment to stewardship of the natural world have served as an exemplary model for collaboration with the National Park Service. John Francis, NGS vice president for Research, Conservation, and Exploration, has been instrumental in initiating and implementing this long-term partnership between the two organizations.

The National Geographic Society has worked tirelessly with the National Park Service to promote the relevance of the outdoors and to educate people about the national parks and their resources. In a couple of years the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary, with a focus on sustaining our natural treasures in an era that is much different from the one in which the Park Service began. Much is at stake, with perhaps no issue as pressing as the increasing alienation of Americans from the natural world. The partnership with the National Geographic Society has helped to address this challenge by bringing the youth of America into the national parks through collaborative annual “biodiscovery” events.

Each year in the decade leading up to the NPS centennial in 2016, the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society conduct a large-scale “BioBlitz” in a different national park. Goals for these events include accomplishment of a safe and scientifically credible investigation through the combined efforts of scientists, students, and community members; relationship-building with the scientific community; connection of science to technology; enhancement of the relevancy of national parks for participants, especially youth; and increased knowledge of park species.

These two-day events take as much as a year to prepare and plan. Park planning teams are interdivisional and include natural resources, interpretation, public affairs, information technology, safety, law enforcement, and maintenance staff. A dedicated planning team from the National Geographic Society, along with assistance from NPS Natural Resource Science and Stewardship Directorate staff, is also required. The NPS-NGS BioBlitzes are high-profile, well publicized, and thoroughly planned, with attendance by internationally known scientists, entertainers, and speakers; dignitaries from international parks; representation from the highest level of the National Park Service; and coverage by local and national media. Major components are:

• Hundreds of scientific inventories

• Curriculum-based resource education programs

• A biodiversity festival with booths, interactive demonstrations, hands-on activities, entertainment, and speakers

• Increased use of social media

• Involvement of multiple partners

• Selection of a Biodiversity Youth Ambassador (see article on page 17), who represents other youth attending the bioblitz and subsequently continues to foster biodiversity awareness in his or her home community and increase youth engagement in national parks.

Executing a biodiversity discovery effort on this scale is a challenge: logistics are complex, monetary investment is considerable, and safety to humans and to the host park’s resources must be ensured. Benefits include obtaining a nearly instantaneous and widespread “snapshot” of species diversity across all taxonomic groups; broad awareness of the host park in surrounding communities; many lasting relationships with scientists, universities, and other partners; and connections with thousands of residents in gateway communities.

Species new to science and to the parks have been discovered during the course of these events and thousands of citizen scientists have participated.

• The 2014 bioblitz at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California not only opened the door to 9,000 participants, including thousands of youth from diverse and underserved communities, but also revealed 2,700 species.

• The 2013 bioblitz celebrated “bayou” diversity at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana.

• The 2012 bioblitz reached new heights at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

• The 2011 bioblitz was held in Saguaro National Park, with more than 5,000 people combing the eastern and western sides of the park flanking Tucson, Arizona. (See the following article for further information.)

• In 2010, Biscayne National Park, near Miami, Florida, was the first-ever marine bioblitz.

• Volunteers at the 2009 Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore bioblitz turned up more than 1,200 species.

• Six thousand participants discovered more than 1,200 species in the 2008 Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area bioblitz in California.

• This series of exciting and innovative bioblitzes began in 2007 at Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. It engaged 1,000 participants and resulted in the discovery of more than 650 species.

Through this partnership with the National Geographic Society, the National Park Service is increasing the availability of science-based information for making NPS management decisions. Additionally, both organizations are showcasing these national collaborative efforts to discover and conserve natural resources by sharing findings through outreach publications and on interpretive Web pages, and through outreach via different media outlets. With imitation being the truest form of flattery, the NPS-NGS BioBlitzes have served as a model for similar efforts around the world, most notably in Italy, which accomplished its third bioblitz in July 2014. The National Geographic Society continues to be an outstanding partner, visionary, and steward of national park natural resources. Planning has commenced for the 2015 NPS-NGS BioBlitz, taking place 15–16 May at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and discussions are under way to determine the location of the 2016 event.

About the author

Sally Plumb is the NPS biodiversity coordinator and is with the Biological Resource Management Division in Fort Collins, Colorado. She can be reached at
Saguaro National Park 2011 NPS-NGS BioBlitz!

By Natasha Kline and Don Swann

[A girl wearing a hat for sun protection holds a common side-blotched lizard. Corresponds to article on next page. Credit: NPS photo]

[A schoolboy takes notes on his field observations. Corresponds to article on next page. Credit: National Geographic Society]

[Four schoolchildren display a flag they created depicting Sonoran Desert plant and animal species. Corresponds to article on next page. Credit: Audrey Kane-Madrid]

[Eleven high school students spell out the word “bioblitz” with their bodies shaped as individual letters. They stand atop a large, flat rock atop Mica Mountain. Corresponds to article on next page. Credit: NPS photo]

(Facing page, clockwise from top. All photos are of the NPS–National Geographic Society BioBlitz in Saguaro National Park, 2011.)

A student shows off the common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana) that she added to the count, which totaled more than 40 species of reptiles and amphibians. Inventories were overseen by scientists and all vertebrates captured were quickly photographed and released in place.

A schoolboy takes notes on his field observations. School groups were outfitted with hats, T-shirts, water bottles, and field notebooks provided generously by the Friends of Saguaro National Park.

Schoolchildren from Tucson’s Manzo Elementary School display flags they created depicting Sonoran Desert plant and animal species in front of the main stage at Base Camp. Before the bioblitz, the park solicited such flags from the public, including the species’ scientific name (in Latin) and common name in English, Spanish, and the language spoken by Tohono O’odham, one of the local Native American tribes.

Some high school students chose to hike the 9-mile, 5,000-foot (1,524 m) climb into the cool pines of the Rincon Mountain Wilderness, where they camped overnight and inventoried birds, mammals, and invertebrates. Here they take a break on Mica Mountain (8,613 feet [2,625 m] in elevation) to spell out “bioblitz” with their bodies.

Saguaro National Park was an ideal place to host the National Park Service (NPS)– National Geographic Society (NGS) BioBlitz in 2011—not only because of the park’s proximity to the rapidly growing city of Tucson, Arizona, but also because of its remarkable biodiversity and legacy of scientific research.

While the park’s western Tucson Mountain District highlights the colorful flora of the lower Sonoran Desert, the eastern Rincon Mountain District rises up from the desert, through grassland and wood land, to conifer forests at over 8,600 feet (2,620 m) in elevation. Saguaro’s location within the “Sky Island” region of southeastern Arizona, where elements of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental and the Rocky Mountains mix with those of the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, creates a stunning landscape of biodiversity. The two disjunct districts of the park lie on opposite sides of Tucson, a diverse southwestern city with nearly one million residents, about 40% Hispanic and 40% under 18 years of age.

Our goals

Despite the park’s proximity to Tucson, many local residents have never visited. Conversely, biologists have long recognized the park’s distinct and diverse biota, so we already had extensive knowledge of its vertebrates and vascular plants. Thus, our goal was to bring scientists and Tucsonans, particularly those who had never been to the park, together to inventory nonvascular plants, invertebrates, and other little-known “microbiota.” We were also determined that the bioblitz would not be a flash in the pan—that is, that the programs and data collected would be followed up on so that this huge effort would create long-term benefits for the park.

How we did it

Saguaro’s 2011 bioblitz was all about partnerships. We built on existing ties, especially with the Friends of Saguaro National Park, University of Arizona, and Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, and created many new ones. More than 300 volunteers and literally dozens of groups helped with everything from setting up booths at Base Camp to leading field trips.

The major planning issue for our park, which does not have any road-accessible, large gathering places, was finding appropriate sites for the events and arranging transportation to them. So we created many small events and organized a complex shuttle system to move people from off-site parking to Base Camp and to field sites. Getting schoolchildren safely into the backcountry added logistical complexity that included mule packing and on-site emergency medical technicians. For safety reasons we decided not to conduct the event in summer—when biodiversity is highest but temperatures are scorching—and chose October instead.


[Two students lying face down on a rock reach their arms into a desert pool in search of invertebrates. Credit: NPS photo]

Students sample aquatic invertebrates from spring-fed bedrock pools, or tinajas, in the park’s backcountry. Prior to the 2011 bioblitz the park did not have a formal invertebrate collection. More than 325 species have been documented to date, and the number continues to rise as specimens that are more difficult to identify are cataloged.

The 2011 bioblitz was a huge and successful event in terms of outreach and science.

• More than 5,000 participants, including more than 200 scientists and 2,100 schoolchildren, searched the park for life-forms. Students collected and identified lichens and insects; set up remote wildlife cameras; resurveyed a saguaro study plot established in 1941; and camped in the Rincon Mountains, where they studied butterflies, bryophytes, and birds.

• In the spirit of documenting biodiversity in both districts of the park and in the city of Tucson in between, Dr. J. Michael Fay of the National Geo graphic Society conducted a “Mini- Transect.” He began on the east side of the Rincon Mountains and, accompanied by a succession of park rangers and local biologists, documented every plant species he encountered while traversing the Rincons, crossing Tucson, and hiking into Base Camp, where he kicked off the 2011 bioblitz.

• In the Science Tent, visitors used microscopes to examine local micro biota and discovered life-forms they had previously never heard of, including endophytes (bacteria or fungi that live within vascular plants) and tardigrades. Tardigrades, also called water bears or moss piglets, are microscopic moss-dwelling creatures that constitute their own phylum; they are practically indestructible and surprisingly charming. Scientists discovered new species, too. Several bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) and endophytic fungi documented were new to the park, and some even new to science!

• Citizen scientists took their own photos and posted them on designated Web sites, such as Project Noah ( /missions/6986014), where they could be tallied.

• When the original count of 859 identified species was revealed on the afternoon of 22 October 2011, we knew it was just the beginning. Scientists continue to identify specimens, and the latest number has grown to 1,106—and we are still counting.

• Not only was the bioblitz about science, it was a celebration of biodiversity and Saguaro National Park that included art exhibits, video production, dance, and a published poetry project.

What we learned

Our goals of getting people into the field and expanding our knowledge of the park’s microbiota were met beyond our wildest expectations. Thousands of visitors explored the park in a meaningful, hands-on way and many new species were documented.

As the involvement with our partners deepened, the bioblitz developed a life of its own. Most park staff were too busy to take in more than a sliver of this enormous event. Since then, we have continued to be amazed by new discoveries and experiences from those two days—including new photos, videos, poetry, and art—that teach us and our visitors things about our park that we never knew before.

For more information

Further information on the 2011 bioblitz and the count updates are available on the Saguaro National Park Web site at Here you can also find links to the list of species found; resources and links that participating scientists post about their research; NGS’s FieldScope, an online mapping program with observations, photos, and metadata collected during bioblitzes; the National Park Foundation’s Electronic Field Trip, a live broadcast for schoolchildren that has reached tens of thousands of kids throughout the United States; photos posted to Flickr and ProjectNoah; a link to published poetry at; and media coverage following the bioblitz.

About the authors

Natasha Kline ( and Don Swann ( are both biologists at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona.

The bioblitz: Good science, good outreach, good fun

By Gretchen M. Baker, Nancy Duncan, Ted Gostomski, Margaret A. Horner, and David Manski

“Wow! Look at that! I never knew that!” The exclamations were coming from a man who, with a small group of people, was participating in a guided bird walk during a bioblitz at a small public park on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. The group was walking the road along a stand of red and white pines when a noisy flock of crows drew their attention to the top of one tree in particular.

“Watch that tree,” the group leader told them. “Crows make this sort of ruckus when they are mobbing a predator and trying to drive it out of the area. Maybe it will be an owl.”

It was June, early afternoon, and the sun was high. The small group watched the tree, occasionally using binoculars to scan the branches. Suddenly, an oblong form took flight from a branch near the top of the tree––a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)––and the crows followed close behind it. The group leader was thrilled to add the owl to the list, and the man was thrilled to learn a little about bird behavior and a trick to finding secretive birds like owls in the middle of the day.

Similarly exciting discoveries are made commonly at any bioblitz. All observations like this are good for science and for the parks where bioblitzes are held, but they are most often exciting because the people making them are citizen scientists spending a day in their local national park and contributing to managers’ scientific knowledge of park resources. Some participants may have never been in the park before, and most may have never had an opportunity to spend a day in the field with professional naturalists and to make close personal contact with plants and animals.

What is a bioblitz?

The term “bioblitz” was coined in 1996 by a National Park Service (NPS) employee organizing the first such event at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C. More than half of the 90 participating scientists––who came from federal agencies, the Smithsonian Institution, and area universities––had never been to Kenilworth (Cohn 1996; Droege 1996). Since that first effort, the concept has been used all over the world as a means of gathering and sharing information about plants and animals in parks and other natural areas.

Why host a bioblitz? Park managers may seek to document the presence of rare or understudied taxa, while others may want to establish a baseline of information for a particular piece of land. Some may simply want to introduce people to their local national park. The goals of the event will dictate how it is focused and organized.

The searching can be done by professionals, by local volunteers with good naturalist backgrounds, or by a combination of the knowledgeable and the interested. In most cases, a bioblitz is conducted over a 24-hour period, so participants are out in the early morning to inventory songbirds, during the day to catch butterflies and fish and to collect plant specimens, and at night to trap moths or bats or to listen for owls. Because the event is held on a single day, it is not possible to find and document everything, but a bioblitz does give park managers a quick assessment of the plants and animals found in a given area. Plus, it gives participants an opportunity to spend a day outdoors, sharing time with family, friends, or like-minded enthusiasts.

Perhaps the most well-known national park bioblitz is the ongoing All-Taxa Bio diversity Inventory (ATBI) at Great Smoky Mountains (DLiA 2013). The ATBI is a different kind of bioblitz because it is not limited to one day and it has a stated goal of discovering all forms of life in the park. Other well-known bioblitzes are those organized by the National Geographic Society in a different national park each year during the decade leading up to the NPS centennial in 2016 (

We present here examples of bioblitzes from three different parks. Acadia and Great Basin National Parks (in Maine and Nevada, respectively) have conducted 18 bioblitzes between them, each focused on a specific group of organisms. Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (Minnesota) has conducted three bioblitzes, focusing on discrete locations along the riverway. All have used professional scientists to varying degrees, but Acadia is the only one specifically to focus participant recruitment on professionals while allowing casual public participation. All have the purpose of learning more about the park and the life within it.

Acadia National Park bioblitz program

[A young woman gathers flying insects from a white sheet that is backlit at night while a park resource manager looks on. Credit: NPS Photo/Diana Hunt]

David Manski, former chief of Resource Management at Acadia National Park, watches as a bioblitz volunteer catches moths at a light trap set out during the 2011 Acadia Bioblitz.

Acadia has conducted annual bioblitzes since 2003, focusing primarily on insects and spiders, but adding mushrooms, algae, and diatoms in some years (table 1). Most events have occurred over one weekend in the summer at the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC). Collecting is generally limited to a 24-hour period, with sorting, pinning, and identifying specimens taking the rest of the weekend—and sometimes longer.

Table 1. Focal taxa for the annual bioblitz at Acadia National Park, 2003–2014


Taxon (Taxa)




Butterflies and moths








True bugs


Minor orders of insects, mushrooms


Bees, wasps, ants


Butterflies and moths


Aquatic insects, algae


Beetles and diatoms



Event participation is intentionally kept low to ensure financial and operational sustainability. Participants are recruited primarily through the Maine Entomological Society, which also assists with marketing and general oversight of the event. The Maine Forest Service, University of Maine, and University of New Hampshire have also made in-kind contributions of staff time (entomologists) and equipment. The algae and diatom events coincided with professional scientific meetings at which conference participants were given a park research and collecting permit.

Participants are housed and fed at the SERC by the Schoodic Institute, the National Park Service’s nonprofit partner that manages and runs programs on campus. Lead taxonomists (usually one or two for each event) are given an honorarium of up to $1,000 for their oversight of the event, teaching participants about the target taxa, completing a summary bioblitz report, identifying specimens, and returning pinned and labeled voucher specimens that are incorporated into the park’s museum collection.

Participation by the public is not actively solicited, but no one with a keen interest is turned away. A separate two-hour public education session runs during each bioblitz. Participants learn about the taxa being studied and then are allowed to assist in making collections. Public participants can also watch the bioblitz lab in operation as specimens are identified and cataloged, then meet the scientists involved in the event. Annual attendance varies from 35 to 110, with an average participant return rate of 75%.

Through 2011, collecting was geographically limited to the Schoodic District of the park, which lies approximately 5 miles (8 km) east of Mount Desert Island. In 2012 the main portion of Acadia—Mount Desert Island—was added. Sites that cover the full diversity of habitats within the park are targeted, but participants are also allowed to sample in other areas they choose.

All incoming specimens from a single collection event are assigned a “lot” number that is linked to the date, time, location, and method of capture. Lot numbers are unique and not reused in subsequent years. They are handwritten on preprinted labels as the samples are processed so that mounting and labeling can proceed quickly and the collection information can be tracked as identifications are made.

Collection locations are assigned GPS coordinates in the field, or when the specimens are brought in for processing and given their lot number. This information is recorded in a database along with the habitat and host plants where the specimens were taken, the name of the collector, and any pertinent descriptions of the collecting technique. All specimens are then sorted, and at least one representative of each morphospecies (a species established solely on the basis of morphological characteristics) is pinned or placed in an alcohol vial as appropriate with locality labels. Many bioblitz participants assist in sorting and pinning specimens at the SERC laboratory. Experienced entomologists identify the specimens to species or morphospecies, but the lead taxonomist is responsible for proofing and accepting any identifications made by others.

A practical goal is to sort and identify as many specimens as possible on-site during the event when the greatest number of participants can contribute at their relative levels of expertise. However, not all specimens can be identified in this time period. In those cases the lead taxonomist takes the unidentified specimens back to his or her host institution for follow-up work or distribution to other specialists for final identification. For some families or genera there are no specialists available to identify the specimens to the species level, or in some cases even to the genus level. Specimen identifications are entered in the database at the finest level possible, and labeled representative vouchers of all collected species are held at Acadia’s Charles Sawtelle Museum. More than 1,600 voucher specimens have been cataloged into Acadia’s museum collection.

The bioblitzes have yielded a great deal of information about some otherwise poorly understood biota, including many range extensions and more than 500 new park species records; more than 100 species records are new to the state of Maine. The University of Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station has published a major technical report on the first nine years of bioblitz data (Chandler et al. 2011). There is a lot of regional interest, support, and encouragement for the bioblitz program—everyone wants it to continue––and there is now a cadre of individuals who are enthusiastic about the National Park Service and Acadia.

Wild in the city: Minnesota bioblitz events at Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

One challenge for resource-rich national parks located in urban environments is that they are often overlooked because of the hustle and shine of the cities around them. If managers can make a park experience part of city life, they can open doors for a set of visitors who may not have any other opportunity to catch a glimpse of the natural world around them. Mississippi National River and Recreation Area is one such park.

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area was established in 1988 to recognize and protect the history, industry, and natural resources within and along a 72- mile (116 km) stretch of “working river” that bisects downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, home to more than 667,000 people. It is also distinct in that it connects a series of city, county, and state parks, which make up most of the land-base of this national park unit.

One way park managers are introducing city residents to their local national park is by working with partners and major sponsors––including the Bell Museum of Natural History (University of Minnesota) and the nonprofit Mississippi River Fund––to hold bioblitzes in different sections of the riverway. This collaboration leads to savings in staff time and expense, while building stronger partnerships. Part contest, part festival, part educational event, and part scientific endeavor, bioblitzes bring together naturalists, professional scientists, and the interested public, who canvass the area over a 24-hour period to find and document all plants and animals.

Rather than roaming all 72 miles of the riverway in search of a particular group of organisms, Mississippi River bioblitzes focus on a particular location. That is how the Bell Museum was doing the bioblitzes before the National Park Service became involved, so the park simply adopted their procedures. In addition, intensive surveys at a single location provide more comprehensive information about species presence and abundance at that place.

The first bioblitz was held in June 2009 at Crosby Farm Regional Park, the largest natural area (763 acres, or 309 ha) in St. Paul’s city park system. More than 100 citizen volunteers and professional scientists participated, along with numerous people who happened to be in the park and stopped by to see what was happening. The survey covered floodplain forest; steep, wooded slopes cloaked mostly in oak forest; and a scattering of wetlands and small lakes. The small lakes serve as nurseries for young fish and other aquatic organisms that move into the main river during floods that connect the two water bodies.

[Bioblitz participants along the shore of the Mississippi River. Credit: NPS photo/Ted Gostomski]

[A scientist uses a hand lens to identify a mushroom species. Credit: NPS photo/Ted Gostomski]

(Above) Visitors, park staff, scientists, and volunteers mingle near a temporary aquarium filled with fish collected from the Mississippi River during the 2009 Minnesota bioblitz at Crosby Farm Regional Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Right) University of Minnesota entomologist Anna Gerenday uses a hand lens to identify a mushroom species at the 2011 Minnesota bioblitz at the Ordway Field Station.

Volunteers tallied 563 species of flora and fauna (table 2), including two species of endangered mollusks (the wartyback, Quadrula nodulata, and rock pocketbook, Arcidens confragosus); numerous fox snakes (Elaphe vulpina), possibly indicating that the area supports a breeding population; and river otters (Lontraca nadensis), which had been absent from the riverway for some time. A park-wide survey the following year found otters throughout the park’s portion of the river, so a long-term research project was initiated to gather basic natural history information. Currently, park and U.S. Geological Survey biologists are working to identify genetic markers they can use to determine the size of the otter population and its genetic diversity within the upper Mississippi River corridor.

Table 2. Species counts for select taxa at three bioblitz events along the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, Minnesota, 2009, 2011, and 2013

Site (acres/hectares)










Invertebrates (spiders)

Total Number of Species

Crosby Farm Regional Park (763/309)












Ordway Field Station (300/121)












Coldwater Spring (92/37)










5 (16)


Note: n.d. indicates no data.

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