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

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The park organized and held a second bioblitz in 2014, this time on the New York side of the river. For further information and to view photos of the event see and

Park contact

Don Hamilton (

Table 1. Results of 2013 Upper Delaware Bioblitz


Number of Species

Aquatic macroinvertebrates (aquatic insects, mussels, snails)




Bryophytes (mosses, lichens, and worts)




Fungi (mushrooms and molds)


Herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians)




Terrestrial invertebrates (insects, worms, snails)


Vascular plants

268 (192 native)



[Background image shows a scientist inspecting a white sheet covered in nocturnal insects. Credit: Jon Gelhaus]

[Children with scientist. Credit: Roy Morsch]

[Boy holding salamander. Credit: Roy Morsch]

[Crane fly. Credit: Steve Scott]

(Background) A mercury vapor lamp and a white sheet attract flying insects at the bioblitz. (Inset, top) Young naturalists at the Upper Dela ware Bioblitz learn about fish from Dr. Richard Horwitz of the Academy of Natural Sciences. (Inset, middle) A young participant holds a salamander (Plethodon glutinosus) identified during the Upper Delaware Bioblitz. (Inset, bottom) Female crane fly, Tipula bicornis.

Perspectives on the ATBI

By the Editor

The All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) is a potent, ambitious, and intensive model for the discovery and study of park biodiversity. While it may not be sustainable for all parks, several have embarked on this long-term endeavor that seeks to document all life-forms in a park. Here we present inter views with Marc Albert, Stewardship Program director, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Massachusetts, and Todd Witcher, executive director, Discover Life in America, the nonprofit partner for the ATBI at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina, to gain insight into this robust inventory tool. We also share a feature article on pages 58–61 about the ongoing inventory work at George Washington Memorial Parkway to round out our coverage of ATBIs.

Interview with Marc Albert Photo of Marc Albert

Marc Albert in transit to the Boston Harbor Islands.

Credit: Aya Rothwell

Editor: What is an All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory?

Marc Albert: It’s a long-term inventory process, the overall effort given to cataloging biodiversity in a park. It is an ongoing and ultimately never-ending effort that flows directly from the National Park Service mission to understand the resources in a park.

How did the ATBI at Boston Harbor Islands come about and why was it focused on arthropods?

Marc: E. O. Wilson got the idea going around 2000, based on his concept of the “microwilderness.” He has been a great champion of popularizing science, and one of his big ideas is that we are all a lot closer to biodiversity than we realize. You don’t need to go to Yellowstone to see biodiversity. As an entomologist he had a particular insight into all the diversity that is unnoticed underfoot. He’s based at Harvard University, so when the Boston Harbor Islands was in the process of doing our first inventories—geology, soils, vertebrates, vascular plants—he attended an inventory event and challenged the park to expand those inventories to focus on invertebrates. Through his connections with a nonprofit foundation, he facilitated the first donation to support this idea. I think he saw this as an opportunity to stimulate locally what he had been thinking about as one of his broad principles.

How did you organize and run the events over the six-year period?

Marc: Brian Farrell is at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and was the principal investigator for the insect and terrestrial invertebrate portion of our ATBI. Jessica Rykken was a postdoctoral researcher who served as the project leader. She directly oversaw the collection and identifications, and also facilitated some of the educational and interpretive materials that came out of the program.

What did it accomplish?

Marc: Last year Jessica and Brian published a comprehensive technical report of the “microwilderness” ATBI from 2005 to 2010, and it provides full details.3 But the highlights are many. Paraphrasing from this report, 40 scientists and 50 students, interns, and volunteers participated, and the latter group contributed 12,000 hours to process nearly 77,000 specimens in the lab. Altogether they identified approximately 2,000 species, including at least 239 nonnatives.4 Beetles were the most diverse group and millipedes the least. However, a little more than half of the approximately 160,000 specimens collected remain unidentified, and flies and wasps could ultimately exceed the number of beetle species. Fifteen species are thought to be new records for Massachusetts, New England, or North America, including an agricultural pest from Europe, a click beetle. Also, we have discovered European fire ants on the islands and, though they haven’t been a problem here, they are a public nuisance elsewhere, so it’s good to know. The ATBI also fostered unparalleled opportunities for outreach, including chances for public participation in field and laboratory settings and school programs for thousands of students.

Was there a broader context to the science?

Marc: The investigators wanted to understand if island area and distance from the mainland, as predicted by the theory of island biogeography, would correlate with species richness for these islands, which are so heavily influenced by human disturbance. For six focal taxa they did find that as island size increased, so did species richness. Likewise, as island distance from the mainland increased, species richness declined. Also, as the distance between islands increased, the similarity in the focal taxa communities decreased, but more so for species with limited flight ability. For ecological, economic, and management reasons they also were interested in the proportion and distribution of native species to nonnatives. Compared with a control area on the mainland, the islands had fewer nonnative species but the proportion of nonnatives to natives was higher. Though six nonnative focal beetle families occurred on more islands than did natives, variation in species abundance was too great to draw a conclusion about the proportion. Comparing plants with invertebrates, they found that as island distance from the mainland increases, the proportion of nonnative to native plant species goes up more than it does for invertebrates.

Why did you refer to this as an ATBI when it focused initially on terrestrial arthropods?

Marc: When I got to the park in 2005 this project was called “the ATBI.” But as time has passed and as we’ve had an opportunity to think more broadly, I have stopped thinking about this discrete arthropod project as the ATBI and instead, of course, think of the ATBI as our overall effort to catalog biodiversity in the park. The terrestrial insect and arthropod–targeted effort was a huge piece, but it wasn’t the ATBI.

What other taxa have you investigated?

Marc: Intertidal biota. Concurrent with the beginning of the insect work was a thorough inventory of biotic assemblages of the intertidal habitats throughout the park. We funded a project manager—a graduate student from Northeastern University—and she arranged for several intertidal biologists to use more of a classic bioblitz model to collect specimens at several islands in the intertidal zone over a couple of tide cycles in one day.

Has technology played a role in your bio-discovery work?

Marc: Last year we piloted two “photo bioblitzes,” as we are calling them. They emerged out of our partnership with Harvard and our work with Jessica Rykken, who helped us coordinate the first one. We viewed it as more of a pilot as opposed to a full bioblitz effort, because we wanted to figure out whether using images can work to document biodiversity scientifically or whether it’s only useful—and this is valuable too—as a biodiversity discovery engagement tool. Therefore, we only registered 15 participants who were willing to be a part of this pilot and who came out to Thompson Island with their cameras. The participants had to set up their own accounts with iNaturalist. The idea was that all of the images they uploaded to iNaturalist would be grouped and shared as the Boston Harbor Islands photo bioblitz.

Some species must have been easier to identify than others.

Marc: That’s the trade-off with iNaturalist. It allows you to request identification suggestions from the user community, and while professional taxonomists might browse the photos and help make identifications, it is more of an amateur enthusiast user group. Of course, amateurs can be right and they can know a lot of things, but there’s definitely a quality-control step when using a crowd-sourced site like iNaturalist. That’s why it was really important for us to have Jessica serve as the curator of the collection.

What did you conclude about the viability of the photo bioblitz to document species?

Marc: It worked well, although there were some technology challenges. As a scientific inventory tool, it’s nondestructive and it allows us to crowd-source the collection of information and the suggested identifications. The taking of pictures can be done by a lot of people. And it’s excellent as a biodiversity discovery community engagement tool. The challenge is that you still have the same basic bottleneck as you do with any inventory, which is the authority, the taxonomist, who actually curates the collection and makes the final call on species identification. You don’t get around that with a photo bioblitz.

Is the ATBI over? Is it ever complete?

Marc: We have stopped broad-scale collection, processing, and identification of insects. But I would by no means say that our ATBI is over. Even if you stop collecting and transition to monitoring of a particular focal group, for example arthropods, you would almost certainly find new species as you were looking the second time and therefore add to biodiversity information in the park. So by my way of thinking the ATBI does not have an end, because we’re going to continue to try to catalog the biodiversity of the park. Until this is no longer a park where understanding the resources is fundamental to our mission, it’s not going to end.

So it’s more of a strategy?

Marc: Right. It’s an approach to understanding park resources and it flows directly from the National Park Service mission. An ATBI should be a core organizing principle around inventories in parks. However, there are funding limits, so we’re not operating in the way we were during the active funded part of this work.

Are the specimens kept at Harvard?

Marc: Yes. From my perspective the National Park Service gains by having the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology be the curators of the collection. They know what they’re doing, they have the time and resources to manage the collection, and they have collections from all over Massachusetts and the world. It is a benefit to the science and to the National Park Service to be able to look at the Boston Harbor Islands collection in the context of all these other collections.

How did you handle data management?

Marc: I was very concerned as the main inventory was winding down that we were going to end up with all of the information being over at Harvard, and that it would just get farther and farther out of reach. It did take quite a bit of discussion between the NPS Biological Resource Management Division, who maintain the NPSpecies database, the Inventory and Monitoring Program staff, park staff, and our partners at Harvard to figure out how to export the data and transform it in a way that would automatically load into NPSpecies. The main issue was figuring out which of the fields in the Harvard database5 were in common with NPSpecies. But we eventually did do it. The transfer of this massive number of specimen records has gotten us to think about NPSpecies and its value. We’re going to bring NPSpecies into more use for things like interpretive programs.

How would you characterize the level of public involvement?

Marc: Public involvement was built into our project in multiple ways and continues to be. We’ve had public involvement on individual collecting days. We’ve had several bioblitz events that were part of the overall insect inventory and the public was invited to those, plus we had the two photo bioblitzes in 2013. While most of the collecting has been done by the lead investigators and undergraduate research assistants, a little bit has been done by other members of the public as part of the engagement process. Several community volunteers were involved in the lab, because there’s a role for the public in the initial sorting of insects and other groups, throwing out random parts that can’t be identified, drying the specimens, and pinning them so that an expert can take a look. We also developed posters and a card game to involve the public.

Tell me more about that.

Marc: One feature that enhanced both the science and educational value of the project was high-resolution photography. Harvard has this fantastic system to take three-dimensional photographs that can then be used for measurements to help with identification, but also have been used for posters and even a custom card game. Not everyone is going to have access to a high-end system like this, but even just taking photographs with a digital camera can enhance the biodiversity discovery value of the specimens for the public. Instead of just reporting the number and names of species collected, you can share the individual images that are sometimes creepy and amazing, especially at poster size. The Great Smoky Mountains project has produced some incredible posters. We also produced clear resin–covered specimens of various invertebrates. They’re used as part of a curriculum-based program in which students do math and other exercises related to food webs for understanding the ecology of terrestrial ecosystems.

What is the legacy of the ATBI?

Marc: I think the curated collection at Harvard is an important legacy. The inventory and the potential for further biodiversity discovery live on in that collection. For example, a mycologist from Harvard has begun to study fungi that grow on the bodies of insects. Some of the fungi biodiversity that he is discovering will be from those specimens collected eight years ago as part of the insect study.

What are the next steps for biodiversity discovery at your park?

Marc: This partnership between the Boston Harbor Islands and the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard continues to lead to new investigations. Our current focus is on cataloging the fungi of the park, working with Danny Haelewaters from Donald Pfister’s Harvard lab and an NPS intern from UMass Boston. For this work we’re targeting two islands and one peninsula in order to try to capture a range of conditions such as varying distance from the mainland, wooded versus shrubby habitats, etc. The team is using both morphological and molecular techniques to do the taxonomy. Another spin-off that is emerging is research into the distribution of mosquito species on the Boston Harbor Islands. We might pick up a couple of species from that, and we might learn something about the public health aspects of different species acting as vectors for disease.

What management issues relate to the information you gained from the ATBI?

Marc: While the ATBI is valuable and ongoing, we do have other stakeholders, and in our case other landowning partners, in the park. I do think that at times talking about insects for six years became tiresome and even viewed as an opportunity to pigeonhole the Park Service as focusing on impractical things. Where partnerships are really critical and where funding is tight, it is important for parks to consider what their key stakeholders are interested in as well. Biodiversity can be approached from plenty of angles and there are plenty of focal groups. Not every park might focus on terrestrial arthropods and intertidal biota like we did, but certainly the opinions and interests of key partners should be considered. Part of the thinking through of taking on ambitious inventories should be to identify clear links to park management is sues of concern. We have to be sensitive to the practical value of biodiversity discovery, for public health, agriculture, and visitor services, for example, at the same time as we’re interested in the scientific value.

Some parks focus on different taxa as part of annual bioblitzes and can more easily manage this approach than they could an all-out ATBI. Is this a good model?

Marc: It’s a terrific model for a couple of reasons. Number one is that the main leverage that we have with taxonomists is their own professional enthusiasm for the subject. The cool thing about the focused bioblitzes is that you might get a lot of taxonomists together who like being in a room talking about the thing that they love. That’s a benefit compared to the “try to get everything” approach where Jessica had to be sending boxes of sorted specimens all over the country and world. It’s great if you can establish those professional relationships, but then it may take a while for those taxonomists to get to our box of materials. It’s not the same as “come out here and geek out in your subject-matter area with us and with other like-minded taxonomists.” I think that is what makes the discrete taxa bioblitz model so fun for the participants and so efficient for the National Park Service.

Another model is to change the location of a bioblitz from year to year.

Marc: Right. That model can be excellent for parks that have a local university or institution that wants to play a big role and can themselves be the facilitators of getting taxonomists for the various groups. I was at a workshop at Valley Forge National Historical Park outside of Philadelphia last year and they were talking about doing a biodiversity event and working with the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences [at Drexel University]. Of course the academy has an entomologist, a mammalian zoologist, plant and fungi people, and so they can serve as the key liaisons to the taxonomic expertise for the various groups. I think that sort of model, a local park doing a community event collecting a lot of stuff, can work when there’s a dedicated institution that also sees it in their best interest to be involved.

Are there other considerations in designing a biodiversity discovery activity to meet a park’s needs?

Marc: It is important to think through the scientific and community engagement objectives as distinct topics. It’s great if you can have one event like the NPS–National Geographic BioBlitzes that are designed to answer scientific questions and engage the community. Their high profile may help draw taxonomic expertise, but it takes a lot of staff time and infusion of external money. It is incredibly time-consuming to take the vast amount of specimens from these events and make them into a scientifically valid set of collections. The day of collecting is a tiny piece of the effort, and then the sorting and processing and identifications can be overwhelming. I think it is all too easy for parks to be overly ambitious regarding the scientific goals. The best way to think this through is to distinguish between scientific and community engagement goals. Let’s make sure we don’t set up something so that we’re going to be frustrated or disappointed with one or the other. It’s fine to have a biodiversity discovery event in which you engage the community and they help make species lists, but it would not be smart to plan on this being the scientifically valid inventory for the park.

What risks need to be planned for?

Marc: Just like with any other park activity, there are potential environmental impacts and safety concerns of this type of activity. You don’t want people climbing down a sheer bluff to pick a certain plant. You also have to think through the possible impact on species of special concern and on seasonal nesting species. We had to schedule our intertidal bioblitz in the fall to avoid coastal breeding bird species that nest in a lot of the low-lying areas on many of the islands.

How would you compare your inventory work with the ATBI at Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Marc: If I understand the Great Smoky Mountains model, the organizing principle seems to be targeted research on individual groups with individual researchers and taxonomic working groups, as facilitated through their partnership with Discover Life in America. That’s how they’ve been able to make their model work. It’s this ongoing deep relationship with a nonprofit dedicated to this task. That’s a good model. I think our deep ongoing relationship with a local institution is another good model. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been able to do more projects, and so that’s certainly something to aspire to.

Where is biodiversity discovery headed in the National Park Service?

Marc: I think we’re in a phase of piloting all sorts of different methods for doing this and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Some of this is figuring out where to distinguish scientific goals from public engagement goals. Some of it is figuring out who the right partners are to engage with to make these things work well scientifically. And part of it is to be more strategic. I would like to see the National Park Service take a more strategic approach through which we can engage taxonomist part ners in a more structured way, maybe through the idea of a taxonomist-in-parks program, or maybe dedicated funding to biodiversity inventory that is able to engage a breadth of taxonomist expertise. The key problem is that we’re all going to end up asking for the same people’s time. That lends itself to a strategic solution.

Interview with Todd Witcher Photo of Todd Witcher

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