Thursday, February 02, 2006

Busey Woods Bio Blitz Brings Home Appreciation for Biodiversity

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Do you know where you might find a two-ridge rams-horn (that’s a type of snail), some rattlesnake master (that’s a prairie plant), or a Nelson’s sharp-tailed sparrow (which is a real bird)? Despite their exotic names, it’s possible to come across any one of these three at Busey Woods in Urbana. I know that because they are on the list of one thousand, three hundred, twenty-six different species of plants and animals that was compiled from the Busey Woods Bio Blitz held last June.

The Bio Blitz, as you may or may not remember, was an effort to catalogue as many species of plants and animals as possible in a twenty-four hour period. The result is a sort of snapshot of the biological diversity of Busey Woods. The event was coordinated by the Urbana Park District, and it brought together scientists from the U of I, the Illinois Natural History Survey, and host of volunteers.

The most photogenic creatures observed at the Bio Blitz were a pair of cecropia moths. These largest of North American moths are not uncommon in Illinois, but they are such strikingly beautiful insects you might be surprised to see them so close to home. With their five-inch wingspan, and intricate patterns of white, brown and red, they look like something you’d expect to see in a far off rainforest.

Another insect discovered at the Bio Blitz, a type of plant hopper, was not expected there, having never before been observed anywhere in Illinois. Chris Dietrich an entomologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey identified it. Like many of the other six hundred eleven species of insects found in Busey Woods that day, the plant hopper was unceremoniously vacuumed out of the undergrowth and identified under a microscope. According to Dietrich, it’s not all that unusual to come across a new first record for an insect in the state, since there are many many different kinds of insects out there, and relatively few people with the knowledge to distinguish among them. Should you come across it, you are not likely to trip over Illinois’ newest plant hopper, which is only around a quarter inch long, and spends its time feeding on plant sap.

The Bio Blitz team that counted fish in the Saline Branch, the stream that runs along the eastern edge of Busey Woods, found thirty different species, five of which had not been recorded in past surveys. According to Gary Lutterbie, a stream biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, such numbers tell us the Saline Branch is in pretty good shape, despite past abuses. He attributed this to farm conservation measures that reduce soil and chemicals in runoff from upstream agricultural fields, as well as the shade provided by vegetation in Busey Woods.

There weren’t any huge surprises among the amphibians, or mollusks, or plants or birds catalogued by the Bio Blitz, but scientists were generally pleased with the diversity of species found.

It’s a testament to the resilience of nature that such biodiversity is present in a tract of land that was logged and grazed and used as a dump prior to its acquisition by the Urbana Park District in 1992. And it’s a testament to the initiative and creativity of Urbana Park District staff that some eight hundred people came out in the sweltering heat for the Bio Blitz.

I can’t imagine a better way to put people in touch with the riches of their own back yard.