Puttin' on the blitz

Posted 9/3/09

“Yellowstone National Park is 137 years old. There aren't really a lot of first's that are left,” noted Christine Lehnertz, deputy superintendent for Yellowstone National Park. “So it's noteworthy that this is the first bio-blitz …

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Puttin' on the blitz


{gallery}09_03_09/BioBlitz{/gallery} Takuto Shiga (left) of Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido, Japan, and Naomi Tanaka, a microbiology graduate student at Montana State University, collect a bumblebee during last Friday's bio-blitz in Yellowstone National Park. The event, which sought to catalog the diversity of the park's wildlife and plant resources, was a first in the park's 137-year history. Tribune photo by Randal Horobik Researchers comb Yellowstone in historic event“You've got 24 hours to find what you can find. Good luck.”With those words, Ann Rodman, geographic information systems specialist for Yellowstone National Park, turned a crowd of more than 100 scientists, researchers, park staff members and volunteers loose into the countryside on Friday to begin the first-ever bio-blitz conducted within America's first national park. Like children waiting to rush the Christmas tree, the crowd of enthusiastic researchers required no further invitation.

“Yellowstone National Park is 137 years old. There aren't really a lot of first's that are left,” noted Christine Lehnertz, deputy superintendent for Yellowstone National Park. “So it's noteworthy that this is the first bio-blitz that's been held here, not just for the park, but for the people participating in it.”

For the event, the National Park Service opened a large swath of the park, ranging from Yellowstone's northern boundary near Gardiner south nearly 15 miles to the Indian Creek region and for several miles on either side of the highway corridor. The sector was chosen not only for its logistical ease — researchers were able to make use of the Youth Conservation Corps facilities in Mammoth as a base camp and staging area — but also for the wide array of ecological zones, elevations and habitat types found within.

While some researchers present were hoping to document and study some of the park's larger animals — rabbits, owls and bats — many were there to give attention to the park's smaller life forms, plants and mushrooms. No life form was too small or obscure to pass by, and no location was overlooked.

As researchers fanned out from Mammoth, they could be seen heading for forests and meadows, looking under rocks, along the water's edge and even in the thermal outflow channels below Mammoth's famed hot springs terraces.

“When you look at Yellowstone, there's been a lot of attention given to the larger mammal populations like the elk, wolves, bison and bears, but that's such a small fraction of the life in the park,” noted Jessica Rykken, a post-doctoral student from Harvard University. “You're talking maybe two or three dozen mammal and fish species that have been studied, but there are probably hundreds of different insects in the park, and we know next to nothing about them, because no studies have ever been done before today.”

Rykken, along with Paul Rickerson, a volunteer who drove from Ashland, Ore., to take part in the event, were in the field looking to gather samples of bees and ants from around the hills above Mammoth Hot Springs. In the same area, a group of eight veterinary-medicine students from Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido, Japan, teamed along the shores of one of Yellowstone's many small ponds looking for snails, earthworms, leeches and millipedes.

“As old as the park is, you would think we know everything there is to know about it,” Lehnertz observed. “The truth is, there are a lot of data gaps and missing information, and that makes it hard to take care of things.”

The number of those gaps likely shrank by the conclusion of the 24-hour bio-blitz. At a public event outside the Albright Visitors Center in Mammoth Hot Springs, researchers proudly announced they had located nearly 950 different species of plants and animals during the event.

Two days later, that number had increased to almost 1,100 species, according to Kayhan Ostovar, assistant professor of environmental science at Rocky Mountain College and one of the principle organizers of the bio-blitz event. The number will continue to grow in the weeks and months ahead.

“It will probably be close to six months before we know the final count,” said Ostovar. “There are a number of specimens collected that will be sent elsewhere for identification.”

Once identified, they'll make their way back to the park, where they'll be included in the Yellowstone Heritage and Resource Center and made available for further study. The findings also could be used to form the basis for future research and study efforts within Yellowstone National Park.

“We really didn't know what to expect,” Rodman said of the bio-blitz. “I was worried the entire week until people started showing up. We could do more of these in other locations of the park, or we could tailor a study around a particular species, like spiders, and try for a more in-depth count. It's hard to say because I wasn't sure what would be found.”