It turned into a bioblitz

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Effigy Mounds biological technician Kat Busse demonstrates how insects were caught for the park’s first bioblitz, held Saturday. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Busse shows off the giant water bug the group caught during the bioblitz. The insect was one of her favorite discoveries.

Some insects that were difficult to identify in the field were taken back to the Effigy Mounds office in canisters stored in coolers. By cooling the insects, their metabolisms were slowed down, making them easier to study.

Effigy Mounds learns about biodiversity of park’s insects

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

A group of Effigy Mounds park staff, scientists, naturalists and students spent several hours Saturday morning in Effigy Mounds National Monument’s south unit, collecting as many insect species as they could in the park’s first bioblitz. 

According to the National Park Service, a bioblitz is a quest to discover living organisms, during which a group works to compile a snapshot of an area’s biodiversity in less than 48 hours.

“A bioblitz can be as long as 24 to 48 hours or as short as a few hours,” explained Jessica Salesman, a biologist with Effigy Mounds. “They help us better understand biodiversity so we’re able to know about and appreciate what’s out there.”

Biodiversity refers to the variety of life found on earth, including different species and their habitats and how they connect to one another. 

Bioblitzes are part of the National Park Service’s “A Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement,” a plan for the National Park Service’s second century of existence, as it will celebrate 100 years in 2016. In the plan, the National Park Service vowed to “create a new generation of citizen scientists and future stewards of our parks by conducting fun, engaging, and educational biodiversity discovery activities in at least 100 national parks.” Since 2014, over 100 parks have participated in biodiversity discovery efforts.

In their first bioblitz, Salesman said Effigy Mounds wanted to take it slow.

“It’s a beta blitz,” she said. “We wanted to keep it small and focus on a specific area.”

While other parks have attempted to discover all species living in an area during their bioblitzes, Salesman said Effigy Mounds chose to spotlight insects.

“We know what we have with birds and fish, but insects we don’t know a whole lot about,” she said. “They’re like the next frontier.”

Salesman said, for many, it’s surprising to learn that insects account for the greatest amount of biomass on the planet.

“But yet, they’re one of the least understood,” she said. “They’re animals too, and we want to better understand them because there’s so much change.”

Participants used nets to collect insects during the bioblitz, gliding them through the air to capture butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and other flying critters, while sweeping them through grasses and other plants for ground-dwelling bugs.

After each sweep, the contents of the net were evaluated and each species recorded. Bioblitzers also took thousands of photos. If the insect was a species the group members hadn’t seen before, they took it back to the Effigy Mounds office, where it could be studied and identified, explained biological technician Kat Busse.

In order to transport the insects, they were placed in small canisters or baggies, then put in a cooler, Busse said. 

“If you put them on ice, it turns their metabolism down,” Busse said, noting that the process does not kill the insect, but makes them easier and safer to handle. 

Following identification, the insects were let go. If one did not survive the cooling, Salesman said it will be added to Effigy Mounds’ collection for future study.

Although Effigy Mounds’ bioblitz was technically held Saturday morning, Salesman said the group also collected some of the park’s moths and other night insects Friday evening. To do so, sheets were set up with a light in the middle. The cliche “like moths to a flame” proved itself true, as the insects were drawn to the light source and could be collected off the sheets for study. 

Twenty-three samples, many of them moths, were brought back to the office from the night collection.

“Most are so tiny,” Salesman commented. “You don’t always think about moths because you can’t see them.”

Saturday afternoon, the group continued to count and identify the insects it discovered that morning. At least 44 species of butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies were found. Figuring out the number of other insects will take some time, Salesman remarked.

Identification is also tricky, Busse said, stating that “you have to see just the right characteristics” in order to correctly determine the species.

One of the group’s favorite discoveries included the amberwing dragonfly, the smallest dragonfly found in Iowa.

The day was especially exciting for Busse, who, as an entomology major in college, lived out her dream of studying insects, a group on which she doesn’t always get to focus.

“What we were doing today was the best the job can get,” she said.

One of her favorite finds was the tortoise beetle, of which there are two different species.

“I discovered it last week and identified it in preparation,” she said. “We found both today.”

Another exciting discovery was the giant water bug, or toe biter, which it is often called, cited Busse.

“It’s called a toe biter for good reason,” Busse said, showing off the large insect’s rostrum, or piercing mouth parts. Similar in appearance to a beetle or cockroach, the insect grows to be over an inch long. “One even chased around my friend.”

“It’s unusual in that the female lays eggs on the male’s back and the male raises the young,” Busse added.

For a test run, Salesman said the bioblitz was successful. Next year, she said Effigy Mounds will do another, taking into account what participants learned this year. 

“We’re going to stick with insects. There are so many,” she said, mentioning that the next bioblitz will be done in the park’s north unit rather than the south. “It’s a different part of the park, so we could have some different species.”

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