Back from the Bayou

by Jessica Shea

“Everyone comes back from the field with a different story,” said John Francis, National Geographic Vice President of Research, Conservation and Exploration. Francis helped wrap-up the closing ceremony of BioBlitz 2013 in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in New Orleans on May 18.

Photo by Jessica Shea, NG Education

Photo by Jessica Shea, NG Education

A bioblitz is a 24-hour species inventory. Basically, scientists, citizen scientists, students, families, and the general public work together to spot and identify different types of plants and animals. National Geographic and the National Park Service (NPS) partner for a yearly bioblitz event.

Last year the D.C.-based NatGeo Education team headed west to Rocky Mountain National Park, where the final plant and animal tally was 490 species. This year, though, we went south­ to Louisiana. This was my first bioblitz and my first time in Louisiana. So what’s my story from the field?

My first afternoon in the park, I went into the woods with NPS Ranger Stacy Lafayette and a group of other novices. She trained us to lead student inventories of invertebrates—bugs, that is. While Ranger Stacy was explaining the tricks of using an aerial net to collect (and then release) dragonflies, I looked up the trail to see an armadillo. I wandered away from the group, a bit, to get a better look.

Photo by Sam Zuhkle, NG Education

Photo by Sam Zuhkle, NG Education

There were three nine-banded armadillos snuffling along. They reminded me of a cross between a baby dinosaur, a pig and a squirrel. Yes, that’s right. A dinosaur because of their appearance. A pig because of the foraging and aforementioned snuffling. And a squirrel because they weren’t afraid of people.

After a few minutes of gawking and snapping photos, I got back to hunting for invertebrates. Someone in our group found a larva we couldn’t identify, so we bagged it to bring back to the scientists. As we tromped out of the woods, we crossed paths with an entomologist, which is an inspect specialist. He glanced at the specimen from a few feet away and rattled off the common and scientific names, thank you very much.

Citizen scientists snap photos to upload to Project Noah. Photo by Christina Riska, NG Education

Citizen scientists snap photos to upload to Project Noah. Photo by Christina Riska, NG Education

John Francis also got a surprise from one of the scientists. Francis was trying to take a photo of an insect (he was going to upload it to Project Noah), but the critter wouldn’t stay put. It kept crawling all over his arm. After he got his shot, a scientist told him it was a red velvet ant. The insect—actually a type of wasp, not an ant—is also called a cow killer, so named because it is one of the most poisonous insects in the United States.

Juan Martinez with a 2013 BioBlitz participant from Sabino High School in Arizona. They were part of an inventory identify aquatic species. Photo by Tirzah Weiskotten, NG Education

Juan Martinez with a 2013 BioBlitz participant from Sabino High School in Arizona. They were part of an inventory identify aquatic species. Photo by Tirzah Weiskotten, NG Education

Back at the closing ceremony, Francis shared the stage with National Geographic Emerging Explorer Juan Martinez. Martinez shared the story of how he became passionate about nature. Growing up in South Central L.A., Martinez was often in detention. Eventually a teacher told him that he could either continue going to detention or he could join the ecology club. Not knowing what it was, he joined the club. He grew a jalapeño plant. The experience triggered his love for nature and changed his life. Martinez now spearheads the Natural Leaders Network with the goal of reconnecting children with nature.

“It’s hard to imagine how alive this world really is until you witness it,” Martinez said. “From afar it looks like just trees and swamp.”

Go outside and see what you find. You might spot a baby dinosaur. Oh, well, more likely it’ll be an armadillo.

We are all explorers.

(Check out our Facebook album for more photos from BioBlitz 2013.)

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