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Volunteers search for life during Sitka ‘Bioblitz’

Bioblitz volunteer Megan Gahl holds a caddisfly poking out from the end of its case. Caddisflies use silk, sand and debris to make protective cases. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

In Sitka over the weekend, about 200 people went searching for life. The volunteers were participating in the community’s first all-encompassing “Bioblitz.” The goal of the event is to find as much life as possible and catalog what it is. That means everything, from beneath the sea to above the mountaintops.

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John Hudson does the “benthic dance” to loosen up a creek bed in the Starrigavan valley. Hudson works with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Juneau, and was one of Saturday’s “Bioblitz” group leaders. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

John Hudson works for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Juneau. At the moment, though, he’s standing in the middle of a creek in Sitka’s Starrigavan valley. He’s teaching a group of bystanders how to capture aquatic invertebrates. You know, bugs that live in the water.

“Here’s how it works,” he says. “You use your feet to kick up the substrate. All the insects that live on the gravel and in the spaces between the gravel will be dislodged into the current of the water, and then the current will take it right into your D-frame net…”

He calls it the “benthic dance.”

“And then after a few minutes, shake your net, rinse out all the fine sediment, get it out of there so we can see the bugs better, and then you’ll deposit your sample,” he said.

He overturns the net into a shallow pan full of creek water. At first it looks like powdery mud. But then, parts of it start to move.

“Ah! I see ameletus,” Hudson said. “I see ameletus!”

The first find of the day. Definitely not the last. Hudson, by the way, is really into bugs. He knows about their tiniest features, from a macho little stonefly called a sweltsa…

“They have hairy chests,” he said. “You flip them over and it’s actually their armpits.”

… to the predacious diving beetle, which attaches an air bubble to itself so it can breathe underwater.

“Oh it’s so fun to watch them fight that. It’s like trying to go underwater with a life jacket on. It’s difficult,” he said. “But they use their forelegs to hold on to debris, once they reach the bottom.”

Those two facts are just a few of the things Hudson is able to recite without thinking twice. But he says connecting people to that information, in a way that goes beyond weird bug facts, is important.

“So many people stand next to the edge of a stream and don’t realize the amount of life there is down there, and how important it is to them personally,” he said.

For example, among the species collected were hundreds of fish, including dolly varden and coho salmon.

“Well, those coho of course spend a lot of their time in the ocean, depending on their productivity out there, but they spend a couple years in these little streams that often go unnoticed,” Hudson said. “It’s the health of these watersheds and the forest next to them that really drive the productivity of these streams for these coho.”

Sitka Tribe of Alaska weir manager and fisheries biologist Jessica Gill studies an aquatic invertebrate during Saturday’s “Bioblitz.” Gill was part of a team working in the Starrigavan Valley creek system. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

The healthier the stream, the more diverse menu of bugs inside it. More bugs means better nourishment for the coho, means more fish for the ocean, means more money for the local economy, or more fish for your table. Hudson says building that connection is a huge part of Bioblitz.

“It’s simply connecting people to nature, getting them off their couches and outside, to take part in the natural world and see what’s out there living, and appreciate biodiversity, because it’s so important for all of us,” he said.

Scott Harris agrees.

“Well, this is the perfect intersection between hard science and citizen science, really,” said Harris, the watershed program coordinator for Sitka Conservation Society. He’s one of the organizers of the Bioblitz and today, he’s also a participant.

He says the event is great as a way to connect the public with the science that grows, eats, sleeps, breaths and swims all around them.

“And also as a long term indicator of the biodiversity of the area,” Harris said. “We hope to do this maybe every two years or so, for eternity, just to keep track of literally the numbers of species and the diversity of species we have here through time.”

So what are those numbers? There were 120 different species of aquatic invertebrates, 212 insects, 110 kinds of fungi, more than 45 birds, 14 types of fish, 70 mosses, well upward of 200 plants, 31 marine algae and plants, and 15 different kinds of mammals. And, yes, “mammals” includes humans, some 230 of whom participated in some part of the 24-hour Bioblitz.

Some Bioblitz volunteers pose in front of Rasmuson Hall, which was nicknamed “Bioblitz Central” for the 24-hour event. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

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