Defending BioBlitzes

Most of you who know me, know that I am slow to anger or to be triggered in any way. But there are a few "third rails" in my character which, if touched, will send me into a paroxysm of passionate prose.

The 'validity' of the BioBlitz is one of those triggers.

Twice this week, people whose work and contributions to our collective biological knowledge I respect (and, am frankly in awe of) unknowingly (or maybe intentionally) tripped that third-rail wire.

What one of these people asked is "Can you tell me what gets actually gets accomplished in a BioBlitz?
... I do not see how it really adds to a scientific understanding of the area being blitzed. A flora needs to sample all plants in all areas throughout the year, including boring or insignificant plants, if it is to add to the scientific knowledge. BioBlitzes tend to give you redundant photos of common showy flowers."

I think these are valid critiques in a sense, but I also feel they miss the larger point. Hence, I responded. Below is what I said. Your comments, critiques, and addenda appreciated.

A BioBlitz is NOT scientifically thorough, nor is it meant to be complete in any sense. It is a snapshot in time. No one - and I mean No One - in the BioBlitz movement thinks of BioBlitzes as replacements for scientific surveys conducted with agreed upon parameters and protocols. That is not their function in the scientific eco-system. I have participated in bird surveys that were tightly organized to produce a certain kind of data, or that were meant to discover additional sites where a threatened species lived, or to determine population fluctuations. None of these surveys would have been compatible with a BioBlitz.

BUT scientists cannot be everywhere. And we need more people invested in science as a method and as a joyous part of being alive in this world. So, the outreach-learning piece that you isolated already is a major rationale for BioBlitzes.

There are also expanding instances of the broad-range, parameter/protocol-free BioBlitzes pulling in surprise pieces of new information - the Isopod I found in Huddart at a BioBlitz that turned out to reveal a population that had been believed extirpated for half a century, or the change to a plant in the Jepson Manual based on a finding at a Blitz at Memorial Park. Much as Christmas Bird Counts often reveal vagrant birds in unsuspected places (because coverage is expanded and people are not all going to the same place(s) that particular day), BioBlitzes are compressed in time, and so can reveal/suggest some things that were previously hidden. There is a serendipitous element that, ironically, but with greater probability than a lottery ticket, comes to fruition often enough to be an inspiration. (I neglected to add how, in the first-ever BioBlitz in which I participated, at Fort Funston, we added species to the NPS lists!)

Third, this is a snapshot in time. As we do more of these, we will slowly construct a time-lapse glimpse into all taxa. This is already happening. The joint program for BioBlitzes with San Mateo County Parks is entering its ninth consecutive year. With climate change, even those duplicative “showy flower” entries you were rueing, could become valuable as they increase/decrease over time. Now, will the botanists have already noticed that? Most likely. But what of the California Slender Salamander? Or the Isopods? Or the lichens? Or the presence/absence of slime molds? Not every category gets equal consideration. The broad net of the BioBlitz gives us a chance, a small window to alert an expert to something happening at this or that park in the lesser-studied taxa.

Fourth, noisy data is still data. In my day job, I am a historian of the nineteenth-century, and when I come across specific bird references from the 19th century, I try to get those to the attention of local compilers (for instance, I found some notices of a Snowy Owl in Kansas in the 1880s, and an article about the decline of Greater Prairie Chickens there at about the same time). Now, this is, in a sense, anecdotal evidence - we have no precise location, nor time of day, nor know of the trustworthiness of the observers, etc. etc. But it is evidence of something - and of the fact that people were noticing. And it got me thinking - what if I said “I can magically get you all the bird records of every resident of Kansas from 1850-1890 who gave a damn about birds and knew their common names, but the data will be a bit messy and dirty - you want it?” I doubt there would be an ornithologist who would turn me down if I offered that treasure-trove. We are doing the same thing now with iNaturalist and eBird, and with the BioBlitzes, which are time-compressed snapshots of biodiversity in a given place. The data is messy and dirty - but WAY better than my imaginary 19th century example. It is all date-and-time stamped, location specific, and has a preliminary ID. Furthermore, the experience level and trustworthiness of the observers CAN be determined (I won’t bore you with how, but there are ways, and as studies of Big Data improve and move out of advertising, there will be even more sophisticated mechanisms developed - for instance, I foresee quite easily how a scientist working with BioBlitz data 100 years from now could figure out that among participants, I had the best birding skills, and you had the best plant skills, and JJ the best lichen skills, and that my plant IDs shouldn’t be trusted for anything beyond Coyote Brush!),

Fifth, and back to climate change, submitting this somewhat messy data at a large outreach event like a BioBlitz is a concrete way that people are doing something for the environment, and getting engaged with it. I firmly believe that, as Jack Laws says, you won’t save what you don’t love, and knowing something intimately - spending time studying and photographing it and discussing it with others (both on scene and later, virtually), does create a bond. There are so few tangible, non-self-denial things we can do to contribute to monitoring and reversing (or halting) climate change, but a BioBlitz is one of them.

So, sixth and finally, the place of BioBlitzes in the ecosystem of science is as an invitation with oomph. The BioBlitz has no entry requirements. It is an invitation to science at whatever level a person feels they are ready for and can commit to for that day. Everyone starts somewhere. But even if participants don’t take up the invitation and become more involved in science, what they did at the BioBlitz is still there, still their small contribution that day, in the record.

In sum, BioBlitzes are valuable because

  1. They serve as outreach and learning opportunities
  2. They might produce small surprises and new knowledge
  3. They function as a catch-all (albeit messy) longitudinal record
  4. The fact that the data gathered is “noisy” or “dirty” is secondary to the fact of there being more data (and it can be dealt with by increasingly efficient means by researchers)
  5. They are a concrete way to do something about the environment
  6. They serve as an invitation to science that creates some data even while being an invitation

And, to repeat what I said at the beginning, no one is confused about the difference between formal scientific surveys by experts and grassroots bioblitzes. When everyone is a scientist from the moment they can walk and talk, there will be no need for bioblitzes (maybe!).

Posted on 14 December, 2021 20:18 by gyrrlfalcon gyrrlfalcon


Posted by gyrrlfalcon over 2 years ago

Thanks for sharing. A couple months back I had a somewhat deflating conversation with a well known entomologist and author where I pitched a bioblitz idea to help further one of their causes. And to my surprise, they were against the idea. They were only able to consider the deficiencies of a bioblitz as compared to the rigorous longitudinal scientific surveys that they were used to.

They were sufficiently rigid in their thinking that, even after I suggested that a bioblitz addresses a different problem space, that they switched to an argument of not allowing amateurs to trample and destroy habitat.

To me, this is yet another manifestation of our personal psychology flaws - rigidity in approach, losing sight of the 'use cases' or 'problem statements', risk aversion, pluralistic ignorance, primacy effect, etc. And it means I need to develop more effective ways to communicate and influence.

Posted by naturesarchive over 2 years ago
Posted by metsa over 2 years ago

@naturesarchive - Michael, one of my problems with this recalcitrance is that it doesn't take into account the urgency of our moment, in two regards - first the rampant science-denial in our society, and finding grass-roots ways to combat that. This works - I know that from how I have used it in my teaching. Second is the environmental disaster looming. At the very least we need to be documenting everything we can.

Posted by gyrrlfalcon over 2 years ago

I agree with pretty much all your points here, @gyrrlfalcon, thanks for this post! My own focus happens to be on animals (and some plants/fungi) that need to be collected and examined (often under a microscope) to identify them to genus or species. Since a bioblitz by definition is focused on documenting as many species as possible in a given area on a given date, I would argue that an effort should always be made by bioblitz organizers to either obtain permission to collect specimens for interested participants or, if that's not possible, to clearly inform potential participants that this is a "photos-only" bioblitz, for example. I think bioblitzes are wonderful and valuable events for the reasons you state above, but I think ones where collecting is allowed are likely to generate more useful scientific data. Either way, bioblitzes are really fun ways to get folks together for a common purpose and I hope we start to see them pick up again now that the pandemic is easing (sort of).

Posted by kschnei over 2 years ago

Thank you for the wonderful post!

Posted by dwightagan over 2 years ago

HAHA, yes, I have also had this experience. After hearing about all the bioblitzes we had been doing along the east bay shoreline, another nonprofit director called our efforts "shallow." Now I see this year, her org is finally participating in the CNC '23. And she also acknowledges she sees the value in our work ++. That took a while and some berating from her in various situations, but she finally got it and joined us! I just stick to it and when I see people getting thrilled and learning even one new piece of info, all that critique falls away.

Posted by hydrocycler about 1 year ago

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