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San Francisco’s Parks Scoured in Wildlife Inventory

The Golden Gate Bridge looms large over the much-invaded San Francisco Bay. The waters harbor more than 300 invasive species, which is thought to be a record. (photo by Christian Mehlführer)
The Golden Gate Bridge looms large over the much-invaded San Francisco Bay. The waters host more than 300 invasive species, which is thought to be a record. (photo by Christian Mehlführer)

One soggy Saturday morning in March, six kids and their parents stared into the San Francisco Bay looking for “Mussels, Mollusks and More!” Smithsonian Marine Biologist Linda McCann was on hand to help make sense of it all.

“Anybody here know what those are?” McCann asks her rapt audience. “We have a lot of barnacles, don’t we? And it looks like we’ve got some algae here. We’ve got something that I can’t identify out of the water – maybe a hydroid on the end, see them? Those are alive.”

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“See the movement there? I think we’ve got some arthropods, see them? They’re related to lobsters and crabs. So we’ll take this in and try to identify those barnacles.” McCann directs the group inside of the dry laboratory.

Lightbulb tunicate found in San Francisco Bay (photo by Ken-ichi Ueda / iNaturalist.org)
Lightbulb tunicate found in San Francisco Bay (photo by Ken-ichi Ueda / iNaturalist.org)

“Wait. Does that thing have polka dots?” Sixth grade student Rudy Gorospe was inspecting a small colony of sea squirts. “See? The lighter color and then it has the dot thing. It looks like it’s got polka dots.”

And Jon Jarvis, Director of the National Parks Service, says that’s exactly the point of BioBlitz.

“We know that when you get a kid into the outdoors, this spark is ignited. And that spark can change their lives.” But Jarvis acknowledges that, as much as BioBlitz is about the kids, the National Parks Service benefits from all of their eager eyes and ears absorbing everything around them. “About 15 years ago, the National Parks Service launched the Natural Resource Challenge. And it was about, we need the baseline inventory of the natural resources that we’re charged to manage. And then we need a routine monitoring program of those resources.”

So the National Park Service invited 2,700 school children and 300 scientists into the parks in order to better understand what is in each park. But since most non-scientists can’t reliably explain what they say and where they saw it, like so many other things in Silicon Valley, there’s an app for that.

BioBlitz partnered with iNaturalist, which is an organization with a smart phone app that connects people in the outdoors with scientists in labs who are capable of identifying a given species.

This American Kestrel is just one of 141 bird species documented at BioBlitz. (photo by Blake Matheson/iNaturalist)
This American Kestrel is one of 141 bird species documented at BioBlitz. (photo by Blake Matheson/iNaturalist)

“We offer them a digital guide to their backyards,” Scott Loarie, iNaturalist’s co-director, explains. “So have you ever been on a hike where you saw a butterfly or a wildflower and had no idea what it was, you snap a picture of it and you can use that picture to communicate with scientists. And it’s a win-win scenario, because you’ll learn about that creature, but then the scientists are able to get streams of data that is really useful for conservation.”

With the help of iNaturalist, this BioBlitz event was able to identify a record number of species in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From 10,812 images uploaded from phones, a team of scientists were able to identify a total of 2,304 different species, including 80 that previously hadn’t been recorded as living in the region’s parks, as well as 15 endangered species.

“And we can come back and do these again at 10 year, 50 year, 100 year intervals and be able to document what has changed,” Jarvis says. “So this is a snap shot, but it’s a replicable snap shot, so we can come back and look in the future.”

Bonus content: Smithsonian marine biologist Chela Zabin explains why the San Francisco Bay is known as the country’s most populated with invasive species.

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