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BioBlitz!

Local fourth-graders survey plant, insect and animal life near Auke Bay

Posted: May 10, 2012 - 11:04pm  |  Updated: May 11, 2012 - 6:15am
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Ruby Woltring, 11, watches as a classmate gently touches a cutthroat trout caught briefly by the freshwater invertebrate group during last week's BioBlitz event held with local fourth grade students near Auke Bay.   ABBY LOWELL / JUNEAU EMPIRE
ABBY LOWELL / JUNEAU EMPIRE
Ruby Woltring, 11, watches as a classmate gently touches a cutthroat trout caught briefly by the freshwater invertebrate group during last week's BioBlitz event held with local fourth grade students near Auke Bay.

Over the babble of a forest stream last week, the squeals of excited children could be heard as they hopped along the river’s edge armed with nets and buckets.

The bustling woods, streams and tide lines were a result of another BioBlitz — a survey of plant and animal life in a particular area — organized with fourth-graders in the Juneau School District.

Some may remember similar events held the last two years; one was at Eaglecrest Ski Area and the other in the vicinity of the University of Alaska Southeast, near Auke Bay. The goal of a BioBlitz is to take samples of plant and animal life in a particular region or ecosystem to take stock of the types of species that inhabit that area. During last year’s event, teams surveying various areas tallied more than 800 different species in a 24 hour period.

But this latest BioBlitz was geared toward youth in schools and gave them an opportunity to connect classroom teachings with the flora and fauna that can be found in their local woods.

Pat Harris, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, led one of the survey groups into the woods near Auke Bay in search of lichen species.

She talked as she held a small mass of green, scaly vegetation in her hands.

“We’re just looking at different growth forms. This one makes horns,” she said.

It was a lungwort lichen and, according to Chiska Derr’s book “Lichens around Mendenhall Glacier,” this particular species is an important fertilizer, contributing up to 25 percent of the available nitrogen in oldgrowth forests, like those found in Southeast. Next to her, Chris Newman, 11, was pulling something lime green from her bag.

“This is old man’s beard and some Christmas tinsel,” she said. “It is stretchy like plastic. Old Man’s beard is like a clump.”

Harris directed attention to some small, clay-colored lobes on the underside of the lichen.

“This one is a leafy type,” Harris said. “And see the brown bodies on here, that’s how it makes new ones. It’s a combination of an algae and a fungi that get together in a little ball and …”

Her voice was drowned out by excited voices at the stream’s edge.

The freshwater invertebrate group had found an exciting specimen: a cutthroat trout.

“Well, I guess we’ve now switched to the freshwater vertebrate group,” James Ray said.

Ray works as a fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

With care, he slipped the female trout into a Rubbermaid container so the students could get a better look.

It was clear this trout had moved up the stream with one intention: to spawn. Her belly was swollen with eggs and her body size far too large for the tiny stream in which she was found.

Like budding scientists, the students wasted no time speculating and the questions rolled in.

Ray had answers.

“This fish has spent some time in the marine environment and has probably come from either a larger river system or more likely a lake system where they’ve spent the winter,” he said. “She probably spent the winter in a lake, moved out to a river system and now it’s looking for these great gravel beds to spawn.”

He hurried off to release the trout further downstream.

Attentions quickly switched to the specimen pans teeming with tiny life forms. Tweezers plucked pink salmon fry, mayfly larva and caddis flies wrapped in homemade shells out of the pans and into containers for transport to the temporary laboratory set up in the commons of the UAS student recreation center.

Deeper into the forest crept the mammal group. These students, led by Karen Blejwas with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, were checking motion-triggered trail cams and live traps. Reports of a confirmed deer sighting travelled fast.

And further still, next to the steep banks of a drainage ditch, the terrestrial invertebrate group led by Mark Schultz, a retired entomologist with the Forest Service, was on the hunt for bugs. The big surprise this day was that there were few bugs to find.

“It’s still too cool,” Schultz said. “But the water ones are going wild.”

He held up a specimen vial holding two confused water beetles.

Back at the lab, students where able to share their findings with peers and look at what other groups had brought back.

Steve Brockmann, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the event wasn’t specifically about the species tally. He said it was more about getting the students involved.

“(They are) old enough to be interested and capable and they’re not burned out — they’re into it,” he said. “We wanted to capture the excitement of young kids.”

Brockman said Chip McMillan, a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, will be connecting with each of the classes for weeks after the event to examine what each group found.

“We have a pretty good idea of the biodiversity of the Juneau area and Southeast Alaska as a whole, but here are always surprises,” Brockman said.

He also said a host of groups, such as the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the USFWS, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Alaska Southeast, NOAA, the Juneau School District and the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center, worked together to make this event possible.

In August, he said, the groups are planning another public BioBlitz in Sitka.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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