BOONE, N.C. — When Marta Toran, lecturer and outreach coordinator in Appalachian State University's Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, was first approached by the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG)'s Dr. Shaleen Miller and Sean MacInnes about participating in a campus BioBlitz challenge, she was concerned that App State would be at a disadvantage. The challenge was scheduled for Homecoming week, the last week in October, when there would normally be no leaves on trees and few flowers and insects around. Toran reached out to members of App State's Department of Biology, who quickly squashed those doubts and enthusiastically agreed to collaborate on the challenge. They were confident that App State could surpass UNCG's prior record of ~175 observed species, even in the thick of Boone Fall. Thus, the challenge was accepted.
A BioBlitz is a survey of biodiversity—a measure of the different types of living things in an area—which are usually citizen science projects open to anyone. The goal of the event is to find and identify as many species of plants, animals and fungi as possible in a given area over a specific period of time. BioBlitz participants keep track of the species they observe and information about when and where they observed them. Originally this was done with paper and pencil, but most BioBlitz competitions now use platforms like iNaturalist by National Geographic, which includes a free mobile application to log and track observations using a smartphone and makes it easier to collaborate on species identification and generate statistics with the data.
To get students and faculty across campus excited about the first BioBlitz event at App State, Toran and plant biologist Dr. Annkatrin Rose, associate professor in the Department of Biology, created a website with information about how a BioBlitz works, recruited other instructors to incorporate the activity into their lectures and labs that week and offered both virtual and in-person trainings to help people get started with iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society and the platform the challenge was to be hosted on. Rose, an iNaturalist power user with over 7,000 observations, provided detailed guidance and tips on how to use the platform. A table was also set up in the entryway of Rankin Science South with information about the species to look out for and a “species meter” with a goal set of 200 species.
The BioBlitz challenge against UNCG kicked off on Monday, October 24, with Toran posting the first observation, a humble Common Chickweed, to the project page at 7:47 a.m. Things quickly picked up after that with Julia Showalter, adjunct instructor in the Department of Biology, recording several different species of native plants and additional faculty and students joining in. By the afternoon on the first day, App State had surpassed its species goal for the whole week.
Over the next few days, App State participants excitedly snapped photos of plants around campus, turned rocks searching for critters and explored App State properties across the High Country, including the Boone Greenway, the Sustainable Development Farm and Gardens, the Dark Sky Observatory and Broadstone.
Will Bennett, a senior geography major, identifies a bird at the Boone Greenway. Photo submitted by Marta Toran.
Appalachian State dominated the biodiversity challenge throughout the whole week, coming out on top with a total of 806 species observed, while UNCG finished with 235 species. The most successful aspect of the challenge from the organizers’ point of view, however, was the number of people who got involved. At App State, 168 participants uploaded almost 4,000 qualifying observations, while UNCG recruited 41 participants and logged 476 observations.
Ava Figallo, a first-year environmental science major, records an observation at the Boone Greenway. Photo submitted by Marta Toran.
App State's BioBlitz celebration and awards ceremony took place on Friday, November 11, in Rankin Science. Leigha Henson, a graduate student in the Department of Biology, took the prize for the highest number of different species observed (213) and claimed the titles of "Master Botanist" and "Master Mycologist," observing 154 plant species and 51 fungi, including lichens. Will Bennett, a senior geography major, led the project with 329 observations, the highest number of any of the participants. Bennett claimed the titles of "Master Ornithologist" and "Master Entomologist," observing 37 bird species and 14 insect species. Additionally, the "Best Photography" award went to Bennett.
Leigha Henson, Marta Toran, Will Bennett and Dr. Annakatrin Rose at App State's BioBlitz celebration and awards ceremony on Friday, November 11. Photo submitted by Marta Toran.
Student honorable mentions went to Brooke Reutinger, a senior biology major; Brynna Selah, a first-year environmental science major; Emma Nicholson, a first-year geology major; and Hannah Lilly, a junior biology major. Showalter was recognized as the most active faculty participant.
Following the success of this year's event, Toran and Rose hope to make the BioBlitz an annual competition and work with UNCG to encourage other University of North Carolina institutions to join in the fun.
“The BioBlitz competition was a great way to get students, faculty and community members involved in a project that promotes environmental awareness and cross-disciplinary collaboration. A big shout out goes to all participants, to Dr. Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce and Dr. Ava Udvadia for their support and Vulcan Materials Company for sponsoring the prizes.” - Marta Toran
“I’ve been using iNaturalist for a while now and knew it was fun, but I was still blown away by the strong participation from App State students and faculty and beyond! A big thank you to all participants, including the many expert identifications and comments from the iNaturalist community and particularly our top identifier Tom Norton.” - Dr. Annkatrin Rose
About the Department of Biology
The Department of Biology is a community of teacher-scholars, with faculty representing the full breadth of biological specializations — from molecular genetics to landscape/ecosystem ecology. The department seeks to produce graduates with sound scientific knowledge, the skills to create new knowledge, and the excitement and appreciation of scientific discovery. Learn more at https://biology.appstate.edu.
About the Department of Geography and Planning
The Department of Geography and Planning promotes the understanding of the spatial dimensions of human behavior within the physical and cultural systems of the earth, and the role of planning in achieving improvement in those systems. The department offers degrees in geography and in community and regional planning. Learn more at https://geo.appstate.edu.
About the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences
Located in Western North Carolina, Appalachian State University provides the perfect setting to study geological and environmental sciences. The Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences provides students with a solid foundation on which to prepare for graduate school or build successful careers as scientists, consultants and secondary education teachers. The department offers six degree options in geology and two degree options in environmental science. Learn more at https://earth.appstate.edu.
Written by Marta Toran
Edited by Lauren Andersen
November 18, 2022