I spent a recent Sunday morning leading a group of citizen scientists in a "bioblitz" on Mt. Sutro in partnership with Sutro Stewards, the California Academy of Sciences, the Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society, and the Golden Gate Audubon Society. The earth was damp from the passing storm, and the sky pale gray: muted, calm. We gathered in the Woods Lot at 9am, split up into groups, and set out shortly thereafter, our smartphones at the ready and our eyes keenly scanning the trailsides.
A bioblitz is a coordinated effort to catalog as many species as possible within a given area over a limited time. In practice, it’s an exercise in collaborative wonder. My group set off to the northeast along the Edgewood Trail, but our pace quickly slowed. One by one, the members of our party stopped to kneel beside some charming flower or to peer through binoculars at the source of hidden warbling, then beckoning for another pair of eyes to share the sight.
We took photos using an app called iNaturalist, maintained by the Cal Academy, which uses a machine learning algorithm to ID an impressive range of flora and fauna with only an image for reference. The app also uses location data to suggest visually similar and nearby species, bringing geographical context to the classification process. The observed species are then peer-reviewed by the site's user base of professional and amateur biologists, at which point the data can be used in conservation efforts and further research. The app is quick to suggest a species or genus for any uploaded image set, making it easy to quickly confirm or dispel one’s suspicions about the taxonomy of an organism.
We spent a long time exploring the colorful fringes of the Surge Lot and the nearby trails, then finally proceeded up over the summit of Mt. Sutro and back to the Aldea Center to meet the rest of the groups. Some participants were experts in plant taxonomy, while others were ardent birders or knowledgeable entomologists. Still others came to the hike with little prior ecological experience, but hoping to learn. I was impressed by the amount of knowledge sharing that took place: everyone had their niches, but no one knew everything, and we soon grew comfortable asking each other for help classifying unfamiliar species. The low-pressure, freeform structure of the bioblitz created space for curiosity and gave us permission to wonder.
During Sunday’s bioblitz, a total group of 49 participants—ages two to 90—made 1316 observations and identified 258 unique species (numbers current at the time of this posting), including some rare and elusive specimens: the threatened California lancetooth snail (Haplotrema minimum), the powdered moon lichen (Sticta limbata), the goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis), and the California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus). We also encountered a cast of local staple species – everything from banana slugs to red elderberries to Anna’s hummingbirds.
Images from the Mount Sutro Bioblitz project www.inaturalist.org/projects/mt-sutro-bioblitz
Above and beyond the bioblitz, I highly recommend iNaturalist to anyone who wants to augment their ecological curiosity with the thrill of instantaneous feedback and the satisfaction of contributing to scientific discourse. The plant recognition algorithm becomes more accurate with the submission of each new observation, and it’s exciting
to imagine the ways in which this still-nascent technology might help kids and adults alike connect more meaningfully to the world around them.
Visit the Cal Academy website for a list of upcoming bioblitzes in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. Joining a bioblitz is a great way to flex your citizen science muscle, but you can download the app and get started anytime.