Connecting to Nature and Community With BioBlitz
On Friday, September 21, more than 250 students from nine different schools joined members of the public to participate in BioBlitz, an annual event that explores biodiversity in urban parks. Every other year it is held in Forest Park, St. Louis’ big backyard. The event, which began 12 years ago, not only helps educate the public on biodiversity, but also helps in the identification of new species. Additionally, it’s a great way to foster community among participants and with nature itself.
“People sign up on teams according to their interests, whether it be butterflies or flora,” said Peggy Nacke, BioBlitz Director and Special Events Director of the Academy of Science of St. Louis. “The team list for bats fills up in a second,” she added.
Teams collect data for review while being educated on the diverse organisms in the Park. Participants are typically surprised at what they discover about the environment.
“I learned that we could be stepping over 40 different weeds right now — different species of them,” said Gracie Hoy, a seventh-grade student at St. Margaret of Scotland. “I thought it was just two or three... I thought they all kind of looked the same, but they all have their own special shade of green, color, shape, stem and roots and stuff like that.”
Sean Lowery, Hoy’s classmate, also found studying weeds to be “way more interesting than it sounds.” He made unexpected revelations. “I also learned that some weeds are edible,” he said, “and now my quest is to find edible weeds.”
Information collected from BioBlitz is also included in Forest Park Forever’s ongoing restoration plans. The data helps track the biodiversity, health and viability of the Park. Findings are compared to past years to monitor changes made.
“If something disappears that we’ve seen for several years,” said Nackle, “the Forest Park Nature Reserve is going to want to know that and look to see if there’s something we’re doing that’s destroying our habitat.”
In addition to tracking existing and diminishing life in the Park, BioBlitz has uncovered organisms that were previously uncharted.
“Last year we found an endangered bat,” said Betsy Krites, Manager of Youth and Community Programs at the Missouri Botanical Garden. “We would have never known something like that had it not been for BioBlitz. So who knows what we’ll find this year, but it could be something really important that’s right beneath our own feet.”
Though BioBlitz is an excellent event for those interested in biosciences and participants who identify as “citizen scientists,” it also benefits people without a particular connection to the field. A newcomer to this event can come away with an increased knowledge of the biodiversity around them and a “feeling like you are a part of something larger,” Krites explained. “We are part of the St. Louis community, and so are all of these plants and animals.”
The importance of connecting to nature is a significant component of BioBlitz that makes it a welcoming event for everyone.
Aidan Jordan is a senior at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School with significant developmental delays. Communing with nature has had a noticeable therapeutic effect on him. His father, Jim Jordan, a naturalist and environmentalist educator explained, “If Aidan is inside he doesn’t pay attention as much as when we’re walking on a trail in a forest. He’s immersed because he can hear the sounds and he can see different things around him.”
David J. Bruns, an Education Consultant at the Missouri Department of Conservation, is also an advocate of the mental health benefits of connecting with nature.
“We’re part of nature; we’re not separate from nature. It sustains us, and we sustain it,” Bruns said. “The time that we’re able to spend outdoors disconnecting from the news or from our device is actually really essential for our personal health and well-being.”
For Amy Witt, Forest Park Forever Park Ecologist, BioBlitz is a perfect demonstration both of the Park as a great natural ecosystem, but also a place where the community comes together. For the past three years, she has been a part of the event. Additional members of the Forest Park Forever Land Management and Education teams have served as BioBlitz Leaders and helped with the organization of the event.
“The Forest Park Bioblitz allows students, kids and adults to pause and notice the nature that abounds in the Park,” Witt said. “Hidden under leaves a utopia of experiences await to be noticed. It’s also very powerful because these students and members of the public help collect data that we use to understand and manage the natural areas in Forest Park.”