Tucson BioBlitz uncovers diversity in the desert

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An aquatic inventory team explored this dry wash in the Rincon Mountains during the BioBlitz (photo by Megan Kimble)

Standing under the sun on a 110-degree day in Tucson, it’s easy to assume the Sonoran Desert is a hostile, lifeless place. But, venture into the hills, and you’ll find a different story. Nestled among the giant Saguaro cacti is a brimming ecosystem, hosting the greatest diversity of vegetative growth of any desert worldwide, as well as an astonishing array of mammals, reptiles, birds, and aquatic invertebrates.

This weekend, the National Park Service and National Geographic teamed up to host the 5th annual BioBlitz in Saguaro National Park to inventory the diversity of that ecosystem.

A BioBlitz is a 24-hour event to find and identify as many living species as possible in a national park. Scientists and experts lead inventory teams of students, teachers, and community members into Saguaro National Park East and West to explore the park’s mountains, valleys, cactus forests, washes, and tinajas in search of the desert’s wildlife.

An un-inventoried rattlesnake (photo by Megan Kimble)

Each team had a focus—from Gila monsters to aquatic fungi—and they ventured into the national park for two- to four-hour shifts. School kids took over the inventory teams all day on Friday, Oct. 20, as part of a broader mission to get young people excited about science.

Two of the major events unique to Tucson included the saguaro census, which focused on counting the growth and preservation of the iconic saguaro forests, and the night sky inventory, which measured light pollution in and around Tucson, an important measurement for the many world-class observatories located outside the city.

Tucson’s BioBlitz was the fifth in a series of 10 annual BioBlitzes planned by National Geographic and the National Park Service, leading up to the Park Service’s centennial in 2016. The first BioBlitz was held at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., in 2007; in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in California in 2008; Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 2009; and Biscayne National Park in Florida hosted last year’s BioBlitz.

While inventorying species is the stated mission of the BioBlitz, the event is as much about the park as the people—getting people into the park—which is why all BioBlitzes focus on national parks adjacent to major urban areas around the U.S.

John Francis, the Vice President of Research, Conservation and Exploration for National Geographic, explained why: “We’re trying to awaken people who don’t really understand their deep connection with nature,” he said in an interview on the National Geographic BioBlitz website. “Sometimes in the urban setting you don’t get out into nature. But there are parks around the country that are close to the city, and we want to get the schoolchildren and the families into the park, to get them to be with those who really know it and love it and get them bitten by the bug that’s so exciting about loving nature through these BioBlitz activities.”

The Tucson BioBlitz was the first large-scale species inventory of Saguaro National Park. Check out images and results from the BioBlitz on the National Geographic BioBlitz blog.

Flock of birds at sunset
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