Wanted, Dead or Alive

When scientists go scavenging at a bioblitz, anything they can find that’s organic is considered fair game

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At 10 p.m. two biologists had rigged 30-foot-long mist nets across a shallow stream, and bats in the thrall of the hunt promptly got their leaflike wings tangled in the netting. One of the bat experts delicately extricated them, protecting himself with — what else? — a batting glove. He tucked one big brown bat into a cardboard toilet-paper roll, and the roostlike snugness calmed the creature down long enough for it to be weighed in at 13 grams before it fluttered free.

Around midnight out in the woods, a black light set up by the entomologists cast a faint purple glow among the dark tree trunks. Nearby, a host of light-dazzled wolf spiders, water bugs, beetles and slug moths assembled on a reflective bedsheet. The BioBlitz crew set to work, and the air was filled with the sound of killing jars opening and the smell of ethyl alcohol. A beetle expert got on his knees and sucked up specimens, pfft-pfft, into an aspirator jar. Someone told a story about a scientist who didn't realize he was working with an inefficient aspirator. "He wound up with 70 insects in his sinus cavity. An entire ecosystem. Alive. They published an article about it." The beetle guy went pfft-pfft, undaunted.

Things quieted down till just before dawn. Then the birders came out and stood around, heads cocked, hands in pockets, at odd angles to one another, listening. "It sounds like a worm-eating warbler," said Frank Gallo, who clearly wasn't expecting to find the species here. "Before I write this down I want to hear it better." He bashed in through the undergrowth and called out pish-pish-pish, engaging the bird in a short dialogue. "Pine warbler," he pronounced, satisfied now. Next Gallo did an admirable imitation of a chickadee, bursting out in a high nasal deee-deee-deee. Other species flock around when they hear a chickadee call, he explained.

Good sightings began to pile up as the morning grew long: a bald eagle, a 12-inch-long pileated woodpecker, a coyote. At a table back at headquarters, a parasitologist picking through the guts of a grasshopper came up with two parasites practicing syzygy, which means that they were mating head to tail. One scientist triumphantly picked a tick off someone's leg, and when a cat-mauled short-tailed shrew showed up just outside the door, the maggots got counted, too.

As the witching hour drew near, lepidopterist Dave Wagner had 295 species of moths and butterflies. "I wish I could get 5 more," he lamented. "How much time do I have? Twenty minutes?" He started to pick through the insect refuse piles where others had been working. "Twenty-seven ants!" someone yelled.

"No more insects," said the woman who was keeping the insect tally, 60 seconds from the 3 p.m. deadline. "No more nothin'."

"I'm up to 305," said Wagner.

"That's it, Dave. We're not counting any more."


It was the lepidopteran equivalent of a long-distance runner in his final unstoppable sprint.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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