Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to identify various animals and plants native to the area. Ferns, red-tailed hawks and spotted salamanders are, well, easy to spot.
But who can point out a gem-studded puffball in the wild? Turkey tail? Witches’ butter?
Eleanor Hollers ’21 probably can. She can certainly tell you that the three are not, as one might think, ingredients for a Harry Potter magic spell, but species of fungi found on campus.
Hollers learned these things during BioBlitz, a culminating academic experience for students enrolled in the biology department’s introductory “Adaptation and the Organism” course taught by professors Ethan Clotfelter, Sarah Goodwin, Jill Miller, Thea Kristensen and Dianne Pater.
As part of the Saturday, April 28, event, students, staff, faculty members and expert naturalists from the local community took to the fields and woods of the College to identify any and all organisms they observed.
The event followed the example of the larger BioBlitz program, which was launched by scientists and naturalists with the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey in 1996 to record species and showcase the concept of biodiversity in Washington, D.C.’s Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. Since then, it has spread to locations around the world, and hundreds of thousands of people take part annually.
Amherst’s BioBlitz involved about 120 students, faculty, staff and members of the community and was split into morning and afternoon sessions. Participants were divided into four groups based on the organisms they were tasked with identifying—animals, plants, invertebrates and, yes, fungi—and went with their designated experts out into areas around campus, where they photographed, described and tracked organisms they saw using the iNaturalist cell phone app. They then repeated that procedure with other experts, and shared with classmates what they had learned and observed.
“Before today, some of our students hadn’t even been in the Wildlife Sanctuary, so it was great to just get them out there and introduce them to new areas on campus,” said Kristensen, who organized BioBlitz. “But seeing their faces light up when they told me about their experiences and what they saw was most exciting for me. All of the students had their own story to tell about the interactions they had with the organisms, the experts and nature. It was just fantastic.”
“It was kind of like a treasure hunt for bugs, birds and other species,” added College Photographer Maria Stenzel, who documented the event. “I couldn’t believe how many interesting things the students discovered, especially under logs.”
Participants made 216 observations of “interesting things” that represented 82 species, to be exact, said Kristensen. (By way of comparison: about 1,000 species were identified at that initial BioBlitz in Washington.) “It was wonderful just to get students outside and excited about learning, no matter how many organisms they recorded,” she said.
At a reception and biology department showcase event in Ford Hall after the morning session, Isiaha Price ’21 said that he was impressed by the passion and knowledge of the experts who led him and the other students through the exercise. A former intern at an engineering research lab, he said he also appreciated the opportunity “to actually see the theories and concepts that we learn about in class applied in the field.”
Hollers, who confessed she didn’t know much about fungi until she was assigned to that group, said her favorite part of BioBlitz was more tangible. “We found some wood ear, which is a jelly fungus, and picked it up to examine it,” she said. “It is so different from other fungi we see every day, like lichen and mushrooms—and it felt like slime. At first I thought it was kind of gross, but then I remembered that I was holding a living organism. It was really cool.”