Species count in Torrey Pines BioBlitz highest yet

By Will Parson


The scene at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve on Saturday afternoon included more than just the usual hikers, bikers and verdant trails. BioBlitz 2010 turned Torrey Pines Lodge into a hive of activity, with scientists from the San Diego Natural History Museum stationed at microscopes inspecting insects doused in ethanol. Meanwhile, children wrapped snakes around their necks, and parents applied sunscreen under patchy clouds. The group effort documented well over 1,000 species, the highest yet recorded in the BioBlitz’ three-year history.

Families who took a trip up the hill got a hands-on view of science in action. Children with questions could talk to scientists from the San Diego Natural History Museum such as Dr. Jim Berrian and Dr. Michael Wall, the museum’s curator of entomology, even as they performed a rough sort of insect species collected on Friday and Saturday. Among the kids’ questions for the experts was whether butterflies have four legs (they have six, though one pair is often hard to see).

Among the attractions, visitors could handle live snakes, stretch their arms to compare their wingspan with an array of bird species and dig for fossils in a sandbox. "(My two children) seem to be very interested in the exhibits — the insects, the spiders and the snakes of course. I think they’ve been wanting to, but they’ve never really had the chance to really get that close,” said David Nepomuceno from Carmel Valley. Caroline Verba from La Mesa, with her daughter close by, said, “It’s great to meet scientists and get a hands-on idea of what scientists do.”

The entomologist’s insect-collecting arsenal includes the basics — a set of eyes — as well as butterfly nets, tent-like malaise traps, colored pan traps, pit traps and light traps that draw night-flying species to their glow. Often scientists employ lung power, sucking up insects with an aspirator, which functions much like a soda straw.

During the BioBlitz, the time-sensitive collecting effort kept the counters busy until the very end. “Four hours away (from the finish), we essentially have no idea how many species of insects we have,” Wall said.

The preliminary count for the Torrey Pines BioBlitz was 1,230 species. Insects and arachnids dominated the count with 525 species counted as of Monday, but also documented were 305 plants, 72 birds, 11 reptiles and amphibians, 25 mammals, 28 algae and eight snails and slugs. The final number will slowly increase for weeks as scientists discern the diverse array of insect species collected. The tally was higher than last year’s effort, which yielded 1,193 species at Mission Trails in a preliminary count. But Wall noted that the numbers shouldn’t be used to compare the two sites because with more experience, the SDNHM team has gotten better at counting species in a hurry.

“The improvements in efficiency make up for the difference in species counts,” Wall said, adding, “If you compare Mission Trails to Torrey Pines, I would say that Mission Trails had more diversity of habitats than Torrey Pines does.”

The scientists weren’t the only ones who left BioBlitz with a wealth of new information. Verba brought her family to the BioBlitzes at both Mission Trails and Torrey Pines. “Last year, we learned all kinds of stuff, and that’s why we came back.”