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Science party

University of Minnesota researcher Jennifer Zaspoe tries to identify a caterpillar collected by a participant in last weekend's BioBlitz. The activity identified more than 500 species of plants and animals on land in Empire Township.

Amateur scientists, hobbyists and people just looking for an excuse to hike in the woods got a chance to work side by side with research scientists last weekend, and the work they did turned up an impressive range of wildlife on property in Empire Township.

In the course of 24 hours the group identified six species of fish, five kinds of amphibians and 15 different mammals including something called a meadow jumping mouse, an adorable little thing with oversized hind legs that is capable of leaping as far as three feet.

All told they found 501 species of animals, insects, plants and birds on land owned by the state and the University of Minnesota.

The reason for this extensive wildlife inventory was something called a BioBlitz, an annual marathon of science put on by the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum. It is the seventh year the museum has held the event but the first time they've explored the Empire property.

The event, held from 5 p.m. Friday through 5 p.m. Saturday, was part research outing, part community outreach. There were scientists on hand and employees from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but there were also dedicated amateurs like Cole Harmon, a ninth grader from Mahtomedi who was attending his second BioBlitz.

Harmon, who said he planned to stay as late as he could Friday, is fascinated by insects. He loved having the opportunity to rub elbows with people who make a living working with bugs.

"It's great to get outside, catch some insects, look at some cool things," Harmon said.

That kind of reaction is what event organizer Jennifer Menken is looking for.

"We want people to get a chance to meet actual researchers and scientists. See what they do in the field. In some cases actually participate in what they do," Menken said.

Visitors weren't able to participate in all of the science activities -- scientists need a permit to band birds, and other activities were too technical to hand over to an amateur -- but there was still plenty to keep people busy. Evening bug collecting, which involves a bed sheet and a large light, is usually popular. Menken said the researchers out searching for mushrooms are also usually well received.

"People don't think fungi are cool, but ... they really make their topic interesting."

Searchers found 105 fungus species during this year's BioBlitz. Menken believes that is a record. It also turned out to be a great night to record amphibian calls.

Threats of rain might have kept attendance down somewhat at this year's BioBlitz, but Menken said the event still drew about 64 people. Events in other years have drawn as many as 500 people over 24 hours.

The information gathered last weekend is hardly an exhaustive account of the wildlife that exists on the property. There are some species that have come and gone already this year and others that won't show their faces (or leaves, or wings) until later in the season. Even critters that are out and about this time of year don't always show their faces. Nobody would doubt there are raccoons on the U of M property, but none were recorded last weekend.

Recent rains also complicated things a little bit. Researchers collected fish from the Vermillion, but rainfall had pushed areas of the river that are typically only about a foot deep to near waist level, speeding up the flow and making it hard to see things in the river. They still caught a large brown trout, though.

The BioBlitz is simply a snapshot of how things look right now. Menken said the results can perhaps be used as a comparison point in the future to measure the impact of developments like the U of M's planned UMore Park project. It can also help introduce people to the biodiversity that exists right outside their doors.

"Everybody talks about how diverse the rainforest is, and yet they have no idea what's in their own back yard," Menken said.

More than counting

The BioBlitz wasn't just about critter math. It was also a rare chance for scientists to get out of the lab and into the field. For Jennifer Zaspeo, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota, that meant searching along gravel roads for meadow rue, the host plant for a moth called the Canadian owlet. The owlet is one of a family of moths that has been known to feed on the blood of mammals and the only one known to exist in North America. Zaspeo has been looking for the moth since 2004 but has yet to find a live one.

Zaspeo had been told by DNR employees that there is meadow rue on the UMore lands, but at least early in the evening she didn't have much luck finding it.

Still, Zaspeo, who has participated in several BioBlitzes, liked the idea of the event.

"I think it's a good way to get the scientific community and the public interested and out in nature and learning," she said.

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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