National Geographic to ‘BioBlitz’ Malibu, local mountains

Scientists, naturalists, students and local volunteers will participate in a 24-hour recording of local plant and animal species in the BioBlitz program sponsored by the famed exploration, research and conservation society.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

National Geographic, the National Park Service, California State Parks and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy all believe that biodiversity in local wild lands is so crucial that they’re throwing a party to count all the local species.

BioBlitz will take place Friday and Saturday, when hundreds of scientists, naturalists, schoolchildren and volunteers will participate in a 24-hour blitz to discover and record as many species as possible living in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, or, as National Geographic calls it, “The world’s largest urban national park.” A Celebration Biodiversity festival will take place on Saturday, after a species count is announced.

“This is the second in a 10-year commitment National Geographic has to staging these events at large parkland areas around the country,” Carol Seitz, spokeswoman for National Geographic, said. “It’s to celebrate National Geographic’s centennial.

“This year, we’re including all of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation area and Griffith Park in this joint effort,” Seitz continued. “The idea is to count all the plants, insects, animals, fish, birds, bats and bees we can find in a 24-hour period.”

Such an effort requires the help of hundreds of scientists and volunteers, so organizers are pulling out the metaphorical party hats and providing music, nature hikes, interactive displays, and up-close and personal discussions with bioscientists.

The public is welcome to participate in the work of determining the breadth of local biodiversity-an essential element to a healthy eco-system, according to biologists and earth scientists.

Rosi Dagit, senior conservation biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, said, “School outreach is an important way to teach the next generation of scientists, and we have an excellent program that will highlight Malibu Lagoon’s ecosystem.”

Dagit’s program at Surfrider Beach and the Malibu Lagoon will see youngsters catching fish to measure and count all varieties, using binoculars to spy on shore birds and count their numbers, documenting plant species along dunes and pathways, and digging up mud to “count all the critters we can find,” she said.

“The microscopic benthic [bottom water dwelling] invertebrates and plankton in the lagoon might be small,” Dagit said. “But they are incredibly important to the ecosystem. They’re all part of the food chain.”

Dagit expects more than 1,500 school children to assist in her studies.

“It should be controlled chaos,” she said.

Festivities will commence Friday at 11:30 at the base camp at Paramount Ranch (check-in begins at 10 a.m.), with a kick-off ceremony that brings together representatives from the scientific, political and entertainment communities.

“We’ll then assign inventory groups to go out in four-hour time slots or shorter, base-camp excursions,” Seitz said. “Parents are encouraged to bring their children. It’s a lot of fun for a walk in the woods.”

Ray Sauvajot, chief of science in management planning for NPS, has been working to bring BioBlitz here since last year’s event in Washington, D.C.

“BioBlitz has really grown into an excellent and important snapshot of biodiversity within a region,” Sauvajot said. “Basically, this is a huge species scavenger hunt, and we are breeding the next generation of biologists.”

Sauvajot is helping coordinate all the teams of scientists and volunteers.

“I’m getting the scientists lined up and getting them where they need to go to maximize this snapshot so we can cover this whole mountain range,” he said. “We’re going from Point Dume all the way to Griffith Park, and we want to cover the range of diversity from the beach to grasslands, to mountain ranges to steep canyons to streams. They all provide habitat.”

Sauvajot has been involved in monitoring the population of local mountain lions, whose numbers have diminished due to human encroachment and the scarcity of wildlife corridors linking them to populations in other regions, like the Sierra Madres and San Gabriel mountains.

“They are collared, so we know they’re out there,” he said. “One of the fun things about this event is we can show kids not just how great our diversity is, but how we monitor these animals.”

Among the tools scientists use to inventory species, Sauvajot said, are fixed cameras placed near known species’ corridors, banding birds, netting fish, listening for and recording owl calls and looking for mosses and lichen in odd locations in Griffith Park.

“We’re really excited about documenting the rebirth of Griffith Park after the fire last year,” Sauvajot said. “Most animals aren’t happy with fire, but plant communities are very good at adapting after fires.”

Sauvajot and Dagit both agreed that BioBlitz’s 24-hour “snapshot” couldn’t provide comprehensive numbers for species diversity, “But it’s the first step of an ongoing project,” Sauvajot said. “With this event, we’re looking to recruit volunteers and students for follow-up surveys and it’s so cool that National Geographic is behind us.”

Registration for BioBlitz participants is closed, but the public is encouraged to come to the Celebrate Biodiversity festival at base camp in Paramount Ranch, 2903 Cornell Rd. in Agoura Hills, between Kanan Road and Mulholland Highway, on Saturday, where a species count will be announced at noon. The festival begins at 1 p.m. More information can be obtained online at www.nationalgeographic.com/field/projects/bioblitz-ca-2008.html, or by calling 800.638.6400, ext. 6186.

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