Taking Stock of Lake Merritt

This Sunday, naturalists are launching a "bioblitz," in which anyone with a smartphone can snap photos and survey the flora and fauna at one of Oakland's most popular destinations.

On any given day, 5,000 to 10,000 people visit Lake Merritt. It’s one of Oakland’s most popular destinations for humans. But what other creatures like to hang out there? This Sunday, nature enthusiasts plan to investigate that question, and they want your help. They hope to recruit ordinary folks for a rather extraordinary undertaking: a bioblitz.

A bioblitz involves deploying a small army of volunteers into a designated space to survey the wildlife. Typically lasting anywhere from a few hours to a full day, these events yield a statistical snapshot of species diversity within a target location. And while the collected scientific information has an assortment of important potential uses, bioblitzes have another value: They help raise people’s awareness and enhance their relationship with the natural world.

“It’s just all about engaging people as data-gatherers, and organism-finders, and life-noticers,” said Dan Rademacher, an organizer for the February 23 Lake Merritt bioblitz.

The all-day event is being spearheaded by a coalition of grassroots community groups (Wild Oakland, Nerds for Nature), pioneering tech outfits (OpenROV, iNaturalist), and venerable educational institutions (the Rotary Nature Center, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Oakland Museum of California). To entice the public to join in, organizers intend to roll out snazzy equipment, including remote-controlled submarines and laboratory-grade microscopes. Passersby will have the chance to operate both, allowing them to view facets of the lake that they likely have never seen.

But the primary research instrument in the bioblitz will be the smartphones of the participants themselves. Participants also will need to download iNaturalist.org‘s free mobile app and bring a spirit of adventure.

Here’s how the app works: Say you spot a particularly striking and unusual flower that piques your curiosity. You simply take a photo of it with your smartphone and upload it to iNaturalist.org, which records the date, time, and latitude and longitude, while adding it to an online database of more than half a million image files from around the globe. A tap of your finger alerts other website users that you want them to identify the flower for you.

This crowd-sourced approach to research enables scientists to remotely plug into a bioblitz when they can’t physically attend, said Damon Tighe, another organizer for the Lake Merritt event. “It’s really interesting to see experts be able to get involved, using amateur naturalists as their conduit,” he said. Among the experts who have shown excitement about reviewing the findings from afar, Tighe mentioned Leslie Harris, a leading authority on marine worms with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and Jim Carlton, an award-winning professor specializing in invasive species at Williams College in Massachusetts.

Researchers might not believe amateurs can serve as adequate proxy for professionals, but Tighe is optimistic about this Sunday’s event. “Even if you’ve got a trained eye and you’ve been looking for something for years,” you still might miss it, he said, and should welcome the support of novices who “have a different perspective” and therefore may “see stuff that other people haven’t seen.”

Tighe also emphasized how the festive atmosphere of a bioblitz boosts participants’ motivation and sharpens their powers of observation. “There is something about just having an event that makes people look a little harder,” he said. “When you have something like this, people will go, ‘Yeah, I want to be that person who finds something different.’ They’re going to take a little bit more time and go a little deeper.”

And what might they glimpse with that extra effort? The possibilities are endless at Lake Merritt: Bat rays, leopard sharks, and moon jellyfish patrol the waters, while herons, egrets, and pelicans soar majestically above. Crabs creep across the mud flats, and bees buzz about the gardens in Lakeside Park. Oak and redwood trees reach for the sky, while various fungi — including the death cap, the world’s deadliest mushroom — hunker to the ground. Some lucky bioblitzer could spy a river otter or an osprey, both of which caused a stir among ecologists with rare appearances late last year.

To seek out all this and more, organizers will lead different habitat expeditions throughout the day, each starting from the Rotary Nature Center. Then the action will move to the Oakland Museum of California, where everyone’s photos will get projected onto a wall and a flurry of species identifications will commence, both in the room and from across cyberspace. The final result? As Rademacher noted, “All the data that we collect can live on and be used in ways that we don’t anticipate yet.”


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