It was sunny one hour before and one hour after the second annual Whistler BioBlitz, which left a team of 43 scientists in the rain for 24 hours — noon on Saturday until noon on Sunday — as they scoured the slopes of Blackcomb Mountain and Whistler parks in search of native species of insects, amphibians, plants, trees, fungi and mammals.
BioBlitz is best described as a naturalist’s treasure hunt, as scientists see how many species they can catalogue in a 24-hour period. It’s not a competition per se, but most participants are driven to see how many species they can identify in that time.
Despite the rain, scientists counted 503 species this year, including 116 species that have never been identified in Whistler before. That includes about 46 types of insects, 11 vascular plants, three bryophytes (non-vascular plants), 24 types of fungus and 30 types of lichen.
Last year’s BioBlitz catalogued almost 700 species, including 200 new finds, but organizer Bob Brett says it’s impossible to compare findings from year to year.
“The scientists were working just as hard, but a lot depends on what species the groups focus on,” said Brett. “Last year a moss expert came and found over 100 moss species, and he wasn’t here this year.
“The unfortunate thing about the rain — and we had sleet on Blackcomb, then sun, then rain and then more sun — is that we had three entomologists with the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria out there, including the curator. We were really hoping they’d crack a bunch of new insects, but a lot of insects don’t fly or are inactive when it’s cold and wet. The group still walked all the way down and managed to get 60 difference species, many of which will be new to Whistler, so it was still a great performance. I’m convinced they would have got many, many more if the conditions were better.”
Some of the new finds were more exciting than others, Brett says. One example is a camel cricket, the first ever recorded west of the Kootenays.
“That’s the sort of thing we keep getting, when you search you extend the range for every species group and you find things that nobody knew were in the area,” said Brett.
Another interesting find, right outside their home base in Lost Lake Park, was a pair of otters in Lost Lake. While otters have been spotted in the valley, most recently near Green Lake, Brett says this was like the first pair seen in Lost Lake in a long time — more proof that the species is making a comeback in Whistler.
The biggest reaction came from one of the world’s leading experts on truffles when they found the underground fungi at the treeline on Blackcomb — not the edible kind sought after in France, but still the first truffles found in Whistler.
“I could hear them whooping and hollering while I was looking at plants,” said Brett. “They were really excited, they found four different species in a short period of time. It’s a whole new specialized type of mushroom for the valley, which is pretty neat.”
The goal of BioBlitz is to add data to the Whistler Biodiversity Project, which is being headed by Brett, as well as to identify experts that can help studying specific species.
As well, Brett says there’s an educational element, and that almost 70 people turned out to the scavenger hunt hosted by Cara Richard and Veronica Woodruff for the AWARE (Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment) Kid’s Club.
“If we can get kids out in those numbers it’s really huge,” said Brett. “I think if you interviewed the average scientist, you’ll find that their interest in nature started before they were 10 years old, so it was great to have so many interested in bugs and snakes and creepy crawlies at a young age. In a way I hope we’re helping to create the next generation of biologists.
“Of course it helps when you have the leading specialists in town, like the entomologist and curator at the Royal B.C. Museum, or Andy MacKinnon who wrote the B.C. guide book on plants, or one of the leading experts on truffles in the world.”
The survey of species can also identify rare and endangered species, as well as invasive species that could pose a threat to native vegetation and species.
BioBlitz’s are an American idea, and last year Whistler held the first BioBlitz event in B.C. in more than a decade. Since then, scientists participating in the event have brought the idea back to their own communities, and this year there were five BioBlitz’s across B.C.