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Bioblitz invites everyone to catalog Alaska plants

Fireweed
Elizabeth Earl
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Fireweed blooms in a field near Engineer Lake outside Cooper Landing in 2020.

Despite having a decent-size population, the Central Peninsula has a fair amount of natural landscape left. While most of us can probably recognize common plants like birch trees and spruce, naming some of the undergrowth and smaller plants might be a bigger challenge. But that doesn’t make them less important to the native ecosystem.

That’s part of what the Alaska Native Plant Society is trying to get people to take a closer look at for the next two weeks with its Alaska Botany Bioblitz. A bioblitz is a citizen science project that asks people to document as many species as they can in a specific time period. In this case, it’s just plants, and it’s from July 1 through the 15th.

Khalil English of Juneau, one of the organizers, said he came up with the idea after the pandemic. Researchers weren’t allowed to go out in the field during the height of the pandemic, but they used an app with public data called iNaturalist in the meantime.

“During COVID, I was working for Americorps, and they gave us a laundry list of alternative tasks to do since we couldn’t go in the field, and I suggested iNaturalist as one of our tasks,” he said. “That’s my only experience with leading a project, with a very small group—I just happened to use iNaturalist in my own education, to connect with local experts. I think it’s just a wonderful thing.”

That’s how participants will log their data during this bioblitz, too. iNaturalist allows users to not only catalog what they see, but also has an identifying feature that can help name a species just from a photo. So if you can’t name that subspecies of dandelion off the top of your head, it’s okay—the app will help with that. Snap a photo, and either log it then or later.

Aaron Wells, the treasurer for the Native Plant Society, said they’re mostly looking for plants that are growing in natural spaces as opposed to in gardens. He suggested walking the whole length of a trail and cataloguing plants as you go.

“Even if you don’t have a lot of plant (experience), one thing you can do is take really good photos. Take photos of the entire plant," he said. "Take photos of the flowers, flower details, stems, seeds, leaves, and those are the part that someone who’s coming in—a special botanist, say—and identify reliably can look at those photos and provide a good ID.”

Once the event is over, the data is available for anyone to use—iNaturalist is an open-data platform, which means anyone can download specific data for research, Wells said. While a lot of areas around Southcentral have been catalogued before, there are still areas that have data gaps, such as Northwest Alaska or the more remote areas.

There are also prizes for participating. The categories include the widest geographic observations, most observations, the greatest number of identifications, the most individual species and the best photo. The contest is statewide, so observations made anywhere in Alaska count.

But beyond the incentive of prizes, the Native Plant Society is hoping people will take this opportunity to get a closer look at their environment. English said people often will glaze over the greenery along a trail or road, the way they do when flying by in a car.

“There is a term—plant blindness, the idea being that when you look from your car as you’re driving along the road, that blur of green is the same blur you see when you’re on a hike,” English said. “By people taking their time to go look one by one, it’s just opening a whole new world and a depth to home.”

Wells said there will also be some events posted on the Alaska Native Plant Society’s Facebook page about the event, including a kickoff event Thursday night at 7 p.m. Anyone interested in participating can join or email ak-botany-bioblitz-2022@aknps.org.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

Elizabeth Earl is the news reporter/evening host for summer 2021 at KDLL. She is a high school teacher, with a background writing for the Peninsula Clarion and has been a freelance contributor to several publications in Alaska.
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