COLUMBIA — "Mom! Look, a salamander!"
Ten-year-old Sam Martin scrambled along the gravel path in Forum Nature Area and proudly brandished the gray, slimy creature to the night sky. Starlight bounced off the salamander's moist, squishy skin as it gave the group a rather slow, dazed glance.
"That's pretty special, guys," walk leader and MU graduate student Julia Earl said after identifying the creature as a smallmouth salamander.
Sam and his mother, Hope, were just two of many that trekked out this weekend to Twin Lakes Recreation Park and Forum Nature Area to participate in Columbia's fifth BioBlitz. Sponsored by MU's conservation biology program, the event is designed to get the community involved in documenting local species of flora and fauna.
Hope Martin said she and her son enjoy learning about the outdoors, having participated in several events similar to BioBlitz.
"We came last year for the bat walk and only saw two different kinds of bats," she said.
This year's night trek on Friday evening included nine naturalists and even more community participants. The group was a solitary line of bobbing headlamps against the night sky. Katydids and bullfrogs warbled and chirped as participants used AnaPocket devices to measure the echolocation frequencies of many different bat species, including red bats, gray bats and pipistrelles as they darted over the pond in search of insects.
"Being able to see a huge variety of animals is a great treat," Sam Martin said.
Sam added that he is interested in a wide variety of animals and hoped for "just maybe a glimpse of a coyote."
There were no coyotes this year, but the 24-hour event led to the documentation of many types of species - including raccoons, green herons, chorus frogs and a red-shouldered hawk.
Columbia's first BioBlitz was in September 2005, and since then it has continued to connect the community and local biologists in a project to document the diversity of the area as well as measure the health of the ecosystem.
"The idea is to do a species inventory," coordinator Katy Klymus said. "We like to know what species live in Columbia. It's helpful to know what's out there and use it as an ecosystem indicator."
Klymus said there has been an increase in graduate student and biologist participation. Overall, there were more than 39 participants this year.
There were six two-hour walks throughout the two-day event, running between 5 and 11 p.m. Friday and between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday.
In the first walk, more than 24 community members participated, including Girl Scout Troupe 665.
Stephen McMurray of the Missouri Department of Conservation and Missouri River Relief member Melanie Cheney showed the group how to net aquatic macroinvertebrates in a nearby creek, and they explained by use of charts that they could be good indicators of water quality.
As the Girl Scouts squelched through the mud, Cheney laughed, "I've done this enough times to know that you should always look at their shoes."
The troop was able to identify a rainbow darter from the creek, and the girls took turns holding a blue-gill sunfish, a baby bass and a green sunfish that graduate students Jeff Fore and Erin Mandel were able to catch from the pond using a special net.
Though this project has taken place several times before, this was the first time the event was held at Forum Nature Area.
"We've been doing it the past four years at MLK (Martin Luther King Jr.) park," Klymus said.
The overall species tally is not yet calculated, although it's expected to be within the same range as previous years. In 2006, a total of 162 species were identified, not including insects.
MU's conservation biology program plans to continue this event, and its coordinators said they are pleased with its ability to bring biologists together with the community and increase awareness of biodiversity.
"A lot of people hear ‘biodiversity' and think of the rainforest, such as the Amazon," Klymus said. "I don't think the public knows how many species live right here in their backyard and in Columbia."