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Educator starts biological census


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

CRYSTAL RIVER -- While recently surfing the Web, J.D. Mendenhall, education coordinator at St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve, came across a great idea: bioblitz, a 24-hour census in which scientists and ordinary people alike uncover every plant, tree, fish and mammal.

Mendenhall pitched the idea to the staff biologists and it took off. Aside from helping scientists collect valuable information, the event is good for public relations.

"It kind of equates people to the fact that there's a tremendous amount of biodiversity in their back yards," Mendenhall said. "It's important to point that out to people when they are building and when they are constructing."

The bioblitz will be May 4-5. For details and a schedule of events, contact Mendenhall at (352) 563-0450. Events include airboat trips to Crystal Bay, butterfly identification hikes, and much more.

To understand what all the attention is about, Citrus Times reporter Alex Leary sat down with Mendenhall on Friday. The following is an edited version of the interview.

QUESTION: What is bioblitz?

ANSWER: It's a concept that has been used in several major cities. It gives land managers an idea of exactly what they have, what they are dealing with, what kind of plants, what kinds of animals exist. Our biological staff spend a lot of their time on very specific research projects and they don't have time to go out and just see what we've got.

Q: What purpose does it serve?

A: It gives the biologists some very good scientific data. But there are other reasons for doing it. Number one, it gets the public involved. It also allows the public to see where their tax dollars are going. A lot of people don't realize the preserves are here.

It's one of the few times when I think biologists can really get involved in public outreach. When you are out every day . . . you tend to become very focused on what you are doing. Ordinary things you might kind of miss your gaze, (the public) pick out.

Q: Why is it important to conduct a biological inventory?

The main mandate that we are given is to manage these lands so we are protecting the resources that we have. To protect those resources we have to know what's out there. We manage two aquatic preserves -- St. Martins, which is about 23,000 acres and Big Bend Seagrass Aquatic Preserve, which is north of Citrus County -- and Crystal River State Buffer Preserve, which is the upland preserve, which is about 38,000 acres. So there is a tremendous area here.

Q: Can you give me an example of how some of this information might be used?

A: One of the trips is up to a scrub piece. Coastal scrub is pretty rare in this area, it's been built on and developed. We only have about 400 acres, which is a newly acquired piece. And since it's newly acquired we really don't know what's there. We have to know what is living on the scrub, are there any endangered animals or plants found there because one our tasks is to restore.

We have to know, do we have scrub jays? If they are nesting, then we can't prescribe burn at a particular time without destroying the nest. So management decisions are based on what we find. The other important thing is to be able to tell people, "This is what you have in your back yard. This is why it's important that you not prop dredge, that you not do various things that can do harm.'

Q: You say that biodiversity is mostly thought of in terms of the rain forests, when actually it can apply to any area. Just how diverse is this part of Florida?

A: This is an area where you have a lot of different ecosystems kind of coming together. You have the subtropical from the south, and the temperate from the north. It's my understanding that this area contains more species of trees than about any other place in the country.

You've got the massive amount of fresh water coming out of the springs and the salt water mixing, which creates a lot of divergence of species. And then you've got the natural ecotones between wetlands and uplands.

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