Club Logs a Century of Change in Local Species

Plummers Island
(Photo courtesy of The Washington Biologists' Field Club)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 31, 2006

No secret handshake, no decoder rings or midnight rituals. Just a $200 cabin on a 12-acre island, plenty of brainpower, and a commitment to the flora and fauna of home.

The Washington Biologists' Field Club is celebrating 100 years of self-professed geekdom (six years late) this year, with a 150-page volume summarizing a century of counting every living thing on Plummers Island, the club's buggy, overgrown paradise a few steps into the Potomac, just downriver from the American Legion Bridge.

Established in 1901 as a weekend retreat, Plummers Island, called by the field club "the most thoroughly studied island in North America," today represents one of the most comprehensive, longest-running biological inventories in the country.

"We know more about the moon than the biology of this planet," said John Brown, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist and club member who is compiling the research volume. "The goal here was to get an inventory and to understand the local biota," Brown said. "And to drink a lot and fall down, while doing biology."

After establishing the club in 1901, club members, most of them leading scientists at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere, bought the little island in 1908, built a rustic cabin "and started collecting the living hell out of the place," Brown said.

Whether from habit, eccentricity or foresight, the club's 55-odd original members were at least 80 years ahead of their time. Biodiversity studies, which have come into vogue only in the past two decades, are seen today as a key way to help determine how an area's biological makeup changes over time. Research suggests that environmental factors have contributed to a gradual decline in the number of life forms on Earth, and in their distribution. But without accurate counts of what existed in the past, scientists don't know the speed or extent of the changes.

"Things can go extinct and we wouldn't even know it," said Michael Pogue, another USDA entomologist who belongs to the club. Estimates of the number of insect species on Earth, for example, range from 5 million to 100 million -- showing, he said, that "it's just a huge guess."

Biodiversity studies give scientists "an idea of what's there," Pogue said. "They can use them to better understand the ecology [and] make management decisions."

Scrambling over Plummers Island's rock and scrub, club members have documented every living thing known to have existed there. To date, that includes 885 species of vascular plants, 70 mosses and 597 beetles -- not to be confused with the five different cockroaches they have found.

Club members have written and funded studies that provide a rare window into the ongoing evolution of a relatively untouched place surrounded by urban development.

In 2000, the Smithsonian began using the 4,365 plant and tree leaves in the Plummers Island collection -- stored in two steel cabinets in its botany department -- as the foundation for an electronic field guide. Soon, they hope, botanists worldwide will be able to use the online images -- some collected at the turn of the 20th century -- to identify those plants wherever they are found.

"It's a 21st-century extension of the more prosaic ways we've had of dealing with flora," said Stanwyn Shetler, 72, curator emeritus of botany at the Smithsonian, whose colleagues developed the electronic field guide. He has been a member of the club since 1970.

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