Finding All Creatures Great and (Very) Small

Natural resource specialist Zach Bolitho guides Aidan Montessori School students Raffi Ohanian, 10, left, Lisa-Anne Barrow, 10, Priya Millward, 9, Della Turque-Henneberger, 11, and Caitlin Rasmussen, 10, in a hunt for insects during the
Natural resource specialist Zach Bolitho guides Aidan Montessori School students Raffi Ohanian, 10, left, Lisa-Anne Barrow, 10, Priya Millward, 9, Della Turque-Henneberger, 11, and Caitlin Rasmussen, 10, in a hunt for insects during the "BioBlitz." (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007

There were caterpillars hiding under leaves, earthworms wriggling under rocks, scientists climbing in the treetops and spiders scrambling in the grass. So much nature, so many sights to remember that 11-year-old Rebecca Tucci made a list.

"Let's see. Okay: three deers, a plant bug, a baby slug, a butterfly . . . " Tucci read.

She was interrupted by a classmate.

"Deer poop," said My-Linh Schaszberger, 11, adding to the list.

Their assignment yesterday: Count every single thing living in sprawling Rock Creek Park -- from the sublime to the slimy, the adorable to the almost-invisible. The National Cathedral School fifth-graders were part of a 24-hour "BioBlitz," in which biology professors joined with amateur nature lovers to survey plant and animal inhabitants.

The event, organized by the National Geographic Society, was to last through the night and continue into this morning, starting with a 5:30 program on birds. Organizers said they will announce the final number of identified species during a closing ceremony at noon.

The surveying included serious scientific work. Researchers said they expected to identify dozens of previously undiscovered species of microscopic bacteria in the soil.

But just as important, organizers said, was that the event brought children into contact with top researchers and gave them a close-up view of the wildlife in the middle of the Washington area. More than 800 people attended, they said.

"It's getting people excited about what actually lives, lurks, slithers around here," said Suzi Zetkus, who helped coordinate the event.

Some of those things, of course, are easier to get people excited about than others. At noon yesterday, as the blitz began, a large group waited for tours looking for mammals. The tours for fungi and soil invertebrates -- centipedes and such -- were not as popular.

In the reptile group, wildlife biologist J.D. Kloepfer started his tour with a safety lecture. Always roll fallen logs toward you, he told the group, so if there's a poisonous copperhead snake underneath, you won't be staring it in the face. Don't try to grab a black racer snake, he said: Their bites really hurt.

"As opposed to any other snake," someone muttered.

Other groups set off to Rock Creek to trap aquatic insects or into the nearby woods to find mushrooms and bugs. George Washington University graduate student Fernando Alvarez led a trip to capture tiny spiders. He would put one end of a long rubber tube near the spider, put the other in his mouth and suck.

"Niiiice!" Alvarez exclaimed after sucking in a spider whose body was about the size of a capital letter in this newspaper. A tiny filter near the business end of the tube kept the spider from being sucked into his mouth. Alvarez declared it was of the genus leucauge, probably a male.

Close by, in a grove of trees near the park's equestrian center, a group of scientists from the University of Central Missouri hung by ropes several dozen feet up. They were scraping off pieces of bark in hopes of obtaining samples of slime mold species that grow in treetops.

And near them, scientists from the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation in San Diego were gathering vials of dirt from the base of a tree. These were the soil-bacteria experts. A survey in New York's Central Park turned up families of creatures unknown to science, they said.

"We're going to probably hit something like that" once the samples are analyzed in a lab, said Charles J. Smith, a member of the foundation's board. "That's how undiscovered this world is."

Slightly deeper in the woods, Professor John T. Lill of GWU was showing Girl Scout Troop 6275, from the District's Murch Elementary School, how to find caterpillars. It was not easy. Most of their prey were nasty-looking, and many were dead. But sometimes it paid off, such as when 9-year-old Ella Hanson found a caterpillar called a pistol case bearer attached to the bottom of a leaf.

"You got yourself a coleophorid!" Lill told her.

"I'm proud of myself," Ella said.

At one point during their search, one of the Girl Scouts asked Lill if caterpillar hunting was the kind of thing he did a lot.

"Oh, yeah," he told her. "This is my job."

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