Biodiversity discovered at Natural Bridge Bioblitz

A male redspot darter, bright with breeding colors during spawning season, collected from Natural Bridge Park during the bioblitz.

NATURAL BRIDGE - During a recent bioblitz at Natural Bridge Park, organized by Wild Alabama (WA), scientists, university and high school students and members of the public inventoried living species in the park.
On Friday, April 5, Winston County and Ardmore high school students joined scientists to catalogue species in the Biodiversity of Natural Bridge Park project in the iNaturalist app. As of press time, the project contained 1,833 observations of 573 species from 110 observers.
Blitz organizer Kevin England invited the students, including six WCHS students, four of whom are dual-enrolled in his Biology 104 course.
After uploading photos of plants and insects and recordings of bird calls to iNaturalist, the WCHS students learned how to collect and dry a plant specimen and then joined a team University of Alabama (UA) students led by Worth Pugh, UA collections manager, to collect aquatic specimens.
“(A voucher specimen is) basically proof that these (species) were here,” Pugh said. “In Alabama, we have the richest biodiversity of freshwater fishes (in the nation), and it's actually quite difficult to identify them. For small little fishes, we actually need microscopes to count their scales and things (to identify them).”
UA's fish specimens, which date from the 1940s to the present, are used for research, Pugh said, including tracking the disappearance of some fish from certain areas. UA’s data on which fish were collected where and when is a powerful resource for scientists studying changes in fish biodiversity due to climate or land use change, he said.
The UA team used a seine to collect specimens, and WCHS students joined them in the stream as they found minnows, darters, a muscle, crayfish and dragonfly and other insect larvae.
“I love the field work," said WCHS student Kadie Barton. “I did not know there was that many different fish species here.”
"We are using this data that we're collecting (in iNaturalist) today for our classroom projects,” added Lynleigh Cobb. “We're bringing the knowledge back to (our class).”
Riley Burnett said iNaturalist provides not just identifications but additional helpful information about species.
The students also had the chance to see the natural bridge, some for the first time.
"It's awesome,” said Elizabeth Kinard. “I like how you can see the little different sediments.”
“I’m really enjoying it,” noted Aubree Bailey. “I would love to come do this again.”
“I'm really glad we got this experience thanks to Coach England,” said Tennyson Gilbreath.
Meanwhile, other researchers were engaged in different sampling methods.
Andrew Cantrell, PhD candidate and staff member at Alabama A&M, and Kern Freesland arrived shortly after dawn for their avian point count.

“We do basically nine minutes worth of looking and listening (at selected points on a grid),” Cantrell said.
They identified northern parulas, tufted titmouses, Carolina wrens, yellow-throated vireos and black vultures. Freesland found a black vulture’s nest, only the second Cantrell has ever seen.
They also looked for amphibians and reptiles and “found (five) species of salamanders, green salamanders probably being the most exciting,” Cantrell said. They also found two-lined, dusky, zigzag and slimy salamanders.
Evan Menzel, UA senior instructor, was also looking for reptiles and amphibians. “I'm a herpetologist by training,” he said. “I do a lot of outreach trying to educate people about reptiles and amphibians.”
He said that while we essentially train children to fear snakes, our fear is unwarranted because even venomous snakes just want to be left alone and are “pretty unobtrusive” when they are.
Elsewhere, Sean Beeching of Atlanta discovered a rare black morel mushroom, and Kristi Zoebelein of the Birmingham Zoo collected it to give to Alisha Millican, president of the Alabama Mushroom Society and assistant curator of fungi at the University of West Alabama Herbarium, for DNA sequencing.
DNA sequencing will help clarify which morel species actually occur here, Millican said, noting there is uncertainty about that. “About half of everything we sequence with fungi is not described to science," she added.
Beeching and Malcom Hodges are the founders of the Georgia Lichen Atlas, and they have both discovered types of lichen previously unknown to science.
They were surprised at which lichens they saw in the park. “We thought we would see northern affinity things here," said Hodges. “What we're seeing are tropical affinity things" like what they are used to finding in South Georgia.
At a public science session on Saturday, April 6, Roger Birkhead, Auburn University Science in Motion biology specialist, explained iNaturalist and its importance to scientists.

Making these observations is important," he said, noting it’s “actually important to document all the weeds, too.” He gave the example of a common milkweed species, of which there were 3,000 known physical specimens in collections worldwide—and then iNaturalist started seeing 3,000 observations of it logged per month. “It's (an) order of magnitude (difference in) the amount of data that is coming in through this app."
He also noted that logging annual iNaturalist observations of the different life stages of plants, such as when plants flower and produce seeds, can provide valuable climate change data.
Attending Saturday, Paul Kennedy, president of the Walker Area Community Foundation, said, “I think that this is a biological preserve. It's very unusual, and I would like to see it inventoried, and I would like to see it nationally recognized for its significance.”
The park owners, Naomi, Donnie and Jacob Lowman, have expressed interest in having the park certified as a National Landmark, and the blitz may be a step toward that.
Kennedy said the park can be a great tourist destination, noting that making Alabama a recreational destination is part of Gov. Kay Ivey’s Innovate Alabama plan. Doing that would increase quality of life here and lead “the best and brightest in technology” to consider Alabama “their perfect home," he said.
District 10 Senator Andrew Jones, sponsor of the 2023 bill that created the Sweet Trails Alabama project, attended the blitz because of the park’s proximity to Byler Road,< as well as his interest in the diversity of species in the park, he said.
Sweet Trails Alabama has the goal of identifying any sites of cultural, historical or natural value—such as Byler Road and Natural Bridge Park—as possible tourist destinations that could become sites on a statewide trail network.
Jones said it was fascinating “to see the huge effort that (scientists) were making to categorize everything that's there.”


See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
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