Now in the middle of its second full year, the Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life (MVAL), a joint project of BiodiversityWorks and the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation (BJFFF), is steadily expanding the resources and activities it offers to Island naturalists.
“The MVAL,” says program director Matt Pelikan, “was launched with two main goals in mind: to provide a living catalog of the unique biodiversity of Martha’s Vineyard, and to encourage an active human community working to study, appreciate, and conserve that diversity.”
Both the scientific and the social goals of the program are advanced by events such as a “BioBlitz” hosted June 17-18 at Long Point Wildlife Refuge, one of the Vineyard’s finest conservation properties. Teaming with The Trustees of Reservations, which owns and manages Long Point, the MVAL enlisted 14 nature enthusiasts for a 24-hour, intensive survey of the refuge’s wildlife.
MVAL and BiodiversityWorks staff carried out a range of overnight, non-lethal sampling for nocturnal wildlife, setting up live traps for small mammals, minnows, and turtles, along with an acoustic bat detector, a game camera to look for otters, and a moth sheet (a white cloth illuminated by ultraviolet light to attract nocturnal insects). Then, during the daylight hours of the BioBlitz, small teams of naturalists fanned out into Long Point’s varied habitats to search for and photograph plants and animals, uploading their discoveries into the community science web platform iNaturalist.org. Trustees and BiodiversityWorks staff also ran a family event on the shore of Long Cove Pond, using an array of nets to sample for aquatic life and sharing the results with enthusiastic children.
When the dust had settled, the BioBlitz had documented a remarkable total of 314 species. Included in the list were a number of rare or uncommon species, such as an orange bluet damselfly (Enallagma signatum, pictured). Forty-seven species of birds were recorded separately using eBird.org, another community science platform. You can see the results of the blitz here: bit.ly/I-nat-BIOBLITZ.
As impressive as the event’s results were, participants agreed that the social angle of the event was as enjoyable as the search for wildlife. Beginners had an opportunity to learn from some of the Island’s best naturalists, and everyone had the chance to share their love for the rich biodiversity of the Vineyard. Another BioBlitz was in the works as this article went press, set for July 15-16 at Hoft Farm Preserve and run in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy.
More BioBlitzes figure in MVAL plans for the future, joining other educational and social events such as webinars and in-person walks and training. The MVAL is also working with the BJFFF and eight Island farms on a project to study and enhance the diversity of Island agricultural land. The MVAL project on iNaturalist collects observations uploaded into the platform from Martha’s Vineyard; the project currently holds about 16,000 individual observations representing more than 2,800 species.
The point of documenting biodiversity is ultimately to make that information available to anybody with an interest in local flora and fauna. Toward that end, the MVAL is working toward launching a dedicated website, which will include links to important community science platforms, an archive of MVAL webinars on natural history, a look at significant recent sightings, and a collection, expected to grow over time, of Vineyard checklists for various groups of animals. The site will link to a state-of-the art catalog of Vineyard plants maintained by Polly Hill Arboretum. Stay tuned for that launch in August.
The checklist section has its roots in an earlier generation of technology: Island Life, a hard-copy book authored by Chilmark naturalist Allan Keith and the late Stephen Spongberg and published by Keith in 2008. Over the last few years, with Keith’s cooperation, the checklists and essays in Island Life have been digitized by BiodiversityWorks and the MVAL, with new species added and biological taxonomy and nomenclature updated. Several sections, notably bees and Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids), have already been added based on research conducted since Island Life was published. MVAL director Pelikan anticipates adding sections on flies (Diptera) and true bugs (Hemiptera) by year’s end, drawing on data compiled in the MVAL iNaturalist project.
“These are golden times for naturalists,” Pelikan says. “Advances in optics and digital photography, the advent of DNA analysis as a tool for classifying wildlife, and the flow of information and personal communication made possible by the internet have revolutionized how nature is studied and how naturalists interact.” The MVAL and its new website represent an ambitious effort to harness that progress to document and conserve the unique natural heritage of Martha’s Vineyard.