Penn team blitzes nature reserve for data on living species

With only one semester of graduate school at Penn under her belt, Heather Kostick is about to complete her first phase of research for her capstone project.

“It’s kind of unusual for people to be thinking about their capstones until after their first year,” she says. “But I came into this program with lots of ideas, and I knew who I wanted to work with.”

This weekend, 25-year-old Kostick, a master of environmental studies candidate, will manage a team of at least 40 individuals in a “bioblitz” at the Willistown Conservation Trust’s Rushton Woods Preserve in Malvern, Pa. Kostick has been planning the event since January.

A bioblitz, made popular in recent years by National Geographic, is a 24-hour intensive biological survey of a designated site. Groups of scientists, naturalists, and volunteers collect as much data as possible on all living species, including plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and much more, explains Kostick, who is also a Penn employee.

“When you want to survey a site, you want to know what’s there, but you might not have the time or the resources to take, say, three months to do it,” Kostick says. “I work full-time, but I still want to collect data. A bioblitz is a nice way to get a lot of help from experts in a short amount of time.”

Kostick’s team this weekend is made up of volunteer scientists and students from Penn, Villanova University, University of Delaware, and her alma mater Juniata College. Other organizations on board include the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey master naturalists, and the Pennsylvania Herpetological Society.

The findings from the bioblitz will contribute to Kostick’s capstone project, which will likely be centered on biodiversity in small-scale farms. If the bioblitz pinpoints a species that wasn’t previously known to the area, “that could throw things into left field,” Kostick says.

“I could work on surveying something that we didn’t know was there,” she excitedly explains. “So it really could take a number of different directions.”

The bioblitz will begin June 5, in the evening, and run until about midnight. Volunteers will conduct research in four-hour shifts. There is a chance, Kostick says, that someone will stay overnight. More surveying will begin around 5:30 a.m. on June 6, and run until the late afternoon.

Kostick says everyone will be divided into teams and will organize their findings on special data sheets that she has created.

“I have everybody from people who have done this for 20-plus years to people who are super-new,” Kostick says. “I’ve paired people up based on experience.”

Kostick says part of her planning efforts has been to make sure every volunteer gets the most out of his or her experience.

“I want people who are newbies to this to come away with a better understanding and more experience, and maybe a better interest in something that they might not have been interested in before,” she says, adding that she has one high school student traveling from Lancaster, Pa., to see what the bioblitz is all about.