Public gathers samples, explores the environment during UI BioBlitz

The university welcomed citizen scientists of all ages to Ashton Prairie Living Laboratory for hands-on research during its third annual event.
Thursday, July 20, 2023

By Charlotte Brookins 

This year marked the University of Iowa's third annual BioBlitz, an event that encourages learners of all ages to engage in science and build community at the Ashton Prairie Living Laboratory. During the BioBlitz, guests observe, document, and gather samples from the environment for research while learning more about the prairie and the biodiversity it supports. 

The BioBlitz aims to find and identify as many species as possible at the UI's prairie restoration site. What's found is compared to what was present in the ecosystem years prior, helping scientists track progress in the ecosystem. As the prairie develops, so should the biodiversity of plants, insects, and animals. 

“During the BioBlitz, participants work alongside expert scientists from various disciplines,” says UI Office of the Sustainability and Environment Program Manager Beth Mackenzie. “This not only enhances their understanding of ecological systems, but also hones species identification techniques.” 

A child looks through a microscope during the third annual BioBlitz

The event was sponsored by several University of Iowa departments and partners, including the College of Liberal Sciences and its Departments of Biology and Earth and Environmental Sciences, as well as the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, the Iowa Raptor Project, Iowa Wildlife Camps, the School of the Wild, and more. The IowaPentacrest Museums, another important partner, supports engagement with a table at these events and, after, they house specimens collected by scientists in the Museum of Natural History's research collections. These collections are available for research and data comparison in years to come. 

“We hope young people get inspired to pursue related fields in science,” says Jessica Smith, Pentacrest Museums communications coordinator. “Our collections will be here for them when they're ready." 

During the event, participants observed their findings under professional microscopes, as directed by volunteer scientists and leaders of the Ashton Prairie Living Laboratory. They were also instructed on how to identify various species, both by using the iNaturalist app, a social network for naturalists across the globe to share their findings, and the naked eye.  

“My students and I help out with bug identification—we're the BioBlitz entomologists,” says Andrew Forbes, associate professor of biology. “I think that most of us do not have a good sense of just how many different species of insect are out there even in our own backyards, and this event helps people see some of that diversity.” 

In addition to the exploration of the prairie, the event provided interactive exhibits and educational displays for everyone involved to learn more about biodiversity in the Iowa City area. The event educates participants on the world around them while also promoting a passion for the environment and its preservation. 

“The BioBlitz offers valuable opportunities for attendees to engage in research, gain insights from experts, and deepen their understanding of sustainability and environmental issues,” Mackenzie add. “It fosters collaboration, knowledge exchange, and action towards a more sustainable future.” 

Dave Conrads, director of UI WILD, hopes that the event leaves participants feeling more informed and passionate about the world around them.  

A participate examine a bird during the third annual BioBlitz

“We hope participants will come away with a greater awareness of the resident birds around the Ashton Prairie, an appreciation for this wildlife survey technique that provides an up-close and in-hand experience, a commitment to take action in conserving wildlife and the habitats in which they thrive.” 

The Office of Sustainability and the Environment is housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa. To learn more, visit the website.  

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers about 70 majors across the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. About 15,000 undergraduate and nearly 2,000 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by faculty at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all Iowa undergraduates through the college's general education program, CLAS CORE. About 80 percent of all Iowa undergraduates begin their academic journey in CLAS. The college confers about 60 percent of the university's bachelor's degrees each academic year.