Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 4 • May 22-28, 2008
now in our 38th season

Explore Island Life

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

Starting this Sunday, May 25 and continuing through Saturday, May 31, experts and amateurs, adults and children, residents and visitors will revel in the natural beauty of Nantucket Island and learn about the great diversity of life here.

The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative is a partnership between Nantucket conservation organizations, universities, non-governmental organizations, and individuals interested in documenting the biodiversity of the islands and adjacent waters and monitoring and conserving that biodiversity over time. What is biodiversity and why do we care? Biodiversity is the variability among living organisms on the earth, including the variability within and between species and within and between ecosystems. Often, biodiversity is defined as the number and variety of organisms found within a specified geographic region. The continued health of human societies depends upon a natural environment that is productive and contains a wide diversity of plant, animal, and microbe species. Life on the earth comprises at least 10 million species of plants, animals, and microbes, while in the United States there are an estimated 750,000 species, of which small organisms such as anthropods (arachnids such as spiders and mites, as well as crustaceans, millipedes, centipedes, and insects) and microbes comprise 95 percent. According to the international group, the Convention on Biological Diversity: “At least 40 percent of the world’s economy and 80 percent of the needs of the poor are derived from biological resources. In addition, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to such new challenges as climate change.”

Every two years, the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative (NBI) organizes a week-long event, the Nantucket Biodiversity Assessment (NBA), to bring scientists (experts in specialized fields ranging from fish, insects, reptiles, amphibians, plants, birds, and mammals) to the island to work with local scientists, naturalists, and volunteers to document the variety of plants and animals that live Nantucket, Tuckernuck, Muskeget and the surrounding waters. The first NBA was held May 28-June 4th, 2004 and the second NBA Week was held September 10-16th of 2006. The event is rotated from late spring to early fall in order to document species that are specifically found at those times, including fungi and vernal pool organisms in spring to late blooming plants in fall. In addition to simply inventorying the number of species that occur here, information is collected on the ecosystem and genetic diversity of the species. The goal is to locate, identify, map, collect, and study a wide range of organisms during this period. This is the first step in a long journey to develop a thorough assessment of local biodiversity.

The isolation and geologic history of Nantucket, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget Islands have left this area with a distinctive flora and fauna that includes northern and southern species of organisms, many of which are quite rare. In fact, there are more Massachusetts state-listed endangered species on Nantucket than in any other county in the state. The NBA Week efforts to identify and map what species are here also increase public awareness about biodiversity and protect our globally important islands. The NBI organizations have also established 21 ten hectare (10,000 square meters or about 2.5 U.S. survey acres) plots in different habitats around the island in order to provide long term monitoring stations that can document habitat changes over time. These habitats include everything from coastal dunes to salt marshes to sandplain grasslands, moors and heaths, and upland scrub oak parcels.

These events are held around the country and allow the public to share in the collection of critical field data. Every day, a species of plant or animal around the world disappears due to habitat destruction, direct harvesting of species, introduction of alien species, changes in rainfall or shade, or as a result of man-made pollutants in our streams, rivers, lakes, and atmosphere. Current extinction rates are estimated to be 100 to 1000 times higher than prehuman extinction rates. Without these massive efforts, many scientists would not have the manpower to count the species that exist, record their distribution around the globe, and then use this information to develop management plans for protecting those species at risk. Although fossilized remains provide some documentation of previous life forms and habitats, often we can only imagine what birds and insects may have existed on our planet five hundred years ago. In the past, naturalists and scientists such as Charles Darwin, John James Audubon, and Alexander Agassiz were sponsored by governments, wealthy benefactors, private organizations, or used their personal fortunes to embark on journeys around the world to document our fellow creatures.

The keynote address is a highlight of the NBA Week and kicks off the event on Sunday, May 25th at 7:00 p.m. at the Nantucket Atheneum’s Great Hall. This year, noted biological oceanographer Dr. Hugh Ducklow, Director of The Ecosystems Center ( at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts will give a talk entitled: “There is no Scientific Debate about Global Warming (The scientific background, politics and predictions about our climate change).” Dr. Ducklow is also the Director of the Palmer Antarctic Long Term Ecological Research Project ( located at Palmer Station which is one of three United States research stations in Antarctica. Dr. Ducklow’s yearly journeys to Antarctica have helped shape our understanding of climate change as it affects ecosystems.

Field trips scheduled this year include forays to investigate spiders, ground beetles, snakes, cryptic (camouflaged) insects, salt marsh inhabitants, marine fish and invertebrates, seaweed, day-flying insects such as butterflies, damselflies, and dragonflies, honey bees, migratory shorebirds and terns, other birds including a special whip-poor-will trip, lichens, invasive plant species, aquatic insects and mud-flat inhabitants. Several special trips have been designed exclusively for Nantucket Public School’s first and second graders and the Nantucket New School’s 8th grade class. These field trips are part of the Maria Mitchell Association’s Unique Nantucket Project, funded by the Nantucket Golf Club Foundation and developed by Darcie Vallant, MMA Director of Education with Nantucket Public School teachers to create hands-on science units in accordance with Massachusetts Education standards. In addition, a special lecture on the ospreys of Scotland will be given by Roy Dennis, a noted ornithologist and Wildlife Conservationist from Scotland, UK who is recognized around the world for his work with birds of prey, particularly for the reintroduction of Ospreys to England starting in 1996, with the first successful breeding in 2001 (Tuesday at 7:00 pm at the Maria Mitchell Association’s Science Library 2 Vestal Street). Evening meals for participants will be provided for a nominal fee during the week with the generous assistance of local businesses listed below.

This is a rare opportunity to spend some time with scientists and naturalists in the field doing research that is important not only for our islands, but also for determining how plants and animals are adapting to changing conditions. On all the trips, children of all ages and their parents are invited to participate. This is a great way to see how biologists conduct their everyday research. All programs are free and open to the public of all ages although the NBI does accept donations to help continue the projects and programs each year. In addition to the NBA Week, the NBI also holds a conference every other year to discuss the previous year’s research and findings. The NBI also funds several competitive research projects each year that are focused on long-term assessments of local flora and fauna.

Members of the NBI partnership include:  Linda Loring Nature Foundation, Maria Mitchell Association, Massachusetts Audubon Society, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Nantucket Garden Club, Nantucket Islands Land Bank Commission, Nantucket Land Council, Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program of Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, Science Department of Nantucket High School, The Trustees of Reservations, Tuckernuck Land Trust, and the University of Massachusetts Boston Nantucket Field Station.  Local businesses and organizations which support the NBI Week include the Nantucket Atheneum, Cisco Brewers, Fooods for Here & There, Provisions, the Nantucket Ice House, and Sayle’s Seafood.

So, what are you waiting for?! Come join us May 25-31; bring your waders, binoculars, camera, and a curiosity to see what flies, crawls, swims, slithers, hides, grows, or simply exists around our unique island. For details, including field trip times and destinations, visit

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