Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 39 Issue 20 • Sept 17-23, 2009
now in our 39th season

Nantucket Biodiversity

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

What is biodiversity and why should we care about it?  Well, biodiversity is the combination of all the biotic (living) things in an area and the habitat that allows those things to exist.  The number of species of plants, animals, and microorganisms, the enormous diversity of genes in these species, the different ecosystems on the planet, such as deserts, rain forests, and coral reefs are all part of a biologically diverse Earth. 

Biodiversity can be defined as the number and variety of organisms found within a specified geographic region and this definition points to the actual counting and recording of things.  Without simple enumeration of an object, gene, resource, or creature, we may never knew what existed or be able to determine what is missing from an ecosystem.  The difficulty in piecing together the denizens of ancient habitats when dinosaurs walked the earth reminds us that “keeping track” of things is in our DNA and should be on our minds.  Biologists most often define "biological diversity" as the "totality of genes, species, and ecosystems of a region."  In order to be comprehensive and holistic, a discussion of biodiversity should include genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity.

This multilevel conception is consistent with the early use of the term "biological diversity" in Washington. D.C. and by international conservation organizations in the late 1960s through the 1970s.  Raymond F. Dasmann first coined the term in his 1968 book A Different Kind of Country and Thomas E. Lovejoy introduced it to the wider conservation and science communities.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website contains a through description of what biodiversity is and how the concept of biodiversity has developed over the past 15 years (accessed on Sept 13th, 2009). From this site we learn that the term "Biodiversity" was coined as a contraction of "biological diversity" in 1985. A symposium in 1986, and the follow-up book BioDiversity, edited by biologist E. O. Wilson, expanded the popularity of this concept. For the record, despite the skimpiness of some of their web pages, Wikipedia's entry on biodiversity is very comprehensive and readable (

Photo courtesy Cheryl Comeau Beaton

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 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 pre-human extinction rates.

Nantucket's physical isolation from the mainland allows for a wide range of genetic, biological, wetland and coastal science, and natural resource protection projects in a relatively closed system.  For the past several years, island conservation groups and scientists have banded together to conduct their own research and fund outside research groups investigating our plants, lichens, mushrooms, birds, snakes, ants, spiders, beetles, and everything in between.  Some of this research builds upon decades of biological observations and research.  We are also interested in recording any detectable biodiversity shifts following hundreds of years of land alterations.  The isolation and geologic history of Nantucket, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget Islands have created a cornucopia of distinctive flora and fauna that occupy niches near the geographical and climatological northern and southern limits of their ranges. Many of these species are rare regionally and even globally.  In fact, there are more Massachusetts state-listed endangered species on Nantucket than in any other county in the state.

To formalize scientific collaboration and coordinate our goals, island scientific, educational, and conservation groups formed the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative in 2003.  We held our first Nantucket Biodiversity Week in May of 2004.  The NBI is a partnership between conservation organizations, educational groups, state agencies and individuals engaged in documenting the biodiversity of the islands and adjacent waters in an attempt to understand, record, discover, monitor and most importantly conserve that biodiversity, now and for the future.  The goals of the NBI are to inventory and monitor the many species of plants and animals found on Nantucket and to educate the public about the importance of protecting the rare elements that contribute to Nantucket’s rich biodiversity.  For more information, go to:

Members of the NBI partnership include: the 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 University of Massachusetts Boston Nantucket Field Station. 

NBI members have selected 21 specific plots in 21 different habitats in order to coordinate the research conducted and assist scientists in the field that might not be familiar with Nantucket.  These plots also allow us to record plant and animal life in the same area over time to document any changes. Each of these ten hectare (10,000 square meters or about 2.5 U.S. survey acres) plots is representative of a different habitat on Nantucket from salt marshes to sandplain grasslands to scrub oak forest and heathlands.

Photo courtesy the Maria Mitchell Association

Every other year we feature a Nantucket Biodiversity Week which is similar to the BioBlitz conducted by other national groups in areas like our U.S. Park System.  We like to take our time and cover a lot of different areas as opposed to the 24-48 hour long bioblitzes.  Scientists fan out over the island with citizen scientists and naturalists to count, record, photograph, measure, or observe a variety of life.  Without these measurements, we will never know how global climate change could be effecting the island.  Residents and visitors to the island can take advantage of the accumulation of all this knowledge by attending the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative 3rd all day conference. These conference are held every other year.  The scientists presenting their research come from universities all over the country including, but certainly not limited to Harvard, Suffolk University, University of Wisconsin-Green bay, University of Massachusetts Boston, Antioch University New England, Rutgers, UC-Davis, City University of New York.  In addition, you'll find out what the exceptional scientists on island have been doing from the painstaking measurements of the plants that pop up after prescribed burns to the observations of  black widow spiders (Sphodros rufipes) on Tuckernuck.  Many of the NBI partners spend considerable time and money and human resources on learning more about our natural world and this is their day to shine.  They will deliver an amazing amount of fascinating information in a very short time.  You may even feel like you read a year's worth of my articles in one day, without the long rambling bits and random asides.

The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative (NBI)  is hosting the 3rd Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative Conference on Saturday September 19 from 8 am to 5 pm. at the  Egan Maritime Institute, at the historic Coffin School located at 4 Winter Street, just a block off upper Main Street. 

The day's events will include 30 presenters giving short oral presentations or posters on a wide ranging variety of natural history-related topics. This is a wonderful and free opportunity to find out what goes on behind the scenes when scientists are set loose to scour our island and record a variety of organisms.  Topics include the use of electronic field guides, the effectiveness of sheep grazing as a land management tool, salt marsh restoration and its effects on spotted turtles, staging sites of common and roseate terns, the feeding ecology of long-tailed ducks on Nantucket Shoals, the status and stock structure of gray seals, the ecology of snakes, the status of the American Burying Beetle, and reports on ants, spiders, and finfish. 

The entire schedule for the day can be found at  I think you will be really surprised at the amount of science that occurs on island conducted by many of our conservation and research organizations.  This event is free with a small charge for lunch.  Donations are accepted and thanks are due to the retail establishments in our community that are donating food, drinks, or other items.  Please check the NBI website for an updated list of our sponsors.  We hope to see you there! 

People are more than welcome to come to the poster sessions or for part of the day; each talk is just 15 minutes so you'll be presented with the “Cliff Notes” on a variety of cool and interesting biological topics.

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