As the story goes, monkeys that were residents of the zoo at Rocky Point Amusement Park escaped once and set up residence in the wooded area near the entrance. They swung in the branches and set up a racket with their chattering and entertained visitors. That was decades ago.
But, while there was plenty of excited chattering at Rocky Point Friday and Saturday, there were no monkeys for a team of more than 140 naturalists who set off to document every species of plant, insect, animal, bird and fish that could be found on the premises within a 24-hour period.
When Dr. David Gregg blew the air horn at 3 p.m. Saturday, signaling the hunt was over, and it was time to turn all the living specimens loose, a total of 1,007 species had been recorded. Gregg, who is executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, was happy. The total exceeded the 973 average count for the past 15 annual “BioBlitzes” and greater than what he expected for an area as small as Rocky Point – the annual surveys are usually done on tracts larger than the Point’s 124 acres – and expected in an area that had been so extensively developed.
“It’s a functioning little eco system,” said Gregg. He was especially excited by the discovery of an Eastern box turtle and a smooth green snake; species that were once plentiful but have been displaced with development.
“That’s amazing,” he said of the discoveries. Greta and Georgia Shuster found the turtle. Their father, George Shuster, is a founding member of the Rocky Point Foundation, which was a co-host of the BioBlitz, along with the city and the Department of Environmental Management.
A full list of the species and a report will be released early next year, but the counts reflect a diverse environment; including 20 types of fish found in the bay; six species of amphibians and six reptiles; 152 types of moths; 14 mammals (counting deer and rabbits but not humans); 68 types of birds; and 282 varieties of vascular plants.
The big surprise was the absence of salamanders. Usually they’re common, but apparently they were either in hiding or not among Rocky Point’s regulars but Gregg said one was found along with some eggs.
The BioBlitz is an educational opportunity, among other things. Ten seventh-graders from Calcutt Middle School in Central Falls, from the science class of Stephanie Racine, along with two high school students, participated in the BioBlitz. They spent a lot of time in the water and spent the night in tents clustered around a giant tent put up on the site of the Park’s old salt-water pool. Calcutt students have participated in the BioBlitz before and getting selected is a privilege, although this year there was some cause for apprehension among the younger kids.
“It was a full moon, Friday the 13th and a former amusement park,” said Racine. That was enough to conjure images of haunted places and keep young imaginations working overtime, said fellow teacher David Bergeron, who, along with his brother, Dan, provided adult supervision. For some of the kids, it was a first walk into Narragansett Bay, which they promptly did, with water spilling over the tops of their boots. But they came out with fish, not in their boots but in their nets.
The BioBlitz was also a chance for scientists to catch up with each other. There was a fair amount of that going on as teams came in from their forays in search of living things for less lively things for dinner on Friday. Under the large tent, damp, if not soaked from the late afternoon downpour, the scientists conferred. Some, using microscopes, pointed out the slithering tiny creatures found in the muck, all the while exchanging personal news.
The BioBlitz was also an eye opener and inspiration.
“Staggering,” was the word Warwick Parks and Recreation Director Michael Rooney used. There wasn’t a dull moment, as teams returning from the field catalogued their findings. Rooney was a more than willing student. Paul Earnshaw, president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, was equally energized.
The lichen team passion was contagious, especially for Kay Fairweather from Carlisle, Mass. Fairweather describes herself as a “self-biologist.” She describes lichen, of which, she said there are more than 1,000 varieties, an “interesting life form” that survives in the harshest of environments. She described them as part fungi and part algae and, most of all, “beautiful.” The team identified 64 types of lichen.
Gregg sees the BioBlitz as providing a measuring stick to where we are. He thought Rocky Point was an ideal place for such an assessment. He notes that the park was such an important part of Rhode Island, adding, “Just because it’s no longer an amusement park doesn’t mean it can’t continue to be.”
Part of the BioBlitz is an accounting of living things. It is also a key to understanding the eco-system and the interdependence of each living thing, and how changes in environment may be a cause for the decline or the proliferation of species. The absence of salamanders could be a clue.
“We can hear what they’re trying to tell us,” said Gregg.