Biodiversity: a long word that simply means “life”…

This past weekend (December 3 and 4), citizen scientists on three (sorry, four) islands across the Caribbean participated in “Inter-Island BioBlitz 2022.” It wasn’t really a competition – but who says scientists (and wannabes like me) don’t love to compete? So, there was an element of that, across the islands.

Trinidad and Tobago invited Barbados and Jamaica to join them this year. The University of the West Indies’ St. Augustine campus in T&T partnered with iNaturalist and the Trinidad & Tobago Naturalists’ Club for the bioblitz.

A snapshot of some of the weekend’s observations, posted on Twitter.

At the end of the weekend, there were over 4,000 observations of over 1,000 species of birds, butterflies, plants, trees, and bugs of various sorts. Many are still being uploaded. We went out into our back yards (or wherever) and ensuring that our exact coordinates were on our phones, took photos of whatever we could find within specific times, uploading them on the iNaturalist app. If you are at all interested in living things, it is easy to open an account on this app and when you are out and about take photos. It seems to be a fairly interactive online community; other observers and contributors can come in and suggest an ID for your little creature or plant, identifying whatever you cannot.

I confess I was somewhat distracted by World Cup action, but tore myself away from the television and wandered round our yard (which suddenly was strangely devoid of lizards, but I did nab one or two), photographing anything that moved, lived or breathed. I was looking for biodiversity.

Other BirdLife Jamaica members’ contributions were far more impressive. BirdLife President, biologist Damion Whyte, went into overdrive and posted hundreds of observations. I believe he was top of the table of contributors. We Jamaicans like winning.

My own private success, which brought great joy to my Saturday afternoon, was to – at last – find the lovely Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebus sennae sennae), a dusty yellow butterfly, circling round and round our King of the Forest bush. I stood and watched her for about fifteen minutes as she fluttered round and round, leaving and returning, drawn like a magnet to this statuesque plant. Its remaining golden spire-like flowers are diminishing now, but it has shiny new green seed pods. Eventually, Ms. Cloudless stopped and sat on a stem for just a moment. I was thrilled to be told by naturalist Damany Calder that I had captured a photo of her laying her eggs on her favourite plant.

I had been visiting our precious King of the Forest every day since it started blooming (thank you, Damany, for this glorious gift!) in hopes of seeing the butterfly. The glossy black female carpenter bees were there every day enjoying the blooms, but no butterfly. But she came.

Like eBird, where bird watchers across the globe record their sightings of birds with photographs and audio recordings, iNaturalist is a nice little piece of technology that helps us keep track of how the natural world is doing: what we are seeing and observing (and what we are not, when we should be). And where are we seeing the birds, and the lizards, and the plants, and the beetles, and bees? Are they where we would expect to see them – and at the right time of year? And how many?

We need to know all this. We need to record, and analyse, and learn. Now, more than ever. Because, without a doubt, biodiversity is in trouble. That is, life on Planet Earth is in trouble.

Cue for another COP. This time it is a less flashy version of COP27, which concluded quite recently in Egypt with very mixed results. I am talking about the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It will take place in Montréal, Canada, starting on December 7 and continuing until December 19, or perhaps later. There is a lot of life to talk about.

Although hosted by Canada, the meeting is being chaired by China (whose freshwater dolphin, the Baiji, which was native to the Yangtze River region, is now likely extinct). Heads of state do not attend these biodiversity meetings, I understand; they send their ministers. I am not sure what that says about their commitment to life on earth – but I guess it’s easier to make splendid speeches about climate change than about (for example) the ongoing destruction of Canada’s old growth forest; or in our neck of the woods, Jamaica’s Giant Swallowtail butterfly, now only found in two separate places on the island (Cockpit Country and the Blue and John Crow Mountains).

Yes, we are all doing it. It almost seems like a systematic, determined plan of us humans to continue plundering all the wonderful birds and bees and trees and tiny bugs that the planet has to offer, until they disappear altogether. When they go extinct, we humans may not even notice – at first. But all these creatures are inseparable and connected, like Ms. Cloudless Sulphur and her King of the Forest. The survival of every one of them is important to us in some way.

We are connected to life, and we are part of it. So, in destroying our biodiversity, we will ultimately be destroying ourselves.

Please, let’s keep an eye on COP15. I know some Caribbean reporters are there, including Jamaica’s Kelesha Williams and Antigua’s Tyrell Gittens. I hope they will send us some powerful stories. Let us all stay tuned. Life on Earth depends on it.

My lovely Cloudless Sulphur lays her eggs on the King of the Forest. We are now looking forward to caterpillars!

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