Picturing Life in New York
By Dick Kaser
Their work in the field is tedious. Biologists are trying to figure out where
things live by picking the leaves of individual trees, capturing individual
insects, and tagging individual critters. They record precise data about where
and when each specimen was discovered. Each little bit of information is not
worth much in itself. But when these individual observations of many field
workers are combined, they can tell us much about where we live and what lives
Inventories of this type are often conducted in rain forests or other areas
where the plants and animals are not only plentiful but diverse. Seldom do
we think of large metropolitan areas as places where so much life abounds that
they qualify as testbeds for measurement.
At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, they not only think otherwise, but they've
got the data to prove it.
Speaking at Metadiversity IIIGlobal Access for Biodiversity Through
Integrated Systems, an international conference co-sponsored by the U.S. Geological
Survey's Biological Informatics Office (National Biological Information Infrastructure)
and NFAIS in early April, Steven Clemants, vice president of science at the
garden, shared the early results of his New York Metropolitan Flora project.
Based on 225,000 observations (some made in the early 1800s), Clemants and
his colleagues have been able to combine scraps of information into interesting
maps that show us how Mother Nature manages to not only survive, but thrive,
even in the concrete jungle.
According to Clemants, though the 25 counties that make up the New York metropolitan
area represent only 0.2 percent of the U.S. land mass, the region houses approximately
7 percent of the U.S. population and a whopping 15 percent (3,000) of the species
found in North America. New York is hardly a vegetative wasteland.
Take blueberries, for example. Clemants says they like a fungus-rich soil.
Since developed areas have a "highly modified soil," he said, that could explain
why you don't find them growing wild in Manhattan. However, they continue to
abound in the region, as indicated by the large smattering of green in this
map. (See Figure 1.)
Despite diseases that once threatened them, elms also abound. (See Figure 2.)
But oriental bittersweet, an invasive species, has taken over the territory
where American bittersweet once thrived. (See Figures 3 and 4.)
Are these monumental discoveries? Perhaps not. But then again, in the world
of science, one never knows when something might relate to something else.
Taken together, the data have certainly made me question my view of New York.
The fascinating thing for information professionals should not only be what's
happening with the trees in the Bronx, but what's happening in the realm of
They've always said a picture's worth a thousand words. As Clemants' pictures
show, they also make for good science.
Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of
content. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.