Hunting for critters with your colleagues or neighbours

May 16, 2023

A six-week Biodiversity Challenge is set to take over the Wageningen Campus. Hundreds of people will be keeping their eyes and ears wide open, armed with magnifying glasses and binoculars. What will they find, and what will it tell us about the importance of biodiversity?

From 22 May to 30 June, students and staff members at the Wageningen Campus will be able to take part in a whole range of activities organised specially for the Biodiversity Challenge 2023. You could hunt for weird and wonderful plants (alone, or as part of a group), join an expert on a moth-spotting expedition, or visit a food forest or green roof. All these activities will be taking place not just in Wageningen but at other WUR sites too. Afterwards, on Saturday 1 July, the city’s residents will have their turn to come and admire the natural environment of the campus. The aim is to find at least 1000 different species during the six-week period.

With the university celebrating its 105th birthday, WUR is pulling out all the stops to encourage as many people as possible to discover the natural environment on campus. Casper Quist, a lecturer in the Biosystematics chair group and organiser of the Biodiversity Challenge, explains why this is something WUR really wanted to do. “WUR is a green university and we have a lot of in-house expertise on biodiversity. So it’s logical for us to take the lead on this.” Another 16 universities from all over Europe will also be counting species on their campuses across the same time frame. Within the Netherlands, the Avans University of Applied Sciences is one of the other participants.

Tracking the breech marten

Following a small trial in 2021, last year, all students and staff members had already been given the opportunity to spend a week counting species found on the campus. A total of 840 species were found during that week, ranging from cabbage white butterflies and carp to rare wildflower species and a beech marten identified only by its droppings. “We also found species that had never previously been seen in Wageningen, simply because we were looking more carefully,” says Quist. “Who knows, maybe this year we’ll find a species entirely new to the Netherlands.”

Quist and his co-organisers Mieke de Wit and Mees van Horssen can’t hide their excitement, and that’s exactly what this is all about: marvelling at the diversity of species on our doorstep. “Biodiversity is something you have to experience first-hand,” explains De Wit. “People might associate biodiversity with tropical rainforests or coral reefs, but it’s actually all around us. It’s just that people tend not to pay attention to it. Through this challenge, we want to show just how much there is to find here on campus. We think people will have fun, and be astonished. And we hope it will encourage them to want to look after our natural environment a bit better.”

Organised activities and lunchtime walks

Anyone enrolled in Biology, Forestry and Nature Management, Plant Sciences and some other study programmes will automatically take part if they’re doing a module on biodiversity. It’s hoped that this will inspire them to go out hunting for species by themselves at other times too – just like staff members will be doing. Hopefully, they’ll even do it together. “This is the kind of event that can really bring students and staff members together,” says De Wit. “Sometimes, it’s actually the students who know more about it. Many of the guides are, in fact, students.”

The organisers emphasise how easy it is to take part. “If you’re on your way to work in the morning, or going out for a walk at lunchtime, you can use that time to look at all the species you encounter,” says Van Horssen. “You can just download the ObsIdentify app and take a photo of what you find. And if you don’t know what it is, the app will help you identify it. It’s really easy and anyone who’s out and about on campus can take part.”

Photo: Guy Ackermans
Photo: Guy Ackermans

Experts welcome too

There’s plenty to interest those with more experience in the area of biodiversity too. As Van Horssen points out, there’s quite a long time frame in which people are being invited to show off their species-hunting skills. “You’ll find very different species in late May compared to late June. Some plants won’t have flowered yet at the start, but by the end they will have. And some insects will be around at the start, but not at the end. So that makes it interesting for those who actually have a bit more expertise,” he says. And if they want to share that expertise sometime as part of an excursion, they’re very welcome to join in as a guide, the organisers say.

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On Saturday 1 July, residents of Wageningen can join a bird or insect excursion either early in the morning or later in the day. There will also be exhibitions and presentations, and a chance to learn how to take great photos of plants and animals. “We want to make everyone aware of all the biodiversity around us. The more people we reach, the better. It’s great that this initiative is spreading across Europe this year too. We really want to achieve that kind of ripple effect,” says Quist. “What we’re doing is part of a global trend,” Horssen points out. “We know that activities like this are an effective way of raising the profile of biodiversity.”

Not just hotspots

Unusual species can be found in every shrub, among blades of grass and sometimes even among rocks and pebbles. Even so, last year, lots of people headed for hotspots like the Nature Gardens or the Dassenbos (Badger Woods) – the old woodland behind Aurora. No badgers have ever been seen there, but cameras distributed all over campus did capture a fox, a deer and a hare. Van Horssen doesn’t actually rule out the possibility of seeing a badger: “The campus would be a good place for them. They sometimes search for food in fields and meadows. It’s perfectly possible that badgers might start using the campus sometime.”

The Biodiversity Challenge is being organised by the Wageningen Biodiversiteit Initiative (WBI). The WBI is an umbrella organisation for science groups within WUR, with the aim of bringing them together so they can join forces and contribute to efforts to halt and reverse the decline in biodiversity.