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Yukon's 2017 'Bioblitz' identifies 30 new species

A celebration of Yukon's biodiversity turned up dozens of species never before recorded in the territory, and helped paint a picture of the territory's unique flora and fauna.

'It's incredible, we're still finding things new to science,' says Parks Canada biologist

Bioblitz participants pose for a photo. About 70 people participated in the 2017 Bioblitz, which led to the identification of 30 new species. (Carmen Wong/ Parks Canada)

A celebration of Yukon's biodiversity turned up dozens of species never before recorded in the territory, and helped paint a picture of the territory's unique flora and fauna.

Results are starting to come in from the 2017 Bioblitz, which was held in a small corner of Kluane National Park near A'ay Chu, or the Slims River. About 70 people attended, including 55 experts.

Their goal? To scour the tundra for a weekend identifying as many species as possible.

Places like Kluane National Park are hotspots for biodiversity, according to Parks Canada biologist Carmen Wong, and owing to the remoteness of these places, they remain largely unexplored by scientists.

"It's incredible, we're still finding things new to science," said Wong.

Participants enjoy the 2017 Bioblitz. Almost 900 different species were identified over the weekend event. (Carmen Wong/ Parks Canada)

"We do not know everything about these environments and that really is mind blowing … So, it just means we have to look harder and understand more about where we're living."

Wong refers to the Bioblitz as "a big treasure hunt," an event which takes place in a new region of the Yukon every year.

Parks Canada, along with a number of partners, held 35 Bioblitz events across the country last year, in celebration of Canada 150.

Wong said almost 900 different species were identified in the park, 30 of which have never been recorded in the territory. She added that a third of all the plant species in Yukon and a quarter of all Yukon's spiders were found during the blitz.

'A hotspot for biodiversity' 

"We knew from past collections that there were interesting things there," Wong said. "It's a bit of a hotspot for biodiversity in Yukon."

She attributes the abundance of unique flora and fauna in this particular region to the lasting impacts of Beringia.

According to Syd Cannings, a species at risk biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, the unglaciated portion of the Yukon used to be isolated from the rest of North America and was essentially part of Asia for tens of thousands of years.   

"You kind of don't think there's any options for discovering new things to science. And this effort, over the last year, really emphasizes that's not true. Particularly for the insect world," Wong said.

A pair of participants excitedly show off a bee they collected. The Bioblitz provided new information about a bee species first discovered in 2016. (Carmen Wong)

After the searching comes to an end, a list is composited with all the species that were identified. That list then goes to the Yukon Conservation Data Centre, to update existing records.

Bruce Bennett, who works with the data centre, helped to co-ordinate the event. When asked to describe the results, Bennett's face drew into a big grin.

"Each year has been getting better and better," he said. 

Bennett said one of the most interesting finds from this year's blitz is a small alpine spider. He said the specimen is completely new to science, and was never before recorded anywhere else on Earth — and the surprises don't stop there.

He said that spiders were a big part of the findings in 2017, partially owing to the attendance of a handful of an arachnid experts from the Royal British Columbia Museum. Bennett said 77 spider species were found, one of which is new to North America — and a number of others have never been seen before in the Yukon.

There were also two new mosquitoes identified, Bennett added.

"We are one of the last undiscovered places. That's why there's such a huge interest among scientists," he said.

Buzzing with excitement over bumble bee

Scientists also identified an endemic species of bumble bee last year which is found only in the Kluane region, and a small area near Denali, Alaska.

The bee was first identified as a new species in 2016, but Wong said the Bioblitz results indicate the bee is much more common than scientists originally thought.

Bombus kluanensis, as it's been aptly named, is distinguishable from other bumble bees by its large cheeks — and perhaps the fact that it lives near one of the largest icefields on the planet.

This bumble bee called Kluanensis is distinguishable from other bumble bees by its large cheeks — and perhaps the fact that it lives near one of the largest icefields on the planet. Scientists first identified the bee in 2016. (Paul H. Williams/ Natural History Museum )

While the discovery may not seem like a big deal, it turns out the chances of discovering a new species of bumble bee is quite a long shot. 

"It's the first new bumble bee to be [discovered] in North America in over 80 years," Bennett said.

"It was a great chance to make a snapshot of what was there at the time. It serves as a benchmark [for future studies] and it really helps us manage our natural environment and capture those changes."

Bennett said he's hoping to find a few more new species during this year's event, currently scheduled for June 28 in Tombstone Territorial Park.

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