Sunday, October 27, 2013

collecting diatoms.

Loren Bahls is not your typical retiree. After stepping down as head of water quality management for the state of Montana in 1996 – then retiring again from private consulting in 2009 – Bahls finally found time to pursue his real passion: Tiny, glass-walled microbes called diatoms that practically cover the surface of the Earth. Colonies appear to the naked eye as an algae-like slime, but under a microscope, individual diatoms become magical, their silica walls forming symmetrical, lacy patterns that stand out starkly from the microscopic jumble around them. Bahls has been collecting diatoms since he was a grad student in 1966, but in 40 years’ time discovered only two new species.

That changed after his retirement. Now, Bahls, 69, curates the Montana Diatom Collection in Missoula and has added some 60 new species to the scientific literature. Scientists believe less than a quarter of the hundreds of thousands of unique diatoms of the world have been catalogued, and most of those awaiting discovery are endemic to high-elevation lakes and streams. But Bahls’ knees are shot, and he can no longer collect samples himself.

“Reservoirs are terrible,” he says. “Typically they just have your garden variety, cosmopolitan species. You’ve got to go upstream, you’ve got to go to the headwaters. Researchers have been negligent in sampling remote, atypical habitats that are hard to reach.”

Enter Gregg Treinish, a National Geographic grantee and the founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), a project that pairs climbers, paddlers, bikers and hikers with scientists who need data from remote environments. Since Treinish came up with the idea in 2011, he’s helped pair more than 1,600 adventurers with 120 scientists on all seven continents. The group has worked with famed mountaineer Conrad Anker and snowboarder Jeremy Jones as well as six-year-olds and day-hikers. The idea, Treinish says, is to make the projects “idiot-proof.”....

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