The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative


Photo by Jin Hong

Want to know Nantucket’s natural world?

Drive it, bike it, walk it or wade through it and all of it still cannot not be seen.

Away from the shops, restaurants bars and the more “urban” areas of Nantucket is the island’s original native population. Yes, the plants, animals, birds, insects, fish and marine mammals are everywhere on and around this 47.8-square mile sandbar and its smaller islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget. But most species are concentrated away from human contact.

And though we know well our own island history from Native American arrival through present day, we have less knowledge of the wildlife and plants we share this beautiful island with.

The Formation of Nantuck, Tuckernuck and Muskeget

Nantucket, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget were formed around 21,000 years ago. A period of global warming then caused the glacier to began receding northward, leaving a low, wide ridge of sand, gravel and rock that would become the three islands that make up Nantucket’s mini archipelago.

The advancing ice had pushed northern species south so that they overlapped with the northern range of southern species, which extended their range northward as the glacier receded. This mixing of species from two climate zones produced a unique grouping of organisms on Nantucket that still exists today. But not every living thing is identified on Nantucket yet. In fact, no one really knows for sure how many species of plants and animals inhabit the island. However, we’re adding new knowledge every year thanks to the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative.

The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative

Led by the Maria Mitchell Association with the help of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, the Nantucket Land Trust, the Nantucket Islands Land Bank, the Trustees of Reservations, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Linda Loring Nature Foundation, the Tuckernuck Land Trust, UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Massachusetts Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program and the Science Department of the Nantucket High School, the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative began in May 2004.

That year, the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative started its alternating years’ schedule of biodiversity weeks and conferences in late May 2004 as an effort to inventory as much of Nantucket’s living world as possible and spark long-term research on key species that could last for years as the researchers return to Nantucket periodically, to gather more data.

This first year, local and visiting scientists activated their research within 25, 25-acre biodiversity plots located in all of Nantucket’s ecosystems. Ultimately, the information gathered is to be used to wisely manage the island’s natural resources and better comprehend the unique evolutionary processes of the island due to its location we are geologic history.

The following year, the NBI organization held a conference in September for researchers to present their findings to date on their research-in-progress to the public. Since those first two years, the annual NBI event has loosely alternated between a presentations conference one year and field trips with researchers offered to the public the next with the 2013 event combining both researcher presentations with field trips out into research ecosystems.

The trick for the NBI is to foster the right mix of exploration by biologists tempered with NBI’s goal of a long-rang biodiversity assessment of Nantucket. In essence, they want as many biologists to the come to island as possible to study its flora and fauna, but NBI also needs to keep the scientists focused on its mission.

To find out more about the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative, go to

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