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1,145 different plant and animal species found at SDC

On a hike through the Sonoma Developmental Center’s open space about three years ago, Dan Levitis wondered how many species inhabited the diverse habitats found on the sprawling 945-acre property.

His curiosity eventually led to a biodiversity research project through the Sonoma Ecology Center, where Levitis works as a community science coordinator, and the documentation of 1,145 individual species on the property.

“I thought, ‘Well, that'll be a fun project to hike around and find out what lives on this property,’” Levitis said. “And I started doing that and quickly realized that it's a very big property with a lot of things living on it. And so I realized I would need help. I need allies.”

The Sonoma Ecology Center has been one, but so does the California Academy of Sciences, the University of California Naturalist Program and other naturalists to help identify the hundreds of species found through observations. Together using the iNaturalist app, a social network to map and share observations of biodiversity, Levitis and volunteers were able to crowd-source observations at the SDC. Now, 264 people have contributed their findings to the Sonoma Ecology Center’s biodiversity study.

“One of our volunteers is a local teenager named Galen Freed(-Wilhelm), and he is obsessed with reptiles, particularly snakes and particularly rattlesnakes,” Levitis said. “Anytime he goes out into the field ... he pretty much always finds one.”

And while the most observed animal at SDC is the commonmule deer, some very unusual species of wildlife have also been documented, including rare types of snails and mushroom, he said. Levitis has traveled all around the world during his research -- from elusive locales like Papua New Guinea to more domestic venues in the state to study California condors — but the biodiversity at the SDC is remarkable, he said.

“I didn't know that we were going to get beavers and otters and Chinook salmon moving through on the creeks,” Levitis said. “During that one big storm that we got this fall... Chinook salmon worked their way up a creek through this Sonoma Developmental Center and ultimately into Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where they spawn.”

These salmon bred in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park for the first time in several years due to the ongoing drought, Levitis said. Other rare water-friendly animals were found in the marsh on the east side of the property, known as the Eldridge Marsh. Pond turtles and California Giant Salamanders, both of which have faced massive habitat loss due to human development in recent decades.

Places where those species have been documented have been obscured on the iNaturalist app to protect their habitat and stop poachers from finding them. But it’s not just animals. There’s even a rare succulent, known as the Live Forever, which Levitis said are very valuable and are often sold as house plants.

“There really is a lot going on there and we have not yet come close to running out of things to find,” Levitis said. “I've seen a lot of different habitats and a lot of different creatures, but the biodiversity on the Sonoma Developmental Center property really is impressive.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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