Discovering Life in The Smokies

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The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory records elusive and new species in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park


Shawn Poynter

Researchers Samrachana Adhikari and Amanda Parks document species in the Smoky Mountains National Park while Keith Langdon, Park manager, looks on.

by Shawn Poynter

People flock to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to gawk at Ursus americanus (black bear), Cervus canadensis (elk), and Haliaeetus leucocephalus (bald eagle). And for good reason, they’re amazing animals. But a group of scientists hope you will also pause long enough to appreciate a few lesser known species. For example, there’s the Cosberella lamaralexanderi (springtail), Desmognathus quadramaculatus (blackbelly salamander), or Tubifex tubifex (sludge worm). These critters don’t get much press, but that may be changing, at least a tiny bit, thanks to a program in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that’s enlisting the help of volunteers to find, identify, and record every species of plant and animal in the park.

Since 1998 the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) has been scouring the park’s 800 square miles to find and document every living thing in the soil, bark, leaves, and everywhere in between. The results are, for me at least, impressive. They’ve discovered more than 900 new-to-the world species and more than 6,500 species never before seen in the park.

There are worse places to look for new species than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Finding animals in the park, located where the corners of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee meet, is like finding hay in a needle stack. It’s the world’s most biodiverse area, according to the park’s website. I recently spent a day with the ATBI combing trees for critters. While I was there a team found a red mulberry beetle, which was new to the park.

Knowing what’s around you, even if it’s invisible, is important when making decisions on how to manage a national park. It’s also important to recognize the power of the food chain. “We talk to (visitors) about the smaller animals and their stare goes blank,” says Todd Witcher, executive director of the Discover Life in America, ATBI’s parent organization. But, he says, “None of those larger things would exsist if it wasnt for the smaller things.” Maybe you’re thinking about building a road, walk-way, or visitor center in the park. Great, just don’t do it where you’ll squish the only known-to-the-world species of Aquatic oligochaetes (aquatic segmented worms). Worms need love, too.

The ATBI in the Smokyies is one of few in the world. The program would like to expand the project into other parks across the country and world, according to Witcher. He recently spent time in Germany talking about how to organize and build ATBIs there.