By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
Since 1998, nearly 11,000 species have been added to the park’s diversity checklist—and behind each discovery is a unique story. Will Kuhn made one such discovery earlier this year in his office at Discover Life in America (DLiA), which manages the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) aimed at cataloging every single species in the park.
“I was searching quickly through some bags of vials, mostly out of curiosity,” said Kuhn, who is DLiA’s director of science and research. “There were bags and bags of insects and other creepy crawlies collected in the early 2010s by Tree Teams.”
The Tree Teams were researchers who set out to collect arthropods—beetles, flies, wasps, and the like—living up in the canopy of the park’s declining American Beech trees. The project yielded thousands of arthropod samples, most of which researchers had sent off to specialists for identification.
Some of the specimens had languished in the DLiA office, however, waiting for an entomologist to take a peek. Enter Will Kuhn, who just happens to also be an entomologist.
“As I was rifling through bags of these Tree Team samples, two vials, each containing a single slender-bodied insect with extra-long legs, caught my attention,” Kuhn recalled. “There are only a few insects that meet this description in the park. There are three walkingstick species, there are three known species of stilt bugs, and then there is a single thread-legged assassin bug species.”
Kuhn’s mystery specimens didn’t quite match any of those suspects. So, he took a few quick photos, made a cup of coffee, and pulled up his favorite website for identifying insects in North America, BugGuide.net.
“After a little digging, I tentatively identified them as two different thread-legged bugs, not previously known to exist in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Barce fraterna and Empicoris sp.),” Kuhn related.
Thread-legged bugs, like other assassin bugs, are predators of other insects and arthropods. They have a long, stout “beak” that they use to stab into their prey, inject digestive enzymes, and then suck the juices out. As was later confirmed, Kuhn had discovered two new assassin bugs for the park.
If you enjoy learning about this kind of discovery, check out the latest issue of Smokies Life magazine, in which an entire article by Kuhn is devoted to “Stories Behind the Discoveries.” You can purchase the magazine at any park bookstore or online here.
If you would like to support DLiA’s future research and conservation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can attend this year’s COVID-adapted fundraiser, the Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball on Wheels at the Parkway Drive-in Theatre in Maryville, Tennessee on Thursday, October 15. Entertainment from the comfort of your car includes a reading of “The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball” by author Lisa Horstman. Tickets are $40 per vehicle and can be purchased here.