Author: Frances Figart

  1. DLIA Brings Beetle Mania to the Smokies: An interview with Claire Winfrey

    DLIA Brings Beetle Mania to the Smokies: An interview with Claire Winfrey

    Did you know… about one in every four animals on the planet is a beetle! Of the  roughly 400,000 species of beetles known, some are pollinators, others recyclers –some even help to offset the effects of climate change.

    “Insects are an instant connection to the wild and an extreme example of Earth’s biodiversity,” says Claire Winfrey, a beetle expert and second-year Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Especially in warmer months, take some time to look in almost any type of habitat and you can find them.”

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  2. Smokies Life Redux: Rhododendron Revisited

    Smokies Life Redux: Rhododendron Revisited

    Did you know that there are more than 1,000 species of rhododendron in the world? Can you name the four species we have in the Smokies?

    I learned these things and more when I edited an article by Courtney Lix for publication in the current issue of Smokies Life. Courtney's story provides insight into this ubiquitous and resilient plant—one that might easily be taken for granted by locals and repeat visitors to the park.

    “The most common is the rosebay (R. maximum), which grows most abundantly at lower elevations but can be found nearly everywhere throughout the national park,” Courtney wrote. “Small-leaved rhododendron (R. minus) occurs frequently as well, although in smaller numbers than rosebay. The other two rhododendron species grow in mid- and high elevations, mostly above 3,500 feet: the Carolina rhododendron (R. caroliniana), and Catawba rhododendron (R. catawbiense).”

    A native of eastern Kentucky, I am most familiar with the Catawba variety, which was discovered in North Carolina by French botanist and explorer Andre Michaux in the late 1700s. Thanks to Courtney, I’m beginning to recognize the other types while hiking.

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  3. The Benefits of Spiders – An Interview with Kefyn Catley

    Spiders tend to get a bad rap, but they are actually critical to the balance of our ecosystems. Kefyn Catley will explain how on Friday, July 20, as part of Discover Life In America’s Science at Sugarlands series, a free public event at Sugarlands Visitor Center at which participants will get to go on a spider hunt.

    Catley, a biology professor at Western Carolina University, teaches and conducts research in the evolutionary biology of spiders. He holds a Ph.D. in arthropod systematics from Cornell, was a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, and has taught Spiders of the Southern Appalachians at Highlands Biological Station in North Carolina since 2004.

    FF: It’s not every day you meet someone who has studied spiders on four continents. Why do you find them so fascinating?

    KC: Spiders have an ancient lineage originating some 400 million years ago. They are the largest and most important group of predators on the planet and are considered a mega-diverse taxon with more than 47,000 described species with an estimated total number in the range of 75,000-190,000. Spiders are excellent models for studying ecology, behavior, biochemistry, competition, speciation, sexual selection and biogeography, among other fields. They contribute to research in biological pest control, venom chemistry and the cloning of silk.

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  4. Fireflies and Bioluminescence - An Interview with Will Kuhn

    One of the most exciting and fabulously popular events each year in late May and early-to-mid June is the flashy mating ritual of the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains. This year’s peak dates for firefly viewing are June 7-14 and thousands of visitors will be gathering, just as they have for years, near the Elkmont Campground to observe this naturally occurring phenomenon. 

    Why does Photinus carolinus attract not only its mate but also a large human fan club through its rhythmic flashing? We asked Dr. William R. Kuhn, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tennessee, to illuminate this topic.

    FF: First of all, how are you involved with Great Smoky Mountains National Park and what makes it exciting for you? 

    WK: I am a member of Discover Life in America's board and have recently become chair of the Science Committee. In addition, I've helped with the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory's sampling effort, including collecting assassin bugs (predatory insects related to stink bugs and cicadas) in the park, as they were considered under-studied here. So far, this work has resulted in a new species record for the park. Every time I work in the Smokies, I think to myself what a privilege it is to be in such a beautiful and diverse place! 

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  5. Pollinator garden dedication marks first of DLIA talk series at Sugarlands

    Pollinator garden dedication marks first of DLIA talk series at Sugarlands

    Discover Life in America dedicated the pollinator garden at Sugarlands Visitor Center on May 18 and kicked off its Science at Sugarlands series, a collection of talks to be held the third Friday of each month through October. A collaboration between DLIA, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Great Smoky Mountains Association, the pollinator garden project used native plants to rehabilitate ten existing overgrown plant beds and to provide much-needed habitat for native pollinators.

    “One goal of the project is to connect the visitors with the natural community and remind them of the important interactions between flora and fauna,” said DLIA Executive Director Todd Witcher. “Signage was developed to interpret the beds and to inform visitors about creating habitat for pollinators in their own backyard.”

    The garden had been a gleam in Witcher’s eye since 2014 when the White House implemented a National Pollinator Health Strategy. “It was recognized that there has been a decline in insect pollinators nationwide, so funding was made available to agencies for projects that address this issue, including research and habitat improvements,” he said.

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