Discover Life in America Keeps on Discovering

Discover Life in America Keeps on Discovering

Frances Figart

By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director

Did you know that there are now 21,183 total known species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? That’s a lot of species, and new ones are always likely to be discovered during bioblitz events hosted by nonprofit park partner Discover Life in America (DLiA).

DLiA manages the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), a groundbreaking effort to identify and understand every form of life within the park. Contributors to the project include some of the world's leading scientists, park educators, and volunteers who are interested in nature.

Entomologist Ken Hobson showcases an invertebrate find to bioblitz participants at Abrams Creek. Photo courtesy of Xavier Reyes.
Entomologist Ken Hobson showcases an invertebrate find to bioblitz participants at Abrams Creek. Photo courtesy of Xavier Reyes.

“Bioblitzes are free, fun, educational opportunities for people to come together and look for animals and plants in understudied areas both inside and outside the park,” said Todd Witcher, DLiA’s executive director.

This summer bioblitzes have been held at Abrams Creek, Cave Mountain, and Tellico Lake, Tennessee. There is one coming up September 11 at Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge near Springville.

With DLiA and the ATBI both in their 23rd year, an astonishing 1,044 new species have been discovered in the park. The species new to science include 36 moths and butterflies, 41 spiders, 78 algae, 64 beetles, 29 crustaceans, 58 fungi, 22 bees and bee relatives, 270 bacteria and 18 tardigrades (water-dwelling micro-animals with eight legs).

How did it all begin? Back in December of 1997, a group of about 120 scientists, resource managers and educators convened in Gatlinburg. They were concerned about the threats to diversity in GSMNP and wanted to discuss the feasibility of conducting an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory in the Smokies.

DLiA Director Todd Witcher explains how a bioblitz works. Photo courtesy of Xavier Reyes.
DLiA Director Todd Witcher explains how a bioblitz works. Photo courtesy of Xavier Reyes.

“These were days of vision and excitement,” wrote Peter White of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the scientists in attendance. “The park has always been a key field site for biologists, and had attracted much research over the years, but we imagined a great step forward.”

Soon after the 1997 meeting, DLiA was created to oversee and coordinate an exhaustive inventory of life forms in the park. This required a collaborative effort on the parts of GSMNP, the National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies, the U.S. Geological Survey, National Biological Information Infrastructure, and many universities and other institutions.

But the ATBI is more than just a list of species, White explained. “We seek to discover not only which species are present in each taxonomic group in the park, but also (1) which of these species are rare enough to be of management concern, (2) where each species is found in terms of natural community affinities, (3) the seasonal occurrences and changes in abundance of each species, and (4) what the ecological roles and interactions of the species are.”

Reflecting on the project in the Southeastern Naturalist, White provided three characteristics that continue to make it a solid contribution to the world of ideas.

DLiA Science Director Will Kuhn collects insects at a UV light trap at Abrams Creek. Photo courtesy of Xavier Reyes.
DLiA Science Director Will Kuhn collects insects at a UV light trap at Abrams Creek. Photo courtesy of Xavier Reyes.

First, it focuses on all taxa—groups of organisms—not just those already known to be important. “We found ourselves investigating everywhere; not only under rocks, but also climbing the tallest trees, examining grains of soil, and descending into the deepest caves. ATBI investigators examined the species that live in the feathers of birds and in the guts of other species… I found myself, for the first time since my early undergraduate courses, dealing with all of biology (not just my specialty).”

Second, the ATBI includes people from all walks of life. “The project was not solely a scientific effort, but rather a deliberate weaving together of science, stewardship, and education… One area, however, that I didn’t anticipate at the beginning was art! Photographers, artists, and even musicians, inspired by the excitement of exploration and the beauty and intricacy of the life forms we discovered, soon joined our project. Artists collaborated with the science teams as essential members responsible for illustration and documentation.” 

This illustration of the Appalachian flea beetle, one of hundreds of new species discovered since the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory began in 1998, is an example of how art plays a role in the ATBI. Illustration by L. A. Carter.
This illustration of the Appalachian flea beetle, one of hundreds of new species discovered since the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory began in 1998, is an example of how art plays a role in the ATBI. Illustration by L. A. Carter.

Finally, Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides a self-contained focus and sustainable boundaries for the concentrated efforts of the ATBI. “Whereas taxonomists often focus on a particular group of organisms regardless of location in order to fully circumscribe the species, the park itself provided the common denominator to make us all focus on goals, and also brought us together in ways that will support ecological understanding, monitoring, and conservation objectives.” 

What the park has learned through conducting the ATBI in the Smokies has been remarkable, not only from a park management perspective, but from an ecological one according to Becky Nichols, an NPS entomologist who has been involved with the ATBI since its inception.

Smokies LIVE

“All of this information helps us better respond to threats, such as invasive species, and we also gain a better understanding of ecosystem function and how it is dependent on biodiversity, not only locally, but globally as well.”

Learn more about the ATBI and bioblitzes at DLiA.org.

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