By Frances Figart
A new aquatic organism has been discovered from a wetland near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. It's a microscopic worm-like creature that feeds on algae and bacteria, and it appears to be pretty common across North America and much of the world, if one thinks to look for it.
|This slide image of a hairybellied gastrotrich with a forked tail shows what all the fuss is about and provides documentation of a phylum never before recorded for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy of Paul E. Super.|
What's significant about this tiny new find is that it represents a phylum never before documented in the park. It belongs to a group of living things called the hairybellies, named for the rows of cilia that they use to propel themselves through the water.
It was found by a father and daughter team who were actually out looking for something completely different. Paul E. Super, science coordinator for Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at The Purchase in Haywood County, and his daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Super, were working with Dr. Paul Davison of Northern Alabama University to locate a certain fungus called Sommerstroffia that feeds on aquatic organisms known as rotifers.
“We started getting interested in all the other critters that were showing up in the pond water samples we were collecting,” Paul Super said. “While checking the samples, I noticed an unusual critter gliding along, about the same size as our rotifers. I called her attention to it. After a little book research, we discovered that it was of the phylum Gastrotricha, which is an obscure group not uncommon on submerged vegetation in fresh water. There are also a number of these species that can be found in beach sand at the ocean.”
The Smokies is home to a groundbreaking effort, managed by the nonprofit Discover Life in America (DLiA), to identify and try to understand every species living within the park’s boundaries. The project is called the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) and this tiny critter takes its tally up to 21,125 species known to the Smokies.
|Sarah Elizabeth Super helped to discover an aquatic organism that represents a phylum never before documented in the park. Photo courtesy of Paul E. Super.|
“A new phylum is significant,” said Will Kuhn, director of science and research for DLiA. “You may remember the Linnaean classification system from high school biology—kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Chordata is an example of a phylum; it contains all animals with a backbone, including fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles. We regularly add new species and genus records for the Smokies, and occasionally we find a new family, but it's extremely rare to add groups above the family level.”
Sarah Elizabeth Super—who will be attending Waynesville’s Tuscola High School once the pandemic lifts—has been doing her schooling remotely. Since she would normally be out on field trips with her science teacher, her dad suggested she join in the search for the Sommerstroffia fungus. She had no idea she would be discovering a completely new park record of such significance.
“It's been great to have the opportunity to work on something without predetermined results,” she said, “not following a rote script knowing what will come of it, but rather gaining real information new and relevant to the park.”
Kuhn says he doesn’t even know when the last new phylum was recorded. “It just goes to show how diverse and unexplored this area still is, even after 23 years of intensive study. When we focus on the small things, there is still so much more to discover.