Park scientists and nature writers reflect on the meaning of ‘habitat’

Park scientists and nature writers reflect on the meaning of ‘habitat’
George Ellison, whose “Nature Journal” has long been a fixture of the Asheville Citizen-Times, was named one of the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is shown here with columnist Frances Figart.
George Ellison, whose “Nature Journal” has long been a fixture of the Asheville Citizen-Times, was named one of the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He is shown here with columnist Frances Figart.

When the United Nations designated the first Monday of October of every year as World Habitat Day, the intent was for people to reflect on the state of our cities and towns, and on the fact that everyone has a basic right to enjoy adequate shelter.

“Shelter is My Right” was the theme of the very first World Habitat Day celebrated in 1986 in Nairobi, Kenya. Here we are 35 years later, and for many who work in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the word “habitat” conjures up images of the homes of wildlife, who also have the right to shelter.

“When I hear the word ‘habitat,’ I think about wetlands,” said Alix Pfennigwerth, a biological science technician with the Smokies’ Inventory and Monitoring program.

"Wetlands are small but mighty. They’re rare: they cover just one percent of the Smokies’ landscape. Yet they provide critically important food, water, and shelter for so many of the species we love — birds, fishes, insects, mammals, frogs, salamanders, and plants."

Of course, habitat, in the broadest sense, is simply where things live.

Alix Pfennigwerth maps and surveys wetlands as a biological science technician with the Inventory and Monitoring program at GSMNP. Photo courtesy of Emma DuFort, GSMA.
Alix Pfennigwerth maps and surveys wetlands as a biological science technician with the Inventory and Monitoring program at GSMNP. Photo courtesy of Emma DuFort, GSMA.

“It can be the soils of forests and fields, it can be the waters of a stream or river, or it can be an ancient log slowly decaying and providing food and cover for a variety of plants, animals, and microorganisms,” said Matt Kulp, supervisory fishery biologist for GSMNP.

Matt Kulp, supervisory fishery biologist for GSMNP, leads a team of Trout Unlimited volunteers collecting brook trout in Cosby Creek stream habitat to move into the newly restored section of Lynn Camp Prong. Photo courtesy of NPS.
Matt Kulp, supervisory fishery biologist for GSMNP, leads a team of Trout Unlimited volunteers collecting brook trout in Cosby Creek stream habitat to move into the newly restored section of Lynn Camp Prong. Photo courtesy of NPS.

“Habitat isn't always just places we see,” he continued. “Some of the rarest species in the park live on or under rocks in streams, in the duff layers of forests, on the bark of trees, in wetlands, and even on — or inside — the bodies of other living organisms.”

Kulp, Pfennigwerth, and their colleagues have a great challenge in educating visitors about how harmful it is to move rocks to create rock cairns and dams in the park’s 2,900 miles of beautiful streams and rivers. Many aquatic species, including some federally threatened and endangered fish and salamanders, live and nest under rocks. When a nest rock is disturbed, these vulnerable creatures are forced to abandon their homes. Just think how you would feel if someone turned your house upside down!

“Many critters, including humans, can live in a broad range of habitats,” said Todd Witcher, executive director for Discover Life in America, a nonprofit park partner documenting the Smokies’ diversity. “When you start to look at things that have very specific requirements to survive, habitat becomes extremely complex. For example, I have always been fascinated by species of plants and animals that require a habit that is wet, but well-drained. It’s hard to be wet without some standing water; a seep, though, creates this habitat. Certain mosses and the beautiful, glowing, fungus gnat larvae require these kinds of habitats for survival.”

Todd Witcher, executive director of Discover Life in America, educates community scientists about how to collect and identify species during a bioblitz. Photo courtesy of Xavier Reyes.
Todd Witcher, executive director of Discover Life in America, educates community scientists about how to collect and identify species during a bioblitz. Photo courtesy of Xavier Reyes.

Elly Wells of Asheville provides public relations services for a host of regional conservation clients, including Great Smoky Mountains Association. “Living in the southern Appalachians and working on communications related to public lands and regional land conservancies, I’m reminded daily that the backbone of our mountain habitat is its diversity,” she said. “While the sheer number of community types and species shout ‘Abundance!’ the growing threats to our water and land cry ‘Protection!’ — making clear the need for greater education and awareness about preservation of habitat.”

Korrin Bishop is a freelance writer whose passions for the great outdoors led her to the Great Smoky Mountains after living amongst the California redwoods, the South Dakota badlands, and the Florida everglades.

Korrin Bishop, a freelance writer who was drawn to the Smokies after living near other national parks, enjoying habitat at Rocky Top along the Appalachian Trail in GSMNP. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Rockwood.
Korrin Bishop, a freelance writer who was drawn to the Smokies after living near other national parks, enjoying habitat at Rocky Top along the Appalachian Trail in GSMNP. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Rockwood.

“To me, ‘habitat’ conveys what it takes to thrive in and belong to a place,” she said. “In writing about the Smokies during my first two years living here, I’ve learned what different species need in their habitats to survive and how subtle changes in elevation, temperature, or human impact can determine whether those species continue to call a particular habitat their home. Now, as I hike the park’s trails, continuing to find my own sense of belonging in this region, I see these species as my blueprint for how to adapt and grow within changing spaces and time.”

Visitors to any park or natural area should refrain from moving rocks and keep the native habitat in place in order to protect fish, salamanders, and many other aquatic species.
Visitors to any park or natural area should refrain from moving rocks and keep the native habitat in place in order to protect fish, salamanders, and many other aquatic species.

Bishop was a 2020 writer-in-residence at Sundress Academy for the Arts in Knoxville. She is now a regular contributor to Great Smoky Mountains Association’s “Smokies Life” magazine and has written for “Sierra” magazine and “Fodor's Travel,” among others.

Three generations ahead of Bishop, another writer began interpreting the Smokies’ habitats and inhabitants back in the 1970s. George Ellison, whose “Nature Journal” has long been a fixture of the “Asheville Citizen-Times,” was named one of the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His and Janet McCue’s book “Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography” (2019, Great Smoky Mountains Association) won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award two years ago.

Smokies LIVE

“For me, the designation ‘habitat’ implies a distinctive ‘natural area’ within which a given set of plants, animals, and land forms living in harmony might be anticipated,” Ellison said. “Such places can also serve as ‘places of refuge’ for us human critters so long as we value and protect them.”             

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