When most visitors think of wildlife in the Smokies, they likely think of the American black bear, a beloved symbol of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bears inhabit all elevations in the park, and their number equates to roughly two bears per square mile. This large tract of protected habitat is important for wild bears and also supports the Smokies’ unparalleled biological diversity – a wondrous diversity of life that includes almost 20,000 documented species of plants and animals.
Scientists believe an additional 80,000 to 100,000 species have yet to be discovered, and efforts are being made by the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory to document them.
In addition to the black bear, more than 60 other species of mammals live in the Smokies, more than 60 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles and 43 species of amphibians. Regularly sighted birds number more than 200, and several 'species of concern' use the Smokies as their breeding grounds. The variety of habitats provided by elevation change encourages many northern species like northern flying squirrels and Northern Saw-whet Owls to make a home here.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been called the “Salamander Capital of the World,” a distinction it has earned for the numerous species of these amphibians that inhabit the park. Five taxonomic families can be found here, and the family Plethodontidae, the lungless salamanders, show incredible evolutionary diversification with 24 species thriving in moist locations throughout the park. One species, the red-cheeked salamander, is found nowhere else on earth.
Other animals, like elk and river otters, were extirpated before the establishment of the park, but the National Park Service has reintroduced these long-lost natives. The Smokies are a sanctuary for these and other magnificent animals such as white-tailed deer, bobcat, great blue heron, red-tailed hawk and wild turkey. It is a vast and rich habitat, and the biodiversity of the Great Smoky Mountains reflects this complex and fertile landscape.