Finding new life in the Smokies

A decade ago, scientists decided it would be smart to know exactly what plants and animals populate America's most-visited national park, the Great Smokies.

Today they're 16,570 species into the nation's largest biological roundup, known in science-talk as the “All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory” or ATBI. Maybe twice as many species are yet to be found, but that's just a guess.

The casual visitor, jockeying to park at a crowded Smokies overlook, might expect the staff to already know everything that prowls, growls and photosynthesizes in its 521,000 acres.

But secrets abound. And finding the new forms of life will help managers confront the growing threats to one of North America's richest ecosystems.

Researchers in the Great Smokies national park have already found 890 species entirely new to science.

Of those, many are microscopic: 270 types of bacteria, 78 of algae, 57 of fungi. Who knew the Smokies are a hotbed of slime molds?

Tiny creatures play an out-sized role in the park. They're the glue that holds the place together, whether munching fallen leaves into soil, pulling in nutrients or becoming a meal for something bigger.

“In many ways, these species are the power plants and lungs of the ecosystems,” UNC Chapel Hill plant ecologist Peter White told a Senate subcommittee last month. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., arranged the Asheville hearing for an ATBI update.

Higher up the charisma scale, dozens of new species of spiders, mites, crustaceans, beetles, butterflies and the leaping insects called springtails have been identified.

Even in a park internationally known for its biological wealth, the discoveries “surprised a lot of people,” said park biologist Keith Langdon, who coordinates inventorying and monitoring. “I don't know if anything compares to it anywhere in the world.”

The realization of how little scientists knew of the park's working parts, nearly six decades after it opened, drove them to inventory its assets.

Big decisions lay ahead, and knowledge would be ever more critical.

More than a list

Non-native bugs, plants and fish have invaded the Smokies. Air pollution saturates the highest peaks and streams, and climate change may be underway. Development increasingly nibbles the park's edges.

Some species could disappear within a few years, park officials knew. They needed to know what could be lost, and fast.

“We're interested in finding out what are the rare things in each group,” Langdon said, “and what does the park need to do to protect them now and in the future.”

More than a list, the inventory collects data on species' locations, rarity and roles – parasite, prey, pollinator – in the larger scheme of things. Not all species will be found, researchers know.

But the lure of discovery has attracted more than 1,000 scientists and students to take part.

“A lot of scientists want so badly to be involved that they donate a lot of their time,” said Todd Witcher, executive director of Discover Life in America, the nonprofit group that coordinates the inventory. “Over time, it's built such a cult following that people donate a lot of hours and effort.”

Apart from scientists, lay volunteers have put in more than 50,000 hours.

The park has hosted more than 20 bio-blitzes – “millipede marches,” “fern forays,” “beetle blitzes” – in which scientists and volunteers scour areas for 24 hours to two weeks.

At the park's woodsy new science center, moths and butterflies collected several years ago cover paper-covered tables. Volunteers one recent weekend helped sort them.

The success of the Smokies inventory has stoked interest elsewhere. Inventories are planned for a dozen other places, including Congaree National Park near Columbia and Tennessee's state parks.

Discovering value

The Smokies park is lush with life because of its great range of elevations and ecosystems, including thousands of acres of old-growth forests. Because the Southern Appalachians haven't been flooded by oceans or scraped by glaciers for millions of years, species flourished undisturbed.

“We keep finding things in places that we thought we knew,” Langdon said.

Those finds, combined with new technology, have practical uses beyond the gee-whiz factor.

When a lightning-sparked fire crackles to life, knowing what lives on the site can help park officials decide whether to quickly put it out.

Identification of aggressive, non-native species such as fire ants and Chinese jumping worms serve as early warnings of invaders.

The park's geographic information system lab can pinpoint where hooded warblers are expected to nest and predict when caddis flies will hatch at different elevations.

An inventory of Yellowstone National Park's hot springs found a heat-loving bacteria that became the foundation of DNA technology, now used in everything from crime scenes to disease treatment.

DNA analysis of the 1,300 species of butterflies, moths and their cousins, called skippers, found in the Smokies, in turn, may someday be used to identify species solely from the small fragments they leave behind.

Until the park began getting about $200,000 a year in government money four years ago, most of the research money came from private sources such as the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies.

Langdon expects fieldwork to wrap up in another five years. Analyzing specimens and data will take years longer – labors of enduring love.

“You can't value something you don't understand,” he said.