The Mother Lode

Coke Whitworth
Coke Whitworth
Coke Whitworth
Coke Whitworth
Coke Whitworth

The Mother Lode

The tropics are renowned bastions of biodiversity. But scientists are finding that our own backyard rivals the rainforests as they uncover dozens of new species each year in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

By Kurt Repanshek/Photography by Coke Whitworth
Published: July-August 2010

If scientists can fairly and properly be compared to prospectors--and in light of the bioprospectors who mine the world for beneficial and commercially viable extremophiles, that analogy seems apt--then they've struck the mother lode in a misty range of mountains in a most unlikely locale. In slightly more than a decade of fieldwork they've discovered more than 900 species previously unknown to science in a landscape that has long been staring them right in the face. Oval in shape, roughly 800 square miles covering the Tennessee-North Carolina border like a rumpled blanket, and traipsed upon by some nine million people each year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has proved to be an unassuming wellspring of biological diversity.

Often veiled in vapory tendrils, the park has demonstrated that we don't know quite as much about our resident life-forms as we might think. Since Great Smoky launched its All Taxa Biological Inventory (ATBI) in 1998, at least 907 species new to science and more than 6,500 species previously undetected in the park have been snared, netted, scooped, trapped, and observed by an array of more than 1,000 biologists, entomologists, taxonomists, botanists, and other "ologists." Armed with bug nets, funnel traps, light traps, and climbing gear to both ascend into forest canopies and descend into caves, degreed scientists and volunteer "citizen scientists" have catalogued thousands of species, big and small, known and previously unknown, and all with ecological roles in the park. Among the newcomers are 27 species of freshwater crustaceans and crayfish, a large variety of arachnids of both the terrestrial and aquatic variety, 74 species of flitting moths and butterflies, 42 species of beetles, 23 varieties of bees, and 78 algae species. The successes realized in Great Smoky have spurred other ATBI efforts at Acadia National Park, Big Thicket National Preserve, Boston Harbors National Recreation Area, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Congaree National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Though the numbers are important, the inventory is more than an exercise in counting. It's intended to gain a better understanding of the Great Smokies ecosystem and, along the way, raise people's curiosity--and perhaps even their knowledge--about the world around us.  Working to pull those pieces together is Discover Life in America, a nonprofit established to manage the inventory.

As we walk through a thick, second-growth forest of yellow poplars, hemlocks, hickories, and dogwood, past a scattered crop of pulpy mushrooms that eastern box turtles have nibbled, and toward one of the gurgling creeks that helps drain the Smokies of their moisture, Todd Witcher, Discover Life's executive director, explains the value of chronicling the life within this biological ark. Only through assembling this ecological jigsaw puzzle, Witcher says, can we really gain an understanding of how the park's ecosystems function. "Obviously, if we find out what's here, you have to go back and look at how is it changing?" he says. "Is it disappearing? Is there something else affecting it? Is there another hemlock woolly adelgid out there that's attacking something else that's a valuable part of an ecosystem that will change the whole ecosystem? If the hemlocks all disappear, then the whole ecosystem is different than it was 10 years ago, so what happens? What disappears? What rises up and fills in that void?"

That question remains to be answered. One that's easier to explain is why so many species new to science and the park have been discovered in a landscape that white settlers moved into in the 18th century and that was heavily logged deep into the 20th century. The species are both longtime residents that have symbiotic roles as well as relative newcomers that have disrupted the ecosystem. Chestnut blight, which arrived in the early 1900s from Asia, has virtually wiped these all-American trees from the park's landscape, and the hemlock forests are vanishing because of the woolly adelgid, another Asian immigrant. Yet outwardly, Witcher notes, some might not consider Great Smoky that sexy of a research lab. "Even though this park is right at our back door and it's convenient to everybody, scientists haven't studied here that much," he explains. "There's a real appeal for the tropics, for island research, and South America."

Researchers drawn to the park soon discover that it overflows with habitats, making it a biological crucible. Five different forest types cover the mountain flanks; both grassy balds and heath balds poke holes in the woods near the summits; and vegetative tangles produced by the vigorous growth of catawba and rosebay rhododendrons, magnolia, ferns, holly, and mountain laurel abound. There are even caves that worm into the karst formations underlying the Smokies' extreme western portions. Spend time roaming from the park's 870-feet-above-sea-level basement to its 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome and you will, in essence, have negotiated diverse vegetative topography akin to what you would find hiking the Appalachian Trail 2,175 miles, from Georgia to Maine.

 

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