20 Years Discovering New Species in the Great Smoky Mountains

Discovering New Species in the Great Smoky Mountains

Marbled Salamander. Photo by Kevin Hutcheson

Compleat Naturalist

By Hal and Laura Mahan

“To save biodiversity, it is necessary to obey the precautionary principle in the treatment of Earth’s natural ecosystems, and to do so strictly. Hold fast until we, scientists and the public alike, know much more about them. Proceed carefully—study, discuss, plan. Give the rest of Earth’s life a chance.” ~E.O. Wilson

An inventory is going on, and brand new kinds of organisms are being discovered right here in the Western North Carolina mountains! It is hard to imagine that here in the heavily-populated eastern US, where the first American universities had their start 300 plus years ago, the most visited national park and perhaps most studied national park in our country—Great Smoky Mountains National Park— would still harbor species that are unknown to science.

For nearly 20 years, a massive effort has been underway to inventory all of the organisms that live in the Smokies. As of the time of this publication, a little more than 19,000 species have been documented. This number includes 983 new species (previously unknown to science!), and 9,189 species that are new to the Park.

The organization coordinating this massive project is known as Discover Life in America (DLIA), and the project is the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, or ATBI. (A “taxon” is a group of organisms. “All Taxa” refers to the fact that no types of organisms will be left out of the survey.)

The ATBI in the Smokies is the largest sustained natural history inventory in the United States, and one of the largest in the world, partly based on the impressive number of people who have been involved, including hundreds of scientists, university students, teachers and citizen volunteers. Similar efforts are now shooting up in other locations both here in the US and around the world.

The Inventory is more than just a list. The ATBI provides Park managers and scientists with basic information that is extremely important when making management decisions about our precious natural resources. The Inventory also provides baseline data so that it can be determined when and how changes might be occurring.

“To preserve our living resources, it is crucial to understand what life exists,” says DLIA executive director, Todd Witcher. “Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the region and is a critical enclave of suitable habitats for an estimated 60–80,000 species of life—providing refuge in the face of development pressures and global climate change.”

In April, DLIA is holding two family-friendly bioblitzes incorporating field collection, specimen identification and education sessions. The annual fundraiser, the Salamander Ball, will be held September 24 at the Knoxville Zoo. Learn more at or follow DLIA on Facebook.

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

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