By Emma Castleberry
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which stretches across more than 800 square miles of land in North Carolina and Tennessee, is a biologically diverse region featuring a variety of plants, amphibians, fish, land snails and aquatic insects. Recognizing the unique value of the park, a group of environmentalists gathered in 1997 to discuss the feasibility of conducting an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) in the Smokies. The ATBI is an effort to catalog an estimated 100,000 species of living organisms in the park, along with invaluable information about each species’ locations, habitats, population density and relationships.
That 1997 meeting led to the creation of Discover Life in America (DLiA), a nonprofit committed to the coordination of this ambitious inventory. “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 60,000 to 80,000 species of life,” says Todd Witcher, executive director of DLiA. “It’s as if we discovered one of the world’s great libraries and every time we turn around there are new and wondrous books to read, except the books in this case are a rich collection of living organisms. We have only just scratched the surface and the ultimate challenge is ensuring the protection of these magnificent species.”
Becky Nichols is an entomologist with the park who has been involved with the ATBI since its inception. “What we’ve learned through conducting the ATBI in the Smokies has been remarkable,” she says, “not only from a park management perspective but from an ecological one as well. The project has resulted in many new species discoveries, about five percent of which are new to science, but we are also learning about their preferred habitats, which species are associated with each other and what their distributions are.” This information empowers park management to better respond to biodiversity threats like invasive species.
Additionally, the project has had a lasting impact on science education. As with much of the programming at the park, all ages are included in the discovery process for the ATBI. “DLiA has hosted hundreds of hands-on field experiences in which visitors work side-by-side with scientists sifting through soil for millipedes, wading upriver to collect tardigrades and crouching in the forests peering at ferns,” says Witcher, who spends nearly a quarter of his outdoor time in the spring, summer and fall training DLiA interns. “This is where it all really meshes for me because it helps us meet our goal to foster the next generation of scientists and conservationists.”
Learn about DLiA’s ongoing research at dlia.org.