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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Biggest Biological Tally Yet

Air Date: Week of

"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," is a scenario scientists are working hard to avoid in the Great Smoky Mountains. Only 10 percent of the life forms in the national park have been catalogued. Scientists, aided by amateur naturalists, have launched a massive, 15-year effort to inventory and understand every life form on the site. Diane Toomey reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, is rich with life. This half-million-acre site has more tree species than the whole of Europe, and more different types of salamanders than anyplace else in the world. All told, the Smokies are one of the most biologically diverse places outside of the tropics, and it's all about to be catalogued. At least that's the hope of researchers who plan to identify and map every form of life in the Smokies, from the biggest bear to the smallest bacterium. The complete biodiversity inventory is expected to take hundreds of scientists and volunteers 10 to 15 years to finish. From member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Diane Toomey reports.

(A door shuts)

TOOMEY: The metal cabinets and wooden drawers that fill Don Defoe's workplace look unremarkable, but pull open a drawer and the contents might seem a bit gruesome.

(A drawer opens)

DEFOE: These are mammals that have been trapped, probably. In addition to the skins, the skulls are saved.

TOOMEY: Defoe holds out a large tray covered with the dried hollowed-out skins of about a dozen mice. Their tiny skulls lie on cotton balls in nearby glass vials. Defoe oversees the Smokies' archive collection: a basement room filled with cabinets full of beetles on stick pins, snakes in formaldehyde jars, and thousands of other species.

DEFOE: This might seem like a lot, but it's a very small percentage of what actually exists. Just for the fun of it let me show you --

(Footfalls, clanking)

DEFOE: The insects wrap around here.

TOOMEY: If this archive were to house a sample of everything found in the Smokies, Don Defoe would need more than a basement. It's estimated that 100,000 species grow, crawl, fly, slither, or swim in the park, and that's not counting the bacteria. But park managers and scientists simply don't know the full cast of characters here, or in any other wilderness region for that matter. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to figure out the consequences of a wilderness management decision, or the effects of a non-native species. The knowledge gap is especially wide in the Smokies, an area that packs 60 different habitat types into its half million acres.

(Flowing water, bird calls)

TOOMEY: From lowland pine forests to hardwood coves, to, at its highest elevation, spruce forests that resemble southern Canada. Keith Langdon has the momentous task of overseeing inventory and monitoring here. Sitting on a rock not far from a creek, 100-foot white ash and sycamore trees arching into the sky above him, Langdon says they've only documented about 10% of the life here.

LANGDON: We have a mandate here to protect this area and the species and the natural processes that are going on here. But there's just no information. It's seat of the pants management. We have to guess about what the impacts will be. We have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find rare species when we're going to reroute a trail in the backcountry or put in a new parking area.

TOOMEY: The situation is especially urgent in the Smokies. While as a national park these mountains are fully protected, they are threatened by notorious levels of air pollution and a host of non-native species, including an insect that has all but wiped out its fir trees. While park officials do research ways to fight those threats, they're handicapped.

LANGDON: What we find when we dig in to find those answers is that the basic research on the natural history, if you will, to use an old-fashioned term, of those species really isn't there. We also find that other species, which are very poorly known, impinge on our factors in the recovery of species we're trying to protect.

TOOMEY: Park officials have done piecemeal inventories here, but at the rate they were going, they estimated it would have taken about 2 centuries to complete. The new 15-year plan calls for dividing the park into 100 meter by 100 meter hectare plots, spread out across representative habitats. There will be 20 hectare sites this first year. That number will eventually grow to 3,000. Scientists will be able to hunt down their creature of choice in the plots, as well as set up all manner of traps. The inventory is the brainchild of John Pickering, a University of Georgia entomologist.

(Footfalls in brush)

TOOMEY: Dr. Pickering makes his way up a steep hill to check one of his wasp traps, an innocuous-looking mesh tent that leads insects straight into a bottle of alcohol. The Smokies, he says, are chock full of parasitic wasps.

PICKERING: This one species that we've been fascinated by, it's basically a miniature bear. Black all over to absorb heat. And it's incredibly hairy, so you've got this black, hairy wasp that flies around in December, keeping warm. This is great.

TOOMEY: Before Pickering set up these winter traps, researchers didn't know that wasps flew around here in the colder months. Dr. Pickering says it's these little guys -- the mites, the spiders, the fungi -- that make up almost all of what's unknown in the Smokies. For instance, recent research here yielded almost 40 species of spiders new to science. There has been one previous attempt to do an inventory of this scale, in the national parks of Costa Rica. But that effort failed because of squabbling between park officials there over the distribution of research funds. In this study everyone will be expected to share. So in Dr. Pickering's case, after plucking out his parasitic wasps, he'll divvy up the remaining bugs.

PICKERING: The flies will go the dipterous group of people who work with flies. The beetles would go to the coleoptris group and so on. And so, basically the idea is that we'll have a series of general sorting centers, which will take this material, and then that material, they will distribute it to the specialist centers.

TOOMEY: Most of the work will be done by unpaid scientists, and it seems that a number are interested. A project meeting a few months ago drew about 100 researchers who want to get in on the ground floor, Pickering says, of the biological equivalent of sending a man to the moon. Each specimen will be assigned its own bar code, and each species will have its own Web page. It's this database, Dr. Pickering says, that makes the inventory more than just a simple checklist of names.

PICKERING: It's not just oh, we've got 99,973 species in the Smokies. Big deal. The number isn't interesting. What's interesting is understanding their geographic distribution, how they fit into communities, who eats whom, environmental requirements, and so on. Because with that knowledge, you can then really manage your environment wisely.

TOOMEY: But keeping track of the project's data may prove easier than keeping track of the army of amateur naturalists needed to get the inventory done. Jody Fleming will coordinate these volunteers. He sits next to his computer, which he's using these days to communicate to the 1,000 or so people who've registered at the project's Web site. They include teachers, entire Brownie troops, and one FBI agent. Since there simply aren't enough scientists to go around, a great deal, if not the majority of the specimen collecting and initial sorting, will have to be done by these amateurs. To help them out, Jody Fleming says a series of questions particular to each type of creature will be posted on a page of the project's Web site.

FLEMING: We'll have an interactive key, and what you can do is you can come into the Web site and click on some of the most prominent features of the creature that you have found. And through a kind of a process of elimination, eventually you'll be able to find out what species you have, just by clicking on, like, say, it's got a certain color and its wings have a different structure that's obviously different from other types.

TOOMEY: But there are some gaps in scientific training that can't be made up with a game of 21 Questions. That's apparent in the dark and dank world of cave invertebrates, where Will Reeves, dressed in military fatigues and armed with a multitude of flashlights, feels very much at home.

REEVES: This is a remnant of the millipede, the exoskeleton, it's got some fungal growth on it.

TOOMEY: As small bats clutch the ceiling above him, Reeves points his headlamp at the floor of this cave, one of a number in the Smokies he frequents to study, as he puts it, “creepy-crawly things.” The Clemson University graduate student hit the jackpot here recently, when he discovered a new species of millipede. As he gently pushes debris around with a pair of tweezers, he spots it again today.

REEVES: Oh, cool. Here's an adult. They're about 2 centimeters, centimeter and a half. You can actually see their guts, they've got so little color that they've got the black stripe where the food is running down the body. (Rummaging) What I'm going to do is I'm going to collect 2 or 3 of them alive, so that we can see if they have the gut fungus in it.

TOOMEY: When Reeves believed he discovered a species unknown to science, he had to confirm that by sending it off to a taxonomist, a biologist who specializes in identifying and classifying creatures.

(Echoing footfalls)

TOOMEY: But over the past few decades, the popularity of this field has sharply declined. For instance, right now there's only 3 millipede taxonomists in the world.

REEVES: It is a problem, in a lot of fields, in that many of these organisms are very hard to tell apart, and it takes a lot of training, it takes a lot of, you know, experience. And a lot of the groups are completely devoid of anyone. We have no one to do centipedes because there really is no one in the United States just working with them.

TOOMEY: Reeves and others in the Discover Life project see the inventory as a training ground for non-PhDs to develop this expertise. Once this inventory is complete, officials expect it will be used as a blueprint for surveys at other national parks. Their hope is that wilderness areas like these will increasingly be seen not just as natural wonders to be protected, but as active centers of innovative science and research. For Living on Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.



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