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Wednesday, 05 July 2006 00:00

Velvet Leaf Blueberry marks 5,000 species new to Smokies

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The All Taxa Biological Inventory hit the 5,000 species milestone this summer in an ongoing effort to document every species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Velvet Leaf Blueberry makes for the 5,000th species discovered in the park that was not previously known to dwell here. Of the 5,000 species, 612 are new to science and are 4,467 new to the Park.

It was found during a species count field day in the Haywood County portion of the park at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center.

The thigh-high shrub is mostly a northern species—being found in sunny sites from the Atlantic to the Pacific in Canada. Its southern-most range was considered western Virginia—until its discovery in the Smokies. As it turns out, this shrub was encountered in the Park a few years ago, but its identification has eluded botanists until it was found blooming during the ATBI event.

The inventory started in 1998 and will continue for years to come. The Smokies is a bastion of biodiversity, largely due to its array of diverse habitats. The Smokies’ combination of valleys and peaks, moist rich covers and dry southern slopes, creates hundreds of microclimates and ecosystems.

The high elevation ridges are host to numerous species otherwise found in more northern climes. Species the edge of their range, like this blueberry, are of special interest. Often they are genetically different than the rest of their species since they have probably been isolated from other populations of their species for thousands of years, and survival through time here has been dictated by environmental factors different from the species’ original home turf.

Sometimes these peripheral populations have developed genetic traits that become important for the future perpetuation of the species. The Velvet Leaf Blueberry is thought to have a very small population in the Park—the status of which will now be evaluated by Park biologists. Several threats at the park’s higher elevations where this shrub was found, such as air pollution and acid rain, as well as possible competition from exotic plants, will be assessed.

Finding new records and often species new to science, is really just the first step in the ambitious inventory project. The All Taxa Biological Inventory will also provide understanding about the distribution of organisms in the Park, as well as their abundance and ecological roles.

From this “foundation” or benchmark, the Park can then monitor the species and work to protect them.

Many of the species that the Smokies’ ATBI is discovering are small in size, and some are quite novel and obscure, but they all have roles in the natural ecosystem. The private, non-profit partner in the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory is Discover Life in America, Inc.

To find out more and to participate call, 865.430.4752 or www.discoverlifeinamerica.org.

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