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Wednesday, 22 July 2009 18:51

Life in the richest place on earth

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When Jim Lowe strikes out on his twice-monthly foray to check insect traps in the Smokies, he never knows just what is in store.

Lowe runs various and sundry traps — tiny cups sunk in the ground, large mesh nets draped from poles and funnels dangling in the tree canopy. As a volunteer for the All Taxa Biological Inventory, Lowe ambushes moths, spiders, millipedes, bees, flies, beetles and the whole array of insects in the name of science.

During his collection rounds, he often wonders, “Is this a new species?” It is usually months, or even years, until he knows the answer, after taxonomists get their hands on the specimens and cull through them.

But to Lowe, the ATBI is more than the thrill of the hunt, more than a laundry list of new species or bragging rights as the most diverse park.

“We are asking the fundamental question: what do each of these things do? What is their role in the ecosystem?” said Lowe, who lives outside Robbinsville. “The Smokies is a most extraordinary place. There is so much diversity.”

The quest to document every life form in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has rallied researchers from across the globe, inspired by this last frontier of exploration. While cavers probed the park’s limestone depths, climbers harnessed ropes to explore life in the vast canopy of old-growth trees. Teams outfitted in wetsuits and snorkels peered under rocks in the ancient river beds, while others combed the dank underside of logs for mysterious breeds of fungus.

The undertaking is the first of its kind in the world. Ten years and counting, the ATBI still has long way to go. The Smokies is a bastion of biodiversity and ferreting out the estimated 60,000 species hasn’t been easy.

“Some of it’s under the ground, some of it’s on top of the tree canopy, some if it’s out at night when we’re not around,” said Paul Super, a research coordinator for the Smokies who is stationed at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center in Haywood County, N.C.

Some species are so specialized they appear only when the right conditions align, perhaps every 20 years or more. Super has been waiting for years for a good winter snow pack to reveal rare slime mold species that only emerge under the right spring thaw conditions.

While discovering new species is exhilarating in its own right, it’s not the driver behind the ATBI, Super said.

“We have been charged with protecting this 550,000-acre black box, to take care of all the resources that are in it and make sure they will survive centuries into the future while allowing people to visit and enjoy the park,” Super said “We want to open the black box and see what’s in it so we can protect its biological diversity with a foundation of science and understanding.”

While the ATBI has earned the Smokies bragging rights as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Park Ranger Keith Langdon says the ATBI is much more than a ledger of species.

“How could it make us be more intelligent stewards of the park forever?” asked Langdon, chief of inventory and monitoring in the park.

Until the ATBI, the park had only a vague idea of what birds lived where, but now they have maps of breeding grounds for different species and the niche microclimates they inhabit, Langdon said.

Todd Witcher, the executive director of Discover Life in America, doesn’t discount the value of sheer knowledge: science for science’s sake.

“People are interested in what’s out there. Anytime you go on a hike, people want to know, ‘What is that? What is this? What’s behind that rock?’” Witcher said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go any further than putting a name to something.”

But the study of individual species is a key to unlocking the secrets of the ecosystem as a whole.

“An ecosystem is made up of all these things that are interdependent. The big stuff wouldn’t be there without the small stuff,” Witcher said. “In general, we are trying to find out what the small stuff is and how it connects to all those bigger things.”

Life on earth hinges on thousands of “cryptic yet important” microorganisms, according to Peter White, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and board member of Discover Life in America.

The ATBI is going a long way to detect those critical links, like the slime mold that decomposes fallen logs and leaves, creating fertile soil for acorns to sprout. The oak from that acorn will one day become a winter den for a black bear giving birth to cubs — all on the backs of the microscopic slime mold that until now no one knew existed.

 

A worthy cause

At Discover Life in America, Witcher’s job is to convince the public — and people handing out grants — that the ATBI has value beyond an interesting counting exercise. Discover Life in America is the non-profit established to coordinate the operation, from training volunteers to the all-important fundraising.

When pitching the ATBI, the allure of pharmaceutical discoveries or DNA breakthroughs rise to the top. For example, the Smokies has garnered repute for its slime molds, bestowed with the charming title of “Slime Mold Capital of the World.” While slime molds have all sorts of important roles — an anchor at the bottom of the food chain that higher life depends on — medical researchers have latched on to a particular slime mold species from the Smokies as holding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

The ATBI has provided a platform for scientists to collude with the other top experts in their field, such as a fly blitz held a couple of years ago.

“There were 25 brilliant scientist from all over the world to study flies,” Witcher said, ticking off countries like Israel, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and Peru.

They collected flies and studied specimens by day, and took turns putting on mini-presentations at night. Man’s understanding of the natural world was better off at week’s end than at the beginning.

Even flies have a vital function. They are the top pollinator after bees, and in maggot form they play a vital role in decomposition of dead animals and plants.

The ATBI has captured the imagination of scientists worldwide. More than 700 researchers from 20 countries have flocked to the Smokies to be a part of the ATBI. What started as a scrappy undertaking, even a pipedream, has become the largest sustained natural history inventory in the world.

“Assisted by volunteers and with only a shoestring budget, they have built it into a major enterprise of biological research,” according to famous Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.

The ATBI has not only enchanted scientists, but it has dropped school children into the woods as first-hand explorers.

“Children are innately curious about the living world and are closer to the ground than we are — and more ready to turn over rocks and logs,” White said.

School children from surrounding communities on fieldtrips in the park have been enlisted in the hunt for everything from moths to salamanders.

 

Life on a string

One of the scariest tasks staring down the Smokies is protecting species found nowhere else on earth. Known as endemic species, these hyperlocal life forms carved out a niche on the planet so specific that if they disappear from the park, they disappear forever.

“The national park’s mission is to protect what exists in the park,” Witcher said. “If you don’t know what’s there, you don’t know what is disappearing.”

And the threats are daunting.

“There’s air pollution. There’s global warming. There is acid rain. There is urban development jutting right up next to the park. There is overuse, loving our park to death. There are also invasive exotic species,” Witcher said.

So, the ATBI is providing a crucial baseline to measure future changes against, the very diversity of the Smokies serving as a giant canary in the coal mine.

“Ecosystems and species provide for an early warning system for the health of the biosphere and the human habitat,” White said.

The Smokies’ biodiversity is partly due to its array of unique habitats: a combination of warm valleys and frosty peaks, moist rich coves and dry southern slopes, creating hundreds of microclimates and ecosystems. Each niche teems with its own thriving species.

The peak biodiversity is found in mid-range elevations, where the lower and higher altitude species overlap. That’s something the park didn’t realize prior to the ATBI, Langdon said.

The Smokies’ high-elevation ridges host numerous species otherwise found in more northern climes. Isolated from the rest of their species since the last Ice Age, these northern vagabonds trapped on high-elevation islands in the Smokies can evolve on their own track and end up genetically different from their northern cousin.

One such peripheral population marked a major milestone in the ATBI — the 5,000th species discovered in the Park that was not previously known to dwell here.

The Velvet Leaf Blueberry was found during an inventory field day at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob in Haywood County. The thigh-high shrub was first encountered in the Park a few years earlier, but eluded botanists until it was found blooming during an ATBI field day.

Not every species uncovered by the ATBI is cause to celebrate. Take another find from Purchase Knob, a small round beetle found feeding on St. John’s Wort by two volunteers, retired entomologist Dr. Charles Stains and his wife.

Their unfortunate find was the “Klamath Weed Beetle,” an invasive species from Europe and Northern Africa, adding to the depressingly long list of exotics undermining the native ecosystem. Another exotic species unearthed during the inventory is the Chinese jumping worm. It aggressively devours organic matter before it can be synthesized by the soil, severely compromising the nutrient composition.

The worm was likely released inadvertently by fishermen who had purchased the worms from bait shops. Thanks to the ATBI, the species was detected before becoming widespread in the Park and can hopefully be stopped.

 

How it all began

When the Smokies launched the ATBI in 1998, it was the first of its kind in the world. Despite the many parks and preserves now emulating the research, the Smokies remains at the forefront.

Along the way, the Smokies benefited from a little blind luck. In the early 1990s, a famous and pre-eminent tropical ecologist, Dr. Dan Janzen, began rallying scientists to join him in an inventory of life in Costa Rica. Janzen urged ecologists to take note of the critical crossroads facing the planet today: that we’re losing life faster than we can catalog it.

Janzen raised millions for his project and entrusted it to an agency created to spearhead the Costa Rica project. But it barely got off the ground before the agency recanted, pitching other uses for the money than just the species inventory.

Janzen was furious. He terminated the project, leaving the hordes of scientists geared up for the undertaking not only disappointed but wondering what to do next.

From his corner of the Smokies, biologist Keith Langdon watched the rise and fall of Janzen’s great tropical inventory. Langdon and his fellow park rangers had long held the notion that life here in the Smokies was just as rich — and fragile — as the famed rainforests.

“We, too, are losing things faster than we can catalog it,” Langdon said.

Langdon occasionally finagled small pots of money for tailored inventory work, like the number of crayfish in a particular stream or the trees preferred for breeding by a single endangered bat.

“It would have taken us about 150 years at that rate to finish the inventory of the park,” Langdon said.

So Langdon called the fuming Janzen and pitched the idea of deploying an inventory in the Smokies instead. Janzen was in, but they couldn’t do it without support from the world’s scientists. Unsure if those who’d previously signed on for Costa Rica would invest in the Smokies, Janzen agreed to hold an informal talk in the park to gauge interest.

“We had 120 scientists show up,” Langdon recalled. “He’d gotten the taxonomists all excited. They were looking forward to showing what they could do if they all joined together.”

Langdon still needed a green light from national park bureaucrats, so the lobbying began. In a fitting move, the deputy director of the park service flew down from D.C. on Earth Day (April 20) of 1998.

“He said ‘Yup, let’s do this. We want to try this out and the Smokies will be our pilot. We aren’t going to give you any money, but you can do it,’” Langdon recalled.

Then began the tough job of logistics. Who would run it, where would money come from, where should scientists start counting?

“We knew it was a big deal, a big commitment and a lot of work,” Langdon said. “It’s a big park, it’s diverse and difficult to get around. We knew it wouldn’t be easy.”

The park looked to Friends of the Smokies for help. The Friends agreed to help launch the project, but ultimately planned to spin off a separate non-profit tasked solely with managing the ATBI. Together with the Great Smoky Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies co-sponsored the creation of Discover Life in America to get the ball rolling.

 

Trial and error

Now the brass tacks could begin. But the logistics of just how to do this thing proved difficult. In fact, 10 years into the project, Langdon is still sorting out the best approach.

When people hear about the ATBI, they envision a chain of scientists sweeping quadrants of the park, crawling along the ground with a magnifying glass in hand, perhaps a crew leader bellowing through a megaphone for all the critters out there to please stand still for a head count.

But in fact, there will still be vast sections of the park never touched by scientists when the books are eventually closed on the ATBI. Instead, the park will pick sampling sites that theoretically represent every habitat niche.

The past decade has focused on just 11 plots subjected to intensive sampling. A rotating door of experts on spiders, moths, ants, slime molds, fungi, and birds took their turn trapping and tagging at the targeted plots. Teams of volunteers were critical in the sampling, from checking insect traps, wielding nets or toting clipboards for the scientists.

The plots had to be checked and rechecked every two weeks all year long, since many species emerge during certain seasons, whether it is a short-lived wildflower or a bat showing up to nest. For example, the synchronous fireflies, famous for their choreographed light show and found few places other than the Smokies, are only active for a 10-day window. The “when and where” of species is a critical part of the ATBI data.

“If somebody came to me and gave me a list of all the species, it wouldn’t help me. I need to know where they are at, their abundance, the seasonality of it, which ones are rare to keep track of and which ones are common, and something about their ecological role,” Langdon said.

That initial strategy — intensive sampling at 11 sites — wasn’t perfect, however. For starters, the parade of bio blitzes and life quests raked in an unmanageable volume of organisms still queued up waiting for a taxonomist to inspect them, Langdon said. The backlog could take years to clear out, specimens languishing in storerooms for want of scientists to sort them.

Plus, the 11 sites weren’t representative enough of the park’s numerous microhabitats, Langdon’s realized.

“We just missed it with 11 sites,” Langdon said.

Enter the next phase of the ATBI: far more sites, but far less intensive. The park mapped out 150 sampling sites for quick hits, comparatively, by tactical teams. The new strategy will likely define the next decade of the ATBI.

 

In the Smokies’ footsteps

National parks and private preserves all over the world are tackling similar inventories. Exactly how many isn’t known, but there were nine that cropped up at other national parks in 2008 alone. Top that off with some at state parks, private nature preserves and parks around the world, and there are likely a couple of dozen.

“A lot of people initially said ‘You can’t do that, it is too much,’” Langdon said. “I think we have shown you can make some great strides wading into that. There are a lot of parks following in our footsteps.”

For a national park embarking on a species inventory, their first step is usually calling Todd Witcher at Discover Life in America for advice.

“We are helping the other ATBIs learn from our mistakes and learn from our knowledge,” Witcher said. “We want to share that information even though there will probably be a little competition.”

That competition — whether for grant money or luring researchers — has contributed to a slowdown of the Smokies own ATBI.

Witcher’s top bit of advice: the drudgery of data management. A laundry list of species isn’t useful unless they can be mapped, charted, sorted and searched with computer programs.

“We are still dealing with our backlogged data,” Witcher said.

Discover Life in America is more than an ATBI facilitator. Witcher sees the nonprofit as a scientific arm of the park, coordinating science and research on a host of levels. Discover Life has an annual budget of about $120,000, varying with grants. The nonprofit recruits and coordinates volunteers, raises awareness for science in the park, manages teams of researchers cycling through the project, stores the data and generally makes the ATBI possible.

Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association provide the core of Discover Life in America’s budget.

 

The road ahead

The ATBI will likely continue in some form for decades to come, although it will taper off in intensity. A decision no one relishes is when to declare mission accomplished.

“If we get to 90 percent, is that enough?” Witcher asked. “The last 10 percent is probably really, really rare and hard to find, so do you want to spend a lot of money on something that is going to take a lot of effort and be really difficult to complete?”

But getting to 90 percent is still a long way off. So far, 16,000 species have been identified. Scientists believe the park holds as many as 60,000.

As Phil Francis, a long-time assistant superintendent of the park once remarked, “How many species are there in the Smokies? It reminds me of the question we used to get at Mammoth Cave National Park: How many miles of unexplored cave are there?”

Another challenge is keeping the public excited about yet another slime mold or millipede.

“About half of all the species in the park are believed to be insects and other invertebrates,” Langdon said. Lichen and plants take up another good chunk of the pie. That leaves perhaps just 1 percent for the birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians and mammals that most capture the public’s interest — or at least until now. The ATBI has moved the public’s image of the Smokies beyond the bears and elk and trout.

“The project draws people from the human scale to see the hidden, unknown, and obscure, but often beautiful, intricate, and ecologically important species of natural ecosystems,” White said. “It shows parks as oases, storehouses, and protectors of biological diversity.”

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