The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most studied national parks in the country. It consistently ranks in the top three for the number of research permits issued every year — a whopping 184 in 2008.
The influx of researchers to probe science in the Smokies provides valuable insight — even if not apparent at first. Such was the case with a researcher who spent years collecting fruit flies in the park. Fruit flies once found at a particular elevation have shifted higher up the mountain — most likely due to global warming that has sent cool climate species higher in search of the temperatures they’re used to.
“The researcher’s been doing this so long, he can actually document changes in distribution that could actually be related to climate change,” said Park Ranger Paul Super, the research coordinator for the Smokies who is stationed at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center in Haywood County. “You go from something that doesn’t sound that important to something that can help us better understand changes in the park.”
Much of the research in the park now has a global warming angle. A researcher from Minnesota ventured to the Smokies to study the adaptability of salamanders under rising temperatures — one being the red-cheeked salamander.
“It is one of our flagship species. It is found nowhere else in the world except the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” Super said. “Can we predict where it is going to retreat to and can we protect those areas under climate change?”
The Smokies’ status as a research magnet is helped by the plethora of universities within a half-day drive. Another reason is the varied ecosystems available to researchers. Need craggy 6,000-foot peaks? No problem. Boggy low-lying wetlands? Got them, too.
The Smokies has also been a hotspot for researchers in the past decade because of the All Taxa Biological Inventory, a massive undertaking of taxonomists to document every living species in the park. So far, nearly 900 new species have been discovered in the process.
The number of researchers who have dabbled in the Smokies allows the park to tap into expertise across the globe. Super is on a first-name basis with researchers from the University of Gwelp in Canada who used the Smokies for cutting-edge research involving DNA bar-coding.
The relationship came in handy when a whippoorwill killed by a car windshield fell into Super’s hands last summer. Nocturnal birds like whippoorwills are in decline. The loss likely stems from a similar decline in large moth species suspected as their main food source, but no one knew for sure exactly what these birds ate.
So Super cut open the whippoorwill, pulled out the bits and pieces of moths from its stomach, and sent them off to the DNA experts in Canada. Using their new barcode technology, they identified the unrecognizable moth parts.
“Now we have some of the first definitive data on what whippoorwills eat,” Super said.
Part of Super’s job when issuing permits is weighing the loss of the plants and animals plucked from the park by researchers with the potential benefits to the park. As a haven for wild things, the park forbids taking even the most benign things from the park — catching fireflies to take home in a jar, picking flowers, even putting a pretty rock in your pocket is illegal. It’s part of being in an unaltered ecosystem.
So Super takes the requests seriously. Specimens that leave the park — from stacks of pressed ferns to slime molds in Petri dishes — mean little slices of the park have taken up residence in labs and universities all over the county.
“Federal law requires that anything collected in the park is still the property of the park service,” Super said.