ATBI identifies 5,000-plus species ... and counting

The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, an ambitious project to identify every organism in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is rolling into its eighth year of study and sampling. As of October 2006, the ATBI has identified 5,317 new species in the GSMNP. Of those 5,317 species, 651 are new to science.


The largest group of new-to-science species are microbes, with 92 new species of bacteria being described. But there have also been a large number of macro invertebrates collected that are also new to science. This list includes 72 species of butterflies and/or moths and 60 new species of springtails.

The 5,000th new species discovered in the park was a blueberry, Vaccinium myrtillodes. The velvet leaf blueberry was discovered in May 2006 during an ATBI Field Day at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob.

The velvet leaf blueberry ranges from the Atlantic to the Pacific across Canada. Before its discovery at Purchase Knob, Virginia was thought to be its southernmost range.

And surprisingly, even 15 new vertebrates have been added to the park’s species list. Six new birds — including short-eared owl and mourning warbler — were added. One new mammal — an evening bat — was discovered in a northern flying squirrel box. Two new reptiles, including the Cumberland slider (a turtle) and two new amphibians, the mole salamander and the eastern spadefoot toad, plus four new fish species were added.

Aldo Leopold, sometimes called the father of conservation in America, once said, “The first job of the intelligent tinkerer is to save all the pieces.”

We have been “tinkering” with our environment in a big way over the past few hundred years, and as the ATBI points out, we don’t even know many of the parts we’ve been tinkering with. According to Discover Life in America’s Web site, learning the parts is one of the roles of the ATBI: “We believe that units of the United States National Park Service and other fully protected reserves can become baselines for assessing levels of change at all geographic scales for all species groups if the ATBI concept is undertaken in earnest.

“ATBI’s by themselves cannot solve all the global, regional and local environmental problems. They should be valued however, not only for the acquisition of the best biodiversity inventory data practical and the intelligent management of public lands that will follow, but also because they will make possible the development of the best-crafted ecological monitoring, inspire and recruit new taxonomists and ecologists, and begin mobilizing/organizing citizen involvement in ecological conservation. This is imperative if we are to make any progress, anywhere. The Smokies and other emerging ATBI’s are prototypes. A network of many such efforts, centrally coordinated, would make a measurable difference in the global ecological crisis.” Discover Life in America is the umbrella organization that coordinates the ATBI. Discover Life in America’s major partners include the National Park Service, Friends of the Smokies, Great Smoky Mountains Association, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, Appalachians Highlands Science Learning Center, Southern Appalachian Information Node, National Biological Information Infrastructure, and the Alcoa Foundation.

To learn more about the ATBI, including volunteer opportunities, visit the Web site at

Students may participate in the ATBI through internships. To find out about what opportunities may be available in 2007 contact Paul Super, science coordinator at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob at 828.926.6251.

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