Hard-to-get taxonomists could make or break ATBI’s future

As the inventory of every living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park trudges into its tenth year, it turns out the biggest hunt so far isn’t for obscure slime molds or nocturnal flies — it’s for taxonomists to do the counting.

“In the beginning we cast a wide net: all these things need to be researched and if you want to do that, come,” said Todd Witcher, the director of Discover Life in America. “Now the park is wanting to look at things that are understudied. There are cases where there just is nobody to do it.”

Witcher’s pitch to lure hard-to-get taxonomists — beyond simply being part of the world’s premier species inventory — includes the thrill of finding and naming a new species.

“The idea of discovering a new species is intriguing,” Witcher said. “That’s why they are in science or taxonomy.”

As more national parks and preserves follow in the footsteps of the Smokies and launch their own all-species inventories, the global shortage of taxonomists is becoming even more apparent. The competition for experts in an already strained field makes it unclear how or when the Smokies’ All-Taxa Biological Inventory will eventually conclude.

“When it comes to getting taxonomists in a field where there are no experts, it’s hard to predict how long some of that will take,” Witcher said.

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