Inventory of life: Twenty-year effort to count Smokies species adds 1,000 to science
By late November, the trees at 5,000 feet are mostly bare, once-green leaves covering the forest floor like a brown blanket, obscuring the ground that had hosted all manner of wildflowers and shrubs and berries during the warmer months.
Some people might describe the forest as dead or lifeless, but not those who know where to look. Paul Super, science coordinator for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of those people. Stationed up at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob, Super’s office is just a stone’s throw away from the Cataloochee Divide Trail and the upland forest surrounding it.
The trees may be leafless and the previously green vegetation brown, but nevertheless life is everywhere. A grasshopper that’s managed to resist the recent chilly lows grasps a dried-out stem, centipedes and beetles hide beneath fallen logs, and all manner of moss and lichen cover the abundant tree trunks.
It’s the lichens that have brought us out here — and that’s a sentence few people ever have occasion to say. As lichen scientist James Lendemer, of the New York Botanical Garden, put it, “the number of lichenologists in the United States and Canada that actually study lichen biodiversity you could count on probably one hand, and the number of them that are actually employed at an institution to do that full-time as professionals you can count on less than one hand.”
“In the Eastern United States,” Lendemer added, “that would pretty much be me.”
Super frames the Pertusaria superiana lichen, which grows alongside a variety of other species calling this oak tree home. Holly Kays photo
When Lendemer started studying Smokies lichen biodiversity 10 years ago, he was walking relatively untraveled ground, something that became evident when he began finding unusual species right and left — lichens that had never been documented in the park before, and lichens that had never been described in science before. When Lendemer first arrived in the Smokies, about 400 species of lichen had been reported in its boundaries. A decade later, that number is at 831 — 37 of those are completely new to science.
One of the new additions is the Pertusaria superiana, a green-blue species that tends to grow over top of mosses clinging to the bottom portions of oak trees. That’s the particular lichen that had initiated our outdoor excursion, because the species name “superiana” is an homage to Super, who has helped Lendemer and his research partner Erin Tripp, of the University of Colorado, coordinate research in the park. With favorable conditions abundant at Purchase Knob, the superiana grows all across the outdoor office of its namesake.
Likewise, the new lichen species Lecanora sachsiana, Lecanora darlingiae, Leprocaulon nicholsiae and Heterodermia langdoniana — which Lendemer and Tripp also discovered — are named after current and former park staff members Susan Sachs, Emily Darling, Becky Nichols and Keith Langdon.
Super said he considered the namesake to be an honor, particularly since the lichen is relatively common in the woods around Purchase Knob.
“I’m very fond of my office here at Purchase Knob, and it’s right out there in the woods,” he said. “After I retire I will still have my lichen in the woods to watch over the place for me.”
“It’s a huge honor,” agreed Susan Sachs, education branch chief for the park and namesake of the Lecanora sachsiana. “I joke with my dad that since I didn’t have kids this is going to be the family legacy. The name will go on. But it’s nice to be recognized for your education efforts — usually it’s scientists who are recognized in this way.”
Beyond gift wrapping
Lendemer’s and Tripp’s hand in more than doubling the number of known lichens in the park is certainly a notable achievement, but it doesn’t stand alone. Their work is just one part of a much larger endeavor — the All Taxa Biodiversity Index.
The ATBI turned 20 this year, passing another significant milestone in the process. As of October, this effort to inventory every species living in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has resulted in the discovery of 1,000 species that are completely new to science. In total, 19,866 species have been documented, with 9,523 of those having never been found in the park before.
In rough numbers, that means that one out of two species tallied had was new to the park, and one out of five had never been seen before — anywhere, at all.
“When you think about it on any level, it’s mind-blowing,” said Sachs.
The ATBI is a partnership of the park and the nonprofit Discover Life in America, which was formed in 1998 to fund and organize the ATBI. It’s a shoestring operation, with just two paid employees and a slew of volunteers, yet it’s managed to provide nearly $1 million in research grants that scientists have used to leverage an additional $2 million. Todd Witcher, executive director for the past 11 years, said that it’s “pretty amazing” for the inventory to have reached racked up the numbers that it has.
“I think a lot of people didn’t think we’d get this many,” he said.
Sachs and Super have been working on the ATBI since the beginning, including 17 years together at Purchase Knob coordinating researcher visits and educational programs.
“Paul and I have both used this analogy,” said Sachs. “Before we were managing the park for the ‘gift wrapping’ which is the stuff you can easily see — the birds, the trees, the flowers — but not focusing on what was inside of the box, which when you lift the lid, that’s all the little things, and the little things are what keeps the park running smoothly.”
The ATBI hasn’t turned up any new-to-science mammals, fish, birds, reptiles or amphibians, though it has documented a handful in each category that are new to the park. But in large part, the discoveries have come in the lesser-studied categories — the project has documented 270 new bacteria species, 58 new fungi, 61 new beetles, 78 new algae. One of DLIA’s big contributions has been to search out and bring in specialists in some of these lesser-studied groups. In some cases, there are only a couple people worldwide qualified to do the work that needs to be done.
Sometimes, solutions have to be creative.
Lepidopterist John Brown collects butterflies during a bioblitz in 2000. NPS photos
For example, said Super, for a long time there was nobody around who could identify centipedes, so Witcher hired an intern who made it a point to learn what he could by hanging around the lab of one of the only centipede specialists in existence. That intern was eventually able to spend a summer cataloguing centipedes.
But, in other cases, the discovery has come where it was least expected. Vascular plants have been pretty well studied in the Smokies, so DLIA figured the ATBI wouldn’t turn up much else in that category. However, so far 104 new park records have been found and one new-to-science species.
Super was there when one of those finds occurred, driving a group of botanists to park headquarters. Suddenly, one of the botanists pointed out the window at a shumard oak tree growing along the road and said, “That’s not on your park list, right?”
It’s an odd, exciting feeling to find something new in a place as iconic as the Smokies.
“I didn’t have any idea when I picked it up that it was going to be new for the park,” said Dan Pittillo, a botanist based in Cullowhee who has been working on the ATBI since its inception. “But, I was in a place that nobody else had scouted.”
Pittillo found one of those new-to-the-park plants decades before the ATBI even launched — a spurge called the Euphorbia purpurea while hiking Hyatt Ridge in April 1979. When the ATBI was first being organized in 1997, Pittillo was at one of the initial meetings, and in the past five years he’s spent more than 50 days taking data in the field and processing his finds.
Strategy for discovery
Much progress has been made, but the ATBI is far from over. If DLIA’s estimates are anywhere in the neighborhood of correct, there could be three or four times as many species out there to tally. About halfway through the project the organization started getting scientists to predict how many species in their area of specialty were likely to occur in the park, yielding estimates of 80,000 to 100,000 species. As more information and statistics have come in, that number has diminished to 60,000, but it’s still far above the roughly 20,000 species that have been found thus far.
“It’s hard to protect places and things if you don’t really know what they are or what exists in those places,” said Witcher. “The first step would be figuring that out and finding out what’s there.”
That’s what the ATBI has been aiming to do. Given that the Smokies covers more than 800 square miles of rugged and diverse terrain, it hasn’t exactly been easy, but DLIA uses a three-pronged approach in an attempt to cover the park as thoroughly as possible.
The first approach is office-based, with volunteers pulling old data from park files to tally species from historic records. Secondly, early on DLIA identified about 20 plots that it considered to represent the diversity of unique habitats in the park, attempting to catalogue all the species present in those areas.
The third approach, however, represents the bulk of the work that’s occurred over the past 20 years. In this method, known as traditional sampling, the park and DLIA work to attract scientists who specialize in classifying various groups of species to come do field work in the Smokies. Scientists collect specimens and also note other data points, such as the time of year, habitat and location where the organism was found. Some scientists just visit once, while others come back for multiple years running.
Lendemer falls into the “multiple years” camp, a fact that’s thanks to his follow lichenologist Tripp. Tripp did her undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina Asheville, and when she and Lendemer started getting interested in lichens, she suggested that they go take a look at the Southern Appalachians. That suggestion resulted in a 2005 trip to Gorges State Park in Transylvania County, and the following year Lendemer joined Tripp on an excursion to the Smokies.
Before that trip, the understanding had been that lichens in the Smokies were pretty well studied. But their sampling that year yielded dozens of species that were new to the park, including 20 in a single 1-hectare plot at Baxter Creek.
“That’s a pretty clear indication that the whole place isn’t that well known,” said Lendemer.
That initial spurt of discovery drove the scientists to return again and again, aiming to hike every trail in the park in search of lichen species. The discoveries just kept coming, with the current lichen tally now more than double the number of species known before Lendemer and Tripp started their work.
A typical round of sampling involves walking a trail in search of a place to inventory. Then they’ll stop for an hour or two, attempting to find every lichen species in that hectare of forest. For every species found, they’ll take a sample, in the form of a cut-off tree twig or rock fragment. Those samples will go back to the lab, where the scientists will confirm their field identifications with microscopes, chemical tests and — in some cases — DNA sequencing. Then, they’ll package the samples into labeled specimens, describing and showcasing the species to make it easy for people to understand and appreciate what they’re looking at.
For new species, the process is even longer. The scientists first have to eliminate all known species as possibilities and then use their expertise to determine which of all the countless species flung across the globe the lichen in question most resembles. Before the new species can become official, a paper documenting and describing it must be completed. The road from specimen to species-hood is a long one.
“There’s really a lot of interpretation, because you’re stepping into the unknown and saying, ‘This is a thing we’ve never seen before. How do we know it’s something we’ve never seen before?’” said Lendemer.
Professional scientists aren’t the only ones to have had a hand in the ever-increasing ATBI species count. Citizen science — data collected by students, volunteers and other non-scientists — has also played a significant role.
Up at Purchase Knob, education is as much the goal as research. In addition to hosting ATBI scientists, the facilities welcome various student groups who come to learn about Smokies ecosystems and the scientific method. Sometimes, those lessons result in new finds for the ATBI.
For example, over the years Super and Sachs have run an experiment in which a mini fridge with a hole drilled through the top and a UV light source is set out in the woods, plugged in. Overnight, moths flock to the light and then get trapped in the fridge, where the cold temperature slows down their bodily functions so that they’re still alive and well when the students come to retrieve and identify them in the morning.
That and similar citizen science experiments have yielded records of 100 species of moths that had never been found in the park before, Super said. And for many of those species, professional scientists would have been hard-pressed to document them.
“Most species are active during warm weather, and that’s when most lepidopterists (butterfly and moth scientists) are going to show up in the park and work,” Super explained. “But there are a significant number that come out in a warm day in the wintertime, or this is the only time you will find them right now, so it’s too ephemeral when the right time is for a professional lepidopterist to look in the park. But, people who live around here can look for things much more quickly, much more opportunistically.”
Strengthening the baseline
The ATBI is about more than just a species tally. Just as important as what is there is where it is, how its life cycle works, how its population is changing and what its presence has to say about the overall health of the environment.
That last consideration is part of what got Lendemer into lichens.
Lichens get all their nutrients and water from the atmosphere and are therefore very sensitive to air pollution. Really, every tree on the East Coast should be covered with lichen, Lendemer said — when lichen is absent, that means that something is amiss with the air quality.
Her work with the ATBI got Sachs especially interested in snails, for a similar reason. In addition to being unexpectedly fascinating and easy-to-identify creatures, they’re also indicators of environmental quality due to the fact that their shells are composed of calcium.
“During our years of poor air quality, we were noticing some of the calcium-shelled snails had a weakened pitting in their shells, which has gone away as air quality has improved,” she said.
As the species inventory continues, the body of information will go far beyond a simple list to a more cohesive understanding of how park ecosystems work, how best to protect them and how the loss of a single species can affect the myriad others that depend on it. Two years ago, the park launched an online species mapping tool that gives the probable range for hundreds of species found in the Smokies.
“The ATBI gives you that baseline so you can do the long-term monitoring,” said Sachs. “Without a good baseline it’s difficult to know how things that create long-term change — both positive and negative — impact the ecosystem. Having a good foundation is critical.”
As the ATBI has hit milestones and strengthened its process, DLIA has been working to share those successes with other parks and even countries interested in doing something similar. The ATBI is currently working with Chinese scientists to do an inventory in a subtropical area near the border with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, and domestically it’s helping with endeavors at Acadia, Point Reyes and Boston Harbor Islands National Parks.
“I think connecting people with nature in a real, scientific way helps the public better understand science,” said Witcher. “And I think that’s important in their support of why these species are important, why they should support the conservation of spaces and species.”
Join the research
You don’t have to be a scientist to help with the All Taxa Biodiversity Index effort. There are multiple ways to get involved.
- Go to Discover Life in America science events, which are announced on the organization’s website and Facebook page.
- Volunteer to help with ongoing studies, field surveys and more.
- Intern through DLIA’s undergraduate programs, which include biology, photography and public relations positions.
- Donate to help fund research efforts.