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Discover Life in Smokies

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stream in Smokies
Great Smoky Mtns. Natl. Park

Audubon did it for birds, everyone adores flowers, and millions of visitors appreciate the chance to see a black bear in its natural setting.  But some unsung heroes of biodiversity at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are finally getting their due.  Because science has long touted the interdependence of every part of an ecosystem, now even the humble snails, spiders and flies are finally being counted.

Yes, literally counted.  Biologist Todd Witcher says 915 species new to science have been found through the Discover Life in America program based in the Smokies.  He heads up a research project focused on arthropods:  the smallest animals that haven’t always found the same following as the iconic black bears.

Now a partnership of scientists and laypersons, supported by public and private funding, is continually working to catalog everything from crayfish to the tiniest insects. They’re also studying the frequency of those species.  Because GSMNP contains a half-million acres of Appalachian wilderness area and has been recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve, it still contains hope for a broad diversity of plant and animal life.
Twin Creeks Science and Educational Center in GSM
Twin Creeks Science and  Education Center
at Great Smoky Mtns. Natl. Park

“There’s always new species being discovered,” said Witcher, “The more you know about something, the more you’re able to protect it.”  Teams will start collection days starting again in April.  And throughout the year, they gather monthly to sort the arthropods before sending them for study to scientists around the world. Witcher says scientists oversee the program so that even high school science students can participate in some steps if they’re disciplined enough to follow the protocols. For more than a dozen years now, the project has served as a model in studying biodiversity. You can learn more about the DLA’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory here.

While butterflies and bees make popular tourist photos, scientists are also noting simple caddisflies whose young survive in clear mountain streams. Witcher said when discussing appreciation for the tiniest creatures, “You don’t know what it might be a cure for or a solution for. What makes up an ecosystem is all the parts.”

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