Friday, August 15, 2008

Smoky Mountains: Extreme Ecological Diversity

Most people familiar with the Smoky Mountains already know that the park has a very diverse ecosystem. However, the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) study is proving that the Smokies are far more diverse than anyone ever thought.

As widely reported last month, the ATBI has already identified 16,570 species in the Smokies, including 6,129 species new to the park and 890 that are new to science.

The web site for Discover Life in America (DLIA), the non-profit organization coordinating the ATBI, reports that the study has already discovered 36 new species of lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), 23 species of hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants, etc.), 57 fungi, 270 bacteria and 11 viruses – all new to science.

Additionally, the inventory has discovered seven birds previously unknown in the park. The only mammal to be documented as new to the park was the Evening Bat, which was first recorded in the park near Parson's Branch during the summer of 1999.

As I was perusing the web site my curiosity led me to see if the ATBI has found any evidence of mountain lions. Despite a few recent unconfirmed reports, the study has yet to find any evidence of the big cat in the Smokies.

Sightings of bald eagles have been well documented in the Smokies. In fact, they’ve been known to nest in the region. What surprised me, however, was the report of a few rare sightings of golden eagles in Cades Cove and along the AT.

Although the study is still in progress, it’s estimated that the ecosystem harbors as many as 100,000 different species.

Over the last ten years more than 1,000 scientists and students have been involved with the study. An additional 50,000 hours of volunteer time has been logged to help with the project as well.

The success of the project has created a bit of a problem for the ATBI. Additionally, there are an increasing number of national parks that are launching their own all-species inventories that’s resulting in a global shortage of taxonomists. The ATBI in the Smokies is trying to lure hard-to-get taxonomists with mini-grants as well as using the allure of being involved in the world’s premier species inventory.

With the study expected to take another 5 years, and with data and specimen analysis lasting many years thereafter, the ATBI will have to hope that scientists will consider the Smoky Mountains as the most prestigious option for pursuing their profession.


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