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The Smokies All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: History and Progress
Becky J. Nichols and Keith R. Langdon

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 6, Special Issue 1 (2007) 27–34

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1Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1314 Cherokee Orchard Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. *Corresponding author - The Smokies All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: History and Progress Becky J. Nichols1,* and Keith R. Langdon1 Abstract - In 1998, Great Smoky Mountains National Park embarked on a project to determine all life forms in the Park. This ongoing project, an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, or ATBI, has resulted in a wealth of information about Park resources. A science plan has been adopted and a pilot study has been completed; further testing of protocols is now being conducted to further refine sampling techniques within a plot structure throughout the Park. Traditional sampling methods continue to be used as well. Education, at all levels, has been an integral part of this project. To date, over 200 scientists have been involved and over 5500 species discoveries have been made, which includes 4740 new distribution records for known species, and 829 species new to science. In addition to species identifications, ecological information is being gathered that greatly benefits Park management with regard to resource stewardship. Introduction Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), established at its current boundaries in 1934, is a reserve that straddles the mountainous divide between Tennessee and North Carolina and is ≈2200 km2 in size. It is recognized as one of the most biologically diverse areas in the temperate zone, with both continental and even global centers of distribution for many organisms. It is designated as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site and is the largest federally protected area in the eastern US. Much of the biodiversity here is due to high precipitation (≈127 cm/year at lower elevations, 200–250 cm/year at higher elevations), the complex geology, and a high number of vegetation communities (see Jenkins 2007). The Park contains 105 species of native trees and approximately 1300 species of native vascular plants, as well as extensive tracts of old-growth forests. Elevations in GSMNP range from 300 m to over 1800 m, and some of the highest points in eastern North America occur here, with 16 peaks over 1800 m. High-elevation sites often contain unique habitats such as grassy balds, heath balds, rocky outcrops, and cliff faces. At lower elevations, there are limestone areas where at least 10 caves are known to occur. In the Park, there are 3200 km of streams, all of which originate within its boundaries, and some small wetlands. 27 The Great Smoky Mountains National Park All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: A Search for Species in Our Own Backyard 2007 Southeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1:27–34 28 Southeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Unfortunately, the Park is beset with a number of threats to its ecological integrity. These threats include invasive, exotic organisms in both terrestrial and aquatic systems, very high depositions of nitrogen and sulfur, high ozone levels, and increasing insularity as a result of human development and fragmentation of adjacent natural areas. The Park was established as a reserve to protect species; however, there now are serious problems in this and many other reserves nationally and worldwide, and none of them have a complete species inventory. Much has been written about the accelerating loss of global biodiversity, considered by some to be an acute crisis (Wilson 1992). This loss is not just occurring in the tropics, but also in the US. It has been calculated that approximately one third of the native US fauna and fl ora is imperiled or of conservation concern (Master et al. 2000). This estimate was based mostly on those vascular plants and vertebrates for which there is enough information to make an assessment and does not include the most speciose and least-known groups—the invertebrates, non-vascular plants, and fungi. Some conservation biologists believe we do not even know how many species occur globally to the nearest order of magnitude (Wilson 1992). The All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) concept (Janzen and Hallwachs 1994) began as a reaction to this global loss of species and habitat, and the realization that we probably lack even elementary information about total biodiversity of any sizeable reserve. The inventory in the Smokies According to Janzen (2002), “to truly insure its survival into perpetuity, we need to know what our biodiversity is.” On Earth Day, 1998, GSMNP initiated an ATBI, designed to identify all living organisms in the Park and gather information about distribution, abundance, and natural history. After more than 70 years of National Park Service (NPS) management, only about 9000 of these species had been documented, and very little was known about the estimated 90,000 species that are believed to exist in the Park. Although this estimate of the total number of species, excluding microbial life, varies considerably depending on the authority, the range of estimates generally is from 50,000 to 100,000. The concept of an ATBI is to determine the species present within a specified area, such as a park or wildlife preserve, within a relatively short time frame. The goal of this concentrated effort is not simply to list the presence or absence of species within the defined area, but to collect and disseminate useful information on all species that live in and move through the area. Specifically, an ATBI involves 1) documenting as many species in each group as practical, 2) mapping the general distribution for each taxon in the given area, 3) determining the relative abundance for each taxon, and 4) compiling a synopsis of each taxon's natural history and ecological role. One of the first realizations as this project began was that it was too large 2007 B.J. Nichols and K.R. Langdon 29 for the NPS alone to manage. A private non-profit organization, Discover Life in America, Inc. (DLIA), was established to administer and coordinate the ATBI efforts by developing resources and partnerships to conduct the inventory and related educational activities. DLIA is made up of scientists and educators who wish to make this project happen and to help encourage other such efforts. In addition to the traditional components of a biotic inventory, our goal is to disseminate information through the internet that will be useful in resource or reserve stewardship, ecology, systematics, genetics, and many other scientific areas, as well as in education. In particular, we wish to make detailed information on the natural history and ecology of all species available to the wider audience of non-specialists. To do this, we are beginning to develop interactive identification guides and Web pages for each taxon. We also are incorporating a strong educational component in order to increase the public's general understanding of the diversity of life. Education of biologists at all levels is a major goal of the ATBI. Methods Scientific approach Basic approaches for ATBI sampling were completed by late 1998 and were compiled in the science plan (White et al. 2000). Funding was then sought and received for a pilot program, and sampling for the structured part of this pilot design began in fall 2000. The Smokies ATBI is using two parallel, complimentary approaches: the traditional and structured. The traditional approach uses the knowledge and experience of taxonomists who visit the Park and make collections of organisms in their area of expertise. Specialized techniques often are employed to sample some groups of life. Included here are “bio-blitzes” or forays, which bring together large numbers of specialists and volunteers of all ages for a short and intensive effort to collect large numbers of the target taxa. Beneficial side effects are that many specialists in the same discipline that have never worked together are able to collaborate, and cross-discipline contacts are made and strongly encouraged. The structured approach is based on the use of selected, standardized, bulk sampling devices (traps) in an array of plots. The plots, only a few of which have been sampled continuously year-round, are selected across the Smokies landscape using a geographic information system; thereby an analysis of physical, biotic, and historic land-use parameters is used to ensure as complete and objective coverage as feasible. The samples from the plots are sorted to various taxonomic levels before being sent to authorities for identification. The structured approach allows for statistical comparisons among plots, traps, communities, topographies, disturbance histories, and other factors such as seasonalities, that are not possible with the traditional 30 Southeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 approach; however, not all groups of organisms are reliably sampled with the passive samplers used in the structured approach. Whenever practical, any visiting scientists, including bio-blitz and foray participants, are encouraged to sample within the plot structure in addition to other sites they may be sampling. A key point is that both approaches inform each other as to the efficiency and completeness of the inventory in each habitat type. Over two years of continuous structured sampling was concluded in 2003 at 11 sites. Structured sampling now emphasizes revising field-collection protocols, identification of specimens, developing efficient data-management programs/protocols, and analysis of data. Educational aspects A large array of educational opportunities for both youth and adults is being utilized throughout the many phases of the ATBI. These vary from high numbers of young students as part of the NPS’s formal environmental education programs, to individuals in home-schooling programs who collect and sort samples. At one end of the spectrum are young children who can only learn and be inspired by the project. At the other end are retired specialists (e.g., entomologists) who provide scientific expertise. Another educational aspect of this project is the use of adult volunteers who are interested in participating in ATBI activities. The response from the local community has been overwhelming. With the dearth of taxonomic authorities for an increasing number of organisms, efforts are being made at GSMNP to recruit serious students into this area of science. We have had some success in this area; for example, two students who were involved in the ATBI as temporary government employees have now taken an interest in particular entomological groups and are pursuing Ph.D.’s in taxonomy. Additionally, several M.Sc. degrees related to taxonomy have been completed, and several more are in progress. We also have encouraged undergraduates to conduct taxonomic studies in the Park, such as at a local liberal arts college, where interested students have tackled one group of panarthropods (tardigrades). The most formidable challenge is fitting the right group to the right scope of project, as well as providing enough structure to maintain quality science products and life-changing experiences. Because we have many contacts in educational programs at all age levels, we can more easily connect with students potentially interested in science as a career choice. The critical element is teaming these sincere students with research scientists whenever possible. One of the greatest potentials for linking science and education is at the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob. The NPS Science Learning Center concept was developed at the Smokies by a combined team of educators and scientists on the Park staff. The general approach is to increase research by outside scientists while inspiring younger students with the sense of discovery. This facility 2007 B.J. Nichols and K.R. Langdon 31 provides temporary residential quarters for visiting scientists, some laboratory space, and full-time Park science and education professionals to push the boundaries of scientist-student interactions in accomplishing biological inventories, monitoring, and research. The concept has been embraced by top NPS leaders, and the US Congress has since funded nearly a dozen additional such efforts. The intent is to provide the NPS with a full complement of 32 such Science Learning Centers nationwide. Infrastructure For the first several years of this project, much of the effort was through donated time of scientists, researchers, educators, and volunteers. Funding has come from two organizations in particular that work closely with the Park: the Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association. Their consistent contributions since the beginning of this project have allowed for, among many other things, the establishment of a “mini-grant” program that has greatly increased taxonomic activity. The NPS has cooperative agreements in place with DLIA to allow the transfer of funding and provide mutual support for this mission. Full operational costs are being refined, but there is no model for us to follow, as we are the first reserve to come this far with conducting an ATBI. Costs per year are flexible, depending on the degree of activity for the various investigations of each group of life. Some success is occurring in funding of specific projects for particular taxonomic groups via the National Science Foundation (NSF). Results From a strictly scientific viewpoint, we are learning a tremendous amount about certain species’ ranges, habitats, and relationships with other species. This is extremely valuable information from a land-management perspective. Geographic analysis of multiple distributions can be used for such activities as protecting sensitive sites that would not otherwise be evident, locating monitoring activities at the most cost-efficient locales, timing of control actions for pest species, expressions of stressed ecological relationships across landscapes, and biopharmaceutical investigations. All of these activities are of value to Park managers, heralding a new level for intelligent stewardship of natural reserves. These data will also give GSMNP a strong foundation for advanced ecological research well after the ATBI project is completed. Amazing numbers of new Park records and species new to science have been found since this project began. Through the end of 2006, 4740 species have been identified for the first time in GSMNP and an additional 829 new species have been found that have never before been described by scientists (over 300 of which are DNA-sequenced bacteria and archaea). Both categories increase almost weekly and we expect them to 32 Southeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 continue to increase as more taxonomists begin work in the Park. Imagebased interactive identification keys are being developed and will be put on the DLIA website ( These types of keys will empower both citizens and scientists to accurately identify many more taxonomic groups than is now possible. Other benefits of an ATBI for reserve stewardship include the detection of rare species, and earlier detection of invasive exotics. ATBI cooperating scientists have discovered at least 10 exotic species that previously were not known in GSMNP. Some of these are invasive species and may be of management concern in the near future. Additionally, ATBI information provides a much more complete set of data for use in compliance issues which allows for a more informed decision-making process. ATBI data also are providing baseline data for future monitoring activities. Much of the data obtained so far has been incorporated into a relational database which has the capability of creating phenologies and distribution maps in addition to complete species lists for the major taxonomic groups inventoried to-date. To make the data accessible to both the scientific community and the general public, this database is now available through the DLIA website. The website also features a tremendous amount of information about the findings and activities of the ATBI, including, for some groups, species web pages with descriptions, photos, video clips, audio clips, Park and North American distribution maps, and relative abundances. Many scientists associated with the project have published their findings, and currently there are at least 85 peer-reviewed articles related to ATBI research (see list at They cover a diverse assemblage of taxonomic groups and research areas ranging from ecological studies to taxonomic descriptions and reportings of new distributional records. Additionally, four major NSF grants have been awarded to scientists working on ATBI inventories in GSMNP, and more grant requests are being submitted each year. Numerous presentations of ATBI research have been given at national, regional, and international scientific meetings and symposia. Discussion ATBI’s alone cannot solve all of the global, regional, and local environmental problems. However, they should be valued, not only for the acquisition of the best biodiversity 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, they will inspire and recruit new taxonomists and ecologists, and they will promote citizen involvement in ecological conservation. The GSMNP ATBI and other emerging ATBI’s are considered prototypes, and a network of many such efforts, centrally coordinated, would make a 2007 B.J. Nichols and K.R. Langdon 33 measurable difference in the global ecological crisis. The GSMNP ATBI can be considered a first step in a progression toward a deeper understanding of biodiversity in all of our national parks (Janzen 2002). By blending valid science and focused education in a direct and mutually beneficial goal, a regional awareness of biodiversity can be accomplished. Fostering a “pride of place” from a biodiversity standpoint, in any region, capitalizes on values citizens in that region, state, or country already hold. Resulting local/regional grassroots support provides the scientific and education communities with resources that ordinarily are not available, and will be critically valuable in protecting natural habitats and processes inside and outside of the host reserve. Although it is critical to complete the GSMNP ATBI, Park staff and DLIA are discussing the possibility of conducting comprehensive biodiversity inventories in other parks in the National Park System. Currently, there are several NPS units that are considering or are in the process of starting ATBI's at some level. Additionally, non-federal agencies such as the Tennessee State Park system, the Adirondacks Forest Preserve, and Nantucket Island all have been making progress towards establishing ATBI programs. Selected units of the National Park System (desert, grassland, polar, Caribbean, etc.) and other fully-protected reserves can become baselines for assessing biodiversity in their ecoregions and, eventually, ecological change at all geographic scales for all species groups. The number of species found in GSMNP will allow us to make an educated guess at the number of species found in the US, or even worldwide (Sharkey 2001). The US and, in particular, the NPS and its partners can become global leaders in biodiversity studies. Acknowledgments We wish to thank the Friends of the Smokies, Great Smoky Mountains Association, the National Park Service, and the US Geological Survey for providing funding for and initiating and continuing this monumental project. Also, the many scientists, educators, volunteers, and students, who have participated in various aspects of this project are very much appreciated. We also wish to thank the DLIA Board, former DLIA Director Jeanie Hilten, and the DLIA staff. A special thanks to Mike Soukup, NPS Associate Director for Science and Natural Resource Stewardship, for his encouragement and enthusiasm for this and other inventory projects throughout the National Park System. We would like to thank Patricia Cox, two anonymous reviewers, Janet Rock, Mike Jenkins, and Charles Parker for critical reviews of this manuscript. Literature Cited Janzen, D. 2002. Biodiversity is us. ATBI Quarterly 3(3):3. Janzen, D.H., and W. Hallwachs. 1994. All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) of terrestrial systems. A generic protocol for preparing wildland biodiversity for non-damaging use. Report of a NSF workshop, 16–18 April, 1993, Philadelphia, PA. 132 pp. 34 Southeastern Naturalist Special Issue 1 Jenkins, M.A. 2007. Vegetation communities of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Southeastern Naturalist 6 (Special Issue 1):35–56. Master, L.L., B.A. Stein, L.S. Kutner, and G.A. Hammerson. 2000. Vanishing assets: Conservation status of US species. Pp. 93–118, In B.A. Stein, L.S. Kutner, and J.S. Adams (Eds.). Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and Association for Biodiversity Information (ABI). Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 399 pp. Sharkey, M.J. 2001. The All Taxa Biological Inventory of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Florida Entomologist 84:556–564. White, P., J. Morse, F. Harris, K. Langdon, R. Lowe, B. Nichols, C. Parker, J. Pickering, and M. Sharkey. 2000. The science plan for the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee. Report to Board of Directors of Discover Life in America. Available online at www. Wilson, E.O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY. 424 pp.