1Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1314 Cherokee Orchard Road, Gatlinburg,
TN 37738. *Corresponding author - firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Smokies All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: History and
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 (http://www.dlia.org). 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
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 http://www.dlia.org/atbi/index.shtml). 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
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.
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.
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
Wilson, E.O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. W.W. Norton and Company, New York,
NY. 424 pp.