What's in the Great Smokies?

Great Smokies Species Census Under Way

From Science, June 11, 1999

By Jocelyn Kaiser

For most hikers or picnickers, flies are a minor nuisance dealt with by a firm swat. For Brian Wiegmann, however, they bring the kind of delight only a dipterist can feel. When a slender black fly with orange spots alighted on Wiegmann's knee last month in Great Smoky Mountains NationalPark, a fellow fly hunter knew right away they were looking at a flower-pollinating species never seen before. By the end of the Memorial Day weekend, Wiegmann and several colleagues had collected at least five new species. "It was pretty exciting," saysWiegmann, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

This was no casual fly safari: Wiegmann and gang were taking part in the kickoff of the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI).Led by the National Park Service and a nonprofit called Discover Life in America, the ambitious project, now in a 2-year pilot phase to hash out methods, is inviting scientists to tally every species that calls the park home. It's a tremendous undertaking,considering that scientists so far have identified only 800 of an estimated 100,000 species (excluding bacteria and viruses) in the 225,000-hectare park, which straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.

Besides being a taxonomist's dream, the project aims to shed light on why some regions have a richer array of life-forms thanothers and how quickly species are going extinct. "It would be nice to have a chunk [of land] where we know everything that occurs," says taxonomy group leader Don Wilson, a mammalogist at the Smithsonian Institution. However, accruing suchknowledge carries a hefty price tag: Adding 90,000-odd branches to the tree of life could take up to 15 years and $100 million, according to ATBI organizer John Pickering, an entomologist at the University ofGeorgia, Athens. (Not everyone thinks the cost will be that high.) "There's lots of excitement in the scientific community, but not lots of money," says Mike Sharkey, an insectsystematist at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, and ATBI participant. Sharkey and others admit they don't know if they can raise that kind of money for a species census.

The original plan, conceived 6 years ago by University of Pennsylvania ecologistDaniel Janzen, was to carry out an ATBI in aswath of rainforest in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. The idea resonated with academics, thanks in part to enthusiasm sparked byINbio--a novel institute, run by the Costa Rican government with support from the pharmaceutical giant Merck, that prospects inthe rainforest for candidate drugs. But this incarnation of the ATBI, expected to cost $90 million, fell apart after Costa Ricanofficials opted for a limited survey (Science, 9 May 1997, p. 893).

Bowed but not beaten, ATBI adherents revived the idea a couple of years ago, settling on the Great Smokies park as the venuebecause it's one of the most species-rich temperate areas in the world, and it's much easier and cheaper for U.S. scientists to reach than Central America. Also, in contrast to the cool reception researchers encounter in most parks--where getting a permit tocollect even a single species can be an uphill battle--Smokies officials welcomed the opportunity to have waves of scientistsbearing down on them. "We have a management team that thinks science is important," says park biologist Keith Langdon, anATBI organizer. The park, he says, has pledged to open up to ATBI researchers a $3 million lab it hopes to build in 2001.

Project scientists are still working out the mechanics of their whole-earth survey. For instance, Langdon's staff has laid out 201-hectare plots to help scientists sample the park's various habitats. The project has a Web site logging bugs, salamanders, and other verified park denizens; it will eventually include data on each species' range, behavior, and population dynamics(www.discoverlife.org).

Impressive, maybe, but will the taxonomy community at large get fired up over a species quest in Tennessee? "The Smokies is notas sexy a place" as Costa Rica, admits Wilson, who isn't counting on seeing any new charismatic species, like mammals or birds."From the standpoint of the scientific community, there's maybe less hoorah." Nevertheless, organizers do have a bird in hand:$150,000 this year (and perhaps future years) from the Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, as well as some matchingfunds. How many birds are in the bush is anyone's guess. Organizers plan to submit proposals to the National Science Foundation and other agencies and nonprofit foundations starting later this year, after they can make a more persuasive case based on datafrom this summer's fieldwork. "I'd say there's a huge number of taxonomists out there" who are interested, Pickering says. "We'vegot to convince them we've got the organization and the money."

Discover Life in America | Science June 11, 1999