The Search for Hidden Life

Scientists are trying to identify every living thing in the Smokies National Park

By Daniel Pedersen
Newsweek, November 22, 1999

The Appalachian Mountains emerged 290 million years ago, before almost every landscape feature on earth. Once, the chain's snowcapped majesty rivaled the modern Himalayas. Thanks partly to the primacy of age, the southern Appalachians became one of the richest breeding grounds for diverse life forms of any temperate spot on the planet, first through a series of accidents that took place in primordial ooze and then over the eroding march of eons. As the new millennium nears, the wilderness marked for preservation in 1934 and named Great Smoky Mountains National Park remains wild enough. "Keep an eye out," advised park biologist Keith Langdon, glancing over his shoulder one recent afternoon at the inky woods behind him. The reason? A family of black bears had raided park offices a few days before, rummaging through cars parked outside.

Here in the South's forest primeval, humans are keeping an eye out as never before. Over the next 10 to 15 years, an army of taxonomists, scientists who identify and classify species, vows to find and catalog every critter and plant in the park, from microbes to mammals. Some say the project rivals Noah's. The flood of sun-belt development endangers an unknown number of species. Foreign plants and insects, spreading like kudzu as the world grows smaller, threaten others. Saving them could pay dividends for industries from farming to pharmacology.

Even if there were no immediate threat, the research underway in the Smokies, with the help of the National Park Service, would be exciting. Organizers, a group of scientists and educators now trawling for money from Congress and private foundations, hope to provide an unprecedented model for species preservation that can be exported to other protected areas around the world. No one has ever completed a total inventory of life forms in a patch of ground bigger than a suburban backyard. Human laziness worldwide has more to do with it than lagging technology. "We just never got around to it," says Langdon. Such sloth in the Smokies is somewhat understandable. The 808-square-mile park holds an estimated 100,000 species. Only 10,000 have been identified.

The need for the inventory is simple: it's difficult to preserve something if you don't know it exists. "Our goal is to protect the park," says Langdon. And the logic that applies to the Great Smoky, America's most popular national park by far, with 9.9 million visitors per year, applies equally well to the planet. Biologists use the term biodiversity to describe the earth's stunning variety. No one knows how many species exist; 10 million, 30 million, 100 million? Science has cataloged only a tiny fractionósome 1.75 million of them. Such ignorance may not be immediately lethal to humans, but its ultimate cost could prove high. Already in many parts of the globe, from southern California to Germany's industrial heartlands to Brazil's Atlantic coast, habitats have been altered beyond recognition.

Possible life-changing discoveries may well be at stake, in the Smokies and beyond. "The commercial interest here is in fungi and bacteriaónot in bears," says Langdon. Even though bioprospecting for anti-tumor drugs is always a long shot, no one knows what minuscule wonders the planet is losing forever. Daniel Janzen, a world-renowned ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania, believes wilderness can no longer be left on its own in the wild. It should instead be managed as meticulously as a garden. "The wild is at humanity's mercy," he says. Until the Pleistocene Era, which ended 10,000 years ago, less than one one-thousandth of 1 percent of the earth's surface belonged to man. Today, Janzen argues, it all does. "If we place those species anywhere other than in a human safe zone," he says, "they will continue in their downward spiral, just as they have for the past 10,000 years."

The countdown to the great count has been lengthy. Janzen conceived the original plan six years ago to carry out a first-ever all-species inventory in a rich swath of rain forest in Costa Rica. It failed in 1996 when the Costa Rican government opted for a less expensive project. But biologist Langdon of the Smokies heard of Janzen's work. Over lunch one day, he and two colleagues concocted the idea of transplanting the scheme to the Appalachians. Langdon admits the Smokies aren't as rich as the tropics. On the other hand, North American scientists can reach the park easily, and the region is remarkably diverse.

Unluckily, scientists trained to oversee the inventory are almost as endangered as the species themselves. North America now has only 10 experts who can reliably identify new ants, and even fewer who can do the same for cockroaches. Monty Wood, 65, retired recently as one of the last two fly taxonomists employed by the Canadian government. Now he's back at work in the Smokies, volunteering his time and hunting new members of the same family of flies he's pursued for a lifetime.

Wood has formally "named" a host of new-to-science tachinids, parasites who kill their prey by laying eggs on them, in a lifetime. Now he's trying to remove redundancies and fill in more blanks in the Smokies, scouting the highest spots in the park where tachinids mate. More than 80 other scientists have begun work in 20 study plots, each about 2.5 acres, in the project's pilot season. So far, without much effort, they've found 70 species new to science, several just outside the door of the park's natural-resources complex. Steven Stephenson, a slime-mold expert from Fairmont State College in West Virginia, has brought fellow scientists from as far away as Britain and Russia to study these strange fungi that creep along and feed like animals. "There's every possibility," he says without a hint of irony, "that this may be the hot spot on planet Earth for slime molds."

So far, there's more enthusiasm for the count than money to pay for it. Organizers estimate it will cost tens of millions to finance the decade-long project from public and private sources. The Senate recently budgeted $450,000 for the design of a long-sought $3 million research center in the park for visiting scientists. Over time, 20 research plots should grow into 200 or more, carefully chosen by elevation and soil type to represent the entire park. Each will contain devious traps, hanging from trees and buried in the earth. Newly minted parataxonomists, volunteers from schoolchildren to the retired, will help harvest the plots and send raw material for analysis to experts around the globe. They will serve as ultimate detectives in the hunt for hidden life.

The final product should amount to far more than a mere list. Smokies scientists also aim to map each species' distribution and abundance, and to explore how it relates to its environment. Slime mold may not get a PR-savvy name change as experts explore its global hot spot. But each species will get its own Internet Web page (, complete with life histories, maps, photographs and sound bites. One lesson learned already: tentlike traps used in the tropics to collect insects and preserve them in alcohol don't work as well in the Smokies. "The bears break in and drink it all," says Langdon philosophically. Whatever else it achieves, from a cure for cancer to one for kudzu, the ambitious Smokies inventory already has given the planet a lively new species of party animal.

Discover Life | Newsweek November 22, 1999