Smokies Fly Trap

Scientists now know very little about life in the Great Smoky Mountains

Ian Stocks is on his way to see what he calls his stately old gentleman. To get to the old man, Stocks must walk a few miles of an old logging road along the Little River near Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But the sun has burned through the early morning showers on this cool morning, and it's a beautiful day for a walk. It's not long before Stocks has arrived at the old man's home, just a few hundred meters up a gentle slope from the river.

Every inch of him is covered with bugs.

In technical terms, the old man is a mid- to late-secessionary hardwood forest—a forest that has recovered after being heavily logged early in the 20th century. It's one of 11 plots being closely monitored around the park, as part of a massive effort to catalogue all forms of life here—from the fungus and midges all the way up to the hemlock trees and black bears.

To Stocks, it seems as though all these plots of land—teeming with all manner of life that is intricately linked—have their own personalities. "This is my really mellow, wise, older man who has a positive outlook and takes everything in stride," he says. "He's got it all figured out. I've got another one I call my heroin addict."

Every two weeks, Stocks makes the rounds to these 11 hectares, emptying an assortment of bug traps. He later sorts the bugs and sends them off for specialists to identify. This will go on for at least three years, through all four seasons. The plastic receptacles filled with globs of bugs soaking in environmentally safe anti-freeze will contain thousands of insects, some unknown to man.

Of the 100,000 estimated life forms in the park (not including bacteria), scientists know only about 10,000 of them. The searching and categorizing and studying of all these life forms will take about 15 years. The largest study of its kind ever attempted, scientists say the efforts won't go unrewarded.

"Park management is supposed to be based on a knowledge of how the park is structured and functions," says Chuck Parker, a research aquatic biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "For the most part, that's not known. We don't know what's here. We only have an understanding of the larger, more easily comprehended organisms. It turns out they're not the only things here by a long shot."

The idea behind the All-taxa Biodiversity Inventory, or ATBI as it's known, sounds at once simple and staggering. The scientists and volunteers won't actually find every last form of life in the park. But the goal is to find nearly all of them.

The estimate of 100,000 species is calculated from formulas using the rate of new species that are discovered, Stocks says. "[The estimate] is a reflection of the rate you collect new species," he says. "Eventually, you get an estimate on where the upper limit of the number of species might be."

The nitty gritty of collecting samples is what Stocks' job is all about. A researcher hired for the project, Stocks is accompanied by Jimmy Breeden, who recently earned an undergraduate degree in fish and wildlife management and is volunteering in order to gain experience.

At the plot near the Little River, there are three types of bug traps that Stocks and Breeden empty and reset. One consists of a tent-sized fly shield that stands about four feet high and has a canopy over the top. Insects fly into the netting and are slowly funneled up to a container of anti-freeze. These are surrounded by a battery operated electric fence to keep animals from destroying them.

Hanging high in the trees are canopy beetle traps, which imitate a tree trunk. "It doesn't catch a tremendous amount of insects, but it probably catches insects that can't be collected any other way," Stocks says.

Then there are several pitfall traps, where a cup is placed into the earth, level with the ground, and covered to keep the rain and larger critters out. Bugs crawl along and fall into the trap. The ground traps are placed in a variety of places—out in the open, inside logs, next to trees.

Stocks takes the cover off one trap and pokes his nose in the cup to see what he's snared. The bugs all have their scientific names, of course, but Stocks favors colorful metaphors in his descriptions—a carabidae beetle is one of the "lions of the forest floor." A collembola, is one of the "cows," grazing on the ground vegetation.

Not all the bugs can be trapped. Many have to be caught. Especially the larger bugs and those that have sharp eyesight—such as dragon flies, praying mantises, and various spiders.

Most of the insects collected have been seen before, but each collection generally yields new finds. The week after he takes the samples, Stocks will sort through them. Still early in the year, each sample bottle will take only about an hour or two to sort. However, in July, it'll take an average eight to nine hours for each.

Each of the stations also has a computer recording temperature, humidity and other weather data every 30 minutes. Together with the samples collected, they will tell scientists a lot about the conditions that these various insects thrive in.

Although the project just started, there have already been 82 new species discovered. Several others have been identified elsewhere, but never in the park. Most of the identification is done by participating scientists at universities around the country—whoever is an expert in that field.

The ATBI is about much more than merely identifying all the species in the park. For instance, most of the park's 475 vertebrates are known. But the ATBI will help understand where these animals live and how they relate to the species around them. There's also a mapping aspect, which will give scientists detailed information on what types of plants and animals live where, and what areas are threatened.

A pitfall trap has been dug up—possibly by boars. There's evidence all around that boars have been rooting around here. Not native to the Smokies, boars have a voracious appetite, tearing up the forest floor and devouring nearly everything they find as well as polluting streams. There's an active program to hunt down the boars, which are prolific breeders. But they're not killing them fast enough for Stocks.

"This is why I want those guys to come back here and blow those boars away. I hate boars," he says. "Some dumbass redneck decides he wants to have boars so rich guys can come hunt them, and then they get out."

Boars are just one of many invasive species in the Smokies that disrupt and damage the park. And it's part of the reason there's such an urgency to catalogue and study what's here now. The park's ecosystems have already been greatly changed by various diseases, development, and air and water pollution, and continues to be changed.

"A community that we've already lost is chestnut," says Becky Nichols, the park's entomologist. "We don't know any of the insects that were associated with that." The park's beach forests are currently being destroyed by an exotic insect and an associated fungus.

Better understanding of the ecosystems and each part a species plays in them will help the park to decide how to fight threats to them or whether to fight the threats at all. "In some cases, we might want to take a management action. In some cases we might not," Nichols says. "You can make much wiser decisions if you know everything that's in an area, so you won't affect something else." It will also help identify the sensitive areas that need to be monitored.

Stocks says the ATBI will arm scientists with more precise information to see how humans are altering the environment. "It will give people hard, solid evidence of the consequences of human actions so that it kind of makes it hard to ignore," Stocks says.

Funding for the ATBI is still shaky at the moment, says Nichols. A non-profit organization—Discover Life In America (whose website is www.discoverlife.org/)—will oversee administration and funding of the ATBI. The organization hopes to hire a full-time fund-raiser soon, Nichols says.

They're also looking for a number of volunteers to help both collect samples and sort them.

The ATBI was first attempted at a conservation area in Costa Rica. "It's been attempted before, but it's never been totally completed. Hopefully we'll be the first," Nichols says.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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