Biological diversity: discovery, science, and management in this issue

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Todd Witcher, executive director of Discover Life in America, address es participants in the annual Great Smokies ATBI scientific conference.

Credit: DLIA/Chuck Cooper

[Todd Witcher (second from left) discusses the ATBI with a group of citizen scientists near the grounds of the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob. Credit: DLIA/Chuck Cooper]

Todd Witcher (second from left) discusses the ATBI with a group of citizen scientists near the grounds of the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob.

Editor: Where did the idea for an ATBI originate?

Todd Witcher: It was the brainchild of retired ecologist Dan Janzen. He coined the term, came up with the concept, and in 1993 attempted to do an ATBI in Costa Rica that focused on lepidopterans. After enduring difficulties there, he came back to the United States with the desire to do one here. He picked Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a biologically diverse area that he felt would work well for what turned out to be a pilot ATBI. Given the park’s varied physical and geographic characteristics, it seemed probable that a large portion of species had yet to be discovered, particularly among the invertebrates. These less studied species form the foundation for eco system functions that support more familiar animals and plants. So he rallied scientists, park staff like [ecologist] Keith Langdon and [entomologist] Becky Nichols, and community leaders around the idea. This group recognized that the National Park Service would not be able to take on something of this magnitude without a lot of help. As a result our nonprofit, Discover Life in America [DLIA], was formed in 1997 to coordinate and manage the ATBI.

Can you give us an idea of the scope of this ambitious undertaking?

Todd: The goal of the ATBI is to bring researchers to the park to document every living species in every taxonomic group in the park. It’s one of the largest natural resource inventories in the world. Over 15 years of fieldwork we have involved about 1,000 scientists from 20 countries and more than 25 states. Dozens of universities and museums and hundreds of educators have taken part too. We have trained more than 800 amateur specialists, volunteer scientists, students, and teachers in our citizen science program and have logged more than 50,000 volunteer hours. Additionally, hundreds of visitors have worked alongside scientists sifting through soil for millipedes, wading upriver to collect tardigrades, and crouching in sun-dappled forest to investigate ferns. The results have been remarkable: 931 species new to science, an additional 7,799 species previously unknown to the park, and nearly half a million data records. The new species to science have included 36 moths, 41 spiders, 78 algae, 56 beetles, 26 crustaceans, 57 fungi, 23 bees and their relatives, 21 tardigrades, and 270 bacteria, and more than 200 scientific publications have been disseminated. We have just begun to scratch the surface with regard to potential discoveries of bacteria.

How quickly did this ramp up and what level of activity are you experiencing now?

Todd: The decision to do the project was made in 1997. The following year the nonprofit was formed and we began to raise money. The year after that we began giving the first grants and fieldwork began. In a matter of just two years this huge project got off the ground. The activity level has been pretty consistent until the last three of four years. There is less to study now, but the biggest deterrent to our continued work is funding. Still, we host three to four major studies each year. We also hold several citizen science events, including Biodiversity Days in the Smokies, host up to four interns annually, and organize several fund-raising events.

How do you decide what taxa to study?

Todd: When we started, we threw a wide net and invited whomever to go out and do research on something we hadn’t looked at before. Of course, the mini-grant program had a lot to do with directing this work. That’s how things went until the last four or five years. Now we narrow it down by meeting with park Inventory and Monitoring staff and scientists to identify important groups still left in the park that we would like to know more about, for instance, pollinators, species occupying high-elevation habitats, or “keystone” species. This includes taxa for which little or no work has been accomplished, groups that need to be completed, and at-risk communities. In the introductory category we need to look at parasitic wasps, mites, nematodes, protozoa, microbes, and particular fungi, crustaceans, true bugs, and flies. We need to finish work on centipedes, earthworms, flatworms, scorpionflies, ticks, aquatic snails, dragonflies and damselflies, and bryozoans [aquatic invertebrates]. At-risk groups that need attention include Fraser fir remnant areas, hemlock stands, dry cliffs, and certain wetlands.

Your ATBI is such a massive undertaking that I’d like to ask you a number of practical questions about how you manage the effort. For example, what are TWiGs and how do they work?

Todd: They are taxonomic working groups and are a way to organize the fieldwork of the ATBI. They revolve around the expertise of taxonomists to make collections in the park and follow up with identifications in the lab. This approach was part of our initial science plan and it has worked really well for certain taxa, but not all. It can take a charismatic scientist to lead a TWiG, to gather all the specialists that are studying a particular group, and to get them involved and excited for the project. Our lepidoptera group, led by Dave Wagner at the University of Connecticut, is a great example of one that has worked really well. Dave has written a book on cater pillars of the eastern United States, developed from his work on this project. In some cases, however, you don’t need a whole TWiG, because a particular animal group may not have many species or you may want to learn a lot about one species.

Has it been difficult to find taxonomists for certain animal groups?

Todd: Taxonomy has been a dying field in science for a long time. In some cases there’s just nobody to identify the specimens that you need to have looked at. And that’s a challenge for every park. We have tried to get younger people involved, and we’ve had some success through our internship and citizen science programs. We send out RFPs [requests for proposals] and do all kinds of things to try to get people interested. Our hope one day is to have an alliance-based ATBI so that the research opportunities can be shared among scientists more easily. There are Web sites used by taxonomists where we might publish this kind of information. Generally, though, it’s through word of mouth that we find taxonomists. You know, a springtail expert knows a fly expert and so on.

Do scientists get a stipend to help defray their costs?

Todd: We have had a minigrant program to entice specialists to come to the park. It helped draw scientists from a limited pool. For about 10 years we gave away around $60,000 a year in $1,000 to $5,000 increments. This money came from park fund-raising partners, Friends of the Smokies, and the Great Smoky Mountains Association, as well as from our own fund-raising efforts. We’ve had to try to raise more of our own funding in the last few years as partner funding has been directed at other projects. An additional focus now is getting our own fund-raising efforts off the ground. The hope had always been that recipients would be able to leverage their mini-grants with National Science Foundation or other funding. In one case several coleopterists used a mini-grant to leverage a much bigger NSF grant that resulted in a beetle and arthropod museum being established at Louisiana State University based on the work they did in the Smokies.

Where do you house visiting researchers?

Todd: The Appalachian High lands Science Learning Center at Purchase Knob [see photo, previous page] has space, and they allow scientists who are studying on the North Carolina side of the park to stay there. We don’t have a site on the Tennessee side where they can stay. Early on, park neighbors would give up a room in their house for researchers, but we’ve gone away from that. It was too complicated. Now we ask local accommodations to give scientists a price break. It’s hard because our room needs coincide with the busiest tourist time of the year.

How are research permits handled?

Todd: Discover Life in America has a general or over lying permit from the National Park Service that we can use to train volunteers and get them involved in the ATBI, as needed. The scientists also need to get permits for the specific work that they’re going to be doing.

Where are the specimens curated?

Todd: It’s different with every group of scientists. Of course, every collected specimen belongs to the National Park Service. Some of our scientists return their specimens to the Park Service once they’ve finished with them and they go into the park collections, and some want to keep them for long periods or on permanent loan.

How are data managed and shared?

Todd: That was a challenge initially because of the number of scientists and kinds of organisms we were working with. What we did was to create our own ATBI database. We have a data manager who checks the validity, usability, and format of the data and enters them into the ATBI database, which the National Park Service maintains locally. Another value we add is that the public can access the ATBI database through a Web site, with filters, of course, for protecting location information about threatened and endangered and economically valuable species. The data are being migrated to the NPSpecies database now.

What educational activities are part of the Smokies ATBI?

Todd: We hold an annual scientific conference and it’s open to the public. The conference is where scientists present their findings for the past year or multiple years, including protocols and educational products. We give scholarships to about 25–30 local and regional teachers, and we have about as big a percentage of regular citizens who attend. Attendance was about 175 per year, but we’ve had a drop in that number over the past several years because of travel restrictions and limits placed on conference attendance on the National Park Service and other government agencies. We hold events each year to involve citizen scientists and have helped park staff develop educational programs, such as Parks as Classrooms, focused on ATBI events and information.

Does the National Park Service have a reporting requirement for the ATBI?

Todd: There is no reporting requirement other than what we report as part of the superintendent’s annual report for the park. Of course, we have always thought that the annual conference serves this purpose, and the conference proceedings are published on the DLIA Web site [].

What is the legacy of the Great Smokies ATBI?

Todd: A simple thing is the baseline information. Lots of environmental changes are already taking place here, and I think they will become more severe. The information pro vides a baseline that will help us understand how species are responding to those changes and what qualities make species resistant or vulnerable to change. We also feel our ATBI can serve as a model for this type of work at other parks. That’s part of it. We’re also developing some products. We are working with the University of Tennessee on a biodiversity mapping program. It uses approximately 40 environmental layers for the park, soils, vegetation, and those kinds of things, coupled with our biodiversity data to predict where a species, whatever it might be—a fly, a bird—might be found. It’s still in the development stages. Our interns are verifying some of those predictions now.

Have you come up with any new methods for inventorying?

Todd: We have. One of our goals is to develop a “best practices” set of documents for doing an ATBI. We don’t have that yet, but a group of scientists we worked with from Europe called EDIT (European Distributed Institute Taxonomy) has published a manual of protocols [see]. It’s worth sharing as it may make a good reference.

What new techniques for biodiversity discovery are emerging?

Todd: The iNaturalist idea and the way technology is moving is an area that I think can be valuable.

Are you nearing the end of the ATBI?

Todd: This is a question we are asked a lot, and I don’t think we have an exact answer. I believe we are moving more toward the end, and with NPS help we are moving toward a monitoring situation. However, if we keep finding new species at a high rate, then I think that question is hard to answer. The scope does change and adjust as we go on and unfortunately this is based more on funding than on science. We do hope to continue to be a highly valued NPS partner for years to come.

What has been a personal highlight from your involvement with the ATBI?

Todd: I love science and discovery and I can’t think of many jobs that combine the two so well. But I do think that our society has a low level of knowledge of science, and this project is a great way of reversing that by involving citizens in real-world science.

For parks that are not able to mount a long-term ATBI, can information from individual bioblitzes be accrued and integrated into something like an ATBI?

Todd: It depends how well the data are collected and managed by the park. At Great Smokies, we want to know where and when species were found—more circumstances than just a running list—so that the information can be better integrated into management. For example, the map ping program I mentioned uses ATBI data and essentially will be able to map the biodiversity of the park. This tool could be used to show decision makers, who are contemplating the location for building a structure or road, where rare, endemic, or critical species exist so that they can then make a more informed decision. For a bioblitz to provide this context it comes down to how it is planned and managed, what information comes out of it, and the assurance that identifications are validated by experts.

How do you view the state of knowledge of biota in the national parks?

Todd: I would say it’s pretty low. I think parks know a lot about relatively few species (the charismatic fauna), and not much about everything else. I hope the National Park Service is moving in the right direction, but so many things tend to sidetrack federal agencies, including lack of funding. I hope that we can keep the focus on understanding and saving biodiversity.

How does biodiversity discovery contribute to park protection?

Todd: Park management needs to know what species exist in the parks. Maybe not every single thing, but much more about all groups than any park currently does. It is impossible to do a good job protecting parks without this knowledge. I also believe that by collecting these data and involving citizens we build a broader love for parks and wild places. In the long run this will better protect parks because people will better realize their value.

—Jeff Selleck, Editor (

The GWMP All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory: Finding new species near the nation’s capital

By Brent W. Steury

[Photo of caddisfly. Credit: B. E. Smith]

Figure 1. Neophylax virginica, a caddisfly species new to science, was discovered at George Washington Memorial Parkway in 2004.

Dr. Oliver S. Flint Jr. had long suspected that a new species of caddisfly lay hidden in one of the many streams emptying into the Potomac River Gorge (fig. 1). It might be found, he reasoned, flitting around the floodplain forests in Turkey Run Park in northern Virginia, not far from the nation’s capital. Caddisflies are members of the insect order Trichoptera and have aquatic larvae that often hide in cryptlike protective tubes made of sand or other stream debris. The adults appear mothlike, with their two pairs of hairy membranous wings and slow flight, as if blowing on a breeze. As curator emeritus of neuropteroids (net-winged insects) in the Department of Entomology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Dr. Flint had described more than 1,000 species of caddisflies from 32 different countries, and he was on the trail of yet another one only a few miles from his office.

The entomologist had been tipped off to the potential presence of this new species when he was reviewing the vast Smithsonian collections and found a single female caddisfly that he could not identify. It had been collected in 1921 by W. L. McAtee of what was then the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The label indicated that the specimen had been taken near “Turkey Run,” now protected in Turkey Run Park, a unit of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Coincidentally, around the time Dr. Flint was pondering this unique specimen, parkway staff members were working on their All-Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) and contacted him to inquire if he could help with caddisfly identifications. Within a few weeks permits were in place and Dr. Flint and NPS staff found themselves on the bank of Turkey Run on a dark, drizzly October night glaring at a hanging white sheet lit brightly by UV light to attract insects. Of the hundreds of caddisflies attracted to the sheet, a male and four females, plus two males and two females that congregated at lights on the front of the resource management building in Turkey Run Park a few weeks later, proved to be the new species that Dr. Flint later described as Neophylax virginica (Flint and Kjer 2011) (fig. 1). Caddisfly collection efforts lasted four years and were expanded to include Great Falls Park a few miles to the north. This work documented 111 species of caddisflies (Flint 2011).

While Dr. Flint was documenting caddis flies, a Smithsonian colleague, Dr. Wayne Mathis, also took an interest in the Po tomac River Gorge. Dr. Mathis is a world-renowned expert in shoreflies (Ephydri dae), a family of diminutive flies usually found on beaches and riverbanks. His three-year study found four new species of shoreflies, and a new species of snail-killing fly, in the area near where Neophylax virginica was discovered (Mathis et al. 2009; Mathis and Zatwarnicki 2010).

Millions and millions (probably)

Between 1.4 and 1.9 million species of living organisms have been described worldwide (Hamilton et al. 2010; Wilson 1992), and approximately 15,000 new species are added each year (May 2010). Mora et al. (2011) estimated that 86% of extant species are still undescribed and a cottage industry has developed around estimating the number of species on Earth. Erwin (1982) hypothesized that there may be as many as 30 million species of tropical arthropods; Mora et al. (2011) calculated 8.74 million eukaryote species; and May (2010) suggested that a range of 3 to 100 million species is defensible. Undoubtedly, most undescribed species are found in remote tropical latitudes that have long been a draw to biologists enamored with the intricacies, forms, and colors of the diversity of life. Bates (1892) found 700 species of butterflies within an hour’s walk of his Brazilian home, while the 76 butterfly species documented from George Washington Memorial Parkway have remained constant since that number was established in 2004. Tropical locations are so diverse that even in urban areas new bird genera are being discovered (Pacheco et al. 1996). Some researchers, such as Hawksworth and Rossman (1997), have recognized urban temperate areas as being havens for new species within some kingdoms, such as fungi. So should it be surprising that other smaller forms of life—amphipods, beetles, caddisflies—are being found just outside the nation’s capital in an area with one of the highest densities of museums, universities, and research institutions on the planet?

Urban biodiversity, look locally

George Washington Memorial Park way has been conducting its ATBI for 10 years. To date, 4,976 species have been documented, including 58 species new to science, 3 species new to North America, 83 new to Virginia, 7 new to the District of Columbia, and 49 listed as rare by the Natural Heritage Programs of Virginia or Maryland. Since 2004, 50 peer-reviewed journal articles have been published concerning the biodiversity and ecology of the parkway. Highlights of these studies include

• Documenting 1,313 species of vascular plants, including 2 native species new to Virginia and a nonnative species new to North America (Steury 2011; Steury et al. 2008; Steury et al. 2013b)

• 480 species of macro-moths, including 1 species new to Virginia and 11 species state-listed for rarity (Steury et al. 2007)

• 323 species of beetles in five families, including 3 species new to science, 12 species new to Virginia, and 7 species new to Washington, D.C. (Cavey et al. 2013; Steury et al. 2012; Steury et al. 2013a; Steury and Messer 2014) (fig. 2)

[Park Biologist Erik Oberg and Natural Resources Program manager Brent Steury look under a cover board in Turkey Run Park to check for carabid beetles. A nine-year study using eight capture methods documented 184 carabid species from the George Washington Memorial Parkway, including 7 species new to Virginia and 7 species new to the District of Columbia. Credit: NPS photo/Emily Zivot]

Figure 2. Park Biologist Erik Oberg and Natural Resources Program manager Brent Steury look under a cover board in Turkey Run Park to check for carabid beetles. A nine-year study using eight capture methods documented 184 carabid species from the George Washington Memorial Parkway, including 7 species new to Virginia and 7 species new to the District of Columbia.

• 91 species of bees from a globally rare plant community type, including 2 species new to Virginia (Steury et al. 2009)

• 55 species of land snails and slugs, including 3 species new to Virginia (Steury and Pearce 2014)

• A crustacean new to science (Holsinger 2009)

• A turtle new to Virginia (Mitchell et al. 2007)

• Three studies of the pollination biology of rare plant species (Barrows et al. 2011, 2012, 2013)

• A 48-hour 2006 bioblitz that documented 19 beetles, 5 true bugs, a fly, a bee, and a copepod new to Virginia (Evans et al. 2008)

Perhaps the greatest challenge now lies not in knowing how many extant species remain unknown, but in finding them before they go extinct. Current extinction rates exceed those of prehuman levels by 100 to 1,000 times (Pimm et al. 1995), and the professional taxonomists needed to describe new species are also becoming rarer (Mora et al. 2011).

George Washington Memorial Parkway will reach the milestone of 5,000 species in 2014. Seven inventory projects are currently under way and four additional projects will be funded through 2018. It is not unreasonable to expect that the parkway will surpass 10,000 species and see an additional 50 journal articles published in the next 10 years. A recent parkway survey of hexapods (collembolans), commonly known as springtails, reported 37 species new to science, but to date, nothing has been published on these finds. Despite continual progress, there is a long way to go to document all taxa at George Washington Memorial Parkway.

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