Friday Photo: The Great Plaid Crawly Things of the Smokies
Scientists believe some 80,000 species live in the 800 square miles of Great Smoky Mountains National Park—a diversity of plants and animals unrivaled by comparable lands around the globe. One group has been working for years to gain a greater understanding of this staggering array of living things. 2013 marks the 15-year anniversary of the All Taxa Biological Inventory, an ambitious program run by the Discover Life in America organization to document every living thing in the park. In that time, scientists have found 7,636 species never before identified there, including more than 900 species that are entirely new to science—and they’re still counting.
Most of these new discoveries belong to the part of the animal kingdom that I refer to as “crawly things.” Park tourists may perk up when a photogenic deer or raccoon wanders by, but a wealth of ecologically significant spiders, moths, bacteria, and slime-molds have flitted and squirmed through the region year after year in relative obscurity—until now. Even as visitors thrill at the sight of black bears in Catalooche Valley and wild turkeys at Cade’s Cove, these researchers have been hard at work categorizing the smaller, more populous lifeforms teeming in leaf piles and puddles, just out of view.
Perhaps one of the most interesting new creatures found at Great Smoky Mountains is the arthropod formally known as Cosberella lamar alexanderi, pictured above. Dr. Earnest Bernard discovered this new species of springtail in 2006 and named it after Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander in recognition of the congressman’s history of support for the park. The insect’s colorful markings reminded Bernard of the red plaid shirt Alexander famously wore while campaigning across the state when he ran for governor in the 1970s. Little did the politician know then how his outfit would come to be memorialized in the scientific world. See for yourself if you think there’s a resemblance.
Learn more about Discover Life in America’s work by checking out their upcoming conference next month in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.