Stand in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and you can't help but be enthralled by the lush forests and rolling mountains that surround you. Though a somewhat old landscape to modern civilization, the park continues to toss surprises in terms of the species that inhabit it.
During the past 15 years, a non-profit group has been working with some of the world's top scientists to catalog those species and so far has counted some 8,000 species never noticed before in the park, and more than 900 new to science.
The efforts by Discover Life in America and those scientists have inspired more than 73 similar efforts around the world. DLIA’s year-long 15th Anniversary celebration beginning this month will highlight some of the most significant discoveries, profile the scientists, students, educators and volunteers behind this historic effort, and see the return of the popular Great Smoky Mountains Salamander Ball.
DLIA was organized in 1998 after more than 100 researchers, educators, government officials and other interested parties met to discuss the idea of an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Conference attendees agreed that an umbrella organization would be needed to manage the logistics of such a project, coordinating the research, raising and administering funds, developing facilities and infrastructure, and reaching out to the public through education and volunteer programs.
In the 15 years since, the organization has exceeded all expectations, discovering more than 900 species that are new to science in a region formerly considered well-documented. These include more than 40 new spiders, almost 60 new beetles and more than 30 new butterflies and moths.
In addition, the number of organisms documented in the Smokies has almost doubled through the work of DLIA. This effort is considered the largest sustained natural history inventory in the United States, and one of the largest in the world.
More than 1,000 scientists and university students from 20 countries and more than half of the United States, as well as hundreds of educators, have helped document species over the years. Dozens of universities and museums have also participated. More than 800 volunteers (scientists, students, teachers and citizens) have been trained by DLIA as part of the Citizen Science project, logging more than 50,000 volunteer hours.
Most importantly for global biodiversity, DLIA’s efforts have been replicated around the world – more than 73 ATBI projects are currently under way in places such as Acadia National Park in Maine, Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, Rock Creek Park in the District of Columbia, and Yellowstone National Park.
“Discover Life in America has helped show the world that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the world’s richest centers of biodiversity,” said Todd P. Witcher, DLIA's executive director. “While we will look back at the extraordinary success of the past 15 years, we also need to look forward to the next 15 years and beyond. There is so much more to discover, understand and conserve.”
The year-long celebration of “15 Years of Discovery” starts this month with a monthly highlight of 15 new species to science, and includes a year of events with the Annual Conference in Gatlinburg (March 21-23) followed by DLIA’s big fundraising event, the Great Smoky Mountains Salamander Ball, on April 27, 2013. Other events will be announced throughout the year.