Our 100,000 Forms of Life
By Jeremy Lloyd, special programs coordinator Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont
Close friends of mine recently had a baby girl, and though their first step onto the life-long road of parenthood is barely underway it is easy to imagine them years from now flashing pictures of her to unsuspecting passers-by, describing ad nauseam every achievement she will have accomplished by then.
Naturalists in the Great Smoky Mountains, parents or not, have something else to brag about: the mountains themselves. Not just anything about the Smokies, but rather everything. That is, the profound biodiversity of the Southern Appalachians — grandiose, profuse, and fecund beyond reason.
For instance, if I were to meet a naturalist from, say, What Cheer, Iowa, — yes, that’s a real town — and we were to compare notes about the respective ecosystems in which we dwell, here is an abbreviated Wow!-fest about Great Smoky Mountains National Park that would spill out of my mouth like so many baby pictures from a wallet:
Original Forest: Probably the largest contiguous fragment of uncut (old-growth) forest left in the eastern U.S., conservatively estimated at 100,000 acres, or about 20% of the Park’s total area.
Unfragmented Forest: One of the largest forested areas left in the eastern U.S. with over 95% of the Parks half million acres in natural forest.
Trees: Although only 1/5,000 the size of Europe, the Smokies have at least as many species of trees plus almost twenty national champions, more than any other park, forest, refuge, or other area in the United States.
Vascular Plants: More species recorded than any other unit of the National Park Service.
Neotropical Migrant Birds: The Southern Appalachians host one of the highest diversities of breeding neotropical migrants of any region in the U.S. The high numbers of species in the Park is due in part to the physical structure of old-growth forests.
Salamanders: With 30 species of salamanders representing 12 genera, the Park is the Salamander Capitol of the World, signifying what ecologists call “deep diversity.” As far as sheer numbers go, salamanders probably outweigh all other vertebrates in the park combined.
Hymenoptera: One of the largest orders of insects in the world, within which parasitic wasps make up the largest group. Ongoing work on this group indicates that the greatest abundance, and possibly their greatest diversity in the hemisphere, may lie in the old-growth forests of the Park.
Millipedes: The greatest diversity in North America lies in the Southern Appalachians.
Spiders: Studies indicate that the Park probably has the highest diversity of any temperate forest area in the United States. Currently, 10% of the spiders being cataloged from the Park represent undescribed species.
Molluscs: Land snails have high species diversity, with nearly 50% of the eastern U.S. fauna expected in the Park.
Other Groups: The Smokies boasts 70 species of fishes, nearly 400 species of lichen, 1,500 species of plants, and 2,100 species of fungi which, when combined with all of the above, while excluding viruses, bacteria and protists, brings an estimated total number of forms of life in the Park to 100,000.
Despite our knowledge about the Park’s inhabitants, the words of Harry Middleton, writer and avid fly-fisherman of these environs, pretty much sums it up: “We know just enough to know that we know little, if anything.” However, biologists and researchers galore hope to understand more fully just how diverse the Smokies are, as part of the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory project that has been underway for some time. Findings of many hitherto undiscovered species are expected.
Plainly enough, the Great Smoky Mountains host the richest biodiversity of any area in the United States. and the area is one of the most diverse temperate regions in the world.
During the Ice Age, glaciers never touched the soils here, creating an ancient humus layer for the richest floral community of any national park. Some of the highest peaks in eastern North America exist here, providing habitats more akin to Maine only several thousand feet in elevation — as opposed to several thousand miles — from more typically southern habitats. Similarly, the higher elevations provide refuge for boreal communities during warmer climatic intervals.
In addition, the north-south orientation of the Appalachian Mountains allows them to be a corridor for migration during radical climate changes rather than a barrier such as the European Alps. The proximity of the Gulf of Mexico provides for abundant, year-round moisture.
Finally, whoever said “Nature does not so much abhor a vacuum as adore fullness” caps off all the reasons why the Great Smoky Mountains are so full of life. It is that fullness that those of us at Tremont adore and love to share with others, bringing us back to the mountains time and time again to discover its riches.
Jeremy Lloyd is a special programs coordinator at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. He is the author of “Great Smoky Mountains National Park Pocket Guide & Journal,” as well as “A Home In Walker Valley: The Story of Tremont,” both published by Great Smoky Mountains Association.