Nearly a quarter of a century ago, officials in the Great Smoky Mountains national park set out to identify every plant, animal, and insect species in the park. Officials have now identified more than 100,000 species in the park’s nearly half a million acres. In addition, more than 1,000 of them are new to scientists.
Those figures, which Great Smoky Mountain park researchers acquired in August, were made possible partly by park visitors who participated in “Smokies Most Wanted,” a community science project led by a nonprofit partner known as Discover Life in America (DLiA).
The program encourages visitors to keep track of the life they find in the park through the iNaturalist nature app. Then, the park and DLiA use this data to map species’ ranges, track exotic species, and even discover new kinds of life.
“iNaturalist usage in the Smokies has skyrocketed from just four users in 2011, to 3,800 in 2020, to now more than 7,100 users,” Will Kuhn, DLiA’s director of science and research, said.
In August, the project reached a significant milestone. They surpassed 100,000 records of insects, plants, fungi, and other life in the park submitted through the app. In addition, they found 92 new species not previously seen in the area.
Users have also contributed location data for key species on the Smokies Most Wanted target list. This list included under-documented plants, insects, birds, and other life.
Great Smoky Mountains’ park officials hit major milestone in species research
They have now documented seven of these species to remove from the list: great blue lobelia, red-spotted purple butterfly, smooth rock tripe lichen, chicken of the woods mushroom, poke milkweed, orange-patched smoky moth, and white turtlehead.
DLiA will later replace them with other under-documented species in the Great Smoky Mountains.
“GSMNP currently ranks No. 5 in iNaturalist observations, users, and species recorded across the National Park Service system,” said Kuhn. “But the Smokies is probably No. 1 in terms of actual documented species, thanks to the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. We need visitors’ help making our diversity in iNaturalist to match our true diversity. Let’s get to number one and learn more about our park life!”
Previously, the species project began in 1998 as a way to classify known and previously unknown species within the Great Smoky Mountains.
Now, DLiA wants people to visit the Sugarlands Visitor Center from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on September 22. You can also visit again on October 20. The park will have demos on using iNaturalist, guided nature walks, and tours of the pollinator garden.
In addition, to celebrate National Public Lands Day, the public is invited to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on Saturday, September 24, for iNaturalist demonstrations from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.