Partner Profile: Discovering Life

Issue 7 > Partner Profile
Dr. Andrea Radwell, a water mite researcher, at a DLIA sponsored public workshop.

Dr. Andrea Radwell, a water mite researcher, at a DLIA sponsored public workshop.

Photo copyright Kevin FitzPatrick.

It all started in 1998. That year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with Friends of the Smokies, the Great Smoky Mountains Association, many local, regional and nationally well-known scientists, and other interested parties came together with a new, exiting idea: to discover every living thing in the Smoky Mountains. To do this, they created a new non-profit partner: Discover Life in America (DLIA), whose goal was—and is—to bring researchers to the park to search for life in forests, soils, caves, and every other habitat in these mountains. The collective effort to do so is called the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, or ATBI.

Over the past 12 years, Discover Life in America has organized searches for life with public volunteers, university researchers, and amateur specialists. They have funded dozens of research projects and hosted thousands of visitors who worked side by side with scientists sifting through soil for millipedes, wading upriver to collect tardigrades, and crouching in a sun-dappled forest peering at ferns, among other projects. Although their numbers are small, DLIA staff, including Executive Director Todd Witcher, Database Technician Chuck Cooper, and Administrative Assistant/Volunteer Coordinator Heather MacCulloch, organize a massive scientific effort each year. They also host an ever-growing, annual Discover Life in America conference to highlight the results of species discoveries at the Smokies and in protected areas nationwide.

A student volunteer, Dr. Andrea Radwell, and DLIA's Heather MacCulloch crowd around the mesh filter used to catch water mites.

DLIA supports researchers and workshops to discover new species.

Photo copyright Kevin FitzPatrick.

What have scientists in the Smokies discovered? As of January, 2010, through years of work and with the help of thousands of people, we had discovered 6582 species that no one had found before in the park, and 907 species new to science entirely.

Dr Andrea Radwell and students carefully pour water samples to collect water mites.

Dr Andrea Radwell and students carefully pour silty water samples through very fine metal mesh screens to collect water mites.

NPS photo.

What's it like to search for new species?

The day is chilly, and the water chillier, but this doesn’t stop Dr. Andrea Radwell and a volunteer group of local high school students from wading right into Fighting Creek Gap, a shallow, clear stream that runs behind the visitor center near Gatlinburg, TN. Their goal: capture the tiny water mites that thrive in the sandy sediment under their boots.

Dr. Radwell is a researcher from the University of Arkansas, and she knows all about the process of catching a water mite, which, it turns out, is very different from catching the bear or trout people picture when they think about Smokies wildlife. Water mites are tiny, round-bodied creatures with eight legs. Some are tenacious predators, while others are placid leaf-litter munchers. All of them live on stream bottoms, so to find them the research team has to scuff and shuffle on the stream’s pebbly bottom, then try to funnel all of the floating debris into a net. Dr. Radwell helps students pour the contents of their nets through very fine mesh filters, keeping just the tiny animals and particles of sand, silt, and soil. The teams do this over and over along different sections of the stream, till Dr. Radwell’s collection jars are full of water that looks like silty chamomile tea, and the teams’ toes are numb.

Students use magnifying glasses to spot the tiny water mites.

Students peer at the samples for water mites.

NPS photo.

Back at the lab, the teams pour the jar contents out into white tubs and search for the telltale, wobbly swimming of the round water mites. The mites aren’t microscopic, but they are small—about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Once Dr. Radwell helps the students find a couple, there are cries of “Here! There! Catch that one!” around the room as more floating dots pop into view. The students use pipettes to carefully transfer the mites to the clear surface of a microscope slide, and when Dr. Radwell carries each dish to the microscope, bright blobs of color dart across the projection screen.

Water mites on microscope display.

Tiny water mites get big under the microscope.

Photo by Dr. Andrea Radwell.

There are an estimated 150 different water mite species in the Smokies, and unlike many kinds of wildlife, which only come in brown or black, these mites are bright red, neon pink, lemon yellow, grass green, and smoky purple. Each bright colored dot is a different species that fills a specific ecological niche, or place, in the Smoky Mountains.

In Dr. Radwell’s most recent searches through Smokies streams, she’s found two new species of water mites to add to her impressive list of mite discoveries. When she and other scientists discover new species, they get to name them (often with something like Appalachia or Smoky Mountain in the name) and publish a description in a scientific journal. The documentation becomes part of the ongoing list of All Taxa in the Great Smoky Mountains, and inspires new searches for life and new studies about the diversity within these protected boundaries.

Torrenticola species of water mite.

Under the microscope, water mites such as this Torrenticola species have unexpected colors and patterns.

Photo by Dr. Andrea Radwell.

To learn more about water mites and Dr. Radwell, go to Discover Life In America’s water mite information page. Learn more about Discover Life in America, its grants, research, and how you can volunteer with them.

Return to Dispatches from the Field: Discovering life in the Smokies main page.

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