Other news: Summer 2010

Searching for the shimmer of a crayfish underwater.

Researchers Dr. Stuart Gelder and Bronwyn Williams search for crayfish (and crayfish worms) in Hazel Creek.

NPS photo.

Exposed! The wild world of worms on crayfish

This summer, two researchers waded (and waited) for a glimpse of bright blue, orange, or brown crayfish scuttling on Smokies stream bottoms. They were here to identify the worms—called branchiobdellidans—wriggling on the crayfish shells. Never heard of these worms? Not many people have, yet they appear to be very important to crayfish, with up to eight different species living on just one crustacean. Dr. Stuart R. Gelder of the University of Maine, Presque Isle is the leading expert on crayfish worms. He and doctoral student Ms. Bronwyn W. Williams of the University of Alberta, Canada received a research grant from Discover Life in America (DLIA) to identify the crayfish worms in the Smokies and hopefully add new worm species to the park’s All Taxa Biodiversity Index (ATBI) list. The researchers identified almost all of the worms while they were in the park, but had to bring a number of preserved worms back to the laboratory in Presque Isle where they will put them on slides for a detailed examination. Once they identify all of the worms by their species name, the slides will be placed in the Smithsonian Institution, the park’s animal collection, and other museums. Bronwyn will move from the stream to the laboratory where she will analyze the worms' DNA to complete her PhD project. From these results she will create a map showing the different crayfish worm DNA and figure out the first comprehensive “tree” (a branched diagram, where branches show different species) that will display how the species are related to one another.

New Chief of Resource Management and Science

This August the park welcomes its new Chief of Resource Management and Science, Jeff Troutman, who moved from the National Park Service Southeast Utah Group (Canyonlands, Arches, Hovenweep and Natural Bridges) where he served as the Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources since 2003. His 28 year career with the National Park Service includes assignments at Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska; Deleware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Pennsylvania; Independence National Historical Park, Pennsylvania; Denali National Park, Alaska; Everglades National Park, Florida; and Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina.

Research on exotic earthworms.

Researchers Anita Juen (L) and Dani Straube (R) from the University of Innsbruck in Austria sort through soil looking for worms and their predators.

NPS photo.

Hungry, hungry exotic earthworms

Anita Juen and Daniela Straube, two scientists from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, are beginning what will be a three year study to analyze what these worms are doing to the park’s food chain—in this case, what eats invasive earthworms. The researchers received funding from the Austrian Science Fund and collaborate with scientists at the University of Georgia in Athens. So far, they have found the invasive Jumping Worm at many of their sample sites in the Smoky Mountains. When they find the worm, they collect soil samples at the area and carefully sift it. Archeologists check the soil from each site, as well, to ensure the research doesn’t disturb artifacts. The researchers pick out predators—insects, spiders, small salamanders, and others—that might feed on the worms. Eventually they hope to piece together the whole effect of these worms in the Smoky Mountain ecosystem.

Identifying ash trees.

Doug Duncan, devoted volunteer, discusses whether an ash leaf looks more like the green or white species.

NPS photo.

Trees and bees: citizen scientists at work in the field

This summer, dozens of citizen scientists have hiked down forest trails and tromped through Cades Cove grasslands to help the park monitor its natural resources. These efforts are pilot projects—along with the Adopt-a-Trap ongoing season project—to involve local citizens and visitors in the protection of the park. Volunteers help collect scientific data and learn in the process.

The first project takes citizen scientists into the forest, where they learn to identify ash trees (and to distinguish between green and white ash, the park’s two predominant species), and use a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit to mark study plots. Knowing where ash grow can help us understand the impact that the invasive Emerald Ash Borer will have, as well as possibly protect our ash trees before it reaches the park. Read about the Emerald Ash Borer (this takes you to an external site; to return, click the back button on your browser).

The second project asks citizen scientists to bravely capture bumblebees that are cruising along the clover paths and between native grassland flowers. The park is hoping to expand these bumblebee I.D. days to more sites in the park, and include more regular monitoring so they can use changes in the numbers of bees, the dates bees first appear, and the species composition (different types of bees buzzing along together). You can watch a video about the Bumblebee I.D. days at the Knox News Sentinel website and read a newspaper story about a family who volunteered (clicking will take you to away from the NPS site; to return press the back button on your browser).

Gone to the Gulf

Following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department of the Interior called upon its employees to go to the coast and help in the cleanup, damage assessment, and protection of the federal lands. Several members of the Resource Management and Science Division did just that. Bill Stiver and Joe Yarkovich from wildlife management, and Rob Klein and Wylie Paxton from Fire Effects all went to the Gulf. They served as Resource Advisors, or READs, and worked with contractors to help crews clean up oil on islands off the coast of Mississippi. Their role was to advise crews—or anyone else accessing the islands—about locations of turtle nests, breeding birds, sensitive dunes, and grasses and to guide the cleanup efforts around them. While it was important to access the oil, it was also vital that protected species were safe. The READs also took photographs and reported any wildlife issues such as oiled birds or sea mammals.

Erik Kreusch, the park’s archeologist, also went to the Gulf. He served as Cultural Resource Advisor for the Gulf Islands National Seashore. He worked with people conducting oil clean up operations to develop avoidance and clean up protocols on sensitive sites such as a 19th century shipwreck, the Civil War era Fort Massachusetts, Fort Pickens, and several prehistoric shell mounds.

Salamander under rock.

Moving rocks on land may disturb lizards, and here in the Smokies moving river rocks harasses salamanders, fish, and other aquatic animals.

NPS photo.

Replacing rocks

While this study took place far from the Smoky Mountains, its findings might be very important for the continued health of reptiles all over the world. Researchers Pike, Croak, Webb, and Shine from Australia found that when humans move rocks—say, to use one as a tent-stake driver, or to look underneath when studying reptiles—and replace it, that rock becomes a much less appealing place for reptiles to live. Unless we take care to replace rocks EXACTLY where we found them, in the same orientation, with the same amount of pressure, and with the same amount of space underneath, the researchers counted fewer reptiles under rocks that had been moved. And the effect appeared to last a long time. Crevices underneath moved rocks were larger and cooler than rocks that hadn't been moved and replaced, and this seemed to make them less "homey."

What does this mean for us in the Smokies? We don't know if the same effect is true here. But it's likely that when we move rocks, the soil underneath changes—it's exposed to light, it dries out in the sun (or gets soaked in the rain), and things we can't even see, such as the pore space between grains of sand and soil, are different as we push down on soil and let in air. As scientists, park visitors, park managers, and people who care about this and other national parks, it makes sense to avoid moving rocks, or if we must, to take an extra moment and re-place rocks with special care.

This study was published in 2010 as the following: "Subtle – but easily reversible – anthropogenic disturbance seriously degrades habitat quality for rock-dwelling reptiles." 2010. Animal Conservation.

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