Partner Profile: page 2
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.
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.
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.
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.