• Approximately 1,500 black bears live in the national park.

    Great Smoky Mountains

    National Park NC,TN

There are park alerts in effect.
hide Alerts »
  • Trail Advisory

    Several trails in the park are temporarily closed. Please check the "Backcountry Facilities" section of the Temporary Road and Facilities Closures page for further details. More »

Partner Profile: page 2

 
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.

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.

Did You Know?

Great Horned Owls can be heard most often in January and February

More than 240 species of birds have been found in the park. Sixty species are year-round residents. Nearly 120 species breed in the park, including 52 species from the neo-tropics. Many other species use the park as an important stopover and foraging area during their semiannual migration. More...