Lichen that drifted off an adjacent tree; there are many species of native lichens that I & M staff inventory.
Park scientists are in the first stage of inventorying wetlands, which will lay the groundwork for long-term wetland monitoring and protection (see the NPS Profile: What’s in our wetlands?). Wetlands are important habitat for rare species, and are vulnerable to exotic species invasion and climate change impacts. Over the past few weeks park staff have selected several “test” watersheds in the park where wetlands are likely to occur by running queries on GIS DEMs in the park. In English, this means they have been asking the computer models (a DEM is a Digital Elevation Model) to highlight areas on the park map that have a slope between 0 to 5 degrees (that’s flat to very, very close to flat). Wetlands are most likely to occur in these flat zones, which can exist at low or high elevations (or anywhere in between). They’re also working out protocols to inventory these wetlands: what and how to collect data, and what Global Positioning System technologies to use. This summer, they will have an intern and a seasonal field technician working with them to complete the inventories.
Checking in on spruce-fir
Managers are returning to plots—study areas—in spruce-fir forests at high elevation areas of the park. Just like the wetlands, the spruce-fir monitoring began with inventories. These were done in the 1990s, and now managers return to identify the trees and other vegetation that’s there, measure the trees, and take other data to serve as a checkup on forest health. The Fraser fir trees have been devastated by the invasive Balsam Woolly Adelgid; you can see the skeletons of dead trees standing tall and gray on the park’s highest ridges. Two interns this summer will be working on the spruce-fir monitoring plots.
Learning more about our trees may also help us understand our invertebrates: recent analyses of ATBI data indicates that some invertebrate groups might be more abundant at high elevations than anyone ever suspected. This makes high elevation fir forests critical to these invertebrates’ survival; some of these species are endemics, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world.
Nationwide, the park service is surveying the soils that support our protected forests, grasslands, meadows, and marshes. Inventory and monitoring staff just received the soil survey manuscript from the NPS soils coordinator. They will use this data to better understand and map vegetation communities in the park.
So far, soil resources appear to be key in understanding how soil buffers, or neutralizes, acid inputs from acid rain, fog, snow, and dry particles. Better understanding of soil will also help us learn about forest productivity, exotic species persistence, rare distributions, and other management issues.
Threats to high elevation health
For the third year, scientists are studying aluminum toxicity at high elevations. In the first and second years of this WASO (Washington DC central NPS office) funded study, park staff established 60 plots at different elevations where acid deposition varied. The study involves collecting detailed data on soils, mosses, herbs, shrubs, and trees, as well as using lysimeters to measure how much water from rain, snow, and condensing fog is percolating through soils. Precipitation in the Smokies can be highly acidic, especially at high elevations where precipitation rates are highest. The acidic water makes harmless aluminum that occurs naturally in soils soluble, creating a toxic form of the metal. The soluble aluminum can harm vegetation directly and indirectly by depleting calcium in the upper soil levels that plants, from bryophytes (mosses) to trees, need to grow. Measuring the soil water will help scientists figure out the ratio of calcium (Ca) to aluminum (Al), and determine how the changing balance between nutrients such as Ca and toxins such as Al affect the park’s high elevation vegetation. It will also give clues about the health of the entire high elevation ecosystem, because some animals (such as snails, and the birds that eat them) depend on calcium derived from the soil to build strong shells. For more on this topic and water quality issues, see Dispatches from the Field: Fisheries and Water Quality.
Law Enforcement learns GIS
GIS specialist Ben Zank led a law enforcement training focusing on using handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) units in search and rescue efforts. In emergencies or in the case of hikers reported missing, a cell phone provider can sometimes provide police with coordinates of a person’s approximate location. Law enforcement rangers can type this into a GPS unit and hike to the general area. This helps immensely when people lose their way in rugged, mountainous and thickly vegetated areas of the park.
Sometimes the park needs to know how its neighbors see it; other times, we need to know how visible changes on the landscape outside the park are to hikers and tourists within the park. Figuring out what can be seen from a certain point before the landscape actually changes is known as a viewshed analysis. Ben Zank, GIS specialist, has been creating several of these maps to “see” what people inside and outside the park can see from different points. In one case, the park is constructing a research station, and will need to know how visible it is from outside the park. The maps show up as 3-D models, and a line like a laser beam shows the “line” of sight. If a hill or high trees break that beam, then whatever lies behind is invisible from that point.
Picturing the park
An ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) grant is funding two vital projects to help park managers map and model the park’s landscapes. On two different days, pilots in small airplanes will
- fly over the park to take LIDAR imagery in Tennessee. This will complete the park set of imagery; a FEMA project took LIDAR imagery of North Carolina in 2006 to detect flooding. LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Reading, and is a way to remotely sense different types of vegetation from the air. It will update the park’s knowledge of vegetative cover, landslides, and more
- take aerial photos this fall of the whole park to detect different vegetation communities in the park using special photography called color infrared imagery. Because hemlocks, rhododendron, and oaks, for example, give off different infrared colors, the photos can give us a checkup on the state of forest composition and health.
Botanical and bug bevy
Entomologist Becky Nichols and botanist Janet Rock are busy adding rare invertebrate and plant species to the rare species geodatabase. A big part of this process is getting specialists to annotate lists with rarity rankings or descriptions, so they match state and federal lists of known rare species. So far, the database has 1200 records that are linked to a GIS map: scientists and other park managers can look at it to see points of recorded rare species and use it for monitoring. This helps them know whether park construction, trail use, and other factors may threaten or benefit rare species. The park will be able to use the database in emergency situations, such as wildfires or hazardous spills, to tailor a response and protect vulnerable species.
Looking past the list
The ATBI (All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory) is a program to discover and document every species in the Smokies. For more than a decade, the ATBI involved park managers, visiting scientists, and volunteers in the search for life. Now, we have found thousands of new species, and the questions are: what percent of the park’s biodiversity has been discovered? Where do we need to target our next efforts?
About 17,000 species have now been documented, but some large species groups such as fungi, solitary wasps, and certain mites need much more work. Park biologists are now concentrating on assembling lists of species in each natural community in the park, screening native species for rarity/vulnerability to the many threats the park faces, and modeling distributions of the rarest species in the park. Meanwhile, other national park units and state parks in three states are taking steps to follow the Smokies’ lead: you can’t protect what you don’t know about, so it’s vital that we discover all sorts of life within our boundaries.
Algae in Abrams Creek
Park scientists are getting ready for a summer survey of a rare alga species in Abrams Creek, which is on the far west side of the park. Support from the Tallassee fund will help them determine the extent of the rare species, and whether another common species is overtaking it. If there have been changes in water quality, this may mean that the more common species will fare better and outcompete the rare species for habitat, light, and nutrients.
During this survey scientists would also look for didymo, a spectacularly noxious aquatic diatom that has already been found in Tennessee tailwaters, and which can coat streambeds with a thick, slimy layer like mucus. Abrams Creek is home to three rare fish species, as well as rare plants and invertebrates.
Return to Resource Roundup: January-March, 2010.