Two rangers look out from the mountains of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Smoky Signal

Big South Fork, Blue Ridge, Great Smoky Mountains, Obed

Smoky Signal is a show about the science behind Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In season one, we explore three stories on the theme of Collections. We learn about renewing traditional plant gathering practices in the park, a natural history museum with thousands of specimens, and even the collection of something pretty stinky (in the name of science, of course).

What can we learn about the Smokies—and ourselves—through these acts of collection?


Season 1

3. Scat-ology | Researching Elk Fecal Matter in the Smokies


Antoine Fletcher 0:00 Fecal matter dung, scat, poop are the words that will go unnamed in his program. I don't know why, but for some reason these terms make us a bit embarrassed at times. Of course, we know what these terms mean. But why do they make us so uncomfortable? Well, to make it easier according to live science, humans can produce 25,000 pounds of poop by the age of 80. That is the weight of a semi-truck that you see on the highway. Now, that's a lot of poop emojis. But if you dig through all that smelly goodness, there are small tidbits of science that can teach us about our health. And most importantly, the health of the elk population in the Smokies. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been home to one of the largest land mammals to ever roam East Tennessee and western North Carolina. Standing at five feet tall and 500 to 1000 pounds in weight, the ELCA the Smokies can easily be called the kings and queens of the open grasslands. But believe it or not, these glorified cows called the Smokies home over 200 years ago. Sadly, they were hunted out in East Tennessee in western North Carolina by the 1800s and later reintroduced by the park and its partners in 2001.

In today's episode, we're simply exploring how elk fecal matter will help us learn more about their abundance, recruitment, and survival since they were reintroduced in the Smokies. We hope that learning these factors will help us make informed decisions to help this longtime resident survive in the park for years to come. So rather you're listen to it from your brownstone in New York City, or from one of the neighboring communities of the park. We hope this episode helps you build a better appreciation not only for the elk the Smokies but the science that they leave behind. Welcome the Smoky Signal, a show about the science behind the Smokies brought to you by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and produced in the mountains and valleys of the Smokies. This season we will be exploring three episodes on the theme of collections. We will be talking about renewing traditional plant gathering practices, a natural museum that has collected 1000s of species, and even something pretty stinky in the name of science. I'm Antoine stay with us.

If you have ever been to the Smokies when the forest starts to change from a shade of emerald to a shade of amber, you have probably been amazed by the fall transition. But there's nothing like hearing this call cut through the crisp mountain air. And if you take the time to look underneath the canopy, you may see the towering silhouettes of large male elk grunting and moving erratically as their nostrils create vapor that quickly dissipates in the air. What you were experiencing is the legendary fall rut the time when male elk fight for their mates. But as the season wanes and the elk move on to researchers and scientists began their quest to learn more about elk and one way to do that is to study their poop. But first you have to learn about the history of elk in the Smokies. On a January morning, I met with Joe Yarkovich wildlife biologist for the Smokies and he knows quite a bit about the history of elk in the park.

Joe Yarkovich 3:59 Elk were native and abundant throughout pretty much all of North America for centuries up until the late 1790s early 1800s. In the late 1790s. The last elk was shot and killed in North Carolina in the early 1800s. The last elk was killed in the Tennessee side. And since that time, you know had been about a 200-year absence without the animals on the landscape. I mean really not a lot is known about their history in the area. There have been some artifacts found some old antlers found that's really how we know they're here. Some of the early settlers had written brief descriptions of seeing elk in the area, but it gets a little confusing because they were using terminology for different animals they may have been calling white tailed deer, elk, European elk are different from American elk and so there they could have been seeing different animals calling out at the same time.

Antoine Fletcher 4:49 Some 200 years later, the park habit dilemma on its hands, to reintroduce or to not reintroduce that was the question.

Joe Yarkovich 5:00 Biologist and researchers working in the park were in the middle of a red wolf reintroduction in Cades Cove. That project ended up failing and the wolves ended up being removed. But all the staff was tied up on that project. And so, taking on this new reintroduction, bringing another large mammal in at the time, just couldn't do it right then. But that was enough to get the ball rolling to look at whether or not the park could still support in our population.

Antoine Fletcher 5:27 There had been quite some time since the last elk was hunted in the North Carolina region of the park. But also, the environment of the park can change quite a bit. And there were many factors to consider before reintroducing these glorified cows back into the Smokies park biologist had to think about factors such as habitat, disease, and impact risk assessments.

Joe Yarkovich 5:53 That got the ball rolling to where researchers from University of Tennessee did a habitat assessment of the entire park to figure out do, we even have the food here to support these animals. Their findings were pretty interesting in that elk prefer open grasslands for food and the Smokies is largely a closed canopy forest mature hardwoods. Within the park though there were three areas that were identified as primary lease sites. So, the researchers found that if you're going to bring out back they would recommend one of these three areas and those areas were Cades Cove, the high balds through the middle of the park or Cataloochee Valley in the southeastern corner of the park. So, from a habitat standpoint, they said there is habitat there. If you're going to do it would recommend these three areas. That was really just the first step in that process. After that came disease risk assessments you have to consider what kind of diseases or parasites animals might be bringing in with them. You don't want to reintroduce or introduce a some kind of new parasite to the area or something detrimental. You have to look at impacts to the vegetation, you have to look at impacts to the visitor experience, the infrastructure, of the park from increased visitation, all these things needed to be taken into account.

Antoine Fletcher 7:09 With the help of the University of Tennessee's researchers to park found the perfect habitat for the elk's reintroduction, but there was one small, well large thing that was missing.

Joe Yarkovich 7:22 The original plan was to bring in a total of 75 to 90 animals across a three-year timeframe between 2001 2002 and 2003 to bring in 25 to 30 animals per year. The first group of elk we brought in in 2001 came from Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky, we got 25 animals from there, held them in in acclimation pen and Cataloochee Valley for I think two months to three months and then released them into Cataloochee. The second group of elk was brought in from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, that was 27 animals and mix of male and female held in the acclimation pen and Cataloochee and again released a couple months later.

Antoine Fletcher 8:03 Acclimation pens hmm, this sounds interesting.

Joe Yarkovich 8:08 When the elk were brought into Cataloochee, they were held in a six-acre acclimation pen. And when I say that it looked like a giant dinosaur pen that you would see in Jurassic Park. I mean, it had 10-to-12-foot wooden walls around it, there were solid so you couldn't see through it. We had put up some screening on there so nobody could look in and that was for the benefit of the elk. You know, they'd been through a lot of stress coming here. Once they were put in that pen. We didn't want tons of visitors going up and poking their hands in or spooking those animals, stressing those animals out any more than they needed to.

Antoine Fletcher 8:44 This technique is called a soft release. The pen helps the animals get used to their new surroundings, and researchers have discovered that this leads to a higher site fidelity, or that these animals will stay where you release them. On the other hand, if a park does a hard release, or let the animals go once they are reintroduced to the park, the animals tend to disperse in more locations than the intended release location. But of course, there was a snag. Just as the park was about to release its third elk herd, the state of North Carolina passed a temporary prohibition that banned the importation of elk across state line. This was because of Chronic Waste Disease or CWD. CWD is a degenerative neurological disease that can be found in animals such as deer and elk. CWD can depopulate a population of infected animals in a short time. So, without a way to test the third group of help for CWD the original 75 to 90 animals that was proposed to be released turned to 52 animals.

Joe Yarkovich 9:56 We get the question a lot of how many elk do we have in the park? or how many elk are in North Carolina now. We started with 52 total by the end of 2002. Since that time the population has been growing and expanding. And I mentioned that this had started as an experiment to see if l could survive. Obviously, we didn't just put elk on the landscape and forget about them. There was some really intensive monitoring and research that went along with that. And one of the biggest outcomes of that research was trying to figure out the population growth and the population numbers to figure out if the elk could sustain themselves here without outside intervention. We've gone through several iterations of how we've been tracking the population over the years. Right now, we're finishing up a new research project that's looking at fetal DNA as a Mark Recapture study, where we can go in and get a pretty good population estimate throughout all of Western North Carolina.

Antoine Fletcher 10:54 the story of elk being hunted out and reintroduced some 200 years later. It's a testament to the importance of conservation in the Smokies. What may be even more challenging, is understanding if this experiment is working at all in wait a minute, did he say fecal pellets? This is where Dr. Joe Clark, a research ecologist with USGS, and Jessica Braunstein, a PhD student and researcher from the University of Tennessee becomes important to this story. They have been studying elk fecal pellets since the winter of 2020. These researchers are helping the Smokies understand elk abundance estimates, recruitment or annual added population, and annual survival rates since reintroduction.

Dr. Clark 11:44 We are using method to estimate elk abundance called Capture Mark Recapture. And if you can think about that, like maybe there's a jar of marbles, a big jar of marbles, and you don't know how many marbles are in that jar. So, they estimate. So you reach your hand inside that jar and get a big double handful, and maybe mark those marbles and put them back into a jar to count the marbles that you took out. Maybe there's 100 of them, mark them and put them back in the jar and mix them all up real good. And so, you take out another big double handful in the ratio in that in that second handful, the ratio of marked to unmarked animals is going to be the same as it was in the original sample that you took. So, if you took 100 samples, and the ratio of marked to unmarked samples in your second sample is say 50%. And you know, you've got roughly 200 marbles in that jar. And so that's, in essence what we're doing with with the elk.

Antoine Fletcher 13:01 Now that we haven't lost our marbles, we can move on to tracking elk and pass years, elk were trapped, immobilize, and fitted with ear tags and telemetry collars, these methods have the park understand the abundance of population, but methods have become a little less intrusive in the research world. Now Dr. Clark is looking for something that is about the size of your fingernail

Dr. Clark 13:28 Elk pellets are bigger than deer pellets, they look, I say they're about the size of your thumbnail, maybe a little smaller.

Antoine Fletcher 13:37 And it's what's on the fecal pellets, that's telling us more about the elk in the park.

Jessica Braunstein 13:44 So, we actually sample for elk pellets in the winter. So, we sample January through March. And we do that because it tends to be a little bit drier than if you think of a summer in the Smokies where we have a lot of rain and a lot of moisture. Well, that moisture is actually not very good for the DNA that's on the pellet. So, we sample in the winter. And basically when we go out, we're trying to collect relatively fresh pellets. So, they're gonna be intact still, and they usually have a little bit of a glossy sheen. And that glossy sheen is actually mucus that contains epithelial cells that are shed from the intestinal lining. And those cells are what contain the DNA, which is what is the key thing for our study.

Antoine Fletcher 14:33 Although the field work for collecting fecal pellets concluded in the winter of 2022, the researchers are beginning to analyze the data that they've collected. So that means the jury's still out. However, Jessica can give us a pretty good idea of what their data is going to tell us. And that could be anything from elk population growth, survival rates, and factors we did not think about when we reintroduce elk into the park.

Jessica Braunstein 15:02 You know, he haven't analyzed enough that data for me to say if there's been much of a difference since 2020, we do know there's more elk than there were when they were first reintroduced in the early 2000s. I think some other work that Dr. Clark has done has shown you know the population is growing.

Antoine Fletcher 15:22 And as the population grows, researchers have found elk and other places besides the Smokies.

Jessica Braunstein 15:29 Cataloochee Valley, it was their original release site when elk reintroduced in early 2000s. And we know that a pretty large group of elk still hangs out there, we know they've also moved over to the Oconaluftee area. And some of the largest I guess, elk groups kind of in the whole region hang out in Cataloochee and Oconaluftee. So, we also know elk have expanded their range beyond just Great Smoky Mountain National Park. So, I think it's important to mention that we're also sampling in those areas, that private land surrounding the park like a Maggie Valley, kind of Jonathan Creek area, and then also Pisgah National Forest. So, over the past three years, there are several individuals we've put capture captured, as in, we found there, pellets, we've captured multiple times. But then there's also been a couple other studies prior to ours, that, you know, they're just testing out different methods and things like that. And we've captured some of the individuals that were from those studies, too, which is pretty interesting.

Antoine Fletcher 16:36 We've also learned that transporting elk from regions where they're not used to bears has major consequences to the survival rates in the Smokies.

Dr. Clark 16:45 Early on in the elk reintroduction effort, we noticed black bears were predating on elk calves at pretty high rate. Bears are really not capable nor do they are nor are they interested in killing an adult elk it's just too much. It's just too hazardous to try to undertake. But what they do what they can do is kill and consume elk calves, these elk calves are pretty self sufficient after about two weeks of age. But before that period of time, they're they're pretty unsteady on their legs, and about their own defense is to just lie there and be still and hope for the best. And a lot of the elk were given birth out in the out in some of these open fields. The elk that we got came from a place that did not have black bears. And so, they were naive to bears. And so, they were just given birth out in the middle of these fields. And bears would come out there and search around and in find these elk calves and kill them and eat them. And so, we saw that. So, we we started trapping bears and moving them out of the Cataloochee area. We did that for I think three years. And we knew that the bears would come right back, he was just moving them to the other end of the park. We knew they would come right back. But we were hoping that the calves could make it through that two-week period before they made it back. And so, we did that. And sure enough the recruitment rates, the reproductive rates went up calf survival were during those three years. So, that was pretty successful. And then, in the meantime, I think the elk themselves learned about predators and learned about coyotes and say we're familiar with but also black bears. And so now I think they're more aggressive toward bears than they used to be. And they also give birth in more secluded areas, it makes it more difficult for predators to find their calves.

Antoine Fletcher 19:10 But even through the setbacks of predation, we definitely can learn a lot about the elk population by one simple thing. And that's just counting.

Joe Yarkovich 19:19 But in addition to the larger population estimate, we do what we consider minimum counts for the area. And this is a really intensive effort we do across a three day period in conjunction with the State Wildlife Commission as well as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, where we take three days and just canvass all of Western North Carolina where we know elk are counting any animals that we see tracking down any radio collared animals we have and counting the animals with those according to age and sex, demographics, and that gives us a total minimum count. So we can say we have at least so many animals in the park at this given time. That's not the same as a population estimate which takes a lot more science and rigor behind it. But when people ask how many animals do you have a quick and easy answer for us to say we have at least so many animals. Our last count conducted in late 2022 gave us at least 111 animals that use the Smoky Mountain National Park Lands, at least part of the year.

Antoine Fletcher 20:19 Although it can be exciting for us all to enjoy wildlife in the park, the Smokies has a sworn responsibility to educate visitors about wildlife safety.

Joe Yarkovich 20:30 You know, I always enjoy seeing large mammals on the landscape. There's nothing really that compares to seeing a 900 pound or 1000-pound bull elk during the rut, just screaming his head off fighting with other bulls chasing cows around. You know, that's why visitors like to come and see it as well. It's really exciting. It's really unique, particularly to this area, because you are in such close proximity these animals and you can see them so well. So, when you see that there's just something innate in human nature that makes you excited to see that you're seeing raw nature and I think people really engage with raw nature in a different way. I think it's a natural tendency of humans to want to be closer to these large animals that they see. Everybody wants a better picture. Everybody wants a better look at it. But it really places the visitors in a lot of risk whether they realize it or not. It also in endangers the elk a lot of different ways. We do have several methods of outreach that we try to use to talk to these visitors or let people know of safe viewing practices within the park. Their signage throughout the park, there are informational pamphlets put out. We have a group of volunteers dedicated just to managing visitors around the elk. In the busy times of year, we have a group called the Ocanoluftee Elk Rovers and another group called the Elk Bugle Corps over in Cataloochee. Those volunteers work through the summer and fall months. Their sole purpose is to help visitors view elk responsibly, keep visitors and elk safe while they're doing it, and provide a better experience for the visitors overall they carry around props like antlers and then elk hide an elk skull that can engage visitors and really make it more of an engaging experience for them instead of just looking out the window of your car. When we do see people approaching elk too closely, we typically just ask them to back up and obey the park rules. We have a 50-yard regulation within the park where it's illegal to approach any elk or bear within 50 yards, or any distance that disturbs or displaces that animal 50 yards is half a football field. If you're farther than that, but the animal is still focused on you rather than feeding or doing what comes naturally to it. You're still too close and we ask that you back up and give that animals more room for safe viewing in the Ocanoluftee and Cataloochee area. We ask that visitors stay next to or in their vehicles if they're along the roadway. We ask that they pull their vehicle completely off the road because traffic can be quite a situation along these roads. We don't want traffic to backup more importantly, we don't want visitors sitting in a blind curve or somewhere that they could hit by a car we ask that they keep their dogs on a leash. We're in their cars well, that can sometimes trigger a reaction from elk. And we recommend people bring binoculars or telephoto lenses if they want those close-up photos of animals.

Antoine Fletcher 23:19 Fecal matter, dung, scat, other names we won't dare say in this program. Although a stinky topic, the one name we should call it is quite simple. And that's science and this stinky science has given us ascending hope that our grassland giants will not go unheard for quite some time. And as our knowledge grows through our research, we hope that not only their abundance, recruitment, and survival rates grow with it. But we also hope that the stewardship between human and mammal grows as well. I'm Antoine and this is Smoky Signal.

Transcribed by

Don't step in it! Research it! In this episode, Great Smoky Mountains National Park staff teams up with the U.S. Geological Society and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to learn more about elk abundance, recruitment, and survival since being reintroduced in the Smokies in 2001.

2. Collections | Mysteries of the Museum


Antoine 00:00 The alcohol is slightly discolored as I peer into the glass jar that holds a mystery. Its reddish brown skin is full of wrinkles. Its eyes tell the stories of past ancestors and its fingers seem to reach out and touch us. Some call these creatures mud cats, Devil Dogs, snout otters, or the most well-known name, Hellbenders. No matter what you call them, this Hellbender specimen was collected by Park scientists over 90 years ago and falls in a long line of collected specimens in our natural history collections that are helping preserve and protect the park in the present and the future.

Alix 00:45 Wait a second. So you're telling me that the park has a Hellbender specimen dating back to the 1930s?

Antoine 00:52 Cue the scary music please (speaker clears throat). Yes, but that is just the tip of the iceberg, my friend.

Alix 01:02 Okay... and by tip you mean?

Antoine 01:04 Well, although intriguing this Hellbender is not the only specimen in the park's museum collections. There are 1000s of specimens and I mean, 1000s that have been collected since the park opened in the 1930s.

Alix 01:18 Wow. Well, I guess that makes sense. But, walk me through why it's so important to keep abundant or extinct specimens in our natural history collections. Or maybe an even better question is, why is it important to collect specimens at all?

Antoine 01:34 You know, that is a good question. And I think I have a couple of people in mind that can help us answer these questions. Welcome to Smoky Signal, a show about the science behind the Smokies, brought to you by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and produced in the depths of our natural and cultural museum collections.

Alix 01:54 This season, we'll be exploring three stories on the theme of collections. We'll be talking about renewing traditional plant gathering practices, a natural history museum that has collected 1000s of species, and even the collection of something pretty stinky in the name of science. I'm Antoine and I'm Alix stay with us.

Antoine 02:28 Although intriguing, this Hellbender is not the only specimen in the park's museum collections. Since the 1930s, researchers and scientists have dedicated countless hours throughout the depths of the park in the effort to understand the biodiversity of this living laboratory, leading our imaginations down to inquisitory, yet exploratory path to Smokies science from the Tennessee Madtom catfish that was thought to be extinct to the recovery plan of the Rusty Patch Bumblebee, the park has a myriad of specimens that continue to help us understand the past to protect the future. But why is it important to collect specimens in the first place? You know, Alix I think I have someone in mind that can help us jump start this adventure.

Baird Todd 03:16 My name is Baird Todd and I am the park curator. As the curator for the National Park Service, I am the custodial office.....(voice volume is lowered).

Antoine 03:24 Baird Todd defines himself as the custodial officer for the museum collections of the Smokies. His work is different from a curator, the formal art museum, where he would be known as an expert on a particular museum collection. But here's the kicker, Baird does not consider himself an expert. I know I know, you may be saying to yourself, that makes no sense. Well, let me let you in on a secret. It's kind of difficult to be an expert when you manage nearly 2 million objects.

Baird Todd 04:01 But what I do do is make sure that the collections are managed in accordance with federal law and NPS policy that they're preserved as well as can be with the conditions available and make them as accessible to the public as much as possible. And we interpret the public pretty broadly here. That could be researchers, it could be park staff, it could be the general public, all to make sure that the collections are available to that party in public for as long as possible because we do manage these collections, as we say in perpetuity.

Antoine 04:36 So Baird's work is definitely driven by policy and preservation. But what is the difference between natural and cultural collections?

Baird Todd 04:47 The cultural collections are the tangible evidence of human activity and the natural history collections of the tangible evidence of non human activity.

Antoine 04:57 And that to run the gamut between vascular or nonvascular plants, insects, microbiota, and even those famous Great Smoky Mountain bears people come to see each year, the park has been able to have a diverse collection of specimens due to the research efforts dating back to the 1930s. But even the park the size of the Smokies can be limited on space. So where does all these specimens go? If they are not kept in the park for research?

Baird Todd 05:28 We have collections scattered across the country, what you see now is a much more sort of controlled and prioritized decision making about where those collections wind up, we may get one, we may send one off to the University of Tennessee, we may send another one off to a University in Chicago. And that way, specimens collected the same time as that original documented specimen can be scattered across the country, made more available for researchers. And the evidence of that original documentation can be preserved. If something happens to the collection of the Smithsonian, or my specimen here, they're still one in Knoxville, they're still one in Chicago. A lot of the collections go back to the universities where the researcher originally was. So we have a huge amount of material at the University of Tennessee in particular at the TENN herbarium. We're close by they've been doing research here for decades. We have a large number of collections at the New York Botanical Garden.

Antoine 06:33 So think of it this way. Rather you're in New York City to see a Broadway play, or you're in Chicago catching, a famous Cubs game, Smokies science is always around you. So, natural history collections in the park are not just for show. They are a vital collection of learning. Helping park rangers, scientists, and researchers keep updated data on factors such as species distribution and abundance throughout the park. But who started this important in-depth work? So my next question leads me to no one other than Park archivists, Mike Aday, he's going to be a tour guide to the Collections Preservation Center, located in Townsend, Tennessee, a facility that hosts a wealth of knowledge for the park.

Mike Aday 07:30 I am the parks librarian and archivist. I'm basically like the the memory for the park. As the librarian, I manage the library locations for the park. There's one at the collections preservation center in Townsend. There's one for Ranger and volunteer use and Oconaluftee and there's also one at Cades Cove. I also manage the parks collection of historic documents, all of the maps, plans, drawings, historic photographs, all of the oral history collections. Basically it's all of the historic records that the park has generated and collected over the years

Antoine 08:11 After introductions Mike takes me into the archives. There's hundreds of boxes, that are slightly lit by fluorescent lighting. But it's not the number of boxes that are important here. It's the stories within them and that really has thinking. So Mike, what are we looking for?

Mike Aday 08:34 Well, I wanted to show you the collection from Arthur Stupka, who was the parks first naturalist he was hired in 1934 When the park was just being established, and he was the parks naturalist until his retirement in the 1960s. And he was just he was a fascinating individual and I just wanted to share with you some of the collection items that we have from him.

Antoine 08:59 According to Mike, if we could stroll down memory mountain, we may discover that today's collections started with good old fashioned collecting, going out in the twilight of the spruce fir forests, the corners of Cades Cove or the Firefly fury of Elkmont and retrieving anything that will be helpful to understanding the biodiversity of the park. And a person that we would stroll alongside would have been no one other than Arthur Stupka. Like many park rangers, Arthur spent the beginning of his career working in exploring in parks such as Yosemite and Acadia, but it's mostly known for his work in the Smokies as the first naturalist of the park. According to the Webster Dictionary, a naturalist is an expert or student of Natural History. Well Arthur excelled it being a naturalist, do to his astute love for being a student of nature, which ultimately turned him into an expert of the park.

Arthur Stupka 10:07 For one thing, I was always a journal keeper from the time I was, in my early teens, I kept an nature journal when birds arrived, and when flowers bloomed and things of that sort, I kept that up right through my park service career, at least up to about 10 years before I retired, so that for all the years I was in Acadia, plus the first 15 or 16 years I was here, I kept up a nature journal in which these things were notified. In other words, I always had an altimeter with me in my knapsack, and if things were blooming at a certain date, a certain elevation why I would record it. And over the years, at the end of the year would index it.

Antoine 11:03 in the early 1930s, Arthur imagined what could he discover if he explored the back country of the park. Little did he know, he would have a group of civilian conservation corps members that will help him gain access to a treasure trove of new species.

Arthur Stupka 11:21 And the CCC means the park much more available not only to the ordinary visitor, but to the scientists, because you cannot get off the trails very well. Unless you're risking being lost.

Antoine 11:38 And this access to the back country play it to a trail of legacy.

Arthur Stupka 11:43 As I say, I was honored by having eight critters named for me. Six were insects. One was a sub glider. And one was a mite which is related to spiders. People who had found them came to the Smokies and collected that group of animals. And among those that they found that were new and had never been described before. Some of them honored me by putting my name on them.

Antoine 12:28 Deep in a southern part of Appalachia, the weather is cool and sunny with a slight breeze that moves across the native goldenrod. It's fall, but not just any fall. It's fallen the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, one of 17 research learning centers that is helping science become possible by supporting researchers who study our national parks at 4900 feet of elevation. I meet Paul Super.

Paul Super 12:58 My name is Paul Super. I'm the Research Coordinator for the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center and for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Anyone who wants to conduct research in the park on biological or geological processes needs to apply for a research permit.

Antoine 13:19 As much as we enjoy having researchers help us learn more about the park, there's always a process before they start to canvass the mountains for new information. This is where the permitting process comes into play. For instance, if you are interested in collecting specimens within park boundaries, you will consult with Paul and then Paul will consult with a curator to ensure that we can take care of the specimens that you collected. Also, it is important that Paul reviews the applications with our subject matter experts.

Paul Super 13:52 And then most permit applications we find a way to, to permit the work to go forward because we learn a whole lot from research even if it may not be research that we started off thinking was going to be useful, it may end up being very useful in the long term.

Antoine 14:12 So can you explain how current researchers are helping us learn about the parks present and future, especially when it comes to you know new species in the park?

Paul Super 14:26 Well, right now we still have a number of researchers working in the park who are helping us with biological diversity inventory. We have a researcher staying in our field station right now who's studying lichen diversity, and has discovered all sorts of previously undescribed species of likened in the park is also giving us an idea of distribution through the park and what species might be rare. What's species might be suffering from decline and air quality or other sorts of stressors. So all of that's very useful for protecting the whole park. The the ecosystem out there is not just the bears and the salamanders and the elk. But also, a lot of these little things help keep the environment of the Smokies beautiful and healthy.

Antoine 15:27 So what about, we've heard stories about, you know, new species such as the Smoky Mad Tom, can you tell us a little bit about, you know, discovery of that species and you know, where it was discovered and how that really changed? You know, I wouldn't say changed, but it definitely is important to the research of the park.

Paul Super 15:51 Certainly, the Park Service has a mission to protect the natural resources and the wildlife they're in and to provide for the general public to enjoy these resources as long as they do not damage them do not impair them. Sometimes in the past, we have had one part of that be more important than another. A long time ago, the park had this idea that we would create a world class trout fishery rainbow trout fishery in lower Abrams Creek. And to do that we would remove all the non sport fish, the trash fish, and then be a great place for the introduced rainbow trout. Well, the Park went through with this and killed off poisoned out the fish below Abrams Falls. And thankfully for us, some folks from the University of Tennessee, were looking through the dead fish that washed along the shore and found these little catfish that turned out to be a previously undescribed species the Smoky Mad Tom. And, you know, we were in a position where we might have indeed been the cause of the extinction of a species that was under our care. Thankfully, there was one other stream outside the park that was found to have the same species of catfish and we've been able to work with people who know how to breed fish in captivity. And they've helped us to reintroduce the Smokey Mad Tom back to Abrams Creek and the populations recovering but if we had not had somebody looking through what washed up, we wouldn't have known that we had come so close to causing the extinction of a species.

Antoine 18:06 So this is one incredible instance of identifying an important species that was not discovered in the park before that this instance ignite a conscious effort with the park and community to start a program dedicated to find any species.

Paul Super 18:23 Oh it certainly contributed. The park is now over 20 years into a program called the all taxa biodiversity inventory. And basically what this is, is an effort to figure out what we have in the park if you are running a store a business you want to know what supplies you have, what stock you have in the back in the warehouse. So we're trying to protect this national park and we can't protect what we don't know is there. It's the all taxa biodiversity inventory is an effort to document all of the plants and the animals and not just the the fish and mammals and birds but all kinds of things that most people have never even heard of tardigrades which are water bears these wonderful eight legged things that are living on moss or, or slime molds or gastrotrichs or all kinds of things that you know you really ought to look these up and figure out what they are because they've got great stories. But we have more than doubled the number of species that are known to be in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in these 20 years plus. And we have found over 1000 species that scientists did not realize were there. And some of them have been named after all sorts of people, senator from Tennessee, Dolly Parton. A lot of them are named after the Smokies in one way or another. And some of these new species are named using Cherokee language, since they're from the hills that are important for the Cherokee.

Antoine 20:24 So I have to agree with Paul. Not only does research permits help us collect important information about water bears, Smokey Man Toms, or even species that have cultural ties and native peoples. They also help us collect stories, stories that will inspire our next-gen scientists. Reflecting on my conversations where Paul really has me thinking, or really has me thinking about a particular question. How does the constant collecting of specimens help us manage the park? Or simply put, so what? Why do we do this? I think I know two people that can help us with this question.

Becky Nichols 21:10 My name is Becky Nichols. I'm an entomologist in the park. And I've worked here for 24 years, and work primarily on aquatic insect monitoring, and biodiversity studies.

Janie Bitner 21:22 My name is Janie Bitner, and I am a curatorial assistant here at the park in the Natural History Collection.

Antoine 21:29 Alright, so Becky, we've been learning about the importance of the park's natural history collections. But how does collecting specimens help us manage the park? Or simply put, so what?

Becky Nichols 21:44 The Natural History Collection documents are biodiversity so that we can utilize it for various research topics and learn more about species distributions, how environmental factors might impact their distributions. Various types of research questions that we can answer by looking at the data associated with specimens that we have in the collection.

Antoine 22:13 Now, the thing is, you talked about data a little bit. And so you know, my question for you is, you know, can we utilize the data from collecting specimens to help us with preservation or recovery of a certain species?

Becky Nichols 22:31 Well, I think a great example of that would be the newly federally endangered. Rusty Patch Bumblebee...

Antoine 22:39 Rusty Patch Bumblebee. I've never heard of it.

Becky Nichols 22:43 Bombus affinis is its scientific name. And it was just listed in 2017. And the data that we have from the park, it used to be very common in the park from low elevation to high elevation in various types of habitat. And we don't find it anymore. It the last specimens we have is from 2001.

Antoine 23:08 Right. So all of a sudden, this is like the whodunit mystery of the century. Like what happened to the Rusty Patch Bumblebee, right, like what's going on? So how can we figure this out? Right,

Becky Nichols 23:19 Well, it's declined throughout its range, it used to range throughout the Eastern US. And it is only in just a few locations now. Probably numerous factors are involved with its decline, including climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use outside of the park, of course. And, and various other factors could be contributing to his decline. But we still go out and search for it. Hopefully, we'll find a little population tucked away somewhere. But we utilize the data that we have from specimens in the collection, to figure out where to target our efforts to look for it. So we know where specimens from 1939 were collected, and we can go back to that spot and see if potentially, there's still habitat there that it would likely be in.

Antoine 24:13 So you know, you get this coalition together to look for the rest of the Rusty Patch Bumble Bee, you know, in Becky's mind or because of the data. Where do you go? Where do you start? What elevation? You know, tell us a little bit about that.

Becky Nichols 24:29 Well, for example, the summer we had a collecting expedition, I shouldn't say collecting because we're not going to collect it if we find it. But we did go out to Andrews Bald, high elevation site where once used to be common. We went out there deliberately when lots of things were blooming so that bumblebees would be more likely to be found. And so we had about six people up there with nets looking around at all the blooming azaleas. And unfortunately didn't find it. But we did find five other species of bumble bees. So that was a good, a good find for that day.

Antoine 25:07 And of course, this is where Becky's sidekick Janie comes into the story. While Becky's story led us down the wonderful world of pollinators in their recovery. Janie's story leads us to the soil where the lifecycle and recovery of ginseng is under a microscope.

Janie Bitner 25:26 I fell in love with ginseng when I first discovered that it needed a great deal of protection here in the Smokies. It's a slow grower. It mainly propagates by dropping berries which the plant doesn't put on typically, until it's four years old. Wow. And at the rate it's being harvested, and the rate of survival. When we do get it back in the ground. If it has been poached. There's a 50% survival rate. It's a beautiful plant. When you come up on mature ginseng which can grow and age to be 50 plus years. It's a beautiful thing.

Antoine 26:14 Earlier in the episode, I asked a simple question. So what why do we do this? And I believe I have my answer. Imagine what we would lose if we did not have museum collections. We would lose the voices of past naturalists, cultures with history ingrained in old growth forests. And one should never leave out the wonderous variety of life that has been discovered and yet to be discovered I'm Antoine and this is Smoky Signal.

From hellbenders to Smoky madtoms to rusty patched bumble bees, Antoine explores the natural history collections of the Smokies. Where do these collections come from? What can we learn from them? And how can studying decades-old specimens inform how we manage the park?

Featuring: Baird Todd, Mike Aday, Arthur Stupka (archival), Paul Super, Becky Nichols, and Janie Bitner.

For more information, visit

1. Collections | Gathering Sochan



Alix: It’s springtime here in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I’m walking down a wide, flat river trail. The river is to my left, and it’s clear and calm. I’ve only walked a few minutes before I find what I’m looking for: it’s in a flat, sunny patch of woods between me and the river: a tightly packed cluster of light green leaves.

I kneel down to be sure, to examine the shape of one of the soft leaves. I find the tell-tale ‘turkey foot’ or three lobed leaf that confirms my ID. When I look back up, I realize I’ve found an entire patch of it: sochan, or green-headed coneflower.

I close my eyes, and picture spending the morning here, hand-picking enough young leaves to boil and cook up in a cast iron skillet seasoned with bacon, the way many greens are cooked traditionally in this region. I imagine the nourishing taste of the warm, earthy greens. I picture how the ancestral knowledge of how to find, harvest, prepare and cook sochan has been passed down for generations through oral tradition.

Today, we’re going to be digging into a story about the relationship between people, land, and this particular plant called sochan—and how that relationship has been sustained for millennia.


Antoine: Right, because Great Smoky Mountains National Park has only been around since 1934, but this area has long been, and remains, the traditional homelands of the Indigenous Cherokee people.

Alix: That’s right. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians is one of over 600 federally and state recognized tribes throughout the US. Citizens of the tribe are descendants of a small group of Cherokee individuals who remained here, despite forced removal by the US government during the 1830s-era Trail of Tears. The Cherokees’ ancestral homelands span eight states in the southeastern US, including what we now call Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For millennia, Cherokee people have hunted, fished, gathered, and stewarded the land here. Their knowledge and connections to the land run deep.

Antoine: Today, members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians reside in the Qualla Boundary—a tribal land trust in and around Cherokee, North Carolina. The Qualla Boundary borders the park to the southeast.

Alix: In today’s episode, we’re exploring how some Cherokee people are staying connected to their homelands in the Smokies—with the help of sochan. Whether you’re listening here in the park or from home, we hope this story about peoples’ connection to this land—past and present—can help you better appreciate and understand that land—wherever you are.

Welcome to Smoky Signal, a show about the science behind the Smokies. Brought to you by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and produced on the traditional lands of the Cherokee.

Antoine: This season, we’ll be exploring three stories on the theme of Collections. We’ll be talking about renewing traditional plant gathering practices, a natural history museum that has collected thousands of species, and, even the collection of something pretty stinky in the name of science.

Alix: I’m Alix.

Antoine: I’m Antoine. Stay with us.


Alix: One crisp day last fall, Tommy Cabe drove up and over Newfound Gap Road to meet me at Twin Creeks Science Center. Tommy is a Forest Resource Specialist for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and a citizen of the tribe.

I was there to learn more about sochan, a plant Tommy has thought a lot about lately. A member of the sunflower family, sochan is a tall, yellow-flowered herbaceous plant that grows throughout the park in sunny, wet areas and along stream banks.

Tommy: [speaking Cherokee]--Tommy Cabe--[speaking Cherokee]. I said, 'Hello, my name is Tommy Cabe, and I am from Birdtown community.

Tommy: The first time I was taken to the sochan patch, I was probably about anywhere from five to seven years old.

And so would go down below my grandmother's house along the creek bank. And at that time of the year, sochan starts to come out in these little clusters. That's when my family would like to pick it the most.

Alix: Tommy spent those early spring mornings gathering the young, tender leaves of sochan by the creek with his extended family -- aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents. He remembers peering over the creek’s edge, watching schools of little red and blue fish swim by, and peeking between river rocks and cobbles for Yunwi Tsunsdi—the ‘little people’ he’d heard about in Cherokee legends.

Tommy describes this time of year—with winter coming to an end and the earth waking up—as ‘magical’. For him, collecting, cooking and eating sochan—that first spring green—was a treat; something to re-awaken the mind and body.

Today, Tommy still collects sochan each spring. But now, he brings his own children with him.

He teaches them how to pick the last three lobes of each leaf—the ‘turkeyfoot’—off young sochan shoots and demonstrates how to say a prayer thanking the Creator, his ancestors, and the plant, before picking the first leaf. He also reminds his kids to never harvest from the first sochan plant they find, because, he says, “you never know what kind of day it’s going to be.”

Tommy: Yeah, it's important because it's generational knowledge, right. And, of course, I want to continue the cycle of passing that knowledge on whether, you know, my kids actually pick it up and run with it, or they don't. But every time I go out, they do get curious and want to tag along. And so, I try to teach them as best I can, in this world of screens and technology to where it makes sense. And it's important for them to know that they're Cherokee, that they're a part of this ecosystem for millennia. And that, what they do, and what they learn—how they apply what they learn—matters to us as having this relationship with the ecosystem, and these mountains. Page Break

Alix: Great Smoky Mountains National Park allows limited collection of nuts, berries, and certain mushrooms for personal consumption. But until recently, federal law has prohibited Cherokee people from collecting sochan and many other culturally significant plants within the boundaries of the park.

In 2016, new National Park Service regulations established a framework for federally recognized tribes to gather certain plants or plant parts within national park units for food, ceremonial, medicinal, and cultural purposes. This rule paved the way for Indigenous people to renew cultural practices and connections to their homelands.

At the time, Tommy was several years into a collaboration with the US Forest Service and the North Carolina Arboretum to study the sustainability of sochan harvest in the region. Data available from these studies, combined with sochan’s cultural significance, meant it was the logical plant to focus on first.

In 2019, after an Environmental Assessment, public comment period, and Finding of No Significant Impact, tribal and park leaders entered into a historic agreement enabling Cherokee people to once again gather sochan in the park.


Alix: Joshua Albritton is a Biological Science Technician in the park and has been involved with the sochan gathering program from its beginnings. He told me about the permitting and monitoring processes outlined in the Environmental Assessment that aim to ensure the program is sustainable.

Joshua: So each season, there are 36 harvest permits issued. And in order to get one of those permits, first of all, the person has to be a member of the EBCI—the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And then, every season or every year from sometime between January and March, we hold several joint workshops between the EBCI leadership and us in the Smokies.

Alix: Each gatherer attends one of these workshops, where they learn about the program’s specific guidelines, which were informed by gatherers’ preferences in harvesting. Each year, harvest season runs from March first to May thirty-first, when sochan leaves are still new and tender. Using traditional hand-picking methods, gatherers can collect up to a bushel of sochan—enough to fill about two cloth grocery bags—each week.

Some Cherokee families traditionally collect just the ‘turkeyfoot’ (the final three lobes of a leaf) while others like to collect the entire leaf—and gatherers can collect whichever part they prefer. Because sochan gathering is traditionally a communal, family practice, each permitted gatherer can bring up to five additional gatherers with them each time they harvest.

The program has grown since it began in 2019—when only 10 of the 36 permits were filled. This past year, in 2021, all 36 were filled.

Joshua told me that, each time a gatherer comes to the park to collect sochan, they submit a harvest report to him. He uses these reports and additional monitoring to assess any impacts of sochan gathering through time.

Joshua: So in the springtime, we ask for the harvest reports. And I go out behind each report, I locate the spot where the person or group harvested...

What we're looking for is location, we're looking for, how much did you harvest? How many people came out with you? How long did you spend in the field, and are you going to come back to the same spot again?

Alix: Joshua returns to these areas again in late summer, to collect additional information when sochan is flowering.

I went out with him to one of these sites—a flat, open area near a flowing, rocky creek, to learn more about this phase of monitoring.

Joshua: So, back in the spring, in April, we got a couple of reports from this site from harvesters. So we know this site was harvested before this year, possibly the year before as well. We came out. Based on that report, we came out we check the site, we did see where they harvested, we checked a few of the plants then just to make sure that everything was it was within the specifications. And the usage permit it was, which is excellent. Now, we've come back out in the summer to look at: are there any changes to the community or to the sochan plants themselves, based on this kind of harvest history of this site?

Alix: Joshua lays out a sampling area using forestry tapes and square-meter PVC plots. Then he marks each plant with a stake flag, assesses how many stems it has, how tall they are, and how many of them are flowering. He'll return to this site in subsequent years to collect similar data and to see if anything is changing through time.

Joshua: Through time we're looking at, are there any possible stressors? And are they affecting the plants, in terms of, is the abundance going down? Is the average height going down? Are they not flowering as often? Or conversely, maybe harvesting has a positive effect. Maybe stem abundance is going up, maybe height is increasing slightly, maybe flowering is greater—maybe they're producing more flowers.

Alix: In addition to monitoring the areas where gatherers have been, Joshua also collects data from two other areas: ‘control’ sites and ‘research harvest’ sites. The control sites are so-called ‘off-limit’ areas, where no sochan gathering occurs. By comparing the harvested sites to these control sites, Joshua can tease apart any potential impacts of harvesting relative to other ‘normal’ variations in sochan growth or flowering through time.

Next to each control site, Joshua and Tommy also established a ‘research harvest’ site. Each spring, Tommy returns to these sites to harvest sochan following traditional methods. He ends up collecting a lot of sochan during the process and shares it with his Community Club, his mother, and with other families that can't gather sochan themselves.

Joshua: And so [Tommy] comes in and he harvests; we know exactly where he harvests and how much he harvests. Then we go in behind him and do all the monitoring. So we can, in these specific spots, we can actually look at, okay, this is how much he's harvested. And then in turn, we collect our summer data. And we can see, what are the impacts of those harvests? And we know that nobody else has been there.

Alix: After each season of monitoring, Joshua analyses the data to look at any potential impacts of harvesting—negative or positive.

Joshua: The latter example is what we're seeing in the numbers through time. Just a little bit at some of the harvest sites here in year three—we're seeing a slight increase in abundance, a slight increase in flowering. So harvesting may actually benefit these communities.

Alix: Joshua’s findings confirm what Cherokee sochan gatherers have long understood: just as grass grows back thicker after being mowed, harvesting sochan leaves seems to stimulate new growth. Cherokee gatherers understand that harvesting a sochan plant can help ensure that it will be healthy and lush when they return again next spring to harvest.

Joshua: What we’ve seen so far is, there have been no negative impacts from harvesting on plant communities thus far that we can see in the data that we've collected. So, at least from my perspective, we're really in good shape to continue with the program moving forward.


Alix: Tommy told me about an initiative in his community called Cherokee Choices that promotes culturally significant, healthy lifestyles. Part of that initiative is to bring traditional Cherokee foods to the forefront of modern meals.

Tommy: And, so thinking about what that plate looks like, you’ve got for instance, sochan and ramps. And you probably had the three sisters, which are corn, beans and squash. From the landscape, you probably had some type of fish or wild game, and you had mushrooms, right.

How you would prepare a Cherokee traditional meal would be 90% of it coming from the landscape, if not all of it.

Alix: Sochan leaves, which are rich in vitamin A and minerals like iron, calcium, and potassium, rival the nutritional potency of other so-called superfoods like kale and spinach. Tommy hopes that this gathering program will get sochan, and other healthy, wild-harvested foods, showing up more often on the plates of Cherokee people today.

Some gatherers have expressed frustration with Tommy over the program’s cumbersome permitting and reporting process. And he says he can relate to their frustration sometimes when he’s navigating government paperwork and policy. But he said that, overall, he’s heard mostly positive feedback.

Tommy: We're living in an age where we have access, and our relationship with these plants and this ecology is starting to matter. And what matters is that we we're still here, and we still live off this landscape. And this is a part of our landscape that we could get access to. We're moving in a direction of being Cherokee stewards for generations unborn.

Alix: Joshua also recognizes the role that this program, and the Smokies in general, can play as development continues to increase in many areas surrounding the park.

Joshua: This is a long-standing tradition that they've had... it was something they did well before the park was the park, as we know it today. But moving forward, there's been a lot of development in our area, and it's becoming harder and harder for them to do this as they once did. The park is this protected area where these folks can come in, and they can harvest sochan anywhere they really want to be, just like their ancestors did before...

...So it Yeah, it gives them the opportunity to do something that their grandparents did, you know, and and keep that tradition alive. And, you know, teach folks that are that are younger that maybe, that maybe didn't know about it before.


Alix: There’s a term you may have heard before: traditional ecological knowledge, or specifically, Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge.

It’s a broad term that describes a way of knowing based on observations, oral and written knowledge, practices, and beliefs acquired over hundreds or thousands of years by indigenous people through their direct interaction with the environment. This body of knowledge promotes sustainable relationships with, and stewardship of, the land and water around us.

Tommy: I think that, as these projects move forward, I think that you're going to see a lot of different types of engagement with our tribal members. And I'm hoping that we'll see more sharing of what traditional ecological knowledge means, not only to us, but what it can mean being applied to the landscape.

Alix: And there’s some indication that this is starting to happen. On November 15, 2021, President Biden released a memorandum committing the federal government to elevating Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in our policy and scientific processes.

The memorandum explicitly recognizes the contributions of Indigenous knowledge to “scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the United States and to our collective understanding of the natural world.”

...Here in the Smokies, Cherokee gatherers have long understood what scientific studies are now confirming about sochan: harvest it thoughtfully and with respect for the land, and it will go on thriving for generations to come.

As I listen to Tommy—a direct descendant of the original stewards of this land—and Joshua—a current steward of the land—I realize we’re being given an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to re-imagine our own land management and science practices to draw on multiple ways of knowing. To inform how we manage the park through both scientific inquiry AND traditional ecological knowledge.

Embracing this opportunity won’t always be easy, and it certainly won’t always be straightforward. But, as I think Tommy and Joshua would both agree, it WILL be worthwhile.

Alix explores how citizens of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians are renewing connections to their traditional homelands in the park, with the help of a certain plant species.

Featuring: Tommy Cabe and Joshua Albritton.

For more info, visit: