ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team: Week 7 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Micah Jasny is a graduate student from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University working this summer as an E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation intern, as part of the ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team. His work is supported through a partnership with Discover Life in America. This summer he will try to discover new species to add to the park inventories in order to better understand park ecosystems and how to care for them. He also plans to help other scientists working in the park with their biodiversity surveys and scientific research. In the upcoming weeks, he will give weekly updates about his forays into the park and report back on his biodiversity research.

White’s Creek Small Wildlife Area BioBlitz

Last Saturday, I took part in my second BioBlitz hosted by Discover Life in America. Like the Raven Rock BioBlitz, this BioBlitz was also held on Tennessee Valley Authority land, but was located about an hour west of Knoxville near Watts Bar Lake. The DLiA interns, Dan and Mark, and some of our friends who came to take part in the BioBlitz all rose early and packed into Mark’s car and we headed out as dawn was starting to break over the mountains. We arrived at the BioBlitz location, a small wildlife area next to a boat ramp, and had some time to walk around and explore the area. The BioBlitz took place at White’s Creek small wildlife area, which contains a two mile path that hugs Watt’s Bar Lake and eventually loops back on itself on a peninsula that juts out into the water.

Video courtesy of Dan Mele Photography & Film

For this BioBlitz, we focused on birds, plants, and fungi, and also sampled anything that really interested us. This BioBlitz had a great turnout, with close to 30 volunteers ranging in age from young children to retirees. Because of the high turnout, we divided ourselves into two groups to increase the area we could cover in the allotted time. Jonathan Carpenter, a biodiversity specialist who had previously led the other interns and me on a seminar about iNaturalist, gave a quick demonstration on the app to the volunteers and helped them create free accounts on their smart phones. With that done, we slowly made our way into the forest.

Due to my love for cooking shitake, morels, and, of course, portabella mushrooms, I decided it would be fun to focus my personal collecting efforts on mushrooms during this BioBlitz. Almost instantly, I had half a bag filled with a wide variety of different mushrooms. Some had neon-colored caps while others were brown or mottled with black spots. The mushrooms also varied in size ranging from a quarter-inch to some with caps that were as big as 8 or 9 inches in diameter. We found mushrooms sprouting up under leaf litter and on the sides of rotted logs and even some growing on living trees and in the crooks were tree trunks split. In a short time, the specimen table had a rapidly growing mountain of multi-colored and shaped mushrooms.

While we did not have a mycologist (mushroom specialist) with us during the BioBlitz to identify collected mushrooms at the site, we did have Kevin Fitzpatrick from All Species Photography available to take high resolution photographs of the collected mushrooms so that they could be easily identified by experts at a later time. Kevin remarked that mushrooms were a lot easier to photograph than some of our other specimens, as mushrooms were less likely to run away when they were put on the table for photographing!

During this BioBlitz, I also learned the importance of checking oneself for ticks. While many of us may think that ticks refer only to the large deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) whose dark-colored body can be fairly easy to spot on skin. There are other ticks, such as the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum), which are miniscule and lighter colored. After bushwhacking through a rather dense area of vegetation and returning to base camp, I discovered that I had walked through a nest of lone star ticks. While there is not much evidence that lone star ticks carry Lyme disease, 3% to 5% can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever which can, in some cases, be deadly.

After picking off my 20th sesame seed-sized lone star tick, I decided that more drastic measures needed to be taken to make sure I was tick free. Near the boat launch where the specimen table had been setup, there was a small fishing pier. I removed my shirt, shoes, socks, and everything in my pockets and promptly jumped into the reservoir. Luckily, Dan and one of our volunteers, Fielding, decided to join me and we had a nice time swimming around in the lake. Following my dip, I sprayed myself with bug spray and am happy to report that I found no additional ticks on my person. Later, I learned about the proper precautionary protocol to follow if you find a tick on your body. Typically, you should save the tick either by taping it to a calendar or collecting it in a jar labeled with the date you received a tick bite. This way, if you start feeling ill, you can bring the tick to the doctor with you and have it identified and tested for diseases, as well as knowing exactly which date you were bitten.

In total, we collected and identified several hundred species that will eventually be added to iNaturalist to further define the natural biodiversity for the Watts Bar Lake area. Dan Mele, DLiA intern, also filmed parts of the BioBlitz and has combined it with an interview with Todd Witcher, Executive Director of DLIA. I have included the video above. The White’s Creek small wildlife area BioBlitz was a really exciting and interesting experience and I encourage everyone to try and take part in at least one BioBlitz during their lives.

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