The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Displaying items by tag: biodiversity

Friday, 14 October 2022 13:40

5 big threats to the world’s rivers

fresh water Conservation FisheriesA biologist with Conservation Fisheries surveys a stretch of Little River near Walland, Tennessee to determine fish viability and identify rare species for transplantation. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Human activities have imperiled our waterways — along with a third of freshwater fish and other aquatic species

This story was originally published by The Revelator.

If we needed more motivation to save our ailing rivers, it could come with the findings of a recent study that determined the biodiversity crisis is most acute in freshwater ecosystems, which thread the Southern landscape like crucial veins and arteries.

Rivers, lakes and inland wetlands cover 1 percent of the Earth but provide homes for 10 percent of all its species, including one-third of all vertebrates. And many of those species are imperiled — some 27 percent of the nearly 30,000 freshwater species so far assessed by the IUCN Red List. This includes nearly one-third of all freshwater fish.

How did things get so bad? For some species it’s a single action — like building a dam. But for most, it’s a confluence of factors — an accumulation of harm — that builds for years or decades.

Published in News

1 smokies most wanted infographic credit Emma Oxford GSMA

This story was provided by Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Next demonstration on Thursday, Oct. 20

GATLINBURG — Great Smoky Mountains National Park is celebrating the success of a community science project led by nonprofit partner Discover Life in America (DLiA) called Smokies Most Wanted. The initiative encourages visitors to record life they find in the park through the iNaturalist nature app. DLiA and the park use these data points to map species range, track exotic species, and even discover new kinds of life in the park. 

“iNaturalist usage in the Smokies has skyrocketed from just four users in 2011, to 3,800 in 2020, to now more than 7,100 users,” said Will Kuhn, DLIA’s director of science and research. 

In August, the project reached a milestone, surpassing 100,000 records of insects, plants, fungi, and other Smokies life submitted through the app. Among them are 92 new species not previously seen in the park.

Published in News
Dust bowl soilThe Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted in the displacement of tons of soil in the midst of a drought similar to the one that grips the Southwest today. Library of Congress
 

Dirt is far from just dirt. It’s a foundation for life.

This story was originally published by The Revelator.

Look down. You may not see the soil beneath your feet as teeming with life, but it is.

Better scientific tools are helping us understand that dirt isn’t just dirt. Life in the soil includes microbes like bacteria and fungi; invertebrates such as earthworms and nematodes; plant roots; and even mammals like gophers and badgers who spend part of their time below ground.

It’s commonly said that a quarter of all the planet’s biodiversity lives in the soil, but that’s likely a vast understatement. Many species that reside there, particularly microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and protists, aren’t yet known to science.

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New York Times: Ukraine environmental holocaust just the latest in ways war scars the Earth

Open armed conflict understandably abrogates immediate concerns about the natural environment.

Despite the tens of thousands of human deaths already caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war’s impact on natural systems can’t be understated.

In some cases, Russian troops have taken up positions in natural parks and protected ecological areas in Ukraine. The Black Sea coast is an important remaining area of biodiversity in Europe. Ukrainian counterattacks, while understandable, have also inflamed environmental consequences.

There are also immediate risks to human respiratory health from the fires sparked by attacks on fuel depots and chemical facilities.

War’s negative environmental impacts are by no means a new thing: See the use of Agent Orange by the U.S. in Vietnam and the wasteland of burning oil fields left behind in the Gulf War.

War is bad for every living thing.

Published in Feedbag

iiif service gmd gmd390 g3902 g3902g np000243 full pct 12.5 0 defaultMany climate-change related issues have appeared since publication of this vintage map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Library of Congress

Invasive insects are among the vanguard of noticeable climate changes in America’s most-visited national park

GATLINBURG — Ants scurry beneath the carpet of last year’s leaves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The native ants are busy spreading the seeds of violets and bloodroot, preparing a new carpet of spring wildflowers to draw thousands of visitors.

But the local insects aren’t alone under there. They have become prey to venomous Asian needle ants that also prowl the leaf litter.

These invaders dine on termites, other ants and insects, while stealing habitat from them. Unlike invasive fire ants, needle ants can live in pristine forests and build large colonies with hundreds of queens. But like fire ants, needle ants have a painful sting that can trigger an allergic reaction. 

Climate change is expected to make it easier for invasive species like needle ants to upset the delicate balance of this temperate rainforest full of rare plants and animals. That’s just one example.

Published in News

Indiana batThe endangered Indiana bat is among threatened and endangered species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Southern Appalachians show red as a warning on new detailed biodiversity maps 

This story was originally published by the Sylva Herald.

SYLVA — Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been known for its abundance of different species of flora and fauna.

Credit old mountains in a warm, sunny and wet region with varying types of climate, soil and stone for that large number.

“The park is almost certainly the most biodiverse national park in North America,” said Paul Super, national park science coordinator. “And certainly the most studied of any national park.”

A group of environmental organizations recently put together a series of maps illustrating the regions with the biggest threats to their biodiversity, and the area around Jackson County and the national park showed up in the red, showing risk. One such map, based on NatureServe data, is among the most detailed maps of endangered and threatened species ever produced.

Published in News
Friday, 18 March 2022 14:35

Zigging and zagging to find the Zigzag

Zigzag salamander UT doctoral student Bryce Wade examines a Southern zigzag salamander he found at Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville. Keenan Thomas/Hellbender Press

On the happy herping trail: Bryce Wade searches for salamanders

KNOXVILLE — Bryce Wade scours the nature trail, turning over rocks and logs. On this overcast day at Ijams Nature Center, he searches beneath the leaves on the ground for one creature: salamanders.

Underneath the rocks, logs and leaves, salamanders populate the cool, moist earth, avoiding the sun whenever they can. Wade is looking for a particular type: a winter species informally called the Southern zigzag salamander (Plethodon ventralis). 

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Photo by Valerie PolkA child snaps a photo of a flower beetle on a wild hydrangea in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Valerie Polk

Grab your phone and get to some citizen science

Rhonda Wise writes for the public affairs office of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Discover Life in America (DLiA), the nonprofit science research partner, is inviting the public to participate in the Smokies Most Wanted program. This initiative allows visitors to help preserve park species by recording sightings of animals, plants, and other organisms from their smartphones using the iNaturalist app. 

Published in News
Monday, 20 December 2021 14:13

Lunker sturgeon are out there again

WBIR: Holston River sturgeon surging

The population of lake sturgeon, a survivor since the Cretaceous Era that barely escaped the ravages of modern dams and reservoirs, is on the upswing in the Holston River and other branches and tributaries of the Tennessee River system. The last record of the fish in the valley before restoration efforts began is about 1960, according to WBIR.

Significantly older fish were identified during a recent inventory of sturgeon, giving hope that some fish were closing in on reproductive maturity. The gradual recovery is largely the result of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and Tennessee Valley Authority restoration efforts, WBIR reports.

“It makes our valley richer; that fish is supposed to be here,” one researcher told WBIR about the significance of the so-far successful restoration of native sturgeon habitats.

Published in Feedbag

res1.jpgAquatic ecologist Natalie Griffiths studies nutrients and contaminants in the Weber Branch watershed, which is in the Oak Ridge Environmental Research Park. Courtesy Carlos Jones/ORNL

ORNL research lands are an international ecological benchmark and diverse wonderland of trees, plants, mammals, reptiles and amphibians

Abby Bower is a science writer for Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is a hub for world-class science. The nearly 33,000-acre space surrounding the lab is less known, but also unique. The Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR) is a key hotspot for biodiversity in the Southeast and is home to more than 1,500 species of plants and animals.

At the intersection of Anderson and Roane counties is an important subset of the reservation — the Oak Ridge National Environmental Research Park, or NERP — a 20,000-acre ORNL research facility that has been internationally recognized by UNESCO as an official biosphere reserve unit.

“The National Environmental Research Park is a living laboratory and a major resource for conducting ecological studies,” said Evin Carter, an ORNL wildlife ecologist and director of the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Program, or SAMAB. The NERP has been a core part of SAMAB, which has focused on sustainable economic development and conserving biodiversity in Southern Appalachia since 1989.

With ORNL researchers and scientists from government agencies and academia using the NERP for diverse experiments each year, the park lives up to its status as a living laboratory.

It also lives up to its reputation as a biodiversity hotspot. As one of seven DOE-established environmental research parks reflecting North America’s major ecoregions, it represents the Eastern Deciduous Forest. The NERP comprises parts of this ecoregion that have been identified repeatedly as priorities for global biodiversity conservation, Carter said.

This designation means more than ever as climate change alters ecosystems and biodiversity declines worldwide. According to a landmark international report, on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, around one million plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction. 

Published in News

IMG 8094Tennessee Tree Improvement Program director Scott Schlarbaum stands among a collection of grafted and cloned native trees at the program’s grafting facility off Alcoa Highway. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

2-minute video on hemlock genetic diversity conservation added to this article on September 2, 2021

UT Tree Improvement Program prepares for its greatest grafting season yet

“What you have here is the future of Tennessee forests,” said Scott Schlarbaum, a professor and director of the University of Tennessee Tree Improvement Program.

You can tell from a chuckle he thinks his statement might sound hyperbolic and a bit dramatic, but it’s really not.

He gestured across an unassuming but important UT facility just off Alcoa Highway tucked within the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center that will be the main base for a historic tree-grafting effort that will commence this winter. 

The goal: Create trees with high-quality genetic traits ranging from wildlife and habitat qualities to timber value.

Heavy traffic hissed down the nearby highway as it passed by the modest understock yard, greenhouse, raised beds and small house containing offices used as the main grafting facility for the UT Tree Improvement Program (TIP). At least 50,000 vehicles pass by the site every day but most drivers and passengers are oblivious to the existence of this small but important outpost of forest conservation skirted by a Knox County greenway.

The Tree Improvement Program was first established in 1959. It survives as a notable exception to the cost-cutting of such projects in other states at both university and government levels.

“These days we tend to look only at the short term. UT did not.”

Beginning in January, Schlarbaum, director of the program since 1983, will oversee grafting efforts on some 3,600 trees. Last year, during which TIP efforts were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, about 2,000 trees were grafted.

“We are gearing up for our biggest grafting year ever. That’s a huge deal,” Schlarbaum said.

Published in News

Duck RiverMarshall CoThis biologically rich stretch of the Duck River could soon be the site of a large municipal water intake facility.

Duck River targeted by thirsty, growing municipalities in Nashville area

This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout

Marshall County, located outside what was once considered the boundary edge of growing suburbs circling Nashville, has seen explosive growth of its own in recent years — call it the Williamson County overflow effect, says County Mayor Mike Keny.

Drawn by more affordable housing, jobs and the rural character of the county — about an hour from Nashville in the “heart of the Southern Automotive Corridor” (as local economic development officials call it) — the influx of residents, and some relocating business and industry, has brought new urgency to a long-standing reality.

The county doesn’t have its own water supply. For decades, it has had to pay wholesale for drinking water from the cities of Murfreesboro and Lewisburg. That supply is no longer adequate.

A new proposal by county officials calls for building a water treatment facility along the banks of the Duck River in northern Marshall County capable of siphoning up to 6 million gallons of water per day; establish a reliable local water supply for decades to come.

The need for Marshall County,  to have its own water supply, which it has never had, is becoming more urgent with an influx of new residents. But environmental activists say the nearby Duck River, which is biologically diverse, may not be the best option.  
Published in Water

Juvenile Brook Trout swimming into the water of their new homeJuvenile brook trout swim into the water of their new home during a joint effort to return the species to its rightful range in the Tellico River watershed in the southeastern Cherokee National Forest. Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium.

In a virtuous cycle of life, native brookies return to Tellico River watershed in southeastern Cherokee National Forest.

(The writer produced this original piece for the Tennessee Aquarium).

Navigating through a thicket of branches while clambering across slick boulders in a rushing mountain stream is a difficult task in the best of times. Doing so while attempting to balance 40-pound buckets of water filled with imperiled fish takes the challenge to an entirely new level.

A team of scientists from the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute drove to one of the lush, high-elevation streams in the southern reaches of the Cherokee National Forest. During a brief lull between rainstorms, they were joined by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency representatives and the U.S. Forest Service to celebrate a homecoming for 250 long-lost residents of this gorgeous landscape: juvenile Southern Appalachian brook trout.

Carefully navigating through a snarl of streamside vegetation, participants paused to release five or six trout at a time into pools with overhangs where the young fish could hide from predators and ambush floating insects that washed into the stream. The going was tough, but those involved in the effort to restock almost a kilometer of this pristine creek say the challenge was worth the reward of seeing Tennessee’s only native trout back in its ancestral waters.

“The days when we release fish, especially brook trout, are really special moments,” said Tennessee Aquarium Aquatic Conservation Biologist Dr. Bernie Kuhajda. “We’re with these fish all the way from when we first bring adults into the Conservation Institute to spawn, to watching the eggs start to develop, to the juveniles that are just a few inches long and ready to release here.

“It really is knowing that we get to help restore trout to the full circle of life. Days like today are the culmination of all that work to put trout back into the Southeastern streams where they belong.”

Like many Appalachian streams, this tributary of the North River in the Tellico River watershed hasn’t hosted the brook trout for almost a century. Clearcutting of forests in the early 1900s made waters in the region too warm. Combined with the introduction of brown and rainbow trout, “brookies” were effectively lost from more than 75 percent of the waterways where they once thrived.

Published in Water
Tuesday, 13 April 2021 11:43

Saving America’s “Amazon” in Alabama

Book cover Saving Americas Amazon in Alabama

 

Alabama is home to remarkably diverse ecosystems:
They face dire threats.

This story was originally published by The Revelator.

When longtime environmental journalist Ben Raines started writing a book about the biodiversity in Alabama, the state had 354 fish species known to science. When he finished writing 10 years later, that number had jumped to 450 thanks to a bounty of new discoveries. Crawfish species leaped from 84 to 97 during the same time.

It’s indicative of a larger trend: Alabama is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, but few people know it. And even scientists are still discovering the rich diversity of life that exists there, particularly in the Mobile River basin.

All this newly discovered biodiversity is also gravely at risk from centuries of exploitation, which is what prompted Raines to write his new book, “Saving America’s Amazon.”

Published in Voices
NYT:  Global effort under way to protect 30 percent of the world’s remaining natural areas

The “30x30” plan, led by Britain, Costa Rica and France, aims to preserve at least 30 percent of the Earth’s remaining natural terrestrial and aquatic habitats. A convention of dozens of nations in China later this year will outline and streamline possible methods to meet this goal. Some countries want to increase the goal to 50 percent.

 One good reference point may be the lands controlled by indigenous people, who, research shows, do a remarkably good job of maintaining biodiversity in the native habitats in which they live. Their careful methods of resource extraction provide economic benefits while preserving the natural integrity of their native lands.

The U.S. is the only country aside from the Vatican to not agree to the convention’s goal, though President Joe Biden has floated a similar plan to preserve 30 percent of the country’s remaining natural areas.

Published in Feedbag

124505910 10157221252975764 8815228407492920926 oThe Chattanooga Zoo will soon open an exhibit to hellbenders, such as the one seen here in a tank at the zoo.  Courtesy Chattanooga Zoo

New hellbender exhibit at Chattanooga Zoo will serve as a hub for cooperative research

Thanks to grants from two generous organizations, some oft-elusive hellbenders have a new home at the Chattanooga Zoo. The Hiwassee Education and Research Facility is nearly complete, and it features hellbender exhibits and a classroom. The exhibit includes juvenile hellbenders hatched from eggs collected from the Duck River in central Tennessee in 2015.  

The zoo is also fabricating a stream environment exhibit that will house nine larger sub-adult hellbenders, each about 10 years old and 14.5 inches long. Visitors can observe hellbenders feeding in the completed exhibit, but it will be open only during limited hours. After the project’s completion, the zoo plans to partner with researchers who hope to learn more about hellbenders. 

“The Chattanooga Zoo is thrilled at the introduction of its new Hiwassee Hellbender Research Facility,” zoo officials said in a statement to Hellbender Press. 

“We believe that this new facility will open rare opportunities for guests to be educated on this otherwise elusive native species, and that the project would lead to important strides made in hellbender research. 

“From all of this, our hope is for more conservation efforts made in our local waterways, also known as the eastern hellbender’s home.”

Published in Water
Monday, 25 January 2021 14:31

Help and hope for hellbenders ... and humans

Hellbender hiding among rocks of a Smoky Mountains headwater stream, TennesseeA hellbender blends in perfectly against the rocks of a headwater stream.  Rob Hunter/Hellbender Press

Hellbenders get help in face of new challenges, increasing threats

Snot otter. Mud devil. Lasagna lizard. Allegheny alligator. For a creature with so many colorful nicknames, the hellbender is unfamiliar to many people, including millions of visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Julianne Geleynse wants to change that. The resource education ranger is tasked with teaching the public about the natural wonders the park protects within its borders in hopes of mitigating damage to natural resources caused by the millions of visitors, young and old, who enter the park each year.

With a visitor-to-ranger ratio of around 170,000 to 1, communicating with visitors is an ongoing challenge that requires unique solutions. Feeding wildlife and littering are perennial problems, but sometimes new issues emerge. Such was the case in 2017 — and again in 2020.

Heedless craze wreaked havoc

In 2017, researchers in the park were alarmed to find that hellbender numbers in traditionally healthy populations had dropped. An entire generation of subadult hellbenders seemed to be missing. The most glaring sign of the problem was the presence of dead hellbenders where visitors had moved and stacked rocks in park streams. Moving rocks to create pools, dams and artfully stacked cairns may seem harmless enough when one person partakes. But when hundreds of visitors concentrate in a few miles of stream every day for months on end, the destructive impact is significant. Viral photos of especially impressive cairns can spread on social media and inspire an army of imitators.

Why does moving rocks harm hellbenders? These giant salamanders spend most of their lives wedged beneath stones on the stream bottom. They live, hunt and breed beneath these rocks. In late summer, when temperatures still swelter and visitors indulge in their last dips of the season in park waterways, hellbenders are especially vulnerable as they begin to deposit fragile strings of eggs beneath select slabs. Simply lifting such a rock nest can cause the eggs to be swept downstream and the entire brood lost. As the researchers observed in 2017, moving and stacking stones can even directly crush the bodies of adult hellbenders.

Published in Water