Displaying items by tag: biodiversity

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.".

The Revelator talked with Raines about why this region is so biodiverse, why it’s been overlooked, and what efforts are being made to protect it.

Question: What makes Alabama, and particularly the Mobile River system, so biodiverse?

Answer: The past kind of defines the present in Alabama.

During the ice ages, when much of the nation was frozen under these giant glaciers, Alabama wasn’t. The glaciers petered out by the time they hit Tennessee. It was much colder but things here didn’t die.

Everything that had evolved in Alabama over successive ice ages is still here. We have a salamander, the Red Hills salamander, that branched off from all other salamander trees 50 million years ago. So this is an ancient salamander, but it’s still here because it never died out.

The other thing you have here, in addition to not freezing, is that it’s really warm. Where I am in Mobile, we’re on the same latitude as Cairo. So the same sun that bakes the Sahara Desert is baking here.

But we also have the rainiest climate in the United States along Alabama’s coast. It actually rains about 70 inches a year here. By comparison, Seattle gets about 55 inches. It makes for a sort of greenhouse effect where we have this intense sun and then plenty of water. Alabama has more miles of rivers and streams than any other state.

Things just grow here.

The pitcher plant bogs of Alabama, for example, are literally among the most diverse places on the planet. In the 1960s a scientist went out and counted every species of flowering plant in an Alabama pitcher plant bog. He came up with 63. That was the highest total found on Earth in a square meter for a decade or more.

For a long time the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was thought to be the center of oak tree diversity in the world because they have about 15 species of oaks in the confines of the park. Well, two years ago scientists working in this area called the Red Hills along the Alabama River found 20 species of oak trees on a single hillside. It’s just staggering.

Why is Alabama’s rich biodiversity not well known or studied?

The state was never known for being a biodiverse place until the early 2000s, when NatureServe came out with this big survey of all the states. It surprised everyone because it showed Alabama leading in aquatic diversity in all the categories — more species of fish, turtles, salamanders, mussels, snails.

This blew everybody away because Alabama in everybody’s mind is the civil rights protests of the 1960s, the KKK, steel mills and cotton fields. But that’s not what’s in Alabama, that’s what we’ve done to Alabama since we’ve been here.

I think part of it also has to do with being a long way from Harvard and Yale and Stanford and the great research institutions that were sending biologists all over the world. Alabama just wasn’t really studied or explored.

Again and again, the story in Alabama is that nobody has ever looked.

That’s one of E.O. Wilson’s big messages about Alabama. He is our most famous living scientist, I would say, or certainly biologist. He grew up here, and now in his twilight years his big mission has become trying to save Alabama. And he describes it as less explored than Borneo and says we have no idea what miracle cures and things we may find in the Mobile River system, which is what I call “America’s Amazon.”

Published in Voices

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.

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