KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For more than a decade, Discover Life in America has discovered 7,489 species of plants and animals in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Now the managers of the ambitious science project are helping others discover new species around the world.
"Biodiversity is disappearing faster than we can document it," said Todd Witcher, Discover Life in America executive director, "but we will continue to try in order to show how nature can relate to everything around us, from the biggest bear to the smallest worm."
The project is gathering an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. While the inventory name may sound technical and unfamiliar even after a decade of findings, Witcher said the goal remains simple.
"Our mission is to document all forms of life," he said. "In this case, it is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We are looking to document everything from birds, bears and elk to soil, air and trees."
Discover Life in America -- managing a program to "develop a model for research in biodiversity" -- began as the brainchild of Daniel Janzen, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Pennsylvania.
"He first tried to establish an ATBI in Costa Rica," Witcher said. "Then he helped us establish one in the Smokies because of its biodiversity."
Witcher said DLIA has partnerships with many other environmental conservation organizations, including Yosemite National Park and Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas. His staff even presented some of their discoveries at a conference in Germany this past April.
"We have been helping different parks for a while now," he said. "We have helped mostly by just being a model for others. We receive calls and e-mails all the time from other organizations just seeking advice."
Niki Nicholas, who oversees Resource Management and Science divisions at Yosemite National Park, said one of DLIA's strengths that she has seen first hand, and hopes to replicate in Yosemite, is the public's willingness to volunteer.
"I think that connection with the public is superb," she said. "DLIA's outreach has been very impressive. We have been doing a little 'copycatting' here on that."
The Smokies species counting has always paired academics and professional researchers with Girl and Boy Scouts, teachers, students and other volunteers. Forays into corners of the Smokies to document specific targets of animal life are regularly organized; in late August, Witcher led a team of terrestrial snail researchers on a daylong expedition.
"One of the things we've tried to do is get information out on our own webpage," she said. "We have seen a 100-fold increase in information now that the information is out there. We even have our own Twitter account now."
Some organizations, like the Tennessee state park system, have been collecting information about biodiversity for many years. Park biologist David Hill said DLIA, however, has been a source of inspiration for many in the scientific community wishing to document nature.
"They gave us a lot of support, ideas and suggestions on what to do, how to do it and other various protocols involving creating databases," Hill said. "Those people in the Smokies were kind of like cheerleaders, saying 'Go for it!' "
(Nash Armstrong is a reporter for The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.)