Smokies Plant, Animal Diversity in Twin Creeks Natural History Hall

The Natural History Collections Hall at Twin Creeks Science and Education Center in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is the only place in the world where the endlessly surprising diversity of life found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is assembled into an astonishing whole. .

Beyond a prep room with computers and microscopes and across an entry hall with sticky mats for cleaning the bottoms of your shoes is an expanse of crisp white cabinets and shelves under careful temperature and humidity control. Inside these cabinets and hung in jars are rows and rows of plants, birds, bats, mice, fish, fireflies, beetles, snakes, turtles and salamanders. Taken together, the collection constitutes a modern ark of biodiversity – over a century of carefully curated plant, animal and insect specimens collected from the Smokies for scientific study.

Museum curator Baird Todd currently manages the park’s collection while natural history technicians Miranda Zwingelberg and Cecelia Stephens have been responsible for maintaining and expanding it in recent years with longtime volunteer Janie Bitner.

“At the start of visits, my rules are no food, no drink — and no petting,” Zwingelberg said. And for groups lucky enough to take a guided tour of the collection, the temptation to touch is real. Nowhere else in the park can one inspect so closely the bushy tail of a fox or the intricate scale patterns of a rattlesnake—details that even a long-time Smokies hiker might miss.

Cecelia Stephens (left) and Miranda Zwingelberg (right) compare plant specimens collected from the park.  Plant specimens are dried, checked for pests and stored in flat folders.

Word from the Smokies: 21,183 species, and Discover Life in America continues to discover

Word from the Smokies: 4 new snakes discovered by Prof. UNCA, Smokies researcher in 6 years

“I really like it because it’s the details you wouldn’t necessarily see in the woods. If something scurried near you, you might think, “Oh, that’s just a mouse,” Zwingelberg said. “But there’s so much detail and uniqueness in these different individual species that you can really see up close.”

In one corner rests a specimen of the now extinct passenger pigeon. Nearby is a jar containing the greatest Hellbender ever collected in the Smokies, which dates to 1940.

“The dual purpose of collections is preservation and access,” Zwingelberg said. “So it’s about balancing those two things: keeping our specimens as long as possible and making them accessible to researchers and park staff.”

Maintaining this balance is no easy feat. In total, some 50,000 to 60,000 cataloged specimens are held in the Twin Creeks Natural History Collections Hall, along with nearly three to four times that number in a backlog still waiting to be meticulously checked and cataloged for study.

Facilities at the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center in Tennessee include offices, a wet lab, natural history collections, and workspaces for visiting scholars.  Photo by Joye Ardyn Durham

Word from the Smokies: LEED Science and Education Center designed 40 years ago

Word from the Smokies: New bee discovered after fire in Great Smoky Mountains

For a collection of this size, the work is non-stop and the Twin Creeks team are often busy caring for fragile, often decades-old specimens. Environmental data from room sensors is downloaded and monitored. Dust is carefully vacuumed and removed from the premises. Traps should be inspected and replaced regularly to protect collections from pests such as spiders, silverfish, centipedes and beetles that would naturally break down organic matter such as fur and feathers.

Once the team has ensured that the specimens are safe, each must be classified and recorded with accompanying collection information to have scientific value.

“I actually really enjoy cataloging and I feel like it’s one of the most useful things we do,” Stephens said. “It’s getting things out there, and it’s really having an impact – people are going to be using these records for years to come.”

The Smokies collection in particular has an impressive number of insect species and includes biological records of life with farms collected before the park was established.

Cecelia Stephens poses next to a “wet” collection cabinet at the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center.  Specimens of fish and snakes are often stored in wet collections fully submerged in a mixture of alcohol and water which protects them from rotting.

“Each specimen is a unique example of that species at a specific time and place in the park,” Zwingelberg said.

Above all, it is essential to systematically associate these physical records with the corresponding study information.

“You assign an accession number, based on the collector and the permit, and those go on the tag and the sheet with the plant specimen and into the database,” said Bitner, who volunteered to do the tedious work for over a decade. “The standard is to be able to enter the collection and find the plant in five minutes or less. You can access the directory directly and the genres are listed alphabetically by folder.

Maintaining this organizational system is especially important given the number of other researchers who depend on the Twin Creeks Collections team.

“We bring in researchers and graduate students from local colleges who are researching a particular group who want to see our specimens, or sometimes they collect and add to the collection,” Zwingelberg said.

The Great Smoky Mountains are home to 39 species of reptiles, including snakes, turtles, and lizards.

Word from the Smokies: TEDx speaker Asheville defends the Safe Passage project for wildlife

Word from the Smokies: Northern River Otters are making a comeback

A recent goal has been to complete the digitization of herbarium records in coordination with the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. After years of work by staff and volunteers, records of every plant specimen are now available on the Southeast Regional Expertise and Collections Network, a wealth of digital information for researchers interested in the biodiversity of the South East.

Researchers around the world can use these digitized collections in their work studying the impacts of climate change, pesticides, and air quality on species distribution and genetics. And for those who come to the center in person, the plants and animals in the collection provide a vital link to the region’s unique natural history.

For collection keepers like Zwingelberg and Stephens, details as fine as the scales of a rattlesnake don’t just tell us something about life in the Smokies’ distant past. They also keep the promise to preserve these species in the future.

Aaron Searcy

This story is an edited excerpt from a much longer article by Frances Figart, Aaron Searcy and Elise Anderson that appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of “Smokies Life” magazine. Aaron Searcy is a publishing associate with the 29,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit educational partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Learn more about SmokiesInformation.org and contact the author at aaron@gsmassoc.org.

Comments are closed.