Tree Canopy Biodiversity in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
(Myxomycetes, Macrofungi, Mosses, Liverworts, & Lichens)

Project coordinator: Harold W. Keller, Ph.D.
Department of Biology
Central Missouri State University
Warrensburg, MO

Logo by Melissa Skrabal

Discover Life | All Living Things | Myxomycetes | Tree Canopy Biodiversity

Barking Up the Right Tree

High up in the tree canopy, fascinating and complex communities of life cling to the bark and one another, competing for meager resources of existence. From the ground we can only make out color variations as lichens mingle with mosses, fungi and myxomycetes, but under slight magnification the scene is teeming with biodiversity, movement and interaction. Such is the daily perspective of a group of students working in the tree canopy collecting cryptogams (mosses, liverworts, lichens, fungi and myxomycetes) from the bark of living trees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP). Dr Harold W. Keller, a mycologist, and no stranger to tree borne organisms, designed a tree canopy project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Division of Environmental Biology, Biotic Surveys and Inventories Program which involves students and a multidisciplinary, international team of experts. An NSF supplemental award under the rubric Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) provides opportunities for talented undergraduate students to participate in active scientific research programs. Three undergraduate students have NSF-REU tree canopy biodiversity research projects: James "Buck" Counts tardigrades (water bears) on mosses; Laura Henley, Myxomycetes (true slime molds) on living oak trees, and Melissa Skrabal, Myxomycetes and macrofungi associated with bryophytes on living trees. This tree canopy biodiversity study proposed to go where nobody had gone before and sample habitats which had never been observed before.  Information about the cryptogams living on the trees will serve as baseline data needed to better understand the ecology of this habitat and to measure the effects of climate change and human impact on the park ....

James 'Buck' Counts, Laura Henley, Melissa Skrabal, and Kenny Snell,
students at Central Missouri State University and members of the CMSU Tree Canopy Biodiversity Team
published in the Mycophile, a newletter from the North American Mycological Society

Tree Canopy Biodiversity in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

prepared by James 'Buck' Counts, Laura Henley, Melissa Skrabal, and Kenny Snell

The National Science Foundation Small Grant Exploratory Research Program

This adventure begins with e-mails and telephone conversations with the Program Director of the Biotic Surveys and Inventories Program at the National Science Foundation. Inquiry about the Small Grant for Exploratory Research (SGER) Program suggested that proposals for small-scale, exploratory, high-risk research in fields normally supported by the BIO Directorate would be appropriate for a tree canopy biodiversity research project. There are certain SGER criteria that had to be met that including application of new expertise or new approaches to established research topics. Our research idea of accessing the tree canopy using the double rope climbing technique to explore and collect myxomycetes, macrofungi, mosses, liverworts and lichens in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) appeared to match this criterion. We proposed to go where no one has gone before and make observations and collections of targeted groups of organisms in the GSMNP.

The Research Site-The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The GSMNP is designated as an International Biosphere Reserve with more than a half million acres, serving as a refuge for one of the richest and diverse assemblages of biota in the temperate world. It also has the largest remaining tracts of old growth forests in the Eastern United States estimated at 100,000 acres. Our tree canopy biodiversity research project was also part of the Taxonomic Working Group (Fungal TWIG), a cooperative research effort with Discover Life in America, under the rubric of the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI). The ATBI represents a research effort to inventory and identify all life forms in the park.

The objectives of this tree canopy biodiversity project:

  • to initiate the first survey and inventory of tree canopy biodiversity for myxomycetes, macrofungi, mosses, liverworts and lichens in the GSMNP, USA
  • to assemble a multidisciplinary research team to serve as experts who will collect, identify and curate this diverse group of organisms
  • to compare the assemblages of tree canopy groups of cryptogams with those on ground sites
  • to compare species diversity of the targeted organisms between tree species Juniperus virginiana(Eastern red cedar), Ulmus americana(American elm), and Quercus alba(white oak) with other species of Quercus, species of Vitis(grapevine), Fagus grandifolia(American beech), Cornus florida(flowering dogwood), and habitats of opportunity
  • to search for undescribed taxa new to science in all of the targeted groups of organisms
  • to involve undergraduate and graduate students in an exciting research project at a Research in Undergraduate Institution (RUI) that will result in postgraduate degrees and a continued professional interest in the study of the targeted groups of organisms.

The Multidisciplinary Research Team, or the"ground crew," as they were known in the field, included included Principal Investigator and myxomycetologist Harold W Keller (Central Missouri State University); coPI Uno Eliasson, ecologist, (Goteborg University, Sweden); Alex Ciegler, lichenologist (Columbia, South Carolina); Paul Davison, bryologist and liverwort expert (University of North Alabama); Thomas Gaither, mycologist (Slippery Rock University); Ken Nelson, volunteer ecologist; Jay Raveill, flowering plant systematist and expert on the flora of the GSMNP (Central Missouri State University); David K. Smith, bryologist and moss expert (University of Tennessee); Ted Stampfer, volunteer and moist chamber culture specialist. These experts served as mentors for the students and gave special lectures, slide shows, and field demonstrations during evenings or on rainy days on the targeted groups of organisms to aid the student climbers in the recognition and collection of specimens and bark samples.

The student climbers: learning the double rope climbing technique

This project emphasized student involvement at all levels of the investigative process as part of the NSF Research in Undergraduate Institutions program. The student's first taste of this was learning how to safely climb into the tree canopy. In early May a two-day tree climbing school was held at Pertle Springs at Central taught by Charly Pottorff, a professional arborist.

Tree climbing is becoming a recreational sport with competitions and a variety of events, but for us it proved to be a valuable scientific tool, enabling safe access to the canopy with a minimum of damage to the tree. Our climbing instructor covered several different styles of climbing, the proper procedures and gear to use, and helped us decide which climbing technique would best suit each climber. For this project the double rope technique was determined to be the safest and most effective. Climbing school began by emphasizing physical conditioning, doing repetitive strengthening exercises that increased upper body strength in the hands, arms and shoulders. Endurance training also included running up and down the football stadium seats. Once the exercises were over it was time for the classroom.

The classroom sessions covered how to safely climb, the use of different knots, and how to properly saddle up to prepare for the double rope climb. There were knots that one needed to learn how to tie in order to properly attach the climbing rope to the harness. These knots, including the bowline, buntline hitch, anchor hitch, and figure eight, serve to anchor the climbing rope to the harness while the Blake's hitch is a friction knot used in ascending and descending the rope. Each climber had to practice tying these knots until they were mastered since their lives would eventually depend on them being done correctly.

The double rope climbing method is simple and safe to rig. Placing the line over a desired limb is usually accomplished by using a weighted throw bag and a lightweight line. The heavier climbing rope is then tied to the small line and pulled over the limb or crotch. The climber then ties one end to a carabiner on the climber's saddle and the free end is wrapped with a special friction knot called the Blakes's hitch.

The placement of the line in the tree is a challenging task, especially when the first crotch or lateral branches are 60 to 70 feet high. It is difficult to accurately hand throw a weighted bag with a line attached so a Big Shot (a large sling shot mounted on a pole) is used to get a line up in a tree 60 to 70 feet on the first try. This was a great time saving device. After the climbing rope is in position around a sturdy limb or crotch, a vertical ascent was possible. If the climber chooses to go straight up the rope, this maneuver requires tremendous upper body strength and control. If the climber uses the tree trunk along with a rhythmic body thrusting movement, he/she can literally walk up the trunk. Once standing on a lower branch and tied to the trunk by a safety line, the climber advances the rope to a higher branch.To advance, one end of the rope needs to be unattached from the harness. Then using either a throw line and weighted bag or a monkey's fist (a mass of the climbing rope wrapped so it will unwrap after going over the branch) is thrown over the desired branch. The climbing rope is then pulled over the branch and reattached to the harness. After the climber has reached the desired height the easy part is the descent. All that is required here is to hold on to the friction knot and then slide down the rope.However, the descent must be controlled in order to keep the rope from burning. With time, a climber becomes more relaxed, trusts the gear, and the climb becomes much more enjoyable.

Student personal tree canopy experiences

What is it like to be 100 feet up in the very top of a tree? A flood of roller coaster emotions bubbled up each time I swayed to and fro at unbelievable heights in the treetops of the old growth forests of the Smoky Mountains. I had gone where nobody has ever gone before collecting specimens of myxos, mosses, liverworts, and lichens. Way up there experts say an undiscovered treasure trove of biodiversity exists but I say up there in the treetops lies a "pot of gold" waiting to be revealed. There is a multitude of beauty down to microscopic size waiting to be discovered.I personally found my gold on a white oak tree (Quercus alba) between 30 to 70 feet where distinct plasmodial tracks gave rise to iridescent, gold sporangia. These colorful sporangia represent a new species of Diachea and were truly a spectacular sight. Each lichen, moss, liverwort and myxo wore its own array of colors and growth patterns. Excitement at discovering such uniqueness, bewilderment of how they, and I, got way up there, awe in the panoramic view, and pride in doing what no person has ever done before in the GSMNP all saturated by heart and soul.I would not give up this exhilarating experience for any price.

Student Research Team Members

The Central Missouri State University (CMSU) student climbers were represented by undergraduate students, James 'Buck' Counts, Melissa Skrabal, and Laura Henley, who are biology majors in their junior and senior years. Kenny Snell is a high school biology teacher returning full-time to obtain his masters degree. The undergraduate students will study three tree canopy research topics as part of the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). Research topics will involve the study of tardigrades associated with mosses, myxomycetes and macrofungi associated with mosses and liverworts, new undescribed species of myxomycetes and other taxa using digital imaging of the life cycle stages, and biodiversity of myxomycetes on species of oaks (genus Quercus). Myxomycete, moss, liverwort and lichen biodiversity will also be studied by comparing species assemblages and species richness of the tree canopy versus ground sites in the immediate area. Targeted samples were collected from over 160 trees representing over 25 different tree species. These samples will be scanned for specimens directly on the bark surface with a dissecting microscope. Bark samples will then be placed in moist chambers for culture of the targeted organisms. These student research topics are interrelated and will require team work in sharing data and cooperation in the identification of the targeted organisms. These research projects will also require interaction with the multidisciplinary team members whose help is greatly appreciated. The results should yield remarkable findings and a better understanding as to the importance of baseline biodiversity data in this unexplored ecosystem.

Past and Present Results

The formal study of the myxomycetes in the GSMNP is limited to three publications: L. M. Cooley's collections in Eastern Tennessee, the 1939 foray of the Mycological Society of America that included Robert Hagelstein and Joseph Rispaud from the New York Botanical Garden, and the 1949 and 1950 collections made by Arthur L. Welden that were part of his Master of Science degree from the University of Tennessee. These collections yielded eighty three species in the park. The description of collection sites in these papers is scanty but it is obvious that most of the 83 species were found from ground sites and only a few from head-height samples of living and dead trees.

Our tree canopy biodiversity study has already produced new records for the park and more will emerge as the samples are scanned microscopically and cultured in the laboratory. This is a preliminary list of myxomycetes gathered in two separate forays from June 19 to July 6 and July 31 to August 17, 2000. These species are arranged alphabetically and represent new records for the GSMNP:
  • Badhamia papaveracea
  • Badhamia rugulosa
  • Badhamiopsis ainoae
  • Calomyxa metallica
  • Craterium minutum,
  • Cribraria aurantiaca
  • Cribraria violacea
  • Diachea sp.nov.
  • Diderma chondrioderma
  • Diderma corrugatum
  • Didymium clavus
  • Echinostelium coelocephalum
  • Echinostelium colliculosum
  • Enteridium splendens var. juranum
  • Licea kleistobolus
  • Licea inconspicua
  • Licea parasitica
  • Licea pedicellata
  • Lindbladia tubulina
  • Lycogala exiguum
  • Macbrideola cornea
  • Macbrideola decapillata
  • Perichaena minor var. pardina
  • Physarum crateriforme
  • Physarum decipiens
  • Physarum murinum
  • Physarum pusillum
  • Physarum pezizoideum
  • Physarum robustum
  • Trabrooksia applanata
Identification of lichens from the approximate 3,000 specimens obtained in this initial survey is not yet completed, but preliminary data indicates a probable total of between 200 to 300 species were found. Of these between 150 to 160 species will be new accessions to the park's current lichen list.

Literature Cited

  • Cooley, L.M. 1934. A preliminary list of the Myxomycetes of Eastern Tennessee.Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science 9:84-86.
  • Linder, D.H. 1941. Mycological Society of America: Report on the 1939 foray. Mycologia 33:570-578.
  • Welden, A.L. 1951. A taxonomic survey of Myxomycetes of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.Journal of the Tennesee Academy of Science 26: 271-276.

This article was published in The Inoculum,
Newsletter of the Mycological Society of America
Vol 51(6) November- December 2000.


  • Specimens-- Information and photographs of identified specimes
  • Team Members-- Images of participants in the field

News & Updates

Links to other sites

For more information on this project and its findings please contact Harold W. Keller.


Discover Life | All Living Things | Myxomycetes | Tree Canopy Biodiversity