CLEMSON – The highest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains are home to many animal species found nowhere else on Earth. These species include many tiny arthropods, such as insects, millipedes and their relatives living in leaf litter of forests located in high elevations on the mountains.

Clemson University entomology professor Michael Caterino sifts through leaf litter in the high Appalachian Mountains in a quest to find tiny insects, millipedes, and other undiscovered arthropods that are believed to live in the mountainous forests.

Clemson University entomology professor Michael Caterino sifts through leaf litter in the high Appalachian Mountains looking for tiny insects, millipedes and other undiscovered arthropods.
Image Credit: Clemson College of Agriculture Forestry and Life Sciences

Research in these mountain communities has revealed many new species in recent years, but the full scope of their diversity remains unclear. In an effort to discover and protect these unique species, Clemson University entomology professor Michael Caterino plans to collect and document as many arthropods as he can from the mountains. Caterino, the John and Suzanne Morse Endowed Chair of Arthropod Biodiversity, is leading a study that involves delving deep in to forests located on the highest peaks of Appalachia in search of new arthropod species. The more than $1 million study, funded by the National Science Foundation, is a collaboration between Clemson and Virginia Tech University.

“There is a lot of unknown diversity in the arthropod world,” Caterino said. “Many of these arthropods can’t fly and are confined to spruce-fir forests, which face numerous threats. A lack of information about native species diversity hinders their conservation.”

Litter-dwelling arthropods feed on leaves and woody debris found on forest floors, breaking down the litter into smaller pieces so that it can be transformed into nutrients that keep the forests healthy. Arthropods help with the decomposition of organic matter and maintaining soil structure and fertility as well as assisting in plant reproduction and helping regulate populations of other organisms. Understanding the diversity and ecological roles of these arthropod communities is crucial to preserving the ecosystem, Caterino said. The highest mountains in the Appalachians harbor spruce-fir forests were much more widespread during the late Pleistocene era, the last Ice Age, some 15,000-20,000 years ago.

“This project will allow us to study and fill-in knowledge gaps for arthropods living in these forests so that federal and state land managers can determine what programs should be implemented to conserve their populations,” Caterino said.

The researchers will study arthropod diversity at 22 of the highest points in the southern Appalachian Mountains in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. By documenting leaf-litter arthropods they find, the scientists will be able to determine species diversity and uniqueness, and highlight their role in ecosystem health.

Caterino’s team will consist of graduate and undergraduate students, a post-doctoral trainee and senior personnel who will work together on data collection and analysis as well as publishing articles related to discoveries made during the project.

The team will visit spruce-fir “islands” in the Appalachians to survey arthropods. They will create a biological library of the species using genomic tools to identify and compare hundreds of distinct species to reveal the uniqueness of each of the mountain’s inhabitants, as well as their evolutionary histories.

The team also will be involved with outreach activities.

“We want to keep the public informed as to what we find in relation to this project,” Caterino said. “We will hold public events such as lectures and workshops at state and national parks in the region. We also will provide short videos related to activities and findings of the project.”

The project is set to begin Nov. 1 and will last until Oct. 31, 2022. Project-related information will be available on The Caterino Arthropod Biodiversity Lab website, https://sites.google.com/site/caterinolab/research/appalachian-litter-project.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1916263. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.