Thursday, May 17, 2012

Endangered Species Day

What image pops into your head when you think of an endangered species?  A panda?  A tiger?  Maybe a whale?  These are all critically endangered animals whose images tend to create a sense of wonder and a need to conserve the remote habitats in which they live.  However, some of the most critically endangered animals live in the southeastern U.S. and our day to day actions can lead to their conservation or extinction.  Endangered Species Day is on May 18th, so here is some information on the importance of conserving endangered species and what regulations are in place to protect them.

The Southeastern U.S. is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world when it comes to aquatic animals.  TNACI’s Dr. Anna George said in a recent interview, “It’s like an underwater rainforest.”  Many of the animals that live in this part of the country don’t live anywhere else, and many are threatened or endangered.  There are numerous ways that we are trying to protect these animals and it takes collaboration between legislators, regulatory agencies and the general public to ensure that these animals are around for our grandchildren. 

One major piece of legislation that protects endangered species in the U.S. is the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Passed in 1973, it is the first significant law that called for the protection of endangered species. The U.S. was the first country to implement such a piece of legislation and other countries have modeled environmental law after the ESA. There are three strategies within the law that aim to prevent extinction:
  1. Commercially banning the trade and importation of endangered species
  2. Forbidding federal agencies from harming species
  3. Forbidding the killing or “taking” of an endangered species. 

In the 1970s, the ESA played a major role in the fight to protect one of the southeastern U.S.’s native fish: the snail darter (Percina tanasi).  The Tennessee Valley Authority proposed the construction of Tellico Dam, which would flood farm land and historic sites, and damage crucial habitat for this native fish that only occurs in the Tennessee River and its tributaries.  After the darter was discovered in the construction area by an ichthyology professor at the University of Tennessee, a law student from the same school started the ball rolling on a lawsuit against TVA for violating the ESA. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the court ruled in the snail darter’s favor.  Construction on Tellico Dam had to stop.  Later, a mandate was passed in a completely unrelated bill that gave TVA the go ahead to finish Tellico Dam despite the Supreme Court’s ruling.  Though the dam was ultimately built despite the court’s ruling, it has been an example of environmental law being upheld in court.

Sometimes it is difficult to trace who exactly is harming endangered species.  In the case of aquatic animals, pollution is the cause for population decline, and virtually every stream and river is suffering.  Non-point source pollution is any pollution not contained in a pipe that enters a waterway.  In other words, a majority of the pollution entering our streams and rivers is non point source pollution.  While images of a polluted river might include a river covered in litter or water that has an oily sheen, sometimes we cannot tell just by looking if the water quality is suffering.  Some animals can be an indicator that something is wrong before humans are able to detect it.  One area where this is true is the Conasauga River, one of the most diverse rivers in the world!  Agricultural runoff has caused some areas of the river to be unsuitable for aquatic organisms.  One of the special fish that live here is the Conasauga logperch (Percina jenkinsi).  As you can tell from it's name, it is related to the snail darter as they share the same genus.  They are adorable little fish that flip rocks in the water looking for food. The are special for many reasons.  They have a very small native range, but a high genetic diversity, which is unusual.  They are also an indicator species:  if the water isn't clean enough for the logperch, it isn't clean enough for animals and most likely not clean enough for humans to use for recreation.  They are one of the desperate dozen: a fish that is critically endangered and drastic measures need to be taken to ensure this fish survives.  TNACI and CFI have been raising juvenile Conasauga logperch in captivity and releasing them into the wild, taking care that these captive logperch have the same high diversity as the wild population.  We are celebrating Endangered Species Day by releasing some of these fish with CFI.  Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are also partners on this project. This is just one of TNACI's many conservation projects on endangered species!

Conasauga Logperch (Percina jenkinsi)

However, it is not the job of just scientists to preserve our special aquatic organisms and we need your help!  So what can you do? Here are some ideas:
  1. Avoid using fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn and garden if possible. These chemicals cause a wide range of problems for water quality.  Some are directly toxic to wildlife, while others cause the oxygen in the water to drastically decrease.
  2. Keep your car well maintained.  Ensuring your car isn’t leaking oils or other fluids will keep these harmful chemicals out of the water.
  3. Wash your car on your lawn.  Plants and soil can act as a natural filter.  By washing your car on the lawn instead of on the driveway, some of the soap and grime will be retained by the soil and grass.
  4. Participate in local clean-up efforts and environmental action groups.
  5. Learn more at 

1 comment:

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