National Park Service report: Mobile-Tensaw River area amphibians, reptiles facing further decline

February 16, 2017

Warren Wilson’s Apodaca calls for ‘drastic actions’ to prevent further loss of species

Biology professor J.J. Apodaca is sounding the alarm about risks to amphibians and reptiles in the Mobile-Tensaw River area. Photo: Reggie Tidwell
Biology professor J.J. Apodaca is sounding the alarm about risks to amphibians and reptiles in the Mobile-Tensaw River area. Photo: Reggie Tidwell

When Warren Wilson College professor J.J. Apodaca talks about the Mobile-Tensaw River area in Alabama, there is an emotional tie – he completed his Ph.D. dissertation research in the region. But the biologist’s interest is driven by the area’s status as “a center of diversity for the United States,” which is why he sounds an alarm about the extinction risk for the area’s amphibians and reptiles in a new National Park Service report.

Apodaca and his chapter co-authors, Jen Williams of the National Park Service and Craig Guyer of Auburn University, call for “additional protection in the greater Mobile-Tensaw River area” to “thwart the continuing loss of biodiversity in the southeastern United States.” The trio spotlights 2002 research by NatureServe’s Bruce Stein, who identifies Alabama as the state with the highest number of extinctions in the contiguous U.S. The authors place much of the blame on “human-caused impacts to [Alabama’s] vast network of rivers and accompanying habitats.”

Nearly a quarter of reptile species in the region are considered to be of “greatest conservation need” by the state, and 11 percent are federally endangered. The Mobile-Tensaw River area is home to 53 of the 73 amphibian species in Alabama, and “identifying and protecting areas of high species richness and endemism [are] the most efficient approach[es] to stemming the tide of global amphibian declines,” according to the report.

“When we lose any species, we lose an important component of our natural heritage, robbing future generations,” Apodaca said in a recent interview. “All of these species belong to the natural communities of the Mobile-Tensaw, just as much if not more than we belong in the area. From a human-centric point, every species loss weakens ecosystems, making them less resilient to future change.”

Apodaca predicts a hit to clean water, clean air, timber, pollinators and food sources as ecosystems like Mobile-Tensaw weaken.

“You can think of it like rivets in an airplane. You can lose some rivets and maintain function, but you don’t know what rivets will cause a total failure and ultimately a crash,” he said.

In addition to Apodaca, Guyer and Williams, 32 authors contribute to 23 chapters in the National Park Services report, “A State of Knowledge of the Natural, Cultural, and Economic Resources of the Greater Mobile-Tensaw River Area.”

One of the goals, according to Apodaca, is education.

“We are all born with wonder and curiosity about the natural world. At some point, through our society, people develop a fear of the wild. The way to fight that is to show people that there is nothing to fear from amphibians and reptiles and, in fact, they are fascinating in countless ways,” he said.

While the report’s focus is on Alabama, Warren Wilson College’s biology professor notes the same threats exist elsewhere.

“Many of the same threats that have caused declines and extinctions in the Mobile-Tensaw Basin also affect species in western North Carolina and everywhere in the world. Namely, those threats include habitat loss, modification, fragmentation, agricultural runoff, damming of river systems and pollution,” he added.

Ultimately, Apodaca hopes the report will lead to a significant shift in current protections for the region, which could include a national park in the Mobile-Tensaw River area.

“This would be historic as it would be the first national park established for the protection of biodiversity and to celebrate the species diversity within. This effort is being backed by prestigious biologist E.O. Wilson and the EO Wilson Foundation,” he said.

For more information and to read the full report, visit https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/DownloadFile/563000.