The iconic giant of Southeastern rivers, the alligator snapping turtle, is among 53 reptiles and amphibians that should be considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to a petition filed Wednesday by the environmental group the Center for Biological Diversity.
In addition to the alligator snapping turtle, the center's petition to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service includes four other species known to occur in Alabama: the green salamander, which is found in the crevices of rock formations along the Appalachian mountains, and three species associated with the longleaf pine forests of south Alabama: the Southern hog-nosed snake, the Florida pine snake and the Carolina gopher frog.
The petition includes hundreds of supporting scientific articles documenting the population declines of the 53 species that occur in 45 states. Habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and climate change are among the principal reasons the petition lists for the species decline.
Alabama native Edward O. Wilson, a distinguished Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, lent his support for the listing.
"Future generations will think badly of us if, through ignorance and inaction, we let die this part of their natural heritage," Wilson said in a release.
The Fish & Wildlife Service now has 90 days to evaluate the petition and decide whether there is sufficient evidence presented to evaluate the species for listing. There are 1,400 species protected under the Endangered Species Act and there is a huge backlog of additional species awaiting evaluation for listing.
Reptiles and amphibians are under-represented. Only 58 are listed but scientists have estimated 25 percent of the nation's amphibians and reptiles are at risk of extinction.
Auburn University biology professor Craig Guyer, one of the state's leading experts on reptiles and amphibians, said experts from around the state will be gathering in Auburn later this month to evaluate the latest field studies and help come up with recommendations for protections at the state level. Guyer agreed that all the Alabama species listed faced some level of threat.
The alligator snapping turtle, the world's largest freshwater turtle, was commercially hunted for use in soup and populations were severely depleted, finally prompting protection in most states. While still present in most of the Alabama river systems that drain to the Gulf, the turtles are much less common and widespread than they once were. The turtles are long-lived and relatively slow to reproduce.
"They are very slow to rebound," Guyer said.
As to the green salamander, scientists have identified two different lineages which may actually be two different species. The lineage present in Alabama that lives in the limestone rock formations of the Cumberland Plateau appears to be stable, Guyer said, but the other lineage found in the Piedmont areas of other states is in serious decline.
The decline of the three south Alabama species in the petition is linked to the disappearance of the longleaf pine ecosystem that once dominated the coastal plain.
Guyer said the Florida pine snake still turns up frequently in wildlife surveys but the Southern hog-nosed snake has not been documented in the wild in Alabama for 30 to 40 years.
With so many species listed, the task of saving all of them may seem too daunting. However, Guyer said by focusing on restoring native forests a whole range of species would benefit. Longleaf pine forests are also home to struggling species like the Eastern indigo snake, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, the gopher tortoise and the gopher frog. They are among the species who've seen populations decline with the disappearance of longleaf pine. And all would benefit from preservation and restoration efforts.