by Stephanie Smith
May 24, 2017
Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act has served as a way to protect plants and animals that are in danger of becoming extinct. More than 2,300 species are listed as endangered or threatened on the Endangered Species List, several of which depend on the unique habitats found in the Chesapeake Bay region to survive. In honor of Endangered Species Month, we’re highlighting a few of the local critters currently listed as endangered.
This small, woodland amphibian is known to inhabit just three mountains, all of which—as evidenced by the salamander’s name—lie within the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Once more widely distributed, competition with redback salamanders has confined the Shenandoah salamander to the steep, rocky, north-facing slopes of Hawksbill Mountain, The Pinnacles and Stony Man Mountain. The species’ small range and limited habitat led it to be federally listed as endangered in 1987. Experts are working to monitor the abundance of Shenandoah salamanders, minimize the effects park activities have on the amphibians and understand the potential impacts of warming temperatures on this high-elevation species.
Originally discovered in 1912, the Maryland darter has only ever been recorded in three streams in Harford County, Maryland: Swan Creek, Deer Creek and Gashey’s Run. The species’ scarcity led it to be federally listed as endangered in 1967. Through the late 1980s, the darter continued to be sighted in Deer Creek at irregular intervals, but the last recorded sighting of the Maryland darter was in 1988. Rapid development is thought to have degraded local water quality, decreasing the amount of habitat suitable for darters, which are dependent on clean, well-oxygenated, swiftly-flowing streams. Despite fears that the Maryland darter may be extinct, scientists have continued to search for the fish, although none have been found so far.
Named for their distinctive ears, Virginia big-eared bats are found in small populations in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky. Beginning in the early 1950s, the number of Virginia big-eared bats began to drop dramatically, falling to an estimated 3,500 bats when the species was federally listed as endangered in 1979. Their decline has been primarily attributed to human disturbance; however, protection of cave roosts has helped big-eared bat numbers to increase. Today, the total population is estimated at around 20,000 bats. However, white nose syndrome—a disease estimated to have killed nearly six million bats since 2007—poses an emerging threat: in 2010, cases of white nose syndrome were found in West Virginia’s Hellhole Cave, which is home to almost half of all Virginia big-eared bats.
This small freshwater mussel lives along the bottoms of rivers and creeks ranging from New Hampshire to North Carolina. To survive, dwarf wedge mussels rely on healthy freshwater streams: minimal sediment, a stable stream bed and plenty of dissolved oxygen. However, rapid land development has led to degraded water quality in areas where the mussels live, causing populations to decline. Dwarf wedge mussels also rely on just a handful of host fish species for dispersal, which has limited their ability to relocate to healthier waterways. In 1990, the species was federally listed as endangered. Scientists continue to monitor populations of the mussels and their changing habitat conditions to aid in the species’ recovery.
Both the Atlantic sturgeon and the smaller shortnose sturgeon are native to the Chesapeake Bay, and both are federally listed as endangered species. Experts estimate these prehistoric fish have existed for more than 120 million years and have lived in the Bay region for at least 70 million years. Once an abundant source of food for local residents, harvest pressures, barriers to migration and poor water quality caused this sensitive species to become increasingly more rare. In recent years, however, researchers have observed more of the elusive fish in the Bay and are working to boost their knowledge of sturgeon behavior and habitat needs.
Despite the uncertain future that faces these and other endangered species, much work has been done to aid in the recovery of plants and animals on the Endangered Species List. The iconic bald eagle, for instance, recovered enough to be removed from the federal list of endangered species in 2007, and the reclusive Delmarva fox squirrel was removed from the list in 2015. Scientists and experts continue to work toward protecting and supporting these irreplaceable species.