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Scientists work to catch up with Va.’s endangered and threatened species before it’s too late

The wood turtle is listed by the Commonwealth of Virginia as threatened.
The wood turtle is listed by the Commonwealth of Virginia as threatened.(Photo by ​​I. T. Wilson/ Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program)
Published: Oct. 20, 2021 at 11:01 AM EDT
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Following an announcement in September from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that 23 species should be declared extinct, Virginia’s environmental scientists are feeling the pressure to learn more about the commonwealth’s endangered and threatened species so they can be protected.

“That list really highlights that extinction is not just a down-the-road possibility; it’s a very real possibility that can happen now,” said Anne Chazal, chief biologist at Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Inventory. “People think of it as a tropical rainforest issue or an arctic tundra issue, but this is happening in the rivers and forests of Virginia.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists 71 endangered and threatened species living in Virginia. The list is made up of fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, birds, mammals and plants.

The convergence of northern and southern habitats spanning from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic makes Virginia ecologically unique, according to Tom Akre, a program scientist at the Conservation Ecology Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

“Ecologically, Virginia is an amazing crossroads, and as a result, we have amazing biodiversity and lots of species that are threatened and endangered because they were naturally on the margins of their ranges anyways or naturally not superabundant across wide ranges,” said Akre.

Matthias Leu, an Associate Biology Professor at William and Mary, said he is concerned about the future for many of these species.

“I don’t think it’s looking very good,” said Leu. “We’re worldwide losing a lot of species across all taxons, and the sad part for a lot of these species is we don’t even know how well they’re doing before all of a sudden they’re gone.”

Habitats are changing

Sara Zeigler, a research geographer at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal and Marine Science Center, said endangered species are often threatened by changes to their habitat.

“It’s this constant conflict between habitat and people,” Zeigler said.

In Virginia, Zeigler analyzed the habitat of the piping plover, a threatened shorebird that nests along Virginia’s barrier islands during the spring and summer. The piping plover requires wash-over habitats, which are created when an event such as a storm pushes sand and dunes from the beach further inland, covering much of the vegetation.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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