Who Knew? Alabama ranks first in biodiversity. How did that happen?

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Swimmer at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve – photo courtesy of Southern Environmental Center

Have you taken a hike at Ruffner Mountain or Red Mountain Park lately? Explored the caves in north Alabama near Huntsville? Paddled the Cahaba or Locust Fork rivers? Gone hunting or fishing at a state Wildlife Management area? Enjoyed a lazy afternoon on the sugar white sands of Gulf Shores?  Here’s what makes that possible.

In Alabama, these activities, as well as the water we drink and the air we breathe are made possible because of the wide variety of life that surrounds us called biodiversity. And the secret is out. Alabama has more biodiversity than most anywhere else.

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Photo of Little River Canyon 2017 – by Pat Byington, Bham Now

In his highly acclaimed book, Southern Wonder, Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity, author and Birmingham-Southern College professor Scot Duncan begins his first chapter with two words – “Who Knew?”

In the following pages, Duncan describes how he discovered that even though he had been working in Alabama and the Southeast for years as a biologist, he never knew his adopted home, Alabama, was one of the most biodiverse states in the east and in many cases the entire nation.

Recent maps revealed by biodiversitymapping.org visually and dramatically bears this out. Based on maps developed by Clinton Jenkins at the Instituto de Pesqusas Ecologicas published at proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, look how strikingly Alabama is the center of national biodiversity:

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Map of Fish Diversity in the U.S by biodiversitymapping.org
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Map of Tree species Diversity in the U.S by biodiversitymapping.org

Most notably, the number of aquatic species residing in Alabama is unrivaled. According to the Nature Conservancy and many other groups that examine and rank biodiversity in the United States, Alabama tops these five categories:

1st in the U.S. – Freshwater fishes – 332 kinds of fish – 27% of all fish species in North America

Vermilion darter Birmingham Alabama
Vermilion Darter, one of the rarest darters in the world can only be found in Jefferson County’s Turkey Creek

1st in the U.S. – Freshwater Mussels – 180 kinds of mussels – 59% of all mussel species in North America

A displaying female Alabama Lampmussel (Lampsilis virescens) of the Paint Rock River, Jackson County – Photo ADCNR/AABC

1st in the U.S. – Freshwater Snails – 202 kinds of snails – 28% of all snails species in North America

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Undescribed snail – photo via Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

1st in the U.S. – Crayfish – 85 kinds of Crayfish – 22% of all crayfish species in North America

1st in the U.S. – Turtles – 27 kinds of freshwater turtles – 57% of all turtle species in North America

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Flattened Musk Turtle – photo via Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

How did this happen? What is the cause and the source of Alabama’s rich biodiversity ?

Ingredients for “Alabama’s Garden”

In a recent interview with Bham Now, Scot Duncan compared Alabama’s biodiversity with gardening.

“To have a prosperous garden you need the following ingredients. Warmth, intense sunlight, water and good soil.

Alabama is warm. We have a long growing season. At Alabama’s latitude, we have lots of intense sunlight which gives us a landscape lush with plants. Alabama has water. The Southeast is the wettest place in North America besides the temperate rainforest in the Pacific Northwest. And then you need the soil. Alabama has this incredibly diverse geology which allows us to “grow”different types of ecosystems. Alabama’s diverse geology provides us the bedrock and sediments that makes way for soils, plants and animals.

It’s just like gardening.” stated Duncan.

Just check out the geological map of Alabama:

Geological map of Alabama – Graphic courtesy of the Alabama Geological Survey

 

“Alabama’s biological diversity is the product of its geological diversity,” added Jim Lacefield author of Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks.

Lacefield describes Alabama as lying on a geographical and geological “sweet spot” of the North American continent (or something similar). A combination of favorable geographical position and an unusually complex geological diversity had led to a rich mosaic of environmental settings and habitats for plant and animal species to occupy.

In Lacefield’s book, Alabama is described as an ancient and dynamic landscape that contains many small-scale environments – micro-habitats for life to occupy. Over geologic time many organisms have adapted in isolation to their local environments and have become new species.

Example of Alabama’s geological diversity – Photo from Jim Lacefield’s book “Lost Worlds in Alabama Rocks”

Along with its geological diversity, the state has one of the greatest number of different kinds of geographical regions than any state.  This provides a buffet of landscapes.

“Alabama has practically every landscape known in North America aside from deserts and alpine tundra. From pitcher plant bogs and coastal marshes, to ephemeral streams, brooks, creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes and reservoirs, mountains, glades, caves, we have it all,” exclaimed Stuart McGregor with the Geological Survey of Alabama.

 

“Along with our landscapes, we are blessed with the presence of 5 major watersheds within the boundaries of the state, owing to arbitrarily defined political boundaries. These include the Tennessee River drainage of the Ohio River Basin in the north, to the Mobile River Basin that covers about 64 percent of the state and flows through the Mobile/Tensaw Delta to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, to several smaller river basins that drain to different bays along the Gulf Coast, including the Pascagoula River, Perdido River, Conecuh/Escambia River, Yellow/Blackwater Rivers, Choctawhatchee/Pea Rivers, the Chipola River, and the Chattahoochee River.”

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Why is biodiversity important?

Why should we care if Alabama is ranked number one or even 50th in biodiversity? Besides something to be proud of as a state, why does it matter?

A passage in Scot Duncan’s book Southern Wonder, Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity captures the very reasons we should care.

“Seen or unseen, Alabama’s thousands of native species play important roles in the ecosystems sustaining the state’s economy and culture. Impaired ecosystems offer us little, and when they collapse there is loss of livelihood, property and sometimes life. Consider flooding in overdeveloped watersheds or the trauma in coastal communities when fisheries collapse. When we lose biodiversity, we lose opportunity and ecological security. Ultimately, biodiversity protection is people protection.”

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Waterfall at the Walls of Jericho – photo via alltrails.com

Bottomline, Alabama’s biodiversity is what makes Alabama special and unique.  Its why we can hike a wooded trail, go spelunking in a cave, take the mountain bike out for a spin and watch your child enjoy a splash in the ocean without leaving the state.

This is the first of three installments about Alabama’s biodiversity. The next feature will examine Alabama’s aquatic diversity. The third subject will delve into Alabama’s tree and plant diversity. Thanks for following.

 

What are thoughts about Alabama’s biodiversity? Please tell us! Send us your comments to hello@bhamnow.com

Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.