Southeast coast threatened ‘hot spot’ for vital habitat

The roseate spoonbill, found only in the Southeast, is seen on occasion in the Lowcountry.

The alligator, the rainbow snake, the Venus flytrap, the manatee — more than 2,000 species of plants and animals are found along the Southeast and Gulf coasts that are found nowhere else. The Lowcountry and the wider region is among the very richest places in the world for turtle species alone.

And they are disappearing under the heels of more than 80 million people and their predecessors, who since Colonial times have stomped out 85 percent of the habitat the creatures — and we — need to survive.

That’s the rationale behind the recent designation of the “Northern Coastal Plain” as the 36th biodiversity hot spot by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. The plain is designated as the coast from the mid-Atlantic states down to Texas and the Mississippi River flyway as far north as the Ohio River.

But the wetlands and longleaf pine savannahs in the Lowcountry, are the heart — holding more than 1,500 of the plant species alone.

“The designation is a mixed blessing. We have this stuff here that’s irreplaceable. But we’re losing the habitat for it,” said Reed Noss, University of Central Florida biology professor, who compiled the species data.

“The human population is exploding across most of the (coastal plain), which combined with rapid sea rise and the loss of historic (natural) corridors, places biodiversity in the region at a high risk,” the fund noted in its report. Among other recommendations, it calls for reducing urban sprawl, protecting critical habitats on a finer scale and re-opening the corridors for species movement.

The hot spots cover little more than two percent of the Earth’s surface but hold 50 percent of its plant species and 42 percent of its vertebrates, said Olivier Langrand, the fund’s executive director. “This natural capital is vital to human survival.”

The fund is a science policy advocate. Allison Welch, College of Charleston herpetology professor, called the designation warranted. “In terms of amphibians and reptiles, the biodiversity in the coastal plain, throughout our state really, is amazing,” she said.

“While the green tree frog and southern toad are very common and familiar to many of us, the coastal plain is also home to some amphibians and reptiles with severely dwindling populations due to their need for very specialized longleaf pine savannah habitat. Examples include the Carolina gopher frog and the frosted flatwoods salamander,” she said.

Noss said he is encouraged by the concerted effort to protect the habitats in the Lowcountry, where more than 1 million acres already are held in some sort of private or public conservation, including the landmark ACE Basin.

“We are right up there among the richest places in the world. With this incredible bio-diversity we have, the fact that we do have part of it protected is positive news,” he said. “The other side is, we need more.”

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