Protecting Alabama’s Ancient Wild Legacy in the Bankhead PARCA

In the Bankhead PARCA (Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area) of Alabama, about an hour northwest of Birmingham, two incredibly specialized species share the region’s numerous aquatic habitats: the flattened musk turtle and the Black Warrior waterdog. These two highly endangered species are the reason that we established this PARCA, but there is much more to the area. Our work here is an excellent example of how protecting our native amphibians and reptiles (herpetofauna) protects entire ecosystems and the biodiversity that depends on them. 

Dramatic cliff faces and vibrant green forests line the PARCA’s hundreds of miles of rivers and provide habitat for a wide array of salamanders, frogs, turtles, lizards, and snakes. Green salamanders are tucked in among the area’s cliffs, rock outcrops, and caves, and rough green snakes hang out in trees by the water in search of insects and other invertebrates to eat. Plus, eastern black kingsnakes, eastern spadefoots, southern zigzag salamanders, and more rely on the specialized conditions of these ecosystems.

This tremendous diversity results from the region’s climate and unique and ancient geology. Plus, because of its multitude of rivers and streams, many of which have been isolated from one another for millions of years, Alabama harbors some of the highest aquatic diversity in the world. Not only are there incredible amphibians and reptiles here, but more than 450 fish species and 180 mussel species—the highest numbers in the world for each group—live within the state’s waters. 

But perhaps the most incredible biodiversity is found in the beautiful Black Warrior watershed, a highly diverse system. In addition to the aforementioned Black Warrior waterdog and flattened musk turtle, and along with other herpetofauna like the Alabama map turtle, it is home to a stunning variety of mussels, snails, and fish.

Warrior, vermillion, watercress, and rush darters mingle in the rocky stream bottoms alongside the fabulously named orangenacre mucket mussel. All of these, and many more, are small species with limited ranges that are often forgotten or unknown, but together, they form a complex underwater world that we still don’t fully understand. We do know, however, that it is under threat. 

The Black Warrior watershed as a whole, even the parts that run within the Bankhead National Forest, have faced years of degradation that have left all but a few stretches uninhabitable to the species that belong there. Unsustainable land management practices have resulted in sedimentation that chokes the rocky river bottom and highly polluted waters. A legacy of dams blocks the water’s natural flow and fragments the habitat; so do hanging culverts. 

ARC has partnered with other organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, US Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Alabama Forestry Association, to work on cleaning up the watershed. After conducting a threat mapping survey of the Sipsey and Locust Fork Rivers, part of the Black Warrior watershed, we are now working to resolve the many problems we identified. 

Along with our partners, we’ll remove hanging culverts and lowhead dams, restoring the appropriate level and flow of the water. In the upcoming season, we’ll start live stake planting, which involves taking cuttings from moisture-loving trees and shrubs and planting them in the wet soils of streambanks to help stabilize the banks and prevent erosion and siltation. 

We also rely on environmental DNA (eDNA) as a primary tool—we take water samples and sieve out bits of matter from living things like shed skin cells, run genetic analysis on them, and match them up with existing genomes. This reveals the species that moved through that water. In this way, we can determine which species use which areas and target our restoration efforts to create connectivity between populations. 

The ultimate goal is to restore the whole system and its entire suite of species—from the two-foot-long Black Warrior waterdog to the tiniest of snails. The Black Warrior watershed was once a thriving, interconnected network with healthy gene flow between populations and an abundance of tiny lives. With these efforts, we hope that soon, it will be again.