Bounty of Habitats for Rare Species: Protecting & Restoring the Francis Marion PARCA

Outside Charleston, South Carolina stretches the Francis Marion National Forest–a 259,000-acre classic Lowcountry spread of upland forest, bottomland hardwood swamp, maritime forest, salt marsh, and longleaf pine forest. Among the bounty of habitats are some of the rarest, most fascinating, and most endangered amphibians and reptiles in the Southeast. 

Elusive eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, the largest rattlesnakes in the world, and pinesnakes traverse the sun-soaked savannas. Gopher frogs lay eggs in ephemeral (seasonal) wetlands tucked among the trees where spotted turtles hide in the shallow water. ARC’s work in the Francis Marion PARCA, or Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area, to protect all these species and more is at the heart of what we do. 

Gopher frogs are one of the most imperiled frogs in the southeastern United States; the loss of longleaf pine habitat, coupled with fire suppression and climate change, have put them at risk of extinction. Of the twelve historic breeding ponds in the Francis Marion PARCA, only three still contain gopher frogs, and we are working to keep their populations alive by headstarting. 

We begin the headstarting process by combing the wetlands for egg masses. When we find one, we collect it and send it to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Hatchery, where the tadpoles are raised into froglets, past the most vulnerable stage of their lives. Then we release the froglets back into the ponds. Over the past few years, we’ve released more than 700 young frogs each season, alongside our partners. 

We’re focusing on habitat restoration for the temporary wetlands the frogs need–and that also benefits another mysterious and highly threatened species, the frosted flatwoods salamander. These mole salamanders are inky black with delicate white frosting covering their bodies, a beautiful and unseen species of the longleaf pine ecosystem that we fear has disappeared from the Francis Marion PARCA. We’re conducting eDNA surveys to try and locate any remaining populations but haven’t yet been successful. 

Frosted flatwoods salamanders also rely on ephemeral ponds to breed. Due to invasive species and lack of fire, however, the wetlands have become choked with vegetation and no longer function as they did. In the future, we plan to reintroduce these salamanders here. To prepare, we’re clearing the wetlands they need of invasive species and conducting burns at appropriate times of year. These actions will restore the ponds to a healthy state and enable us to bring back this once-common species. 

Another species teetering on the edge of survival is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Little studied, hard to find, and sporting breathtaking diamond patterns, these predators–which can reach up to eight feet long–suffer from habitat destruction and a lack of prey. We conduct surveys for them, attach transmitters, and track them so we can understand their movements and reproduction habits. From more than a decade of data, we now believe that there is a single population left in the Francis Marion, and we are working to restore the habitat to recover the population to a viable size. In 2021, we even discovered and tracked our first-ever litter of neonates, or babies

Finally, our work in the Francis Marion also includes a widely-loved yet rare species: the spotted turtle. Spotted turtles prefer the shallow water of bogs and marshy wetlands and are so small and cute that they are in danger of illegal poaching. We track turtles throughout the Francis Marion PARCA to determine how many populations are left and how we can help them. We are taking toenail clippings from turtles to run genetic analyses. As a result, we have a wealth of tracking data with conservation implications here and elsewhere in their range. 

Beyond these focal species, we also undertake timber management projects to benefit southern hognose snakes and the hyper-mysterious pinesnake. Plus, we conduct community-level surveys for other amphibian and reptile species, including eastern box turtles, ornate chorus frogs, eastern kingsnakes, and chicken turtles. We record their locations to provide a baseline of data for these species, which may need targeted conservation actions in the future. 

As evidenced by our many projects, the Francis Marion PARCA is teeming with life. Conserving everything from venomous rattlesnakes to adorable spotted turtles is all in a day’s work in the Francis Marion. This PARCA holds some of the most ancient and beautiful species in the region, species that we will never stop fighting to protect.