Reflections of Place: The Importance of Habitat for Amphibians and Reptiles

People are deeply connected to places. We tend to attach a great deal of meaning to them; they can spark feelings of comfort, inspiration, belonging, excitement, awe. Despite the significance a location may hold for us, we are not tied to these places and can always choose to live or go elsewhere. In other words, no matter how strong our feelings, our survival isn’t directly linked to the elements that make a place special. 

Unfortunately, for amphibians and reptiles, the exact opposite is true. They are entirely reliant on the areas they inhabit. If that place loses the specific conditions a species needs, that species simply won’t survive there.

It follows that to protect a species, we have to protect its habitat. That might seem obvious, but it’s not as simple as it sounds when it comes to amphibians and reptiles—and to biodiversity in general. Ecosystems are complex, and many elements make them what they are. Protecting a pond where a species is found isn’t enough, for example; we have to protect everything that makes the pond the way it is, from the land around it to its vegetation to the hydrology to the other species that use it. 

Species are tied to place in ways that can be hard to fathom. Many native reptiles and amphibians are so specialized, and became so over such a mind-boggling amount of time, that they are deep reflections of place. Take the Hickory Nut Gorge green salamander: The mottled green pattern on its back includes shades of green that look exactly like moss, helping it blend into the rocky cliff and boulder faces it calls home. Its body is flattened, its limbs elongated—able to fit into tiny crevices and to climb vertical surfaces. Its entire body is almost perfectly suited for where it lives due to natural selection. In ecological terms, form follows function. 

Hickory Nut Gorge green salamanders, along with salamanders at large, are some of the most endangered vertebrates in the world, according to a recent, comprehensive study on global amphibian declines in the journal Nature. The Southeastern United States, where we work extensively, harbors the global hotspot of salamander diversity. This means, unfortunately, that many species here are in trouble. 

In part, that’s because of their degree of habitat specialization; we have species that live in only one watershed, or on a single side of one mountain, or in one gorge. With so many species in need of help stretched out across so many habitat types, our work starts with identifying and strategically protecting the habitat where we can do the most good. 

Biodiversity and key areas for conservation aren’t distributed evenly across the Earth’s surface. Within a species’ range, there are pockets of excellent habitat for a given species, and individuals are concentrated there, like prime real estate. Some areas might be able to sustain many individuals, others just a few. So when we identify prime real estate—the most important and biodiverse areas—we can give a species the best chance of a future. 

That’s why we’ve identified PARCAs (Priority Reptile and Amphibian Areas) nationwide. We know we can have the most impact in these hundreds of locations across the US, and we’re currently working on the ground in dozens of them to restore and protect the habitats amphibians and reptiles need. 

Our goals play into a larger narrative, too. Soon after taking office, President Biden issued an executive order to tackle the climate crisis. It included a national goal to conserve at least thirty percent of US lands and freshwater and thirty percent of US ocean areas by 2030. The initiative is commonly called 30×30. Though it may not seem like a lot, thirty percent can make a huge difference. If protected areas are strategic—the areas of the highest biodiversity and connectivity—then we can move forward with wins for people and nature. 

This is the future we are working towards at ARC. We want to see Hickory Nut Gorge green salamanders creeping over the faces of rocky outcroppings. We want to see flattened musk turtles sunbathing on rocks in the rivershed of Alabama’s Black Warrior River. We want to hear the snore of Chiricahua leopard frogs at night in Arizona. 

Our PARCAs, picked because they hold the most bang for our conservation buck (that is, the highest species diversity and abundance), are paving the way forward. We want to reverse the downward trend for salamanders, other amphibians, and reptiles and help keep the 30×30 course. 

Plus, places aren’t simply significant to us because of the land itself; it’s often more about who lives there. That includes wildlife. For many of us, reptiles and amphibians, in all their diversity and specificity, represent the essence of place.