Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s Biodiversity: Conservation of the Pearl River Basin PARCA

Just east of New Orleans, there’s a diversity of reptiles and amphibians that are as wild and colorful as Mardi Gras. The animal that comes to mind for most people when they think of Louisiana is the American alligator—and while there are certainly alligators, there are also some 140 species of other amazing amphibians and reptiles that call the state home, from diamondback terrapins to Gulf Coast waterdogs to pine snakes and gopher tortoises. Unfortunately, 51 of those are listed as species of greatest conservation need. 

The Pearl River Basin PARCA, or Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area, is the crown jewel of Louisiana; it holds 109 amphibian and reptile species and 98% of the species of greatest conservation need in the state. That makes our work here—from the dark and primordial bottomland hardwoods swamps to the open pineland savannahs—vital. 

The Pearl River Basin PARCA is home to a stunning array of habitat types, but there are four that truly define it. These four contrast and complement one another: There are dark and murky bottomland swamps, sun-soaked open longleaf pine savannas, and freshwater rivers that bring life to the salty interface of coastal marshes. Together, they make an amazing melting pot of biodiversity—and that melting pot is under severe threat from development and degradation (worsening of habitat quality). At ARC, we are working to ensure that each of these habitats thrives, along with the many amphibians and reptiles that reside within them. 

Entering a bottomland hardwood forest feels like taking a step back in time. It’s swampy and muddy, presided over by towering tupelo and cypress trees. These swamps are home to tons of wildlife species, including those famous alligators, and give life to many of the surrounding habitats. They’re home to many amphibians and turtles, and even more species take refuge within them during times of drought. Like all wetlands, these swamps are under threat from development, drainage, and unsustainable timber practices. 

The area’s major rivers feed many of these bottomland hardwood systems, including the PARCA’s namesake, the Pearl River. Along with other rivers, it’s set apart by an awesome diversity of turtles. The most recognizable and classic Louisiana species is the alligator snapping turtle, which has been recently proposed for listing as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. There are also more specialized species, like the endemic Pearl River map turtle, ringed map turtle, and more. 

These rivers, teeming with life, collide with the ocean to create tens of thousands of acres of salt marsh. Salt marsh stretches along the entire coast of Louisiana. This delicate ecosystem is a push and pull between salt and freshwater. The arrival of sediment and the accumulation of peat shapes them. Among their maze-like passages and seas of seagrass and glasswort, the diamondback terrapin carries out its days. This tiny, dazzling turtle is specially adapted to handle the water in their salty home. They have glands located near their eyes that flush out excess salt. After years of overharvest for human consumption and habitat degradation, terrapin populations are at a fraction of their former numbers. And the marshes themselves are threatened by coastal development and sea level rise.

In contrast to these aquatic systems are the grassy, sun-soaked savannas of longleaf pine, which once blanketed 90 million acres of the Southeast. Today, less than three percent of that coverage remains, and many species adapted for longleaf are in peril. That includes gopher tortoises, which are a keystone species because the burrows they make house hundreds of other species. 

The Pearl River Basin PARCA represents the frontline for many amphibians and reptiles that rely on longleaf systems. It is the furthest west many of these species reach, and many longleaf specialists are already considered extirpated from this area. Species like dusky gopher frogs and ornate chorus frogs haven’t been documented in decades. Others, like the gopher tortoise, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, coral snake, and black pinesnake, are barely holding on. If we lose these populations, we lose priceless genetic history shaped over millions of years in a landscape that used to define the Southeast. 

The stakes are high in the Pearl River Basin PARCA. What we and our partners do here could make or break populations of amphibians and reptiles that are hanging on by a thread. Once we restore these habitats to their former glory, they can serve as a refuge for an unrivaled diversity of species. At ARC, we are taking inventory of imperiled species, expanding our partnerships to maximize our effect, monitoring populations, and building recovery plans for both the ecosystems and species within. With your help, we are committed to fighting for this PARCA and all it stands for in Louisiana.