Species Conservation: Opportunity, Ingenuity, and Cooperation

“I am a man in love with nature…I am a wildling, born of forests and fields and more comfortable on unpaved back roads and winding woodland paths than in any place where concrete, asphalt, and crowds prevail.” 

– J. Drew Lanham, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature

Whether you prefer nature’s solitude or are more at home in a crowd, you likely feel reassured knowing that there are places teeming with eye-catching and intriguing wildlife, like turtles, frogs, and lizards. Together, we have the opportunity to ensure that these places and species are protected for current and future generations. Have you ever wondered about the best ways to go about conserving species and how you can help? Although the answers are not always straightforward, we can harness our ingenuity and passion to implement the conservation solutions that the other species that share this planet need from us. 

One of the challenges in conservation is that in a world of infinite data and information, conservation biology is literally stuck in the dark ages (at least some parts of it). For most species, we can’t even answer the most fundamental questions, such as: Where are the at-risk species? How many of them are there? How are they doing? What do they need to persist and thrive?

In a time when everyone else has Google Maps, conservationists are often stuck trying to make maps with a compass and a protractor. That’s not to say that we don’t have some incredibly advanced science tools at our disposal, but rather that the task of gathering the necessary data is quite immense.

Answering basic questions about target species is step one in a long process. Without answers, we can’t determine what species are declining, where we should intervene, or what we should do about it. Even when we are talking about a relatively small area (say a National Forest or a state park), and even when we generally know what habitat a species uses, it is an enormous undertaking to address these simple questions. This is especially true for amphibians and reptiles, which are often incredibly difficult to find, much less study. 

As a result, declines in once common species often go unnoticed. Even the passenger pigeon, which once numbered an estimated 3-5 billion and was incredibly noisy and easily detected, declined past the point of no return before almost anyone noticed. So, imagine how difficult it is to spot trends for species that spend virtually the entire year underground (for example, gopher frogs, southern hognose snakes, or chicken turtles), or ones that only live deep in swamps, or species that no one pays attention to because they are small and inconspicuous.

By necessity, ARC spends a lot of time, resources, and effort on step one. To try to answer these questions, we use tools like radio telemetry, environmental DNA (eDNA), transect surveys, road cruising, drift fences, camera traps, cover boards, and population and conservation genetics. In the future, we plan to use things like aerial drone surveys and citizen science, which will provide an opportunity for everyone to get involved directly – plus more of the latest innovative, cutting-edge techniques as they become available.

And that’s just the beginning! These same tools help us inform our decisions in step two – figuring out what to do to intervene. Conservation genetics can tell us some of the history of the species and what is currently happening. For example, suppose genetics tests indicate that a population is experiencing high levels of inbreeding. In that case, we can infer that the population is small and isolated. Genetic data can also inform us about how a species migrates across the landscape, providing important conservation and restoration targets.

Through conservation genetics, ARC discovered that high inbreeding levels contributed to the decline of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes in the Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina. This knowledge helped us better understand how this population fits into the larger picture of eastern diamondbacks and how to best address their inbreeding. Using landscape genetics allows us to create more effective recovery and conservation action plans.

We can use population modeling over time to predict whether a species is declining, growing, spreading, or shrinking. ARC uses trapping data for species such as narrow-headed garter snakes and spotted turtles to give us a better idea of whether populations are declining, stable, or improving. Population modeling paints a picture – or at least a partial one – of what a reptile or amphibian population looks like, even when we have inconsistent and/or limited data. It also helps us anticipate how a population might withstand future changes or respond to our restoration efforts.

This is why the Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area (PARCA) approach is critical. We identify and focus on the areas where we can gather that crucial data for several species at the same time or make a large impact when we restore and manage a habitat – to get the most bang for our buck possible. 

Will you help protect these last best places for reptiles, amphibians, and the tens of thousands of other species that share their habitats? Make a contribution to invest in species conservation so that everyone, present and future, can experience the joy of discovering the natural world.