Black Warrior Waterdog and Flattened Musk Turtle

Meet two of Alabama’s strangest, most specialized reptiles and amphibians.

In the Black Warrior River watershed of Alabama, two rare, mysterious, and little-known species swim the waters. One, the Black Warrior waterdog, is an amphibian, and the other, the flattened musk turtle, is a reptile. Both are highly endangered, and both are tailor-made for the habitat that they share, making our work in the Bankhead Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Area (PARCA) west of Birmingham a two-for-one conservation opportunity. This PARCA is positively teeming with life; Alabama is a global hotspot of aquatic biodiversity. By restoring these imperiled and highly biodiverse waterways, we can recover these two amazing species, protect countless other species, and create healthier water for the people who depend on these rivers for consumption and recreation.

The Black Warrior waterdog (which is not a canine at all, but a type of salamander) is as strange in looks as it is in name: It has an eight-inch-long flattened body, a head shaped like a shovel, feathery red gills, and a paddle-like tail that’s built for navigation underwater. They are named after the great chief Tuskaloosa (translated to Black Warrior) of the Mississippian culture. They spend their days foraging along the bottoms of the few streams where they are left, their anatomy making it easy for them to slip under and between rocks. If you didn’t know they were there, you’d never see one—they’re secretive and take refuge in rock crevices, in packs of leaves, and under logs.

The waterdog’s reptilian counterpart, the flattened musk turtle, is Alabama’s only endemic reptile species. They’re some of the smallest turtles in the country, and like the salamanders, their shells are compressed for better usage of the unique geology of their habitat; they use the crevices to hide from predators and keep them from being washed away during floods. As members of the musk turtle family, they release a smelly excretion from special glands when harassed, and like the other members of this family, they can likely even climb trees. 

It’s fascinating to see how evolution has shaped two such different creatures for the same habitat. It’s a reminder of how amphibians and reptiles can be so representative of place: These two species are almost perfectly adapted after millennia to thrive in the area they are found. With that degree of specialization, though, comes risk—now, in this fast-changing world, being a reptile or amphibian that can only live in one place is dangerous. The truth is, waterdogs and flattened musk turtles are Alabama treasures that would be all too easy to lose.

The waters of the Black Warrior River Basin once ran clean and uninterrupted. Today, siltation from unsustainable forestry practices and agriculture has choked the stream bottoms and altered the habitat. Years of mining have polluted the water further. A legacy of dams built in the area blocks the water’s natural flow and fragments the habitat; so do hanging culverts. In reality, there are only a few stretches of suitable water remaining. Pockets of waterdogs and musk turtles are hanging on there, but they’ve disappeared from most of their former range. 

Both of their populations are perilously close to extinction, and we are doing all we can to protect them. Currently, we are conducting a huge environmental DNA (eDNA) and stream health survey–that means we go up and down the watershed, taking water samples and seeing what DNA is in the water to determine if they are there. As we do that, we record the threats in those areas, noting where there are dams or hanging culverts, eroded banks, or pollution flowing into the water. We think of it as threat mapping; at the end of the project, we’ll have a comprehensive sense of where the salamanders and turtles are and what problems are facing them in those areas. Then, we can go in and do the clean-up work, restoring connectivity and creating larger, healthier populations. We will also be relying on cutting-edge genetic sequencing to advise us on what populations are most vulnerable to inbreeding, as well as which are the healthiest. 

All of this information will guide our future conservation efforts, and we know it’s going to be a long road to get these two species back to where their populations should be. Species this specialized can be very locally abundant with the right conditions, and eventually, we will get there. We are not going to give up on them. Every time we are out in the field and see one of these creatures–the marbled green skin and flattened shell of a turtle or the unfurling of a waterdog’s red gills–we are reminded that they represent Alabama and all its incredible biodiversity. Be sure to visit our shop to show your support of awe-inspiring wildlife with a hoodie, t-shirt, or sticker featuring a beautiful flattened musk turtle shell patterned Alabama outline or several other great items.