Endemic Species are Your Home Team for the Ecosystem

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, endemic species are native species that are confined to a certain region or having a comparatively restricted distribution.  For example, the Joshua Tree is endemic to the Mojave Desert.  In other words, endemics, wherever they are located, are unique to their region.  In general, the greater the isolation or specialized nature of the habitat, the more numerous the endemics.  Thus, according to Britannica Encyclopedia online, species on remote oceanic islands tend to be almost 100% endemic.

Why Endemics are Important

Endemic species are important for a number of reasons.  First, since endemic species have a generally restricted distribution, threats to endemics carry more risk of extinction than for broadly distributed species.  

Second, according to the book Climate Change and Biodiversity, edited by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Lee Hannah, when an endemic plant species becomes extinct, it takes with it between 10 and 30 endemic animal species.

Third, endemics, by definition, are highly adapted to their home range.  As conditions within their range change, whether from anthropogenic or natural causes, their adaptations can function as a source of competitive strength or weakness.  In other words, some endemics of distinct regions may function as a sort of “collective insurance” for continued genetic diversity in the face of rapid changes, while others are at greatest risk of extinction as conditions change.

Thus, endemic species are a focus for the conservation of biological diversity, or biodiversity.  According to a seminal paper in Nature by Norman Myers et al., “biodiversity hotspots' where exceptional concentrations of endemic species are undergoing exceptional loss of habitat” could constitute a kind of “silver bullet” for biodiversity conservation (24 February, 2000. Vol. 403).

US Endemism and Biodiversity Hotspots

To qualify as a biodiversity “hot spot” a region must have both a high proportion of endemic species and have lost a significant amount of its habitat or populations.  There are 34 hotspots worldwide where 75% of the planet’s most threatened mammals, birds, and amphibians survive within habitat covering just 2.3% of the Earth’s surface (roughly equivalent to the combined areas of the five largest US states).

In terms of biodiversity in the U.S., California and Texas both have by far the highest number of species, and parts of California are considered a global hotspot.

Tracking Biodiversity and Endemic Species

In 1974, The Nature Conservancy helped establish the first state natural heritage program and over the next two decades, with the help of many public and private partners, built a network of programs that collects and manages data about the status and distribution of species and ecosystems of conservation concern. NatureServe is the organization that consolidates this data and makes it available on the internet. All 50 state Natural Heritage Programs plus Conservation Data Centers provide data collected from throughout the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Natural heritage programs are the leading source of information on the precise locations and conditions of at-risk species and threatened ecosystems. Consistent standards for collecting and managing data allow information from different programs to be shared and combined regionally, nationally, and internationally. The NatureServe network represents more than 800 dedicated scientists with a collective annual budget of almost $50 million.

Mississippi Endemism

Mississippi is surprisingly diverse.  The state has a concentration of endemic species in its East Gulf Coastal Plain region, which occurs immediately north of the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi plus four other states.  In fact, Landscope America lists it as one of the biodiversity hotspots of North America.  The lack of historic glaciation, abundant wetlands, and longleaf/slash pine-dominated ecosystems that are maintained to a large degree by fire have contributed to the evolution of unique species endemic to individual watersheds and the pineland habitats.  A great threat to this region is fire suppression, and reduction of historic longleaf pine to a less than 5% of its former range, “making it one of the most endangered landscapes in North America.”

“Many vascular plant, reptile, amphibian, and fish species occur only in this ecoregion.  For example, the Southeast Outer Coastal Plain as a whole supports about 1,500 endemic plants, many of which are limited to fire-dominated pineland habitats.  Rare animal species also occur in these communities, as well as in aquatic and bottomland systems and karst (limestone) systems.

Mississippi’s Natural Heritage Inventory project seeks to conserve outstanding examples of Mississippi’s natural heritage by using innovative management and protection strategies (working with landowners, developing management plans, monitoring elements of diversity on established natural areas):  the Natural Areas Registry and the Scenic Streams Stewardship Program.

The Natural Areas Registry

The registry simply encourages the voluntary preservation of important natural lands in private ownership. It works by asking landowners to make non-binding agreements with the Museum of Natural Science that they will manage the land to protect what is special about it. The landowner can cancel the agreement at any time with notice to the Registry Program.

To qualify as a Mississippi natural area eligible for registration, a property must contain one or more of these characteristics:
— habitat for rare, threatened, or endangered plants or animals.
— plant communities characteristic of the native vegetation of Mississippi.
— outstanding natural features such as old-growth forests, caves or wetlands.

Mississippi Scenic Stream Stewardship Act

The Mississippi Scenic Stream Stewardship Act was passed 1999. This legislation created the Scenic Streams Stewardship Program which began August 9,1999.

The goal of the program is to encourage voluntary private conservation efforts by riparian (stream-side) landowners. Landowners will be assisted in voluntary management agreements which seek to maintain scenic values while ensuring their rights to continue customary uses along the stream.

Generally, the goal is to maintain good water quality for recreation and fish and wildlife habitat. Achievement of the goal will be through use of Best Management Practices ( BMPs) that keep stream banks in good condition, establish buffers, and prevent erosion and sedimentation.

The program applies to streams that have not been channelized within the past five (5) years and are considered by law to be public waters, that is, with mean annual flow volume of at least one hundred (100) cubic feet per second (cfs).  The benefits of keeping stream banks intact through the use of BMPs are many. Property values remain strong, soil and nutrients stay in place, and the stream avoids degradation from silt, caving banks and poor water quality.