The Center for Biological Diversity and several renowned scientists and herpetologists, including E.O. Wilson and Thomas Lovejoy, filed a formal petition on Wednesday seeking Endangered Species Act protection for 53 of the nation’s most threatened species of amphibians and reptiles. The petition — the largest ever filed focusing only on amphibians and reptiles — asks the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect six turtles, seven snakes, two toads, four frogs, 10 lizards and 24 salamanders under the Act.
“Many of America’s frogs, turtles and salamanders are living on the knife edge of extinction. We can only save them if they’re protected by the Endangered Species Act,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a Center biologist and lawyer devoted to herpetofauna. “Amphibians and reptiles face a profound, human-driven extinction crisis unlike any other. If we don’t act now, we’ll lose some of our natural world’s most important and fascinating citizens.”
Through extensive consultation with wildlife experts, scientists at the Center for Biological Diversity conducted a coast-to-coast investigation of the country’s most vulnerable but least protected frogs, toads, salamanders, lizards, turtles and snakes. Backed by hundreds of scientific articles, the 450-page petition details the status of, and threats to, 53 amphibian and reptile species in 45 states, demonstrating the urgent need for their federal protection. Habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and climate change are among the chief threats they face.
Some species have lost more than 95 percent of their historic habitat.
“We will get serious — scientists and general public alike — about preserving the diversity of life on Earth only when we have precise knowledge of individual species like those in this petition,” said Edward O. Wilson, a distinguished Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. “Future generations will think badly of us if, through ignorance and inaction, we let die this part of their natural heritage.”
Scientists estimate that about 25 percent of the nation’s amphibians and reptiles are at risk of extinction, yet only 58 of the approximately 1,400 U.S. species protected under the Endangered Species Act are amphibians and reptiles. The animals in today’s petition will reap lifesaving benefits from the Act, which has a 99 percent success rate at staving off extinction for species under its care.
You can learn more about the reptile extinction crisis here or view an interactive state-by-state map to find threatened species in your backyard. Check out the following pages to see pictures and facts about 8 of the 53 species in the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition.
Photo of Blanding’s turtle courtesy of maine.gov.
Alligator Snapping Turtles: With their heavily armored shells, bear-like claws and powerful beaked jaws, it’s not surprising that these prehistoric-looking turtles have no natural enemies and once thrived throughout the southeastern United States. Early in the 20th century, they were abundant in U.S. river systems draining into the Gulf of Mexico, from the waterways and lakes of the upper Midwest to the swamps and bayous of Florida, Louisiana and Texas. But recent population surveys demonstrate the turtles are now likely extirpated in Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, with declines up to 95 percent over much their historic range from overharvest and unchecked habitat degradation. These slow-moving, largely sedentary behemoths spend so much of their time sitting on river bottoms waiting for food — they use a wormlike process on their tongue to lure prey — that algae grows thick on their shells. They’re easy prey for hunters who still look to feed thriving world markets for the exhibition and consumption of the turtles.
Wood Turtles: Coveted across much of the world for the colorful red to yellow markings on its neck and legs and the striking geometric growth-line etchings on each of the dark plates that make up its top shell, the wood turtle is considered by many to be the perfect pet. That popularity, from the United States and Europe to Asia, coupled with habitat loss and degradation, has left the wood turtle in serious decline across every state within its range in the northeastern part of the United States. Increasingly hurt by channelization of rivers and streams, careless timber-harvesting practices along waterways, and urbanization and agricultural practices including pesticide use, the turtles’ remaining populations tend to be isolated, greatly reducing the chances of their natural recovery in areas where their numbers have plummeted. Traditionally low survival rates among juvenile wood turtles have been made worse by the prevalence of turtle predators, such as raccoons and skunks, which thrive in urbanized areas. Wood turtles have an unusual feeding behavior: they stomp their front feet to cause earthworms to come to the surface.
Key Ringneck Snakes: These 6-inch-long, nonvenomous residents of the Florida Keys, including Key West and Big Pine Key, could hardly be less of a threat. But the slate-gray snakes with muted neck rings face an ongoing barrage of unmitigated threats to the seaside limestone outcroppings and rockland areas they call home. Largely due to ongoing residential development, the snakes’ rockland hammock habitat has been reduced by 98 percent, leaving highly fragmented population pockets. Hurt not only by ongoing development but also by malicious killing by humans and predation by invasive species like fire ants, Key ringneck snakes face rapid loss across their range. They also face catastrophic threats from climate change, with a sea rise of as little as three feet endangering much of their remaining population. They are listed as threatened in the state of Florida, a status that makes killing and collection illegal but provides no protection from ongoing habitat destruction, the snakes’ greatest threat.
Photo credits: alligator snapping turtle courtesy Gary M. Stolz, USFWS; wood turtle courtesy Diane Baedeker Petit, US Department of Agriculture; key ringsnake copyright Kenneth Krysko.
Western Spadefoot Toads: These 2-inch-long, stout-looking little toads are known for their purr-like trill, their spade-like adaptation for digging on each hind foot, and for their unusual ability to accelerate metamorphosis when shallow breeding pools start to dry up. But even with those remarkable adaptations, the western spadefoot has been no match for the march of development and habitat reduction. Since the 1950s, the animals have lost more than 80 percent of their preferred grassland and alluvial fan habitats. The toads, which are completely terrestrial except when breeding, depend on the existence of vernal rain pools and slow-moving streams, both of which have declined across their range due to urban development and agricultural practices. Historically known to occur in the lowlands of Southern California, from south of the San Francisco Bay area to northern Baja California, they are now listed as a “species of special concern” in California, a status that recognizes their dramatic decline but fails to afford them any legal protection. Already, they are thought to be extirpated throughout much of their lowland Southern California range.
Illinois Chorus Frogs: Throughout American history, these inch-and-a-half-long, dark-spotted frogs have been known for their distinctive, high-pitched, bird-like whistles that can be heard from great distances. Often mistaken for toads because of their stout bodies, they have thick forearms used for digging burrows. Tiny frogs that spend most of their time below ground, they were once common along the wide, sandy soiled grasslands and floodplains of the Mississippi and Illinois river basins. But as a result of unbridled housing development that has eliminated lowland habitat, and agricultural practices that now level fields instead of leaving the water-holding troughs the frogs used for breeding, most of their already small populations are in serious decline. They are now listed as threatened in Illinois, but this status does not protect their habitat.
Yuman Desert Fringe-Toed Lizards: (Arizona): These striking little camouflaged lizards, known only to desert sites in southwestern Arizona, have long made their homes in sparsely vegetated areas of windblown sand. Less than 5 inches long, with their tails making up half their length, these extremely rare lizards are highly adapted to the harsh desert environment. The fringe of scales on the sides of their toes helps them run across loose sand without sinking; tightly overlapping eyelids, earflaps and valve-like nostrils protect them from the constantly blowing sand. Their fragile habitat is under ongoing threat from development and off-road vehicles. The lizard is a Bureau of Land Management sensitive species in Arizona and a state sensitive species — designations that reflect the lizards’ rarity but offer no legal protection for them or their habitat. Despite their declining population, lizards may still be taken for personal collections.
Photo credits: western spadefoot toad courtesy James Bettaso, USFWS; Illinois chorus frog copyright Stanley Trauth; Yuman desert fringe-toed lizard courtesy Jim Rorabaugh, USFWS.
Kern Canyon Slender Salamanders (California): These 5-inch-long brown salamanders with black sides and striking bronze and red patches on their backs live only in California’s lower Kern River Canyon. Their restricted range, coupled with ongoing threats of habitat destruction and degradation, leaves them extremely vulnerable to extinction. Known to be uncommon across their range and limited to small, isolated populations, these rare salamanders favor north-facing slopes and small, wooded tributary canyons. Those habitats provide periods of moisture and high humidity that allow the salamanders to emerge from their underground hideouts to forage among leaf debris, bark and loose rocks for a range of food that includes spiders, mites, earthworms and snails. Although nearly all their known populations occur on public lands administered by the Sequoia National Forest, they continue to be threatened by habitat destruction and degradation caused by cattle grazing, logging, mining, highway construction, hydroelectric development and firewood collecting.
Cascade Caverns Salamanders: Perfectly adapted to their wholly aquatic life, these pale, ghost-like salamanders with external gills and recessed eyes spend their entire lives in the darkened worlds of Texas cave springs. Since they breathe through external gills and their skin, these highly unique amphibians require clean, clear-flowing water with a high content of dissolved oxygen. Their health offers an important barometer on water quality. As the human population in Texas continues to soar, the salamanders are at risk from a wide range of environmental hazards. Increased groundwater withdrawals decrease flows into cave springs, resulting in greater temperature fluctuations. More and more pollutants, from pesticides and herbicides to fertilizers and household solvents, are showing up in surface and storm-water runoff that eventually finds its way into the underground springs where these salamanders have long thrived. The salamander is listed as threatened by the state of Texas, a status that prohibits collection but does nothing to prevent water loss and pollution, the biggest threats to the salamander.