ENDANGERED ANIMALS & PLANTS
OF THE CAROLINAS
Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel
American Wood Stork
Frosted Flatwoods Salamander
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Pine Barrens Tree Frog
Red Cockaded Woodpecker
West Indian Manatee
Schweinitz sunflower (Helianthus schweinitzii)
Found in the central Piedmont region of South and North Carolina, the Schweinitz sunflower (Helianthus schweinitzii) is a perennial that grows regularly in full to partial sunlight in areas of poor soil. Growing to about 6.5 feet high, occasionally reaching heights of 16 feet, the stem of the Schweinitz sunflower is a purple color with the upper thirds of the flower-bearing branches. It is believed that this sunflower species at one time grew in natural forest openings or grasslands; however, most of the species now grows along and near roadsides, and as of 1991, the Schweinitz sunflower was placed on the Federal Endangered species list.
The protection of this sunflower is very important. Many plants contribute to the creation of medicines with one quarter of all prescriptions written in the United States containing chemicals from plants and animals. The medicinal industry is increasingly using wild plants to create new hybrid medicines that are resistant to pests, diseases, and changes in climate. In addition to medicinal qualities, many insects and animals rely on wild plants for pollination to clean the air we breathe while providing oxygen.
With the rapid development of the South and North Carolina Piedmont regions, specifically the Charlotte area, the Schweinitz sunflower is at a decline as its habitat is destroyed. It is highly threatened by fire, habitat destruction, urbanization, and infringement by exotic species. Monitoring and protecting existing populations will assist in the recovery of the Schweinitz sunflower.
Submitted by Sarah Fletcher, NC Wildlife Federation
Swallow-tailed Kites (Elanoides forficatus)
Elanoides forficatus, the Swallow-tailed Kite, has a black, long, forked tail and flight feathers, slim body, white head and underbody, and a short, sharply curved beak. This bird eats small reptiles, dragonflies, wasps and beetles. It hunts, captures prey, eats, drinks and bathes on the wing.
Some Swallow-tailed Kites migrate 10,000 miles per year, from South America to the Southeastern US, where the population range has been reduced from 16 to 7 states, There are currently 180 pairs that nest in SC. Urbanization, wetland drainage, destruction of river woodlands and changing agricultural practices threaten their survival. Land use plans and wetland management need to change to help the birds survive.
Submitted by Ray Wade, SC Master Naturalist
Red Wolf (Canis rufus)
In the 1800’s, this medium-sized wild canine once flourished throughout the southeastern United States from the Atlantic coast all the way to Central Texas and even up to some parts of southern Illinois. However, by 1920 red wolves were almost completely killed off from their eastern range due to predation control and habitat loss, leaving a very small population left in the wild. 17 remaining wild wolves were captured for a breeding program soon after the species was declared endangered in the 1970’s. By 1987, enough captive wolves were bred to begin the first restoration program in northeastern North Carolina and now 100 wild wolves now roam 1.7 million acres of their native habitat. There are currently 43 sites across the U.S. involved in the red wolf captive breeding program with 200 total wolves. Nevertheless, accidental killing of red wolves during nighttime coyote hunting continues to pose a grave threat to this endangered species. Red wolves are slightly smaller with more slender heads and shorter pelages than their relatives the grey wolves, but are very similar in shape and appearance to the non-native coyote species of North Carolina. Currently, NCWF is working to make nighttime hunting of coyotes illegal so as to prevent future accidental killings of red wolves.
Being that this freshwater fish is easily overlooked due to misidentification to other common but closely-related fish, it has a particularly unique story. Since its discovery in 1869, much about the fish has remained a mystery. It wasn’t until 1991, when many individuals were captured in a Georgia river by biologists, that the Robust Redhorse began its recovery and has since been successfully restocked in rivers if Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. This species of fish provides an important ecological benefit for the rivers they inhabit, that is, they feed on a very invasive species of bivalves known as Asiatic clams, which reproduce rapidly and compete largely for food with the native species. Adult robust redhorse can reach up to 30 inches long and weigh as much as 17 pounds, though the average is 25 inches and 9 pounds. Since these fish inhabit rivers with a history of pollution, dams, and construction runoff, the robust redhorse continues to be threatened by human activity.
Despite their name, flying squirrels don’t actually fly. Instead, they use their powerful hindquarters to launch themselves off of treetops and then glide from tree to tree using loose skin flaps on either side of its body and a tail as a rudder. As they glide, for every one foot forward they lose three feet of height. A remnant of the last ice age, flying squirrels adjusted easily to the high mountain tops and ridges that the glaciers left behind. Just like their ground squirrel relatives, northern flying squirrels spend most of their time on the ground foraging for food. They especially love mycorrhizal fungi, or truffles, which have a distinct smell that the squirrels seek out. Mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship with the trees they grow near; each makes certain nutrients that the other cannot and they exchange these nutrients though a complex underground root system. Without each other, neither could survive. The squirrels aid in spore dispersal for the fungi by eating them. North Carolina logging and the resulting fires, however, have devastated large parts of the northern flying squirrel habitat and population. Fortunately, they adapted easily to the northern hardwood and red spruce forests, but efforts are underway to bring back the Carolina habitat and flying squirrel.
The smallest turtle in North America, the bog turtle, can get 3-5 inches long and have distinguishable yellow or orange patches on either side of its head. There are two populations separated by about 250 miles. The northern population occupies New York, Maryland, and Massachusetts while the southern population occupies Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. The northern population of bog turtles has suffered much more habitat loss than the southern turtles. Bog turtles are threatened by the pet trade, where some species of animals are illegal to collect in some states, as well as habitat loss from the draining and filling of wetlands for farming and development. A poacher could easily claim that a northern turtle was collected from the southern population due to close similarities of appearance. Therefore, the southern population has been listed as threatened.
Grasshopper sparrows have distinctive orange feathers at the bend of the wings and got its name from the grasshopper-like trill it makes while singing. The breeding range of the sparrows spans southern Canada all the way to Central America and across most of the U.S. They winter in the southern U.S., including North Carolina down to Florida and all the way west to Arizona and Mexico. Grasshopper sparrows need large open grassland with a few woody perches to defend their territory. Territories can be as large as 250 acres. These birds are highly sensitive to habitat changes and will abandon nesting areas with the slightest disturbance. These disturbances are typically habitat fragmentation and loss due to farming zones, urban sprawl, and reforestation efforts. High predation from domestic and feral cats has also impacted the population. They are a very illusive and secretive species that build well-hidden nests at the bases of grass clumps. Females are known to run like a rodent and then feign wing injury as a distraction after being flushed from the nest.
The Carolina heelsplitter is a mussel with a trapezoid-shaped shell that was first discovered in 1852. They once flourished in several locations in the Catawba and Pee Dee river systems, but due to declining water quality and habitat conditions, only a small number remain. Mussels are soft-bodied animals enclosed by a shell that anchor to streambeds with a foot-like organ. They take up and feed on organic particles, like algae and bacteria, from the water, which helps maintain clean water. Mussels can filter up to 40 litres of water a day. The mussels also help stabilize sediment at the bottom of lakes and rivers and provide shelter for smaller organisms. When the larvae are fully developed, they attach to gills of a fish host until its ready to sink to the bottom. Since mussels are not very mobile, they are very sensitive to water quality changes, pollution especially. Chemicals commonly found in wastewater, agriculture, and construction runoff can poison or even suffocate the mussels. Erosion off the stream buffers, where the mussels live, also damages their habitat and the population.
On June 26, 2014, fans of the wood stork received great news from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). After being added to the list of Endangered Species in 1984, the status of the wood stork has now been updated to Threatened. Wood storks tend to inhabit freshwater or brackish wetlands and swamps from the southeastern United States to coastal Mexico and throughout most of South America where its population has remained relatively healthy. They are clever carnivores that put an open bill into the water as they patiently wait for an unsuspecting small fish. The rapidity with which they latch upon their prey is best measured in milliseconds. In 1984, the wood stork was only known to inhabit the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. With focus on wetland restoration through partnerships with state governments and conservation groups, the range of the wood stock has currently expanded into parts of North & South Carolina as well as Mississippi.
Submitted by Joseph Taylor, SC Master Naturalist.
Flatwoods salamanders are an elongated version of the mole salamander. There are two species of flatwoods salamander: frosted and reticulated. The species found in South Carolina is the frosted flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma cingulatum). It is small, 3.5-5.5 inches, with short legs, a long rounded tail, no neck, and highly variable markings that include specks or gray cross hatching. Its preferred habitat is longleaf pine-wiregrass communities. They breed in shallow ephemeral ponds of tannin-stained water in the vicinity of a thick top story of pond cypress and black tupelo, among other trees. This is a threatened species as its habitat has been altered by development, silviculture, and agriculture along with drought and rising water levels leaving populations widely separate from one another. Submitted by: Susan Coleman Fedor, SC Master Naturalist & Palmetto Pro Birder.
The Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta) was designated as the official State Reptile of South Carolina in 1988. They are the most abundant species of sea turtle in US coastal waters with major nesting concentrations from North Carolina to South West Florida. Loggerhead turtles, like all sea turtle species, are threatened by a variety of human activities. The primary threat is incidental capture in commercial fishing gear. Other threats include marine debris, environmental contamination, loss of nesting habitat, and artificial lighting. The SCDNR is working on many projects to help better understand and manage sea turtles along our coast. They have also partnered with the SC Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program, which acts as a sea turtle hospital for sick and injured animals. To help sea turtles to thrive in our South Carolina waters and beaches, visit the SCDNR website for more information on how to Adopt-A-Nest or purchase an Endangered Species Sea Turtle license plate.
Submitted by Stacy Hitt, SC Master Naturalist.
The pine barrens treefrog (Hyla andersonii) has suffered from loss of habitat due to development and fire suppression in the sandhills region of SC. In addition, use of herbicides in power line cuts is thought to have negative effects. On-going conservation efforts include controlled burns to keep an open character to the seepage bogs that these frogs need. Also, the SC Department of Natural Resources Heritage Trust protected a gas line right-of-way where the frogs were found in Kershaw County. Hopefully, measures like these will continue to occur in the future so that the pine barrens treefrog remains an important part of the eco-system in South Carolina.
Submitted by Hilda Flamholtz, SC Master Naturalist & Palmetto Pro Birder.
In the 1700s, nearly 1.6 million family groups of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (Picoides borealis) lived in the Southeast. Today, 3 percent remain, primarily due to loss of habitat. The Red-cockaded woodpecker inhabits long-leaf pine forests in 11 southeastern states. It forms isolated clans of one female and several males, needing up to 200 acres per family group. Encouraging controlled forest fires and placing artificial nesting boxes in trees have increased populations since the 1970s. Additionally, the federal Safe Harbor program incentivizes private landowners to create RCW environments. South Carolina leads the nation in Safe Harbor participants and Francis Marion National Forest has more RCW clans than any other site nationally.
Submitted by Susan Hamilton, SC Master Naturalist & Palmetto Pro Birder.
The West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is a vegetarian mammal weighing between 440 and 1,300 pounds that lives primarily in Florida’s natural freshwater springs but travels as far north as Massachusetts during the summer months. Manatees have no natural predators and are only endangered due to increased human interactions. Since manatees move slowly along the water surface, their grey bodies camouflaging into the water, it is easy for boaters to never see them and therefore run right over them. Boats so often strike manatees that the white scars left behind on their bodies by propellers can be used to identify them. This, coupled with the low reproductive rate of manatees, has landed these gentle giants on the endangered species list. Areas that are home to manatees are subject to slow speed limits and specific areas are roped off completely as wildlife sanctuaries. There are also many groups that work to rescue and protect manatees, primarily in the Florida springs where manatees spend their winters.
Submitted by Liesel Hamilton, SC Wildlife Federation volunteer.
Share this article: