by Mary Grace Mauneymmauney@mistermigs.com
Today is Endangered Species Day. An animal species is considered to be officially endangered when its population has dropped so low that it is at risk for extinction. Extinction is not an inherently bad thing when it naturally occurs on its own; it is simply a part of nature. After all, without extinction we would still be sharing the planet with dinosaurs! However, 99% of endangered species today are at risk because of human activities, such as hunting, destroying the environment, introduction of exotics (animals from other habitats, such as pet dogs being released on islands with no dogs), and pollution. Unlike natural extinction events, extinctions caused by human interference can damage the entire ecosystem, much like taking one card out of a card tower.
When most people think of endangered species, they imagine well-known, exotic animals like pandas, whales, rhinos, marine turtles, primates, polar bears, and big cats. Because these animals are large, beautiful creatures (“charismatic megafauna”) they tend to get all the attention, and they are important because they occupy places in our ecosystem that impact other species. However, there are other endangered creatures that are equally valuable, even if they’re not as glamorous or popular. For instance, there are fewer than 150 grenada doves left, and less than 600 hirola antelopes, but most people have never even heard of either. Right here in Georgia there are several endangered species of salamander, birds, bats, crayfish, moccasin-shell mussels, turtles and sea turtles, a few types of muskrat, and a whole lot of snakes. It’s true that they’re not as striking as their fellow endangered Georgia natives the puma, the manatee, and the humpback whale, but they shouldn’t be ignored. All of these creatures occupy their own significant place in our ecosystem. Muskrats and crayfish are food for larger animals. Bats and birds keep insect populations down. Snakes and birds of prey control rodent populations. And as for the modest moccasin-shell mussel, it might be the most important one of all because mussels are considered to be "ecosystem engineers”. They modify aquatic environments, making the entire habitat healthier for other organisms. So if the mussels make the fish healthy, and the bear eats the fish, then the bear is better off because of the mussels. Everything is connected in our ecosystem. That’s why even lowly things like shellfish should be watched over carefully and deserve our help. You can help endangered species around the world by donating to organizations and charities, as well as doing your part to reduce pollution. But there are more direct ways that you can help the endangered animals in your own home state as well. The first step is to look up what species are at risk in your state, and learn about them. Support your local wildlife refuges and protected parks by visiting, volunteering, or donations. Make your home friendly to wildlife by growing native plants and flowers in your garden, which will provide the food and shelter that many native species need, such as local species of bees and butterflies. But don’t use herbicides or pesticides on these plants. Not only will they kill native endangered insects, larger animals (including ones that are already at risk for extinction) can become sick when they eat insects that have been poisoned. Look into green alternatives instead! Slow down and keep an eye out for animals when driving, especially in areas with woods and meadows nearby. And most importantly, spread the word about all this to other people, so they can do it too!