Rare, Threatened and Endangered Species, in the Anacostia Watershed...??

Yes, indeed. Even in our highly urban watershed there are still some valuable biodiversity gems in need of conservation. Even though it is evident that a bulk of the species of plants and animals occurring in the Anacostia River watershed are widespread in the region and are “secure” to “apparently secure” according to NatureServe’s conservation status ranking system. But, with a decent area of natural habitats protected as public parks there’s got to be some “valuable” (conservation-wise) species rare species, and there are indeed.

The Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) is one of the charachteristic tree species that make up the Anacostia watershed's New Jersey Pine Barrens, a globally rare ecosystem.

Currently, 30% of the watershed is covered with forests --that is approximately 33,400 acres according to the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership- and there are 3,208 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands. About 50% of the total forest cover are mature hardwood forests of over 65 years protected as parkland by the National Park System and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC).

A study conducted by NatureServe in 2006 titled “Upper Anacostia Watershed Plant Communities of Conservation Significance” exposed some truly fascinating findings regarding the flora of the Anacostia watershed. The researchers documented seven plant communities of conservation significance not previously described in the U.S. National Vegetation Classification (NVC). Here’s a list of them:

1. Pine Barrens Pine-Oak Community: these Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) forests have a strong floristic affinity with the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which makes it a globally rare ecosystem!

2. Pine Barrens Lowland Forest: another globally rare community, this one is like a type of New Jersey Pine Barren as well but it is considered a wooded wetland because of its soils, hydrology and plant composition.

3. Fall-line Terrace Gravel Magnolia Bog: even though this plant community is very similar to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, it possesses a distinctive set of species, the only occurrences of this community occur in the Anacostia and nearby watersheds.

4. Pin Oak-Swamp White Oak Seasonal Pond: this plant community is a “close relative” of the globally rare Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) upland depression swamps. The authors of the study mentioned that a more detailed floristic analysis was needed to confirm this.

5. Southern Red Maple-Black Gum Seepage Swamp Forest: this is another kind of seepage swamp forest occurring in the upper Little Paint Branch subwatershed. This ecosystem supports populations of Stenanthium gramineum var. robustum a state-listed threatened species of lily (a herbaceous plant).

6. Central Appalachian/Northern Piedmont Low-Elevation Chestnut Oak Forest: exceptional variants of this plant community occur above the fall line in the NW Branch subwatershed in Montgomery County. Although a common plant community in the northern Piedmont and the central Appalachians, it is a rarity in the Anacostia watershed. There are populations of the Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens), a rather uncommon species in the D.C. region.

7. Floodplain forests of Indian Creek and Beaverdam Creek: the authors of the study categorize this as a new plant community type to the NVC! The forest canopy is dominated by Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica), and Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera).

This unparalleled study has shed some light in understanding the biodiversity of the Anacostia River watershed and has identified previously undescribed and unreported plant communities in the watershed.

The researchers conducted extensive floristic surveys where they were able to find rare plant species of conservation concern including state (MD) endangered and threatened plant species:

  • Juncus longii (Long's Rush) E*
  • Linum intercursum (Sandplain Flax) T
  • Platanthera blephariglottis (White Fringed Orchid) T
  • Sarracenia purpurea (Northern Pitcher-plant) T
  • Smilax pseudochina (Halberd-leaved Greenbrier) T
  • Stenanthium gramineum var. robustum (Featherbells) T

*State status is the legal protection status of a species as determined by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in accordance with the Nongame and Endangered Species Conservation Act. Definitions for the following categories have been taken from Code of Maryland Regulations (COMAR) 08.03.08.
E: Endangered; a species whose continued existence as a viable component of the State's flora or fauna is determined to be in jeopardy.
T: Threatened; a species of flora or fauna that appears likely, within the foreseeable future, to become endangered in the State.

The Northern Pitcher-Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is a carnivorous plant considered threatened in the state of Maryland. Illustration by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. Creative Commons. www.flickr.com

For those of you not familiar with plants, the Northern Pitcher-Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is actually a carnivorous plant. How about that! This rare plant with pitcher-like leaves collects water that is used to drown organisms (flies, ants, spiders and other species) lured by the colors of the plant. The unlucky organisms attracted to the plant’s colors have a hard time crawling upward because of the recurved hairs of the plant and ultimately fall into the deadly water and drown. The plant secretes enzymes that helps it digests its insect prey, however, the breakdown is mostly done by bacteria and not the plant itself. The plant then absorbs the nutrients, mostly nitrogenous compounds. More information about this outstanding species here.

Other plant species found in the study are uncommon to rare in Maryland and the DC region:

  • Bartonia paniculata (Twining Bartonia)
  • Betula populifolia (Gray Birch)
  • Carex bullata (Button Sedge)
  • Castanea dentata (American Chestnut)
  • Dichanthelium leucothrix (White-haired Panic Grass)
  • Eleocharis tortilis (Twisted Spikerush)
  • Juglans cinerea (Butternut)
  • Kalmia angustifolia (Sheep Laurel)
  • Lycopodium tristachyum (Ground-cedar)
  • Magnolia tripetala (Umbrella magnolia)
  • Quercus prinoides (Dwarf Chinquapin Oak)
  • Solidago patula (Rough-leaved Goldenrod)
  • Solidago uliginosa (Bog Goldenrod)

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate our 25th anniversary as the biggest watershed NGO fighting to clean and restore the Anacostia River watershed, one of those reasons is the amazing biodiversity of this watershed. That being said, our battle is far from over we still have impervious surfaces, water pollution, habitat destruction, you name it… Even in this urban watershed with a population of more than a million people and thousands of acres of impervious surfaces, we can still talk about conservation biology and a significant remnant biodiversity that require YOUR help for their long term survival and to avoid having to show this natural heritage to our kids as photos from the past.



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