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Speeding up Nature by Thousands of Years
by Tamara Johnson
Photo Credit: Pete Pattavina, USFWS
Just a few miles from one of the nation's busiest metropolitan areas lives an unique, ancient ecosystem that provides a home for many rare species, including two federally endangered plants. Heavy human impact around significantly reduced the habitat for the black-spored quillwort (Isoetes melanospora) and mat-forming quillwort (Isoetes tegitiformans) in the suburbs of Atlanta.
But using jackhammers and diamond-cutting saws, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists in Georgia are taking creative measures to restore and create habitat to increase populations of these endangered plants.
These small, grass-like ferns make their home in shallow pools on granite outcrops, large areas of rock that rise above otherwise flat land. High temperatures, extreme wet and dry periods, and shallow soil make the granite ecosystems throughout Georgia a tough place to live, but several species, including the quillworts, have uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions.
Fragile but tough, these little plants are the first line of succession that transforms bare rock to life producing land islands upon which larger and larger plants and trees eventually evolve.
The large masses of granite have their place in Georgia's history, as quarrying of the rock began commercially during the Civil War and continues today. This practice had the greatest impact on the habitat of the quillwort, since the pools that took thousands of years to become suitable for mat-forming and black-spored quillwort were quarried away in less than a hundred.
During the dry periods the quillworts lie in wait, springing to life when the right amount of rainwater collects in the pool. Some people who visit the granite outcrops do not know about this life cycle, and have mistakenly used these dry ponds for fire pits, a practice that kills the dormant quillworts. In wet or dry seasons, Off Road Vehicles damage the quillwort pools, where tire tracks are evident years after they are made.
Photo Credit: USFWS
These rare plant populations have shrunk to just 15 populations worldwide. If one could gather them into one spot, they would not fill a 1,300 square foot house. To help protect and recover these unique plants, the black-spored and mat-forming quillworts were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1988.
Restoring habitat for these tiny plants proved to be a large task for the Service and our partners. Under completely natural conditions, pools that support the species at the right size and location on the outcrops take several thousand years to form, a timeline that made the species rare even before humans came on the scene.
"We decided to help out Mother Nature a bit," says Jimmy Rickard, a biologist in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Georgia Field Office.
Working with partners at Plum Creek Timber Company and Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve, the Service created a recovery program that focused on recreating habitat for the plants.
But digging shallow holes in granite requires something harder than a shovel.
Diamond cutting saws and bobcat-mounted jackhammers were used to cut, chip, and shape, four- to six-inch deep depressions with a solid rock rim about five to 15 feet in diameter.
Once the holes are dug at just the right spot on the mountain outcrop, then botanists wait for enough rain to accumulate for the plants life cycle to kick in. The Georgia Botanical Garden grows these plants, and then places them into the new pools after enough rain water is collected.
At first glance, tiny plants growing on the tops of rocks can seem irrelevant to the grand scheme of conservation. The habitat of these plants was significantly diminished in a fraction of the time that it took for Mother Nature to create, which underscores the untold effect that humans have had on the natural world.
Using the Endangered Species Act to preserve and protect even the smallest species, restoration of natural systems ensures that there will be a viable earth for future generations.
Tamara Johnson, a biologist in the Service's Georgia Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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