Conserving the Nature of America
Press Release
Underground Crustacean Safeguarded by U.S. Army Doesn’t Need ESA Protection
Northern Virginia well amphipod protected under Fort Belvoir

July 22, 2020

Contact(s):

Bridget Macdonald, USFWS

413-387-3183 

bridget_macdonald@fws.gov

 


Specimen of Northern Virginia well amphipod collected in a well in Vienna, Virginia. Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

A review of the best available science indicates that the Northern Virginia well amphipod, a tiny underground-dwelling crustacean unique to the area from which it takes its name, is not in danger of extinction now or likely to become so within the foreseeable future. Thanks to habitat protections by the U.S. Army, this species does not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.

“The U.S. Army is an invaluable conservation partner in our effort to protect at-risk species,” said Wendi Weber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service North Atlantic-Appalachian regional director. “We commend their proactive work to conserve a species few people will ever see by helping to protect water quality in the sole aquifer where it is currently found.” 

The Northern Virginia well amphipod has just one known population, located beneath the U.S. Army’s Fort Belvoir in Virginia, and its underground habitat is supported by good environmental conditions above. The U.S. Army has designated 70 acres encompassing the amphipod’s habitat as a “Special Natural Area,” managed to support specific goals for conservation and biodiversity. 

“I’m proud of the work Fort Belvoir environmental professionals do every day to protect, preserve, conserve, restore and support the environment,” said Col. Michael H. Greenberg, Fort Belvoir garrison commander. “It’s important that we do all we can to be good stewards of our community’s ecosystem.” 

Colorless, eyeless, and smaller than a peanut, the Northern Virginia well amphipod would be easy to miss, in the unlikely event that you happened upon it. After its discovery in 1921 in a well in Vienna, Virginia, the subterranean creature largely eluded detection for decades. A dozen were found in a well in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1948. Then none were seen again until 1996. 

But that was a pivotal year for the elusive amphipod. Scientists collected 15 specimens from leaf litter at the outlets of several groundwater springs in a ravine downslope of Fort Belvoir. It turned out to be a good place to wash up.  

The U.S. Army has gone above and beyond the call of duty to secure its underground neighbor at Fort Belvoir. The base’s Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan (INRMP), developed by the Army, the state of Virginia, and the Service, identifies key natural resources and the actions needed to manage them in a way that ensures the continuation of the installation’s military mission. But the Army has taken additional steps not outlined in the INRMP, such as installing a berm at the southern end of a nearby solid waste transfer station to discourage illicit dumping, which would negatively impact the amphipods' habitat.  

The amphipod does face several threats, including the contamination of groundwater or surface water, the withdrawal of water from or impacts to the recharge zones for the local water table, and the effects of climate change. More frequent intense rain events could flush amphipods from their habitat and erode the surrounding landscape; progressive loss of water in the aquifer from drought could leave amphipods high and dry. However, the best available information indicates that these are distant threats, and the species faces a low risk of extinction in the foreseeable future.  

Scientists’ ability to keep tabs on this species may improve in the future. Researchers are developing an environmental DNA sampling protocol for the species that could eliminate the need to try to collect specimens from groundwater seeps, wells, or wherever they turn up next, in order to confirm their presence. This evolving forensic technique can find DNA fragments of a target species in a water sample, a powerful tool for detecting organisms that are cryptic, rare or difficult to capture. Sound like any amphipod you know? 

The Service’s efforts to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species has drawn support for its use of incentives and flexibilities within the ESA to protect rare wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working. It would not be possible without the collaboration and partnership of other government agencies, private landowners, conservation groups, tribes, businesses, utilities and others.  

The notice of this finding is available in the Federal Register at https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2020-14454, and additional documents will be available July 23 in the docket number FWS-R5-ES-2020-0026 on regulations.gov, https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=FWS-R5-ES-2020-0026.


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

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