Coastal Sussex has its share of endangered species. Here’s a sampling — and some advice on what’s needed to save them

By Lynn R. Parks  |  Photograph by Jay Fleming
From the May 2015 issue

ENDPipingPlover-JayFleming On the Brink - Delaware Beach LifeOn average, an adult piping plover, like the one at left, weighs 54 grams, about the same as a quarter cup of sugar. A northern long-eared bat, despite the ears for which it is named, tops out at around 10 grams, equal to the weight of 10 small paper clips. 

The barking tree frog is the largest tree frog in the southeastern United States. But an adult’s body is typically no more than 7 centimeters, or 2¾ inches, long (not counting their legs). 

Diminutive creatures, all of them. But the piping plover, northern long-eared bat and barking tree frog all occupy unique spots in the coastal Sussex web of life. And all three are among the 86 birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, fish, mollusks and insects on the list of Delaware’s endangered species. 

That list, first written in the early part of this century, was revised in 2013 after the criteria for inclusion were rewritten in 2010. “We wanted to make sure that we’re on the right track, and that the criteria are reflective of conservation issues in Delaware,” says Kevin Kalasz, the biodiversity program manager with the state’s species conservation and research program. 

Under the more recent criteria, there are five ways that an animal can be placed on the list: Be part of the federal list of endangered and threatened species; be ranked as globally rare by the Natural Heritage Network, a science-based group that promotes conservation and biodiversity; be rare or declining in the state or region, based on population surveys; be rare in Delaware and removed from the rest of its population elsewhere or at the edges of its natural range; or be imminently threatened by human-caused or natural factors. Following those rules, six species that were on the 2000 list were not included in 2013, all of them birds: the bald eagle, the Cooper’s hawk, the brown creeper, the loggerhead shrike, northern parula and red-headed woodpecker. 

But 42 species were added, 21 of them insects. 

That nearly 50 percent increase to the list is not necessarily a reflection of declining populations, Kalasz says. Particularly with the insects, which are difficult to find, let alone count, “it might be that we are just figuring out how things stand.”

Following are profiles of 10 of coastal Sussex’s endangered species. It’s true that these animals weren’t chosen at random: How could a reporter, charged with writing a story about endangered species in southeastern Delaware, ignore the Bethany Beach firefly, found only in the vicinity of that resort town? Or the red knot, a migratory shorebird that flies in for a short visit every spring and that was just listed as threatened by the federal government? 

But it’s also true that in the great scheme of things, these 10 aren’t any more important than their fellow creatures on the list. 

“We know that all of these animals play a role in nature,” says Holly Niederriter, wildlife biologist with the state’s Division of Fish & Wildlife. “But we don’t know everything about those roles. Species that we don’t think are that important could be far more important to survival of the whole [ecosystem] than we know.”

Niederriter describes nature as a gigantic pyramid, with each block that forms it representing an animal or plant species. Take out a couple blocks and the pyramid is still sound. “But we are losing species like crazy,” she notes. “If we keep pulling out pieces of the pyramid, the whole thing will collapse.”

Kalasz adds: “Each time you take a part out of the web of life, other parts will suffer.”  

And eventually the part that suffers could be us: “All together, these animals support the system that humans rely on for life,” Kalasz says.

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