To raise awareness of Endangered Species Day, we spoke with our scientists to find out about species that are particularly meaningful to them. Which endangered species do you care about? Share your stories in the comments below!
Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata)
By Melinda Peters, Collections Management, Botany
The cheerful face of the Smooth Coneflower is delightful for many reasons, but since 1992 it has been on the list of Federally Endangered Species. I decided to study the genetics of this plant in graduate school in hopes of helping conservation efforts. Currently this species is only known in VA, NC, SC, and GA. E. laevigata is a prairie plant, but due to the changing landscapes of America's prairie habitats, scientists have seen a decrease in populations because of habitat loss. Without grazers and natural fires on the land to maintain increasing encroachment of invasives and forest species, the prairie plants lose out and we see new communities forming. As these prairie plants become more segregated, it is harder for pollinators to find them and help distribute pollen for an increased genetic diversity. Funny enough, the largest populations of E. laevigata are in huge power line rights-of-way. They persist because the landscape is mowed, which mimics the act of grazing and in turn allows the populations to continue to flourish. These plants are important for the balance of these communities, which is why scientists are researching ways to conserve them. This is when I break into song and sing, “The Circle of Life.” Enjoy nature, and appreciate its beauty, but leave things in their place because they play a role in their community just like us. It is always a good idea to “stop and smell the flowers”- just do not pick them!
Delhi Sands Flower-Loving Fly (Rhaphiomidas terminatus abdominalis)
Erin Kolski, Museum Technician, Entomology
There is only one fly on the U.S. Endangered Species List: the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly. This subspecies of mydas fly is native to the Delhi Sands, a unique dunes habitat in southern California. The sands once covered about 40 square miles in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, but urban development and agricultural expansion have reduced the habitat to isolated pockets a tiny fraction of their original size. The destruction of the Delhi Sands has led to the dwindling of the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, along with other plant and animal species that can only be found in this unique habitat. While these flies and other endangered insects do not get the attention that the larger, more charismatic vertebrates do, they play a vital and often underappreciated role in ecosystems and deserve protection too!
Mohammad Vatanparast, Postdoctoral Fellow, Botany
I found rosewood trees (species in the genus Dalbergia L.f.) to be important elements of our biodiversity when I started my studies on these species five years ago. They produce fine timbers of high economic value and many species of rosewood demonstrate nitrogen fixation by root nodules associated with bacteria. These species grow in diverse climate conditions in tropical and sub-tropical regions. More than 50 species are listed in the IUCN Red List as vulnerable or endangered mostly because of deforestation and logging. Conserving these precious species is one of my research goals and I hope that we can find a solution!
Red Siskin (Sporagra (Carduelis) cucullata)
Brian J. Coyle, Postdoctoral Researcher, Vertebrate Zoology
The Red Siskin is an iconic and beautiful bird that once roamed the skies of northern Venezuela in large flocks. Such captivating displays like this first inspired my love and respect for the natural world, eventually leading to a deeper fascination with the tremendous diversity, complexity and history of life that surrounds us in almost any location on this planet. Unfortunately, decades of wildlife trafficking for the pet trade have decimated the Red Siskin population in Venezuela, where the species is now listed as critically endangered. Like many others, I feel an urgency to protect our remaining natural resources for future generations so that they too may be inspired to embrace sustainability. At the Smithsonian, I am contributing most directly to this mission through my participation in the Red Siskin Initiative. Scientists and experts from across the institution are collaborating with international partners to recover sustainable populations of Red Siskins in Venezuela through research, captive breeding, reintroduction, education and efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. Our team is also working to protect a previously undocumented population of this species that was discovered in Guyana in 2000 during a joint expedition between the National Museum of Natural History and the University of Kansas. I look forward to the day when large flocks of this highly endangered bird are again a common sight and the scourge of wildlife trafficking is greatly reduced.
Haleakalā Silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense)
Gary Krupnick, Head of the Plant Conservation Unit, Botany
For our 10th wedding anniversary, we were fortunate enough to visit the island of Maui, Hawaii. We spent one morning hiking in the Haleakalā National Park. When we reached the rim of the dormant volcano, the view took my breath away. The amazing site before our eyes looked like a surreal painting, and scattered throughout this painting were spots of brilliant silver. On closer examination, those silver spots were plants called the Haleakalā silversword, also known as Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum. Endemic to Hawaii, these silverswords are listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Threats to this species' survival include introduced sheep and goats, loss of pollinators, and over-collecting. With proper protection, this subspecies is recovering nicely and it is now considered a successful conservation story. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for its sister subspecies, the Mauna Kea silversword Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. sandwicense. This species grows on the big island of Hawaii, where only around 40 naturally occurring plants remain.