Dr. Scot Duncan, an assistant professor of biology at Birmingham-Southern College, has just published Southern Wonder, a book under the imprint of the University of Alabama Press that showcases Alabama’s wealth of biodiversity.
Weld: The subtitle to your book is “Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity.” Why is it surprising and what makes Alabama special in this regard compared to surrounding states?
Scot Duncan: When you talk to most folks in Alabama, including those that know a lot about the state, many of them are unaware that we’ve got so many species compared to most states. Alabama ranks #5 nationally, and we rank #1 east of the Mississippi River. When these statistics came out in 2002, it caught a lot of folks by surprise, even those who already had a deep appreciation for how much biodiversity we have in this state. That’s part of the theme of the book. We have so many species that it’s kind of a surprise to many people — and certainly a surprise to myself, as I was learning about the state. The book’s goal is to get the word out so that more people know about the wealth of natural resources that we have right here.
Weld: You write that, “In historical times, the state has lost more species to full extinction than any other state except Hawaii.” Why is that, and what sort of factors have contributed to the endangerment of these species?
SD: There’s a couple of things that contribute. One is that you have to go back a little bit to understand that Alabama is a global hotspot for aquatic biodiversity. There’s several different taxa, including fish, mussels, snails and crayfish. [Taxa is] plural for “taxon.” We use that word to refer to groups of organisms that are classified together because of their evolutionary relationship. Birds are a taxa, or you could talk about crows being a taxa. It’s a flexible term in that way.
So, we have a lot of aquatic species in the state, but we’ve also done a lot of transformation to our rivers from channel modification and damming. When you put a dam in a river, you change it from being a shallow, dynamic, free-flowing ecosystem into one that’s deep and dark and cold. Because of damming, we’ve lost dozens and dozens of species of aquatic animals in the last century, and even in the late 19th century as well.
On top of that, we rank very highly in terms of species that are facing extinction. Approximately one out of seven species in the state have characteristics that make them vulnerable to extinction. Most of the species that are on our list of endangered species are aquatics, so it’s the heavy impact we’ve had on our rivers that is the main driver here. Now, of course, that has to be balanced with recognition that modifications of our rivers have brought a lot of good things to this state. It has brought us hydropower, which is a clean source of energy in the sense that no carbon dioxide is going into the atmosphere.
We also get improved navigation for barges, and that promotes economic development to the state. There’s a lot of cities and towns that have sprung up around the reservoirs created by damming, and of course, you have recreation. You go out on any of these reservoirs during the summer on a weekend, and you’ll find thousands of people having the time of their lives out there. So dams have done good things for the state, but their impact on biodiversity has been, and continues to be, pretty devastating.
Weld: Can you tell us how events in our state’s history have impacted ecology? For example, your readers will learn that we have Hernando de Soto to thank for the state’s feral pig population.
SD: Many of the other Spanish explorers brought pigs as well, but from my readings, it seems that [de Soto] was the first. [These pigs escaped from captivity and bred in the wild. Their descendants are the feral pigs of today.]
Industry is growing in the state now, but for a long time agriculture was a mainstay of Alabama’s economy, which means converting natural landscapes into row agriculture and, in some cases, pasture. We’ve got a long history of conversion, from our blackland prairies down in the Black Belt to our longleaf pine woodlands farther south in the state. We’ve converted both these ecosystems to various forms of agriculture, and both are intimately tied to the history of the state.
We also had the cotton plantations in the pre-Civil War era that were developed on our blackland prairie ecosystems. We don’t have as much cotton culture there now, due to poor soil management process. A lot of the top soil was lost, and so now we mostly run cattle on the thin soils that are remaining. In the longleaf pine forests, we first harvested those trees for the lumber that was used to make homes, businesses, and churches throughout the South. The trees were tapped for their resin in order to make turpentine and other products, and then once those forests were depleted, they were either replaced with plantations of loblolly pine, or they were converted to row agriculture, depending on what the quality of the soil was like.
This expansion of agriculture in our state is integral to who we are as a people and as a culture, and certainly toward our economy, but of course, it’s at a cost. We’ve converted landscape that was used by a lot of species that are now either on the endangered species list, or preserved in pockets where we’ve got some of these ecosystems remaining. It’s these kinds of events that are interwoven into the history and the fabric of the state. We’ve certainly benefited from that in many ways, but we’ve also lost a lot as well.
Weld: You write that “Although Alabama is teeming with life, the state’s prominence as a refuge for plants and animals is poorly appreciated.” Why is that?
SD: It goes back to the fact that Alabama is relatively under-appreciated in the numbers of species that it has and the diversity of systems to support the species. Outside of a handful of conservationists and biologists, not many people know about the wealth of species that we have here. I know this from my students when I poll them about what they know, and from people that I talk to, because I’m always looking for opportunities to talk about the state and our natural resources. Usually, I find people are quite surprised and very excited to hear about what we have.
Weld: What was your purpose in writing this book, and what is its primary audience?
SD: The primary audience is anybody who can read. I did not write a book from one scientist to another scientist, and I didn’t want to write a book from me to people that already know about the natural history of the state. I really tried to write this book for people who are curious about our natural resources and our natural heritage and want to know more, or maybe convince people to become curious, and that they should want to know more.
The target audience is general readers, and I tried to write a book that is approachable and not too heavy on the technical details. I tried to weave a narrative style into it to make it for more entertaining reading, if you will. Well, ‘entertaining’ might be too strong a word, but [I wanted it to be] far more interesting reading than just a dry text. And of course, the reason I wrote the book is primarily to spread the word about why we have so many species in the state.
People in Alabama enjoy the benefits of our natural resources every day, every time we look out the window. I think people will have a keener appreciation of the landscapes in which they live and play if they understand more about ecology — about why those landscapes are there in terms of their deep history and geology, and about how they’re sustained in the climate, and how those climates sustain the other species that occupy the state. So really, the goal of the text is, to put it succinctly, environmental education, to get people aware of the landscape on which they live and on which they depend.
Southern Wonder: Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity is on sale on the University of Alabama Press website.