By M. Keith Hudson, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
Occasionally, Alabama’s wildlife biologists are asked, “What is the rarest animal in Alabama?” It might be interesting to consider what the state’s rarest, scarcest or most novel critter is, so let’s identify a few likely candidates.
First, we will eliminate those elusive creatures that exist only as legend or by anecdotal evidence. Black panthers (large black cats native to Alabama), bigfoot, chupacabra, purple-people-eaters and “booger bears” fall into this category. No definitive evidence − no specimen of their existence − has ever been produced.
We also have a few exotic animals in zoos and animal parks that may very well be the only one of their kind in the state. Someone’s personal aquarium may include a fish, or their exotic reptile or bird collection might contain an Alabama one-of-a-kind, so we should eliminate captive animals as well.
Occasionally, an animal from another part of the world not normally found in Alabama will turn up. Frequently these are birds and serious birders have networks of rare bird alerts (RBAs) to announce the presence of an unusual bird species. Birders from across the nation “flock in” to view what is, for a few days, perhaps the only animal of its kind in the Southeast.
So perhaps we should ask the question in another way. What is the rarest, extant (not extinct) animal that occurs or did occur, naturally in historical times in Alabama? Also, let us limit our speculations to the “higher” animals (the vertebrates), and exclude rare or novel invertebrates such as insects, mollusks, protozoans, etc.
One likely candidate might be the black bear. Though native to all of Alabama in historical times, they are now rarely seen except for a small population mostly in Mobile and Washington counties. A small population in northeast Alabama is also emerging. It is also possible to see an occasional wandering black bear anywhere in the state.
The eastern cougar (mountain lion or panther) was once found throughout the state and occasionally there is a reported sighting. However, there has not been a confirmed wild cougar in the state since the 1950s. The federally endangered Alabama beach mouse and Perdido Key beach mouse are found only along specialized undeveloped habitat on the Alabama gulf seashore and both, most likely, only number in the hundreds. In recent years, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries personnel documented the presence of several manatees in the Mobile Delta. These large, aquatic endangered mammals historically are known to frequent Alabama’s coastal areas in the summer.
Some folks might suggest that one of several birds might be the rarest native wildlife species. Statewide numbers of a particular bird are difficult to come up with, but we can speculate for the fun of it. Bird species most likely numbering only in the hundreds include golden eagles, peregrine falcons, red-cockaded woodpeckers, Bewick’s wrens, Swainson’s warblers, scissor-tailed flycatchers and there are certainly others.
Several species of fish might hold the title as rarest. One fish, the Alabama cavefish, is found in a few pools in only one cave in Lauderdale County. Though its numbers are not well-known, it is certainly the species with the most limited range. Only a few specimens of the Alabama sturgeon have been caught in recent years in the Alabama River. This large river fish is rare in Alabama and notoriously hard to catch. Several rare fish are known only from their few respective freshwater springs or limited portions of creeks. These include the watercress darter, coldwater darter, crystal darter, vermilion darter, spring pygmy sunfish and frecklebelly madtom.
The Black Warrior waterdog, a type of aquatic salamander or mudpuppy, is known only from a limited portion of the upper Black Warrior River system. Could it be the rarest amphibian? The Alabama red-bellied turtle is found only in brackish waters in Mobile and Baldwin counties and its numbers are very low. In addition, several endangered sea turtles occasionally nest along Alabama’s beaches and are sometimes spotted offshore. These large marine turtles are undoubtedly among the rarest of Alabama’s wildlife.
These are a few notable examples of the rarest of Alabama’s wildlife species and there are undoubtedly others. Though it is open to debate, my opinion for the rarest of the rare native Alabama species are the few (perhaps two dozen) manatees that spend their summers in the Delta and rivers along Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Some other biologists might, of course, have another opinion. But, well…that’s the fun of speculation and I will look forward to the debate…perhaps around a nice campfire.
Manatee photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.