Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Coastal Project Documents New Habitat on Jekyll

T2F Note: Jekyll Island, part of Georgia's Golden Isles, is a great place to visit. For the sea turtles and the beautiful nature walks, this week's coveted Fayette Front Page Day Tripper Award goes to Jekyll Island.

Beyond the beaches and bike trails at Jekyll Island, a new natural community has been discovered tucked within the island’s iconic maritime forest.

On the southern tip of Jekyll, a boardwalk leads through a relic dune swale. The low-lying area is dominated by Carolina willow, swamp rose mallow and dotted smartweed. To the untrained eye, the patch of vegetation may look like anywhere else on Jekyll. But for two botanists, the area is a rare find – a previously unclassified ecological community.

An ecological community is a group of interacting plant and animal species that live in the same place. The communities are bound by the influences the species have on each other. The main species in the newly described community on Jekyll are common separately but in combination represent a previously unknown community.

Ecological communities are grouped according to the U.S. National Vegetation Classification system maintained by NatureServe, a non-profit conservation organization considered a leading source of information about rare and endangered species and eco-systems. Although extensive, the NatureServe database has limited examples of communities potentially found on the Georgia coast. The Jekyll community discovered by Eamonn Leonard and Jacob Thompson of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has been added as a new ecological association called the Southern Atlantic Coastal Plain Carolina Willow Dune Swale.

This community may be unique to Georgia. Leonard and Thompson, natural resources biologists with the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, documented it as part of a three-year project that involves extensive vegetation mapping in 11 coastal Georgia counties. The work will result in a detailed picture of the ecological communities in the counties, including the 25 high-priority habitats designated by the State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy that guides Wildlife Resources and DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity.

“Currently, our understanding of the locations and extent of ecological communities on the coast of Georgia is somewhat limited,” Thompson said. “Our mapping effort will help us know more about the status of known natural communities and describe new community types like the one on Jekyll Island.

“This knowledge is critical in order to preserve the valuable natural resources on our coast.”

The mapping project is part of the larger Coastal Georgia Land Conservation Initiative, a collaborative effort involving the DNR, Georgia Conservancy and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia to preserve critical coastal lands and promote sustainable growth and development.

The ecological communities of the coast represent a diverse set of natural resources and provide habitats for many rare plant and animal species, while also supporting basic ecological functions on which people rely. For example, the barrier islands and associated inter-tidal salt marshes reduce the impact of storm surges, which can damage homes and roads.

“This project will give local governments, conservation organizations and city planners a baseline map of the critical and imperiled communities and important resources within each county,” Leonard said. “With this in hand, coupled with technical assistance from the other organizations involved in this project, coastal counties can plan for future development more sustainably by keeping natural resources in mind and ensure (their) existence in the future.”

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