by Whit Gibbons

March 9, 2014

Hidden biodiversity is all around us. In a recent presentation, I used a photograph that gave impressive confirmation of the fact that more animals are around us than meet the eye. The photo shows a gray treefrog sitting on a gray tree trunk. Everyone sees the tree when they first look at the picture. Few notice the frog because it blends in so well.

The tree is part of the region's biodiversity. So is the frog. Because of its superb camouflage, the frog is hidden biodiversity, but it is no less important in Mother Nature's ecological scheme than the tree. Most animals comprising our native biodiversity hide from us and their predators for safety reasons. For most animals, being conspicuous is tantamount to offering themselves up as a meal.

Even some predators use camouflage. Does a tiger or leopard want to be seen by its prey? Absolutely not. Stripes or spots on an orange or yellowish coat create a blend that mimics a partially shaded forest. Copperhead snakes with their leaflike patterns of brown and tan are hiding from the few enemies that might attack them. But they are also concealing themselves from any potential meal - such as mice, lizards, and frogs - that might happen by.

Camouflage is not the only reason for the hidden biodiversity phenomenon. Animals have a world of ways to stay out of sight. Some remain hidden for the greater part of their lives. Colorful salamanders, such as the spotted salamander with its shiny black body and bright yellow spots, spend the majority of the year beneath logs or leaf litter. The only time someone is likely to see a spotted salamander is on a rainy night in winter or early spring. Hence, most people who live around them have never seen a live one in the wild.

Reptiles offer some superb examples of hidden biodiversity among larger animals. For instance, one or more species of softshell turtles occur in most of the midwestern and eastern states. Large, impressive animals, softshell turtles resemble Paul Bunyan-size pancakes and are about the same color. Their shells are so leathery that the edges will actually bend. These flattened, nearly circular animals can be more than a foot and a half in length. Yet I have talked to hundreds of people who reside near a stream, river, or lake where softshell turtles live who have never seen one. One reason softshells are part of our hidden biodiversity is that they virtually never leave the aquatic habitat, except when females lay eggs. Softshells avoid predation by having webbed feet that make them remarkably fast swimmers; they also look almost identical to bottom sediments when they come to rest.

Other species have equally specialized ways to stay out of sight and avoid detection. For instance, some animals only come out at night, which reduces the chance of their being seen by people. But they are still with us and around us. And they make up an important part of our natural heritage, as do the habitats that sustain them. A small wetland of only an acre or two that has no wet areas during late summer may be the breeding site for literally thousands of frogs and salamanders. Every year on chilly rainy nights in many parts of the country, a suite of amphibian species emerge from surrounding forests, most often to breed. They stay for a few hours or days and then return to their forest home, unlikely to be seen or heard by humans for the rest of the year.

Hidden biodiversity is as important to our natural ecosystems as the more obvious birds and large mammals. And in most of the country, these animals are the neighbors of people who have never seen them. If we destroy woodland and wetland habitats, we are unquestionably destroying our natural heritage in the form of countless fascinating animals that rival any of the exotic species seen on nature shows.

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