by Whit Gibbons

June 29, 2014

Alabama is the Fort Knox of the nation’s biodiversity. Because of its many stream and river systems, Alabama has the country’s richest array of aquatic wildlife. Species diversity in the Mobile Basin alone rivals that of many higher profile ecosystems, such as tropical rain forests. A combination of climate, geology and a vast range of aquatic habitats, from mountain streams to the Gulf of Mexico, account for the high diversity. With more miles of navigable stream systems than any other state, Alabama is a natural showcase for aquatic animals.

Likewise for terrestrial biodiversity. Such an array of ecoregions and habitats in a comparable area is unrivalled throughout most of the nation. The Ridge and Valley province above the fall line is well named, with its deep valleys and mountain ravines bordered by high rocky ridges that adjoin the Appalachian Plateau on one side and the Piedmont on the other. Farther south the Coastal Plain passes through pine and hardwood forests to barrier islands and finally Mobile Bay. Alabama even has the equivalent of a prairie ecosystem referred to as the Southeastern Plains.

As with any region of the world rich in biodiversity, Alabama’s environmental wealth cannot be overstated. No matter how many books are written, no matter how many photographs are taken, there will always be room for one more. The latest book on the state’s remarkable array of wildlife and habitats has done a superb job both with writing and photography. “Southern Wonder: Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity” by R. Scot Duncan (2013, University of Alabama Press) will be a lasting legacy that reveals the state’s biological heritage. Writing in terms of geology, climate, and evolution of the past, the author explains what is present today. The book’s 15 chapters address the breadth of the state’s biodiversity with a fine combination of specific examples and general explanations.

The more than 150 excellent color photographs alone pay tribute to some of the fascinating habitats that support Alabama’s fauna and flora. Pitcher plant bogs, sinkholes and caves, river sandbars, dunes and swales are but a few of the natural wonders pictured and discussed in the book. Colored maps of physiographic regions, soils, rivers and watersheds reveal the complex mix of natural forces that have led to the amazing biodiversity within groups of animals ranging from mollusks to fish to turtles and many more.

The author makes a key point about Alabama’s plant and animal life when he says that “to understand Alabama’s biodiversity, it helps to know a little geology.” In a chapter called “Alabama Rocks,” he discusses the geological processes that over eons have shaped the topography, soil types, and ultimately the ecosystems that persist. The presentation is engaging and informative at many levels.

“Southern Wonder” joins a suite of other major publications that herald the great environmental diversity of the state and region. “Fishes of Alabama” (2004) by Herb Boschung and Rick Mayden provides an outstanding comprehensive account of the geographic region with the highest fish biodiversity in North America. “Rivers of North America” (2005) edited by Art Benke and Bert Cushing includes maps and color photographs of Alabama’s rivers, with information on geomorphology, hydrology, and water chemistry as well as ecology. As long ago as 1995, Chuck Lydeard and Rick Mayden published a scientific paper that proclaimed Alabama’s remarkable species diversity and noted that the natural waters had more species of some animal groups than any other state.

Scot Duncan’s book “Southern Wonder” joins these other scholarly yet accessible works that lead readers to appreciate and support a region with such an impressive assemblage of natural communities and biodiversity. We are fortunate that every state in the nation has plants, animals, and habitats unique to it. And they deserve our notice and protection. Much is yet to be discovered ecologically in every region of the Southeast and many other parts of the country. Bringing such fabulous natural wonders to light raises awareness about them, which in turn helps ensure that they will remain with us wherever they are.

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