Under-Appreciated River is Home to One of Continent’s Most Endangered Animals

by Chris Bryant and Bill Gerdes

Jeffrey Sides and Jen Buhay float down the Sipsey. The two graduate students are among those working with Dr. Charles Lydeard on various bivalve or snail studies.
Jeffrey Sides and Jen Buhay float down the Sipsey. The two graduate students are among those working with Dr. Charles Lydeard on various bivalve or snail studies.

Unlike its well-publicized and environmentally troubled neighbor, the Cahaba, Alabama’s Sipsey River doesn’t get much attention. But a pair of University of Alabama researchers, who recently studied portions of the Sipsey’s biodiversity, say waiting until environmental problems arise before appreciating the area’s richness would be a mistake.

“Now is the time to recognize that the Sipsey River is a unique place and to try and protect it,” said Dr. Charles Lydeard, an associate professor of biological sciences at UA. Lydeard and Dr. Sam Addy, a UA associate research economist, recently teamed together in a research project focusing on the Sipsey, a West-Central Alabama river that creates one of the state’s largest wetlands.

“There has been very little concentrated effort to protect it,” Lydeard said. And there’s much to protect, he said. For example, one of North America’s most endangered animals, the freshwater mussel, or clam, seems particularly fond of the Sipsey.

“I would argue it’s probably one of the richest areas of freshwater mussels in the state,” Lydeard said of the river that passes through Fayette, Tuscaloosa, Pickens and Greene counties, creating swamps and homes for a variety of wildlife.

In some ways, the Sipsey has changed little since researchers first documented its wildlife, including freshwater mollusks — the species to which clams belong.

“Over the course of all these years, some 40 different freshwater mollusks have been documented within the Sipsey River,” Lydeard said. “Today, all but seven of those can still be found. The Cahaba also had over 40 species, but today only half of those remain.”

Teaming an economist with a biologist as a means of preventing the Sipsey from following the environmentally plagued Cahaba may seem odd, but it’s typical of the interdisciplinary work ongoing in UA’s Center for Freshwater Studies.

The interdisciplinary ties in this and other projects are being fostered, renewed, and generated through the stimulation provided by an enhancement award to the Center for Freshwater Studies from the University.

“Exciting results generated from this project and others funded by the enhancement award will enable our UA investigators to compete for external grants which will continue this important work,” said Dr. Amy Ward, director of the Center.

Business issues examined by Addy in his joint research with Lydeard included exploring the economics of a healthy Sipsey River basin, comparing the amount of money spent by government agencies to protect a single species vs. the amount spent to protect an entire area, and investigating the impact economic activities have on the river.

“The Sipsey has changed little and has maintained its ecological richness because there has been less economic activity in its watershed,” Addy said. “The Sipsey River has only about 1,100 economic activities compared to the more than 16,500 in the environmentally troubled Cahaba.

“Protecting one species inevitably results in the protection of other species. Although our focus is on the Sipsey’s freshwater mussels, protecting them protects many other plants and animal species in the watershed. We must move from species-by-species protection to system-wide or ecosystem protection.”

The Center for Freshwater Studies draws together a diverse group of faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, School of Law, and the Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration.

By bringing together experts from different disciplines, the Center works to solve large, water-related problems that would be too complex for any single individual.

Lydeard said he understands protecting mussels doesn’t produce the emotional responses triggered by endangered pandas or spotted owls, but says they are part of an important balance.

“Many people don’t even realize that freshwater mussels exist, let alone the fact that Alabama’s waters are home to 60 percent of all North American species,” said Lydeard. “And right now, freshwater mussels are considered one of the most endangered animals in North America.

“These ‘lowly’ organisms are a source of food for other organisms that we are more in tune with — mammals, turtles and fish,” he said. “Plus, these organisms should have the opportunity to share the planet as we do.”