TGIF: Nature’s Olympians

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I’m Tom, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new communications intern. If I’m not out fetching coffee, I’ll be sharing important or entertaining conservation stories here every Friday. Credit: USFWS

Been watching the Olympics at Sochi? If you’re anything like me, you might get a little self-conscious watching those incredible humans perform mind-blowing feats (Like my hockey team, Go Team USA!).

But I’ve got something crazier: Nature.

Don’t laugh–really, the creatures of the world tackle some incredible challenges. Did you know some red knots fly around 19,000 miles a year from the southern tip of South America north to the Canadian Arctic and back? How about freshwater mussels, which filter several gallons of water every single day? Or little brown bats, which can catch 1,200 mosquito-sized insects in just a single hour!

We’d like to think Mother Nature’s Olympians also include those critters that have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to survive—like coming back from the brink of extinction. If we were sending some superstar species to compete on the world stage for that, I’d like to imagine it’d break down something like this:

BRONZE MEDAL: YELLOWFIN MADTOM

Madtoms! Photo via Flickr

Madtoms! Photo via Flickr

This minnow-sized catfish was once thought to be extinct due to habitat degradation after years of coal and agriculture deposited sediment and pollution into the rivers of Tennessee and Virginia. But in 1969, the fish was rediscovered by snorkeling biologists and listed under the Endangered Species Act. Even after years of conservation, including captive breeding programs, the determined fish faced another hurdle when, in 1996, 6 million gallons of coal slurry spilled into the Powell River, decimating over 20 miles of river ecosystem. But the madtom proved resilient—with help from a number of non-profit organizations and state and federal support, the populations of madtoms continue to grow.

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Credit: USFWS

SILVER MEDAL: PEREGRINE FALCON
Still going strong, the falcon takes a respectable finish. A classic redemption narrative, the peregrine falcon’s recovery is known by most. Research by Rachel Carson led to the restriction of DDT, which was thinning the shells of falcon eggs by reducing the amount of calcium. After remarkably successful recovery efforts worldwide, the falcon was removed from the endangered species list in 1999. Now a symbol of our nation’s recovering threatened and endangered species, the peregrine falcon is one of nature’s swiftest and most beautiful birds of prey.
And, check out this awesome falcon cam atop the tallest university library in the world and my home during finals weeks, W.E.B. DuBois.

Credit: Larry Master/ USFWS

Credit: Larry Master/ USFWS

GOLD MEDAL: West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel
The West Virginia northern flying squirrel stole the gold this year, as our agency finalized the recovery of these nocturnal critters. After timber harvesting destroyed much of their red spruce habitat in Central Appalachia, the squirrels were resilient enough just for a few disparate populations to hold out on a couple of mountaintops. After 1985, efforts to restore habitat greatly improved the squirrel’s ability to thrive. Populations have resurged—and the future looks bright for the West Virginia northern flying squirrel.

Which creatures would you choose to join Nature’s Olympians?

We look forward to seeing more competitors in 2018, at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea!

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