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Species statistics are good news for South Carolina’s standings

Posted: March 4, 2014 5:07 p.m.
Updated: March 5, 2014 5:00 a.m.

By Austin Jenkins

One topic we are understandably reluctant to talk about here in South Carolina is our rankings in certain statistics relative to other states. To name a few examples, on a scale where one is the best, we are ranked 49th in diabetes, 39th in smoking, 42nd in obesity, 45th in violent crime, 47th in high school graduation and 48th in per capita income. Even my father-in-law’s accusation was confirmed a few weeks ago when a study revealed we are 49th in driving skills (although he admitted to being off by one).

What’s more, people from other states know our plight. I can recall several travels during which I’ve met new folks who seem to be incredibly sensitive in the conversation after that initial question of, "So where are you from?"

It’s as if they feel sorry for me. They seem intentional in their avoidance of polysyllabic words and the integration of anything intellectual into the conversation. I can usually quell their concern after a few minutes of conversation, but it still frustrates me. Because of my own interests, I often turn the conversation toward the natural world, but another reason to do so is because the "species statistics" are impressively positive for South Carolina.

As it turns out, the entire Southeast is a fantastic place to study nature because of the many different species that exist here compared to other regions of the U.S. A few years ago, a study compiled our available data and ranked the states according to the number of species they contain. On the same scale as that used above, we rank 25th in freshwater fish diversity, 21st in bird diversity, 15th in mammal diversity, 12th in plant diversity and 11th in reptile diversity. Best of all, we rank seventh in amphibian diversity, and our overall ranking is 14th! One has to admit this is incredibly impressive!

It’s worth asking why we are so well-endowed with wildlife. Biologists give various reasons for this effect. One is weather. Life tends to do best in warm, wet places (think of the tropics). Relative to other states, we excel in these aspects. Another reason is probably related to the ice age, which occurred between 10 thousand and 2 million years ago. During this time, glaciers moved down from the north, covering parts of the U.S. Species could either perish or move south where glaciers never intruded.

This means species here have had more cumulative years of existence, thereby evolving into multiple species during the time that was unavailable farther north. We also have our mountains to thank. These provide us with significant elevation, producing a colder climate more similar to that in our northern states. This means species that would typically only exist in the north can do so down here as long as they are up on the mountain. In addition to the mountains, we are blessed with the Piedmont, the Sandhills, the coastal plain and the coast. All these distinct regions require distinct adaptations and, therefore, distinct species. These factors combine to give us a large package of biodiversity in a very small space.

While we work to improve our societal statistics, it’s important not to let our species rankings slip away. To include just one more ranking, South Carolina is among the top in states to which people are now moving. This is a popular place. I’m not suggesting that people are moving here because it is a nice place to be a naturalist. I also don’t think many people even know or care that we are ranked 12th in plant diversity or seventh in amphibian diversity. However, the combination of those species statistics translates directly into the aesthetic beauty that abounds across our land, and that beauty is a reason why many near and far love this state so much.

As we continue to grow our own population and welcome those from elsewhere, I hope we give equal attention to protecting the places that play host to our bounty of biodiversity and the resulting natural beauty that makes our land so lovely in the first place. Pardon the pun, but if we act otherwise, we’ll miss the forest for the trees.

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