North Carolina is a beautiful state, from the Appalachian mountains to the barrier islands known as the "Outer Banks." This varied landscape is part of what creates a wide variety of ecological conditions. The mountains host numerous forest types (even the nation's only eastern temperate rainforest), balds, bogs and fens; the hilly Piedmont holds hardwood and pine forests, sandhills and hemlock bluffs; the coastal plain and Outer Banks are the home of another spread of forest types, wetlands, natural lakes, Carolina bays and pocosins. Aquatic ecosystems range from the Atlantic ocean to sounds, streams, rivers, estuaries, reservoirs, and natural and artificial lakes.
All kinds of flora and fauna inhabit these places, including 52 species which are threatened or endangered. Aside from the state bird, here is a look at 10 of the state's most awesome animals. Feel free to suggest any other creatures for this completely unscientifically-created list. Since 2014 is the 30th anniversary of the North Carolina Wilderness Act, now is also a great time to explore North Carolina's wild places and find some of these animals.
The largest salamander in the U.S. is also known by many strange nicknames, such as "devil dog" and "snot otter." Sometimes growing over two feet long, these nocturnal amphibians stalk small stretches of mountain streams in search of crayfish and other food. They also absorb oxygen through their skin. Hellbenders are classified as "Near Threatened," although some populations are faring worse than those in North Carolina.
Carolina northern flying squirrel
Larger than the southern flying squirrel, these bug-eyed creatures of the night glide through the air using skin flaps. They live between the hardwood and spruce-fir forests of the western North Carolina mountain-tops, where they typically eat fungi and lichen and nest in tree cavities. Their high mountain homes are suggestive of their habitats during the previous ice age. The Carolina northern flying squirrel's isolated population leaves it vulnerable to deforestation, invasive pests, development and pollution, earning it an "Endangered" status.
North Atlantic right whale
North Atlantic right whales can weigh an astounding 140,000 pounds and are almost 50 feet long; they also remain pregnant around one year and can live for 50 years. While much of their protected habitat lies in the northeast and near Florida and Georgia, these cetaceans also frequent other coastal areas such as those in North Carolina. Despite their size, North Atlantic right whales eat zooplankton using their baleen.
The "Endangered" status of these whales stems not only from their reproductive cycles and long maturation times, but the fact that they were historically termed the "right whale" to hunt. The western population is only about 400 individuals strong and is currently threatened by ship collisions, fishing gear, habitat degradation, tourism- and noise-related nuisances, pollution, and changes to the climate and whales' ecosystem.
Despite their appearance, glass lizards are not snakes - glass lizards have external ear openings and can move their eyelids. North Carolina is home to three species of these legless marvels - the eastern, slender, and mimic glass lizards. Eastern and mimic glass lizards are found in the southeastern coastal plain, while the slender glass lizard's range extends from the coastal plain to the Piedmont. Though all three species eat various kinds of invertebrates, the slender glass lizard will also eat lizards and snakes. Like some other lizards, glass lizards can break off their tails, which wriggle for a little while afterwards as a distraction to predators. Fortunately for the lizards, these tails regrow.
Five species of sea turtles nest on the coast of North Carolina; in increasing order of size, they are the Kemp's ridley, hawksbill, loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles. The relatively small Kemp's ridley is approximately two-and-one-half feet long and weighs up to 100 pounds, while the enormous leatherback may grow to over 6.5 feet in length and exceed a weight of 2,000 pounds. The diet varies by species, but may include algae, invertebrates or fish. Sea turtles lay eggs on the same beaches where they hatched; hatchlings emerge at night for a mad dash away from the predators of the beach and coastal waters, with a very low survival rate. Higher temperatures in the nest lead to more female turtles.
All but the Kemp's ridley are distributed in many locations throughout the world. The Kemp's ridley, hawksbill, and leatherback are all "Endangered," while certain populations of the loggerhead and green are listed as "Endangered;" the other populations are listed as "Threatened." Threats to these oceanic reptiles include accidental capture in fishing gear, harvesting of eggs and adults, beach recreation and other threats such as pollution, disease, habitat loss, climate change, and artifical lights which distract hatchlings (who follow the moon and the stars to the ocean).
The James and Tar River spinymussels may seem tiny and uninteresting, but these endangered species have extremely small ranges. The James spinymussel is only found in West Virgina, Virginia, and North Carolina - including the Dan River area - while the Tar River spinymussel is exclusive to parts of North Carolina's Tar and Neuse Rivers. Both of these filter-feeding species are also part of a three species-small group of spined freshwater mussels, with juveniles of the species more likely to have spines than adults. Most interesting is the spinymussel's life cycle, shared with other freshwater mussels. The eggs fertilize and develop in the gills of females, who then release the larvae ("glochidia") so they may attach to the gills or fins of fish. The larvae metamorhpose in juveniles, then fall off the hosts and develop further on stream beds.
North Carolina's spinymussels are threatened by habitat loss and degradation from causes such as agricultural pollution, sewage, runoff, sedimentation, development and construction, impoundments and droughts. The Tar River spinymussel is particularly endangered since its populations are small and isolated.
The tiny piping plover scurries along the Great Plains, Great Lakes shores, eastern North American coast and Caribbean in search of invertebrates to pick out of the sand. They form nesting territories on sandy beaches, gravelly shores, riverbanks, and in wetlands, lining depressions in the sand with stones or shell fragments. The camouflaged young will freeze if threatened, while the adults will try to distract the offender with a fake broken wing.
Endangered in some places, the piping plover is listed as threatened in North Carolina's coastal counties, where it can be found breeding. The plover is threatened by habitat loss and degradation, along with disturbances to breeding areas; in North Carolina, these threats result from development, dune modification, and foot and vehicle traffic. Vehicles can crush chicks and eggs or even trap chicks in tire tracks.
American white ibis
The strange, beautiful and somewhat itinerant ibis forms nesting colonies which can number in the tens of thousands; however, populations and colonies move quickly over time. Males bring nesting materials to females and defend the nests as well. North Carolina is the northern-most end of a breeding range which stretches down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts; ibises also roam from Virginia to eastern Texas and have been found in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. These birds live in marshes, wetlands, swamps and other wet places where they can dip their curved bills into underwater sediments to search by touch for crustaceans, insects, fish and frogs. Though habitat loss and disturbance threaten the ibis, it is not listed as "Threatened" or "Endangered."
The red wolf's range and population declined so dramatically that in 1973 all of these endangered animals were actively sought for capture; the species was soon declared extinct in the wild. A captive breeding program created from 14 of the 17 captured wolves led to a 1987 restoration program in North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The population spread to additional federal, state and private lands, with a current wild population of 100 wolves.
Loss of habitat and "predator control" led to the original decline of the wolf. State-permitted killing of coyotes continued to accidentally threaten them despite their endangered status, as these canids resemble coyotes but are somewhat larger and redder; a recent court ruling temporarily halted this problem.
Spruce-fir moss spider
The final animal on the list may terrify some, but it is actually one of the tinier spiders in the tarantula sub-order since it is almost as large as a BB. The name indicates its habitat, as it lives in moss mats of a particular moistness in the spruce-fir forests of the western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee mountain peaks.
This specialized habitat leads to the spider's endangered status, as the moss mats are partly threatened by damage to the surrounding forests from an insect called the balsam wooly adelgid; the pest leaves untouched trees vulnerable to the elements. Additional forest loss and degradation from logging, burning, pollution, climate change, disease, insects and the elements can also change tree cover, resulting in mats which are too dry for the spider.