In Peril: WILD ART 2021

As part of the Wild Art 2021 November Challenge, put on by Zoe Keller, I illustrated two pieces focusing on the theme, “In Peril”. Each month, I will focus on two pieces – one highlighting flora, the other highlighting fauna. This month, the first is a flower who brought me great joy picking them as a child in the Pocono Mountains, but now is threatened (hopefully not due to my bouquets!). The other is a marshy water bird whose populations decreased due to habitat loss.

Let’s start by figuring out what “in-peril” or threatened officially means!

“Threatened Definition”

Threatened covers a wide spectrum of organisms. Overall, any creature that is Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable are considered to be threatened, or under “threat” of extinction. As of 2021, there are 16,000+ endangered species, with 35,000+ threatened species!

As climate change, overdevelopment, desertification, habitat loss, disease, and invasive species competition continue, many plants and animals face extinction. Extinctions happened before, so why is this a big deal now?

The 6th Mass Extinction Event

The most recent mass extinction event occurred when the dinosaurs died. Now species are going extinct so quickly that we are in the 6th Mass Extinction Event. Human-caused climate change threatens vital habitats, and as our own population grows and we don’t practice sustainable land development, construction, and more, we run the risk of ruining areas for wild plants, animals, and ourselves!

How does a mass extinction impact us, though? All of life is interconnected. Let’s look at wetlands as an example of an interconnected ecosystem.

Wetlands are home to amphibians, fish, insects, plants, turtles, water birds, and more. As water dries up due to overdevelopment in a housing community down the street, the habitat becomes unsuitable for these animals. Plants can’t grow without steady water and can no longer provide food for animals. Insects stop laying eggs without their aquatic nesting sites, so now frogs and fish can’t eat. Water birds leave since their prey of frogs and fish are gone. The animals have nowhere else to go, so they die off. Now, nutrients aren’t cycled and stagnant pools of contaminated runoff from roadways and storm water drainage form in these lifeless wet zones, sharply increasing our risk of disease and illness.

Building wildlife habitats, supporting green infrastructure and industry, voting with the environment in mind, and reducing waste whenever possible are great ways to mitigate this extinction event and protect the plants and animals we love!

What are some plants and animals that are currently threatened on a local scale?

Eastern Blue-eyed Grasses

The Eastern Blue-eyed Grasses (Sisyrinchium atlanticum) are native to the New England region. They are low growing plants with beautiful, small purply-blue flowers. They grow scattered in fields, woodlands, and marshes, especially if there is steady access to water near streams or wetlands.

Native grasses are important soil erosion managers and pollution absorbers. Although they are closely related to an iris, they are no different in their abilities! They provide food resources for several small bee species and tiny butterflies. After pollination and seed production (small green balls in the illustration), they also provide food for birds.

Unfortunately, these flowers, common as I thought they were growing up in damp woodlands, are listed as “Threatened” in Pennsylvania. Aside from plants, animals are threatened too!

Least Bittern

This bird, despite it’s very small size, is a heron species. They are a little bigger than an American Robin, although their neck size is quite deceiving! While perching on reeds, watching for prey, they keep their necks folded against their body, causing them to look hunchbacked. Once they spot their fishy food, they shoot out their long, heron-like neck and stab down. These acrobatic birds have long toes and talons with which to precariously straddle water reeds. As they crane their neck, the stripes along their body helps them blend in with the tall plant life.

Similarly to the Eastern Blue-Eyed Grasses, this bird is also a Pennsylvania resident who is struggling! Here in PA, wetland environment is quickly drying up. Tidal marshes have disappeared and many wetlands across the state were impounded. They require constant aquatic environments (where frogs, fish, and crustaceans live), so ephemeral wetlands, or areas that hold water only in the spring after a snow melt, or in the fall after the late-summer storms, aren’t suitable.

What Does This All Mean?

Fortunately, we can mitigate these threats and help restore plant and bird populations! By creating suitable wildlife habitat, removing competing invasive species, and restoring native wetland environments, we can help the Eastern Blue-eyed grass AND the Least Bittern!

Together, we can make the world a better place and transform these threatened organisms into ones that thrive! Interested in learning about other plants and animals that do actually transform, or change appearance over time? Stay tuned next month to learn more about post-pollination communication in plants and house hunting animals with the “Transformation” theme!

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