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Fantastic Freshwater: 50 landmark species for conservation

May 25, 2022
Starry night harlequin toad. Image: Fundacíon Atelopus

A dappled ‘starry night’ toad, lost to science for decades, but recently documented on indigenous lands in Colombia. An iridescent blue-banded kingfisher native to tropical streams on the island of Java. A West African tree-climbing crab which makes its home in tree holes filled with rainwater. These are some of the wonderful, but highly threatened, freshwater species highlighted in a new report authored by some of the world’s leading conservationists.

Released last week by the Shoal organisation, the Fantastic Freshwater report showcases fifty unique freshwater species threatened with extinction. These include a giant catfish, almost three metres in length, which migrates huge distances through the Mekong Delta, and a microscopic star-shaped fungi known from only two sphagnum bogs in Wisconsin, USA. Other wonders include a nocturnal Japanese firefly which flashes and buzzes through evergreen riverside forests, and a reclusive hairy-nosed otter native to wetland forests across southeast Asia.

Light trails created by the Kumejima Firefly. Image: SatouF

“This is a milestone report for us, as it brings together experts working on freshwater species from across the taxonomic spectrum, and from across the IUCN Species Survival Commission – one of the leading bodies on global species knowledge,” says Monika Böhm, freshwater coordinator at the Global Center for Species Survival, Indianapolis Zoo.

“Because many freshwater species suffer from the same threats, each of these species tells a compelling story of what is happening to our freshwaters, whether they are vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, or tiny fungi. We really would miss a trick by not working together to give a fuller picture of the wonders – and importance – of freshwater diversity,” Böhm says.

Javan blue-banded kingfisher. Image: Leonardus Adi Saktyari

The fifty species were selected through consultation with twenty-one IUCN SSC Specialist Groups and IUCN Red List Authorities, and freshwater fungi experts. The species receive very little conservation attention, despite the fact they often act as ‘umbrella species’ for the conservation of wider ecosystems.

They also include an elephant snail with an evolutionary lineage spanning millions of years found in ancient lakes in Indonesia, an alpine wetland plant with medicinal properties found only between two mountain summits in Lebanon, and a ‘box’ turtle endemic to the clear-water pools of Cuatro Ciénegas in the Chihuahuan desert of northern Mexico.

“Now that we have a better understanding of the conservation status of numerous freshwater species, we urgently need to implement conservation actions to prevent further extinctions and contribute to our goal of being nature positive by 2030,″ explains Topiltzin Contreras-MacBeath, co-chair IUCN SSC Freshwater Conservation Committee.

Bakara Sulawesi elephant snail. Image: SHOAL

The Fantastic Freshwater report acts as a snapshot of the vital, but often overlooked, diversity of global freshwater life. As the report authors state in their introduction, “The plight of the world’s rainforests and coral reefs has been well known for decades, but freshwater is all too often out of sight, out of mind.”

As a result, the report strengthens ongoing conservation efforts to change this public and political perception: to bring an awareness of the wonder and fragility of freshwater life out from beneath the water’s surface.


This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

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