Unseen neighbor is a vital cog in local ecosystem

December 11, 2010

My neighbor might be an endangered species.

No, not a Democrat. A real, not-many-of-you-fellas-left critter in trouble.

Smaller than a grain of white rice and just as colorless, Kenk's amphipod lives in small springs and seeps into my portion of Montgomery County known as Inside the Beltway.

It looks like a shrimp, although "you'd probably have to eat all the ones in existence to make a meal," says Dan Feller, a Department of Natural Resources biologist who spends his time trying to find living things that almost aren't anymore.

The federal government has made the bitsy freshwater crustacean a candidate for the endangered species list. That would protect the remaining population from, well, us.

As far as anyone knows — and Feller is a leader in the field — Kenk's (Stygobromus kenki) likes to live in an exclusive community where water bubbles to the surface. And not just any surface. It has to be a pristine, woodsy corridor carved by ancient rivers and streams, lined with fallen leaves and uncluttered by old tires, car batteries and other detritus of civilization.

That's the habitat found in three parts of Rock Creek Park in DC, a spring along Northwest Branch (which is where I'm standing with Feller), and some suburbanite's swath of land.

So how is it that Kenk's is living in relative bliss a stone's throw from one of the nation's busiest roads and in the backyard of, well, people's backyards?

It's blind, deaf and despite living in Montgomery County, not very upwardly mobile.

You might be asking yourself, "Why should we care whether this little thing clings to life or joins Pontiacs and 8-tracks on the long list of things that just don't matter anymore?"

It's simple. Everything is connected. This seep that glistens in the sunshine gets pushed along by gravity until it trickles into Northwest Branch, which flows southeast until it reaches the Anacostia River in Bladensburg. The Anacostia empties into the Potomac River, which dumps into the Chesapeake Bay.

"This is the very beginning of the water cycle," says Feller, who has sampled more than 500 springs in Maryland.

Since Kenk's survives only in the cleanest water, the little critter acts as a sommelier for the Chesapeake.

If every bay tributary could boast of having a Kenk's seal of approval, we could tell the EPA's restoration team to take the next decade off.

But beyond the matter of water quality, Kenk's is at the low end of the food chain, providing protein for stone flies, caddis and mayflies that in turn feed trout.

Feller is worried that water and sewer pipes might be buried beneath the dirt that surrounds Kenk's neighborhood. To the amphipod, it doesn't matter if the liquid is sewage or chlorinated drinking water, it's a killer.

Its delicate nature and the fact that it has been found only in five locations leaves the population extremely vulnerable, says Andy Moser of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Species like Kenk's evolved from surface creatures to ones that lurk underground and at the fringe of daylight.

"These were established as a genus before the continents broke apart. The tiny aquifers have become isolated, so while you can find Kenk's right here, you won't find them just 100 yards away in that spring over there," Feller says.

If they weren't bright white and wiggly, scientists might not have noticed them at all, he says.

Kenk's amphipod was discovered in 1967 by Dr. Roman Kenk, an invertebrate zoologist and an authority on freshwater flatworms at the National Museum of Natural History. The amphipod is one of nine invertebrates named in his honor.

Feller saw his first one in 1996 while conducting surveys in Rock Creek Park. Nine years later, he found the Maryland community.

Working in favor of saving Kenk's is that the sites in Rock Creek Park already are partially protected by the National Park Service. The land around Northwest Branch is owned by the county, which could make protection easy. The fifth site is privately owned by someone not really attuned to amphipods.

"That site is most likely a write off," Feller says.

But Kenk's lives on a slippery slope — literally. What happens above stream valleys eventually makes its way downhill. In the case of Northwest Branch, the valley edge is crowned with houses. In Rock Creek Park, what's uphill is a lot of Washington development.

In its announcement listing Kenk's candidacy, the Fish and Wildlife Service noted that while "the threats are moderate in magnitude ... Several threats are imminent because they are ongoing and expected to continue."

The agency agreed that Kenk's is a separate species from other amphipods because it has, "the palmar margin of gnathopod 1, which is nearly straight, and the rudimentary ramus of uropod 3, which is only about 1/8 length of the peduncle."

I'm not making that up.

The agency gave Kenk's a score of 8 (a 1 is hair-on-fire urgent; a 12 is "you're on your own, pal").

Not exactly a lifeline, but better than nothing.

Earlier this year, Maryland saw fit to add Kenk's to its list of endangered species.

For a species without eyes or pigmentation, that's a ray of sunshine to cheer about.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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