America's Southeast is no stranger to strange.
Lurking in its freshwater rivers, streams and wetlands are some of nature's most bizarre creations: amorous fish that communicate with knocks and groans, a mussel that lays its eggs on a salamander, a carnivorous plant whose digestive fluids are a deadly trap for insects, blind and translucent crayfish that live only in pitch darkness.
A perfect natural laboratory, the Southeast is the world's center of aquatic biodiversity, with more species of freshwater mussels, snails and crayfish than anywhere else on Earth.
Unfortunately, it's also been an epicenter of extinction. Since European settlement, more than 120 freshwater species in North America have vanished forever -- and about half of those were in the Mobile River Basin, which includes parts of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Today hundreds more southeastern species remain threatened by pollution, dams, dredging, urban sprawl, mining, logging and poor agricultural practices.
That's why it was so gratifying this week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that 374 freshwater species in 12 southeastern states passed the initial test for protection under the Endangered Species Act and will now be given a full review.
Protecting these plants and animals will not only instantly reduce the risk that they'll go extinct, but will also provide important new safeguards for vast freshwater ecosystems in the Southeast. There will be tangible benefits for people, too. Mussels, for instance, improve water quality by filtering water constantly and removing impurities, making it safer for humans.
This week's decision affects a who's who of some of the Southeast's wildest denizens: 89 species of crayfish and crustaceans; 81 plants; 78 mollusks; 51 butterflies, moths, caddisflies and other insects; 43 fish; 13 amphibians; 12 reptiles; four mammals; and three birds.
Some of the species, like the Florida sandhill crane and the Alabama map turtle, could turn up on your typical wildlife calendar.
Most others wouldn't make it in the door at a beauty contest. These are creatures built for function, uniquely adapted to the places they live and sporting some of the best names going: Black Warrior waterdog (a salamander in Alabama), Cape Fear spatterdock (a North Carolina water lily) and the egg-mimic darter (a small fish in Tennessee).
All of them play an important role in the freshwater ecosystems where they've existed for thousands, even millions, of years. Some clean the water, some absorb sunshine and spread nutrients, others occupy their own link in the food chain or help keep the careful balance of insects in check.
Unfortunately, their plight has worsened in recent decades as human development consumed their habitat, dammed and polluted their waters and, ultimately, pushed them to the brink of extinction.
In 2010 the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a 1,100-page scientific petition to reverse the tide of extinction in the Southeast. In July we reached a landmark agreement with the Obama administration to set legally binding deadlines for 757 of the country's least protected but most imperiled species, including those in the Southeast.
Because of its intense workload, the Fish and Wildlife Service won't make final protection decisions on the 374 southeastern species for several years. For now, though, it's enough to know the fuzzy pigtoe, Texas screwstem, Waccamaw fatmucket, Ozark chub and scores of their fellow freshwater species are on their way to being saved.