Scientists have published one of the most comprehensive survey of Southeastern watersheds and the diverse aquatic wildlife that live in these freshwater ecosystems.

The survey is the result of over a year’s worth of data collection and according to the team behind the study, the survey will serve as a master plan to guide research and conservation work that will ensure the long-term survival of these waterways, which have suffered from intensive human development.

The work was carried out by the University of Georgia River Basin Center and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute scientists who say that the rivers and streams in the US are a measure of the health of the landscape with them. Anna George with the institute said that currently the rivers are having heart attacks.

In the study, scientists scored each watershed based on three characteristics: the number of species it contained, the conservation status of those species and how widespread each species was. Areas containing a greater variety of species, large numbers of endangered or threatened species or species found in few or no other locations were ranked higher.

The report uses colored heat maps to represent the variety of species in a given area—warmer colors indicating greater diversity—and are based on the distribution of more than 1,000 fish, crayfish and mussel species in almost 300 watersheds spanning 11 states. The vivid red-and-orange bull’s-eye centered on middle and southeast Tennessee, northwest Georgia and northern Alabama shows why this region is so biologically significant.

Experts place the region’s plethora of aquatic wildlife on equal footing with that of species-rich tropical ecosystems. More than 1,400 species reside in waterways within a 500-mile radius of Chattanooga, including about three-quarters of all native fish species in the United States. More than 90 percent of all American mussel and crayfish species live within that same area.

More than a quarter of the species included in the study are unique to the region, and some of them are struggling. Twenty-eight percent of Southeastern fish species, for example, are considered imperiled, more than doubling during the last 20 years.

According to the study, the 10 highest-priority watersheds are:

  • Pickwick Lake in middle Tennessee and northern Alabama
  • Wheeler Lake in middle Tennessee and northern Alabama
  • Cahaba in central Alabama
  • Upper Clinch in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia
  • Middle Coosa in northeast Alabama
  • Lower Duck in middle Tennessee
  • Conasauga in southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia
  • Lower Coosa in central Alabama
  • Etowah in northwest Georgia
  • Caney in middle Tennessee
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