The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has filed a massive petition to protect 404 freshwater species in the southeastern U.S. The list includes 48 fish, 92 mussels and snails, 92 crayfish and other crustaceans, 82 plants, 13 reptiles (including five map turtles), four mammals, 15 amphibians, 55 insects, and three birds. The species live in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Why seek protection for so many species at once? The CBD says they all form a cohesive ecosystem, and they depend upon each other for their survival. According to the CBD's Web site about what it refers to as the southeastern freshwater extinction crisis, "All these species are intricately interconnected: For example, the map turtles' survival depends on the abundance of snails and mussels, which they eat, while mussels depend on fish to host their larvae—and the fish, in turn, depend on the abundance of flies, whose larvae they consume."

The species face a wide range of threats, mostly due to a lack of quality water. Factors affecting this include "dams, urban and agricultural sprawl, logging, mining, livestock grazing, pollution, invasive species" and climate change, according to the CBD.

As The New York Times reports, "The petition is the second-largest ever, behind a 2007 action from Wildearth Guardians that sought to list 475 species in the Southwest. Of the 475, 399 were rejected, 71 are still under review and four were approved for federal protection."

So what happens following a petition like this? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must now start the process to assess all of these species and determine whether they deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act. Meanwhile, the agency has a very short deadline in which to do so: just one year following the receipt of the petition. FWS spokesperson Valerie Fellows told the Times that this petition will overwhelm the Service's resources and tie it up in litigation for years. Fellows even went so far as to say that five species that may have been added to the Endangered Species List this year may not get that protection because of this petition.

But the CBD takes this very seriously. "These 404 species are an integral part of what makes the Southeast unique," Noah Greenwald, the CBD's endangered species program director, said in a prepared statement. "Saving them would improve the health of southeastern rivers and help ensure a high quality of life for people now and in the future."

Photo: The Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra), one of the 404 species in the Center for Biological Diversity's petition. Via Wikipedia.