Wildlife Resources Division contacts:
Kristina Summers, communications/outreach specialist - (770) 918-6791;



BRUNSWICK, Ga. (April 20, 2009) - Beyond the beaches and bike trails at Jekyll Island, a new natural community has been discovered tucked within the island’s iconic maritime forest.

On the southern tip of Jekyll, a boardwalk leads through a relic dune swale. The low-lying area is dominated by Carolina willow, swamp rose mallow and dotted smartweed. To the untrained eye, the patch of vegetation may look like anywhere else on Jekyll. But for two botanists, the area is a rare find - a previously unclassified ecological community.

An ecological community is a group of interacting plant and animal species that live in the same place. The communities are bound by the influences the species have on each other. The main species in the newly described community on Jekyll are common separately but in combination represent a previously unknown community.

Ecological communities are grouped according to the U.S. National Vegetation Classification system maintained by NatureServe, a non-profit conservation organization considered a leading source of information about rare and endangered species and eco-systems. Although extensive, the NatureServe database has limited examples of communities potentially found on the Georgia coast. The Jekyll community discovered by Eamonn Leonard and Jacob Thompson of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has been added as a new ecological association called the Southern Atlantic Coastal Plain Carolina Willow Dune Swale.

This community may be unique to Georgia. Leonard and Thompson, natural resources biologists with the DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, documented it as part of a three-year project that involves extensive vegetation mapping in 11 coastal Georgia counties. The work will result in a detailed picture of the ecological communities in the counties, including the 25 high-priority habitats designated by the State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy that guides Wildlife Resources and DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity.

“Currently, our understanding of the locations and extent of ecological communities on the coast of Georgia is somewhat limited,” Thompson said. “Our mapping effort will help us know more about the status of known natural communities and describe new community types like the one on Jekyll Island.

“This knowledge is critical in order to preserve the valuable natural resources on our coast.”

The mapping project is part of the larger Coastal Georgia Land Conservation Initiative, a collaborative between the DNR, Georgia Conservancy and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia to preserve critical coastal lands and promote sustainable growth and development.

The ecological communities of the coast represent a diverse set of natural resources and provide habitats for many rare plant and animal species, while also supporting basic ecological functions on which people rely. For example, the barrier islands and associated inter-tidal salt marshes reduce the impact of storm surges, which can damage homes and roads.

“This project will give local governments, conservation organizations and city planners a baseline map of the critical and imperiled communities and important resources within each county,” Leonard said. “With this in hand, coupled with technical assistance from the other organizations involved in this project, coastal counties can plan for future development more sustainably by keeping natural resources in mind and ensure (their) existence in the future.”

Georgians can help conserve native plants, habitats and animals not legally hunted, fished for or trapped through buying wildlife license plates featuring a bald eagle or a ruby-throated hummingbird. Sales are vital to the Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section, which receives no state funds.

The conservation tags are available for a one-time $25 fee at county tag offices, by checking the wildlife license plate box on mail-in registrations and through online renewals (http://mvd.dor.ga.gov/tags).

Visit www.georgiawildlife.com for more information, or call Nongame
Conservation offices in Social Circle (770-761-3035), Forsyth
(478-994-1438) or Brunswick (912-264-7218).

Uncharted: Biologists find rare ecosystem on Jekyll
Individually, the plants are common, but together, 'it's kind of rare'.

Georgia Times Union

By Teresa Stepzinski Story updated at 3:20 AM on Sunday, Apr. 26, 2009

JEKYLL ISLAND - Beyond the beach and bike trails, a unique natural community thrives amid the anonymity of the maritime forest on Jekyll Island.

A pileated woodpecker announced its presence last week with a ringing "kuk-kuk-kuk" in a live oak tree towering over a stand of Carolina willow and neighboring patch of wild hibiscus known as swamp rose mallow. Nearby, dragonflies flitted over fresh but tea-colored water winding through a relic dune swale, which is a low-lying, often wet stretch of land.

"It's an oasis for many rare plant and animal species," said Jacob Thompson, who along with Eamonn Leonard recently discovered the previously unclassified ecological community on the island's southern tip.

All native plants, the community of Carolina willow, swamp rose mallow and dotted smartweed create an ecosystem seldom found in the state, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologists said.

"It's a new natural community," Leonard said. "Singularly, these plants are common but as a community, it's kind of rare."

The rarest plant at the site is the swamp rose mallow, which is officially known as hibiscus grandi-florus, they said.

Although the plants were identifiable, the Jekyll site wasn't listed in the National Vegetation Classification System, which is considered the leading source of information about rare and endangered species and ecosystems. Maintained by NatureServe, a nonprofit conservation organization, the data base is extensive but has few listings for plant communities in Coastal Georgia.

"When we found it, we'd collect the data then try to find it on NatureServe, but it wasn't in the classification system," Thompson said.

Leonard and Thompson have documented the habitat, which is in two sections totaling about 2 acres, as part of an ecosystem-mapping project that will result in a comprehensive natural resources inventory of the state's coastal region.

Encompassed by maritime forest, the community provides habitat to a variety of wildlife including birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects.

"It adds a higher level of biodiversity to the area," Thompson said.

Funded by federal and state grants, the project will provide a detailed portrait of ecological communities in each of the 11 coastal counties.

The project is part of the three-year Coastal Georgia Land Conservation Initiative by the DNR, Georgia Conservancy and Association of County Commissioners of Georgia.

The initiative, launched in 2007, is a collaboration intended to preserve critical habitat, while promoting environmentally friendly growth and development in coastal counties.

When finished, the project will be used by government agencies, conservation organizations and municipal planners as a baseline reference to critical and imperiled natural habitat in each county, the biologists said.

"Currently, our understanding of the locations and extent of the ecological communities [in Coastal Georgia] is somewhat limited," Thompson said. "This knowledge is critical in order to preserve the valuable natural resources on our coast."

Working since December 2007, Thompson and Leonard have completed Glynn County, are finishing up Camden and recently began work in McIntosh.

The Jekyll site formally has been named the Southern Atlantic Coastal Plain Carolina Willow Dune Swale. A similar community of plants has been found on Cumberland Island and another has been reported on Wassaw Island, they said.

In addition to providing plant and animal habitat, coastal ecological communities help protect people by reducing the impact of storm surges on property and roads, DNR officials said.

For the most part, however, people aren't aware of the coastal ecological communities because they often are off the beaten path, literally, Thompson said.

"Most people won't see it on Jekyll, because they go to the beach or stay on the bike trails," he said.