From the mountains of East Tennessee to the Mississippi River, every part of the state contains habitats that showcase the abundance and diversity of our wildlife and plant species. Tennessee is home to a wide variety of birds, amphibians, fish, mammals and reptiles. Many of these live across the state in a variety of habitats and appear secure in their numbers. Others, such as the coppercheek darter and the Tennessee (Big Mouth) cave salamander live in habitats found only in Tennessee! These species are totally dependent on our conservation efforts to ensure their survival.
Tennessee is a very important breeding area both for birds which live here year-round and those which come here seasonally. The diversity of habitats, forest types and climates is ideal for breeding for a wide variety of species. Over the last three decades, however, we have seen a drastic decline in numbers of many of our bird species. Some species of warblers have decreased by 80 percent. Even the common chimney swift and barn swallow have decreased more than 35 percent since 1966. Numerous public and private agencies are working with the Tennessee Conservation League and Partners in Flight to reverse these trends.
The diverse geology, climate, soil conditions and plant communities in the state support an immense variety of invertebrate animal life. Included are freshwater mussels and snails, land snails, crustaceans, insects and spiders. These species are important to the biological diversity of Tennessee. Some, such as butterflies and dragonflies, are enjoyed for their beauty. Others, such as freshwater mussels, are important indicators of water quality.
Because of the state's complex geology, few states can match the diversity of forests and plant species that make up Tennessee's lush landscape. There are approximately 2,785 species of plants in Tennessee, including ferns, conifers and flowering plants. Almost 81 percent of these are native to Tennessee. Plants not only provide food and habitats for animal life, but they also contribute to water and air quality. Some species, such as the Tennessee coneflower, occur only in Tennessee and are dependent on us for their survival.
TDEC and TWRA are working cooperatively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other public and private agencies to identify, monitor and conserve Tennessee's natural heritage.
One of the most pressing problems affecting Tennessee's many animal and plant species is the threat of invasion by non-native species. These destructive species pose a serious threat to biological diversity and are very expensive to control.
Introduced to the U.S. in the 1950s, the Asian clam is now present in most Tennessee waters. Because the larvae require no fish host, they can reproduce and settle very quickly into new habitats. Far more damaging, however, is the zebra mussel, a native to eastern Europe which has invaded Tennessee from northern waters.
The endangered Nashville Crayfish (Orconectes shoupi) is native to only a few sites in Middle Tennessee
Zebra mussels have been found upstream of Nashville in the Cumberland River to Fort Loudon in the Tennessee River. This species threatens to displace our native mussels across the state.
Other invasive pests include the balsam wooly adelgid, an insect which is destroying the spruce/fir forests in the mountains of East Tennessee, and the hemlock wooly adelgid, which is destroying the eastern hemlock forests. The gypsy moth is expected to seriously impact rare old growth and virgin oak forests in the Smoky Mountains and oak forests throughout the state.
Invasive exotic plants, such as kudzu, are displacing native plants throughout Tennessee. These unwanted plants are costly to control and remove. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will spend $800,000 over the next three years controlling exotic plant species. The Tennessee Valley Authority spends more than a million dollars a year primarily to control the aquatic invasive plant Eurasian milfoil.
Disease-causing organisms, called pathogens, can also cause serious damage to plant life. A classic example is the American chestnut blight. Caused by a fungus introduced with the Chinese chestnut in the early 1900s, the blight has destroyed one of Tennessee's most important hardwoods.
Dutch elm disease, dogwood anthracnose, butternut canker, and beech bark disease are other diseases having grave effects on Tennessee forests. Dogwoods and beeches are vitally important for wildlife food, and dogwoods are economically important revenue producers for the commercial nursery industry.
In Tennessee, approximately 431 plants and 416 animals are considered endangered, threatened or of special concern. Of these, 17 plants and 72 animals are federally listed as endangered or threatened and are protected under federal law. Other rare plants and animals in the state are protected under laws and initiatives of TDEC and TWRA.
Recovery programs for rare species such as the bald eagle, the Indiana and gray bats and the Tennessee coneflower are success stories. The Tennessee coneflower, thought to be extinct until rediscovered in Davidson County in 1968, has made a comeback through recovery efforts. The coneflower exists worldwide at only 11 sites in three counties in Middle Tennessee. Under the coneflower recovery plan, it is expected that the status of this rare plant will be upgraded from endangered to threatened.