The Lake Wales Ridge, 'Florida's Attic'

Exploring a Protected Habitat on ESA's 30th Anniversary

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Listen: Biologist Hilary Swain discusses endangered species and the Florida scrub

Listen: The call of the Florida scrub-jay

A Florida scrub-jay perched on a branch

The Florida scrub-jay is among the more than 100 species of the state's plants and animals that are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. All photos by Jessica Goldstein of NPR hide caption

itoggle caption All photos by Jessica Goldstein of NPR
Hilary Swain smiling at the camera

Hilary Swain, a biologist and Scotswoman who came to America and fell in love with the Florida scrub. hide caption

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Florida Scrub

The Archbold Biological Station's nearly 9,000 acres are a refuge for the last big patch of Florida scrub. hide caption

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Chris Valligny holds a scrub-jay in his hand

Archbold Research Assistant Chris Valligny demonstrates the correct way to hold the scrub-jay. hide caption

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Reed Bowman retrieves a scrub-jay from a small wire trap laying on the ground.

Biologist Reed Bowman retrieves a scrub-jay from a trap baited with peanuts. hide caption

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NPR's Chris Joyce releases a scrub-jay. Jessica Goldstein, NPR hide caption

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itoggle caption Jessica Goldstein, NPR

The Archbold Biological Station is at the southern tip of the Lake Wales Ridge, which stretches through Central Florida. Map: Roberta L. Pickert, Copyright 1997 Archbold Biological Station Map: Roberta L. Pickert./Archbold Biological Station hide caption

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itoggle caption Map: Roberta L. Pickert./Archbold Biological Station

Thirty years ago this month, enactment of the Endangered Species Act helped foster the notion that people could stop animals and plants from becoming extinct. The Act stirred strong emotions by halting development in some places — and it changed the way science is done. In the latest Radio Expedition, NPR's Christopher Joyce visits Florida to take the measure of the Act's effects. Radio Expeditions are co-productions of NPR and National Geographic.

Biologist Hilary Swain runs the Archbold Biological Station on the Lake Wales Ridge in Central Florida. The Ridge, Swain explains, is "Florida's attic, where we have this assemblage of species and communities found really nowhere else on Earth."

In this scrub live more than 40 rare species of plants and animals. Many are protected by the Endangered Species Act. One of the most unusual is the Florida scrub-jay, a bird whose breeding behavior is more human than birdlike. There are only a few thousand of the sky-blue birds left. While they're related to the blue jay, the scrub-jays are different — wary, yet unafraid.

When biologist and scrub-jay expert Glen Woolfenden started studying them decades ago, his main tools were binoculars, peanuts and leg bands for the birds. He says wildlife biology was mainly making sure there were enough deer for hunters to shoot.

Now younger colleagues at the station like biologist Reed Bowman use DNA to identify scrub-jay families, distinguish males from females, and track diseases like West Nile Virus. The Endangered Species Act encouraged new techniques like these, because it pushed the science beyond classifying and counting animals and plants, Joyce says.

"They don't call it conservation biology for nothing," Bowman says. "What do we need to know, how do these animals make their living, what are the kinds of habitats in which they can successfully make that living, and what were the processes that created that habitat?"

The Act elevated habitat to a much more important role. Biologists now must manage the environment that plants and animals live. For example, the staff at Archbold must regularly start fires to control overgrowth of forest that might otherwise obscure hawks that prey on the scrub-jay.

Swain says people "whiz by" such landscapes "without really ever understanding them." But, she says, "I think it would be... extraordinarily arrogant to describe ourselves in any way as gods of a landscape like this. We're at best stewards who are still naive and learning about management."

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