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Seabeach amaranth

The seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus) is endemic to beaches on the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Kiawah Island along the central South Carolina coast [1]. It occurs on sparsely vegetated overwash flats and fore dunes, often around inlets on accreting barrier island ends. Hurricanes and storms reduce and eliminate populations, but also create new habitat by reducing competing ground cover. They may also aid large-scale dispersal. The amaranth traps sand, initiating dune formation and creating suitable habitat for other plants, such as sea oats and beach grass. Numerous shorebirds, including the least tern (Sterna antillarum), Wilson's plover (Charadrius wilsonia), black skimmer (Rhynchops niger), Caspian tern (Sterna caspia), and the endangered piping plover (Charadrius melodus) and roseate tern (Sterna dougallii dougallii), nest in seabeach amaranth stands [2].

The amaranth formerly occurred in 31 counties in nine states, from Massachusetts to South Carolina [1]. By 1988, it occurred only in North and South Carolina. Its decline was likely caused by beach development, dune stabilization and enhancement projects, off-road vehicles, recreation, exotic species and hurricanes. Severe weather in 1989 and 1990 (Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Bertha, northeasters) caused the South Carolina population to decline by 90% (1,800 plants in 1988, 188-379 in 1990).* At the same time, 13 populations recolonized Long Island, New York, perhaps carried by the storms. Even with the inclusion of the Long Island populations, the species declined by 76% between 1988 and 1990. Since being placed on the endangered species list, the amaranth has recolonized New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Annual population counts were not consistently made in South Carolina, but in the other six states, it increased dramatically from 14,899-17,174 in 1993 to 46,108-48,668 in 2004. While the species fluctuated dramatically (well over 100,000 plants in 2000, 2001, 2003 and less than 50,000 in 1999, 2002 and 2004), the trend between 1993 and 2004 was clearly upward.

New Jersey. Extirpated in 1913 [1]; recolonized in 2000 at four sites within Gateway National Recreation Area and several sites on Monmouth County municipal beaches [3]. The latter sites were created by a 1995 beach nourishment project by the Army Corps of Engineers. The 2000 population was 1,039; the 2005 population was 5,795-5,813 [5].

Delaware. Extirpated in 1875 [1]; recolonized in 2000 between the north end of Delaware Seashore State Park and Fenwick Island State Park [6]. The 2000 population of 32 plants grew to 423 in 2002, but declined to just six in 2005 [6, 7]. Some of the plants were found in protected piping plover nest areas [6]. There was no obvious change in habitat conditions which would explain the dramatic decline; it may reflect a natural population fluctuation [7].

Maryland. The amaranth was first found in 1967 at Assateague Island National Seashore in storm overwash areas, but was extirpated, probably due to failed Park Service dune construction and stabilization efforts in 1973 [1]. Two plants naturally recolonized the seashore in 1998 -- the first sighting of the species between New York and North Carolina in 26 years. With Hurricane Bonnie approaching, the U.S. Park Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources removed one of the plants and took cuttings from the other. The cutting did not seed and the wild plant was killed by Bonnie. The captured plant produced thousands of seeds and some 5,400 of their greenhouse-raised offspring were outplanted between 2000 and 2002. The population increased to about 870 in 2001 and 2002, then stabilized at 480-560 plants in 2003-2005 [8].

Virginia. Extirpated in 1973 [1]; recolonized in 2001 with 10 plants, probably dispersers planting at Assateague Island National Seashore [8]. The population fluctuated without apparent trend and was at 30 plants in 2005.

New York. Extirpated about 1960 [1]. Recolonized in 1990 with 331 plants and increased to about 190,500 plants in 2002 before declining to 30,831 in 2004 [9]. Most amaranth sites are within areas symbolically fenced to protect endangered piping plovers.

North Carolina. The North Carolina population fluctuated significantly with lows of 490 (1991), 710 (1999), and 183 (2000) and highs of 29,993 (1992), 38,702 (1995), and 21,966 (2005) [10].

South Carolina. Amaranth populations declined from 1,334 in 1987 to 0 and 4 plants in 1999 and 2000 [1, 10], but the population sizes in 2003 (1,381) and 2004 (2,110) were similar to the 1987 count [11]. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources transplanted nearly 4,000 seedlings from greenhouses to barrier-island beaches in 2000-2001.

* There are minor discrepancies between reported counts in some years, likely due to a confusion of preliminary and final counts, timing of surveys, etc. [10]. In all such cases we report the data as a range between the different reports. In all such cases, one of the numbers was provided by Dale Suiter of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service is in the process of systematizing the data and subjecting them to statistical analysis.

[1] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1993. Amaranthus pumlius (Seabeach Amaranth) determined to be threatened. April 7, 1993 (58 FR 18035).
[2] Randall, J. 2002. Bringing back a fugitive - seabeach amaranth. Endangered Species Bulletin, July-August 2002.
[3] Walsh, W. 2000. Regional News & Recovery Updates: Region 5. Endangered Species Bulletin, September, 2000.
[4] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.1996. Recovery Plan for Seabeach Amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus) Rafinesque. Atlanta, Georgia.
[5] Staples, J.C. 2005. Personal communication with John C. Staples, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Jersey Field Office, November 21, 2005.
[6] Pepper, M. 2004. 2004 Amaranthus pumilus (Seabeach amaranth) Survey Results. Unpublished report, Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.
[7] McAvoy, W. 2005. Personal communication with William McAvoy, Botanist, Delaware Natural Heritage Program, November 7, 2005.
[8] Sturm, M. 2005. Personal communication with Mark Sturm, Assateague Island National Seashore, November 14, 2005.
[9] Young, S. 2005. Amaranthus pumilus Counts on Long Island 1990-2005. New York Natural Heritage Program Information.
[10] Suiter, D. 2005. Personal communication with Dale Suiter, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Raleigh, NC, December 7, 2005 and February 22, 2006.
[11] Strand, A. 2005. Seabeach Amaranth 2004 census and seed rain estimates. Unpublished report, College of Charleston, Charleston, S.C.

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