The Florida semaphore is not the only Florida species languishing on the candidate list without protection. Thirteen others are currently on the list and have been candidates for an average of 20 years: Carter's small-flowered flax, sand flax, Florida pineland crabgrass, wedge spurge, Big Pine partridge pea, Florida brickle-bush, Blodgett's silverbrush, Georgia aster, Highlands tiger beetle, Florida indigo, Florida prairie-clover, Cape Sable thoroughwort, and the Pineland sandmat.
First placed on the candidate list: 1999
Years waiting for protection: 5
Range: Florida
Habitat: coastal hardwood hammocks

The Florida semaphore is a large prickly pear cactus from the Florida keys. It was thought to have been driven extinct by cacti collectors and road construction in the late 1970s, but was rediscovered in the mid-1980s. Despite the species' precarious state, it was not put on the federal candidate list for protection under the Endangered Species Act until 1999. During this time, and while lying unprotected on the list, its historic habitat continued to fall prey to development, destruction and fragmentation. Much of it is now unusable for recovery actions. Just two populations remain, and one is reproducing through pollination.

Two other Florida species paid the ultimate price for bureaucratic listing delays. The Smithsonian Institution petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the narrow-leaved hoary pea ( Tephrosia angustissima var. angustissima) as an endangered species in 1975. The agency proposed to list in 1976, but rather than complete the process, placed the pea on the candidate list in 1980. It languished on the unprotected list until 1985 when it was last seen. The Ochlockonee moccasinshell ( Medionidus simpsonianus), one of many imperiled southeastern mussels, was identified by the Department of Interior as being endangered in 1971. No action was taken to list it as an endangered species until it was made a candidate in 1994. Unfortunately, it went extinct in 1993.

The Florida semaphore has a distinct trunk, a cluster of pads at the top, and small, bright red flowers. It grows on bare rock with minimal soil in hardwood hammocks close to salt water. When its flowers fall they sometimes sprout into new plants, thus the species can reproduce vegetatively as well as sexually. The species is threatened by sprawl, spread of the exotic moth Cactoblastis cactorum, and--due to having only two populations--hurricanes. The Little Torch Key population was planted from wild stock from the now extinct Big Pine Key population. It has just nine plants, most or all of which are male, and is reproducing solely by vegetative means due to lack of successful pollination. A second, larger population was discovered in 2002.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
May 2, 2004
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