An Introduction to Biodiversity in Virginia

This post is based on work done to produce Virginia Water Radio Episode 260 (4/6/15), a 3 min./57 sec. podcast on this topic, available online at  Have a listen!

What word could you use to encompass bacteria, beech trees, Blue Crabs, Blue Whales, and millions of other living species on the Earth, from backyards to the whole biosphere?

If you said biodiversity, that’s a good choice! “Biodiversity,” a contraction of “biological diversity,” refers to the any given area’s variety of living species and the ecosystems that support those species. For the earth overall, the number of species is estimated to be in the millions. An area’s biodiversity results from complex interactions among biology, ecology, geology, climate, topography, human activity, and time.

Biodiversity is one aspect of “natural history,” a traditional term for nature study generally, including describing and listing the species found in a given area. The term now encompasses study of an area’s past and present environmental, biological, and human aspects. For example, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City’s Web site (at defines the museum’s mission—since 1869—as being “…to discover, interpret, and disseminate information about human cultures, the natural world, and the universe through a wide-ranging program of scientific research, education, and exhibition.” The National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., states (online at that it is “…dedicated to inspiring curiosity, discovery, and learning about the natural world….” And the Virginia Museum of Natural History (in Martinsville) identifies its mission (online at as to “…interpret Virginia’s natural heritage.” Those statements all reflect interests in the many living an non-living factors that affect what kinds of organisms inhabit particular places—that is, a place’s biodiversity.

Scientists consider adequate biodiversity to be crucial for healthy and sustainable natural systems and for those systems’ capacity to provide humans with food, clean air and water, medicines, and many other benefits and services. Those benefits give everyone good reasons to care about biodiversity in general, but, Virginia—like most states—has its own special aspects of biodiversity. The Commonwealth’s variety of physiographic areas—from western mountains and valleys, to rolling hills, to Tidewater estuaries—provides many habitats that support a wide variety of organisms. According to “State of the Union: Ranking America’s Biodiversity,” an April 2002 report by NatureServe, the Commonwealth ranks 12th among states in the number of species, with over 3800. That report also listed Virginia as having the third-highest number of amphibian species, and the 13th highest number of vascular plant species.

Virginia is that the Commonwealth is part of the Southern Appalachian region—stretching from West Virginia and southwestern Virginia to northern Alabama—which is known its high biodiversity, including aquatic organisms.  For example, the Upper Tennessee River basin, including the Clinch and Holston river watersheds in Virginia, is known particularly for its diversity of fish and mussels. And the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries considers the Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area—covering about 25,000 acres in Russell, Smyth, Tazewell, and Washington counties—to be Virginia’s “most biologically diverse [management area], due in large part to the vast differences in elevation on the area” (according to the Department’s Web site for the management area, online at

On the other side of the state, biodiversity is an important factor in the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia’s other coastal environments, which have great ecological, economic, and historical significance for the Commonwealth.

Below are, first, three photos of Virginia’s biodiversity; second, sources for more information to help you learn more about biodiversity generally, about natural history, and about Virginia’s biodiversity; and, third, information on how this post may help Virginia’s teachers with various science Standards of Learning.


Three water-related examples of Virginia biodiversity: (top) aquatic plants in a pond in Blacksburg, Va., May 2014; (middle) fungi on a tree limb beside the Bannister River in Pittsylvania County, September 2012; (bottom) damselfly on the New River at Wythe County, July 2012 (photo by Anne Jacobsen, used with permission).

Aquatic Plants Nymphaea odorata and Juncus effusus acc to Tom W VT Aquaculture Center pond May 18 2014 ONE

Fungi on tree in Banister River near Cedar Hill Road Pittsylvania County Sep19 2012

Damselfly Rubyspot New River Foster Falls Jul15 2012 by Anne Jacobsen


Biodiversity Generally

Elsa E. Cleland, “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Stability,” Nature Education Knowledge Vol. 3, No. 10 (p. 14), 2011, accessed online at

John Lloyd, “Biodiversity,” 9/15/14, in “Encyclopedia of Life,” National Council for Science and the Environment, online at

NatureServe, “State of the Union: Ranking America’s Biodiversity,” April 2002, available online at

Biodiversity in the Southern Appalachians

All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory/Discover Life in America, online at This is an effort to document the estimated 100,000 species occurring in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Highlands [North Carolina] Biological Station, “Biodiversity of the Southern Appalachians,” online at

Donald W. Linzey, A Natural History Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2008.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southwestern Virginia Field Office, online at

U.S. Geological Survey, “Birth of the Mountains—The Geological Story of the Southern Appalachian Mountains,” by Sandra Clark, online at

Natural History

American Museum of Natural History in New York City,

National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., online at

Amber Parker, “Natural History and Naturalist Skills,” published by Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, online (as PDF) at

Virginia Museum of Natural History (in Martinsville), online at

Virginia Biodiversity

Animals Generally

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at

Amphibians and Reptiles

A Guide to the Frogs and Toad of Virginia, by John D. Kloepfer and Chris S. Hobson, Special Publication Number 3, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries/Richmond (2011).

Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia, by B.S. Martof et al., University of North Carolina Press/Chapel Hill (1980).

Atlas of Amphibians and Reptiles in Virginia, J.C. Mitchell and K.K. Reay, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries/Richmond (1999).

Snakes of Virginia, by Donald W. Linzey and Michael Clifford, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2002.

“Virginia is for Frogs” Web site, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, online at

Virginia Herpetological Society, online at (herpetology refers to the study of amphibians and reptiles).


“All About Birds,” Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, online at; and “Birds of North America Online” Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, online at (subscription required for the latter).

E-bird Web site at, maintained by the Cornell Lab and the Audubon Society; locations of species observations made by contributors.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at


“EFish—The Virtual Aquarium,” Virginia Tech Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences, online at (sections for each fish family).

Freshwater Fishes of Virginia, by Robert E. Jenkins and Noel M. Burkhead (Bethesda, Md.: American Fisheries Society), 1994.

“Selected Freshwater Fish Families,” Virginia Cooperative Extension Publications 420-526, 2009; online at

“Virginia Fishes” [freshwater game species], Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, online at

“Virginia Saltwater Angler’s Guide/Fish Identification Guide,” Virginia Marine Resources Commission, online at


Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation/Natural Heritage Program, “Virginia Natural Area Preserves,” [accessed 5/16/17].

Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Biodiversity promotes multitasking in ecosystems, 4/24/15 news release.

VIMS Marine Biodiversity Lab, online at

Butterflies and Moths of North America Project, Kelly Lotts and Thomas Naberhaus, coordinators, online at

Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America, by J. Reese Voshell, Jr., McDonald & Woodward Publishing, Blacksburg, Va., 2002.

Iowa State University Department of Entomology, “BugGuide,” online at

University of Florida Department of Entomology, “Featured Creatures” Web site,

Virginia Tech Department of Entomology Insect Identification Lab, online at


Mammals of Virginia, by Donald W. Linzey, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2001.


Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Freshwater Mussel Restoration,” online at


“Flora of Virginia Project” Web site, accompanying the 2012 publication of The Flora of Virginia, the first comprehensive manual of Virginia plants published since the 1700s; online at

Virginia Native Plant Society, online at

“VTree” Web site for the dendrology course by Dr. John Seiler in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation; offers identification keys and fact sheets to trees and other woody plants throughout North America; online at


Information and references on biodiversity may help with the following Virginia 2010 Science Standards of Learning (SOLs):

Grades K-6

4th Grade: 4.5 – plants and animals, including humans, in an ecosystem interact with one another and with non-living components in the ecosystem; plus human influences on ecosystems;

6th Grade: 6.7 – natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems.

Life Science

LS.4 – how organisms can be classified;

LS.9 – characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater ecosystems;

LS.10 – ecosystems, communities, populations, and organisms are dynamic and change over time;

LS.11 – relationships between ecosystems dynamics and human activity.

Earth Science

ES.8 – how freshwater resources are influenced by geologic processes and the activities of humans.


BIO.8 – effects of natural events and human activities on ecosystems and analysis of flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

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