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Noel's amphipod Gammarus desperatus
ESA status: endangered

Noels amphipod pc Brian LangBitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Chaves County, New Mexico, is a place of unique ecological convergence, where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the shortgrass prairie and the Pecos River flows through the Roswell artesian basin. This wetland refuge is a haven for birds, and heaven for birders, who can seasonally enjoy thousands of migrating lesser sandhill cranes, Ross and snow geese, and about twenty duck species, as well as myriad songbirds and quail. Walking trails lead hikers through wetland thickets and along riverbanks, providing a peaceful getaway. But the Refuge’s most unique offering is available by appointment only...

The diverse waters of the Bitter Lake area—flowing streams, rivers, sinkholes, playa lakes, and brackish waters—shelter an incredible diversity of rare organisms. On the first Saturday of every month from October through May, you can take a guided Endangered Species Tour into parts of the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge that are closed to the public. In these closed sections, you will see Bitter Lake itself, the springs which are the source of the refuge’s lakes and ponds, and around 60 sinkholes, each one a unique habitat. It is on this tour that you may have your only chance to see the tiny, rare Noel’s amphipod.

Amphipods are small crustaceans sometimes referred to as freshwater shrimp. Noel’s amphipod is brownish-green, with kidney-shaped eyes and red bands along several of its body segments. Males are slightly larger than females, and individuals range in size from 8.5 to 14.8 millimeters (about the size of a garbanzo bean, or a lima bean on the larger end of the scale). They inhabit cool, shallow, well-oxygenated waters, feeding on algae, underwater vegetation, and decaying organic matter and completing their life cycle in one year. During the breeding season, which depends on the water temperature, amphipods form strong attachments to their mates—literally. Breeding pairs may remain physically attached for 1 to 7 days, continuing to feed and swim. These pairs produce a “brood” of 15 to 50 baby amphipods, which depend on tiny food sources such as the algae and bacteria associated with aquatic vegetation.

Amphipods are light-sensitive—they are bottom-dwellers and are active mostly at night to avoid the bright light of day. Noel’s amphipod was once found in three springs near Roswell, but both populations outside of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge disappeared before 1988 due to groundwater depletion and spring channelization. Inside the refuge, their population was devastated by a 2002 fire which removed the vegetative cover that sheltered them from light and deposited ash and sediment into their aquatic habitat. Aquifer depletion and contamination from development and oil and gas drilling in the Roswell Basin are the most important threats to this species. There are at least 190 oil wells surrounding Bitter Lake that could contaminate the aquifer that underlies the refuge.

These tiny creatures are important ecological barometers of water quality. They are very sensitive to oxygen levels, water temperature, sedimentation and contamination. Their disappearance usually indicates the loss or degradation of a pristine spring or watercourse. WildEarth Guardians fought to obtain protections this amphipod now enjoys under the Endangered Species Act, and we will continue to advocate for responsible water use and against the proliferation of oil and gas drilling and unsustainable development that threatens Bitter Lake. Our vision for the whole of the West, not just Bitter Lake, is that of clear streams and springs free of pollution and home to their full complement of unique inhabitants.

photo credit: Brian Lang, New Mexico Department of Fish and Game