Northern Virginia well amphipod

The Northern Virginia well amphipod, a rare, shrimp-like crustacean that only lives on Fort Belvoir, is an underground dweller that is smaller than a peanut.

Colorless, eyeless, and smaller than a peanut, the Northern Virginia well amphipod would be easy to miss, in the unlikely event that you happened upon it. After its discovery in 1921 in a well in Vienna, the subterranean creature largely eluded detection for decades. A dozen more were found in a well in Alexandria in 1948. Then, none were seen again until 1996.

But that was a pivotal year for the elusive amphipod, which is smaller than a peanut. Scientists collected 15 specimens from leaf litter at the outlets of several groundwater springs in a ravine downslope of Fort Belvoir, in southeastern Fairfax County. Its underground habitat is supported by good environmental conditions above. And the U.S. Army has designated 70 acres encompassing the amphipod’s habitat as a “Special Natural Area,” managed to support specific goals for conservation and biodiversity.

“I’m proud of the work Fort Belvoir environmental professionals do every day to protect, preserve, conserve, restore and support the environment,” said Col. Michael H. Greenberg, Belvoir garrison commander. “It’s important that we do all we can to be good stewards of our community’s ecosystem.”

Dorothy Keough, branch chief of conservation for Belvoir's Department of Public Works, said because protection of the amphipod has been incorporated into Belvoir’s operations so strongly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not needed to list this rare species as endangered.

“I am pleased that our work over the past 26 years – the scientific studies we undertook to learn more about the rare amphipod, Stygobromus phreaticus, and the land-management decisions we made to protect its habitat – have led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s finding. This is an excellent example of how natural resources conservation is integrated into installation management, to support the mission,” Keough said.

The installation's Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan, developed by the Army, the state of Virginia, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, identifies key natural resources and the actions needed to manage them, in a way that ensures the continuation of the installation’s military mission. But, the Army has taken additional steps not outlined in the plan, such as installing a berm at the southern end of a nearby solid waste transfer station to discourage illicit dumping, which would negatively affect the amphipods’ habitat.

“The U.S. Army is an invaluable conservation partner in our effort to protect at-risk species,” said Wendi Weber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service North Atlantic-Appalachian regional director. “We commend their proactive work to conserve a species few people will ever see, by helping to protect water quality in the sole aquifer where it is currently found.”

The amphipod does face several threats, including the contamination of groundwater or surface water; the withdrawal of water from or impacts to the recharge zones for the local water table; and the effects of climate change. More frequent intense rain events could flush amphipods from their habitat and erode the surrounding landscape; progressive loss of water in the aquifer from drought could leave amphipods high and dry. However, the best available information indicates these are distant threats, and the species faces a low risk of extinction in the foreseeable future.

Paul Lara is a reporter for the Belvoir Eagle. He can be reached at plara@belvoireagleonline.com.

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