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American Today


Working with the National Park Service

By Sally Acharya

Professor David Culver and his student in Rock Creek Park

Rock Creek Park is home to an endangered creature, and Professor David Culver and his students are on its trail. (Photo by Soko Hirayama)

Somewhere deep in the heart of Washington lives a pale, blind shrimp-like creature. It’s been there for millions of years, burrowing in the muck under rotting leaves and dining on bacteria.

It’s called an amphipod, and some of its kind are found only in Rock Creek Park, where biology professor David Culver and his students are hunting them.

Culver and his students have been surveying the amphipods in partnership with the National Park Service, whose keen interest in the odd creatures as indicators of ecosystem health belies their minuscule size.

The amphipod, which is barely the size of a thumbnail, is one of three creatures native to the District to make the endangered species list. The others are the bald eagle and the cougar.

Finding amphipods takes a lot of hiking to pinpoint a possible habitat—named hypotelminorheic—which Culver gets a kick out of pronouncing. To the untrained eye, it’s just a damp spot in the woods. It’s actually a kind of seep with poor drainage, where hours of turning up leaves at the right time of year just might uncover the eyeless, unpigmented creature.

“Three (amphipod) species are found nowhere else except the park system of D. C.,” says Culver. “Is this a remnant of a widespread species? How  can it survive? What’s threatening it?”

They’re not just rare. One may even be a new species, found by Culver and his AU students. They’re awaiting the verdict.

Meanwhile one student is trying to learn more by sequencing amphipod DNA, while the Park Service, which has provided funding for several AU graduate students involved in the project, is using the data for ecological protection. The presence of the secretive creatures has already required the city to change the way it channels some of its storm runoff, which often drains into Rock Creek Park.

“It points out how important the park is as a repository of biodiversity,” says Culver. Besides, he adds, “They’re really neat animals.”