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Freaks of nature

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People who live and work in the Pacific Northwest are wont to declare it more than just a pretty place — they say it's special. If the hundreds of other species which for various reasons dwell here and nowhere else on Earth could talk, however, they might claim they're special, too. That's because while folks who populate this geographic mash-up of coast and mountains reference themselves (depending on political leanings) as Pac Nor'westers or Cascadians, much of its native plant and animal collective bears a more straightforward label: endemic. Here, I open the door on the weird and wonderful world of Pacific Northwest endemics — or what's left of them — and ponder which should carry the regional flag. Will it be the Arbutus Tree or Banana Slug? Western Swordfern or Coastal Tailed Frog? Oregon Grape or Mountain Beaver?

Hang onto that thought.

In biology, "endemic" refers to a species found in a distinct geographic area, and that area alone. Most often, such species have expended millions of years of evolutionary capital on adapting themselves to a particular habitat or environment. Islands — like the Galapagos, Hawaii, Madagascar — cut off from gene flow with the mainland, offer fertile grounds for the production of endemics perfectly attuned to each island's natural rhythms (no, I don't mean calypso or reggae). Likewise the long-term forces of geology and climate often combine to create isolated, island-like pockets in an otherwise connected landscape; along the Pacific Coast, mountain-building, glaciation, meltwater, changing sea levels, earthquakes and volcanoes have all teamed up to create "islands" of high alpine, deep valley, wet forest, and rain-shadow desert crowded together in remarkable proximity. When you start counting the one-of-a-kind fungi, plants, insects, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds and mammals occupying the labyrinthine folds of the Pacific Northwest, one thing is clear: this ain't no Prairie.

Highly specialized species are by default narrowly adapted, making them vulnerable to fragmentation or extinction depending on the severity of disruption to their environment. If that environment happens to be mature old-growth temperate rainforest that requires thousands of years to become optimal habitat, well, you'll understand why many Pacific Northwest endemics like the Spotted Owl are currently in big trouble.

Although botanists consider the entire Pacific Northwest to be a single floristic unit due to its uniform moist climate, its many centres of plant endemism still contain some 500-600 species unique to the region. When it comes to Pacific Northwest botany, however, the first thing you think of are trees. Coast Redwood, Coast Douglas Fir, Giant Sequoia, Sitka Spruce, and Noble Fir comprise five of the world's 10 tallest trees, their great size made possible by the region's climate: because it's harder to suck water up to the leaves as a plant gets taller, these trees can both absorb water directly from foggy air, and condense it in their crowns to create a self-soaking rainfall that can be picked up by the roots. Of course an assemblage of ridiculously huge, thousand-year-old trees that make their own weather come with their own unique species on the forest floor — prehistoric ferns and giant rhododendrons, bizarre fungi and feathery bryophytes, otherworldly lichen and iridescent mosses. It gets even nerdier: less majestic arbours like Oregon Myrtle, Tanoak, Port Orford Cedar, and Brewer Spruce are not only smaller-range endemics, but also usually the most primitive members of their respective groups — a perfect segue to discuss the area's reptiles and amphibians.

The Pacific Northwest boasts more gartersnake species than exist in the entire rest of the continent, not to mention oddly loveable (lovably odd?) Rubber Boas, Sharp-tailed Snakes and Alligator Lizards with no known peers further east, but what really sets the region apart are three ancient, completely unique lineages: the only relative of Tailed Frogs is 11,000 kilometres away in New Zealand, while bug-eyed Torrent salamanders and Pacific Giant salamanders have none — anywhere. So where did they come from? Another planet? Almost: they arrived tens of millions of years ago aboard plate-tectonic arks, their erstwhile ancestors long-since obliterated. Which brings us to the Mountain Beaver.

Before we start, however, note that this highly inaccurate name belongs in the same bullshit binder as Koala Bears — teddy-like marsupials as unrelated to bears as they are to mice — and Sea Monkeys, which are tiny crustaceans and not underwater primates. In fact, the four closely related members of genus Aplodontia are neither beavers nor aquatic, and disinclined to inhabit highlands. These furry, big-headed, groundhog-sized vegetarians that seem like refugees from a children's show are instead most plentiful in river canyons and soggy forests where they keep tidy, elaborate burrows with kitchen, bathroom and sleeping quarters. You're unlikely to spot one, however — and not just because they live in hard-to-reach places. Unfortunately, few of the critters remain, due to the usual suite of Cascadian stupidity: bad forest and logging practices, lame watershed stewardship, and industry-dominated policymaking. But never mind that, bio-geeks still have cause to celebrate: based on their basal jaw features and rudimentary kidney functions, Mountain Beavers are the most primitive living rodents in the world! And though genetic evidence suggests they're most closely related to squirrels, even that split happened over 35 million years ago. So when it comes to waving the Pacific Northwest's endemic flag, it's hard not to line up behind the Mountain Beaver — beaver or not.

Sure, other endemics may be more interesting: the logger-halting Spotted Owl and its equally endangered seafaring buddy, the Marbled Murrelet, both rely on the world's tallest trees for nesting; any number of Pacific Northwest amphibians and reptiles could claim the crown of vertebrate ancientness; and our Banana Slug is the planet's second-largest slime-tracker at nearly 25 cm in length and the heft of a sausage. But it's hard to beat an animal that no one has heard of, that no one ever sees, that doesn't deserve its name, and whose only relative is probably a fossil no one has found. After all, in a land of freaky aliens, the freakiest is always king.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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