8 Threatened Animals of the Southeast

Florida manatee with her calf floating in shallow water

Stephen Frink / Getty Images

The Southeast is home to more fish, bird, and mammal species than the rest of the United States combined. Stalking panthers, colorful parrots, gentle manatees, and majestic whales all make their homes in the region. But the balance between animals and humans is precarious — Florida alone has over 21 million people, while the more rural Mississippi has a population closer to 3 million.

While over 19 million acres are owned and protected by the government, there are still as many as 239 federally listed endangered animal species in the Southeast region. Here are eight animals currently under threat in the American Southeast.

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Florida Panther

adult Florida panther and cub walking through a grassy habitat

Martin Harvey / Getty Images 

The endangered Florida panther, or Puma concolor coryi, once roamed across as many as eight Southeastern states, but early settlers, fearful for their livestock, went to great lengths to destroy them. The Florida panther was one of the first species on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1973.

The Florida panther is the last puma subspecies living in the eastern U.S. It's estimated there are around 120 to 130 left in the wild, and all are found in the southern half of Florida. The Florida panther remains threatened by human encroachment and low genetic diversity due to small population size.

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Gopher Tortoise

a Gopher tortoise with its head outstretched sitting on white sand near green plants

Keith Draycott / Getty Images

Making its home along the coastal plains, most of the gopher tortoise’s range is in Florida, but it also extends to portions of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the southern portions of South Carolina and southeastern Louisiana. Classified as threatened in some areas, the gopher tortoise is protected under the Endangered Species Act for much of its range.

With a shell that can grow to almost 16 inches long, the tortoise prefers to burrow in sandy soils, though it has been known to appear in ditches, roadsides, and drainage pipes when its habitat has been threatened. A keystone species, over 350 other animals use gopher tortoise burrows. While loss of habitat remains the primary reason for the species' decline, the tortoise is also threatened by predators like skunks, raccoons, and armadillos.

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Whooping Crane

A whooping crane with its standing in shallow water near grass

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The endangered whooping crane, or Grus Americana, has endured a tumultuous past. Habitat encroachment and unregulated hunting brought the species to near extinction; only 16 cranes remained in 1941. Conservation efforts, including a captive breeding program that teaches young cranes to migrate to breeding grounds by following an ultralight aircraft, have been somewhat successful. In 2020, there were a total of 826 whooping cranes, including 667 in the wild.

The birds stand as tall as 5 feet, with a wingspan of more than 7 feet. They live primarily in Florida and Texas, and the migrating population heads to Wisconsin and Canada.

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Puerto Rican Parrot

The face of a Puerto Rican parrot with a nut in its mouth

Tom MacKenzie of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The Puerto Rican parrot, or Amazona vittata, is a critically endangered species with fewer than 50 individuals remaining. It is also the only native parrot to Puerto Rico and the only parrot species remaining in the United States.

In the 1800s, there were as many as one million Puerto Rican parrots. Due to an almost total loss of its forest habitat, the bird population was reduced to 13 individuals in 1975. The parrot rebounded, but has been devastated by hurricanes in Puerto Rico. In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service released two groups of parrots and provided supplemental feeding stations for them in the El Yunque National Forest.

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West Indian Manatee

West Indian manatee floating in water

Enrique Aguirre Aves / Getty Images

Found in salt, brackish, and freshwater, the West Indian manatee, or Trichechus manatus, was upgraded from endangered to threatened in 2017. In the past, the animals' numbers had declined due to hunting, as their fat was popular for oils and their hides for leather. The propellers of speed boats are the greatest threat to manatees; they are also at risk due to loss of protected warm water habitats.

Manatees swim along the Southeast coast and parts of the Caribbean, and can grow to be more than 9 feet long and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. According to a 2019 survey, there are approximately 5,700 manatees in existence.

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Key Deer

A female key deer with her fawn standing in water next to a mangrove

Layne Kennedy / Getty Images

The smallest species of white-tailed deer, the Key deer, or Odocoileus virginianus clavium, is endangered. While the Key deer was once found throughout the lower Florida Keys, only 1,000 remain, and most make their home on Big Pine Key.

While other deer are prolific in the Southeast, this particular subspecies has been nearly driven to extinction by habitat loss, illegal feeding, and accidents with vehicles. Climate change is also impacting the Key deer's mangrove habitat.

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Northern Right Whale

North Atlantic right whale surfacing the ocean surrounded by porpoises

6381380 / Getty Images

The endangered northern right whale, also known as the North Atlantic right whale, or Eubalaena glacialis, makes its home off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida during its mating and breeding season. The animal can weigh up to 70 tons and grow to a length of 55 feet.

The whales’ population was initially decimated by hunting, and they first received protected status in the 1930s. Research in 2020 comparing the physical condition of North Atlantic right whales with their southern counterparts revealed a poorer body condition in the northern whales. This is particularly disturbing since survival of the whales is in peril, and with their health compromised, they are giving birth to fewer calves, leading to further decline of the species. Near extinction, there are only around 400 individuals remaining. The whales are threatened by climate change, illegal hunting, speeding vessels, and entanglement in fishing gear.

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Roseate Spoonbill

A pair of roseate spoonbills nestled in lush green plants

Posnov / Getty Images

Designated as threatened in the state of Florida, the roseate spoonbill, or Ajaia ajaja, is found along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, including Texas and Louisana. In the early 1800s, spoonbill feathers were used in hats, and their numbers declined. The population rebounded with the establishment of Everglades National Park in Florida, and the birds began returning to nesting sites.

Often mistaken for a pink flamingo, the roseate spoonbill can grow to a length of 34 inches with a wingspan of more than 4 feet. It waves its unusual beak back and forth in order to strain small fish and insects in shallow water.