Southeastern Rivers, USA

From clear, cool streams in the Appalachian Mountains to the marshes and wetlands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the rivers of the American Southeast are among the world’s richest freshwater systems. WWF is working to protect and restore these waters, which generations of people here have relied on for drinking, food and transportation.
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Little Pigeon River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, US.
© Kevin SCHAFER / WWF-Canon

A river runs through it

From southern Virginia west to Tennessee and south to Alabama and Florida, the rivers of the American Southeast are among the richest freshwater ecosystems in the world.

They support more than 250 species of crayfish, 275 species of mussels and about half of all freshwater fish species in the United States, including the uniquely named Halloween darter and pygmy madtom – the world's smallest catfish.

Within the Roanoke River Basin of Virginia and North Carolina, more than 200 fish species are found, of which 6 are found nowhere else in the world. With more than 150 fish species, Tennessee's Duck River is one of the most biologically diverse rivers in North America.

The region’s varied freshwater habitats also sustain numerous species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, including the wood stork, North American river otter, American alligator and alligator snapping turtle.


Rivers at risk

The US Southeast is one of the country’s most highly populated areas. And as more people move to the area there is increased pressure on freshwater resources. Other serious challenges to the region’s diverse aquatic life are: unchecked development, agricultural runoff, pollution and dams.

WWF is working with federal and state agencies, and other organizations to achieve lasting conservation of this unique freshwater environment. This includes restoring wetlands, reintroducing river species and, overall, reaching a sustainable water balance between the needs of people and nature.
 / ©: Fritz PÖLKING / WWF
The endangered wood stork is the only stork species found in North America.
© Fritz PÖLKING / WWF
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Warpaint shiners, Tennessee, US.
© Kevin SCHAFER / WWF-Canon

Snapping gators

 / ©: Martin HARVEY / WWF-Canon
American alligator eating a fish. Southern United States.
© Martin HARVEY / WWF-Canon
The waters of the southeastern United States are not just about fish.
Lurking in slow-moving freshwater rivers, swamps, marshes and lakes is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Endangered in the early 1960s from years of hunting and habitat loss, the alligators have rebounded, due to successful conservation efforts.

Also native to the region is the prehistoric-looking alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii), one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. With its spiked shell, beak-like jaws, and thick, scaled tail, this species is often referred to as the "dinosaur of the turtle world."

Where are the rivers of the American Southeast?

The Southeastern Rivers are highlighted in yellow.


View WWF Critical Regions of the World in a larger map

Facts & Figures

    • The US Southeast river region consists of 3 vast river basins - the Cumberland, Mobile and Tennessee - which drain portions of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi.
    • This freshwater ecoregion covers nearly 10% of the United States.
    • There are over 4,000 major dams in the river basins.
    • Male American alligators average 3-4.6m and weigh 450kg.
    • The alligator snapping turtle, the largest freshwater turtle in North America, weighs more than 90kg and lives to be 50-100 years old.
    • Some 70,000 freshwater turtles are collected and sent to Asian markets every year.

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