The Wright Brothers, the Piping Plover, and the Seaside Amaranth

Today is the 109th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight. That flight, which took place on the barrier island beaches off the North Carolina coast was witnessed not only by the camera that took the iconic photo of Orville piloting and Wilbur running alongside the wing, but also by a host of now threatened and endangered species.
Kill Devil Hills, a group of sandy dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is now part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the nation’s first national seashore. Many of the plants and animals that the Wright Brothers would have seen during the years they spent along the North Carolina coast as they teased out the engineering principles of powered flight are now gone, others endangered:

The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) can still be found along the North Carolina beaches, but is listed as “near threatened” by the IUCN. Their sandy white plumage makes them masters of camouflage and allows them to effortlessly blend in with the Hatteras seashore.  The two biggest threats to the plovers are habitat loss and disturbance of their nests.

Amaranthus pumilus (commonly called the seaside amaranth, seabeach amaranth, dwarf amaranth, or coast amaranth) was also a likely silent witness to the Wright’s flight. This ground-hugging annual, which once ranged widely on the East Coast of United States and grew abundantly on the barrier island beaches of the Carolinas, is now threatened.

A lot can change in 109 years. A primary motivating factor for global BHL staff, who have worked so hard to build the Biodiversity Heritage Library, is to provide taxonomists and conservationists with the tools that they need to name, identify, describe, and ensure that the species which line our national seashores are around for the next 109 years — to 2121 and beyond!


Avatar for Martin R. Kalfatovic

Martin R. Kalfatovic is BHL Program Director and Associate Director, Digital Programs and Initiatives Division, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. As the BHL Program Director, Mr. Kalfatovic functions as the executive director and manager of the international consortium of over 80 natural history, botanical garden, government, and university libraries engaged in the mass digitization of taxonomic literature. The position also serves as a key contact for government, NGO, and academic leaders at both the national and international level. Within his role at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, Mr. Kalfatovic is responsible for the Libraries’ active Digital Library program. This program includes the creation of digital editions of library materials, online exhibitions, and new digital publications.