COLUMBIA -- Three of the 11 driest years in 129 years of record-keeping in Columbia have come in the past eight years.
Throughout South Carolina, only one year in the past nine has been remarkably wetter than normal.
Now, scientists are wondering if the frequent long droughts and infrequent floods of the past decade could change the natural landscape in the state.
"I worry about all species," said University of South Carolina naturalist Rudy Mancke. "The drought affects one or two species in an area directly, and then so many other species indirectly."
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It's difficult to quantify the changes in species, in part because the first species impacted often are hard-to-find ones that haven't been studied in detail.
But there's little doubt fresh-water mussels are suffering.
Scientists have documented shrinking populations of mussels such as Carolina heelsplitters, brook floaters and Atlantic pigtoes. While the primary causes for those drops are pollution and development along streams, the drought is exacerbating the problem, said Jennifer Koches, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in South Carolina.
With mussels disappearing, the food pyramid is teetering. Fish, turtles and otters feed on mussels. Larger animals eat fish, turtles and otters.
On the plant side, the leaves of the passion flower vine are the only larval food source for the gulf fritillary butterfly. The passion flower is one of the shrubby plants heavily impacted by the drought. What does that mean to the future of the gulf fritillary in the state?
And what of other species of butterflies and dragonflies with specialized food needs?
"There are certain things necessary to make the natural world run properly," Mancke said, "And that's been put in jeopardy."
Of the 11 driest years in recorded Columbia history, all but the recent three were before 1956. State climatologist Hope Mizzell noted the large increase in population and industry -- both heavy water users -- since the last time the state went through this type of prolonged drought.
Before late December rains gave hope for a wet winter, John Cely, a retired South Carolina Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, said he couldn't remember a drier period.
"We've had droughts before, and we'll continue to have them," Cely said. Plants and animals "always rebound from that. That's the way things work.
"The big question is, are we in a prolonged drought that could change that?"
Tromping through remote sections of Congaree National Park in recent months, Cely has seen changes. Creeks and sloughs that used to flood several times a year recently have stayed dry for months or years.
He wonders how the crayfish that lived in those areas can survive without moisture. And what of the beavers and waterfowl that feed on those crayfish?
"I don't think (the long-term dry period) can be anything but detrimental," Cely said. "This is like nothing that we've ever experienced."
The first extensive study of crayfish in the national park was done in 2005, just as things were beginning to dry out again after a wet 2003 and a normal 2004. Researchers found six species of crayfish, said Jennifer Price, a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and one of the researchers in the study.
The crayfish species that dig burrows should be able to find moisture and survive this drought, but other species that need running water could be suffering, Price said.
Small amphibians also could be impacted. Federal biologists have been tracking the plight of the endangered flatwoods salamander in Francis Marion National Forest. Several areas usually inhabited by the salamanders have been dry for at least three years, Koches said.
The salamanders might be able to survive long periods without sufficient water, but they can't thrive. That could mean no new reproduction of an already vanishing species in that area for three years.
If the state doesn't get much rain this winter and spring, people will have to adapt -- less lawn watering, shorter showers, no car washing. Industries might even have to change their water-use practices.
People can adapt.
In nature, migratory birds and large animals can travel long distances to find water. But smaller creatures and plants can't pick up and look for water elsewhere. Those that can't move or adapt will die.
Then what happens?
"Nature will fill spaces that are open with other species," Mancke said. "It's going to be interesting to see how nature rebounds."