New Study Supposedly Debunks Proposed Pre-Clovis Evidence from the Coats-Hines and Topper Sites

June 23, 2018

Archaeologists claimed they had “unequivocal” evidence humans butchered a mastodon at the Coats-Hines site located in Tennessee.  Now, some of these same archaeologists recently published a paper admitting their evidence was equivocal.  I wrote a beautiful article on my blog about the Coats-Hines site a number of years ago, and it always gets a lot of hits early during the school year because a teacher uses it as a reference for a school assignment.  Unfortunately, the assumption the site includes evidence of human-butchered mastodon remains may be bogus.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/04/15/the-coats-hines-pre-clovis-site-in-williamson-county-tennessee/ )

The Coats-Hines site is located adjacent to a golf course.  During construction of the golf course 40 years ago workers found the remains of a mastodon.  Further digging by trained experts over the years yielded the remains of 3 more mastodons, white-tailed deer, muskrat, turkey, and painted turtle.  This most recent paper noted the additional identification of ground sloth bones (probably Harlan’s) from the site.  A mastodon vertebrae apparently had cut marks on it, suggesting evidence of anthropogenic butchery, and it was associated with supposedly human-made artifacts.  In a paper published just 7 years ago the archaeologists wrote it was “unequivocal” evidence of human butchery.  However, in his more recent study Jesse Tune admits the cutmarks could’ve been caused by the bone being tumbled against rocks in an high energy stream environment.  He thinks the artifacts associated with that specimen are geofacts.  A geofact is a natural stone formation that resembles an human-modified object.  The stones come from local outcrops that naturally eroded into the stream.  There are definitive human-made tools at Coats-Hines, but they were found some distance away from the mastodon bones.  Coats-Hines was a former stream, and deposits of different ages can get mixed together when currents erode through different aged strata.

Jesse Tune used what he learned from studying the Coats-Hines site to debunk claims made for the antiquity of the Topper site in South Carolina, and the Burnham site in Oklahoma.  Archaeologists excavating these sites claim the evidence they found was older than the Last Glacial Maximum.  (The LGM dates to roughly between 18,000 years BP-22,000 years BP.)  Jesse Tune thinks the evidence at these sites consists of geofacts eroded from adjacent local outcrops that perhaps mixed with real artifacts of more recent origin in an high energy stream.

The new paper (referenced below) includes the Coats-Hines site as a proposed pre-LGM site.  This puzzles me because I can’t find anyone who ever claimed the artifacts and evidence from Coats-Hines dated to before 22,000 years ago.  The sediment around the mastodon bone thought by some to be butchered by humans produced a radio-carbon date of 13,100 years BP (~=15,000 calendar years BP).  This is well after the LGM.  I always considered Coats-Hines to be pre-Clovis but not pre-LGM.  It seems as if the authors of this paper are making a straw man argument because as far as I can determine, nobody claimed Coats-Hines was pre-LGM.

Image result for straw man

Who claimed Coats-Hines was pre-LGM?  I asked 2 authors of the below study but I didn’t get a response.  Are they making a strawman argument about Coats-Hines?

References:

Tune, Jesse; et. al.

“Assessing the Proposed Pre-Last Glacial Maximum Human Occupation of North America at Coats-Hines-Litchy, Tennessee and Other Sites”

Quaternary Science Reviews April 2018

Wolf, Aaron; Jesse Tune, and John Broster

“Excavations and Dating of Late Pleistocene and Paleoindian Deposits at the Coats-Hines Site, Williamson County, Tennessee”

Tennessee Archaeology 5 (2) Fall 2011

Advertisements

Pleistocene Puffer Fish (Spheroides maculatus)

June 16, 2018

Pier fishermen often catch what many consider to be “trash” fish.  Stingrays, eels, dogfish, and puffer fish are common in shallow coastal waters during the summer and readily take bait.  Although fishermen usually throw them back in the ocean, they are all good to eat.  Pieces of stingray wings cut with a cookie cutter are used to make mock scallops.  Eel is a delicacy I have enjoyed.  Dogfish, a small species of shark, really does taste like chicken when fried. During WWII when rationing made meat scarce, fishermen caught hundreds of thousands of pounds of puffer fish off Long Island and sold them in New York City fish markets under the name “sea squab.”  However, an important cautionary note needs to be made about consuming puffer fish–its flesh is toxic in some regions.  From researching this topic online, I’ve determined puffer fish caught from North Carolina to Massachusetts are safe to eat, but puffer fish caught from Florida south to the tropics are deadly.  It is against the law to consume puffer fish caught off Florida’s coast because it contains so much saxitoxin.  I have not been able to determine whether puffer fish caught in the border region in between Florida and North Carolina are safe, so I wouldn’t chance it.

 

Video of a man cleaning puffer fish caught off the North Carolina coast.  It yields a piece of fish about the size and shape of a chicken drumstick.

Image result for illustration of puffer fish before and after it blows up

Illustration of puffer fish before and after it blows up.

The northern Atlantic puffer fish, also known as a blowfish, is a member of the Tetraodontinidae family which includes 29 genera and 191 species.  Most of these species occur in tropical waters and are toxic.  The family includes the famous fugu fish served in Japan where specially trained chefs dress them in a way that makes them safe for human consumption.  Toxins are heavily concentrated in the liver and gonads.  Puffer fish inhale air or water when threatened, and they have prickly spines on their scales.  This makes them tough for predators to grasp or swallow.  Ospreys are unable to grab puffer fish.  This defense mechanism has helped this family survive for millions of years.  Definitive fossil evidence of species in the Tetraodontinidae family has been unearthed from strata dating to the Cretaceous over 100 million years ago, and some specimens that may belong to this family were found in Triassic deposits.

The northern puffer fish evolved to live in cooler waters than its tropical cousins.  Cooler ocean currents began to expand in circulation early during the Pliocene when Ice Ages began to occur.  This may be when the northern puffer fish diverged from the southern puffer fish (S. nephulus) which reaches its northern range limit off the coast of north Florida where the 2 species overlap.  In this area northern puffer fish inhabit deeper waters to avoid competion with S. nephulus.  Northern puffer fish move into shallow waters over most of the rest of their range during summer but move to deeper waters when the water temperature seasonally cools.  This pattern may have been disrupted following Ice Age Heinrich Events when  the Gulf Stream shut down due to influxes of glacial meltwater.  There is no known Pleistocene-aged fossil evidence of puffer fish, and scientists have not yet studied the Tetraodontinidae family genome.

Puffer fish prey on crustaceans (schools of puffer fish gang up on blue crabs), molluscs, worms, and sponges; and they consume seaweed and algae. The species of algae they eat in warmer waters is toxic, and this is how they acquire their toxicity.  This explains why the same species is safe to eat when caught from cold waters but toxic from warmer regions.  There is no antidote for this kind of nerve poison.  It shuts down the victim’s nervous system.  A victim may recover in a few hours or days or they may die from suffocation while wide awake as their lungs and heart cease to operate.

Banks, S.; and Anthony Pachee

“Biology and Fishing Data on Northern Puffer (Spheroides maculatus)

NOAA Report 26 1961

Gibbon, Euell

Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop 

David Mackay Publishing 1964

Pleistocene Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos)

June 9, 2018

Mockingbirds are swingers.  Most suburban yards in southeastern North America host a pair of mated mockingbirds, but they might not remain the same pair throughout the breeding season because both males and females often switch mates.  Male mockingbirds sit on the top of trees and sing long melodious songs to attract female mockingbirds from adjacent territories, not unlike the way human pop singers attract groupies.  Female mockingbirds may leave their mates for better singers.  Males also flash their wings, and this entices female mockingbirds as well.  It doesn’t matter if a male already has a mate because they will continue to try and attract other females.  Constant mate switching ensures the genetic vigor of this species.  Despite this competition, mockingbirds from adjacent territories respond to their neighbor’s distress calls and will help drive away predators, such as crows.  Each territory of swinging and singing mockingbird mates can produce 2-4 broods per year.  Mockingbirds are an intelligent bird able to recognize individual humans, and they can imitate the calls of at least 14 other bird species as well as the vocalizations of cats, dogs, frogs, and crickets.

Photo of a mockingbird in my front yard.  Click to enlarge.

Northern Mockingbird-rangemap.gif

Northern mockingbird range.

I wonder how common mockingbirds were during the Pleistocene compared to today.  Studies show mockingbirds enjoy longer lives in suburban areas than they do in wilderness refuges.  Scientists believe mockingbirds prefer the stability of manmade habitats where they can find the same nesting sites, fruit trees, and insect species year after year.  They don’t have to travel far to find favorable habitat that might be dispersed in a wilderness.  I hypothesize mockingbirds were common in the south during most climate phases of the Pleistocene, but were not as common as they are today.  Mockingbirds probably occurred in forest edge habitat along megafauna trails maintained by the regular migration of herds.  Mockingbirds could rely on fruits originating from trees sprouting in seed-filled dung, and they fed on insects stirred up by roaming large animals.  Northern mockingbirds are uncommon in the fossil record.  They are known from just 3 specimens excavated from Reddick and 1 in Haile–both located in Florida.  Bahamian mockingbirds (M. gundlachii) left fossil evidence at the Banana Hole site in the Bahamas.  This paucity of fossil evidence doesn’t mean mockingbirds were an uncommon bird in the past.  Potential sites of fossil preservation in their favored forest edge habitat just didn’t exist to any great degree.

Genetic evidence does suggest mockingbirds have an ancient origin somewhere in South America where the most species of mockingbirds occur.  Mockingbirds belong to the Mimidae family which also includes thrashers and catbirds.  There are 14 species of mockingbirds: northern, tropical (M. gilvus), brown-backed (M. dorsalis), Bahama, long-tailed (M. longicauda), Patagonian (M. patagonicus), Chilean (M. thenca), white-banded (M. triuris), Socorro (M. graysonii), chalk-browed (M. saturninus), Floreana (M. trifusciatus), San Cristobal (M. melanotis), Hood (M. macdonaldi), and Galapagos (M. parvalus).  The northern mockingbird is a sister species to the tropical mockingbird, and they are so closely related they interbreed on the border region where their ranges overlap in southern Mexico.  The Chilean mockingbird is a sister species of the Patagonian mockingbird.  The uplift of the Andes mountains separated the founding population of these mockingbirds into 2 species.  Oddly enough, the Bahama mockingbird is a sister species to the 4 kinds of mockingbirds found on the Galapagos Islands including the San Cristobal, Galapagos, Hood, and Floreana.  Each of these species occupies just 1 or 2 Galapagos Islands.  Darwin wrongly assumed they were most closely related to South American species of mockingbirds due to the relative proximity.  But genetic evidence shows the mockingbirds that traveled over the Pacific Ocean to the Galapagos Islands came from even further away.  It seems likely this occurred before a land bridge connected North and South America.  Otherwise, the exhausted birds would’ve landed on Central America instead.  Unlike Darwin’s famous finches, mockingbirds didn’t evolve into different species that occupied different niches on each island, but instead remained habitat generalists, though each became a different species unique to the island they landed upon.

References:

Hoeck, P; et al

“Differentiation with Drift: A Spatio-Temporal Genetic Analysis of Galapagos Mockingbird Populations (Mimus spp.)”

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Science 365 (1543) 2010

Lovette, I; et al

“Philogenetic Relationships of the Mockingbrids and Thrashers (Aves: Mimidae)”

Molecular Phylogenetics 2011

 

The Fear Island Special that Aired on Animal Planet Last Night was Full of Shit

June 4, 2018

The Animal Planet network has a history of airing misleading pseudo-science on many of their specials.  In their fake documentaries, researchers (usually actors posing as scientists) are on the hunt for creatures undiscovered by science.  In the past they have supposedly discovered evidence for mermaids and the continued existence of a long extinct shark species known as Carcharodon megalodon.  Last night, they aired a special culminating Monster Week entitled Fear Island.  A trio including a so-called scientist, a skeptic, and an Indian tracker were following a particularly large specimen of Kodiak bear.  The so-called scientist had a theory that Kodiak bears were either an hybrid between brown bears (Ursus arctos) X polar bears (Ursus maritimus) or an hybrid between brown bears X and an extinct species of bear from the Pleistocene (Arctodus simus).  They used camera traps and collected DNA samples from hair and feces to prove that this bear was an hybrid, and that it was 2600 pounds which would make it more than double the size of an ordinary Kodiak bear.  This gave the show a verisimilitude of real science, but it was not.

Image result for Fear Island on Animal Planet misleading

Don’t believe anything you see on Animal Planet.  They air unscientific bullshit.

There was a big problem with this special–scientists have already conducted many genetic studies of the Kodiak bear population.  Kodiak bears grow to more than double the size of the average mainland brown bear because of their diet…not because they are somehow a different species.  They enjoy an unusual abundance of salmon.  Genetic studies suggest Kodiak bears are the same species as the brown bear, and there is no admixture of polar bear in this population.  Moreover, the genetic studies indicate there is so little genetic difference between mainland brown bears and Kodiak bears that the latter should not even be considered a separate subspecies.  Nevertheless, at the end of the special Animal Planet claimed their genetic tests determined the Kodiak bear the hosts were following was a brown bear X polar bear hybrid, but tests to determine if there was giant short-faced bear DNA were inconclusive.  I promise, this supposed genetic test will never be subject to peer review in a real scientific journal because they were full of shit.  The giant short faced bear belonged to the Tremarctine group indigenous to the Americas, and these bears were separated from the Ursus bears by millions of years of evolution, making it highly unlikely that they ever interbred.  Plus, there is no genetic material of giant short-faced bears available for comparison.  So, of course, that finding would be inconclusive.

No way did the bear they were following weigh 2600 pounds as they estimated.  Any brown bear walking past a camera trap is going to look big, and I’m sure their estimate was badly miscalculated.  To prove it weighed that much, they would actually have to weigh it.

The Indian tracker told of an incident when 6 bears carried a dead bear to an hole they dug and buried it in a funeral like ceremony.  He told it with a straight face, but obviously he was pulling their leg.  Nevertheless, the so-called skeptic believed his story.  Don’t believe anything you see on Animal Planet.  This network lost its credibility a long time ago.

Tallow Plum (Ximenia americana) and Pre-historic Rafting Events

June 3, 2018

I posted the below photo on the Florida Flora and Systematics Facebook page, and the 2 plants in the picture were identified within about 5 minutes.  I saw this shrub and flower growing at Manatee State Park in Florida, while I was in the sunshine state visiting my sister and mother who recently moved there.  I joined that Facebook group because I am not as familiar with plants found in Florida as I am with Georgia’s flora.  I’ve read about tallow plum, but it was a big help for someone to help me identify it.

The flower in the foreground is Chapman’s pea (Chapmannia floridanus); the scrub bush in the background is tallow plum.

Tallow plum is in the Olalaceae family which includes olive, ash, and privet.  It produces an edible, waxy, sour fruit; and the tree reaches an height of 18 feet.  The tough plant thrives on sandy soils and can even grow on beaches, perhaps explaining its wide geographical distribution.  This species is found throughout most of Florida as well as the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, and Australia.  I wondered how it attained such a vast geographic distribution, but when I researched the species on google, I found no scientific studies delving into this mystery, and I learned no genomic wide studies of the Olalaceae family have been conducted yet.  I couldn’t even find any speculative discussions of its range, so the ancient history of this species has been overlooked.

I hypothesize tropical storms disbursed this species on rafts of vegetation to different continents near the equator.  Hurricanes can wash plant material far out to sea, and when it lands on a different continent, surviving flora and fauna can then colonize new territory.  (Animals often cling to these rafts of vegetation.) This hypothesis has also been proposed to explain how monkeys and rodents originating from Africa colonized South America, and it is the commonly accepted explanation for how anole lizards conquered Caribbean Islands and southeastern North America.  The ability of tallow plum to grow on sandy soils helped them set roots on beaches when they made landfall, following severe storms and currents that carried them halfway around the world.  Uprooted plants must have been able to survive for weeks while floating on the ocean before reaching land where perhaps waves or river currents reburied the roots in soil.  Some soil likely clung to the floating uprooted plants, and timely rains helped keep the plants alive.

The only fossil site with specimens of tallow plant is of Pliocene-age, and it is found in Africa.  The site is estimated to be between 4.3 million years BP-3.8 million years BP.  The only other species of tallow plum (X. caffra) is also found in Africa.  It seems likely Africa is the continent of origin for tallow plums.  Geneticists could shed light on the evolutionary history and distribution of tallow plum, if they ever look at its genome.

 

An Anatomical Comparison Between the Extinct North American Cheetahs (Miracynonyx sp.) and the Late Pleistocene/Holocene Cougar (Puma concolor)

May 28, 2018

One of my readers recently asked whether the cougar (Puma concolor) might be the same species as the extinct North American cheetahs (Miracynonyx inexpectatus and M. trumani).  This is not as ridiculous a question as a layman might think because paleontologists often mistakenly identify multiple species from fossil remains that after re-evaluation are eventually determined to be from 1 species.  I love reading articles about vertebrate paleontology, but I usually skip over anatomical descriptions because they are pretty dry.  But to answer his question, I used google to search for a paper comparing the anatomical differences between Puma and Miracynonyx.  I did not find a journal article with a comprehensive anatomical comparison between the 2, but I did recall a paper I’d already read that discussed some of the differences.  I’ve linked the paper below in  my references.

Cougars and North American cheetahs had different-sized teeth.  Cougars have larger canines and lower molars than North American cheetahs, but they have smaller lower premolars (p4) and smaller upper pre-molars (P3).  They also have a “less reduced protocone on upper premolar P4.”  North American cheetahs had longer limbs than cougars as the below photos from the linked paper show.  So the answer is no.  Cougars were definitely not the same species as the North American cheetahs.

Fossil history of the panther (Puma concolor) and the cheetah-like cat (Miracinonyx inexpectatus) in Florida - Page 208

Comparison of limb bones between cougar and North American cheetah shows the latter had longer hind foot bones and were better runners.

Fossil history of the panther (Puma concolor) and the cheetah-like cat (Miracinonyx inexpectatus) in Florida - Page 210

North American cheetahs had longer front foot bones as well.

Cougars and North Americans cheetahs are closely related, however.  Genetic evidence suggests their shared lineage originated 6-8 million years ago, and a puma-like cat, probably Puma pardoides, crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia shortly after this.  In North America the puma-like ancestor diverged into 3 lines: cougars, North American cheetahs, and jaguarundis. The Puma genus diverged from Miracynonyx about 3.2 million years ago.

The fossil evidence shows M. inexpectatus  lived all across North America from the late Pliocene to the middle Pleistocene (~3 million years BP-~300,000 years BP).  In the Florida Museum of Natural History there are 47 records in state of M. inexpectatus at sites thought to date from the Pliocene to the mid-Pleistocene, but they are known from just 1 late Pleistocene site in Florida.  This site is named Lecanto 2A. The only other Late Pleistocene site with a possible M. inexpecatus  fossil (1 leg bone) is in Cavetown, Maryland.  These specimens can’t be radio-carbon dated.  The reason the specimen from Lecanto 2A is considered Late Pleistocene is its association with specimens of other species known from this age including dire wolf, Florida spectacled bear, rice rat, and cotton rat.  It’s possible there were relic populations of M. inexpectatus  still living during the Late Pleistocene, but it seems more likely it’s a case of older fossils getting mixed with younger fossils.

M. inexpectatus  expanded its range at a time coinciding with the expansion of grassland habitat.  Its long legs helped it run down prey.  M. trumani was even more adapted for living in open habitat.  This species appeared during the Late Pleistocene and was restricted to western North America as far as we know from the fossil record.  M. trumani is probably a descendent of M. inexpecatus which had intermediate characteristics between cougars and M. trumani. 

The paleobiology database indicates cougar fossils dating to the Early and Mid Pleistocene in California, Idaho, Washington, and Mexico have been reported.  Nevertheless, cougar fossils predating the Late Pleistocene are rare.  In the Florida Museum of Natural History there are 44 records of cougar from the Late Pleistocene but just 2 from the Mid Pleistocene and 2 from the Early Pleistocene.  The early Pleistocene specimens are referred to as Puma lacrustis, but I searched for this scientific name on google and found nothing, so I’m not sure what these specimens actually were.  Genetic evidence suggests cougars were well established in South America between 300,000 years BP-200,000 years BP, and this corresponds with the widespread fossil evidence of this species throughout North America during this time period.  I hypothesize cougars began to expand their range widely during an early Rancholabrean interglacial from a regional ancestral population undetected in the fossil record.  This time period would correspond to when forested conditions expanded.  Cougars are ambush predators that prefer forests and woodlands.

North American cheetahs are not as closely related to Old World cheetahs as previously thought.  Physical similarities between the 2 are just another example of convergent evolution.

References:

Barnett, Ross; et. al.

“Evolution of the Extinct Sabretooth and the American Cheetah-like Cat”

Current Biology 15 (5) August 2005

Culver, M.; W. Johnson, J. Pecon-Slattery, and S. O’Brien

“Genomic Ancestry of the American Puma (Puma concolor)

Journal of Heredity 91 (3) 2009

Morgan, Gary and Kevin Seymour

“Fossil History of the Panther (Puma concolor)  and the Cheetah-like Cat (Miracynonxy inexpectatus) in Florida”

Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History 1997

http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00095787/00001/1j

 

 

Florida Cracker Cattle (Bos taurus)

May 23, 2018

Even if there were no historical accounts, modern scientists could determine when European livestock were introduced to the Americas.  Scientists can take cores of sediment, radio-carbon date it, and measure the amount of sporomiella in each dated layer.  Sporomiella is a dung fungus spore found in the excrement of large mammals and is used as a proxy to estimate megafauna populations.  Scientists know when Pleistocene megafauna populations collapsed in some regions based on the amount of sporomiella in sediment, and they also can determine when European livestock were introduced using the same method.  Following the introduction of cows, horses, and pigs; the amount of sporormiella in the environment spiked to levels often equivalent to those of the pre-late Pleistocene extinctions.

Introduced livestock frequently outlasted the initial expeditions that brought them.  Early Spanish explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries perished with regularity in the harsh New World environments, so far from their accustomed European civilization, and some were massacred by Indians, but the cattle, pigs, and horses they brought with them ran wild.  The Europeans and their livestock carried contagious infections that decimated Indian populations with primitive immune systems as well, and feral livestock thrived in environments with low numbers of people.  The husbandry practices of early European settlers facilitated the increase of feral livestock populations.  Busy missionaries and homesteaders let their animals forage in the woods and fields, and the beasts often escaped and joined their free cousins.  Local environmental conditions shaped the evolution of feral livestock, weeding out those not adapted to living wild under each region’s unique conditions.  New breeds were born.

The Florida cracker cattle, also known as the piney woods cattle, rapidly evolved to thrive in the open pine savannahs of Florida and south Georgia.  They are related to the better known Texas longhorn cattle and also descend from cattle brought by the earliest of Spanish explorers.  They were already adapted to the warm climate of Spain, but in Florida the breed evolved tolerance for the humidity and local parasites. The tough cattle readily produced many calves on the low quality grasslands of the region, and their ferocity helped them fend off cougars, wolves, and bears.   Florida cracker cattle may be the “buffalo” that William Oglethorpe, the man who founded the state of Georgia, hunted during the early 18th century.  Colonial Europeans used the term “buffalo” interchangeably for both bison and feral cattle.  William Bartram saw great mixed herds of Florida cracker cattle, horses, and deer when he traveled through Florida in 1776.

Image result for Florida cracker cattle

Florida cracker cattle.  They are small–bulls weigh between 800 pounds to 1200 pounds.  Most are brown or partly brown and white but they come in a variety of coat colors.  The name cracker comes from the British settlers, known as crackers, because they cracked whips when they drove livestock on the road.

Florida cracker cattle were the best breed of cattle able to survive in the deep south until Brahman bulls from India were introduced during the 1930s.  Then, scientists invented antibiotics and medicines to treat parasites, and farmers were able to raise more productive breeds of cattle which they crossbred with the native cattle.  The Florida state legislature passed a law in 1949 outlawing free ranging cattle because farmers wanted to prevent the transmission of diseases from wild cattle to their preferred domestic breeds.  The Florida cracker cattle population plummeted.  Now, there is an effort to save the breed.  38 people still raise Florida cracker cattle, and herds are maintained at the Tallahassee Agricultural Complex, Withlacoochee State Park, Lake Kissimmee State Park, Payne’s Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, and Dudley Farm.  Customers who like free-roaming grass fed beef pay top dollar for meat butchered from the breed.

Manatee State Park and Bradenton, Florida

May 20, 2018

I visited southwestern Florida last week to see my Mom for Mother’s Day.  We spent some time at Manatee State Park as well, and I saw lots of wildlife on my trip through the state.  There are no manatees in Manatee State Park.  Manatee Lake is a manmade reservoir, created when the Manatee River was dammed.  Manatees live in the river but they can’t get past the dam.  Manatee State Park is about 500 acres and hosts a mostly scrub environment of saw palmettos, grape vines, stunted live oaks, and Florida sand pine.  Supposedly, fox squirrels occur in the park, but I just saw gray squirrels.

I saw interesting wildlife on my trip while driving from Augusta, Georgia to Bradenton, Florida; but unfortunately I couldn’t take photos while traveling 70 mph down the highway.  I was lucky enough to spot an extremely rare whooping crane standing by I-75 south of the Tampa exit.  There are only about 100 whooping cranes in Florida.  I expected to see sandhill cranes (which I also saw), but was shocked to see a whooping crane. I saw swallowtail kites 5 times but couldn’t take photos of the birds because they wouldn’t stop moving.  My sister lives on a golf course that recently was a cattle ranch, and the wildlife hasn’t left yet, despite the development.  I did get a decent photo of a bobcat, though it was walking fast.

The list of species I saw in Florida included whooping crane, sandhill crane, swallowtail kite, Mississippi kite, osprey, king rail (I think), cattle egret, great egret, green heron, great blue heron, Canadian goose, turkey, turkey vulture, black vulture, white ibis, mourning dove, mockingbird, rufous sided towhee, blue jay, laughing gull, brown pelican, cormorant, crow, red-winged blackbird, boat-tailed grackle, chimney swift, cardinal, black bellied whistling duck (I think), house sparrows, gray squirrels, and bobcat.  I saw road-killed opossum, armadillo, raccoon, and white tail deer.  I heard barred owl, chuck will’s widow, and tufted titmouse.  In south Georgia species I saw that I didn’t also see in Florida were loggerhead shrike, red-shouldered hawk, feral chicken, and starling.

I remember riding through central Florida in the late 1970s when citrus orchards could be found on both sides of the highway for long stretches.  I didn’t see a single orchard.  Instead, the orchards have been replaced by beautiful cattle ranches with pasture surrounding groves of live oaks.  Big flocks of cattle egrets follow the grazing cows.  It is excellent habitat for black bears and cougars.  Black bears do occur in central Florida, and cougars may eventually establish a permanent population there, but currently breeding females are mostly restricted west of Lake Okeechobee.

Click on the photos below to enlarge them.

Despite the sign, my daughter and I swam in Lake Manatee.  A couple of British tourists were astonished that we dared swim in the lake..  Actually, riding in a car is much more dangerous than swimming with alligators.

Lake Manatee supplies drinking water for 2 counties.

Stunted live oaks at Manatee State Park.  Gray squirrels foraged for acorns here but I didn’t see fox squirrels.

Saw palmetto dominates Manatee State Park.

Love bugs (Plecia nearctia) were mating and were everywhere.  Dead love bugs covered my front fender.

I saw this cormorant drying its wings from my sister’s back porch.  (At least I think it is a cormorant and not an anhinga.  It’s difficult to tell from the back.)

I took a blurry photo of a bobcat on the golf course behind my sister’s house.  It was walking fast and wouldn’t let me take a clearer photo.  It was headed toward an area inhabited by wild pigs.  We heard a squeal shortly after I took this photo.  Maybe the cat grabbed a piglet.

I think this is a black bellied whistling duck.  Initially, there were 3 of them on my sister’s roof.  The fulvous whistling duck also lives in Florida.  Both of these Central and South American species are expanding their range north.  All the houses in my sister’s neighborhood were built with these hurricane-proof roofs.

 

The Chesser Island Boardwalk in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge

May 16, 2018

Miles of open pine savannahs formerly surrounded the Okefenokee Swamp, but that land has been almost entirely converted into enormous pine tree farms with much less floral and faunal diversity.  100 years ago, developers tried to ruin the swamp itself as well.  They felled cypress forests and attempted to drain the swamp with canals.  Thankfully, they were bankrupted because the swamp was too resilient and impossible to develop, so the government designated it a wildlife refuge.  There is a nice boardwalk at the end of Chesser Island Road that leads to an observation tower.  I walked to the tower last Saturday with my wife and daughter and took the following photos.

The entrance road leads through a slash pine savannah with an undergrowth of saw palmetto, ferns, and wiregrass.

2 big alligators were hanging around a lily-covered roadside ditch.

Ferns are abundant in fire-adapted landscapes, like the Okefenokee.  Ferns were the first plants to sprout following the K-T impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Fire creates the open landscape of the Okefenokee.  Without fire it would become a closed canopy cypress forest.

Barred owl.  They are common in the swamp.

The fire of 2013 killed lots of cypress trees.  Note the charred trunks.

The boardwalk is 3/4 of a mile.  I was able to easily push my wife’s wheel chair all the way to the observation tower.

I heard pig frogs and cricket frogs at this pond, and an eastern kingbird was hunting insects over the water.

Open Okefenokee marshes are called “prairies.”

Spanish moss.  Strange as it may seem, Spanish moss is related to pineapple.

Soft shelled turtle.

The list of animal species I saw on this excursion in less than 90 minutes included alligator, soft shelled turtle, rabbit, pileated woodpecker, barred owl, black vulture, red-winged blackbird, boat-tailed grackle, mourning dove, mockingbird, eastern kingbird, yellowthroat warbler, laughing gull, great egret, black swallowtail butterfly, and at least 4 species of dragonflies.  I heard chimney swifts, pig frogs, and cricket frogs, and raccoon scat littered the boardwalk.  I was surprised I saw just 1 wading bird.  On a previous trip to the Okefenokee I saw none.  I saw the laughing gulls near the county landfill just outside the refuge. I couldn’t determine if the rabbit was a cottontail or marsh rabbit.  It slipped into the palmetto before I could take a photo of it.

Recent Items about the Late Pleistocene in the News

May 10, 2018

3 stories relating to the late Pleistocene recently made the mainstream news.  The first story is about the upcoming resurrection of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).  George Church of Harvard University is using CRISPR technology to genetically engineer a woolly mammoth by editing Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) DNA.  (I explained CRISPR technology in a previous blog entry.  See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2016/07/22/possible-resurrection-of-the-mammoth-as-early-as-2018/  ) Scientists at Church’s lab are going to edit in the phenotypical characteristics that make the woolly mammoth able to survive in cold wet climates with extremely short and long days.  These characteristics include a layer of fat, long oily hair, small ears, the ability to withstand cold temperatures, and adjustments to the circadian rhythms animals that live in the Arctic require.  They think they can produce a genetically engineered woolly mammoth by 2019.  Scientists hope to eventually engineer herds of woolly mammoths that can live in Siberia where their activities will convert the tundra landscape into a grassy steppe.  Ecologists believe a grassy steppe environment will better prevent permafrost from melting, thus mitigating anthropogenic global warming.  I’m all in favor of resurrecting herds of woolly mammoths, but I believe their goal of mitigating global warming is a pipe dream, and I doubt woolly mammoths could survive in the present day tundra.  I suspect woolly mammoths were confined to relic steppe habitat during interglacials.  Climate is a much greater influence on sub-Arctic habitat than the activities of megafauna.  Woolly mammoths could probably survive today on the grassy Tibetan steppes but not in the Siberian tundra.  The mammoth steppe of the late Pleistocene was more like the modern Tibetan highlands than the Siberian tundra.

The 2nd story reported the results of a statistical study that determined the average size of mammal species has declined over the past 130,000 years, and the authors of this study squarely blame man.  Humans have been overhunting large mammals that reproduce slowly to extinction, leaving smaller species that can better replenish their populations with faster breeding.  Rabbits breed faster than mammoths and elephants.  The average size of a North American mammal species during the late Pleistocene was 216 pounds compared with the average North American mammal species of today which weighs 16 pounds. This decline in body size is unprecedented over the past 65 million years and hasn’t occurred since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  The fossil record is pronounced…this statistical study just confirms the obvious.

Evidence humans may or may not have tracked a ground sloth in New Mexico is perhaps the most interesting story.  There are thousands of late Pleistocene-aged animal tracks in the White Sands National Monument.  During the Ice Age weather patterns were different due to altered climate cycles, and southwestern North America was much wetter than it is today.  The site of these tracks, presently a desert, was a lake shore then.  The animals walked on the edge of the lake in the mud and the tracks have been preserved for thousands of years.  Scientists found human tracks adjacent and actually within ground sloth tracks.  Ground sloths usually walked in a straight line, but these tracks appear to show the ground sloth zig-zag, as if it was avoiding a predator.  There are 2 sets of human tracks.  One human was directly following the ground sloth–his steps are inside the ground sloth steps; the other human was walking very gently beside the other person, as if on tiptoe.  The ground sloth circled around and appeared to rise up on its legs and bare its claws.  There are claw marks in the ground too.  Scientists suggest 1 human was distracting the ground sloth, while the other was sneaking up on it to deliver a fatal spear thrust or blow to the head with a club.  The end result is not recorded in the tracks.  Other scientists are skeptical of this interpretation.  Some think it unlikely humans would hunt the sloth in such an open landscape.  However, this site was not as open then as it is today, and humans could easily outpace a ground sloth.

Image result for human footprints inside sloth prints

Human footprint inside sloth print.  The sloth print is 22 inches long.  The human footprint is 5 inches.  The sloth had a wider stride, so the human must have been hopping to get his foot inside the sloth’s print.

I wish there were more mainstream news stories about the late Pleistocene.  It’s much more interesting than waiting for Donald Trump to get impeached.

References:

Daley, J.

“Fossil Tracks May Record Ancient Human Hunting Sloth”

Smithsonian April 20, 2018

Smith, F.; et. al.

“Body Size Downgrading of Mammals over the Late Quaternary”

Science  April 2018