A Pleistocene Great Horned Owl’s (Bubo virginianus) Roost in Virginia

May 26, 2015

Clark’s Cave is a rare site where remains of Ice Age birds have been found.  Bird bones are fragile and less commonly preserved than mammal fossils.  We know little about the distribution of bird species during the Pleistocene, even though many species must have been at least as abundant as they are today.  Yet, Clark’s Cave provides the only known Pleistocene occurrence for some bird species.  Scientists excavated these remains in the 1970’s, and an 80 page paper about them was published in 1977 by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  The paleobiology database lists the species recovered from this site.  I studied this list and concluded the cave must have served as a great horned owl’s roost for decades. Perhaps generations of owls roosted here.

Bath County, highlighted in map of Virginia

Clark’s Cave is in Bath County, Virginia.  The remains of prey inside the cave suggest it was a great horned owl’s roost for generations, perhaps centuries.

Posted Image

Great horned owls prey on skunks so frequently, they often smell of skunk.  The spray doesn’t seem to bother them.

Great horned owls are a top predator of small animals wherever they occur, and they have been recorded taking a wide range of prey species.  I noticed the list of small species recovered from Clark’s Cave closely matched what one could find on a great horned owl’s menu.  This large owl carried striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis) and 5 kinds of weasels into the cave including pine marten (Martes americana), mink (Mustela vison), long-tailed (M. frenata), short-tailed (M. ermine), and least (M. nivalis).  Though some of these species may have established dens inside the cave, I think it’s highly unlikely every species that lived in the region would naturally inhabit and die in the cave.  This diverse assemblage could best be explained by the activities of a predator’s daily hunting.  Snowshoe hares (Lepus americana) and cottontail rabbits fell victim to the Pleistocene owls.  The paper identified the latter remains as a New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis), but this paper was written before the Appalachian cottontail (S. obscurus) was recognized as a distinct species.  I’m not sure if a distinction between the 2 cottontails can be made without a molecular study of the genes.  The owls brought 23 species of rodents into the cave.  Flying squirrels are active at night, so it’s no surprise both northern (Glaucomys sabrinus) and southern (G. volans) were eaten by nocturnal owls.  Even porcupines (Erithizon dorsatum)get killed by great horned owls.  Great horned owls probably also ate the smaller birds of prey found in the cave–sharp shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus), broad winged hawk (Buteo platyperus), kestrel (Falco sparverius), screech owl (Otus asio), short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), and saw whet owl (Agolus acadicus).  Great horned owls are notorious decimators of game birds such as turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), and ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus).  Great horned owls destroy waterfowl–both ducks and wading birds.  The owls brought 5 species of ducks and 4 species of rails into the cave.  This is the best evidence the cave represents owl predation because neither duck nor rail would frequent cave habitat.  Some of the 29 other species of songbirds may have ended up in the cave, not as a victim of owls, but for some other reason.  Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are too fast for owls to catch but would nest inside a cave.  However, most of the species of birds found in the cave were likely killed by owls.  The great horned owls even caught slow-moving fish (eels, suckers, minnows, catfish, pickerel) that otherwise would have never been found in a cave environment.

Remains of the least chipmunk (Eutamias minimus) were the most surprising find at this site.  The least chipmunk no longer occurs this far east but is presently restricted to western Canada and the Rocky Mountains.

a photo of a least chipmunk

Remains of the least chipmunk were found in Clark’s Cave.  It no longer ranges this far east.

Distribution of Tamias minimus

Modern day range map of the least chipmunk.  Over half of its present day range was under glacial ice during the Ice Age.  The uninhabitable ice sheet forced it to occupy range south at least as far as Virginia where it co-occurred with the eastern chipmunk.

An uninhabitable glacier covered about half of their present day range during the late Pleistocene.  The range of this species shifted south where it co-occurred with the eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus).  Remains of the least chipmunk have also been excavated from New Trout Cave, West Virginia–a site also dated to the late Pleistocene.

Not every species recovered from Clark’s Cave was a victim of owl predation.  Black bears (Ursus americanus) likely used the cave as a winter den and dire wolves (Canis dirus) raised pups here.  These carnivores dragged white tail deer (Odocoileus virginiana) and elk (Cervus canadensis) into the cave.  None of the familiar now extinct Pleistocene megafauna (aside from the dire wolf) left remains in the cave.  Was it chance or did the deposition of the cave occur after most of the Pleistocene megafauna became extinct?  The cave was studied before carbon dating was refined.  Researcher should re-date this material.

7 species of bats roosted in the cave.  Most were probably not owl prey but a few might be.

The composition of animal species recovered from the cave tells us what kinds of environments existed within a great horned owl’s home range here during the Pleistocene.  The presence of northern flying squirrel, red squirrel, and pine marten indicates red spruce forest at higher elevations.  A mix of red spruce and deciduous forest must have occurred at lower elevations because gray squirrel, southern flying squirrel, and chipmunk lived here.  Direct evidence of oak, hickory, hackberry, and tupelo was found inside the cave.  Elk and woodchuck are evidence of mountain meadows.  Muskrat, duck, and rail prove grassy marshes contributed to the diversity of habitats.  Young dense forest and shrub covered some areas preferred by rabbit, hare, and grouse.  Meadowlark and 13-lined ground squirrel needed treeless prairies.  A Paleo-Indian could have walked across all 6 of these habitats in a day.  Thanks to the great horned owl, we can imagine the kinds of environments a Paleo-Indian may have experienced on a day’s walk.

Reference:

Guilday, J.E.; P.W. Parmalee and H.W. Hamilton

“The Clark’s Cave Bone Deposit and the Late Pleistocene Paleoecology of the Central Appalachian Mountains of Virginia”

Bulletin of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History 1977

The above reference is available at the Carnegie Museum website for $13 plus shipping.  I never read the paper but the following link lists every species found inside the cave including 6 orders of insects.  That was enough info for this blog entry.

http://fossilworks.org/bridge.pl?a=collectionSearch&last_collection=94426&collection_name=Clark%27s+Cave

A Good Narrative about the American Cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani) may be Ruined but maybe not

May 22, 2015

The close physical similarity between the extinct cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani) of Pleistocene North America, and the still extant cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) of Africa and Asia caused confusion among paleontologists.  The anatomy of both species shared characteristics of a cat built for great speed.  Paleontologists thought cheetahs originally evolved in North America and later colonized Asia and Africa.  Then, based on a re-evaluation of the fossil evidence and new genetic studies, scientists realized the similarity between the Old World cheetah and the North American cheetah was just a case of convergent evolution that occurs when 2 unrelated species evolve similar traits to help them adapt to similar environments.  The 2 species were not as closely related as formerly thought.  Instead, the North American cheetah evolved from an extinct Asian cougar (Puma pardoides) that crossed the Bering Land Bridge over 6 million years ago.  After Puma pardoides colonized North America, the species diverged into 3 lineages.  One line led to an animal adapted for hunting on the grassy plains–M. trumani.  Another line evolved into the jaguarundi (Puma jagouaroundi), a small cat of tropical brush habitat.  The third line evolved into the modern cougar (Puma concolor), a generalist species well adapted for living in a wide range of environments.  Puma concolor doesn’t occur in the fossil record until ~500,000 years BP, but I believe its evolutionary predecessor was Miracinonyx inexpectus.  Temporally, fossil material of Puma concolor and M. inexpectus doesn’t overlap. The latter was likely the late Pliocene/early Pleistocene version of the cougar.  Miracinonyx studeri, a scientific name used in some studies, is merely a synonym for M. inexpectus.

The American Cheetah looked like its African cousin, but became extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago.

Artist’s depiction of an American cheetah chasing a pronghorn.  Pronghorns can run up to 60 miles per hour.  No extant predator in North America even comes close to this.  An analysis of the anatomy of the extinct American cheetah suggests it was built for this kind of speed with long legs, flexible spine, and large nasal passages for rapid air intake.

Pronghorn antelopes (Antilocapra americana) reach speeds far exceeding any extant predator living in North America.  Scientists hypothesized they evolved this capability to outrun a predator that is now extinct.  They believe M. trumani was that predator.

A few years ago, paleontologists excavated fossil material they identified as M. trumani from several caves within the Grand Canyon.  This high elevation habitat was home to mountain goats (Oreamnos harrington and Oreamnos americanus) not pronghorns.  These scientists proposed the American cheetah, at least at this locality, occupied a niche like that of an alpine snow leopard (Uncia uncia), a big cat that hunts on steep rocky slopes.  It would seem the narrative about the American cheetah and pronghorn might be ruined.  However, Ross Barnett, author of a study referenced below, is not convinced the fossil material found in the Grand Canyon is from American cheetah.  These specimens were identified by comparing them with bones from modern cougars and other American cheetah remains.  M. trumani was somewhat larger than modern cougars, so it was assumed the Grand Canyon material represented American cheetah, not cougar.  Dr. Barnett suggests the material should have been compared with fossil remains of Pleistocene cougars which were on average larger than modern cougar.  The Grand Canyon material may actually be Pleistocene cougar.  Cougars are well adapted for living on steep slopes. So the narrative of the American cheetah and the pronghorn may not be ruined. Incidentally, the cougars that lived in North America were an extinct ectomorph–all modern North American cougars descend from a small population originating from eastern South America.

There’s no fossil evidence M. trumani ever lived east of the Mississippi River.  But M. inexpectus and Puma concolor are a common enough (for a large carnivore) find in fossil sites throughout southeastern North America.

Some now refer to the American cheetah as the “false cheetah.”  I don’t think the adjective “false” should be used to describe an animal, simply because humans were once confused about its evolutionary relationships.

References:

Barnett, Ross; et. al.

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

Current Biology 2005

Hodnett, Jean-Paul; et. al.

“Miracinonyx trumani (Carnivore: Felidae) from the Rancholabrean of Grand Canyon, Arizona and its Implications for the Ecology of the American Cheetah”

Programs and Abstracts, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 2010

Rapid Sea Level Rise on the Georgia Coast

May 19, 2015

Glaciers expanded and sea levels fell during Ice Ages.  20,000 years ago, the Georgia coast was located 90 miles to the east of the present day shoreline.  The continental shelf off the Georgia coast (known as the Georgia bight) was above sea level between 80,000 BP-7,000 BP.  Near the end of the Ice Age, glacial ice melted and sea level rose rapidly but in stages.  The partial dissolution of glacial Lake Agassiz in Canada 12,900 years ago caused a sudden rise in sea level.  The Atlantic Ocean likely advanced toward the present day shoreline many miles in a few short years.  But an ice dam reformed, containing the rest of Lake Agassiz’s water until 8200 BP when it completely collapsed, releasing the rest of this great lake’s water.  (Lake Agassiz contained more water than all of the modern Great Lakes combined.)  This caused another sudden rise in sea level along the Georgia coast.  By 4500 BP the Georgia coast consisted of just 2 barrier islands separated by the southeasterly flowing Altamaha River.  The Ogeechee, Satilla, and St. Mary’s Rivers were tributaries of the Altamaha and didn’t directly drain into the Atlantic Ocean as they do today.  The Altamaha drained into a huge sound located to the east of where Little Cumberland Island stands today.  Sea level rose again, flooding and eroding the areas where the Ogeechee, Satilla, and St. Mary’s flowed into the Altamaha and splitting the 2 barrier islands into 10 smaller ones.  All of these rivers formerly flowed southeasterly, but the high marine transgression caused them to straighten to a more easterly direction.

trail map

Map of the  modern day Georgia coast.  About 4500 years ago, there were only 2 barrier islands between the Savannah River and the Florida border, and they were bisected by the Altamaha River which then emptied into a huge sound located at the same latitude as modern day Little Cumberland Island.  The other rivers in this region that today flow into the ocean were tributaries of the Altamaha.

Aerial view of Georgia salt marsh.

Aerial view of salt marsh in Glynn County, Georgia.  There are 4500 year old logs from a rapidly flooded forest underneath the surface.

Wood storks (Mycteria Americana) on a salt marsh behind Sapelo Island.  There are now 10 major barrier islands off the Georgia coast, but before 4500 years ago, there were just 2, separated by the Altamaha River.  A person using an excavator to dig here would probably find 4500-2000 year old logs in less than an hour.

The Holocene Climatic Optimum between 9000 BP-5000 BP was a warm climatic phase, especially at higher latitudes, resulting from both the northern hemispheric tilt of 24 degrees and the timing of the perihelion.  The earth was closest to the sun during the boreal summer.  Summers were much warmer but winters were cooler.  The effects of the Holocene Climatic Optimum were felt in different regions at different times.  The sea level rise on the Georgia coast occurred toward the end of this climatic phase.  The ocean’s response to the Holocene Climatic Optimum may be a factor explaining this marine transgression.  Tectonic processes (the shifting of the earth’s crust) and isostatic adjustment (the rebound and subsidence of the earth’s crust in response to the weight of glaciers) also probably played a role in this sea level rise.

Scientists studying the rapid rise of sea level on the Georgia coast find fossil trees beneath salt marshes, and they date to between 4400 BP-2000 BP.  St. Simon’s and Jekyll Islands were connected until 2000 BP.  The youngest fossil trees are found here.  This was one of the last areas of the coast to get inundated, though Ossabaw Sound was breached about the same time. There are abandoned river channels beneath salt marshes as well. Sea level is still rising but not at an unprecedented rate as global warming alarmists and political pundits claim.  Sea levels haven’t even reached the marine transgression high stand of the last interglacial known as the Sangamonian (~132,000 BP-~118,000 BP).

References:

Chowns, Timothy

“Drainage Changes at Ossabaw, St. Catherine’s, and Sapelo Islands and their Influence on Island Morphology and Spit building on St. Catherine’s Island”

American Museum of Natural History Anthropology Papers 94

Chowns, Timothy; and S. Hannah Hill

“Mid-Holocene Sea Level Rise on the Georgia Coast”

Georgia Journal of Science Abstracts 2014

Glaciers Shaped the Ohio River

May 15, 2015

Weak Ice Ages began occurring as early as 5 million years ago.  Gradually, they became more severe.  1.4 million years ago, for the first time, glaciers advanced through valleys incised by the Erigan River drainage.  This river system flowed through the present day sites of the Great Lakes which didn’t exist yet.  The Laurentide ice sheet obliterated the Erigan River system and advanced beyond another major, now extinct, river–the Teays.  The Teays River began in the North Carolina mountains and flowed in a northwesterly direction through what today is Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before emptying into the Mississippi River.  Glaciers formed a dam, blocking the northwesterly flow of the Teays River and creating the massive Lake Tight, a 7000 square mile body of water as deep as 800 feet in some spots.   Lake Tight must have been quite a sight–gray gravel and ice on the northwestern side and green boreal forests of spruce, pine, and northern hardwoods on the southeastern shore.  Many species of fish lived in the water, attracting great flocks of gulls; and it was a summer destination for duck, goose, and swan.  The churning waters spawned big waves like those of an ocean rather than a lake.  Overflow from the lake was captured by a minor tributary of the Cumberland River.  The ice forced the water to erode backward into bedrock, lengthening this tributary. This large creek/small river became the mighty Ohio river.  When the glacier retreated, the ice dam melted, releasing an incredible quantity of water into the Ohio river and incising a deeper valley toward its outlet, the Mississippi River.

The ancient Teays River was  a major regional drainage system during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene.  The advance of glaciers during Pleistocene Ice Ages dammed this river, allowing a minor tributary of the Cumberland River to capture the stream flow.  This small river became the mighty Ohio.

Map of Ohio River drainage. Glaciers pushed the water content of the Teays River south, creating the Ohio River instead.  Formerly, it was a small tributary.

Subsequent glacial advances during Ice Ages over the past 1.4 million years have had a major influence on the shape of the Ohio River.  The southern lobe of the Laurentide ice sheet frequently advanced far enough south to push sediment into the northern part of the Ohio River, damming tributaries and creating an extensive network of lakes.  During glacial maximums there were always a chain of lakes along the Ohio border with West Virginia and Kentucky.  The Illinois Ice Age was 1 of the most severe.  It lasted from ~240,000 BP-~135,000 BP.  The Laurentide ice sheet advanced as far south as northern Kentucky–its greatest extent ever.  This backed up lakes from the present day site of Louisville to the Pennsylvania border, forcing water into the Ohio River headwaters and incising 45 feet of bedrock.

Though the Wisconsin Ice Age (~114,000 BP-~11,000 BP) was not as severe as the previous glacial advance, the Ohio River valley was frequently incised by pulses of glacial meltwater.  A recent study of river sediment found that changes in the Ohio River were closely correlated with global climate change.  Warmer climate phases within the Ice Age were associated with greater incising and erosion, resulting from melting ice and large water discharge.  Colder climate phases and lower water discharge caused greater sediment build-up, known as aggradation.

Today, the Teays River valley is mostly hidden by sediment, but its descendent is clearly visible on maps.  Government officials used the Ohio River as a convenient demarcation to draw up borders between states.  Imagine how different a modern day map of the United States would look, if there had been no Ice Ages, and accordingly, no Ohio River worth noting.

Reference:

Counts, Ronald; et. al.

“Late Quaternary Chronostratigraphic Framework of Terraces and Alluvium along the lower Ohio River, Southwestern Indiana, and Western Kentucky”

Quaternary Science Reviews February 2015

 

Bird Songs of the Pleistocene

May 12, 2015

The other day, during my morning jog, I spotted a summer tanager, fluttering over a wooden railroad tie used to border a driveway.  This was the first summer tanager (Piranga rubra) I had ever seen, though decades ago I did see a scarlet tanager (P. olivicaea).   Summer tanagers are summer migrants, known in the south as summer redbirds, while cardinals (Cardinales cardinales) are known as winter redbirds because they are year round residents.  In 2009 North American tanagers were reclassified and are now considered part of the cardinal family.  This is surprising because cardinals primarily feed on seeds, but tanagers are insect and berry eaters.  Summer tanagers are heard more often than they are seen.  They inhabit high tree tops where they hunt bees and wasps.  Amazingly, tanagers catch, kill, and eat members of the Hymenoptera order without getting stung.  When I searched the Cornell University ornithology website to listen to summer tanager vocalizations, I discovered their song was a familiar sound that I’d been hearing every summer for years.  A few days later, I spotted a summer tanager again and was able to take the following photo.

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Click on the photo to enlarge and see the summer tanager in my blueberry bush.

Summer Tanager Photo

Here’s a better photo than the 1 I took.

In May during the peak nesting season I like to sit in my backyard and listen to birds calling.  It’s easiest to learn bird calls by witnessing each specific species make its call.  This is a better method than just listening to bird calls on the internet because after a while, they all kind of run together, and it’s hard to remember the distinctions between them.  Moreover, I’ve seen birds make certain calls that are not among those recorded on Cornell University’s website.  To complicate matters, some birds, such as mockingbirds, imitate vocalizations of other birds, animals, and even people.

Birds don’t sing for their own amusement.  Their vocalizations serve practical purposes.  Birds sing to establish mating territory and to maintain contact with members of their own species.  During nesting season the sound of bird calls near my house is almost constant. But I did notice the music stopped when a flock of predatory crows raided my neighbor’s tipped-over trash can a few days ago.  As soon as the crows left the area, the birds began singing again.  Perhaps, the birds didn’t want to give their nest locations away to the egg-eating crows.

I wonder how the bird songs I hear today near my house differ from those that could have been heard at this same location 36,000 years ago.  Many of the present day common species were likely uncommon during the late Pleistocene.  Then, some of these species probably depended on an unusual landscape niche.  Conversely, many presently rare and a few extinct species may have been common during the late Pleistocene. 7 species of birds nest on or near my property this spring including chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), robin (Turdus migratorius), cardinal, and summer tanager.  Bird remains dating to the Pleistocene are most commonly found in caves but have also been excavated from river deposits.  Neither is reliable as a complete inventory of former avifauna diversity.  Caves harbor remains of species that prefer cave habitats or were vulnerable to birds of prey that roosted in caves. Remains of  bird species adept at avoiding predators may never be found in caves. And birds that don’t often fly over water won’t be found in river deposits.  Nevertheless, aside from genetic studies, the fossil record is the only evidence of ancient avifauna abundance and diversity.

I searched the paleodatabase and the Florida Museum of Natural History database for the Pleistocene occurrence of the 7 species of birds nesting near my property.  Mockingbirds, an extremely common species, are known from just a single Pleistocene-aged site in Florida.  Brown thrashers are known from 4 sites dating as far back as the mid-Pleistocene including 2 in Florida and 2 in Virginia.  Robins are known from 8 sites located all over the continent.  The tufted titmouse has been found at just 1 site in Virginia.  Cardinals have been identified from 4 sites, all in Florida.  Tanagers are known from 3 sites–1 in Florida, 1 in Alabama, and 1 in Virginia.  Carolina wrens are absent from the fossil record.

Obviously, these species did live during the Pleistocene and were more common than the fossil record suggests.  But it is likely that some were less common then and much prefer human-altered habitat.  William Bartram, the 18th century naturalist, noted while traveling through wilderness that the forest was silent, but he knew when he was approaching civilization because he would begin hearing bird songs near human settlements.  Humans create varied habitat that is more attractive to a greater number of bird species than unbroken wilderness.  Instead of virgin old growth forest, anthropogenic habitats include agricultural fields, overgrown orchards, land left fallow, and abandoned land reverting to young forests.  Some Pleistocene landscapes may have mimicked this mix of habitats, but these were the result of megafaunal interactions with the environment along with the rapid cyclical climate changes of the Ice Age.

I suspect cardinals, mockingbirds, and Carolina wrens were less common during the late Pleistocene than they are today.  Cardinals have greatly expanded their range north, thanks to bird feeders provided by people.  But 10,000 years ago, cardinals were likely a bird restricted to the southeast.  Carolina wrens like to nest on human made substrates and would’ve been hard pressed to find quality nesting locations.  The other 4 species nesting near my yard may have been as common during the Pleistocene as they are today in some habitats.  Robins probably found heavily-grazed locations to their liking.  The high tree canopy of virgin forests would have made tanagers happy.  Today, chimney swifts almost exclusively nest in chimneys, but large hollow trees in old growth forests served as nesting colonies for chimney swifts just a few centuries ago.  And the leaf litter of untouched woods is the perfect foraging ground for brown thrashers.  In addition birds of deep wilderness not seen today in my neighborhood probably nested near the location of my property then.  I think hairy woodpeckers, ruffed grouse, turkeys, ravens, and magpies may have nested here 36,000 years ago.

wire owl enclosure for purple martin gourd rack

Some people are really into keeping purple martins. Note the installed net used to protect the birds from snakes. Before native Americans practiced agriculture, purple martins were likely an uncommon bird. They are absent from the fossil record.  Now, they are common and entirely reliant on anthropogenic nesting structures.

The purple martin (Progne sobis) is an example of a bird that has become entirely dependent upon humans.  Until about 8,000 years ago, this species was likely an uncommon bird that used abandoned woodpecker holes and natural hollows for nesting.  But Indians began cultivating a gourd-like squash, and purple martins nested inside the hollowed out squash.  Indians discovered this habit and starting hanging multiple containers made of dried squash on tree saplings to attract the birds.  Purple martins eat noxious insects and chase crows away from cornfields.  What may have begun as an entertaining curiosity for Indians became a beneficial practice.  Purple martin populations increased because the proximity of the nests spurred orgiastic behavior, greatly improving rates of reproduction.  Some of the bird species nesting in my yard today may be less extreme examples of dependence on human-altered habitat, but they seem to like this location.

Lynch’s Crater

May 6, 2015

Long ago, a volcano collapsed, creating an 80 yard deep crater.  Lynch’s Crater, located in northeastern Australia, has since become half-filled with 230,000 years worth of lake and marsh sediment. This sedimentary deposit has preserved pollen evidence spanning 2 complete glacial/interglacial cycles.  From this evidence scientists know a wet rain forest prevailed in this region until man arrived here about 40,000 years ago.  The actions of Australian aborigines converted the rain forest to a dry woods dominated by fire-adapted trees such as eucalyptus.  This environmental change was not associated with any shift in glacial cycle.  Instead, man overhunted the megafauna into extinction and began setting frequent fires.  The large biomass of megaherbivores was no longer consuming vast amounts of vegetation, leaving lots of flammable material for men to burn.  Grazers and browsers were no longer suppressing plant growth, facilitating seed dispersal, and recycling nutrients in their dung.  Species of fungi, dependent upon megaherbivore dung for reproduction, declined in abundance.  Scientists use the measurable quantity of dung fungus spores in dated cores as a proxy for the former biomass of large herbivores.  Dung fungus is actually a  more reliable indicator of former megaherbivore presence than the fossil remains of these beasts because bones are rarely preserved.  Scientists have used this clue to study ancient megafaunal populations in North America, Europe, Madagascar, and Australia.  However, some researchers have noted some problems with using dung fungus spores as a proxy for megafaunal populations.  Chris Johnson, an Australian zoologist, along with other scientists, have addressed these concerns by implementing solutions in a study of data collected from Lynch’s Crater.

Location of Lynch’s Crater.  Sediment within the crater provide a 230,000 pollen record, illustrating how plant and animal communities changed over time.

 

Lynch's Crater (facing south)

Photo of Lynch’s Crater.  For over 100,000 years it was a lake but over the past 50,000 years it has been a marsh.

Some researchers have noted that dung fungus spores disperse over short distances, and their abundance can be effected by drought.  This can cause a variability in spore abundance unrelated to the abundance of megeherbivores.  Another problem is the variation in the amount of pollen produced by plants.  Because dung fungus is numerically expressed as a value relative to pollen counts, it can be difficult to compare fungus proxy values between studies.  Dr. Johnson and his colleagues executed 3 solutions to these problems.

1. They took core samples from different locations within the study area to minimize local effects.

2. They expressed dung fungus abundance independently from pollen counts.  They found interpretations of spore counts when expressed as a percent of pollen were not influenced by changes in vegetation type.

3. They compared trends in the quantity of dung fungus spores with spores from fungi that don’t rely on megaherbivore dung for reproduction.

Sordaria

 

 

 

 

Sordaria humana.  This species of dung fungus prefers human and dog shit.  While other species of dung fungus declined in abundance following the extinction of the megafauna, the abundance of this species remained strong and even increased after humans colonized Australia.

This study counted the volume of spores from 5 genera of fungi extracted from dated cores.  Sporormiella and podospora depend upon megaherbivore dung for reproduction.  Sordaria, coniochaeta, and cerophora spores occasionally land on megaherbivore dung, but these are generalist genera not as dependent upon megaherbivore dung for reproduction. There was a significant difference in decline between fungi dependent upon megaherbivore dung and generalist fungi.  Sordaria humana is a species of fungus that reproduces readily on human and dog feces.  Sordaria spores remained steady in abundance after 40,000 BP when sporormiella and podospora declined.

This study found that the volume of dung fungus spores in Australia prior to 40,000 BP was similar to numbers from studies conducted of Pleistocene North America, Pleistocene Europe, late Holocene Madagascar, and modern livestock producing regions.  This suggests the biomass of megaherbivores in pristine environments was close to what modern pastures can support.  Data from this study also show the extinction of Australia’s megafauna is closely associated with the initial presence of man.  It appears as if man hunted these animals into extinction within a 1000 year time span.  The transformation of wet tropical forest to dry fire-adapted woods occurred after the megafauna became extinct, precluding the possibility that climate change was a factor in the extinction of Australia’s megafauna.

Reference:

Johnson, Chris; et. al.

“Using Dung Fungi to Interpret Decline and Extinction of Megaherbivores: problems and solutions”

Quaternary Science Reviews Feb 2015

 

 

 

 

Surprising Discoveries of Large Carnivore Dietary Preferences on the Pleistocene Mammoth Steppe

May 2, 2015

The mammoth steppe was a vast continuous environment that stretched from western Europe to Alaska during the coldest phase of the most recent Ice Age.  Glacial ice locked up so much of earth’s atmospheric moisture that sea level fell, creating land bridges connecting the British Isles and Alaska with Eurasia.  The mammoth steppe consisted of desert grassland, cold and windy but without much snow cover.  This environment supported a wealth of megaherbivores including woolly mammoth, bison, yak, musk-ox, woolly rhino, horse, megaloceros (a giant deer), caribou, camel, and saiga antelope.  Such a wide prey selection attracted several species of large predators.  Scientists long speculated about the relationships between predator and prey on the mammoth steppe, but now it’s possible to determine which prey species each individual species of predator favored.   In an ingenious study, Herve Bocheren, a German professor, used stable isotope tracking in combination with mathematical models to learn about the diet of late Pleistocene carnivores on the mammoth steppe.  Some of his findings are quite surprising.

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Map of the vast mammoth steppe ecosystem that existed between ~28,000 BP-~15,000 BP.

Various species of plants have distinct ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes, and therefore herbivores that eat these plants have similar ratios in their bone chemistry.  Carnivores that then eat these herbivores also attain these distinct ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes.  By analyzing the chemistry of ancient bones found in caves, the diets of these animals can be pieced together.

Stable isotope tracking suggests the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) was the dominant predator in Europe until about 25,000 BP–before climatic conditions caused the expansion of the mammoth steppe grassland.  Between 60,000 BP-28,000 BP forests and open woodlands still grew amidst the grasslands, and climate remained temperate though there were rapid fluctuations.  The spotted hyena, the same species found in Africa today, thrived in temperate climates, and they outcompeted wolves, lions, and even Neanderthals here during this time period.  Isotopic evidence shows hyenas ate a wide range of prey including mammoth, horse, and rhino; relegating wolves to prey such as elk, giant deer, and chamois.  But hyenas were unable to survive in Eurasia during the following colder climate phase, and they became extirpated from the mammoth steppe.  Hyenas must have a limiting minimum temperature limit that they can endure.

The  most surprising result of Dr. Bocheren’s study was the discovery that cave lions (Panthera spelaea) relied on caribou for at least 25% of their diet.  The lion of the mammoth steppe was not the same species as the African lion (Panthera leo).  It was 10% larger but males had smaller manes.  The evidence from this study supports conjecture that it was a solitary predator, unlike its extant cousin.  Packs of hyenas and wolves were able to restrict access of this solitary predator from more desirable prey such as bison and horse, forcing cave lions to rely more on caribou.  There is also a great variation in each individual lion’s choice of prey.  One individual favored caribou and deer.  Another specialized in cave bear but also took mammoth, deer, and rhino.  A 3rd individual fed upon cave bear and deer.  And a 4th ate the same mix of desirable prey that hyenas ate.  Each individual learned to hunt certain prey animals, whereas a social predator would’ve likely taken a wider mix of prey.  An individual lion killing an huge cave bear must have been an impressive sight.  There is also fossil evidence of lion bite marks on bear bones.  Today, certain Siberian tigers are known to specialize in hunting brown bears (Ursus arctos).

Dr. Bocheren studied the bone chemistry of scimitar-toothed cats (Dinobastis serum or Homotherium serum depending on whose nomenclature one chooses) as well.  Unlike saber-tooths (Smilodon fatalis) this fanged cat was not an ambush predator but chased down its prey instead.  Complete skeletons of scimitar-toothed cats have been found in Friesenhan Cave, Texas associated with many bones of juvenile mammoths.  Because of this single site, scimitar-toothed cats were thought to be specialists in hunting juvenile mammoths.  This study casts doubt on that assumption.  Instead, the favorite prey of scimitar-toothed cats in Eurasia was the yak (Bos grunniens), along with bison and caribou.  Less commonly, they did eat musk-ox, mammoth, and horse.  They were a generalized predator, not a specialist.  Scimitar-toothed cats are rare in the fossil record compared to other large carnivores and probably were extirpated from the mammoth steppe along with hyenas and leopards when the climate deteriorated about 25,000 BP.

Painting of lions on a wall in Chauvet Cave, France.  Looks like the representation of a pride of lions.  I’m not convinced the extinct European cave lion was a solitary animal as suggested by this study.

The yak (Bos grunniens).  Isotopic tracking studies suggest this was the favored prey of the extinct scimitar-toothed cat.

Wolves (Canis lupus) replaced hyenas as the dominant predator in Eurasia after 25,000 BP.  There was a wide genetic and morphological diversity among Pleistocene wolves on the mammoth steppe.  The large extinct Pleistocene wolf ecomorph that lived in Alaska ate mostly horse, bison, and caribou but not mammoth.  This line of wolves became extinct.

Isotopic evidence shows Paleolithic humans living about 28,000 years ago ate mammoth but did not allow their primitive dogs to consume the mammoth meat.  Instead, humans fed their dogs caribou and musk-ox.  However scavenging predators such as wolf, brown bear, wolverine, and fox did take advantage of anthropogenic mammoth hunting.

Dr. Bocheren’s isotopic study confirms the cave bear (Ursus speleus) was almost entirely herbivorous.  Brown bear diet varied.  Brown bears were more carnivorous in regions where they overlapped with cave bears but were more herbivorous in regions where they overlapped with highly carnivorous giant short-faced bears (Arctodus simus).  Brown bears apparently avoided completion with larger bear species.  In Alaska giant short-faced bears ate caribou, musk-ox, and other predators but plant foods may have made up to 50% of their diet.  Surprisingly, they didn’t eat much horse or mammoth–2 common prey species here.  The diet of this North American species south of the ice sheet has not yet been studied.

Note 1: I think the common names of cave lion, cave bear, and cave hyena are misnomers.  99.9% of the individuals of these species that ever lived never stepped inside a cave.  There bones were more likely to be preserved in caves, hence the cave appellation.  Nevertheless, it’s misleading to think of them as cave dwellers.  This is just a pet peeve of mine, but I wish they would be given different common names.

Note 2: I’m not entirely convinced that Panthera spelaea was a solitary species, nor am I convinced this species played second fiddle to wolves and hyenas.  I’ll think more on this and perhaps comment at a later date.

Reference:

Bocheren, Herve

“Isotopic Tracking of Large Carnivore Paleoecology in the Mammoth Steppe”

Quaternary Science Reviews March 2015

 

The Pleistocene Ridge and Valley Reptile Corridor

April 28, 2015

The composition of reptile and amphibian species living in present day Georgia is almost the same as it was during the late Pleistocene.  This suggests climate change in southeastern North America has been much more moderate compared to the rest of the continent.  There are 2 excellent late Pleistocene fossil sites in the ridge and valley region of Georgia that yield the remains of reptiles and amphibians–Ladds Quarry and Kingston Saltpeter Cave.  Over 40 species of reptiles and amphibians (aka herpetofauna) were excavated from Kingston Saltpeter Cave, and all but 1 (wood turtle) still live in the region.  Most of the herpetofaunal remains recovered from Ladds also still live in Georgia, but there are a few exceptions, leading to some interesting paleoecological implications for this time period.

Map of sites sampled in the Valley and Ridge of Alabama and Georgia to assess responses of fish, invertebrates, and algae to urbanization.

Map of the ridge and valley region of Georgia and Alabama.  This region provided a corridor where reptiles and amphibians with northern affinities could mingle with those that preferred a warmer climate.

Fox snakes (Elaphe vulpine) and wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) lived in the ridge and valley region of Georgia about 13,000 years ago.  These 2 species no longer live this far south, implying summers were cooler here then.  However, the extinct giant tortoise (Hesperotestudo crassicutata), red bellied turtles (Pseudemys nelsoni), and southern toads (Bufo terrestris) ranged into the ridge and valley region as well.  Researchers assume giant tortoises required frost free winters, while red bellied turtles no longer occur north of the Okefenokee Swamp.  Aside from a disjunct population, southern toads are restricted to the coastal plain.  The presence of these 3 species implies a climate phase of warmer winters than those of the present.  There is an astronomical explanation for the strange co-existence of species with northern affinities alongside those of warmer preferences.

The fossil remains that accumulated at both Ladds and the Kingston Cave date to the Boling-Alerod Interstadial when average annual temperatures spiked from Ice Age lows to nearly modern day warm temperatures. (Pundits who claim today’s rate of global warming is “unprecedented” are ignorant of this climate phase.)  The Boling-Alerod lasted from 15,000 BP-12,900 BP.  This warm pulse led to rapid melting of the glaciers covering Canada then.  Although average annual temperatures were similar to those of today, they were not distributed in the same way.  Summer highs were lower on average than they are today, but winter low temperatures in this region probably did not go far below freezing.  During the Boling-Alerod Interstadial, the earth tilted to a lesser degree than it does today, resulting in reduced seasonality. It’s fascinating how small changes in astronomy can be tied to changes in the distribution of small animals.

I disagree with scientists who believe the ridge and valley was entirely frost free then.  I hypothesize the extinct giant tortoise was able to survive light frosts by digging burrows or by using burrows dug by ground sloths and pampatheres. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/the-extinct-pleistocene-giant-tortoise-hesperotestudo-crassicutata-must-have-been-able-to-survive-light-frosts/)  Moreover, red bellied turtles and southern toads do live in regions that experience light frosts every winter.  Instead, the ridge and valley region probably had winters similar to those of modern day south Georgia and north Florida.  Florida muskrats (Neofiber alleni) have a similar range as red-bellied turtles, and their fossil remains have also been found at Ladds.  The presence of Florida muskrats this far north during the Boling-Alerod indicates year round green vegetation and does suggest a longer growing season but does not preclude the possibility of winter frosts.

Wood Turtle

Wood turtle.  This species lived in north Georgia during the Pleistocene but no longer occurs this far south.

Florida red-bellied turtle.  This species lived in north Georgia during the Pleistocene but no longer occurs this far north.

The ridge and valley region provided a corridor for the migration of species that expanded their range according to varying climate phases.  Species not well adapted to living at higher elevations could utilize river valleys and move south to north or vice versa.  Species that preferred higher elevations could travel along the ridges, also along a north-south axis.  The Appalachicola river is thought to be another corridor that facilitated north-south  migrations of species, correlating with changes in climate phases.  I think the 2 corridors are close enough to have some connection.  Some species expanding their range up and down the Appalachicola River corridor reached the ridge and valley region and expanded their range through there as well.

The region between these 2 corridors includes Talbot, Taylor, Schley, and Marion Counties in southwest central Georgia.  Researchers recently discovered this region is a diverse herpetofaunal hotspot. In just 1 week, 25 people surveyed this region and counted 62 species of reptiles and amphibians, greater than any other region in North America north of Mexico.  This includes more reptiles than are found in Big Bend National Park, and more amphibians than are found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This region is the southernmost range limit of the wood frog (Rana sylvatica) and the spring salamander (Gyrinophata poryphactos), yet it is the most inland northern range limit for coastal plain species such as the gopher frog (Rana areolata), striped newt (Notophthalmus perstiratus)), and diamond back rattlesnake (Crotalus adamenteus).  They also found an endangered alligator snapping turtle (Macroclemys temmincki), and gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus).

The southern toad has a curious disjunct population in upper South Carolina.  The scientific literature is silent as to their preferred habitat, other than their preference for sandy soils.  Most of their modern day range was formerly open pine savannah, so I assume this is their favored habitat.  This suggests at least some savannahs occurred well into the northern parts of South Carolina and Georgia.  Indians maintained extensive grassy savannahs in upstate South Carolina by setting frequent fires.  William Bartram did travel through miles of “strawberry plains” in this area circa 1777.  The extinct giant tortoise favored savannah habitat as well.  The presence of these 2 species at Ladds indicates some savannahs occurred in the ridge and valley region during the late Pleistocene.  There is a disjunct population of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) in the ridge and valley region at Berry College.  At least some areas of longleaf pine savannah have occurred in this region since at least the Boling-Alerod Interstadial. Apparently, lightning-induced fires were frequent enough to maintain this environment, even before man began setting fires here.

Bufo terrestris

Range map for southern toad.  Note the disjunct population in northwestern Georgia and northeastern South Carolina.  Fossils of this species have been found in the ridge and valley region at Ladds, located west of this disjunct population.

Incidentally, it should not be a great surprise if fossil evidence of alligator and gopher tortoise, dating to the late Pleistocene, is some day found in the ridge and valley region.  The herpetofauna biodiversity of this region during the Boling-Alerod Interstadial likely surpassed that of any present day region of North America north of Mexico.

References:

Holman, Alan

“Paleoclimatic Implications of Pleistocene Herpetofauna of Eastern and Central North America”

National Geographic Research

Graham, Sean; et. al.

“An Overlooked Hotspot: Rapid Biodiversity Assessment Reveals a Region of Exceptional Herpetofaunal Richness in Southeastern North America”

Southeastern Naturalist 9(1) 2010

 

 

 

 

 

The Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and Other Stops on a 27 Hour Overnight Trip

April 23, 2015

 

For the 8th anniversary of my 45th birthday, my wife suggested we go on a nature excursion.  I chose to visit Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and Spring Island, an upscale development.  Pinckney Island was a worthwhile destination.  The trail on this island is wide and surfaced with hard-packed gravel.  I was able to push my wife’s wheelchair on the trail, so I didn’t have to leave her behind in the car.  The trail goes through maritime forest and salt marsh.  The maritime forest here consists of live oak, Carolina palmetto, and loblolly pine with an undergrowth of saw palmetto.  Quacks sell an extract made from saw palmetto berries that is supposed to reduce the size of enlarged prostate glands, but 2 large trial studies found no evidence it works beyond a placebo effect.  However, the berries are good food for wildlife, and the Indians ate them too.  Cordgrass dominates the salt marsh.  I saw fiddler crabs (Uca sp.) crawling around the mud flats during low tide.

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Maritime forest of live oak, Carolina palmetto, and loblolly pine.

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Saw palmetto.  Quacks use an extract from the berries to treat enlarged prostates.

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Young Carolina or Sable palmetto.

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Salt marsh with a maritime forest hammock in the distance.

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Fiddler crabs.  Click on the photo to enlarge.

We went to the Ibis Pond about 1 mile from the parking lot.  It’s a freshwater pond covered with green algae, fertilized by abundant bird guano.  Egrets and herons nest in the willow trees growing in the pond.  I saw great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, yellow-crowned night herons, black crowned night herons, and little blue herons. Some had fledgling young in the nests.  I also saw an unusually large boat-tailed grackle, and there were coots swimming in the water.  One bird stymied my attempts at identification, and I saw this bird on the following day at the Savanna River NWR.  It had brownish-orange wings and a striped belly.  The closest match in my bird guide was a Louisiana water thrush, but I’m not sure what it was.  We were about to go back to the car, and I remarked that we hadn’t seen any ibis at the Ibis Pond.  As soon as I said this, a flock of about 15-20 white ibis flew overhead and landed in the trees, but they were too far away to photograph.  A person could spend a whole day on trails here, but the evening winds were too chilly for my wife, and it was past suppertime.  We went back to the car.  I was impressed anyway.

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White ibis pond.  I saw 3 species of egrets, 3 species of herons, and white ibis here.  It’s an impressive rookery and worth a visit.

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Yellow crowned night heron and nest.  Click on the photo to enlarge.

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The boat-tailed grackle in the middle of the photo was bigger than a large crow.  I didn’t know they got this big.

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View of the waterway that separates Pinckney Island from the mainland.

Spring Island Fox Squirrels

Reportedly, Spring Island, South Carolina has the densest fox squirrel population in the southeast.  The paper referenced below estimates a population of 187 fox squirrels per square mile on Spring Island compared to 98 fox squirrels per square mile in areas of the coastal plain where they still exist.  (I converted the figures from the square kilometers given in the paper.)  Fox squirrels are nearly absent from the piedmont and mountain regions.  This species prefers mature open woodlands with widely spaced trees and grassy understories, while gray squirrels prefer young dense forests with woody understories.  Fox squirrels were formerly more common in the south because Indians set fire to the woods every few years, creating their favored habitat.  However, researchers discovered that conditions on Spring Island favor gray squirrels, yet fox squirrels are common here.  They believe frequently mowed golf courses, and a field planted in wheat on the island have helped maintain this large population of fox squirrels.  I wanted to see this population because I hypothesize fox squirrels were also common during the Pleistocene when their habitat was shaped by foraging activities of now extinct megafauna. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/colorful-fox-squirrels-were-they-the-more-common-squirrel-in-the-southeast-during-the-Pleistocene/)

I suspected Spring Island might be a gated community, and my suspicions proved to be accurate.  I thought I’d con my way on the island.  I told the security guard I was interested in purchasing a property on the island, hoping they would just let me drive on the island.  She referred me to a real estate agent in an office located next to the gate.  The agent was willing to show me the island in his car, but I didn’t want to get stuck with a boring salesman, so I declined the opportunity.  There are lots available on the island for as little as $10,000, but to become a Spring Island property owner requires an initiation fee of $15,000, plus annual dues for country club crap.  I’m a working class dude, not a country club kind of guy.

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A black fox squirrel on Callasawatchie Drive about 100 yards before the entrance to Spring Island.  Spring Island is a gated community.  I couldn’t con my way inside without being accompanied by a boring real estate agent, so I couldn’t investigate the densest population of this species in the south.  Click on the photo to enlarge.

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Black vultures on Chechessee Road, near Spring Island.  I saw more black vultures on this trip than any other species of bird.

I did see a beautiful black fox squirrel on Callasawatchie Drive about 100 yards from the security gate.  It wasn’t a completely wasted trip, but we had an hour before lunch.  I decided to revisit the

Savannah River NWR.

This refuge consists of abandoned rice fields left fallow since the end of the Civil War.  I’ve been here before, and some day I’m going to visit during winter when migrant ducks flock here.  On this visit I walked on an old dike and immediately saw a marsh hawk hovering low over the ground looking and listening for rodents.  Red-winged blackbirds and boat-tailed grackles nest in the high grass.  These are the birds that migrate in huge flocks during early winter.  FYI, the rice dikes are pock-marked with fire ant mounds, and I stumbled over several while looking in the air for birds.  In addition to the 3 birds species already mentioned, I saw red-shouldered hawk, osprey,  black vulture, great blue heron, smaller unidentified herons, great egret, cattle egret, anhinga, cormorant, wood stork, coot, a cardinal, and maybe a Louisiana water thrush.  Near the Savannah River that I think is part of this refuge, I saw several terns.  Reptiles seen included several alligators and young soft-shelled turtles.

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Muddy alligator sunning itself at the Savannah River NWR.

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I saw a greater variety of birds at the Savannah River NWR than anywhere else on this trip. Various species of blackbirds nest in these grassy wet prairies.

Eats

Monday evening we ate supper at Captain Woody’s in Blufton, South Carolina.  They offer signature fish sandwiches on their menu–$13.99 for grouper, $11.99 for triggerfish, and $9.99 for fish of the day.  Their fish of the day was tilapia, a fish I can get anytime.  I picked the triggerfish because I’ve never even seen it on a menu before.  It was delicious, like the best filet of sole.

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Captain Woody’s in Blufton, South Carolina.

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I ate a giant triggerfish sandwich.  It was delicious.

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Anita had a shrimpburger. Even though it had bell pepper in it, she didn’t get sick.

On the way home Tuesday, we stopped by the Schnitzel Shack in Rincon, Georgia.  They offer a menu that is half Thai and half German.  It’s a bit overpriced…I payed $13.95 for what basically were a couple of big fat hotdogs.  The décor consists of mostly Marilyn Monroe memorabilia.  The waitress looked like Marilyn Monroe but without the blonde hair and with piercings and tattoos.  All the best looking young ladies I saw on this trip had tattoos.  If I was a young man, I’d have to reconsider my rule against dating women with tattoos.  I think tattoos are stupid but could learn to overlook them on a woman with a buxom build.

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The Schnitzel Shack in Rincon, Georgia.

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The menu is half Thai, half German. It’s a bit overpriced.

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I ate knockwurst, red cabbage, and German potato salad.  Too bad I had to drive.  Beer would have been great with this.

Reference:

Lee, James; David Osborn and Karl Miller

“Habitat Use by a Dense Population of Southern Fox Squirrels”

Southeastern Naturalist 8 (1) 2009

My 5 Favorite and 5 Most Disappointing Wildlife Destinations

April 18, 2015

I fantasize about living during the Pleistocene  because I would love to live in a world where I could open my front door and see a mammoth or saber-tooth cat, not just occasionally but often.  The thought of being surrounded by wilderness never fails to relax me. True wilderness no longer exists on earth, but there are still a few places in the world where a man can see an abundance of large wild animals. However, they are far away, and I despise traveling.  I would like to see Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and observe wolves hunting bison, but it would take a week just to drive there from my house, and I refuse to fly on an airline until they stop ordering perverts to feel up all the passengers before they’re allowed on the aircraft.  So that trip will never happen for me.  I have made the effort to see regional wildlife attractions.  Here’s a list of my favorite and my most disappointing wildlife attractions.

Favorites

1. Wakulla Springs, Florida–This is the only location where I’ve ever seen manatees.  I was also thrilled to see bird species I’d previously known only from books such as white ibis, yellow crowned night herons, wood ducks, and prothonotory warblers.  There are lots of turtles, alligators, and deer here, and the crystal clear waters reveal many types of fish–schools of mullet, black and white sunfish, and gar.

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The boat ride at Wakulla Springs made the 7 hour drive from my house worth the trouble.

2. Harbor Island, South Carolina–My parents used to own condos here when the island was first being developed by real estate companies.  There were noisy heron and egret colonies on the island, and alligators swam in the brackish lagoons beneath the rookeries.  Pelicans and black skimmers flew over the shallow ocean water, while sandpipers and sea gulls scurried ahead of human beachcombers.  Sharks and dolphins hunted in the surf.  The species of sharks I saw hunting were probably either Atlantic sharp-nosed or sand, but I did once see a dead blue shark washed up on shore.  Loggerhead sea turtles buried their eggs in the sand.  I never saw a live individual, but did come across a dead specimen.  I witnessed large tarpon spawning in the shallow water.  I caught mullet with a cast net and captured blue crabs in traps.  A large colony of cottontail rabbits lived on this bushy island with few trees.  The adjacent more heavily wooded Hunting Island carries lots of deer and raccoon.

3. Berry College Campus, Georgia–Bald eagles nest here, and I have also seen a peregrine falcon and a swan on campus.  But deer are the most impressive attraction.  Great herds of does take refuge on campus during hunting season.  They must know it’s a safe zone–the campus is adjacent to the largest wildlife management area in the state of Georgia.  Flocks of turkeys abound here too.

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Berry College is the only place I’ve ever seen a swan.  Don’t know whether it’s a natural occurrence or an introduction, but swans were widespread in North America during the Pleistocene.

4. Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky–We drove by a herd of bison and saw turkeys and cattle egrets as well.  Deer roam throughout this vast forest of oaks, hickories, and black walnut, but on the day I visited it was hot and I didn’t get to see the elk that must have been hiding in the deep shade.

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Up close with a herd of bison at Land between the Lakes.

5. Congaree National Park, South Carolina–I’ve been here twice.  I took a 5 hour hike on my first visit.  Deer and a milk snake crossed my path, and I must have ducked under 10,000 spider webs.  Barred owls hoot during the day and pileated woodpeckers are common in the park.  The splendor of the spectacular old growth trees makes a visit here worth the trip.

Most Disappointing

5. Mount Mitchell, North Carolina–The brochure claims red squirrels and black bears live on the mountain.  I don’t believe it.  I saw not a single mammal and just a couple songbirds.  The forest here is dying.

4. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina–This is a busy road through a boring stretch of woods. I saw 1 woodchuck.  I can’t believe this crap is part of the National Park Service.  It totally sucks!

3. Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area, Georgia–This holds the last population of black bears in the entire piedmont region of southeastern North America.  Hunters stopped a planned development, so they could continue to enjoy killing the bears, though this population is probably way too low to support sustainable hunting.  I didn’t see a single bird or mammal in the part I hiked.  It was a boring stand of 2nd growth dominated by pine with few oaks, despite the name.

2. Okefenokee Swamp Wildlife Refuge–I expected to see lots of wading birds.  I didn’t see a single wading bird or alligator.  I visited during a drought, so there was no water, and no wildlife at all.  Nothing!

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park–This overcrowded joke is completely devoid of wildlife.  I saw absolutely nothing, except for thousands of Homo sapiens.  There are 2 areas of this park that are allegedly rich in wildlife–Cades Cove and the Canaloochee.  When I visited, the road to Cades Cove was closed.  A visit to the Canaloochee requires a drive up a steep narrow winding road.  I got tired of driving up this shitty road and turned back.  Wildlife habitat in this park would be greatly improved with selective logging and regular burning.  The do-gooders in charge will never do this.  Having more wildlife would cause more work and conflicts than they want to handle.

Sadistic Hunters Saved what Pitiful Wilderness Still Exists

roosevelt5

In 1909 Theodore Roosevelt and his party  went on a safari and killed 44,900 mammals in just 11 months.  He founded the National Park Service so future sadists could continue to enjoy slaughtering animals.  That’s the only reason there is any wilderness left…so humans can continue to enjoy killing the animals that live there.

We can thank sadistic hunters for most of the wild lands that are left.  Theodore Roosevelt founded our National Park Service.  This bloodthirsty sadist went on safaris in Africa and slaughtered thousands of animals for the simple joy of killing.  All of North America’s magnificent animals would be extinct, if it wasn’t for sadists like him.  It’s a testament to the avarice of mankind that the only reason humans let other large wild mammals exist is so sadists can continue to enjoy killing them.

In a recent Facebook discussion I pointed out this ironic historical fact to Rob Pavey, the outdoor editor of the Augusta Chronicle, an extremely conservative publication.  He claimed I was “catastrophically misinformed,” then ended the discussion by barring me from posting any additional comments.  (I think he unfriended me.  Facebook is just silly.)  One has to marvel at the chutzpah of someone who declares they are smarter than you and refuses to continue the discussion.  I asked him to explain how I was misinformed, but he could not.  When someone comes across as misinformed to me, I am more than happy to inform them. I never bar anyone from discussion on my blog.  He seemed particularly defensive about hunting, even before I referred to hunters as sadists.  I doubt most hunters even admit to themselves why they enjoy killing animals. I’m not against killing animals for food, safety, or even to protect valuable property. But I’m convinced there are many hunters who kill animals because they enjoy the killing, yet won’t admit it.  I like to eat wild game meats, but there are many hunters who don’t even like to eat what they kill.  Anthony Bourdain, host of various cable channel travel and cooking series, once went duck hunting with regular duck hunters who admitted they didn’t like the taste of wild duck.  What is the purpose for them killing the birds, if they don’t want to eat them?  Do they just like to blow birds out of the sky for the hell of it?  No wonder Pavey was so defensive, and I might add intolerant of my inquiry.


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