100 Species of Reptiles and Amphibians along the Altamaha River, Georgia

July 17, 2017

The corridor along the Altamaha River drainage is the best remaining wilderness in Georgia.  The land here is protected by 11 state wildlife management areas and 2 private landowners.  The Nature Conservancy owns Moody Forest, and the Orianne Indigo Snake Society owns land that hosts the greatest variety of reptiles and amphibians in the state.  Scientists have recently begun studying this largely undeveloped corridor.  From 2008-2016 scientists conducted the first comprehensive survey of reptiles and amphibians along this river system.  They used intensive group searches, turtle traps, and drift fences to find species; and they listened for frog calls.  Drift fences are barriers interspersed with pitfall traps.  Smaller reptiles and amphibians attempt to go around the barriers and fall into the traps.  Surveyors collected an astonishing 100 species, indicating the region has the richest diversity of reptile and amphibian species in the state.  Fort Stewart army base ranks 2nd with 97 species, and the Okefenokee Swamp hosts 88 species.

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Map of the Altamaha River Drainage.  The Altamaha is fed by 3 major tributaries–the Oconee, Ocmulgee, and Ohoopee.

Scientists catalogued 59 species of reptiles and 41 species of amphibians along the Altamaha River.  This number includes 17 species that are considered endangered by the federal and/or state governments, including indigo snake, diamondback rattlesnake, southern hog-nosed snake, rainbow snake, harlequin coral snake, pine snake, pine woods litter snake, slender glass lizard, mole skink, gopher tortoise, spotted turtle, southern dusky salamander, and gopher frog.

Surprisingly, cottonmouth water moccasins were found at less than half the sites surveyed, and they were absent from the main branch of the river.  The authors of this study suggest regular flooding “scours” riverside vegetation, eliminating the cover favored by the venomous snakes.  On the other hand river cooters (Pseudemys concinna) were found to be abundant in the river, though according to the preceding scientific literature they were not known to be present here.

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River cooters are common in the main branch of the Altamaha River.  Before the below referenced survey was conducted, reptiles and amphibians along this river were so little studied, this species was unrecorded in the scientific literature as living in the river.

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Red salamanders (Pseudotriton ruber) reach the southeasternmost limit of their range at the Altamaha River.  This waterway is a geographical barrier for 14 species of reptiles and amphibians.

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The pine woods litter snake (Rhadinia flavilata) reaches the northern limit of its range at the Altamaha River.  This species grows to about 1 foot in length and mostly lives underground.  They are venomous but have rear fangs that are probably unable to break human skin.  They feed on small reptiles and amphibians and are no danger to people.

The reason such a high diversity of species occurs along the Altamaha River is the great variety of habitats.  The corridor hosts open water, bottomland hardwoods, cypress/tupelo swamps, longleaf pine savannahs, sandhills, Carolina Bays, and muddy seepage areas at the bottom of north-facing slopes.  However, the river itself serves as a barrier blocking movement of some species’ populations.  The Altamaha River is the southeasternmost range limit for 13 species, and the northernmost range limit for 1 species.

The high number of reptile and amphibian species is evidence the region of the Altamaha River has been climatically stable for millions of years.  The vicissitudes of Pleistocene climate fluctuations were muted here.  During cold arid stadials swampy wetlands shrunk in size but persisted as relics, while savannahs and scrubby sandhill habitat expanded.  Currently, wetland habitat has expanded but before European settlement grassland and scrub habitat were still extensive.  Western Georgia and Alabama have also experience long term climatic stability.  (See:

https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/the-pleistocene-ridge-and-valley-reptile-corridor/

https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/extralimital-species-of-pleistocene-aged-turtle-remains-found-in-the-upper-coastal-plain-of-alabama/

)  Like the black prairie region of Alabama, the Altamaha river also undoubtedly served as a refuge for species of reptiles whose current range was obliterated by an ice sheet during Ice Ages.  Blanding’s and wood turtles may have extended their range this far south then.  Extinct giant tortoises (Hesperotestudo crassicutata and H. incisa) likely lived alongside their smaller cousin, the gopher tortoise.  But otherwise the modern species list of reptiles and amphibians in the region is mostly unchanged from the Pleistocene.

Reference:

Stevenson, Dirk, and Houston Chandler

“The Herpetofauna of Conservation Lands along the Altamaha River, Georgia”

Southeastern Naturalist 16 (2) 2017

Musk Turtles (Sternotherus odoratus) Prefer Buffalo Wings

July 12, 2017

Buffalo chicken wings exploded in popularity when the Buffalo Bills kept losing Super Bowls almost 30 years ago.  The meaty spicy snacks are the perfect drinking party food.  The heat makes a drinker thirsty, yet the fat and protein slow down absorption of alcohol.  The chicken wings are fried, then tossed in a sauce made of butter or margarine mixed with hot pepper vinegar.  Supposedly, Buffalo wings were invented by Teressa Bellissimo at Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York during 1964.  However, Anchor Bar didn’t serve Buffalo wings until 1974.  Instead, credit for inventing the dish should probably go to John Young, a native of Alabama, who moved to Buffalo and made spicy chicken wings during 1964.  He seems the more likely originator of the dish because Buffalo wings resemble the kind of Cajun or soul food cooking that might be found in south Alabama.  Cajun and soul food cuisine make excellent use of throw away ingredients. Before the wing craze they were considered a disposable part of the bird.

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2 stinkpot (aka musk turtles) mating in Woodbridge Lake, Evans, Georgia.  Scientists discovered they prefer Buffalo chicken wings over any other bait.

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Buffalo wings–favorite bait of the stinkpot turtle.

Musk turtles (also known as stinkpots because of their smelly defense glands) like to eat Buffalo chicken wings.  Scientists studying musk turtles at Comal Springs, Texas compared the effectiveness of various kinds of baits.  Musk turtles greatly prefer Buffalo chicken wings over fried chicken, raw chicken, catfish stink bait, cat food, potted meat, and canned sardines in oil.  The experiment took place in 2 phases.  Phase 1 compared Buffalo chicken against the non-chicken baits.  Phase 2 compared the Buffalo wings against fried and raw chicken.  Scientists captured 231 musk turtles using Buffalo wings compared to just 45 using stink bait, cat food, potted meat, and sardines.  Scientists captured 46 musk turtles using Buffalo wings vs 16 with fried chicken and 10 with raw chicken.  Musk turtles, like people, are attracted to grease and spice.  Turtles agree: they taste better than their natural diet of crayfish, snails, clams, tadpoles, and insects.

Reference:

Munscher, Eric; et. al.

“A Novel Bait for Capturing Eastern Mud Turtles”

Southeastern Naturalist 16 (2) 2017

Thomas Nuttall’s Journey through Arkansas during 1819

July 9, 2017

What did landscapes in southeastern North America look like before man modified them?  This question has long fascinated me, and it is the primary focus of my blog.  The Paleo-Indians who first invaded this region about 14,000 years ago left no written records, so the best available source of information are the journals written by early European naturalists including John Lawson and William Bartram.  Though Indians had already impacted the landscape for millennia, southeastern landscapes were  still much closer to the natural state when they saw them than they are today.  Lawson’s New Voyage to the Carolinas and Bartram’s Travels are well known works that I have read so often I’ve almost memorized every passage.  But I just recently discovered a lesser known journal of comparable value–Thomas Nuttall’s Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819.  I don’t understand why this journal isn’t as famous as the other 2.  I couldn’t even find a map of his route when I searched google.  I don’t know of any professor who has undertaken an exhaustive study of his journal.  It deserves more attention from academia.

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Portrait of Thomas Nuttall, a 19th century naturalist.

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Early map of Arkansas.  Thomas Nuttall mostly traveled by river boats because there were few roads.

Thomas Nuttall was an English citizen and naturalist who lived in the U.S. from 1808-1841.  He went on many plant collecting expeditions including his trip through Arkansas when the region was still mostly wilderness.  Incidentally, at the time of the expedition he lived in Philadelphia and was friends with William Bartram.  He began his journey by traveling on a stage coach for 63 miles before setting out on foot toward Pittsburgh, a town already so polluted  he described it as “filthy” and “smoky.”  He proceeded down the Ohio River on a skiff all the way to the Mississippi River.  The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 made passage down the Mississippi dangerous because of all the floating logs and snags uprooted by the moving earth.  Nuttall hired river boat guides but they weren’t always reliable.  On 1 occasion his boat was stuck against the current in a bad situation and some passing river pilots offered to help, if he paid them.  They took his money and left without helping.  Eventually, he made it to the Arkansas River and travelled to the interior of the territory through this route, exploring many of the tributaries of the river as well.

Fort Smith, Arkansas is a good-sized town today but was a small military garrison when Thomas Nuttall stayed there.  From here, he joined overland expeditions.  While wandering around looking for novel plant species, he got separated from his expedition and was forced to live with a pioneer family until he arranged to travel with someone familiar with the country.  He joined another overland expedition and explored eastern Oklahoma–Indian territory then.  By the end of his journey he was so stricken with malaria he could barely ride his horse through the untracked wilderness.  Nevertheless, he traveled for over 100 miles while suffering from malaria.  He ended his journey floating down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

The people Nuttall encountered resembled the rough stereotypical characters from an old western movie.  He met thieving Indians who always wanted to steal his horse.  (The Cherokee and Osage Indians were at war with each other.)  He later learned that 1 of his guides murdered a man and stole the deed to his land.  He was stuck for weeks in a poorly constructed tavern where men gambled and drank whiskey day and night while the cold January winds blew through the huge cracks between the logs of the walls.

Nuttall doesn’t mention food much in his journal, perhaps because it was bad.  The people who lived along the Ohio and Mississippi River subsisted on corn meal mush and milk.  Indians ate lotus seeds, and meat stews made from dried green corn and whatever animals they could catch and throw in the pot.  They also ate boiled corn and pumpkin.  In the woods he lived on poorly made jerky that rotted quickly.

I searched google images in vain to find the kinds of landscapes Nuttall described in his journal.  Probably, the scenes he saw no longer exist or are very rare today.  He saw virgin river bottomland forests consisting of pecan, hackberry, black walnut, ash, sweetgum, swamp chestnut oak, scarlet oak, red oak, honey locust, mimosa, sycamore, and cottonwood with an undergrowth of Texas frogfruit, false daisy, Virginia buttonwood, and grass.  Cottonwoods were the largest trees.  Canebrakes extended for miles on some sides of the rivers, while other sides had sandy bare beaches where members of his party often searched for turtle eggs.  Hackberry and Foresteria shrubs stood as isolated trees in cane brakes.  Acres of nettles grew in 1 bottomland forest along the Verdigris River.   Nuttall found stands of Osage orange trees with trunks 12 inches in diameter growing in grasslands.

Cypress/tupelo swamps existed adjacent to extensive prairies where the grass grew taller than Nuttall’s head.  The prairies were beautiful interspersed with thin fingers of forest alongside streams and covered with wildflowers of many different colors–Indian pinks, azure larkspur, yellow tickseed and Rudbeckia, phlox, false indigo, and blue-eyed grass.

Another interesting natural environment Nuttall often traversed were cedar glades (or cedar prairies as Nuttall referred to them). Cedar glades grow on thin soils and have exposed bedrock.  They are open communities where grass and flowers grow between widely spaced cedar, winged elm, and post oak trees.  Cedar glades alternated with the pine/oak woodland that covered hills.  Shortleaf pine and post oak dominated these ridges.  Indians frequently set fire to these environments.  On 1 day Nuttall couldn’t collect any plant specimens because the land all around him had been burnt over.  Canebrakes, prairies, cedar glades, and oak/pine woodland are all communities dependent upon fire.  Abandoned Indian villages were surrounded by fields of Chickasaw plums and peaches, but a late frost had wiped out most of the fruit the year of Nuttall’s expedition.

Nuttall explored several salt springs.  Some salt springs supported colonies of glasswort (Salicornia sp.), a salt-tolerant species (halophyte) commonly found growing in coastal salt marshes.  Other salt springs were devoid of saltwort.  I wonder how this species colonized inland sites.

Nuttall didn’t see much wildlife until he reached the Mississippi River because hunters had long before decimated game in Pennsylvania and Ohio.  But after he reached the Mississippi River and entered Arkansas, he began to see deer, bear, turkey, geese, ducks, swans, Carolina parakeets, and white pelicans.  Bald eagles nested on the Mississippi River.  On the prairies he saw bison and elk and large herds of feral cattle.  Wild horses were so abundant on 1 prairie it was named “horse prairie.”  Nuttall never saw a collared peccary, but 1 of his guides said they lived nearby.  Nuttall was aware of fossil peccary skulls collected from the Big Bone Fossil Site in Kentucky.  During 1 night Nuttall heard wolves howling, bullfrogs croaking, and whip-poor-wills serenading his campsite.

Nuttall never saw a cougar but a member of 1 of his expeditions recounted an interesting incident.  A cougar killed a deer and rested in a nearby tree.  It killed a wolf that came to scavenge the deer.  Then, it killed a dog that also came to the carcass.  The dog’s owner went looking for his dog and found it alongside the wolf and deer surrounded by cougar paw prints.  That forlorn scene of nature can be found in old journals like this, but not in present day Arkansas.

Reference:

Nuttall, Thomas

Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the year 1819

Thomas Palmer 1821

 

If I Could Live During the Pleistocene Part 14: Digging Wells

July 4, 2017

I write an irregular series on my blog imagining what my life would be like, if I traveled back in time to live in an homestead I established at a location in Georgia 36,000 years ago. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/category/if-i-could-live-during-the-pleistocene/ ) I don’t like roughing it, so I brought  many modern conveniences with me in my time machine including a professional well-digging rig.  My Pleistocene homestead in located 1 mile north of the Broad River and 2 miles west of the Savannah, but boring a well would be much easier than building a pipeline from the nearest creek or river.  My drinking water well was dug well away from my poultry yards and cow pasture, thus avoiding microbial contamination.  I also dug another well to irrigate my crop fields during droughts.

The water table was lower during the Ice Age, but I chose to live during a relatively warm climate phase within the Ice Age known as an interstadial, and the water table isn’t as low as it was and will be during stadials when glacial advances lock up so much atmospheric moisture. Nevertheless, I still had to drill deeper to reach water than if I was digging a well during modern times.

There is more water underneath the earth’s surface than in all the world’s freshwater lakes and rivers combined.  Subterranean water, or ground water, is what I tapped when I dug my wells.  Ground water exists in aquifers.  There are 2 types of aquifers.  Water trapped between rocks under pressure is known as an artesian aquifer.  A well tapping into an artesian aquifer doesn’t need a pump because the natural pressure forces the water to the surface through the well.  Unfortunately, the aquifer I tapped into is the other kind (an unconfined aquifer), and it requires a pump to bring the water to the surface.  I installed an electric pump and have a manual hand pump in case it breaks down.

Diagram of the water table.

Well Drilling Rig Water Well Drilling Equipment Drill Machine DIY Driller Tool

I would bring professional well digging equipment back in time with me, so I could have a convenient supply of water.

Animals live in aquifers.  Biologists use the term, stygofauna, to refer to this underground aquatic life.  Worldwide, there are 170 species of cave fish, and they live alongside salamanders, crayfish, tubellarians, isopods, amphipods, and decapods.  Species considered stygofauna share many traits that make them well adapted to live in these dark sterile environments.  They are blind and have slow metabolisms, so they don’t require much food.  Some are long lived–1 species of crayfish lives an estimated 100 years.  Several species of cave fish live in Georgia’s aquifers, and there are probably undiscovered species hidden deep underground.

Alabama cave fish.  A poorly known ecosystem exists in groundwater.

Well water tastes good and is nutritious because it contains dissolved minerals such as magnesium and calcium.  But this “hard” water doesn’t suit all of my needs.  It leaves stains in the bath tub, a filmy residue on dishes, and it makes my hair feel stiff.  For bathing and washing clothes, I collect rainwater in an underground cistern located next to my house.  Rain water is considered “soft” because it doesn’t have dissolved minerals in it–just sodium ions.  Numerous gutters lead to the opening of the cistern to help keep the cistern full, and I add chlorine to this water to keep it sanitary.  A screen keeps detritus from entering the cistern.  Keeping the screen clean is a frequent chore.  An electric pump draws the water into a solar-powered water heater, and I enjoy hot showers.

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Diagram of a rainwater cistern.  I would use this water for the washing machine and showers because hard water is bad for clothes and washing hair.

 

Meat Eater

June 28, 2017

Steven Rinella hosts the television series Meat Eater, an hunting show airing on the Outdoor Channel every Monday at 8:00 pm.  He hunts for the right reason.  Many hunters kill animals so they can hang a trophy on the wall.  Others (more than any pro-hunting organization would ever admit) simply like to kill animals for the hell of it.  On an episode of one of Anthony Bourdain’s television series the host went hunting with a bunch of duck hunters who didn’t like the taste of duck.  Mr. Bourdain, an accomplished chef, changed their minds when he showed them how to correctly cook the birds.  But still, I don’t get it.  Why did all those men go duck hunting, if they didn’t like to eat duck?  Mr. Rinella is not like that at all.  Most Meat Eater episodes show him cooking and eating whatever animal he killed for that week’s show.

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Steve Rinella, host of the tv series Meat Eater.

Mr. Rinella first published an interesting and well written book about 10 years ago entitled The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine.  The book is about his year long quest to produce a 45 course 3 day feast of recipes from a century old cookbook authored by the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier.  Many of the recipes used animals once popular but not commonly consumed today.  He caught stingray off the Atlantic Coast, trapped house sparrows and pigeons in the inner city, hunted wild pig in California, and helped an eel fisherman gather eels from his weir in Delaware.  He discovered he no longer enjoyed gigging for bullfrogs in Michigan.  Although this was an activity he enjoyed as a child, he admitted it grossed him out as an adult.  The frogs he killed for the feast would be his last because he decided to retire from frog-gigging.  Of course, he hunted bear, elk, mountain goat, and pronghorn out west–the main guest stars of his current television series.

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Mr. Rinella’s book is interesting and well-written.

My favorite chapter in the book was about his trip to coastal Alaska when he had the opportunity to fish for halibut.  I know I will never have a chance to visit this region and see all that wilderness and rich marine life.  By reading about his experience, I at least enjoyed some vicarious satisfaction.

Ironically, Mr. Rinella’s girlfriend at the time was a Jewish vegetarian.  He successfully converted her into a fish and shellfish eater but his feast of headcheese, pigeon cooked in pronghorn bladder, crayfish mousse, and 11 other old-fashioned dishes made her sick.  Most of the dishes he served at his Thanksgiving weekend feast of 45 courses were hits but there were misses as well.  I suppose his guests were friends close enough to give him their honest opinions.

I own a copy of Escoffier’s cookbook, but I rarely use it.  The book has over a thousand recipes, mostly consisting of various fancy ways to decorate a plate.  I am more of a blue plate special kind of cook and eater–hamburger steak and gravy, mashed potatoes, chili con carne, smothered pork chops, chicken and sausage jambalaya, stuffed cabbage, Greek salad, pumpkin pie, blueberry cobbler, etc.  Good food makes presentation irrelevant.  Escoffier doesn’t inspire me, but I’m glad it inspired Mr. Rinella to take on this project and write a book about it.  I concede Escoffier’s book is a decent primer on cooking technique.  It has helped Mr. Rinella become a really good cook.  Just look at all these delicious recipes posted on his website.

http://www.themeateater.com/section/recipe/

Mr. Rinella shares my disdain for the euphemism of the word, harvest, as a substitute for kill.  It always irks me when hunters say they are harvesting an animal.  Harvesting means a person is picking an apple or an ear of corn.  If an animal isn’t killed instantly, I’m sure the bullet or arrow piercing its nerves and flesh hurts a lot.  Hunting is killing, not harvesting.  Hunters who use the word, harvest, are dishonestly sanitizing what they do.  I’ve taken some flack for my opinion about this, but at least 1 person agrees with me.

 

The Chimney Top Fire

June 24, 2017

The Chimney Top is a series of dry rocky ridges located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where slate, schist, and phylite overlay erosion-resistant sandstone.  In some places precipitation has eroded away the top rocks, exposing the sandstone, and the formations resemble chimney tops, hence the name.  Last November, 2 unnamed juveniles set the surrounding forest on fire.  Drought conditions fed the fire, and it was fanned by 80 mph mountain wave winds.  Hot air from the fire rose up the mountain and when it met stable air, it ricocheted and accelerated downward in waves.  The fire burned over 15 square miles and spread into neighboring Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing 16 people, 2 black bears, and uncounted small animals.  Yet, this forest will recover because many of the plant species growing on the ridge are well adapted to fire and in some cases even dependent upon it.

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Needles and cone of the table mountain pine.  This species depends on fire to open its cones.

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Fireweed also depends on fire.

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The Chimney Tops.  Erosion resistant rock explains the chimney-like formations.

Photo of a burned ridge on Chimney Top.

The Chimney Top environment consists of rock chestnut oak (Quercus montana), table mountain pine (Pinus pungens), and heath balds.  Rock chestnut oak is fire resistant, and it thrives in the rocky shallow soils on the ridge.  Table mountain pine also grows well in the shallow soils, and it depends upon fire to open its seed cones.  Although long exposure to hot sun opens table mountain pine cones, the process is best facilitated by fire.  Park service employees noted a rain of pine seeds in the air a few days after the fire.  In 5 years the burned over ridges will be covered with pine saplings and fireweed.  Some heath balds completely burned to the ground–an unusual occurrence here because this region is the rainiest spot east of the Mississippi.  Heath balds are evergreen shrub communities consisting of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense), various species of blueberries (Vaccinium sp.) and huckleberries (Gayluccia sp.), and 1 deciduous tree–mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia).  Heath balds are often adjacent to grassy balds and surrounded by forests of red spruce and hemlock.  Heath shrubs thrive on shallow acid soils located on mountain slopes.  Both heath and grassy balds are of ancient origin.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2016/05/16/the-extinct-helmeted-musk-ox-bootherium-bombifrons-and-appalachian-grassy-balds-during-the-pleistocene/ )  Scientists studied heath balds and discovered they grow on a layer of peat underlain by charcoal.  This suggests heath balds occasionally do burn completely, yet regrow in the same location.  This fire gives scientists the first chance to ever witness the rebirth of a heath bald.

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Heath bald.

Forests are resilient.  The area in the photo below was clear cut during 1910.  The original forest consisted of chestnut, oak, and hemlock; many with trunks 5 feet in diameter.  The destruction of this locality spurred the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1926.  The 2nd growth forest that replaced the original tract is not as impressive but at least it is green.

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This area was clear cut in 1910.  It has nicely recovered but is not as impressive as it was originally.

Cades Cove

June 19, 2017

Most of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is heavily wooded, and wildlife usually stays hidden in thick vegetation.  Cades Cove is 1 of the few areas in the park where tourists can reliably see wildlife because it is an open beautiful valley of fields and thin fingers of forest, resembling what many southeastern landscapes looked like until the mid-19th century.  Indians set fire to the valley annually to improve habitat for game animals, and white settlers maintained the open nature of the valley by using it as pasture and by planting row crops.  The valley remained open when the National Park Service took over the site 90 years ago.  Today, a 1-way loop road encircles the valley, making for the best accessible wildlife watching in the park.  I rode my car on the Cades Cove loop road last Saturday evening with my wife and daughter.  We saw >50 horses, 20 deer, 2 black bears, 1 squirrel, 1 turkey, and lots of crows and chimney swifts.

The herd of tame horses is located near the beginning of the loop road.  Many different breeds are represented including spotted palominos, Clydesdales, and solid black and brown horses.  I saw cowbirds foraging between the horses.  Fossil evidence shows horses did inhabit this region during the Pleistocene.  I would like to see the park service allow horses to go wild here.  Wild horses belong in North America.

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There’s an herd of over 50 horses near the entrance to the Cades Cove loop road.

Black bear sightings caused several traffic jams on the loop road.  There are hundreds of signs telling tourists to pull over when they want to stop and see the wildlife, and other signs constantly warn to stay at least 50 yards away from bears and deer.  Most tourists ignore these signs.  They stop their cars in the middle of the road, rush toward the bear, and get as close as they can to photograph the bruin.  We were stuck in 1 traffic jam for 20 minutes.  At least I did get to see wild black bears for the first time in my life.  I’d rather live in a world where bears outnumber people.  It has been thousands of years since bears outnumbered the entire population of Homo sapiens on earth but before the development of agriculture they did.

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We saw 20 deer.  This buck snuck behind me.

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This was the only turkey I saw in Cades Cove.  I expected to see more.  While driving through the park the following day I saw an hen with 2 chicks cross the road.  Why did the turkey cross the road? 

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There are 4 deer in this photo.  2 are laying down but their antlers are visible.

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This was the only live squirrel I saw in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I was surprised I didn’t see more.

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We saw 2 black bears on the Cades Cove loop road.  Look at how close these 2 stupid asses got to the bear.  They are underestimating how dangerous this situation is.  There must be at least 100 signs telling people to stay at least 50 yards away from the bears and deer.  Instead, people rush in and try to get as close as possible to take a photo.  That bear could be mauling them in about 2 seconds.

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These are the rare and extirpated species that used to live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spotted skunks are rare, Indiana bats are endangered, northern flying squirrels are probably extirpated here, fox squirrels haven’t been seen for decades in the park, and northern water shrews are uncommon.

I was surprised I didn’t see more turkeys or squirrels.  The latter probably stay in the tree tops for much of the day.  I also expected to see woodchucks, rabbits, and maybe wild boars.  Woodchucks are more active in the morning, and I did see 4 of them while driving through the North Carolina mountains on the way home the following day.  I can’t explain the absence of rabbits because there is plenty of excellent habitat for them in Cades Cove.  Perhaps they were hidden in the tall grass.  Ironically, I saw a road-killed wild pig 5 miles from my house on the drive home the next day as if the wildlife watching Gods wanted to reward me with a kind of epilogue to my trip.  Despite how common wild pigs are supposed to be, this was the first road-killed specimen I’ve seen in the Augusta, Georgia area.

The National Park Service should introduce bison, elk, and cougars to Cades Cove.  I know the addition of cougars would be controversial, but the park service should be inspired to come as close to possible to establishing a complete ecosystem here.  More open areas should be created as well so that wildlife populations could increase.

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The National Park Service should introduce bison and elk to this side of the park to fill up this empty space.

Bird watching at Cades Cove was not as good as in Townsend, Tennessee where our hotel was located.  I saw 5 species of birds in Cades Cove compared to 11 species in town.  However, I did encounter 1 unexpected species outside of Cades Cove but inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I saw a raven while driving in the higher elevations, then saw another raven on the way to Cades Cove at a lower elevation.  This was the first time I’d ever seen live ravens in the wild.  I mistakenly thought ravens were rare here because there is only 1 raven nesting site in the entire state of Georgia.  But according to the National Park Service, the raven is a fairly common year round resident in the park.  Ravens look like humongous crows.  The birds I saw were far too large to be crows.  They were about the size of a red-shouldered hawk.  Crows are more common here, however. In addition to the 5 species of birds I saw at Cades Cove, I heard the constant song of the field sparrow.  Eastern meadowlarks are also supposed to be common here, but I didn’t see any.  I have never seen an eastern meadowlark.

Night fell by the time we left the Cades Cove loop road.  I was surprised at the abundance of lightning bugs.  Special tour buses take tourists through the park at night to see the amazing light show displayed by the synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) during late May and early June.  We probably saw some of the other 18 species of lightning bugs found in the park because it was too late in the season for P. carolinus. Lightning bugs are not bugs, nor are they flies.  They are beetles.  Their larva prey upon snails, slugs, and insects for a year or 2 before they transform into flying adults for the final few weeks of their lives.  Different species flash at different intervals and that is how males and females of the same species recognize each other.  Lightning bugs are only seen occasionally in Augusta, Georgia.  They are abundant in the Great Smoky Mountains because the moist forests support a large population of their favorite food–escargot.

Video from you tube of the synchronous fireflies.

The Cookie Cutter Cat (Xenosmilus hodsonae)

June 13, 2017

Larry Martin is the paleontologist who invented the fanciful name of “cookie cutter cat” for this extinct species.  He proposed this big carnivore killed its prey by taking a bite and retreating, thereby removing a piece of flesh like a cookie cutter removes a section of dough.  Supposedly, the cat then waited around for its victim to die from the wound.  I don’t buy it.  It seems unlikely a predator would cease attacking a wounded animal.  Instead, I believe this powerfully built animal held its prey down with its sturdy forelimbs and bit through the throat.  I suspect this is how all species of fanged cats dispatched their prey.

The cookie cutter cat is a newly recognized species.  Though commercial fossil collectors discovered 2 nearly complete skeletons at the Haile fossil site in 1981, scientists didn’t identify it as a new species until 20 years later.  At first scientists assumed it was a scimitar-toothed cat (Dinobastis serus) based on skull and dentition.  There were 2 lines of fanged cats during the Pleistocene in North America–the scimitar-tooths or Homotheridae and the saber-tooths or Smilodontheridae.  Both belonged to the subfamily Machairodontinae.  Scimitar-tooths were previously known to be long-limbed and built for chasing down prey, while saber-tooths were robust and built for ambushing their victims.  However, paleontologists eventually realized the cookie cutter cat was an exception.  It was a scimitar-tooth cat built for ambushing its prey, like the saber-tooth line of cats.  Cookie cutter cats were robust and powerful and short-limbed.

Mounted skeleton of the extinct cookie cutter cat.  It was stout like a bear and about the size of a lion.

Fossils of cookie cutter cats have been found at 7 sites in Florida including Haile, Sarasota, Citrus County, Levy County, Santa Fe River, Hillsborough, and Marion County.  Specimens identified as belonging to the Xenosmilus genus  have also been found in Arizona and Uruguay.  Cookie cutter cats are known to have lived during the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene between 2.5 million years BP-1.5 million years BP.  The specimens at Haile were associated with many bones of peccaries, a likely prey item.

References:

Martin, Larry; and J. Babiarz, J, Hearst, and V. Naples

“Three Ways to be a Saber-tooth Cat”

The Science of Nature 87 (1) 2000

See also the University of Florida Museum web article.– https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/florida-vertebrate-fossils/species/xenosmilus-hodsonae

 

 

 

 

 

 

Predator and Prey in the Early Pleistocene of Florida

June 8, 2017

Pleistocene ecosystems supported a great variety of large predators.  During the early Pleistocene the saber-toothed cat (Smilodon gracilis, ancestor of S. fatalis) and Edward’s wolf (Canis edwardii, possible ancestor of C. dirus) were 2 important carnivores that kept herbivore populations in check.  A study analyzed the chemistry of megafauna bones from 2 early Pleistocene-aged sites in Florida to determine what these 2 predators chose to prey upon.  The study included data from 110 specimens of 12 species excavated from Leisey Shell Pit, and 51 specimens of 9 species found at Inglis 1A.  Species used from Leisey Shell Pit in addition to the 2 carnivores mentioned above included mammoth, mastodon, gompothere, horse, 2 kinds of llama, 2 kinds of peccaries, white tail deer, and tapir.  Subfossil remains from this site date to between 1.5 million years BP-1.1 million years BP during an interglacial climate phase when the environment is thought to have been lowland forest and swamp, though there must have been some grassland.  Species used from Inglis 1A were mastodon, white-tail deer, peccary, tapir, horse, llama, and an extinct species of pronghorn along with Smilodon and Edward’s wolf.  Subfossil remains from Inglis 1A date to between 1.9 million years BP-1.6 million years BP during a glacial climate phase when the environment is thought to have been a mix of longleaf pine savannah, oak scrub, and forest.

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Jaw bone of the extinct Edward’s wolf, 1 of the oldest wolf species known to have lived in North America.

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Photoshopped Smilodon gracilis, the evolutionary ancestor of the late Pleistocene Smilodon fatalis.

The results of the study indicate Edward’s wolf ate a greater variety of prey than Smilodon, but both species were adaptable to changing environments.  During the interglacial period Smilodon ate herbivores that fed in forest environments (mastodon, deer, tapir, paleollama), while wolves mostly ate grassland herbivores (mammoth, horse).  However, during glacial periods when grasslands predominated Smilodon adapted by eating more grassland herbivores.  Choice of prey among individual saber-toothed cats varied.  Some individual cats ate nothing but forest herbivores, while others ate just grassland herbivores.  I think this shows saber-tooths were territorial animals that stayed in the same home range their entire life.  They ate whatever prey occurred within their established territory.  Herbivores that fed in both forest and grassland (large-headed llamas, gompotheres, peccaries) likely fell prey to both carnivores.

Reference:

Feranec, Robert; and L. Desantis

“Understanding Specifics in Generalist Diets of Carnivores by Analyzing Stable Carbon Isotope Values in Pleistocene Mammals of Florida”

Paleobiology 40 (3) 2014

Bearzilla’s Diet

June 4, 2017

WordPress has a feature that lets me see how many daily views my blog articles get.  For several years my article entitled “Bearzilla: the Biggest Bear Ever” is almost always the single highest viewed article of the day. https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/bearzilla-the-biggest-bear-in-history/  The subject of that popular blog entry is Arctotherium angustidens, an extinct South American species of bear that reached estimated weights of 3500 pounds–the largest size of any bear known to science.  In that blog entry I also discuss the largest specimens of extant species of bears and include a photo I ripped off from google images of a 2100 pound polar bear.  I suspect that photo is what draws so many views.  I came across a fairly recent research paper in the Journal of Paleontology about A. angustidens with enough information for me to write an addendum to my original article.

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Illustration showing the early Pleistocene giant short-faced bear that lived in South America. It later evolved into a smaller more herbivorous species.

Scientists studied the pathology, morphology, chemical signatures, and biomechanics of A. angustidens bones to determine what this species ate.  Missing, broken, and worn teeth were common.  The evidence of these dental problems suggests the bears were damaging their teeth when they clumsily gnawed on bones.  Some bear teeth even had bone splinters lodged in them.  An individual young female bear had a tooth infection caused by a bone splinter in its tooth, and this was the probable cause of death.  These giant bears had large teeth cheek similar to the extant giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), but pandas don’t exhibit tooth damage on their diet of bamboo.  The frequent occurrence of tooth damage in Arctotherium can only be explained by a diet high in bone consumption.

An analysis of stable isotope ratios in Arctotherium bones does suggest this species included lots of meat in its diet, but it also ate plant material.  The scientists conclude Arctotherium was an omnivore.

When large bears first colonized South America they competed with just a few large carnivores such as saber-tooth cats.  There was an abundance of large slow-moving prey the bears could wrestle down.  Eventually, more species of predators colonized the continent, and some prey species evolved into faster runners.  Other prey species–the large ground sloths for example–may have evolved into stronger adversaries as well.  Bears that consumed more plant material had a better chance of surviving than those that competed with predators or failed to obtain prey.  This may be why Arctotherium’s descendants  evolved to eat more plants than meat.

Reference:

Soibelizon, Leopoldo; et. al.

“South American Giant Short-Faced Bear (Arctotherium angustidens) Diet: Evidence from Pathology, Morphology, Stable Isotopes, and Biomechanics”

Journal of Paleontology 88 (6) 2014