Fire Suppression = A Decline in Biodiversity (Part 2–The Animals of Longleaf Pine Savannahs)

Fox Squirrels come in several color phases–orange, black, and gray.  Some have white or gray masks as well.

Fox Squirrel–Sciurus niger

I love these big colorful squirrels.  I lived in Niles, Ohio until 1975, and our home was bordered by oak woods on 2 sides.  Big orange fox squirrels were the playful denizens there.  But since I’ve lived in Georgia, I’ve only seen one–a black masked fox squirrel foraging with a group of gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in a pecan orchard in Burke County.

This range map is bullshit.  No statewide survey of fox squirrels has been done in at least 50 years, if ever.  It’s likely an accurate range map would show a much patchier distribution.

Southern fox squirrels differ in their habitat requirements from northern fox squirrels, despite being the same species.  The former prefer mature longleaf pine savannahs with fingers of oak forests, while the latter thrive in oak/hickory woods.  Fox squirrels are declining in Georgia because longleaf pine savannahs were largely replaced with shorter rotation loblolly pine tree farms.  Lumber companies harvest loblolly pines every 50 years which is not enough time for trees to develop snags.  The Trees are also planted closely and fire is suppressed.  Gray squirrels are more abundant today in state because they’re well adapted to the dense young forests that have sprouted on abandoned agricultural lands.  Gray squirrels escape predation by jumping from tree top to tree top, while fox squirrels prefer to dash on the ground as far as they can before retreating to a tree.  Though clumsy in trees compared to their smaller cousins, their larger size allows them to put up more of a fight, if a predator catches up to them.  This difference in behavior explains why gray squirrels occur in closed canopy forests, and fox squirrels prefer open parkland forests.  For this reason I think fox squirrels were more abundant in this region during the Pleistocene when open environments were common.  Areas managed for red-cockaded woodpeckers should benefit fox squirrels.  Forest managers used longer rotations and fire to maintain the bird’s required habitat.

Red Cockaded Woodpecker–(Picoides borealis)

Photo of a red cockaded woodpecker from google images.  All the photos in this entry are borrowed from there.

Thirty years ago, this bird was on the verge of extinction, despite having formerly been common throughout the south.  Fire suppression and short forest management rotation nearly caused the death of this species.  Young pine trees never develop the soft rot that red cockaded woodpeckers need for boring nesting cavities.  As a defense mechanism, red cockaded woodpeckers constantly peck wells below their nesting cavities from which pine sap continously flows.  The pine resin repels rat snakes–their number one predator.  For this defense mechanism to work, live trees are a must.  And without fire hardwood understory reaches the level of the nesting cavity allowing flying squirrels, and other predators easy access.  Flying squirrels will decimate red cockaded woodpecker nests.

In a successful effort to save the birds, scientists identified habitat requirements and some suitable land was set aside and managed using prescribed burns and longer tree harvest rotations.  Birds were relocated to the best habitat, artificial nesting boxes were installed to supplement the shortage of good nesting trees, and flying squirrel exclusion devices were used.  In many protected areas red cockaded woodpecker family groups (family groups consist of 2-10 individuals) have increased dramatically to the point where it’s no longer necessary to provide artificial nests or to protect them from flying squirrels.  At SRS for example the population grew from 1 family group in 1987 to 30 by 2003.

Sandhill Crane–(Grus canadensis)

These impressive birds grow to 5 feet tall.  They prefer to nest in grassy marshes adjacent to prairies or savannahs.  The real life version of Sesame Street’s Big Bird used to be common, but since grasslands and wetlands have declined so have the birds.  Georgia’s population includes a permanent one consisting of small family groups, and large congregations of winter migrants.  They’re omnivorous feeding on insects, crayfish, mice, snakes, frogs, worms, acorns, fruit, roots, and farmer’s crops.

Bachman’s Sparrow–(Peucaea aestivalis)

Another inhabitant of open pine savannahs that is declining in abundance.  I heard this bird’s song on a youtube video and recognized it as one I’ve heard.  Evidentally, the sparrow still occurs in Augusta.

Indigo Snake–(Drymarchon corais)

This snake grows to 9 feet long, making it the longest serpent in North America.  They’re rare because their habitat has been fragmented, and they need large ranges.  They hunt during the day and retreat into gopher tortoise burrows at night.  A wide variety of prey is taken–other snakes including venemous ones, small mammals, birds, frogs, and fish.  Indigo snakes don’t kill by constriction or envenomation, but instead bite the head of their prey and thrash, breaking the spines of the small creatures.  Their metabolism is faster then that of most other snakes.

Gopher Tortoise–(Gopherus polyphenus)

 

Gopher tortoises depend on a frequent fire regime to spark the growth of the kinds of plant they eat.  They also like sandy soil that makes it easy for them to dig their elaborate tunnel systems.  They’re a keystone species–over 60 vertebrates and invertebrates depend on their burrows for shelter.  (See also my article–“The Giant Extinct Tortoise, Hesperotestudo crassicutata, must have been able to survive light frosts” from my April or March archives)

Popular game animals such as white tail deer, turkey, and quail thrive in longleaf pine savannahs.  Savannahs were a favored habitat of many extinct Pleistocene species as well including mammoth, long horned bison, horses, llamas, Harlan’s ground sloth, hog nosed skunks, giant tortoises, and others.

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3 Responses to “Fire Suppression = A Decline in Biodiversity (Part 2–The Animals of Longleaf Pine Savannahs)”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    I used to see almost totally black fox squirrels in south Georgia. So much larger than gray squirrels. I have not seen an indigo snake in many, many years. But on my last trip to Florida (where we go mainly to float the first magnitude springs) I saw quite a lot of gopher tortoises. A dozen or so individuals in various park settings. I was not expecting to see any in Little Manatee River State Park but we did.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Do you recall which county(s) in Georgia you saw fox squirrels? I’m conducting a little online survey. So far I have Burke, Elbert, Washington, and Glynn Counties, as well as the area around Lake Oconee, Fort Stewart, Albany, and Brunswick Community College Campus.

  3. James Robert Smith Says:

    Chatham and Glynn.

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