When did the Fisher (Martes pennanti) Last Roam the Wilds of Georgia?

Another interesting mammal with northern affinities that used to range into what’s now Georgia is the fisher (Martes pennanti).

I found this photo of a fisher carrying a dead squirrel on google images but I think it’s from the cover of an issue of the Journal of Heredity.   They had an article about genetic bottlenecks of this species created from habitat fragmentation.  Fishers require complete forest cover and avoid open fields.

Fossil evidence of fishers in Georgia comes from Ladds stone quarry in Bartow County.  Ladds is a collapsed and eroded cave system that yields fossils of warm climate species such as giant tortoise, Florida muskrats, and rice rats; and c0ol climate species such as bog lemmings and meadow jumping mice, besides the fisher.  The warm and cool climate species may or may not have occurred during the same climate phase–the quarry operation may have mixed fossils of different ages together.  But asymmetric compositions of species are common in most other Pleistocene fossil sites, so no one is really sure.  The fossils found here are at least 10,000 years old.  I suspect they date to the Sangamonian Interglacial–more than 100,000 years ago for reasons I discuss in my blog entry, “The Giant Chipmunk (Tamias aristus).  Kicked up Version of the Eastern Chipmunk?” https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/tamias-aristus-the-extinct-kicked-up-version-of-the-eastern-chipmunk/

The fossil material of the fisher found at Ladds consisted of a couple of fragments of cheekbone with teeth attached and a partial jawbone.  This proves that fishers occurred in Georgia thousands of years ago during the Pleistocene.  What is not known for sure is how recently they lived in state.  There is fossil evidence of both porcupine and fisher from the Law’s archaeological site ins northern Alabama which dates to about 1700 AD, and from the Etowah Indian Mound Site in Bartow County which dates to between 1100 and 1500 AD.  This doesn’t prove fishers lived in Georgia that recently.  Indians traded fisher pelts and porcupine quills, and they could have originated from their known historical range.  However, it’s quite possible fishers had a more southerly range within the last few hundred years and were trapped out by Indians selling pelts to newly available European fur markets. 

Historical range of the fisher.  They may have ranged further south but were uncommon and trapped out early after European contact.  During the Ice Age just about their entire modern range was under miles of glacial ice, so of course they once ranged further south in pre-historic times.

Ecological studies show fishers require continous tracts of mature forest, and they completely avoid open areas.  In New England now that fur trapping has gone out of style and forests are growing back, fishers are recolonizing states where they’ve been long absent.  They’ve got a long way to go before they reach Georgia though.

Fishers prey on squirrels, rabbits, mice, and birds.  Studies of their dietary habits have yet to find fish in their scat, so their name is misleading.  They’re one of the few carnivores that commonly prey upon porcupines, but they occasionally die from injuries suffered when they mishandle the spiny rodents.  They kill the porcupines by biting their faces off, not by flipping them over as is falsely believed.  Fishers will kill small house dogs and cats, but I don’t believe reports that they attack German Shepherds.  Fishers only weigh 10-15 pounds and would have a size advantage over smaller cats and dogs but a big dog could shake a fisher and break its back.  Scientists studying Canadian lynx report two cases of fishers feeding upon radio-collared cats.  I don’t believe a fisher can kill a full grown lynx.  In one instance there was no sign of a struggle in the snow which tells me the cat was already dead.  A fisher doesn’t have a powerful enough bite to kill a large animal instantly, precluding the possibility that it ambushed a sleeping cat.  I think the cat died of either sickness or starvation.  Likewise, a find of bobcat in fisher scat was probably from a kitten or an already deceased cat.  The following youtube video shows a fisher struggling to kill a gray fox.  Bobcats and lynx are much more powerful than gray foxes.  The former regularly preys on gray foxes.  (Note: The fox in the video is a gray fox, not a silver color phase of a red fox.)


When I visited the Silver Bluff Audubon Center a month ago, I heard a cry that sounded like the distress call of the gray fox from this video.  At the time I didn’t know what it was and thought I was hearing a bird I couldn’t identify.  Maybe I was hearing a gray fox being attacked by coyote or bobcat.


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5 Responses to “When did the Fisher (Martes pennanti) Last Roam the Wilds of Georgia?”

  1. jamesrobertsmith Says:

    I have read that fishers were extant in the Great Smoky Mountains in modern times. Maybe as late at the early 1800s. I’ve only read this in various journals and books with no research or footnotes to back up the claims. However, it’s something that I could grasp as being possible, since the terrain, climate and general habitat of the spine of the Great Smoky Mountains is like classic fisher ecosystems farther north. Most accounts I’ve read claimed that fishers in the Smokies preyed on squirrels.

    I was always glad that I got to see the high Smoky Mountains ecosystem before acid rain and balsam wooly adelgid laid waste to it in the late 70s and early 80s.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    They probably were.

    Hey, I went to Dunwoody this weekend for my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah (man, what an astonishing extravaganza that was–more than I would spring for a 13 year old kid). Dunwoody is a suburb within the Atlanta megalopolis. Next to the parking lot of the hotel where we stayed at, there was a whole row of hemlocks planted as ornamentals. Maybe they’ll escape the pest there.

  3. jamesrobertsmith Says:

    Hopefully they weren’t Asian hemlocks, which is where this problem all started in the first place. I’ve noticed that hemlocks planted far from other groves seem to stay free of hemlock wooly adelgid. For instance, there are many planted here in yards all over Charlotte, and I’ve yet to encounter any that are infested with the damned bugs. My father-in-law planted two hemlocks in his back yard forty years ago and now they’re huge and gorgeous and so far uninfested. I keep a close eye on them and if they ever do show sign of hwa I will immediately treat them with Safari brand insecticide.

    Congratulations to your nephew and his family!

    (My mom was half-Jewish. Her grandparents sat shiva on her dad for marrying my Gentile grandmother. His parents were, of course, very observant–what some call Orthodox Jews.)

  4. Dacia Dills Says:

    I know I keep hearing that Fisher Cats don’t or haven’t come to the southern states. However, I and my poor neighbors that have ducks and chickens would beg to differ. I live in Georgia, few miles south of Atlanta on a heavily wooded private lake. We had been hearing screams at night and during the early morning hours. I thought it was most likely fox because they make similar noises, especially during mating season. So you can only imagine what a shock it was to discover these things running around in our backyard. I was awaken to the sound of those eerie screams again. I jumped out of bed ran out the back door determined to see these fox in action. I thought they must be fighting. But to my surprise, I saw two fisher cats running across the roof of the house next door. They were chasing each other. I don’t know if they were fighting or trying to mate. As soon as they saw me they took off. They both jumped into the treetops and they were gone. They seemed more scared of me than I was of them . I had to do some research just to find out what they were. I had never heard of a fisher cat . But thanks to utube I was able to identify and confirm what I saw was indeed a Fisher. I wonder if the DNR are even aware they are here in Ga. ? I’ve seen no mention of them on their website under wildlife. Maybe I should give them a call… ; )

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