Archive for 2013

Black’s Bluff Preserve and the Coosa River Lock and Dam Park

August 17, 2013

There used to be a little girl who lived in my house, but now she’s a big girl and attends college on the other side of the state.  It is strangely quiet in our house, since she moved.  There’s no longer the sound of a constant video game every evening.  The dreaded day when we helped move her into her dorm room came and went, and I couldn’t help feeling sad because the moment reminded me that nothing last forever.  Nevertheless, I suppose I will get used to the new situation, and I think living away from home should be a good experience for her.

While we were in Rome, Georgia, I had a chance to go on a little nature excursion.  I visited Black’s Bluff Preserve and the Coosa River Lock and Dam Park.  Black’s Bluff Preserve is a 263 acre property of The Nature Conservancy located next to Floyd County State Prison.  Supposedly, it is a rock garden growing on a bluff consisting of Conasauga limestone.  I mostly saw invasive species.

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Visiting this preserve is by appointment only.  I played the part of rebel and walked past the sign .  There isn’t any path that leads to the bluff anyway, other than a narrow game trail.  At the base of the bluff ,diseased persimmon trees along with non-native kudzu and bradford pear grow.  At the top of the bluff is a an unimpressive stand of  2nd growth loblolly pine.  I didn’t see anything botanically significant at this site.

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The view of the bluff is impressive.

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Another view of the bluff.

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I found this enormous black or Shumard oak (I can’t tell the difference between those 2 species) at the Coosa River Lock and Dam Park.  I estimate it is about 24 feet in circumference.

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Here’s another view of the giant black oak.  it looks like the top half must have broken off during a storm at one time and has been removed.  The tree next to it is a large hackberry.

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Here’s a black walnut tree.  I wish I had a few in my yard.  They are expensive.

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The Coosa River is muddy, but it hosts over 70 species of fish.  The Coosa River Valley serves as a corridor for Coastal Plain flora and fauna where they can penetrate into the mountain region.

The Fishbait Tree (Catalpa bignoniodes) may be an Anachronism

August 13, 2013

The bignonia family includes 700 species of mostly tropical distributions.  The calabash tree (Cresenctia cajeta) of South and Central America is a species of bignonia that some scientists consider anachronistic, meaning it seems out of time and place.  The calabash tree produces large fruits with hard rinds that no extant native animal can crack.  Thus, this species has a limited distribution because no native animal can spread its seed in their dung.  However, introduced horses can bite through the rind and spread the seed.  During the Pleistocene horses along with ground sloths and the mastodon-like gompotheres aided in this species dispersal.  Another species of bignonia, the sausage tree (Kigela africana) of Africa produces large fruit pods that are known to be dispersed in the alimentary canals of elephants, giraffes, hippos, and baboons.

Some species in the bignonia family do occur in temperate regions.  The trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) is perhaps the best known and widespread.  The 2 species of catalpa trees, like the calabash tree, may be examples of anachronisms because they had  limited distributions before man widely transplanted them, and they produce long seed pods that no modern animal disperses.  Before European settlement the northern catalpa tree (Catalpa speciousa) was limited to the Mississippi River Valley from Arkansas north to Indiana, while the southern catalpa (Catalpa bibnonioides) ranged from southern Mississippi to western Georgia and the Florida panhandle.  The limited range of both species suggests they weren’t being dispersed as readily following the end of the last Ice Age as they may have been, if the megafauna hadn’t become extinct.

Illustration of the southern catalpa.  It has big showy flowers, big leaves, and long seed pods.  It was probably more widespread during the Pleistocene when climatic conditions were favorable.

Proposed pre-settlement range of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa).  It has been widely transplanted.

File:Catalpa bignonioides range.jpg

Proposed pre-settlement range of southern catalpa (Catalpa bignoniodes).  No one knows for sure what its exact pre-settlement range was because it has been widely transplanted as an ornamental.

Between 60,000 BP-30,000 BP, forests and woodlands in southeastern North America hosted many diverse species, but the climate deteriorated rapidly after 30,000 BP, and the species rich woodlands were replaced with pine and oak dominated landscapes.  Catalpa trees and other less hardy species were restricted to small refuges such as ravines that were protected from the harsher climate.  When climatic conditions improved ~15,000 BP, animals such as mastodons and ground sloths were headed toward extinction and were no longer common enough to be  effective dispersal agents.  Catalpa trees prefer early successional moist woodlands and are intolerant of fire, ice storms, and shade.  The megafauna inadvertently shaped the ideal environment for catalpa trees.  The presence of megafauna reduced the intensity of fires because they consumed so much flammable material.  The megafauna also maintained open sunny woodlands by grazing, browsing, and trampling. Catalpa trees thrived in these primeval rich environments during warm interglacials and interstadials, but their ranges contracted during cold stadials when low CO2 levels, drought, cold, and ice storms proved problematic for this big leaved species.

I am unaware of any genetic studies comparing northern and southern catalpa trees.  All the species in the bignonia family found in North America are descended from tropical species that evolved to survive in temperate climates.  Northern and southern catalpa trees likely split from a common ancestor.  I’m curious whether the 2 species split early during the Pliocene ~5 million years ago when Ice Ages began to occur or if they are a recent divergence resulting from a more recent Ice Age.

The reason catalpas are called fishbait trees is because they are the sole host of the catalpa worm (Ceratomia catalpae).  It’s not actually a worm but rather the caterpillar stage of a brown sphinx moth.  According to fishermen who use them, catalpa worms are a fair bait, if used as is, but are an excellent bait when the head is pinched off and their body is pulled inside out.

Catalpa worm.  They feed on catalpa leaves and after consuming enough food burrow into the ground and pupate.  They  then emerge as adult moths to mate and lay eggs which hatch into caterpillars.

A catalpa tree is a mini-ecosystem in itself.  Heavy catalpa worm infestations attract a whole swarm of predators.  Tiny braconid wasps insert their eggs into the caterpillars, and the wasp larva eat their way through the unfortunate caterpillars.  Ants then prey on the wasp larva.  Tachnid flies also parasitize catalpa worms, and a species of snout-nosed beetle preys directly on the caterpillars .

At least 1 species of braconid wasp parasitizes catalpa worms.  Tachnid flies parasitize them too.

Wasp larva chewing up a catalpa worm.  It’s doomed.

Catalpa worms build up a chemical compound from their diet of catalpa leaves that makes them distasteful to most species of birds, but the yellow billed cuckoo is an exception.  Cuckoos enjoy a specialized diet of caterpillars, and they relish catalpa worms.

Yellow billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus).  These birds specialize in eating caterpillars.  They are supposedly common summer migrants in North America.  They winter in South America.  I’ve maybe seen 1 in my entire life.  I may plant a catalpa tree in my yard in the hopes of attracting this bird.

Catalpa trees are resilient and regenerate leaves within the same growing season following a heavy infestation of worms that completely defoliates them.  Most trees, especially older individuals, can survive repeated defoliations.  This is evidence they could also have withstood having their leaves heavily browsed by mastodons and ground sloths.  Catalpa seedpods were probably consumed along with their leaves in the fall and deposited in big nutritious manure piles.  Man began cultivating catalpa trees as ornamentals and for fishbait in 1726.  Man has replaced the megafauna as a disperal agent for catalpa trees.

Carcharodon Megalodon is NOT still Extant. Shame on the Discovery Channel.

August 9, 2013

The Discovery Channel began its annual Shark Week with a 2 hour program about an extinct species of shark, Carcharodon megalodon (or Carchocles megalodon–scientists dispute the classification).  The programming executives care more about ratings than scientific accuracy because they chose to run a phony sensationalist documentary rather than a show based on fact.  It was an embarrassing hoax.  Two supposed marine biologists claimed they had evidence that megalodon was still extant and had bitten a yacht in half off the coast of South Africa in April 2013.  All the evidence they disclosed had alternate and more likely explanations.  For example they showed a photograph of a beached whale that supposedly had its tail bitten off by a megalodon.  They failed to consider that a ship’s propeller could have done the exact same damage.  While I was watching this fake documentary,  I noticed the so-called scientist didn’t act like a scientist.  He proposed killing the shark to prevent another attack.  The recent supposed attack was a rare anomaly–another attack seemed unlikely.  Moreover, I doubt a scientist would propose killing an unknown, possibly rare and endangered species.  The producers of this documentary  staged a dramatic ending.  The team’s scientific vessel dragged a big mock whale behind them littered by a massive bombardment of chum in order to attract a megalodon.  A scientist in a shark cage tagged the supposed megalodon with a tracking device, they all barely survived with their lives, and they then watched the sonar image of the shark carry the tracking device to crush depth where the device was destroyed–a convenient explanation for why they can’t locate it again.

The 2 supposed marine biologists who conducted this study expedition, Collin Drake and Madelyn Joubert, are unknown.  They are not employed by any university and probably are an actor and actress and are not scientists.  I also could find no evidence of a yacht sinking off the South African coast with all hands lost in April 2013.  Shame on the Discovery Channel for misleading the public.  I’m sure there are millions of people out there now who think megalodon is still extant.  It’s not–the evidence strongly suggests it has been extinct for at least 2 million years.

Jawbone of a megalodon compared to the jawbone of a great white shark.  The dispute over the scientific name stems from a controversy over whether megalodon is closely related enough to the great white shark to be considered in the same genus–Carcharodon.  Scientists who think it is not closely related put it in the genus Carchocles.  There probably isn’t enough evidence to determine who is correct.  A DNA test is required but megalodon’s fossils are too old and no longer hold DNA.

Megalodon was one of the most awesome predators to ever live on earth.  It first evolved 18 million years ago as a shark that specialized in feeding upon whales.  Its teeth were specially adapted for biting off hard bony whale flippers, a brutal action that would have quickly disabled the leviathons.  By contrast, great white sharks attack the soft body parts of their prey.  Megalodon was large, growing to 60 feet long and likely preyed upon dugongs, sea turtles, and fish as well as whales and dolphins.

Artist’s rendition of megalodon about to attack a whale.

The heyday of megalodon was the mid to late Miocene, an era when both the oceans and the continents hosted a greater diversity of life than later eras.  During this time period a tropical ocean current revolved between North and South America.  The shallow sea located between the 2 continents was a calving ground for many more species of whales than live on earth today, and it was also a nursing ground for sharks, fish, and invertebrates.  There were 20 genera of baleen whales living in the oceans then compared to just 6 genera today.  An extinct species of sperm whale, Leviathon mellvillei , like megalodon, specialized in feeding upon baleen whales.  Unlike the extant species of sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, which specializes in sucking down squid, Leviathon mellvillei had upper teeth built for shearing off whale fins.

A tropical current used to flow between North and South America.  When the landbridge emerged to join the 2 continents, this tropical current and migratory pathway shut down, causing a massive number of marine extinctions, including megalodon.

Megalodon began declining during the Pliocene about 3 million years ago when a landbridge gradually emerged connecting North and South America.  This landbridge caused a massive number of marine extinctions.  The landbridge itself replaced the shallow seas that served as a nursery  for whales and fish, but more importantly it blocked tropical whale migrations and the ancient ocean currents that had existed as part of the marine ecosystem for millions of years.  All the tropical baleen whale species that migrated between North and South America became extinct.  Many fish and saltwater snail species also couldn’t survive the change in oceanic currents.  All surviving species of baleen whales follow circumpolar migration routes.  Because megalodon was a warm water species, there were no whales to feed upon when the remaining species of whales migrated to arctic or antarctic waters.  That’s probably why megalodon became extinct.  There is no evidence megalodon still lives, despite the Discovery Channel’s disgraceful fake documentary.

Second Elasmosaurus Fossil Skeleton Found in Alabama

August 6, 2013

Most schoolteachers and students don’t realize they are writing with fossils when they use chalk.  Chalk consists of plankton, especially coccoliths, that mixed with mud millions of years ago.  This lime-mud eventually fossilized, turning to stone.  Chalk that became exposed to heat and pressure when buried deep under sediment metamorphized into marble–perhaps the most beautiful of natural building materials.  The majority of chalk on earth formed during the late Cretaceous and early Paleocene between 100 million to 60 million years ago.  Chalky soils are abundant in Mississippi and Alabama where the shrink-swell properties of this type of dirt help grass outcompete trees in black belt prairies.  Parts of this black belt prairie extend into Georgia (See ).  Many Cretaceous-age vertebrate fossils are found in the black belt prairie region because it is located near the shoreline of what was the Western Interior Seaway, a body of water that existed during the Cretaceous and well into the Eocene era.  An educational program in Alabama allows high school and middle school students to help paleontologists collect fossils there.  Noah Taylor, a teenaged assistant, pointed out what he thought was a rock in a quarry paleontologists were excavating.  It was more than just a rock–it was the backbone of an elasmosaurus.

Location of Greene County, Alabama where a skeleton of an elasmosaurus was recently found.  The only fossil of a velociraptor found on the Appalachia side of the Western Interior Seaway was discovered here too.

Artist’s rendition of a couple elasmosaurii.

Paleontologist Dana Ehret holds one of several Elamosaur fossils discovered by 14-year-old Noah Taylor and paleontologist Takehito “Ike” Ikejiri. (Photo: Dusty Compton / Tuscaloosa News)

Scientist holding a bone of an elasmosaurus found by Noah Taylor.  The caption of this photo from a news account claimed this was a backbone.  I believe this is an error.  It doesn’t look like a backbone but rather a limb bone.

This is what an elasmosaurus backbone looks like.  All backbones look similar to this.

Map of North America during the Cretaceous.  North America was separated into 3 island continents by shallow seas.

The Demopolis Chalk Formation in Greene County, Alabama usually yields marine fossils including those of turtles, crocodilians, sharks, fish, and sea shells.  But occasionally a dinosaur died and was swept out to sea where its bones mixed with remains of marine organisms.  Marine reptiles such as mososaurs and pleisiosaurs were predators and thus less common in the environment, explaining why their fossils are found but rarely.  The elasmosaurus was a type of long-necked pleisiosaur.  Its very long neck acted almost like a fishing pole.  Its large body was probably camouflaged to look like the color of the sea, and its head, well away from its body, could rest patiently until an unwary fish swam close.  Or perhaps they used their large body and paddles to herd fish toward their head.  We’ll never know their exact hunting technique.

At this recent dig scientists found 15 out of the 70 vertebrae that made up the long neck of the elasmosaurus, and they also excavated paddle bones, though it’s not clear from news reports exactly how much of the long dead animal was recovered.  No scientific paper about this find has been written yet.  This is the second elasmosaurus skeleton found in Alabama; the other having been excavated in 1969.

The earth was a much different world during the Cretaceous. 85% of the planet was underwater.  Frosts rarely, if ever, occurred anywhere.  Everyday was like the hottest July day in Georgia.  I sometimes fantasize about jumping in a time machine to live during the Pleistocene, but I would not want to live during the hellish Cretaceous.

The Saltville Fossil Site in Virginia

August 1, 2013

A dense forest of white pine, spruce, fir, and oak  grew in the Saltville River Valley 17,000 years ago.  There were also some alder swamps and wet sedge meadows, but unlike in the regions to the south and west of this locality, there were no prairies or open woodlands.  The Saltville River Valley is located in southwestern Virginia and during the last Ice Age, this area was much colder than the region located immediately to the south.  The oceanic Gulf Stream that carries tropically-warmed water north as far as the Canadian coast today, instead only went as far north as the Virginia/North Carolina border during the Ice Age.  This meant dry land temperatures in what is now Virginia were as much as 10-15 degrees Fahrenheight  cooler on average than those about 50 miles  further south.  Consequently, the environment in the middle Atlantic States decisively differed from most of southeastern North America.

Location of the Saltville River Valley.

Saltville, Virginia is located in a beautiful valley.  A large lake, known as Lake Totten, covered much of the valley from ~13,500 BP-~8,500 BP.  Salt mining operations have upset the hydrology here, and today as much as 20% of the valley is underwater. 

The Ice Age began waning about 15,500 years ago.  The Laurentide Glacier slowly receded, and the melting ice increased the flow of water into the Saltville River.  Sediment carried by the increased flow formed a mud dam in the Saltville Valley gap, causing the water to backflow and create Lake Totten.  The outflow was captured by another river.  Many of the species of large mammals that lived in North America then were attracted to the abundant salt springs in the area.  The individuals that happened to die during periods of increased sediment flow were buried by mud and preserved for fossil enthusiasts and scientists to find thousands of years later.

An assortment of fossils found at Saltville.  The animals were buried by mud carried by river surges resulting from melting glacial ice to the north.  Paleontologists have to pump out groundwater from their excavation sites here.  Salt mining operations have caused much of the land to flood.

The Saltville fossil site is the most southerly known location where specimens of woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) have been excavated.  Specimens of Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) have been excavated here too, showing the 2 species co-existed in some locations.   The 2 species of mammoth have also been found together at a site in South Dakota.  Columbian mammoths ranged much farther south than woolies, having occupied territory as far south as what today is Florida.  Other megafauna species recovered at Saltville include mastodon, Jefferson’s ground sloth, woodland musk-ox, bison, stag-moose (Cervalces scotti), caribou, white tail deer, horse, and giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus).   Scientists have yet to publish their findings on the smaller species of animals discovered in the fossil deposits.


Puncture mark on a mammoth heal bone made by a giant short-faced bear’s canine.

Gnaw marks on an ankle bone, probably made by a dire wolf.

A mammoth heel bone excavated from this site has a puncture mark that matches the canine of a giant short-faced bear.  This species of bruin is thought to have specialized in kleptoscavenging.  (See: The ankle bone of the same animal was gnawed on by a canid, probably a dire wolf.

A study of the bone chemistry of fossil herbivores from this site had an unexpected result.  All the herbivores living in this region then ate C-3 (carbon 3) vegetation–trees, shrubs, and some herbs.  Even species such as mammoths, bison, and horses that predominately subsisted on C-4 vegetation (grass) elsewhere were restricted to a diet of twigs, leaves, bark, and herbs here.  This is considered evidence that prairies were absent from this particular region during this time period.  The authors of this study admit their findings weren’t sufficient evidence to make any conclusions about megafauna extinctions.  Yet, they suggested competition between grazers and browsers for the same resources may have caused megafaunal extinctions.  I disagree with this conjecture.  Instead, I think their findings are strong evidence against climate change as a cause of megafaunal extinctions because the study shows these animals were not picky eaters and could adapt well to changing environmental conditions.

Humans apparently killed, butchered, cooked, and ate a mastodon at Saltville 17,000 years ago.  Archaeologists found cut marks on a mastodon’s bones as well as congealed grease that could only be the result of cooking.  They also found heat-cracked rocks used in the cooking process.  Pre-Clovis artifacts found associated with the mastodon bones include 2 sandstone knives, a chert blade made out of rock transported from some distance away, and flakes (debitage) from tool-making.  The site was occupied 3 times prior to the Clovis era.  The most recent pre-Clovis horizon dates to about 15,000 years ago and includes a midden containing hundreds of shells from giant floater clams.  This species of freshwater mussel grows to 10 inches long and used to be abundant in North American waters before modern day pollution and river damming.

giant floater, Pyganodon grandis

Giant floater clam (Pyganodon grandis).  I’ve never eaten a freshwater mussel, but they smell like delicious oysters.

Saltville is not a new site.  Thomas Jefferson knew about fossils found here.  Scientists have been excavating fossils off and on here for over 200 years.  A team from East Tennessee State completed the most recent excavation this year.  They visited local amateur fossil collectors to examine their specimens, and they are surveying caves in the nearby mountains in the hopes of finding more fossils to help piece together the regional late Pleistocene ecology.  We haven’t heard the last about this site.


France, Christine; et. al.

“Carbon and Nitrogen Isotopic Analysis of Pleistocene Mammals from the Saltville Quarry (Virginia USA): Implications for Trophic Relationships”

Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology 249 2007

Schubert, Blaine; and Steven Wallace

“Late Pleistocene Giant Short-Faced Bears, Mammoths, and Large Carcass Scavenging in the Saltville Valley of Virginia, USA”

Boreas 38 (3) August 2009

Alligator and Heron

July 28, 2013

I once proposed that alligators saved all terrestrial life on earth.  An adult alligator establishes a territory and digs a deep hole in a marsh or swamp where water pools deeper than in the surrounding environment.  These gator holes help them survive droughts and cold fronts, and they also attract other aquatic animals such as fish, frogs, turtles, waterfowl, wading birds, raccoons and other mammals.  Following the fiery K-T impact 65 million years ago, all the dinosaurs died, but crocodiles and alligators along with the animals that sought refuge in their holes, survived.  Everything above ground literally cooked in the superheated atmosphere caused by the friction of asteroid fragments igniting oxygen.  I shared my hypothesis with a paleontologist, but she was skeptical.  She acknowledged that freshwater organisms suffered a lower extinction rate than dry land and marine species.  However, she didn’t think my hypothesis was testable.  Maybe, it’s an exaggeration to claim that alligators saved all  terrestrial life, but ecologists agree they play a crucial role in fostering wildlife populations in the modern day world.

Gator hole in the Big Cypress Preserve in Florida.

The presence of alligators is beneficial for heron and egret rookeries.  Herons and egrets nest in trees located in wetlands, particularly on islands surounded by alligator-patrolled waters.  Alligators do feed upon the occasional nestling that falls from the nest, but they also take a heavy toll on raccoons, opposums, and even bobcats that would otherwise swim to the island, climb into the rookery, and feast on the eggs or nestlings.  The herons in turn benefit the alligators because their manure fertilizes the water and this increases the abundance of fish.

Heron rookery in Venice, Florida.

alligator eating an opossum

Alligator tearing up a possum.  Possums are notorius egg-eaters.

The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is one of the most spectacular birds of America, and they are common–I see them quite often everywhere.  Green herons (Butoroides stroutal) are supposed to be the most common heron, but I’ve only seen them a handful of times.   Great egrets (Cameroides albus) are about as common as great blue herons, though they seem more tied to larger bodies of water.  By contrast, I’ve seen great blue herons flying over busy highways and hunting in small creeks.  Little blue herons (Egretta caerulea) are supposed to be uncommon, but I’ve seen them more often than I’ve seen green herons.  I saw a yellow crowned night heron (Nyctocorax urolicea) for the first time this summer at Wakulla Springs, Florida.  It was shy and ducked into the weeds.

Great gray heron catching a European rabbit in the Netherlands.  Great blue herons also prey upon rabbits and rodents.  Audubon kept a great blue heron as a pet.  His children were upset when it swallowed their sleeping pet cat.

Yellow crowned night heron with a crayfish.

Scientists studying the Clarks Quarry fossil site near Brunswick, Georgia expressed surprise over the relative lack of abundance of alligator fossils, though the site yielded plenty of remains of aquatic birds.  Alligator fossils were found here, just not as many as one would expect.  Random chance may explain why there were fewer alligator fossils than expected, but I recently realized a possible alternative explanation.  Fossils from Clarks Quarry date to ~14,000 calender years BP.  This was before sea levels and the water table rose to  those of the present day.  Between ~30,000 BP-~7,000 BP, swamps and other wetlands where alligators thrive were rare relic habitats.  Moreover, winters were harsher and summers cooler, even in south Georgia during much of this era.  Alligator populations were at a low ebb in Georgia during the Ice Age.  Yet, they continued to live in low numbers wherever suitable habitat remained.  Alligators withstood the fire of the K-T impact and the icy dry conditions of the Pleistocene.  They are amazing survivers.

Another Excerpt from Frances Harper’s Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp–“The Florida Cougar”

July 25, 2013

Testing 1,2,3

I’ve been periodically posting excerpts from a rare book published in 1927 by Frances Harper entitled Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp.  This excerpt is a collection of local accounts about the cougar.  It mentions the last known specimen killed by hunters in Georgia in 1925 (until 2007 when a hunter shot a wandering Florida panther near Lagrange).   The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has proposed the Okefenokee Swamp as a possible site for re-introduction of the Florida panther, although it’s unclear which subspecies of cougar used to live here.  The population that inhabited south Georgia may have been a blend of Florida panther and eastern cougar, the latter of which has been declared extinct.  I would like to live where cougars roam, but from one of the accounts below, I can understand why this might make some people nervous.  Cougars used to jump on people’s roofs.  I don’t think suburban moms would be too crazy about a 150 pound cat standing on top of their house while their kids were playing in the backyard.  The below account also uses a racially offensive place name.  I chose not to censor it because I favor historical accuracy.  Harper used the archaic scientific name, Felis coryi, for cougar.  The official scientific name for the cougar today is Puma concolor.

Florida Cougar from Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp

“When Goldsmith sang of the  ‘wild Altamaha Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey’  his zoogeographical knowledge was not so faulty as some critics have supposed.  For to this day the Cougar is almost invariably spoken of as ‘Tiger’ in the Okefinokee region, and doubtless it has been known since colonial times in many other localities in the Southeastern states.  There is little to record of it in the present region except the accounts of bygone days, for it is now very nearly if not entirely extinct.  Yet it lingered well into the present century, and it is perhaps not beyond the bounds of possibility that some solitary survivor may yet be taken.

James Henderson, one of the oldest of the local hunters, has heard one or two in his time, and spoke of having been ‘backed out by a Tiger one night.’

J.D. Hendrix, a contemporary of Henderson’s saw a ‘Tiger’ that had been killed by Judge Albritton on the Nigger Camp Islands, near the upper end of Cowhouse Island, about 1883.  The only one he ever saw alive was on the Big Water, about 1903.

He also spoke of one killed by William Gunter on the Little Okefinokee in 1864.  The latter’s wife went down to a spring about 4 p.m, and was followed by a ‘Tiger.’  She ran to the house, and tried to shut the dog out.  The ‘Tiger’ jumped on to the house, and walked from one end of the roof to the other.  The man meanwhile came back from the woods with an old flintlock.  He saw the animal, dropped down to his knees, and shot it off the house.  It measured 9 feet from tip to tip.

Harrrison Lee stated that about 1876 his father, Dan Lee, and a companion were pursuing a ‘Tiger’ with dogs on Suwanoochee Creek a few miles above Fargo.  While temporarily separated from his companion, he was mistaken for a ‘Tiger’ and seriously wounded with a rifle ball.

It is said that about 1896 a “Tiger’ appeared in the Lees yard on Billy’s Island, and fought with the dogs before running off.  It was seen by Avner and Farley Lee.

Allan Chesser has never seen a ‘Tiger’ but has ‘seen where they killed deer and kivered ’em up…I’ve seen many a deer where they’d been fought by the Tigers.  Jest the throat cut.  I’ve seen where they’ve jumped on ’em.  No sign er scufflin’ a-tall; just squashed ’em down ter earth an’ killed ’em right there.  One time one scared me out er goin’ out on the prairie.  I stood still a little while an’ watched  ‘is tracks fill up with water, an’ I decided ter go on.  I didn’t see nothin’ ‘uv ‘im.  The bushes wuz thick.  That’s ben, I expec’, erbout 18 er 20 years ago.  In what is called Buck Prairie, on the north side er Black Jack.’

About 1910 Allen and Sam Chesser saw the tracks of a ‘Tiger’ along their trail from Lake Sego to Chesser’s Island.  There was a distance of 4 feet between each track of the hind feet at a walking gait.  Its trail was followed to where it had pulled up ferns to make its bed in a prairie ‘house.’  Hair about 6 inches long was found in its bed.

Allen Chesser also reported that three of the animals had been killed by a man named Osteen about 1885 on the eastern edge of the swamp half a dozen miles southeast of Chesser’s Island.

About 1898, while working in the swamp about 3 miles east of Coffee Bay on the canal, Sam Mizell heard a ‘Tiger’ one evening.  He said the sound suggested some one ‘hollerin while hoarse,’ and that it ended with a sort of growl.  About 1903 he saw tracks where one had killed a deer on Craven’s Hammock.  He also found the skeletons of two deer that had been covered up with leaves, bushes, etc., evidentally by a ‘Tiger.’

Leonard Lloyd spoke of having seen the tracks of a ‘Tiger’ crossing the St. Mary’s River near Stanley Branch, above Trader’s Hill in 1901.

In 1916 John Hopkins, superintendent of the Hebard Cypress Company, informed me that seven or eight years previously there was a newspaper report, which he considered authentic, to the effect that a Panther had been killed between Mixon’s Ferry and Moniac, and exhibited in Valdosta.

On or about December 19, 1916, a hog was killed between Mixon’s Ferry and Fargo by some animal which a resident of that section, Sam Jordan, pronounced a ‘Tiger.’  A couple of weeks later Steve Williams was traveling in an automobile along the road between Fargo and Homerville, about 10 miles from the former place, when he saw a ‘Tiger’ cross the road very close in front of the machine.  Some hounds had apparently been in pursuit of the animal.

I heard from Samuel Davis a report of one passing along the St. Mary’s River near St. Georgia on July 24, 1921, and ‘hollerin almost like a woman.’ He also stated that ‘one comes through every year.’  On September 16, 1922, I heard from Ben Chesser another rumor of one having been seen recently in the vicinity of St. George.

According to McQueen and Mizell, ‘a large panther was killed a year or so ago (1925?) on the southern edge of the Okefinokee after it had killed an unusual number of grown range cattle.'”

I Believe in Science, Facts, and Logic. Therefore, I think Al Sharpton is a Fraud and Jenny McCarthy is a Dumb Bunny

July 21, 2013

I apologize for straying from natural history this time, but I can’t resist commenting on the irrational hysteria surrounding the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial.  This case would have never become a national media sensation without Al Sharpton.  Al Sharpton has made a career of fomenting unfounded racial resentment.  It is true that African-Americans are treated unfairly by the U.S. justice system.  Voter ID laws, disproportionate penalties for crack compared to cocaine, and stop and frisk policies are just some examples of how local governments subjugate African-Americans.  However, Al Sharpton has a history of inciting racial hostility over causes that are not representative of unfair treatment.

Al Sharpton became famous in the 1980’s when he led protestors against the jury’s decision in the Bernard Goetz case.  Four black teenagers had attempted to mug Goetz on a subway, and he shot all of them.  Most people would regard Goetz as a hero who stood up to some bullies.  But not Al Sharpton.  He thought it unfair that black criminals didn’t get to steal from whitey.  Apparently, Al Sharpton wants to make it illegal for white people to defend themselves when faced with a violent attack from black people.  This seems to be a recurring theme in his protests.  In 1991 Al Sharpton incited an anti-semitic riot in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn that resulted in the death of a Jewish foreign exhange student and a gentile who the crowd thought was Jewish.  Sharpton has called Jews “diamond merchants” with “blood on their hands.”

Al Sharpton incited a violent anti-Semitic riot in 1991, resulting in 2 deaths.

Most famously, Sharpton is known for publicizing Tawana Brawley’s phony rape story.   The girl falsely claimed she was raped by 4 white men, including a police officer. Like the Zimmerman case, it became a national media sensation.  The story was completely untrue and Sharpton had to pay a $65,ooo libel settlement for falsely claiming that a law officer kicked Brawley.  Despite his discredited history as an anti-semitic, fraudulent, race-baiter, MSNBC gave him a platform with a daily hour long news/commentary show.  Here, he was free to cry wolf again and make up false allegations of unjust treatment in the George Zimmerman case.  The media jumped on the bandwagon and unfairly lynched the unfortunate clod.

After his role in the Tawana Brawley scandal, Sharpton should have disappeared from the public view in disgrace.  Instead, he’s been given a tv show.

I’m not a big fan of nosy wannabee policemen, and when I first heard about the Zimmerman case, it sounded terribly unjust, but after studying the details, I changed my opinion.  At the very least the jury couldn’t assume without a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was lying and had initiated the fight.  The not guilty verdict was the only logical conclusion a reasonable jury could have made.  I’m convinced, based on the facts and logic of the case, that it was Trayvon who initiated the fight.  Here’s my reasoning.

1. Zimmerman called the police before he began following Martin.  If he had planned to kill Martin, he wouldn’t have called the police and risked getting arrested for murder.

2. Martin referred to Zimmerman as a “creepy ass cracker.”  Zimmerman had a black girlfriend in high school, and a black friend vouched for him on the talk show circuit.  This suggests that Martin was the racist, not Zimmerman.

3. Martin started running–an act that DID make him look suspicious.  Moreover, if he would have kept runniing, there is no way Zimmerman could have caught up to him.  This suggests that Zimmerman was telling the truth–Martin did circle back and ambush him.  I used to work as a door-to-door salesman.  It was not at all unusual for people to ask me, while I was walking, what I was doing in their neighborhood.  I explained.  I did not run or sucker punch them.  When I worked in black neighborhoods, police often stopped me and asked what a white guy was doing in a black neighborhood.  A normal person would simply ask a stranger why they were following him.  Martin likely decided to act with hostility instead of civility.

4.  FBI crime statistics and other sources show that black people are anywhere from 39 to 65 times more likely to violently attack white people than vice versa.  These numerical odds make it overewhelmingly likely Martin was the aggessor.

5. Zimmerman’s bloody nose, black eyes, cuts on the back of his head, and Martin’s bloody knuckles all support Zimmerman’s story.

Zimmerman’s injuries were more convincing than the media originally reported.

6. John Good witnessed Martin on top of Zimmerman, bashing his head into concrete.  (Martin was not unarmed.  He had his fists.)  This evidence alone would have stopped a Grand Jury from indicting Zimmerman.  Based on this witness testimony, there should have never been a trial.  I can’t believe John Good was a witness for the prosecution.  He supports the defense’s case.

Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and a very liberal defense attorney, believes the special prosecutor in the Zimmerman case should be disbarred for not making exculpatory evidence available to the defense in the affidavit that charged Zimmerman.  The original prosecutor decided they couldn’t make a case based on the evidence.  But thanks to the misguided outcry led by Al Sharpton, Florida’s idiotic governor appointed a special prosecutor who bypassed a Grand Jury.

The judge who presided over this case was a very stupid woman.  She should have dismissed the case for lack of evidence.  She also allowed about 10 people to purjure themselves when they identified the screaming on the phone as either Martin or Zimmerman.  This was perhaps the most ludicrous part of the trial. All of Martin’s friends and family testified it was Martin screaming; all of Zimmerman’s friends and family testified it was Zimmerman screaming.  In truth a person can’t recognize another person’s scream recorded from a distance on a cell phone.

The reaction to the verdict has been irrational.  Some black people say they can’t go jogging in a hoodie any more.  This is ridiculous.  Martin wasn’t shot because he was wearing a hoodie; he was shot because he probably acted like a crazy animal.  A black man jogging in a hoodie in a white neighborhood is a lot less likely to be attacked than a white man jogging in a black neighborhood.  Some people just need to get a grip on reality.

I am a liberal and usually agree with Bill Maher and the talking heads at MSNBC.  But they are so wrong about the Zimmerman case.  Bill Maher has a segment on his show called dispatches from the bubble in which conservatives are trapped in a bubble where facts and logic can not penetrate.  When it comes to the Zimmerman case, it is Bill Maher, MSNBC pundits, and African-American talking heads who are in a bubble where facts and logic can not penetrate.  Even Maher’s jokes about Zimmerman are stupid.  Maher joked that Zimmerman’s defense team made him seem like a “stupid pussy” because they admitted Zimmerman was getting beat up.  According to this reasoning, anyone who ever gets beat up is a “stupid pussy.”  Bill Maher looks like a physical wimp.  I am 100% sure I could beat the shit out of Bill Maher.  According to his logic, this would make him a “stupid pussy.”  On the most recent episode of his show, he also stupidly cited statistics showing black men were 354% more likely than whites to be killed in stand your ground cases.  Does he not realize this is because black men are overwhelmingly the aggressors?  They are being shot more often because they are attacking more often.


Barbara Walters picked Jenny McCarthy to replace Elizabeth Hasselbeck on the tv show, The View.  The move was a kind of dumb blonde exchange. The cast of The View also includes the stupidity of Whoopi Goldberg who doesn’t think Roman Polanski committed “rape-rape” when he drugged an underage teenaged girl and forced her to have sex with him. 

I regret writing this part of my essay because it probably ruins any chance I might have with Jenny McCarthy, but I think her outspoken crusade against vaccination makes her a dumb bunny.  She wrongly assumes vaccinations can cause autism because her son manifested symptoms of this disorder after he was vaccinated.  According to this logic, I could eat lunch, walk outside to get the mail, and get killed by a car.  Eating lunch caused me to get hit by the car.

Over 2 dozen scientific studies have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism.  Pediatricians unanimously urge parents to get their children vaccinated.  So the controversy is between the unanimous opinion of medical science vs. a Playboy bunny whose sole talent is showing off her birthday suit to the entire world.

Jenny McCarthy sitting in the tickle chair on the Howard Stern Show.  Howard Stern tickled her til she peed in her pants.

The following is a link to nude photos of Jenny McCarthy.  She might be fun to play with in bed and arousing to look at, but that does not qualify her as an expert on vaccinations.  I would post the nude photos directly here, but some people are afraid a kid might see boobs.…1047.6234.0.8234.….0…1ac.1.21.img.NeyiPO7QSZ4

Vaccinations help make people immune to such once widespread and potentially fatal diseases as the measles, tetanus, diptheria, whooping cough, hepatitis, mumps, chicken pox, and meningitis.  Vaccinations have almost eradicated these diseases.

Corynebacterium diptheriae–the bacteria that causes diptheria.  The death rate for children under the age of 5 who get diptheria is 20%.

In California the “natural living” movement is popular and many parents are opting not to get their children vaccinated.  Diseases such as the measles and whooping cough are returning and killing babies.  “Natural living” also includes natural mortality due to infectious diseases.  Some people choose to be misinformed or are incapable of discerning propaganda from scientific fact and logic.  This irks me to no end.

Okefenokee Fires

July 19, 2013

The awesome Okefenokee Swamp is so intimidating it even resists the avarice of mankind.  Developers were willing to abandon it to nature lovers in 1937 but not before they logged most of the ancient 400-900 year old cypress trees.  The undrainable labyrinths of swamps, the floating shaky islands of peat, and the frequent uncontrollable fires scared away businessmen who feared they could never make a profit developing this wilderness.    Thus we are left with an amazing gem of nearly pristine nature.

The Okefenokee Swamp has an interesting geological history that I’ve already discussed (See  Its current incarnation is just 6600 years old, based on an analysis of peat cores.  However, fossil swamp vegetation has been found buried inside Trail Ridge to the east of the swamp.  Trail Ridge is a former barrier island that fronted the ocean 1.8 million years ago.  This suggests swamp has intermittently occurred in the Okefenokee basin for over a million years, but during glacial cycles the water table drops, and it becomes dry land forest mixed with grasslands and only a few relic marshes. 

The frequent peat fires that occur in the Okefenokee basin are impossible for man to extinguish.  They are a surprising example of nature defeating man.  The policy of the fish and wildlife service is to let fires burn inside the refuge.  They do try to protect boardwalks and wildlife viewing towers but were unsuccessful at even this small scale fire defense in 2011.  Outside the refuge a 250 mile long Swamp Edge Firebreak has been constructed.  For the most part it does prevent the spread of small fires.  Neverthelesss, major fires  escape the boundaries of the refuge and destroy many square miles of commercial timber.

MODIS true color and false color images

Satellite image of 2011 Honey Prairie Fire in the Okefenokee Swamp which burned from April 28, 2011-April 12 ,2012 and consumed 318,000 acres.  Most wildlife survived.  Without fire the Okefenokee would succeed to shrub then forest.  Fire here helps maintain diverse habitats and increases biodiversity.

Okefenokee fires are difficult to contain because they are peat fires and can continue burning underground, spreading even if they appear to be extinguished from above.  Major fires in the Okefenokee occur cyclically and have been recorded in 1840, 1860, 1884, 1908, 1932, 1954, 1990, 2007, and 2011.   The 2007 fire is known as the Georgia Bay Complex Fire and it burned through most of the refuge and into Florida.  I smelled smoke from this fire in Augusta, Georgia, hundreds of miles away.

The Georgia Bay Complex Fire burned from April 16, 2007-June 22, 2007 and consumed 600,000 acres.  I smelled smoke from this fire in Augusta, Georgia hundreds of miles away.

Most mature trees survive fires.  The Okefenokee Swamp, as we know it, depends upon fire.  Fire thermally prunes tangled vegetation, giving the refuge its open appearance.  The shallow wet prairies, the most characteristic habitat of the swamp, would succeed to less productive shrub bogs without fire.  There would be few alligators and wading birds here, if fire didn’t occur.

Chesser’s Prairie in the Okefenokee Swamp.  Without fire this open water would become a tangled shrubby bog.

I visited the Okefenokee about 6 years ago, and it was about as disappointing as my trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It wasn’t as crowded, but nevertheless seemed devoid of wildlife.  We visited during a drought.  Believe it or not, I saw not a single drop of water in the northern part of the refuge.  I  expected to see lots of egrets and herons and was astonished to see not one.  The only wildlife I saw were gray squirrels, big flocks of robins, and signs of wild hogs rooting.  They did have a nice zoo with alligators, black bears, and snakes.  An otter escaped from its pen and sniffed my shoe.  But they were caged animals, not wild.  Some day, I’m going to visit the refuge again, but I will make sure it’s not during a drought.

What was the Pleistocene Range of the Canadian Lynx (Lynx canadensis)?

July 15, 2013

William Brewster was an ornithologist who went on an expedition to the North Carolina mountains in 1885 before much of it was logged.  He was interested in finding boreal species of birds in the higher elevations where spruce forests replaced deciduous forests.  On Whiteside Mountain he found a remarkable forest of 70 foot tall hemlock trees with a thick understory of 25 foot tall rhododendrons.  The highlight of his expedition though was his journey to the summit of Black Mountain.  Below 4050 feet, a forest of oak, hickory, chestnut, tulip, beech, and sugar maple covered the mountain.  Brewster declared it the finest forest he had ever seen–many of the trees were 6-7 feet in diameter, 125 feet tall, and neatly spaced 100 feet apart.  At 4050 feet, Brewster encountered the first red spruce tree.  A mixed forest of red spruce and deciduous trees stood between 4050 and 5050 feet.  At this elevation he encountered red squirrels–an animal that prefers boreal forests, but he had begun seeing boreal species of birds at 3600 feet..  Above 5050 feet, the forest consisted of red spruce, balsam fir, and a few yellow birches.  Stunted black spruce trees grew at the summit.  Brewster camped near the summit and heard a wolf howl and saw sign of bear and deer.  Evidentally, large mammals hadn’t been extirpated from this region yet.  He also mentioned in his journal that locals believed Canadian lynx lived at higher elevations, replacing bobcats which roamed the lower elevations.  Other than this passage, I can find no evidence in the scientific literature of Canadian lynx in North Carolina.

Historical range map of the Canadian lynx.  There’s no concrete evidence they lived farther south than this within historical times. However, 90% of their historical range was under glacial ice during the height of the last Ice Age.  They must have occurred farther south then.

Canadian lynx.  Note the big paws and long legs that help them run through snow.  This gives them a competitive advantage over their close relative–the bobcat–in regions with heavy snowfall.  Bobcats outcompete lynx everywhere else.

The Canadian lynx is well adapted to living in deep snow.  They have wider paws and longer legs than those of bobcats, and this gives them an advantage over their close relatives when running through soft snow.  Historical records show Canadian lynx were plentiful in mountainous regions of New York and Pennsylvania, and a few even lived in West Virginia.    There are no records of Canadian lynx in Virginia, North Carolina, or Tennessee where potential habitat at higher elevations existed.  It’s likely deep snows didn’t occur often enough to give Canadian lynx a competitive advantage over bobcats here.  Overall, bobcats (Lynx rufus) are a more adaptable cat species.  I believe the locals Brewster mentioned were mistaken.  However, it is probable that Canadian lynx ranged farther south during the height of the Ice Age when over 90% of their current range was covered by glacial ice, making all of Canada unsuitable for most organisms.

Canadian lynx prefer habitat favorable to the main item in their diet–snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus).  Snowshoe hares make up 75% of the Canadian lynx’s diet.  Snowshoe hares are most abundant in disturbed spruce/fir or spruce/northern hardwood forests.  They thrive in the brushy second growth that covers clear cut tracts in the decade following logging.  This kind of habitat also occurs naturally when blizzards blow down large stretches of spruce/fir forests.  Like Canadian lynx, snowshoe hares are well adapted to living in regions with deep snow, but lose their competitive edge to similar species in areas with a more moderate climate.  Cottontails breed faster and are more adaptable than snowshoe hares.  Historically, snowshoe hares did live farther south than Canadian lynx, occupying the higher elevations in the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.  They still live in West Virginia.  But I think bobcats, not Canadian lynx, were their main feline enemies in the more southerly parts of their range.

The snowshoe hare turns brown during summer to blend in with the forest floor and white during winter to blend in with the snow.  They are part brown and part white in fall and spring.  They are also known as varying hares because their coat color varies with the seasons.

Historical range map of the snowshoe hare.  I believe it has been extirpated from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

When Canada was underneath the Laurentide Glacier some 20,000 years ago, the Canadian lynx must have ranged farther south than it does today.  Paleobotanical evidence does show that boreal forests, their required habitat, predominated as far south as the north Georgia mountains when cooler climates and lower atmospheric CO2 levels allowed spruce trees to grow at lower elevations.  Deeper snows likely occurred more often in these southerly latitudes then.  Unfortunately, Pleistocene-aged fossils of Canadian lynx are scarce throughout the whole continent and completely absent in the south, unlike bobcat fossils which are among the most common mammals found in fossil sites all over North America.  Some of the fossils of Canadian lynx that have been found date to the Sangamonian Interglacial over 118,000 years ago, indicating it is not a recently evolved species, so it must have been present somewhere south of the ice sheet.  It may be possible to predict the Ice Age distribution of Canadian lynx by using snowshoe hare fossils as a proxy.  Snowshoe hare fossils have been found in Arkansas and Missouri–well south of their present day range.  The presence of snowshoe hares makes it likely Canadian lynx were in the environment preying upon them this far south as well. Fossils of carnivores are usually less common than fossils of herbivores because they are less abundant than their food source.  This explains the absence of Canadian lynx fossils  in areas where they may have lived in the past.  Although fossil evidence in Georgia is lacking, Arkansas is close in latitude to north Georgia.  I assume Canadian lynx and snowshoe hares occupied the higher elevations of north Georgia during snowy climate phases of the Last Glacial Maximum.

On the fringes of their ranges, Canadian lynx and bobcats occasionally interbreed.  In all recorded cases of interbreeding, it was a male bobcat that mated with a female Canadian lynx.  Bobcats are much fiercer than their northern cousins, and a male tom bobcat will always drive off male lynx.  From what I’ve read, it’s not clear whether bobcat/Canadian lynx offspring are fertile.  Attempts by fur farmers to backcross bobcat/lynx hybrids have failed.