Archive for May, 2013

New York City Used to be a Hunter’s Paradise

May 27, 2013

I’m taking my blog on an imaginary vacation this week away from Pleistocene Georgia to New York City…but not to the metropolis of today.  Instead, I’m going to visit the area in 1626 when it was known as New Amsterdam.  An open woodland of giant oak, tulip, maple, hickory, and elm trees grew on most of Manhattan Island.  The centuries old trees were so widely spaced apart that grass predominated in the understory.  Indians maintained this open parkland landscape by burning the woods frequently.  This practice improved habitat for wildlife.  Eric Sanderson theoretically reconstructed the original environment of Manhattan Island based on information from a Revolutionary War era map.  He concluded there were 55 different natural communities on Manhattan Island–more than most, if not all, of our modern National Parks.  Manhattan consisted of 77% forest and shrub, 10% grassland, 8% salt marsh, 2% freshwater marsh, 1% old Indian fields,  and 1% beach.  The balance was pond and tidal creek.

Times Square circa 2013.  What a godawful terrorist attack trap.

Beaver Pond surrounded by meadow with red maple, black cherry, and spruce.  Photo by Jess Riddle.  This is what Times Square looked like circa 1626.  Which do you prefer?

Dr. Sanderson thinks oak-chestnut woodlands dominated the upper drier hills of Manhattan, while oak-tulip-maple woodlands grew in the lower richer soils.  A red maple-hemlock-beech community grew adjacent to the creeks and springs.  Pitch pine-scrub oak covered sandy soils.  Beach plum thickets were found near the shore.  There was some white pine, spruce, and cedar on the island as well.  There were at least 61 creeks and springs, today located underneath skyscrapers, and 21 ponds.  Collect pond, a 70 foot deep kettlehole formed by glacial meltwater, was New York City’s source of freshwater for 200 years, until 1830 when a tannery factory poisoned the pond.  This once beautiful wonder of nature has since been filled, and the New York City municipal building stands over it today.

In spring and summer the sweet smell of wildflowers permeated the air.  In June wild strawberries were so abundant they dyed everything red.  There was a beaver pond surrounded by red maple trees where Times Square stands today.  A wooded swamp stood between what today is 5th and 8th avenues.  The land below 4th street was described as a “forested glade.”  North of Manhattan, there was an 150 acre treeless meadow.  This grassy plain and salt marsh would later become Harlem.  On the edge of this meadow, cherry and peach trees grew.  Florida Indians obtained peaches from the Spanish a century earlier, and the various tribes traded amongst themselves for the seeds, until the tree had spread all the way to Manhattan.  The neighborhoods to become Greenwich Village and Wall Street were Indian hunting grounds.

Coney Island was a brush-covered barrier island separated from Brooklyn by a tidal creek.  The tidal creek was eventually used as a garbage dump and landfill, so now Coney Island is connected to south Brooklyn with dirt-covered garbage.  The island abounded in rabbits, hence the name coney which is an old Dutch and English word for rabbit.  (Bunny is a derivative of coney.)  Rabbit hunting continued to be the main attraction of the island til after the Civil War when it became renowned as an amusement park.  Instead of rabbits, 60,000 people now live on this island despite it being just 4 square miles.  I’d prefer the rabbits.

Long Island’s natural environment resembled that of Manhattan and mostly consisted of open woodland, but part of the island included a 64 square mile prairie that hosted many grassland species.  Staten Island was more thickly wooded than the other islands and may have been subject to less burning.  Unlike the other islands, the forest here was closed canopy.  Governor’s Island was known as nut island because it was covered with groves of hickory trees.

Earliest known drawing of New York City circa 1626.

Reconstructed aerial vew of Manhattan Island circa 1609.  Note the beautiful kettle pond that served as New York City’s source of drinking water for 200 years.  It was filled in and today the city municipal building is located on top of it.  What an ugly transformation.  The lines represent where the island has been expanded by landfill consisting of garbage plus dirt from hills that were leveled.

By 1626, 200 Europeans had settled on Manhattan, and they lived there with 15,000 Indians.  The combined settlements took up less than .1% of the island.  The rest was wilderness.  The first European settlers were shepherds, but wolves ate every last sheep within the first year, and the Europeans were forced to rely on venison and turkey instead of mutton as their main source of protein.  This was not a problem on Manhattan: deer traveled in herds of 25-30 and turkeys in flocks as large as 500, and the Indians were willing to sell game meats door-to-door.  Occasionally, even elk and moose wandered on to the island.  Nearby Staten Island, where the woods grew more dense, was renowned for its bear hunting.  Fur traders made a fortune.  In 1626 the pelts of 7,520 beaver, 853 otter, 81 mink, 36 Canadian lynx, and 34 muskrat were shipped from New Amsterdam.  That doesn’t even count pelts used locally.  Millions of passenger pigeons roosted on the island during summers.  In 1609 when Henry Hudson became the first European to discover New York Harbor, the Indians gave him a feast of pigeons.  One English hunter bagged 100 prairie chickens in 1 day just south of where Times Square stands today.  This species of prairie chicken, known as the Heath Hen, is now extinct.  (See

By 1656, a population of 1000 Europeans lived in New Amsterdam.  The new immigrants complained they couldn’t sleep at night because of the constant quacking and calling of the thousands of ducks and geese.    They also complained that a wall of swans blocked their view of the Hudson River.  (By contrast, I’ve never seen a wild swan in my life.)  Hundreds of osprey, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and vultures nested on The Narrows Cliffs.

The eel grass beds located offshore offered a rich base of the food chain for marine life.  Early settlers ate 12 inch long oysters and could trap as many lobsters as they could eat.  New York Harbor, scoured to an abyss by glaciers, was habitat for deep sea species of fish and even whales in the days before whalers decimated their populations.  Enormous sturgeon spawned on the Hudson River near where Albany, New York is now located.  Flounder, mullet, salmon, striped bass, and eel swam in the tidal rivers and creeks.  Schools of menhaden often used to wash ashore in the thousands, and dozens of bald eagles would gorge themselves on the rotting fish.  One would be hard pressed to find 1 eagle in the entire state of New York today.

The New Amsterdam of 1626 puts all of our modern National Parks to shame.  Let’s face it: all of our National Parks and Wildlife Refuges are garbage lands that were discarded because they had little economic value.  The lands were of such poor quality we left it to the animals.  The Everglades and the Okefenokee Swamp are examples of wetlands that were too expensive to drain.  Developers were willing to give them up…after they removed the best cypress trees.  The area destroyed by Disney World was far richer in wildlife than these wildly overrated wilderness destinations.  The forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were  utterly destroyed. Lumber companies let the government have the land only after they were finished raping it. All the best quality wildlife habitat in North America has been converted to urban, suburban, and agricultural uses.  All remaining wilderness areas are marginal lands nearly devoid of wildlife compared to New Amsterdam of 1626.

1869 sketch of what today is the intersection of E. 75th Street and FDR Drive.  This beautiful area was soon to be ruined.


Bakeless, John

America as seen by its First Explorers

Dover Publications 1961

Folse, John

After the Hunt

John Folse Publishing 2008

Sanderson, Eric; and Marianne Brown

“Manahatta: An Ecological First Look at the Manhattan Landscape Prior to Henry Hudson”

Northeastern Naturalist 14 (4) 2007


Relict Ice Age Microfauna of Georgia’s Boulderfield Forests

May 23, 2013

Spruce trees and northern pine species dominated the higher elevations of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains during Ice Ages.  The highest peaks may have even been above the tree line and likely hosted grassy steppes or plants found today in the tundra region.  Severe freeze-thaw cycles of Ice Age winters broke big slabs of rock into boulders that  cover many north facing slopes of the southern Appalachians.  Following the most recent Ice Age, the climate warmed and northern species of hardwoods recolonized these boulderfield forests from refugia that probably existed adjacent to rivers and creeks.  Boulderfield forests have shallow rocky soils dominated by 20-30 foot tall stunted trees, and a great variety of beautiful shrubs.  Frequent high winds and ice storms keep boulderfield forests relatively open by knocking over trees and breaking limbs.  The most common trees include yellow birch, black birch, mountain maple, sugar maple, striped maple, beech, basswood, mountain ash, yellow buckeye, fire cherry, and serviceberry.  Northern red oak and white oak also occur.  Mountain laurel, rhododendron, witch hazel, climbing hydrangea, hazelnut, prickly gooseberry, rasberry, blackberry, strawberry bush, and elderberry grow in the understory,  Moss covers the boulders.  Some examples of boulderfield forests in Georgia are Brasstown Bald, Coosa Bald, Hightower Bald, Eagle Mountain, and Grassy Mountain.

Mountain Laurel growing alongside the trail on Brasstown Bald.  I hiked up and down this mountain 2 years ago but didn’t know about boulderfield forests then.  I do remember the stunted birch and beech trees and the abundant boulders. 

Birch trees are well adapted to boulderfield forests because they can germinate on top of rocks and logs.  The sugar in sugar maple sap lowers the freezing point, allowing this species to survive in colder climates.  Basswood sends lateral roots around boulders, helping them grow in rocky soils.

The abundant rocky crevices here provide shelter to many disjunct populations of small animals that formerly ranged into the piedmont and upper coastal plain during the Ice Age, but whose ranges have since contracted as the climate warmed.  Four species of northern shrews still live on the  peaks of the southern Appalachians which serve as islands of habitat surrounded by land that has become unsuitable for them.  Pygmy, long-tailed, smoky, and masked shrews thrive in boulderfield forests too cool for competing cold-blooded lizards.

Masked shrew.  Boulderfield forests on high peaks are too cool for their main ecological competitors–lizards.

The masked shrew (Sorex cinereus), like most insectivores, has a high metabolism and eats 3 times its own weight in insects everyday. (Imagine a 200 pound man eating 600 pounds of food everyday.)  They can hide in crevices under the abundant boulders and forage in the adjacent leaf litter.  The masked, pygmy, and smoky shrews all had a wider distribution during much of the Pleistocene than they do today.

Red backed vole

Fossils of the red backed vole (Myodes gapperi) have been found in central Georgia at Little Kettle Creek in Wilkes County.  Today, for the most part, this species ranges no farther south than Kentucky, but disjunct populations occur in some boulderfield forests in north Georgia.  These omnivorous mouse-like mammals eat green plants, fungi, seeds, roots, berries, snails, and insects.

Red squirrel.  They prefer forests dominated by spruce, pine, and hemlock.

The red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) reaches the southernmost limits of its range on the northfacing slopes of Georgia mountains.  Fossils of red squirrels have been found farther south in 2 Bartow County sites–Ladds and Kingston Saltpeter Cave, indicating this species too ranged farther south during the Ice Age.  They prefer seeds from conifers but will  also eat acorns, nuts, fungi, tree sap, and birds eggs.  They have an interesting habit of storing caches of food in hollow logs, tree snags, and crevices…far more than they need.  Native Americans use to utilize these caches to stave off starvation.

Red squirrel cache of pine cones.

Saw whet owl

The saw whet owl (Aegolis acadicus) nests in Georgia’s boulderfield forests, but they do not breed any farther south.  These tiny owls stay still to avoid detection and predation.  This defense mechanism misleads many people into thinking they are tame.  This species likely bred farther south during the Ice Age.

Winter wren.  I saw one of these for the first time last Thanksgiving.  They hop around on the ground like a mouse.

The winter wren (Troglodytes hiernalis) is a common inhabitant that breeds in boulderfield forests.  They do tend to migrate farther south during the winter.  This past Thanksgiving, I saw a winter wren hopping around like a mouse behind the Woodbridge Dam in Evans, Georgia.  They forage for insects in crevices and caves, hence the Latin name, troglodytes, which means cave dweller.

Other common animals with northern affinities that occur on boulderfield forests include deer mice, chipmunks, ruffed grouse, and yellow bellied sapsuckers.

See also:


Piedmont Cliff Ecology

May 19, 2013

Cliffs represent some of the most pristine natural environments left in the temperate zone .  Developers have little use for them, though some are transformed into stone quarries and ruined.  Cliffs are the best examples of environments that have remained unchanged since the Pleistocene.  Aside from a few bird extinctions and extirpations, they host about the same ecological communities now as they did a million years ago. 

Cliffs are common in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia but many are found in the piedmont region of the state as well.  Cliffs located in the piedmont offer the southeasternmost available habitat for species that depend upon this type of environment.  In the piedmont cliffs consist of erosion resistant rock that forms vertical or almost vertical bluffs adjacent to rivers.  There are cliffs along the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.  Some cliffs are mountains that rise well above the surrounding landscape.  Currahee Mountain in Stephens County, the southeasternmost extension of the Blue Ridge Mountains, rises 800 feet above the surrounding landscape.  Big Mountain in Oglethorpe County is 100 feet higher than the local topography.  Pine Mountain in Harris County reaches an altitude of 1,395 feet above sea level and has many cliffs.

Currahee Mountain in Stephen’s County.  It is located in the piedmont, just a few miles from the Blue Ridge region.  Note the radio towers.

Chattahoochee River Bluff. 

Sprewell Bluff adjacent to the Flint River

Tallallulah Gorge.  This is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, not the piedmont.  I visited this site in the Summer of 2004 before I started writing this blog.  I remember descending a stairway to the gorge and coming face to face with a black vulture, a species confortable at such heights.

Cliffs adjacent to rivers provide ideal nesting and roosting habitat for many species of birds.  Nests located on cliffs are difficult for mammalian predators to access.  The vantage point of a cliff allows predatory birds, such as peregrine falcons, to see potential prey on the river below.  Flying insects abound over river water, attacting swallows and bats.

Black vultures and turkey vultures use cliffs for roosting and nesting.  During the Pleistocene California condors, terratorns, and possibly Grinnell’s crested eagle used cliffs in Georgia.  However, most species of vultures also make use of tree snags.  Formerly, the peregrine falcon almost exclusively nested on cliffs.

Peregrine falcon nesting on a building in Atlanta.  These falcons use skyscrapers as a substitute for cliffs.  The skyscrapers mimic their original preferred habitat.

The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is also known as the duck hawk because ducks are a favored item of their diet.  They formerly were common in north Georgia where cliffs are abundant and likely nested as far south as the piedmont cliffs.  J.J. Audubon reported seeing 50 peregrine falcons on a 4 month trip down the Mississippi River to collect bird specimens, but I’ve never seen one in the wild.  They were extirpated from the state about 100 years ago–hunters used to shoot birds of prey for the hell of it, causing the local demise of golden eagles as well.  But with the help of recovery programs, they’ve returned to the state.  Instead of re-occupying natural cliffs, they’ve taken residence on big city skyscrapers that mimic their natural habitats.  They find plenty of prey in city pigeons which were also originally cliff dwellers.

Peregrine falcons are spectacular birds capable of reaching a speed of 200 mph when they are descending upon prey.  They usually attack flying birds, especially ducks, pigeons, blackbirds, and blue jays.  They are the only predatory bird crows are afraid to mob.  The chimney swift may be the only bird fast enough to outmaneuver it.  Peregrine falcons aggressively take over cliff nesting sites, chasing away not only all ravens but eagles 4 times their size.  There is a case on record of a peregrine falcon killing a golden eagle by chasing it into a cliffside.  The following youtube video shows a peregrine falcon knocking out and probably killing a red-tailed hawk that ventured too close to its nest.

J.J. Audubon observed peregrine falcons learning to associate the sound of a hunter’s shotgun with a dead duck.  Peregrine falcons frequently used to steal ducks dispatched by human hunters.  One individual falcon learned to enter a hole in Audubon’s pigeon coop and began taking a pigeon every day until Audubon shot it.  Audubon noted that peregrine falcons eat dead fish, but apparently they don’t normally prey upon mammals or reptiles.

Golden eagle feeding on a red fox that it killed.

Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) primarily nest on cliffs and also formerly ranged into Georgia.  Eagle Mountain, Georgia may be named for the golden eagles that used to nest there.  They take large prey for a bird–juvenile deer, turkey, goose, raccoon, and skunk, but they mostly feed upon rodents and rabbits.  Bald eagles like to nest on cliffs too but will more readily build big stick nests in trees.

Cliff swallows building mud nests.

Cliff swallows (Petrochelidos pyrrhonatus) build mud nests on the sides of cliffs and catch insects flying over water.  They’ve learned to build nests under bridges all across the state, and I see them flying in the vicinity of just about every bridge I drive over during summer.

Ravens formerly nested on Georgia’s cliffs but are now considered rare stragglers in state.  Other birds that like to nest on cliffs include red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, barn owls, eastern phoebes, Carolina wrens, goldfinches, grackles, and mourning doves.

Some mammals reside in cliff environments.  Bats roost in overhangs, rock shelters, and caves.  Raccoons, woodrats, and chipmunks can climb to dens less frequented by predators.  Cougars are also known as mountain lions because they have enough agility to climb cliffs where there are safe denning areas for kittens.  During the Pleistocene other big cats and dire wolves would not have been able to reach these dens.  The ability to traverse rugged terrain gave cougars an advantage over other larger predators then and may explain why they were able to co-exist with low populations of humans for so long when other carnivores weren’t.

Enough soil washes onto ledges that plants can take root.  Lichens cover exposed rock.  Chestnut oak, sand hickory, winged elm, red maple, red cedar, shortleaf pine, and Virginia pine grow on cliff ledges in the Georgia piedmont.  So do shrubs such as blueberry, century plant, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. Povery oat grass, bluestem, rock-pink, violets, Carolina lilly, coreopsis, and rockcap fern are some examples of ground cover decorating cliff ledges.


Audubon, J.J.

Audubon: Drawings and Writings

Penguin Books 1999

Larson, D.W.; Uta Matthes, and Peter Kelly

Cliff Ecology: Pattern and Process in Cliff Ecosystems

Cambridge University Press 2005

When Pleistocene Megafauna Roamed Interdunal Wetlands

May 14, 2013

My parents used to own a beachfront condo on Harbor Island, South Carolina.  One year, I was surprised to find a freshwater marsh in front of the condo, complete with cattails, frogs, and red-winged blackbirds.  The marsh was located behind a beach dune where it did not exist just a year earlier.  This type of environment is known as an interdunal wetland, and they can form rapidly.  The East Beach freshwater marsh on St. Simon’s Island formed in just 2 months.  Rain washes beach wrack (dead plants and detritus) into the swales between dunes, creating enough topsoil for freshwater species of aquatic plants to take root.  Heavy rains keep the marsh wet, and the dunes prevent drainage.  The water table at sea level is often close to the surface, and because fresh water is lighter than sea water, it remains on top, providing habitat for fresh water species.

Whitney Lake on Cumberland Island, Georgia.  Note the alligators.  It’s a freshwater interdunal wetland with an outlet to the ocean.  Storm surges of saltwater that kill woody plants keep it open.  The state of Georgia has the least developed coast on the Atlantic side of North America.  Most of Georgia’s barrier islands are not accessible via automobile.

Aerial photo of St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia.  The brown represents upland maritime forests of live oak, loblolly pine, and palm trees.  The green represents freshwater, brackish, and saltwater marshes.  About 40,000 years ago sea level was near  present day sea level and some of this island consists of sediment accumulated then.  Then, as the ocean receded, that sediment underlay oak hammocks  surrounded by miles of grassy savannahs.  About 6,000 years ago, sea level rose to this approximate location again and sediment is currently accumulating and building on the old Pleistocene sediment.

Interdunal wetlands located behind beachfront dunes may form rapidly, but they can also be short-lived.  Storm surges can breach beach dunes, resulting in an influx of salt water, followed by drainage.  However, storm surges may play a role in maintaining older freshwater marshes located in the middle of a barrier island well away from the beach.  The influx of salt water kills shrubs and trees.  Eventually, rainwater reduces salinity and shade-intolerant aquatic vegetation becomes re-established.

Feral horse drinking water from Whitney Lake on Cumberland Island.  Interdunal freshwater ponds acted as an oasis for Pleistocene megafauna surrounded by unpotable ocean water and salt marshes.  Horses and hogs run wild on some of Georgia’s barrier islands today.  The presence of megafauna on barrier islands during the Pleistocene wasn’t a problem because natural predators controlled their populations.  Today, large herbivores can overgraze vegetation and cause harmful erosion unless human hunters or wranglers take action.

Freshwater ponds and marshes on barrier islands are like an oasis surrounded by undrinkable ocean water and vast salt marshes.  During the Pleistocene these sources of fresh water would have attracted every species of megafauna living on a barrier island.  Giant ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons, bison, horses, tapirs, llamas, peccaries, deer, capybara, and giant beaver were all drawn to the drinkable water and highly edible plants that grew in the marshes.  Predators, such as dire wolves and big cats, would have lain in wait at these water holes.  The location of interdunal marshes may explain the abundance of Pleistocene fossil sites in this region.  There are 9 above sea level, Pleistocene-aged fossil sites near the Georgia coast (Fossilosa, Isle of Hope, Mayfair, Porter’s Pit, Savannah River dredgings, Turtle River dredgings, Clark’s Quarry, and Watkin’s Quarry) compared to 3 sites in the Ridge and Valley Region and just 1 site in the Piedmont Region.  Animals attracted to freshwater marshes occasionally died there and were buried by sediment carried by storm surges.  This combination of factors explains why there are more Pleistocene fossils found near the coast than anywhere else in the state, though there are other depositional origins for some of the sites here as well.

Today, megafaunal species living on Georgia’s barrier islands include white-tail deer, feral horses and hogs, some exotic species of introduced deer, and alligators.  Paleontologists have noticed the relative lack of alligator fossils found in the Pleistocene sites near the Georgia coast, where they would be expected to be abundant.  Apparently, alligators did range here during the Pleistocene, but it may be that egg-eating mammals kept their populations in check.  Jaguars probably directly preyed upon adults.  Interdunal wetlands also host marsh rabbits, raccoons, mink, otters, wading birds, ducks, and songbirds that would otherwise be absent due to the lack of freshwater.

Mosquito fish (Gambusia holbrooki).  It’s well adapted for life in interdunal wetlands.  They are related to those tropical aquarium favorites–guppies.

Killifish, mosquito fish, top-nosed minnows, mullet, and gars thrive in interdunal ponds.  Mosquito fish are well adapted for this type of environment.  They eat their own weight in mosquito larva everyday, giving them the energy to reproduce rapidly–a population of 7,000 can increase to 120,000 is just 5 months.  This allows them to quickly colonize newly created marshes and improves their chances of survival during storm surges.  Mosquito fish can endure high temperatures and high levels of salinity that would prove fatal to most other species of fresh water fish.  Bream are also found in some interdunal ponds, but scientists don’t know whether they occur naturally or were introduced by man.

Botanists recognize 4 successional stages of interdunal wetlands.  The first is an open water stage with floating plants such as duckweed and emergent vegetation including cattails, pickerel weed, and arrow-arum.  The second stage has less open water and is dominated by cattails and pickerel weed.  The third stage is a grassy shrub stage with saw grass (of Everglades fame), cordgrass, sedges, buttonbush, rose mallow, and wax myrtle.  The final stage is a woods of red maple, Carolina willow, tupelo, and water oak.  A storm surge of saltwater can kill the trees and return the marsh to the open water stage.  Below are some photos of some shrubs commonly found in interdunal wetlands.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is common on the edges of interdunal wetlands.  A study of fossil mastodon dung found buttonbush to be a common item in their diet in Florida.  Mastodon foraging faciliated the spread of the seed-filled buttonballs which float.  A mastodon tearing apart a buttonbush was beneficial to the plant species’s long term survival.

Carolina willow (Salix caroliniana) with egret nests.

Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera).  The wax rendered from the berries is used to make candles.  Euell Gibbons states that the leaves can be used for seasoning soups and stews, like bay leaves. 

Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), a common and beautiful plant found growing in interdunal wetlands.  The roots were used to make marshmallows.  All modern marshmallows sold in grocery stores are made artificially without mallow roots.

The Mystery Cat of Pleistocene Georgia

May 9, 2013

Most small species of cats are adept tree climbers, but the margay (Leopardus wiedii) excells. It hunts, copulates, and raises its young in trees, making it as arboreal as a monkey or squirrel.

The margay is about the size of a large house cat.  It is an arboreal species.

The margay is able to climb head first down trees, and its wrists are built much like those of a squirrel’s.  Click on the below link to the youtube video of a margay.  Note how it can hang upside down using just its rear paws.  Note also its athletic ability to leap from tree limb to tree limb.

The margay is a nocturnal hunter, preying upon birds, birds’ eggs, frogs, lizards, rodents, monkeys, and probably bats.  They also eat fruit.  Like tigers, they use audible mimicry to lure prey.  They’ve been observed imitating the cries of a baby monkey to attract parent monkeys to their doom. (Tigers imitate the mating bugle of elk.)  Not all prey is defenseless, however.  Brazilian squirrels gang together and drive margays away.

Today, the margay ranges throughout Central and South America, but fossil evidence of a margay-like cat has been found from 12 sites in Florida and 2 in Georgia.  Jaw bones of this mystery cat come from Ladds in Bartow County, Georgia and the Isle of Hope site in Chatham County near Savannah–evidence this species occurred throughout the state during the Pleistocene.  The fossils from all the sites where this species has been found likely date from a warm interglacial period.  Some scientists think these fossils represent an extinct species (Leopardus amnicola), while others consider it an extinct, large subspecies of margay (Leopardus wiedii amnicola).  The modern margay requires dense forest habitat, and it’s likely this species or subspecies did too, probably explaining why its fossils are found in deposits dating to interglacial periods.  During interglacials forested habitats expanded.

Marshall Forest 042

Sketch of the jaw bone of a cat found at the Ladds fossil site.  Click to enlarge.  Dr. Clayton Ray thought this specimen was most like the jaw bone of a jaguarundi, but other scientists have concluded it’s from a cat that was more like a margay.  This page is from the below referenced paper authored by Dr. Ray.

Marshall Forest 043

Photo of a jaw bone of a cat found at the Isle of Hope site near Savannah, Georgia. Click to enlarge.  Every measurement of this specimen falls within the size range of both margay and jaguarundi.  This means it can’t be conclusively identified.  It’s slightly smaller than most specimens identified as Leopardus amnicola.  Page from the below referenced study authored by Dr. Hulbert.

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is about the size of a bobcat or maybe a little larger is some cases.  Unlike the margay, it’s primarily a ground dweller, though it can climb trees.  It mostly feeds upon rodents.  Today, ocelots range throughout Central and South America and rarely into south Texas and Arizona.  In the 19th century, they were found in Louisiana and Arkansas, and fossil evidence of this cat has been found from 2 sites in Florida, also probably dating to a warm interglacial.

The ocelot and margay shared a common ancestor.  It’s likely that some individuals of this ancestral species preferred hunting on the ground and their decendents evolved into ocelots, while other individuals preferred hunting in the trees and their decendents evolved into margays.  Males that were good tree climbers were more likely to meet females that were good tree climbers, and they passed on the beneficial genes that gave them their natural ability.

The ocelot can grow to a size as heavy as 40 pounds.  Also used to range into southeastern North America.

The jaguarundi (Puma yagaouroundi) is a 3rd species of small neotropical cat.  It was formerly classified in its own genus by some scientists and lumped in the Leopardus genus by others, but genetic studies suggest it is closely related to the cougar (Puma concolor).  I hypothesize that an isolated population of cougars began specializing in small prey to avoid competition with larger carnivores such as jaguars, saber-tooths, and lions.  This population then evolved into jaguarundis.  Studies show cougars regularly take smaller prey than jaguars, and there isn’t much overlap in their prey selection.  In some locality with scarce prey, competition may have forced the ancestral population to take even smaller prey.  Today, the jaguarundi preys upon birds, rodents, opposums, small species of deer (brocket), reptiles, and insects.  It eats fruit as well.  It ranges throughout Central and South America and rarely south Texas.  100 years ago, some were introduced to Florida, and a small population may still exist there.  Reported sightings continue.

The jaguarundi may have ranged into southeastern North America as well.  It’s also known as the otter cat due to its cylindrical shape.  It’s closely related to the cougar but is about 10% its size.

It’s evident at least 2 species of neotropical cats colonized southeastern North America during warm climatic phases of the Pleistocene.  I hypothesize that they continued to live in the region until approximately 28,000 BP.  Dense forests remained widespread in the region until then.  Between ~28,000 BP-~15,000 BP prairies, desert scrub, and spruce woodlands replaced the kinds of forests margays and ocelots prefer, though it’s possible they persisted near the coast where ocean currents kept the climate from deteriorating.  If it wasn’t for man, I think ocelots and margays would have recolonized the south.  Fossils of margays have been found in Texas, and they date to 4400 BP, showing they were more widespread recently.  However, native Americans coveted their beautiful coats, and I suspect human hunters prevented the re-expansion of their range.


Hulbert, Richard; and Ann Pratt

“New Pleistocene (Rancholabrean) Vertebrate Faunas from Coastal Georgia”

Journal of Vertebrate Zoology 18 (2) June 1998

Ray, Clayton

“Pleistocene Mammals from Ladds, Bartow County, Georgia”

Georgia Academy of Science Bulletin 25 (3) 1967

The Natural Communities of Georgia by Leslie Edwards, Jonathan Ambrose, and L. Katherine Kirkman

May 6, 2013

The Natural Communities of Georgia is a beautiful and exhaustive encyclopedia of all the natural environments that exist within the state boundaries.  It’s an updated version of the late Charles Wharton’s 1978 book–The Natural Environments of Georgia.  This book is dedicated to him.

The Natural Communities of Georgia was published by the University of Georgia Press in February 2013 after almost a year’s delay.  It’s reasonably priced by Amazon at $46, considering it is a hardback with 674 pages, hundreds of color photographs, and dozens of illustrations and maps.  Color photographs can make a book prohibitively expensive to produce.  I eagerly purchased a copy of this book as a birthday present to myself.

Although 3 co-authors are given credit for writing this book, there are an additional 12 contributing authors listed inside, making this book quite a collaborative effort.  They could have used me as a contributing writer for the section about the Pleistocene.  They covered the Pleistocene in 2 or 3 paragraphs, and because it was the end of the chapter, most of the rest of the last page was blank.  People who regularly follow my blog know I could have easily filled that big blank page with interesting information about Pleistocene Georgia.  Whoever wrote their brief section about Pleistocene Georgia slightly missed the mark about 1 tidbit of trivia.  The author listed some of the mammal species found in Georgia during the Pleistocene and included the ocelot followed by the word, possibly, in parenthesis.  This isn’t entirely incorrect.  An individual fossil of an ocelot was found in Florida, so ocelots may have roamed Georgia then.  But I’m sure the author was referring to specimens found in 2 fossil sites in Georgia that represent a species from the Leopardus genus which includes the margay and the jaguarundi, not the ocelot.  I’ll write about these finds in my next blog entry and clear up that author’s confusion.

The format of The Natural Communities of Georgia is convenient for the reader.  The book is organized into 5 parts corresponding to the 5 ecoregions of Georgia.  The authors give an overview of each ecoregion, then discuss each type of environment found within the ecoregion.  Sidebars featuring an animal or plant commonly found in each environment are included.  Sidebars showing featured places where an example of each environment can be found conclude each section.  Detailed directions are given, so the reader can use the book as a guide to seek out each type of environment.  The following is a list of all the natural environments discussed in the book along with an example featured place.  I’ve already discussed and/or visited some of these sites.  A * denotes the ones I’ve either already blogged about or have visited.


*Northern Hardwood and Boulder Forest–The Summit of Brasstown Bald

Montane oak forest–Whitney Gap Trail on Wildcat Mountain

Cove Forest–Sosebee Cove Trail

Low to Mid elevation oak forest–Bear Hair Gap Trail

*Pine-Oak woodlands–Tallulah Gorge State Park

Ultramafic Barrens and Woodlands–Davidson Creek Botanical Area

High Elevation Rock Outcrops–Blood Mountain

Low to Mid elevation Domes, Glades, and barrens–Bog Cedar Mountain

*Low to mid elevation acidic cliffs and outcrops–Tallulah Gorge State Park

Mountain bogs–Songbird Trail at Lake Conasauga

Seepage Wetlands–Track Rock Gap Archaeological Area

Spray Cliffs–Helton Creek Falls

Flood Plains, bottomlands–Jacks River Trail


Mesic Forest–Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail

*Dry Calcareous Forest–Chickamauga Battlefield Park

Acidic Oak-Pine-Hickory–Cloudland Canyon State Park

*Pine Oak woodland–Zahnd Natural Area Lookout Mountain

*Montane longleaf Woodland–Berry College

*Calcareous Cedar Glades–Chickamauga Battlefield Park

*Calcareous Prairie–Berry College

Acidic Glades–Rocktown

Calcareous Cliffs–Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area

Acidic Cliffs–Cloudland Canyon State Park

*Flatwoods–Berry College

Calcareous Seepage Fens–Mosteller Springs

Acidic Seepage Wetlands–Keown Falls Tract

*Sagponds–Zahnd Natural Area

Floodplains, bottomlands–Coosa River Lock and Dam Park


Mesic Forest–Chicopee Woods

Oak-Pine-Hickory–Chicopee Woods

Pine-Oak Woodlands–Red Cockaded Woodpecker Trail

Prairies–Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Park

Granite Outcrops–Davidson-Arabian Mountain

Glades, Barrens–Kennesaw Mountain

*Ultramafic Barrens–Burke’s Mountain

Flatwoods–Monticello Glades in the Oconee National Forest

Seepage Wetlands–Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area

Floodplains, Bottomlands–Alcovy Conservation Center


*Sand Dunes–Ohoopee Dunes Natural Area

Dry Upland Longleaf Pine Woodland–Reed Bingham State Park

Mesic Longleaf Pine Woodland–Silver Lake Wildlife Management Area

Dry Evergreen Oak Woodland–Big Hammock Natural Area

Dry Deciduous Hardwood Forest–Providence Canyon Recreation Area

Mesic Slope Forest–Montezuma Bluffs Natural Area

Granite Outcrops–Broxton Rocks

*Eocene Chalk Prairie–Oaky Woods

Pitcher Plant bogs–Doe run pitcher plant bog

Shrub bog–Townsend Wildlife Management Area

Cypress-Gum Pond–Big Dukes Pond Natural Area

Depression Oak Forest–No publicly available area

Riverine floodplains, bottomlands–Ebenezer Creek Boat Ramp

*Bottomland Hardwood–Moody Forest

River Banks Levees–Altamaha Park

Small Stream Floodplain Forest–Little Ocmulgee State Park

Okefenokee Swamp–Okefenokee Swamp National Refuge


Intertidal Beaches–Jekyll Island

Maritime Dunes–Jekyll Island

Maritime Forest–Crooked River State Park

Interdunal Wetlands–Jekyll Island

Salt Marsh–Earth Day Nature Trail

Freshwater and Oligohaline Tidal Marsh–Butler Island Altamaha Wildlife Management Area

Tidal Swamp–Lewis Island Wildlife Management Area

I’m going to use The Natural Communities of Georgia as a reference in future blog entries, focusing on their paleo-origins.  Much of my rumination will be speculation.  Some of these environments, such as open pine savannahs. are ancient and may have originated as early as the Cretaceous, though with significant floral and faunal turnover.

Oh, and I’m making a note to self here to buy The Road Side Geology of Georgia when that book is published.

The Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve

May 1, 2013

It’s too late to save most of North America’s megafauna.  Man overhunted most of the magnificent animals on this continent into extinction thousands of years ago, and Europeans nearly eradicated the rest within historical times.  But it’s not too late to save an apex predator of the southeastern coastal plain–the indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi).  A private charitable group, the Orianne Indigo Snake Society, is purchasing land and negotiating with other large landholders to manage their property for the benefit of this snake.  Their goal is to protect 48,704 acres of land within the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve.  Presently, they own 2,607 acres and have permission to manage an additional 8,678 more acres (mostly owned by lumber companies) for the benefit of the snake.  This seems like a lot of land, but male indigo snakes require as much as 3000 acres of habitat because they are top predators, in fact predators of predators.

Images from the Orianne Snake Society website.

The preserve is located along the Ocmulgee River where there are many sandhills.

Indigo snake range map.  They were extirpated from Alabama decades ago.

Orianne Society volunteer with an indigo snake.  Strippers like to use indigo snakes in their acts because they are long and docile, seldom biting humans.  It’s the largest North American species of snake.

Indigo snakes require 2 different types of habitat.  During winter they den in gopher tortoise burrows located in open pine savannahs with sandy soils, but during summer they forage in shaded bottomland swamps.  They need access to both environments unobstructed by manmade structures, such as busy roads where automobiles take a heavy toll.  Modern day development makes areas with vast acreages of both types of habitat rare.  Moreover, open pine savannahs have been replaced with pine tree farms which are inadequate habitats for gopher tortoises.  Indigo snakes can survive on pine tree farms without gopher tortoises, as long as the lumber operators leave refuse piles for the snakes to seek refuge during colder months.  Indigo snakes also make use of armadillo dens and hollow logs.  The Orianne Society manages habitat by conducting prescribed burns which improve habitat for gopher tortoises, and by encouraging lumber operators to leave debris piles.

Indigo snakes were extirpated from Alabama.  Indigo snakes are a major predator of venomous snakes, and copperhead populations skyrocketed in Alabama, since indigo snakes disappeared there.  The Orianne Society has a captive breeding program.  Two years ago, they began releasing indigo snakes in the Conecuh National Forest in Covington County, Alabama.  Eventually, this may help reduce copperhead populations.

Indigo snakes are primarily forage hunters, though ambush hunting has been recorded.  They actively travel over land and capture other animals, especially snakes.  They bite their prey and thrash and bash the animal into submission.  One study found that 85% of their diet included gopher tortoises, snakes, and rodents.  They are immune to rattlesnake poison and commonly feed upon diamondback rattlesnakes.  They are cannibalistic, so human breeders of captive indigoes keep them in separate enclosures.  They also scavenge.  One was observed feeding on a dead shark, and they will eat fish in captivity.  Scientists suspect indigo snakes feed on fish stranded in shrinking pools during droughts, much like cottonmouth water moccasins do.   Another individual was observed ambushing 5 rufous-sided sparrows by a single puddle when the birds came to drink and bathe.  These behaviors show they are both active and passive feeders.  They’re big eaters despite being cold blooded reptiles.  A species of indigo snake native to Central America was observed feeding on a boa constrictor, then on a jumping viper before the former was digested.

There are 5 species of indigo snakes in the Drymarchon genus.  In addition to the one that lives in North America, 4 species live in Central and South America.  The genus is closely related to black racers.

The Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve protects several species of big snakes.  The indigo snake frequently grows to 7.5 feet long with a record length of 8.5 feet, but this only beats the record length of the coachwhip snake (Masticophis flagellum) by 1.5 inches.   Diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamateus) have been known to reach a length of 8 feet long, and pine snakes (Pituophis melanaleucus) get to 5 feet long.

Diamondback rattlesnakes grow to 8 feet long but occasionally fall prey to indigos.

Coachwhip snakes get their name because they are shaped just like a whip.  They are almost as long as indigos but are much skinnier.  They come in many different color variations.

Rainbow snakes (Farancia erystrogramma) grow to 3-4 feet long.  These snakes are also found on the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve.  They burrow in sand and mud in swamps.  They specialize in feeding on eels.

By contrast southeastern crown snakes reach lengths of just 10 inches.  They specialize in feeding upon centipedes.  There are 3 species which diverged following sea level rises that isolated founding populations.

Fort Stewart has some of the best remaining habitat for big coastal plain snakes.  Here, the federal government is free to conduct prescribed burns that improve wildlife diversity, plus there are fewer roads and no real estate development on the base.  Live fire exercises on this and other army bases in Georgia also improve habitat for wildlife by igniting fires.  More species of snakes have been recorded from Fort Stewart than any other area of the state–33 species.  So far, just 21 species of snakes are known to occur on the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve, but as this area becomes better studied that number will grow.  Fort Stewart is home to bald eagles, wood storks, and healthy populations of wood ducks, fox squirrels, deer, and wild boar.  If this military base is ever closed, I hope it’s protected as a wildlire preserve.

Most North American snakes have been recorded in the Pleistocene and Pliocene fossil records, and scientists think most of today’s existing snake genuses originated early in the Miocene.  Snakes are an ancient part of the ecosystem, and it would be a shame, if we lost any individual species.


Stevenson, Dirk; et. al.

“Prey Records for the eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi)”

Southeastern Naturalist 9 (1) 2010