Archive for June, 2013

Feral Horses Belong on the Georgia Coast and are a Natural Part of America’s Ecosystem

June 27, 2013

Beautiful wild horses grazing under a live oak on Cumberland Island, Georgia.

Wild horses grazing on a beach dune on Cumberland Island.

Anthony Martin, author of Life Traces of the Georgia Coast, wrote a blog article about feral horses on Cumberland Island, Georgia and how they degrade the environment there. ( Note: I could find no direct contact information for Anthony Martin anywhere.  I invite him to respond to this article.) Like many environmentalists, he wrongly states that horses are not native to North America because he’s making the bogus argument that they are detrimental to the environment.  He concedes horses once lived in Pleistocene North America, but falsely claims there is no evidence horses ever lived on barrier islands in Georgia.  He wrote “…these horses (Cumberland Island horses) are newcomers in a geological and ecological sense.  The fossil record of the modern Georgia barrier island backs this up as some of the islands (including Cumberland) have sediment more than 40,000 years old, but no horse body or trace fossils of horses, or anything like a horse….This scarcity leads paleontologists to wonder whether the islands ever had self-sustaining populations of large herbivores.”  I wonder whether Anthony Martin is a fucking idiot or a disingenous debater.   Because in the above mentioned book that he authored, he wrote “…the site of the former barrier island (off the Georgia coast) is occupied by Gray’s Reef.  Fossils of horses, bison, and mammoths were found there.”  What he wrote in his book completely contradicts what he wrote in his blog article about the Pleistocene presence of large herbivores on Georgia’s barrier islands.  According to the below referenced paper, horse fossils have been found at 8 sites near the Georgia coast in addition to Gray’s Reef, including Isle of Hope, Mayfair, Fossilosa, Porter’s Pit, Savannah River dredgings, Brunswick area, Watkin’s Quarry, and Turtle River Dredgings.  While some of these sites may have been farther inland than they are today, some were undoubtedly part of barrier islands because the vertebrate bones are mixed with sea shells.  Fossils of 2 other species of heavy grazers, bison and mammoths, have also been found at over half a dozen fossil sites near the Georgia coast.  A complete long-horned bison skull and the remains of an adult and juvenile mammoth were found at Clark Quarry along with fossils of sea birds.  Coastal fossils sites that have sea shells mixed with megafauna bones are also common in Florida and South Carolina.

Anthony Martin makes an astoundingly illogical assumption that megafauna living on the mainland wouldn’t colonize barrier islands.  As proof, he suggests Pleistocene barrier island would have had lower beach dunes and more outwash as a result of megafauna overgrazing.  There are no studies of Pleistocene beach dune topography, nor are any such studies possible because wind and water erosion have likely eliminated all evidence of ancient beach dunes which are ephemeral anyway.

Anthony Martin’s  evidence that horses degrade the environment on Cumberland Island is mostly overblown.  First, he points out that horses make wide tracks and trails.  I say, so what.  African megafauna make wide game trails.  Any erosion associated with African game trails is considered natural.  A certain amount of erosion attributable to large herbivores has always been part of the natural environment.  Second, he’s concerned that horses overgraze beach dunes, salt marsh, and live oak saplings.  This causes erosion and the slower replacement of live oaks. I agree with this concern, and I’ll address this point in the next paragraph.  Third, he mentions that horses release a lot of manure.  However, he fails to explain why this has a negative effect on the environment.

Currently, there are about 150 horses on Cumberland Island, and the herd is slowly increasing.  I have no idea what the ideal number of horses should be on the island.  The fossil record clearly shows that megafauna once roamed Georgia’s barrier islands before man hunted the beasts into extinction or extirpation, so there is nothing unnatural about the presence of horses on barrier islands.  I think it’s wonderful that 1 of America’s most beautiful species of megafauna has been returned here.  However, during the Pleistocene, saber-tooths, lions, jaguars, and dire wolves kept horse populations in check.  Today, there are no predators to control horse populations here.  Therefore, the National Park Service should study this problem and determine how many horses to cull to prevent them from overgrazing the island’s environment.  In 1997, the park service planned to remove a few horses, but Congressman Jack Kingston, a dumbass redneck who rejects the Theory of Evolution, attached a rider to a bill temporarily outlawing the removal of any horses from Cumberland Island.  Though this order has expired, the park service has yet to act.  Horses do belong on Cumberland Island, but due to the absence of natural predators, some need to periodically be removed…unless the park imports a pride of African lions–a move I would favor.


Hulbert, Richard; and Ann Pratt

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

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 18 (2) June 1998


Old Growth Oak Forests in North Georgia

June 25, 2013

I’ve written a lot lately about Georgia’s grassland communities, but my favorite types of environments in the state are oak forests and oak-pine woodlands.  Believe it or not, ecologists do discern the difference between forest and woodland.  A forest is defined as a tree dominated community with a canopy coverage greater than 80%, whereas a woodland is defined as a tree dominated community with a canopy coverage of between 50%-80%.  A savannah community has less than 50% canopy coverage; a prairie has grass but no trees at all. Old growth oak forests and woodlands are nearly extinct in the piedmont region where they were once the dominant ecological communities.  However, Jess Riddle surveyed the Blue Ridge Mountains in north Georgia and found approximately 84 sites that show little to no human disturbance.  Most are located in inaccessible areas where road building and agriculture were not practical.  It’s possible some of these sites were logged long ago, but he couldn’t find any evidence of this at many of them, and the age of the trees suggests these sites are virgin old growth forests.

In Georgia oak forests and oak-pine woodlands grow at elevations of 3500 feet and below.  The majority of the sites Jess Riddle surveyed (55) can be classified as acidic-dry communities.  The dominant trees are rock chestnut oak (Quercus montana) and scarlet oak (Quercus concinea).  A dense layer of ericaceous shrubs including mountain laurel and blueberry shade out tree saplings and grass.  Shrubs in the ericaceous family prefer acidic soils.  Twenty of the old growth sites host moister soils and support forests of northern red oak, white oak, tulip, pignut hickory, Fraser magnolia, and hemlock.  Some of these moister forests grade into rich cove forests.  Most old growth sites have chestnut sprouts and debris, showing that this species was once an important component before the chestnut blight wiped them out.  Mafic forests are another type of forest.  They are influenced by chemicals that weather from rock, and these environments are  more open than other types of forest.  White oak and hickory dominate mafic forests.

Double Spring Knob

Spaniard Mountain

Spaniard Mountain located in northeastern Georgia may be 1 of the more impressive sites surveyed.  I couldn’t find any ground level photos of this mountain on google images, so it must not be visited very often.  It is 2 miles from the nearest road.  The map above indicates a trail of some sort.  Jess Riddle saw no signs of human disturbance here and found some ancient trees in this tract.  He cored 1 white oak and discovered it was 303 years old.  Four chestnut oaks ranged in ages from 196-296 years old.  The canopy is dominated by northern red oak.  Rhododendron, mountain laurel, and huckleberry (which he described as “thick”) grew in the understory.

Double Spring Mountain also revealed no evidence of human disturbance.  Four cores of white oaks showed the trees ranged in ages between 175-210 years old while a northern red oak was 215 years old.  Scarlet oak, chestnut sprouts, mountain laurel, dogwood, and blackberry were abundant.

Gap phase dynamics is the ecological mechanism that shapes low to mid elevation oak forests.  Disease, insects, draught, windstorms, fire, and lightning kill trees and create gaps in the canopy for shade intolerant species such as oaks to grow.  The 20th century policy of fire suppression  has led to forests dominated by shade tolerant species such as tulip, red maple, locust, and white pine.  When there are fewer oaks, acorn production is reduced and wildlife populations decline.  More frequent fire converts oak forests to oak-pine woodlands.  Scarlet oak, black oak, blackjack oak, and southern red oak grow with shortleaf pine, pitch pine, Virginia pine, and table mountain pine in these environments.  There are also ericaceous shrub layers in oak-pine woodlands but with grass, fern, and composite wildflowers as well.  Jess Riddle found a shortleaf pine at 1 of these oak-pine woodland sites that was 212 years old.

Jess Riddle took note of the fauna he encountered in these old growth forests.  He saw game trails, bear sign, white tail deer, wild hogs, a flying squirrel, ruffed grouse, a timber rattle snake, and bald faced hornet nests.  Birds requiring deep forest environments such as hairy woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, ovenbirds, and black and white warblers prevail here.

White Oak estimated to be between 250-300 years old in Alpharetta, Georgia.  A whole forest of trees this age occurs on Spaniard Mountain.

Chestnut oak.  The leaves resemble those of the chestnut (Castanea dentata). Note how large the acorns are. Nevertheless, scarlet oaks, white oaks, red oaks, and black oaks produce more acorns than chestnut oaks.

Bald faced hornet (Dolichouespula maculata) nest.  What a natural work of beauty.

Ruffed Grouse.  Early successional forests located next to montane old growth oak forests are about the only place you can see this species in Georgia.

Best chance of seeing a black bear or bear sign in Georgia is to hike a trail in these old growth oak forests.

I’d be just as excited to see a flying squirrel as a black bear.

Low to mid elevation oak forests in north Georgia have existed on these sites in the Blue Ridge Mountains for at least 11,000 years and began gradually replacing semi-boreal conifer forests about 15,000 years ago.  Pollen records indicate spruce and pine forests dominated this area from about 29,000 BP-14,000 BP, albeit with a few brief interuptions.  Between 60,000 BP-30,000 BP climate fluctuated dramatically and rapidly, and the response of various tree species likely lagged behind climate change.  Spruce and pine grew better during cold phases because they are better adapted to drier, windier, and icier environments with lower atmospheric CO2 levels.  During warm phases of climate, oaks and other broadleafed trees shade conifers out.  The animal and plant composition of transitional periods between warm and cold climate phases would have been interesting to observe.  Wildlife was probably most abundant when oaks were in the process of replacing boreal conifers or vice versa because they would h0st birds and mammals  found in both types of environments.  A mix of boreal coniferous and broadleafed forests was probably the norm in north Georgia during the mid-Wisconsinian.  Our present stable interglacial climate phase is more of an aberration.


Riddle, Jess

“Selected Statistics on Old Growth Stands in the Chattahoochee National Forest”

Georgia Forest Watch Document

The Florida Jujube (Ziziphus celata), a Pleistocene Relic

June 20, 2013

Dry climate phases during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene fostered a desert scrub/grassland community that stretched from Florida to southern California.  Eventually, climate changed and extensive forests separated eastern and western populations of flora and fauna that live in dry sandy habitat.  This explains why there are eastern and western forms of diamondback rattlesnakes, tortoises, mole skinks, race runners, burrowing owls, brown headed nuthatches, scrub jays, kites, caracaras, harvester ants, digger bees, and many species of plants, including the jujube (Ziziphus sp.)

The Florida jujube (Ziziphus celata) is a shrub that grows to 6 feet high.  It prefers open sunny conditions prone to fire.

The Florida jujube formerly occupied sand scrub and the extensive longleaf pine/wiregrass savannahs.  But much of this area has been lost to citrus orchards and residential development.  The Florida jujube was first collected in 1948 and was thought to be extinct until a botanist discovered 6 clonal populations in 1987, 4 of which were located in cow pastures.  Cuttings were brought to Bok Tower Gardens where attempts are being made to propagate the species.  Most of the jujube bushes were found to be infertile because they were either clones or too closely related to each other to produce fruit.  Nevertheless, they had been able to survive by sprouting from roots and could live indefinitely as long as the roots weren’t dug up and destroyed.  Fortunately, new populations were discovered in the mid-1990s, increasing the known genotypes from 12 to 38.  Fruit with fertile seed is now being produced at Bok Tower Gardens.  The fruit is yellow and about 1/2 inch long.

Range map of Florida jujube.  Actually, it’s not this extensive.  It’s only found at a handful of sites within these counties.

Two western species of jujube, known as lotebushes, range from southern California to Texas.  They are closely related to the Florida jujube. The eastern and western forms were one ancestral species during the early Pleistocene.

The Florida jujube is closely related to 2 western forms, both known as lotebushes–Ziziphus parryi and Z. obtusfolia.  Before Z. celata became geographically isolated, they all shared a common ancestor.

Small animals and birds eat jujube fruit, but I suspect part of the reason this species has difficulty reproducing is because it’s  missing mastodons and ground sloths which spread the seeds in big piles of fertile dung.  Small animals and birds may eat around the seed and not spread it.  Jujubes are drought and fire tolerant.  They can resprout vegetatively following fire.  Fire suppression has undoubtedly contributed to its rarity as well.  Broadleafed trees will shade them out.

Cultivated jujubes are known as red dates in China.

Cultivated jujubes (Z. jujuba) are known as red dates in China where they are a popular fruit.  They are also eaten in the Middle East and other Far Eastern countries besides China.  I’ve never eaten a fresh jujube but dried ones taste like a cross between a dried apple and a raisin.  They’re not bad but nothing to get excited about.  Wild jujubes are edible but reportedly tasteless.


Wecky, Carl

“Recent Development Boosts Recovery Prospects of Florida Ziziphus”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pamphlet

“Florida Ziziphus: 5 year Summary and Evaluation”

The Leisey Shell Pit

June 16, 2013

During the late 1970s, Frank Garcia and other amateur fossil collectors often searched the spoil piles of the Leisey Shell Pit located about a mile east of Tampa Bay, Florida.  The Leisey family owned the site and mined the sand and seashells which are used in construction to make concrete and other building materials.  One day, Mr. Garcia discovered a wall of fossils exposed when a bulldozer stripped away a large layer of sand.

excavations at Leisey Shell Pit 1A

Arrow points to a layer of fossils found in the Leisey Shell Pit.

I think this is a photo of Frank Garcia standing next to the wall of fossils found at this site.  The fossils probably accumulated here through a combination of river and tidal action.  A major river that no longer exists may have flowed into Tampa Bay then.

excavations at Leisey Shell Pit 1A

Typical density of the fossils found at the shell pit.  Note the saber-tooth tiger canine in the middle.  The fossiliferous layer of one section was 2000 square meters.  If my math is correct, that’s the equivalent of about a square mile.  The site is so rich, paleontologists could have named a land mammal age after it.  Too bad the Irvingtonian Land Mammal Age already had a name.

After Mr. Garcia’s discovery, professional paleontologists descended on the site and excavated over 50,000 fossils in a decade of work, gaining valuable information about the early Pleistocene.  The majority of the fossils were found in 2 sections, labled IA and 3A, though fossils were also found in 2 smaller sections, on the surface, and in spoil piles.  In 1992 the Leisey family stopped mining sand here.  There was no need to keep operating the pumps, so because the location is slightly below sea level this site became flooded.  Fossil hunting here now requires scuba gear.

Scientists had difficulty dating the age of the fossils found in the Pleistocene strata at this site.  They are too 0ld for radio-carbon dating and nearly too old for uranium series dating.  Scientists can’t use pottassium-argon dating because there is no volcanic ash in Florida.  Instead, scientists had to use inexact indirect methods to estimate the age of the fossils here.  A study of strontium isotope ratios found in mollusc fossils narrowed the time range to between 1 million-2million years BP.  A geomagnetic chronology study determined the fossils were at least 780,000 years old. (See for an explanation of geomagnetic chronology).  Using index fossils, scientists narrowed the time frame further to between 1.5 million-1.1 million years BP.  There are no fossils known exclusively from the Blancan Land Mammal Age in the fossil rich strata.  This age ended approximately 1.5 million years ago.  But there are some fossils of species not thought to have survived past 1.1 million years ago, thus explaining why scientists narrowed it down to this time range.

The site is named for the abundant sea shells found all through the sand.  Scientists catalogued 98 species of bivalves, 113 of snails, 16 of bryozoans, 1 worm, 9 arthropods, and 1 starfish.  3% of the species of sea shells found here are extinct.  I looked in vain on google images for a photo of one to put on this blog.  But there are pictures of these obscure extinct species in the publication linked below.  The vast majority of mollusc fossils here are of marine species, but a few are freshwater.  Two of the freshwater species no longer occur in peninsular Florida, becoming extirpated during a sea level rise that inundated much of the state.  Morphology studies show that predatory snails and whelks bored holes in 33% of the bivalves.  I remember showing my ex-brother-in-law a whelk in the process of feeding upon a mussel, and he didn’t believe me–he thought it was part of the whelk shell.

Section IA of the Leisey Shell Pit is thought to represent a paleo-brackish environment.  The most common fossil species of fish found in that section are in order: 1. alligator gar 2. snook 3. mullet 4. bull shark 5. eagle ray 6. porcupine fish.  As I discussed last week, alligator gar no longer occur in peninsular Florida due to a later marine transgression.  Great white sharks are an open ocean species, but fossils of this shark are found here in surprising numbers.  They likely hunted close to shore for monk seals and manatees.  Three extinct species of sharks and 1 extinct species of ray that were common during the Pliocene still swam near the Florida coast 1.1 million years ago, perhaps making their last stand.  They were an extinct species of mako shark (Isuris hestalis), an extinct nurse shark (Ginglymosoma serus), an extinct snaggletooth shark (Hemipristis sp.) and an extinct guitar fish (Rhynochobatus sp.).

Guitar fish still live in the Indo-Pacific Oceans. They are shaped like a guitar, hence the name.  An extinct species used to live in the Atlantic as recently as the early Pleistocene.

Fossil hunters love snaggletooth shark teeth.  Snaggletooth sharks also still live in the Indo-Pacific Oceans but have been extinct in the Atlantic for about 1 million years.

Section 3A of the Leisey Shell Pit is thought to represent a more freshwater environment.  The most common fossil species of fish found in this section are in order: 1. redear sunfish 2. mullet 3. bowfin 4. lake chubsucker 5. brown bullhead 6. Seminole killifish.  Redbreast sunfish and largemouth bass were also common here.  In all, scientists identified 73 species of bony fish and 23 species of sharks and rays at the shell pit.

Scientists catalogued 29 species of reptiles and amphibians among the fossils of the Leisey Shell Pit.  All of them still live in peninsular Florida with the exception of 2 species of giant land tortoises that became extinct and 2 species of freshwater turles that no longer occur in this region–pond sliders and alligator snapping turtles.  Again, rising sea levels eliminated habitat for those 2 species, and they have failed to recolonize the region.

Scientists found the remains of 45 species of birds at the Leisey Shell Pit of which 15 are now extinct.  A new species of extinct condor, Gymnogyps kofordia, was discovered here.  Two species of teratorns scavenged alongside G. kofordia, including Teratornis incredibilis, a spectacular bird with an 18 foot wingspan.  Woodward’s eagle (Amplibuteo woodwardii) was another impressive species.  Possible ancestors of today’s roseate spoonbill and avocet flew here, but extinct species of a stork (Ciconia), a loon, geese, and flamingos left no ancestors.  The oldest known fossil of a trumpetor swan was found in the pit.  Trumpetor swans no longer occur in Florida.

Here’s the list of fossil mammal species found at the site.  Scientists estimated the approximate abundance of each large land species based on their abundance in the fossil composition.  I added that information too.  The authors of the study caution that mastodons, mammoths, and ground sloths may be underrepresented because their bones were too heavy to be transported by water which is how most of these animals ended up deposited in the shell pit.

beautiful armadillo

Pachyarmatherium leiseyi–a large species of extinct armadillo

pampathere–also a large species of extinct armadillo


Wheatley’s ground sloth–the evolutionary ancestor of Jefferson’s ground sloth

Harlan’s ground sloth

Eremotherium sp.–a 4-clawed giant ground sloth as big as an elephant

Nothrotheriops texanus–a ground sloth related to the Shasta ground sloth found in the La Brea tar pits.  All ground sloths together equaled 6% of the total fossil composition of large land mammals.

Armbruster’s wolf

Edward’s wolf

monk seal


Arctodus pristinus–the lesser short-faced bear, probable ancestor to Arctodus simus

river otter–earliest record

spotted skunk

scimitar-toothed cat

Smilodon gracilis–saber-tooth cat ancestor to Smilodon fatalis.  All large carnivores equaled 6% of the population of large land mammals with this species the most common carnivore.



giant beaver




cotton rat

bog lemming

Townshend’s hare





flat-headed peccary–9%

long-nosed peccary–1%

large-headed llama–7%

stout-legged llama–38%

white tailed deer–2.5%

bottlenose dolphin

spinner dolphin

pilot whale



gompothere–a species of proboscidean related to mastodons

Hay’s mammoth–2.5%. ancestor to the Columbian mammoth

Stout legged llamas were the most common large mammal living in Florida then, totaling 38% of the total.  Both species of llamas made up 45% of the total, while both horses and donkeys totaled 22%, making them the next most common.  Note that white-tailed deer only comprised 2.5% of the population.  65% of the herbivores were mixed browsers and grazers, while 35% were strictly grazers. Cottontails and gophers were the most common small mammals.  Smilodon gracilis was by far the most common large carnivore.

Gnaw marks on the bones of llamas and horses match those of wolves.  Gnaw marks on the proboscideans and ground sloths match those of Arctodus pristinus, a short faced bear.  Wolves hunted and scavenged llamas and horses, but bears probably just scavenged sloths and proboscideans which would have been too large or tough for the bears to subdue.  Perhaps the bear took control of the larger carcasses when the beasts died naturally and were able to keep wolves away.  Armbruster’s wolf and Edward’s wolf overlapped in time at this site, but the former eventually replaced the latter and may be ancestral to the late Pleistocene dire wolves.

Illustration of paleolama and Eremotherium.  Paleolama myrifica was the most common large mammal living in Florida then.

A layer of strata at the base of the Leisey Shell Pit did contain fossils of Miocene-age species of 3-toed horses.  Bison fossils found at the shell pit likely date to the late Pleistocene rather than the early Pleistocene.  Bison didn’t colonize North America until about 300,000 BP (probably).

The paleobotanists who examined the fossil pollen and plant macrofossils found here remarked that if they hadn’t known the age of the site, they would have assumed they were studying data from a modern day site.  The plant composition of the early Pleistocene is no different from that of the present day in central Florida.  Pine, oak, hickory, sweetgum, herbs, grass, and composites dominated the pollen assemblage.  Identified plant macrofossils found included loblolly or slash pine cones, live oak, sabal palm, saw palmetto, cypress, wax myrtle, hazel nut, and grape.  The region was interpeted as being an open oak and pine woodland with some wetlands, but little cypress swamp.


Hulbert, Richard; Gary Morgan, and David Webb

“Paleontology and Geology of the Leisey Shell Pit, Early Pleistocene of Florida”

Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History 37 (1) 1995

The Ancient Armored Gar

June 11, 2013

Fish from the gar family (Lepisosteidae) swam in fresh and brackish waters when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  During the Cretaceous Era gar had a worldwide distribution, but today they’re restricted to the Americas.  They are a top predator among fish–their armor makes them invulnerable to attack from other bony fish, though alligators, bull sharks, and man can overcome this defense.  They have long sharp teeth that helps them subdue minnows, bream, crustaceans, baby alligators, and even birds.  Their eggs are highly toxic, so do not eat them, thinking they’re an alternative to caviar.  These tough fish can breathe through their air bladder as well as their gills, allowing them to survive droughts when oxygen in water  falls to low levels that kill other fish.  Gar are commonly found in brackish water as well and can tolerate higher levels of salinity than other freshwater fish.

On the North American continent, there are 4 species of gar.  All but the alligator gar live in Georgia.

Long-nosed gar (Lepisosteus osseus)

Spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus)

Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus)  According to the guide, this was the species I was seeing in Wakulla Springs, Florida.  The word gar is archaic for spear.  The fish is shaped like a spear, hence the name.

Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) They formerly reached lengths of up to 10 feet long and weights of 350 pounds.  Note the skull.  It’s really shaped like an alligator’s head.

Gar have more robust scales and bones than most other species of fish and are therefore recognized more easily in fossil deposits.  Today, alligator gar distribution is limited to the Mississippi River drainage.  They occur just west of Georgia in Alabama Rivers that eventually flow into the mighty Mississippi, and they are completely absent from the peninsula of Florida.  But alligator gar fossils have been found in several peninsular Florida fossils sites, indicating the species inhabited that region until at least the late Pleistocene.  At the Leisey Shellpit fossil site (the subject of next week’s blog entry) they are the most abundant species in a section labeled IA which is thought to represent a paleo-brackish habitat.  Pond sliders (Chrysemys scripta) and alligator snapping turtles (Macroclemys temmincki) are also absent from peninsular Florida today but did inhabit the region during the Pleistocene.  Rising sea levels during the Sangamonian Interglacial (~132,000 BP-~118,000 BP) eliminated freshwater habitat in peninsular Florida where alligator gars, pond sliders, and alligator snapping turtles lived, and all 3 species have failed to recolonize habitat that seems suitable for them today.

Most fishermen consider gar a trash fish, but along with eels they were a favorite among Native Americans who roasted them whole in fire.  The fire burned the tough scales off the succulent white meat.  It is difficult to cut through the armor of a gar.  Cajuns still eat gar and do wonderful things with it.  They make a spicy smoked tasso ham from gar.  More commonly, they make fish meatballs called boulettes that they smother in gravy and serve with rice.  The following 2 videos show how they butcher, clean, and cook gar.  Those gar fish boulettes look delicious.

Wakulla Springs, Shellpoint Beach, and The St. Marks Wildlife Refuge

June 6, 2013

The drive from Augusta, Georgia to the Florida panhandle takes over 7 hours.  I chose a route of mostly back country highways that bisect farmland, abandoned farmland, and second growth forest.  I saw almost as many species of birds while traveling on these back roads as I did when I visited Wakulla Springs State Park the following day, but spotting birds while driving 60 mph is not as enjoyable as spying them on a leisurely boat ride.  We stayed at the Best Western Hotel in Medart–a beautiful, clean, and spacious base of operations for my natural history explorations.  I went for a swim after the exhausting hot drive and was excited to find a dead giant waterbug in the swimming pool.

Wakulla Springs 001

Giant waterbug. (Lethocerus ? sp.).  They prey on tadpoles and minnows by grasping them with their front legs and sucking the life out of them.  They’re considered a delicacy in Asia. 

Wakulla Springs 002

Courtyard of the Best Western Hotel in Medart.  It’s newer and nicer than the Wakulla Springs Lodge.

We went to Wakulla Springs State Park the next day, and the rich variety of wildlife quickly eliminated any doubt over my choice of vacation.  Even my wife and daughter were impressed, and they don’t share my love of nature.  The cost of admission is $6–a pittance compared to the value.  We saw 4 manatees and big schools of mullet right away before we even went on the boat ride.

Wakulla Springs 007

Mastodon leg bone excavated from Wakulla Springs.  Most of the Pleistocene mammal fossils were collected between 1859-1930.  I doubt there are any left to find.  During the Ice Ages many rivers in Florida dried up and the river beds consisted of isolated springs instead.

Wakulla Springs 004

Here’s a big school of mullet in the crystal clear waters of the spring.  I tried to take a photo of the manatees, but they weren’t at a good angle and they don’t show up clearly in the picture I took.

One of the flat-bottomed boats was handicapped accessible, so my wife was able to go with us.  Rides cost $8 per adult.  The captain serves as a guide and identifies all the plants and animals on the 45 minute journey.  A flat bottomed boat is necessary because the water is shallow, except where it bubbles up from a deep underground cavern.

Wakulla Springs 008

Map of the springs underground.  Several roads are as much as 200 feet above the underground part of the springs.  Signs on the local roads let drivers know this fact.  I guess that’s so drivers won’t be surprised if the road collapses.

The bird life is spectacular.  I saw a cattle egret rookery, common egrets, a great blue heron, little blue herons, a green heron, a yellow crowned night heron, a white ibis, wood ducks, pied billed grebes, anhingas, ospreys, coots, prothonotory warblers, red-winged blackbirds, crows, mockingbirds, and blue jays.  I also heard a woodpecker.  This was the first time I’d ever seen 3 of these species–the yellow crowned night heron, the white ibis, and the prothonotory warblers.   I have seen ospreys before, but this was the first time I ever saw an osprey nest, though I saw one again the following day at Otter Lake.  The guide said just about every tree snag was home to a wood duck nest.

Wakulla Springs 011

Cattle egret rookery.  I really need to get a telephoto lens.  Cattle egrets are common all across the rural countryside now where they hunt for insects stirred up by livestock and farm machinery.

Wakulla Springs 020

White ibis.  This was the first time I’d ever seen this species.

Wakulla Springs 017

If you enlarge the photo, you can see the wood duck in the middle of the picture.  Wood ducks are abundant here.

Alligators and large turtles known as Suwannee cooters were common.  We also saw a soft shelled turtle.

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Alligator in the upper left hand corner.  The Suwannee cooters were too far away for me to get a photo.

The water was so clear I could see the bottom everywhere, even in the deepest part of the spring, despite the guide’s claim that the water wasn’t clear enough that day to see the bottom in the deepest part which is 90 feet.  Looking into the spring was like looking into an aquarium.  We could see all the fish.  Mullet swam in big schools and was by far the most abundant fish, but I saw several long-nosed gar, 3 black and white sunfish, a warmouth sunfish, and someone else saw a bowfin.  Little red crayfish crawled on the sandy bottom.  It’s easy to understand why native Americans inhabited the area around Wakulla Springs for 15,000 years.  Spear-fishing was a cinch.  They had such a great variety of easily obtainable animal and plant foods that they could remain well fed without agriculture.  Fish, duck, turtle, squirrel, manatee, and deer were available protein year round.  Duck potato (Sagitteria sp.), cattails, wild rice, nuts, and acorns provided the starches.

Originally, Wakulla Spring had a mostly sandy and limestone bottom, but invasive hydrilla now covers much of it and gives the water a greenish tint.  The water wells up from deep underground, and the chill surprised me when I went for a swim after the boat ride.  I saw cold blooded reptiles swimming in the water and mistakenly assumed the water would be warm, like a bathtub.  Instead, the water temperature was at least 20 degrees F cooler than the air temperature.  What a shock.

The woods around Wakulla Springs consist of white oak, live oak, hickory, sweetgum, cypress, red maple, ash, loblolly pine, pond pine, willow, dogwood, and wax myrtle.  The trees are large and much of the tract looks like it holds virgin timber.  The productive hickory supports an abundant population of gray squirrels.

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Picnickers left their lunches unattended while they went swimming.  Crows and squirrels were in the process of looting their food.  I saw a crow fly off with half a sandwich.

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Spanish moss covers this white oak in the parking lot.  It had unusual leaves for a white oak.

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Hickory trees are abundant here.  This 3-pronged one is quite large.

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This cypress tree is 5 feet in diameter.  Scientists cored it and found it to be 200 years old.  A cypress tree next to it is less than 1/2 this tree’s size in diameter, yet scientists found it was 600 (yes 600) years old.  It had s stunted growth due to nutrient deficiency.

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Pickerel weed (the purple) and duck potato (Sagitteria) blooming.

Cypress wood is rot resistant.  The guide noted a leaning dead cypress snag in the middle of the channel that looked like it was about to fall over.  He said it looked that way when he first started working in the park…in 1957.  Pickerel weed and duck potato were blooming.  I saw 2 kinds of grape vines growing in the woods including muscadine and some type of bunch grape that had a lot of young grapes on it.  As we left the park, we saw a white tail deer feeding in the middle of the day.

Shellpoint Beach

We arrived at Shellpoint Beach about midmorning and had the whole beach to ourselves before other sunbathers joined us 30 minutes later.  I didn’t find any interesting sea shells.  Oyster shells were the only common ones here.  Shellpoint Beach juts into Apalachee Bay and is known more for fishing than swimming.  There are seasons for grouper, red snapper, sea trout, cobia, and scallop harvesting.  There are no waves over 8 inches and those are caused by boats.  Laughing gulls and boat-tailed grackles hang around the pavilion, hoping to share scraps with picnickers.

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Nice pavilion at Shellpoint Beach, Florida.

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Apalachee Bay, Florida.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge sprawls all along the coast of Apalachee Bay.  I visited the northern half during the heat of midday which is the worst time for viewing wildlife.  Nevertheless, I saw a turkey as soon as I pulled into the refuge.  Near the lighthouse, several naive juvenile cotton rats foraged at the base of the palm.  They didn’t know they were supposed to be afraid of us.

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St. Mark’s Lighthouse.  It’s 180 years old.  It’s not open to the public.  I assume park officials are worried about liability issues.  Too many suicides.

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Young cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus).  It didn’t know it was supposed to be afraid of us.  Herons eat these mammals.  I’ve seen these quite often in roadside dtiches but never close up.  I didn’t realize they are a cute animal, especially compared to invasive Norway rats.

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A saltwater storm surge killed these loblolly pines in 2008, creating an open habitat.

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A freshwater lilly pond within the wildlife refuge.  Home to alligators, largemouth bass, shellcracker bream, bullhead and channel catfish, and warmouth.

Later that evening, I went to the southern part of the St. Marks NWR to look for fox squirrels.  An article in The Eagle Eye, a pamphlet published by the refuge biologists, reported the presence of fox squirrels in a pine flatwoods near Otter Lake.  I didn’t see any fox squirrels, but I spotted a pair of endangered cockaded woodpeckers.

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I saw  2 red cockaded woodpeckers in this vicinity.  I didn’t even bother trying to photograph them without a telephoto lens.  Refuge officials maintain this environment with fire which is evident from the abundance of burned wood on the ground.  Frequent signs say “We prevent wildfire with prescribed fire.”  Actually, prescribed fire is no more beneficial than wildfire.

This pine flatwoods hosts loblolly pine, live oak, southern red oak, runner oak, saw palmetto, grasses, and ferns.  The mosquitoes weren’t bad this time of year in Florida but a species of yellow-green horsefly or deerfly was bothersome.  They thought I tasted good.

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There’s no swimming at Otter Lake.  The sign warns of alligators.  I heard sheep frogs here.

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There’s an osprey nest in this snag.  Note the osprey at the top of the tree.

To top off my trip, while I was driving home through Emanuel County, Georgia, I saw some endangered wood storks foraging in a flooded ditch in a farmer’s field.  I was satisfied with seeing a white ibis and wood storks until I arrived home and read a vintage ornithology book written in the early 20th century.  That author saw 25,000 white ibis on a wet prairie in Florida and 5,000 wood storks at a rookery also in Florida.  The Florida of 1910 is gone forever.

Wakulla County Eats

We dined at 3 restaurants in Wakulla County during our stay.  I thought Barwick’s Seafood and Deli was the best,  I ate grilled mullet and it was excellent, though I suspect it was broiled or sauteed rather than grilled.  All the local family restaurants have $12 entrees and $9 sandwiches.  Popular items found at most of them include fried seafood of all kinds (mullet, shrimp, flounder, catfish), grilled grouper sandwiches,  and pulled pork barbeque smothered in an overly sweet sauce.  An interesting breakfast item on the menu at the Coastal Restaurant is mullet and eggs.  Mullet is really abundant in Florida.  Many of the locals order farm raised catfish instead.  Catfish is bland compared to mullet.  One stand offers smoked mullet dip.  Most of these restaurants could shave a few dollars off their prices, if they didn’t serve ridiculous oversize portions.  No wonder Americans are so fat.  I had 5 slices of mullet on my plate, plus a big pile of french fries and hushpuppies and a salad bar.  Do Americans really expect dinners this large?  I’m a member of the clean plate club and managed to finish my portion, but I exercise hard everyday.

The worst restaurant was Hamahocker’s Barbeque.  I ate their smoked brisket.  I’m pretty sure smoked brisket is supposed to be more tender than shoe leather.  The potato salad tasted like someone dumped a load of sugar on it.  I like my own cooking better than any restaurant, but I can’t cook when I’m staying in a hotel.

Killing Coyotes is Futile

June 1, 2013

The title of an article published in a recent issue of Georgia Outdoor News was “Save a Fawn, Kill a Coyote.”  This is the first line of that article–“Killing coyotes is fun.”  I just have to comment on this sadistic stupidity.

Ranchers have been trying to exterminate coyotes in the western states for 150 years.  Trapping, shooting, and poisoning have all failed.  Instead, coyote populations have increased, and they’ve recolonized the eastern states where they had been absent for about 10,000 years.  Wildlife management scientists understand why hunting coyotes has little impact on their long term numbers.  F.F. Knowles studied coyotes in Texas during the early 1970’s.  He found that in south Texas, where coyotes are abundant and under little hunting pressure, female coyotes produce an average litter size of 4.3, while in north Texas, where coyotes are extensively hunted, female coyotes produce an average litter size of 6.9.

Coyotes under human hunting pressure produce larger litters.  This mother has at least 9 pups.

Coyotes that are under human hunting pressure produce larger litters.  So when these stupid hunters kill a coyote, they are helping to increase the coyote population in the long term, thereby increasing fawn mortality.  They are not saving fawns as the title to the GON article falsely claims.  Another study examined the differences between populations of hunted and not hunted coyotes in Montana.  This study also found that female coyotes of the hunted population produced larger litters.  Moreover, pups from the hunted populations had a higher survival rate than pups from non hunted populations because the number of rodents and rabbits had increased from the previous year after some coyotes had been removed from the environment.  Coyote populations did temporarily dip immediately after they were hunted but completely rebounded to their former abundance in about 9 months.  Coyotes eat an average of 5 rodents a day.  Populations of mice, rats, and rabbits naturally increased until coyote numbers bounced back.  One can obviously assume from these studies that hunting coyotes serves no practical purpose for wildlife management.  Hunters should just be honest with themselves and admit they want to shoot coyotes for the hell of it because they like to kill animals, not because they are saving the deer herd.  (Note: I do believe there’s nothing wrong with farmers killing coyotes they catch in the act of attacking their livestock.)

I think anybody who kills coyotes for fun is a sadistic sociopath.  It’s like shooting your neighbor’s dog.  I’m not against hunting for food, but many hunters don’t shoot animals for food, they kill animals because they like to hurt living things.  These guys are the same kind of people who made good concentration camp guards during the holocaust.  They’re the same kind of people who participated in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.  And they live amongst us.

I used to post on the Georgia Outdoor News message board, but 1 of the moderators threatened to ban me every time I expressed my opinion.  Rednecks don’t have much tolerance for people with different opinions than their own.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist rubbing it in after the last election.  They all think Obama is some kind of socialist anti-christ.  I think Obama and the democrats are marginally better than the republicans, but they are both bad for the environment–the 1 issue I really care about.  I posted a topic on their political forums entitled “Hicks and Haters Lost the Election.”  The moderator banned me again (I’ve come back under different aliases).  I also got banned from SEC Rant for using the word, hick.  Hicks really don’t like to be called hicks.


I believe the species of wolf that lived in southeastern North America until the 19th century is extinct.  Genetic studies suggest the red wolves that wildlife biologists re-introduced are coywolves–hybrid coyote (Canis latrans) and gray wolf (Canis lupus) mixes.  We will never know if there was a distinct southeastern species of wolf unless scientists examine the DNA of the fossil specimen found in Fern Cave (See ).  Dire wolves were the dominant canid across the south during the Rancho La Brean land mammal age of the late Pleistocene, but coyotes did occur in the region then, occupying a scavenging, rodent-killing niche.  I hypothesize that when dire wolves became extinct, southeastern coyotes evolved into a larger canid that lived across the southeast until man wiped them out.  Whether they deserved full species status is debatable.

Coyote near Atlanta, Georgia.  Looks like a wolf to me.

Red wolf.  Looks like a coyote to me.

I see coyotes quite often in Richmond County, Georgia–both live and road-killed specimens.  Coyotes patrol state highways looking for other road-killed animal to eat and often become victims of motor vehicles as well.  I’ve seen a large reddish coyote that resembles the red wolf in the above photo.  On one occasion a coyote trotted across the vacant lot on the opposite side of the street from my house and exhibited the pouncing behavior they use to catch mice.



“Demographic and Spatial Responses of Coyotes to Changes in Food and Exploitation”

Wildlife Damage Management Conference 1-1-2005

Knowlton, F.F.

“Preliminary Interpetations of Coyote Population Mechanics with some Management Implications”

Journal of Wildlife Management 36 1972