Archive for July, 2013

Alligator and Heron

July 28, 2013

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

Gator hole in the Big Cypress Preserve in Florida.

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

Heron rookery in Venice, Florida.

alligator eating an opossum

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

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

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

Yellow crowned night heron with a crayfish.

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


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

July 25, 2013

Testing 1,2,3

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

Florida Cougar from Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okefenokee Fires

July 19, 2013

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

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

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

MODIS true color and false color images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 15, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pleistocene Megafauna Seasonally Migrated Back and Forth Between North Florida and Central Georgia

July 11, 2013

The ratio of strontium isotopes in the soil above the Florida aquifer is markedly different from that within it.  Herbivores that eat plants in these 2 different geographical regions ingest different ratios of strontium isotopes.  Scientists are able to place numerical values on the strontium isotope ratios in fossils of Pleistocene megafauna found at several  sites in north Florida to determine whether or not they spent some part of every year in central or even north Georgia.  This map isn’t exactly accurate–the strontium isotope values in Florida soils are also found much farther north into Alabama well above the Florida aquifer there.

On our modern anthropogenic-dominated earth, large mammal migrations are rare.  Wildebeest herds still follow their ancient migration patterns in east Africa, and barren ground caribou seasonally travel across Alaska and northern Canada, but man has forever ended the hundreds of other large mammal migrations that used to occur all over our once pristine planet.  Networks of roads, suburbs, cities, and farmlands put a mask over the landscape of southeastern North America, so  it is hard to imagine large herds of mammoths, mastodons, horses, and bison seasonally migrating throughout the region.  But scientists have found evidence that the first 3 once did.

The isotopic ratio of the element strontium, which is found in soil everywhere, varies geographically.  Strontium isotopes are absorbed by plants and then animals when they ingest the plants.  Scientists can determine where an animal resides by the ratio of strontium isotopes in an animal’s bone.  For the below referenced study, scientists determined the ratio of strontium isotopes for central Georgia and north Florida by looking at the strontium isotope ratios in local rodent teeth, plants, and groundwater.  They compared those values with strontium isotope ratios found in mastodon, mammoth, horse, deer, and tapir fossils excavated from several sites in north Florida, including Aucilla River and Sloth Hole.  From the numerical values they obtained, they were able to determine which individuals stayed in Florida and which seasonally migrated into central or even north Georgia.  (They couldn’t determine if the megafauna migrated between north and south Florida because strontium isotope ratios in the soil have the same value within the whole state.)

During the Last Glacial Maximum (~28,000 BP-~15,000 BP), mastodons seasonally migrated between north Florida and central Georgia, but mammoths did not.  However, prior to the LGM (>30,000 BP), mastodons did not migrate from Florida to Georgia.  Some undated mammoth specimens showed evidence that those individuals did seasonally migrate to central Georgia. These specimens may date to before the LGM.  The environmental changes that differentiate these 2 time periods may explain the change in migratory habits of these 2 species.  Mastodons were a semi-aquatic animal that lived in flooded swamps and marshes, and they mostly ate twigs, aquatic plants, and fruit.  Mammoths were an upland animal that fed mostly upon grass.  During the LGM the climate was dry and favored grass over trees, while wetlands were more scarce.  Accordingly, mastodons were forced to wander farther in search of favorable habitat.  Conversely, before the LGM, the climate was moist and favored trees over grass, while wetlands were abundant.  Under these conditions, mammoths were forced to travel longer distances looking for suitable habitat. 

The proboscideans are long-lived animals.  When the great beasts overgrazed the range, older individuals in the group remembered where to go to find fresher plant growth.  Recall the old saying–elephants never forget.  A good memory was critical to the survival of this species.  They had to remember where to go to find greener pastures.  Mastodons likely migrated up river valleys.  Mammoths may have followed these routes too, but were less tied to water.

The scientists only looked at the strontium isotope ratios of 3 horses.  Based on this scant sample size, before the LGM, horses migrated long distances between Florida and Georgia, but during the LGM they did not, indicating grass was plentiful all across the landscape then. 

Of the 12 white tail deer specimens, only 1 showed evidence of long distance migration.  White-tail deer have relatively small home ranges, but occasional individuals do disperse long distances.  The 2 tapir specimens didn’t migrate.

The Paleo-Indians probably used knowledge of migration patterns to ambush and wipe out whole herds of megafauna.  The need to migrate to find greener pastures was a fatal flaw for the great beasts when confronted with an increasing population of Homo sapiens.

Bull mastodons fighting for dominance.  I was unable to find an illustration on google images of Pleistocene megafauna migrating through an environment that would have looked like Florida and Georgia then.  Most illustrations of Pleistocene megafauna migration show them moving through icy tundra.  There was never icy tundra in Georgia and Florida.


Hoppe, Kathryn; and Paul Koch

“Reconstructing the Migration Patterns of Late Pleistocene Mammals from Northern Florida, USA”

Quaternary Research 68 2007

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

July 8, 2013

Frances Harper was a biologist from Cornell University who lived from 1886-1972.    He conducted a biological survey of the Northwest Territories of Canada before WWI and again after WWII.  He served as a rodent control officer for the U.S. army during the first world war.  He was a also a historical scholar who followed in the footsteps of William Bartram, and he’s responsible for getting Bartram’s Travels re-published in the 20th century.  He edited that re-publication and added notes about where he thought Bartram was on the trail compared to modern landmarks.  After WWI he conducted a biological survey of the Okefenokee Swamp.  (He used the archaic spelling of Okefinokee.)  He was instrumental in getting the swamp protected as a National Wildlife Refuge.  He wrote a fascinating book–Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp– that was published as a scientific paper in 1927.  This book is long out of print, and I checked where they have 1 used copy for $86.  The book is worth closer to $20.  I have a copy of this book, so periodically, I’m going to type up excerpts from it on my blog for people who are interested in it but don’t want to shell out that kind of dough.  The first excerpt will be his account of the Florida Wolf .

Illustration of the Florida wolf.  Harper gives it the incorrect scientific name Canis floridanus.  Actually, it’s an extinct color variation of the red wolf–Canis rufus.  Incidentally, there are no illustrations in Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp.

“The story of the Florida wolf is now largely a matter of past history.  The Okefinokee was certainly one of its last strongholds and may even yet shelter a few survivors.  Many residents of the region have personal recollections of Wolves, and some of their reports are considerably later than the date of the last known capture, about 1908.

In former times the species was doubtless distributed throughout the surrounding country as well as in the swamp itself.  Apparenly it frequented a wide range of habitats, from the pine barrens to cypress bays, with perhaps a general preference for the former.  Evidentally it moved freely by day as well as by night.  It preyed upon cattle and sheep as well as hogs, and it must have been a far more serious enemy to the stockman than the bear ever was.  Yet the accounts seem to indicate that it was neither very wary nor very courageous.  Its wide variation in color is mentioned here and there in the following notes.

S.L. Davis, of St. George, said that his father brought 300 head of cattle to that vicinity (probably about the middle of the last century), and that within three months or so only about 60 were left, the others having been killed by Wolves.

Chester Burkhalter related how his grandmother, when a girl about 1850, was followed by a couple of black Wolves near Arabia, in Clinch County.  She passed through a herd of cattle, where the Wolves made a detour and lost her trail.  Meanwhile, she climbed up a sycamore and remained a couple of hours.

In 1866, when J.D. Hendrix came to the swamp, there were a few Wolves here, and they preyed upon hogs and calves.  In 1867, at Beaver Dam, near Fort Mudge, while turkey-hunting early in the morning, he heard a Wolf howling and coming closer.  Then a pair of them appeared in the road, playing like dogs.  The male came up to within 21 steps, and when shot, bit its sides.  The female ran off.  The specimen was ‘a right black one’ . Others he knew of were gray or yellow.

He added that about 1887 Obadiah Barber and Leroy Thrift killed a Wolf that was being trailed by dogs in Pipe Swamp, between Waycross and Cowhouse Island.

The only time James Henderson has heard Wolves howling was in the fall of 1874, on Barnum Branch.  He thought there were eight or ten ‘head,’ but another man with him said there were three or four.

His father once poisoned an old dog Wolf that had been killing his sheep.  This was about 1865, 2 miles north of Ruskin, Ware County.  He dragged a beef hide, with ‘lights’ in it, for half a mile or so, then put a bait about 3 feet up in a tree, and repeated this in several places.  The Wolf was later found dead about 75 yards from one of the baits.  It was black with a white spot on its breast.

Fifty years or more ago Allen and Sam Chesser, while camping with their father and mother at Gannet Lake, heard a Wolf.  Its lonesome howl sounded an hour or two before daybreak.  The animal was apparently between Mitchell and Black Jack Islands.

Allen Chesser added that Berrien Dedge had killed a Wolf on Number One Island about 1890 or earlier.

About 1895 Hamp Mizell saw a Wolf near his home on the eastern border of the swamp.  It lay down in the road and wallowed, looking like a shaggy dog.  It had several holes dug about 4 feet into the ground, with a turn at the end.

Once, about 1911, he carried a shoulder of a shoat from the Suwannee River to a shanty on Rowell’s Island.  Later he saw by the tracks that a Wolf had trailed him for 3 miles.  That night it came close to the shanty and dug a hole about 3 feet deep.

In 1901 Sam Mizell saw tracks, which he took to be a Wolf’s, on Burnt Island, between Indian Swamp and Cross Swamp.  They were longer and narrower than a dog’s.  At about the same time period Mitchell Mizell saw a brownish Wolf on Black Jack Island.

David Lee can just remember the time (probably about 1900) when several Wolves killed a cow within a mile of the house on Billy’s Island.  He himself heard the racket they made in killing the cow, which had a bell on it.  Jackson Lee recalls how, in the same locality and at about the same period, a yearling was bitten in the back, probably by a Wolf.

About 1908 a black Wolf was trapped by James Lewis in a creek called Indian Swamp, on the west side of the Okefinokee about 10 miles north of Fargo.  It was said to have been the smaller one of two in a pack.  The hide was shipped to market by Willian Mobley, and the skull was not preserved.  This is the last record of a Wolf being taken in the region.

In 1916 (probably in May), while traveling along the ‘run’ through Billy’s Bay, David Lee heard some animal howling.  He thought at first that it was a dog, but stopped and listened attentively, and then knew it was not a dog.  He does not know what it could have been except a Wolf.  The water in the bay was rather low at the time.

There have been a number of possible records on Floyd’s Island in recent years.  In November, 1916, Harrison Lee heard there a strange noise like the howling of a Wolf.  A similar noise was heard by Jackson Lee about 7 o’clock one morning in May, 1921.  On two different occasions, at about this time, he heard something moving about near the camp in the hammock, and he considered that it might have been a Wolf.

About 1918 Harry and Ben Chesser saw the tracks of a Wolf on Number One Island, heard it ‘holler’ and chased it with dogs.

The disappearance of the Florida Wolf, like that of many another interesting creature, has evidentally been brought about solely throught the agency of civilized man.”

The Secret World of Red Wolves by T. Delene Beeland

July 6, 2013

I’m not familiar with awards given to science writers, but I do think Ms. Beeland deserves one for her new book, The Secret World of Red Wolves.  It is that good.  Her prose makes for easy reading, even though some of the topics covered in her book can be quite complex.  Her research was thorough and presented in a way a layman can understand and find interesting.  Yet, the book could also serve as a handy primer for scientists who are considering studying this species.

I read the second half of this book first, beginning with Chapter 8, because that had the information I was most eager to absorb.  Chapter 8 covers the controversial theories of the origin of the species.  Some think the red wolf evolved in North America hundreds of thousands of years ago. Others think the red wolf is a recent hybrid between gray wolves and coyotes.  A third theory assumes red wolves and coyotes share a common ancestry and split about 150,000 years ago.  I favor the shared ancestry school of thought.  I hypothesize red wolves evolved from Pleistocene coyotes in southeastern North America, following the extinction of the dire wolf.   The extinction of the dire wolf opened an ecological niche for a larger canid in the region.  This explains why coyotes were absent from the southeast for the last 10,000 years (until their recent colonization), and why coyotes and red wolves hybridize so easily.

Ms. Beeland discusses all of the genetic studies of red wolf origins, including those of Linda Rutledge, a Canadian researcher, who advocates the shared ancestry theory.  I contacted Ms. Rutledge after reading this chapter to inform her about the centuries old red wolf skeleton found in Fern Cave, Alabama.  (See  She responded and told me she is already “profiling” that specimen but “the results aren’t in yet.”  Hopefully, that specimen will shed some light on red wolf origins.

Chapter 9 covers the history of the red wolf from colonial times to its near extinction during the 1970’s.  I love old historical accounts of wildlife.  I did find a small gap in Ms. Beeland’s research for this chapter.  She wrote, “native wolves can’t have proved a serious threat to settlers and farmers in the southeast or much more would have been written about them.”  She must be unaware of The Okifenokee Album written by Frances Harper and Delma Presley.  The authors of this book reported the case of S.L. Davis who brought 300 beef cattle into the Okefenokee Swamp in 1850 and lost 230 of them to wolves in 3 months.  Obadiah Barber killed hundreds of Okefenokee wolves over a 40 year period along with 15o bears and 200 deer.  Most settlers didn’t have time to write about their negative experiences with wolves because they were too busy trying to make a living.

Chapters 10-13 of Ms. Beeland’s book cover the history of the red wolf recovery program.  In the last chapter she discusses the future of the red wolf program and possible threasts such as global warming.

I read the first half of the book last.  After an excellent introductory chapter, Ms. Beeland recounts her hands on experience shadowing the fish and wildlife service as they worked to protect the red wolf.  After reading this part of the book, it occurred to me how ironic the title is.  There is nothing at all secret about the lives of the surviving population of red wolves.  Every adult is radio-collared, and scientists implant chips into the pups as soon as they can find them in the spring.  The wolf’s scat is frequently collected and analyzed.  Scientists even influence which wolves breed with each other to prevent inbreeding.  Coyotes that form mated pairs with red wolves are sterilized, but not killed because killing coyotes increases coyote populations.  (See  Actually, it’s sad how little mystery surrounds the lives of the final remnant population of red wolves.  Nevertheless, The Secret World of Red Wolves is a must read for anyone interested in the nature of southeastern North America.

My Favorite Bird and My Birding Wish List

July 2, 2013

My favorite bird is the chimney swift (Chaetura pelagica).  I love to watch the way they fly.  They reach speeds of 150 mph and demonstrate great agility when they change directions to catch mosquitoes and flies.  They’re the only bird that can outmaneuver the peregrine falcon.  A colony of chimney swifts lives in my chimney.  I hear the roar of their wings every evening from late March to early August when they leave and enter my chimney.  Once in a while, I stand outside and watch them drop into my chimney.  They’ll be flying at over 100 mph and suddenly stop and drop straight down–an amazing feat of precision.  Formerly, before Europeans colonized North America and built chimneys, swifts nested in ancient hollow trees, especially sycamores.  J.J. Audubon found a colony in an old sycamore that had an estimated 9000 chimney swifts in it.  They construct their nests from twigs cemented together with their saliva.  My chimney swifts leave me by mid-August and spend their winters in somebody else’s chimney in South America.

Chimney swifts flying over someone’s chimney.  They’re my favorites.

I’m not one of those birding nuts who travels all over the world, so they can add bird species to their lifetime checklist, but there are 4 species of birds that live in Georgia I’d like to see.

Loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus)

I have never seen a shrike of any kind.  They prefer old farm country with hedgerows, scattered short trees, and barbed wire or thorny bushes upon which they impale their prey.  They are in decline because farmland is being converted to 2nd growth forest and suburbs.  They hunt large insects, mice, and reptiles, including baby rattlesnakes.  Shrikes are songbirds without talons suitable for holding prey down while they tear off pieces of flesh  to feed, explaining why they impale their prey.  The thorns or barbs fasten down the prey while they peck at it.

Painted bunting (Passerina ciris)

I want to see this bird simply to admire its colorful beauty.  It’s rare today because it was overcollected by people wanting to keep them in cages.

Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis)

This 4 foot tall bird digs up roots and also eats animal matter.  J.J. Audubon saw them devouring sweet potatoes on old southern plantations.  A crane that he wounded on one occasion chased him back to his boat.  I have never seen a crane, even in captivity.  Nevertheless, hunters can legally kill them in 13 states, and Kentucky is considering enacting a crane hunting season.  Reportedly, their flesh tastes like ribeye steak.  I’ve eaten ostrich, and it tastes like beef filet mignon.  However, I think anybody who would kill a crane in this day and age is a stupid pig.  Game and fish commissioners are wrong to allow this bird to be hunted, just because their populations are beginning to rebound.

Bald Eagle (Haliaeartus leucocephalus) nesting pair on Berry College Campus, Rome, Georgia

I have seen bald eagles in Georgia on 2 occasions but not for 25 years, and I’d like to see them again.  I saw a bald eagle soaring high over a landfill in Evans, Georgia during the early 1980’s, and I saw another one in Columbus, Georgia in 1988 while on a business trip.  In 2011 there were 142 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Georgia.  The following year, a pair took up residence on the Berry College campus in Rome, Georgia.

Rare Birds I Have Seen Recently

Swallow tailed kite (Elanoides furficatus)

I see a lot of birds when I drive through Emanuel, Jenkins, and Burke County near Midville.  Birds like the varied habitat of farmland, 2nd growth forest, and swamp, especially the areas adjacent to the Ogeechee River and the Big Dukes Pond Natural Area which is a Carolina Bay.  A few days ago, I spotted a swallowtailed kite that I recognized by its unmistakeable forked tail.    Formerly, this bird was an abundant summer resident in the south, and small flocks even reached north central states.  But now, they are extirpated from the north and are rare in the south.  They fly with great speed and agility, and people liked the challenge of shooting them for the hell of it.  It didn’t take long to decimate their populations.  They primarily hunt large insects, including grasshoppers and dragonflies, which they catch while flying.  They also drink on the wing, like swallows.  They hunt snakes and lizards and took advantage of the frequent wildfires that occurred on primeval landscapes by catching insects and reptiles, fleeing the flames.

Wood Storks (Mycteria americana) in Georgia.

I’ve seen this bird on 3 occasions but have yet to visit the enormous nesting colonies located less than an hour’s drive from my house at Big Dukes Pond in Jenkins County, Georgia and the Audubon Nature Center in Jackson, South Carolina.  Much of the environment where they lived in Florida has been destroyed by development, so they’ve moved to more sites in Georgia.  They have beautiful black wings that contrast with their white bodies but man are their bills ugly.  I guess when they mate they put bags over their heads.

Red cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis)

I saw red cockaded woodpeckers in the St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge in Florida.  They’re a rather nondescript bird completely dependent upon open pine savannah habitat.