Archive for March, 2016

Pleistocene Dung Beetles

March 31, 2016

An odd thought occurred to me the other day involving Hindu reincarnation myths and dung beetles.  I happened to jog past a female rainbow scarab beetle (Phanaeus vintex), rolling a dog turd on the asphalt-topped road.  (Female scarab beetles lack the male’s horn, making the sexes easy to distinguish.)  Scarab beetles bury feces and lay their eggs in it.  Both the adults and larva eat shit.  Apparently, this particular scarab beetle was looking for soft earth where it could bury its offspring’s food supply, but it couldn’t find the end of the hard road–it kept rolling the turd in circles.  I felt sorry for the creature because it would roll the turd within inches of the side of the road, almost to the dirt, then it would turn around and roll it toward the other side.  A car ran over the turd, busting it into 3 pieces.  Undeterred, the dung beetle picked the largest piece left and began rolling it in circles again, never quite reaching the dirt for as long as I observed it.  I’m not familiar with the Hindu religion, but I think they believe human spirits can be reincarnated as animals.  Suppose the Hindu Gods punished a human, whose sin during life was laziness, by reincarnating his soul as a dung beetle stuck rolling a heavy turd on a hard surface where it could never find a soft place to rest.  The soul could spend an eternity of hard labor to make up for his earthly slothfulness.  In reality a dung beetle never gets discouraged because insects are automatons with no emotions.  Before man built hard roads the only environment where dung beetles could become indefinitely trapped rolling turds were large granite outcroppings.  Dung beetles are yet another organism suffering a high death toll because of man’s extensive road network.

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I saw this female rainbow scarab beetle rolling a dog turd on the street in front of my house.  It was aimlessly rolling it around in circles.  It just missed getting run over by cars.  Click to enlarge.

There are 3 types of dung utilization behaviors among the many species of dung beetles.  Some take a piece of shit and roll it some distance away from the manure pile before digging a hole and depositing an egg in it.  These dung beetles are known as “rollers” and include members of the Phanaeus genus.  The “tunnelers,” including members of the Onthophagus genus, dig holes adjacent and under the dung pile where they deposit their eggs.  The “dwellers” live and lay their eggs inside the dung pile.  These include members of the Aphodius genus, and they release chemicals that keep the dung patty moist.

It is likely the widespread extinction of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene caused a drastic reduction in the abundance and diversity of dung beetles.  One study found that the diversity and size of dung beetle species in Africa was higher in regions with abundant populations of megafauna.  Researchers counted 50 species of dung beetles in savannahs where elephants still occurred, 41 species where just cattle ranged, and 30 species in regions with no large mammals.  Dung beetles that switched to donkey shit in regions where elephants became extirpated were reduced in size.

Most species of extinct Pleistocene dung beetles will likely remain unknown to science because the odds of preservation for insects are even lower than those for large vertebrates.  However, 3 extinct species have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in California–Onthophagus everestae, Copris pristinus, and an unnamed species in the Phanaeus genus.  (It’s possible some of these may be extant but undiscovered, but so far no entomologist has found a living specimen.)  The only species of dung beetle found in a preserved mammoth turd is the still extant Aphodius fossor, a large insect found in cow and horse pastures of Eurasia and North America.  Aphodius fossor probably followed herds of megafauna across the Bering land bridge almost 2 million years ago.  The specimen of mammoth dung containing the sub-fossil dung beetle was recovered from Bechan Cave, Utah.  An excavation at Snowmass, Colorado has yielded the remains of 9 species of dung beetles associated with the bones of megafauna dating to 120,000 years BP-77,000 years BP.  Scientists have identified 3 of the species, and they still occur in the region.  The remains of the other 6 species are too fragmentary to positively identify to the species level, but they may or may not represent extinct beetles.  Dung beetles have yet to be discovered from giant ground sloth dung, but fly larva from the Diptera genus, and a fly pupa from the Scairidae family have been found in sloth shit occasionally preserved in caves.  Flies compete with dung beetles.  Some species of dung beetles have evolved to prey on fly larva they capture inside feces.

Aphodius fossor - David Gould - The Spearwort Fields - 06 July 2014

Aphodius fossor, the only species of dung beetle ever found inside mammoth feces, though without a doubt many species were attracted to piles of megafauna shit during the Pleistocene.  The rarity of manure preservation in the fossil record explains the absence of evidence for other species.

Dung Beetle Life Cycle

Life cycle of a dung beetle roller.  Some other species tunnel into dung and lay their eggs inside the patty.

Dung beetles are beneficial organisms that expedite the recycling of nutrients.  The adults and larva also serve as food for birds and mammalian insectivores.  Birds, moles, shrews, skunks, possums, and armadillos apparently don’t mind the taste of the manure-flavored beetle grubs.

References:

Hanski, Ilkka; and Yues Cambefust

Dung Beetle Ecology

Princeton University Press 2014

Krell, Frank-Thorsten

“Pleistocene Dung Beetles from MIS 5 at Ziegler Reservoir, Snowmass Village, Colorado (Coleoptera: Scarabaedae: Aphodine)”

Denver Museum of Nature and Science Annals 2014

Pierce, W. D.

“Fossil Arthropods of California: Descriptions of Dung Beetles (Scarabidae of the Tar Pits”

Bulletin of Southern California Academy of Science 1946

 

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Pleistocene Chickadees

March 27, 2016

It is difficult to discern the difference between a black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and a Carolina chickadee (P. carolinensis).  The former has a longer tail and is a little heavier on average, but as the below photos show, they are hard to distinguish, even if examined side-by-side.  Moreover, the 2 species hybridize in regions where their ranges overlap.  The hybrid zone extends from New Jersey to Kansas with an outlying zone in the Appalachian Mountains.  In captivity male Carolina chickadees outcompete black-capped chickadees for mates, and scientists know female black-capped chickadees will choose male Carolina chickadees in the wild, often as “extra pair sires.”  Supposedly Carolina chickadees have a 4 note song, while black-capped chickadees have a 2 note song.  (See: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/search/?q=chickadee ) In the hybrid zone chickadees use both songs.  However, I live in Augusta, Georgia; far from the hybrid zone, and I discovered Carolina chickadees here use both the 2 note and the 4 note song.  I conclude the 2 species can’t be distinguished by which song they use.

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Partial range map for Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees.  

Black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina chickadee.

 

The chickadees are tough Pleistocene survivors.  They are a year round resident of forest and woodland, capable of enduring harsh winters because they stash caches of seeds utilized during lean times.  Chickadees belong to the Paridae family that also includes tits and titmice.  Genetic evidence suggests the ancestors of all American Paridae originated in Asia and then colonized North America about 3.5 million years ago.  Cyclical climate change caused corresponding changes in the environment over time.  The founding population of these forest-dwelling birds became isolated into different populations by expanding desert grassland or in some cases by glaciers, resulting in the evolution of different species.

I was surprised to learn Carolina chickadees and black-capped chickadees are not sister species, even though they appear so similar and hybridize.  (Sister species are organisms that most recently evolved from the same common ancestor.  The official definition is “taxa derived from a common ancestral node.”)  Instead, the genetic evidence suggests the black-capped chickadee is a sister species of the mountain chickadee (P. gambeli), a bird that ranges throughout the Rocky Mountains, and the Carolina chickadee is a sister species of the Mexican chickadee (P. sclateri).  The chestnut-backed chickadee (P. rufescens) of the Pacific northwest, the boreal chickadee (P. hudsonicus) of Canada, and the gray-backed chickadee (P. cinctus) of Alaska and Scandinavia are sister species with each other.  Genetic evidence also shows black-capped chickadees and boreal chickadees have greatly expanded their ranges from single source populations, since the end of the last Ice Ages after the massive glaciers that covered their present day ranges melted.

Chickadees have likely been a common bird in southeastern North America for over 2 million years.  Yet, I’m aware of just a single specimen found in this region dating to the Pleistocene.  This specimen belongs to the University of Florida Museum of Natural History and was found at the Inglis fossil site in Florida.  It is early Pleistocene/late Pliocene in age (~1.9 million years old).  It was identified as a boreal chickadee, a species restricted to Canada today.  I can’t find the scientific journal within which this specimen was described.  Considering how hard it is to distinguish between species of chickadees, I’m uncertain how accurate this species diagnosis is.  However, boreal chickadees may have once been more widespread in North America before other chickadees, such as the Carolina, evolved and outcompeted them in various regions. The rarity in the fossil record of a species that was probably abundant for millions of years shows how fleeting evidence of an organism’s existence is.

References:

Gill, FB; B. Slikas and F.H. Shulde

“Phylogeny of titmice (Paridae): 11 Species Relationships Based on Sequences of the Mitochondrial Cytochrome Gene”

The Auk 122 Jan 2005

Reudink, Matthew; et. al.

“Structure and Dynamics of the Hybrid Zone between Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapullus) and Carolina Chickadee (P. carolinensis) in Southeastern Pennsylvania”

The Auk 124 (2) 2007

Australian Aborigines Probably Ate Some Species of Birds into Extinction

March 21, 2016

Genyornis newtoni, a 500 pound flightless bird related to geese and ducks, roamed Australia during the Pleistocene.  Most scientists believe genyornis primarily ate plants, like its cousins; but a minority think it was carnivorous.  Supposed egg shells of this extinct bird occur frequently in the fossil record along with eggshells of the still extant emu (Dromaus novachellandiae) until between 50,000-45,000 years ago.  This is the time period when people first colonized the Australian continent.  A group of scientists examined 700 eggshells from 500 sites and determined that human exploitation of genyornis eggs led to its extinction between 53,000 BP-44,000 BP.  Many of the eggs were apparently cooked in embers–direct evidence humans were eating the eggs.  After this time period humans continued to eat emu eggs, but genyornis eggshells no longer occur in the archaeological record.  Emus were more resilient to human exploitation than the slower breeding, larger species.

However, a recent study casts doubt on the identification of the genyornis eggs.  The scientists who authored this paper suggest the alleged genyornis eggs are far too small to have been laid by a bird the size of genyornis.  These eggs are slightly smaller than emu eggs, and emus are much smaller than genyornis was.  They suggest the eggs thought to be from genyornis belonged to another extinct species, a bird in the progura genus that is related to the Australian brush turkey and the mallee bird.  This extinct species likely reached just 12 pounds.  They believe the data from the first study mentioned above strongly suggests man is responsible for the extinction of the progura species but does not explain how genyornis became extinct.  If this second study correctly identified the bird genus in question, than there are no known specimens of genyornis eggs.  The emu and progura eggshell fragments were found in arid sand dunes.  Genyornis probably lived in wetter more wooded environments where their egg shells didn’t survive the ravages of time.

Ancient%2Bextinction%2Bof%2Bgiant-Geolog

Illustration of megalania hunting a large (also extinct) bird known as Genyornis newtoni.  Humans probably overexploited them into extinction, but the evidence that aborigines cooked and ate their eggs may be a case of misidentified eggshells.

A red ochre painting, which depicts two emu-like birds with their necks outstretched

Archaeologists believe this Australian cave painting is of a Genyornis newtoni.  Paintings of other extinct Australian megafauna have been found in the same region.  It is estimated to be at least 40,000 years old.

The purported genyornis egg on the left has probably been misidentified.  Note how small it is compared to the genyornis leg.  Instead, eggs identified as being laid by Genyornis newtoni were probably laid by a species in the Progura genus.

Leipoa ocellata -Ongerup, Western Australia, Australia-8.jpg

A new study suggest the eggs belonged to an extinct genus related to this species–Leipoa ocellata, the mallee bird.

A recent statistical study does implicate overhunting by man as the reason for the extinction of Australia’s megafauna.  The authors of this study determined climate change could not have caused the extinctions.  Proponents for climate change models of extinction in Australia claim increasing aridity eliminated habitat for many species of megafauna including megalania, a land crocodile, a giant kangaroo, a giant echidna, a marsupial lion, and genyornis.  However, these extinctions took place during Marine Isotope Stage 3 (60,000 years BP-30,000 years BP), a climate stage that was less arid than the previous MIS 4.  All of these species survived the greater aridity of MIS 4 and its harsher condition but became extinct after man arrived on the continent.  The megafauna extinctions took place within less than 13,500 years after man’s arrival on the continent, supporting a protracted overkill scenario.  The authors concede that overhunting by man for some species in some regions may have resulted in a more rapid extinction in some cases, but overall it took millennia for aborigines to wipe out most of Australia’s megafauna.

References:

Miller, Gifford; et. al.

“Human Predation Contributed to the Extinction of the Australian Megafaunal Bird Genyornis newtoni”

Nature Communications 2016

Grellel-Tinner, Gerald; Nigel Spooner, and Trevor Worthy

“Is the “Genyornis” Egg of a Nihirung or Another Extinct Bird from the Australian Dreamtime?”

Quaternary Science Reviews 2016

Saltre, Frederick; et. al.

“Climate Change not to Blame for Late Quaternary Megafauna Extinctions in Australia”

Nature Communications 2016

 

The Little Salt Spring Fossil Site in Southwestern Florida

March 14, 2016

About 50 years ago, scuba divers discovered Little Salt Springs was not the shallow brackish pond everybody thought it was.  They were surprised to find it was 200 feet deep.  From an aerial view the lake is perfectly round, but underneath the surface it is hourglass-shaped with ledges that were above the water table until ~7,000 years ago.  Below 20 feet the water here has no dissolved oxygen, making it inhospitable to fish and microorganisms that would normally decompose organic material.  The conditions are exceptionally favorable for the preservation of animal bones and human artifacts.  The real estate company that owned the sinkhole and the land around it donated this scientifically significant site to the University of Miami.  That institution employed scientists who administered and studied the sinkhole for over 30 years.   Then, a few years ago, some budget-cutting troglodyte sold the site to Sarasota County, probably so the university can spend more money hiring football coaches, like Mark Richt.

Click to View Larger Map

Little Salt Spring is located on the outskirts of North Port, Florida, not far from Sarasota.

Picture

Illustration of Little Salt Spring.  There is no dissolved oxygen below about 20 feet, and therefore no bacteria, resulting in excellent preservation of ancient fossil remains and organic artifacts.

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Deer antler with 28 notches carved into it marking the 28 days of the lunar month.  It’s a kind of archaic Indian calendar. It was found in the sinkhole along with many other artifacts.

The most famous specimen discovered in Little Salt Spring is a giant tortoise (Hesperotestudo crassicutata) shell with a wooden stake stuck through it.  Archaeologists believe it fell on to a ledge that was above the water table at the time.  A Paleo-Indian killed the tortoise with a wooden stake, turned it on its back, and cooked the unlucky chelonian in its shell.  Despite the likelihood that overhunting by humans caused the extinction of this species, this is the only direct evidence that people exploited them.  Some researchers initially rejected this interpretation because the carbon date for the wooden stake didn’t match the radiocarbon date of the tortoise shell.  But improved radiocarbon dating techniques since then have confirmed the wooden stake and the tortoise shell are the same age.

A series of wooden stakes, now submerged, were planted above the ledge where the cooked tortoise shell was found.  Archaeologists think the stakes may have supported some kind of camouflage that hid the steep ledge.  Prey animals blundered or were chased off the precipice and became trapped on the ledge.  The stakes may have also supported rope ladders, so the Indians could climb down and kill the animal trapped on the ledge.

A National Geographic News article from 2009 mentions the butchered remains of a Jefferson’s ground sloth were found on a submerged ledge at this site.  This would be just the 2nd known case of human exploitation of a ground sloth in North America.  However, I can find nothing in the scientific literature about this specimen.  Although professors from the University of Miami studied this site for decades, they published just an handful of papers about it.  The volume of research they produced surprises and disappoints me.

Most of the human artifacts found at this site are early archaic.  Some of the most interesting include 4 non-returning boomerangs made of oak wood that date to ~9,000 years ago, a carved atlatl handle, a green stone pendant, and a notched deer antler used as a lunar calendar.  There are hundreds of archaic Indian graves where human remains have rested for over 5000 years.  The water table rose shortly after people were buried by the lake’s edge, resulting in excellent preservation–some skulls still have brain matter inside.

Scientists have identified the bones of mastodon, Jefferson’s ground sloth, saber-tooth, rabbit, wood stork, giant tortoise, gopher tortoise, Florida cooter, red-bellied turtle, an extinct species of box turtle, diamondback rattlesnake, and largemouth bass from Little Salt Spring.  Less than 5% of the site has been surveyed for subfossil remains and artifacts.  I’m sure the list would grow, if there was a concerted effort made by scuba-diving paleontologists.

During the late Pleistocene, Little Salt Spring was much farther inland from sea level than it is today.  Dry land extended for many miles into the Gulf of Mexico.  The composition of species suggests that when Indians first discovered this sinkhole it was a wetland oasis surrounded by arid sand hill savannahs dotted with a sparse tree canopy.

References:

Holman, J.; and Carl Clausen

“Fossil Vertebrates Associated with Paleo-Indian Artifacts at Little Salt Spring”

Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 4 (1) September 1984

Wisner, G.

“Diving into Paleo-Florida”

Mammoth Trumpet 23 (1) 2008

 

 

 

Pleistocene Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)

March 8, 2016

A large population of 7 foot long, 150 pound paddlefishes lived in the primeval waters of the Mississippi River Drainage System  from well before the Pleistocene until the 19th century when humans began overexploiting this species.  An even larger population of smaller individuals also swam these waters for eons.  Millions upon millions of paddlefishes existed for tens of thousands of generations, yet, as far as I can determine from the scientific literature, not a single fossil specimen of Pleistocene Age has ever been found.  The paddlefish is a primitive species with a body structure supported by cartilage rather than bone.  There is nothing on their body that is hard and durable, therefore, evidence of their past existence is very unlikely to survive the ravages of time.  Sharks are also primitive fishes supported by cartilage, but at least they have hard teeth that do resist decomposition.  There isn’t even much evidence of paddlefish in the archaeological record, though Indians certainly utilized this species.  The remains of a paddlefish were excavated from a Native-American midden located in Wisconsin.

Scientists do know the paddlefish is an ancient species, possibly originating before the dinosaurs.  William Bemis, a paleontologist, described a Cretaceous Age fossil of a paddlefish found in Montana as “remarkably like (the 2) living species of polyodon.”  The only other extant species of paddlefish in the world occurs in Chinese rivers, and its scientific name is Polyodon gladius.  The 2 living species probably diverged during the Miocene between 25 million-5 million years BP, when climatic changes led to an environmental barrier that divided the American population from the Asian gene pool.  Genetic evidence suggests the American paddlefish has been uniform for a long time.  They travel great distances throughout the Mississippi River Drainage System and interbreed freely and do not live in isolated populations.  One tagged specimen caught in Moon Lake, Mississippi was captured later 870 miles away in Illinois.

American Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula).

The American paddlefish filter-feeding. No Pleistocene aged specimens of this species have ever been found because they are made of cartilage.  The adults have no teeth.

Paddlefish range map.  Paddlefish are now extinct on the periphery of their northeastern range and their populations are in decline elsewhere.

Paddlefish live in large rivers, braided channels, and oxbow lakes.  All of these habitats existed during the Pleistocene.  Braided channels more commonly formed during cold arid phases of Ice Ages.  The lower water table resulted in channels cut off and choked with sandbars.  Warmer wetter climate phases caused an increase in the formation of oxbow lakes as overflowing waters meandered more.  Paddlefish thrived in both habitats wherever there was an abundance of zooplankton.  Paddlefish use their unusual paddle-like structures to locate the tiny crustaceans and insects upon which they filter feed.  Their diet of mini-crustaceans probably explains why their flesh reportedly tastes like lobster.  They are still referred to as “poor man’s lobster,” even though this endangered fish is now rarer in fish markets than actual lobster.

Moon Lake, Mississippi still supports a commercial fishery for paddlefish.  They were so abundant during the early 20th century here that 100 could be caught in a single purse-seine haul.  The catch is much reduced today.

Moon Lake, Mississippi, an oxbow adjacent to the Mississippi River, still has a viable population of endangered paddlefish.

Oxbow lake formation fascinates me.  An oxbow lake is the remains of a meander that gets cut off from the main flow of the river, following a period of high water when the river surges over land to connect the shortest distance between 2 points.  These natural formations provided the only lake habitats over much of the south until man began building reservoirs.  Eventually, sediment builds in oxbow lakes until they evolve into marshes and then dry land.  Old oxbows that dry out are known as meander scars.

References:

Hoover, Jeffrey; et. al.

“Age and Reproductive Condition of an Unusually Large Bighead Carp from the Lower Mississippi River Basin”

Southeastern Naturalist 14 (4) 2015

Theler, James

“Animal Remains from Native American Archaeological Sites in Western Wisconsin”

Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Art, and Letters 2010

 

 

Apple Pollinating Bees and Rare Varieties of Southern Apples

March 3, 2016

Alarmist reports from the sensationalist media, suggesting an eventual end to the availability of fruits and vegetables because of colony collapse disorder, are completely unfounded. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/pleistocene-pollinators ) In North America the honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a non-native invasive species.  The decline of this species due to this mysterious disorder may cause high honey prices, but it will not impact the pollination of most agricultural crops.  Honeybees are just 1 of thousands of pollinating insect species. A recent study of bees in north Georgia apple orchards found that honeybees comprised just 7% of the total number of bees captured.  Moreover, native bees are much more efficient pollinators than honeybees.

Researchers surveyed bees in 4 orchards in north Georgia: Mercier Orchard with 150,000 trees planted on 200 acres, Hillside Orchard with 40,000 trees, Tiger Mountain Orchard with over 1000 trees, and Mountain View Orchard with just under 1000 trees.  The scientists captured a total of 2025 bees consisting of 128 species and 30 genera.  The most common species of bee caught in their traps was the hawthorn adrena (Adrena crataegi).  It comprised 31% of the bees in the survey.  It’s named after the hawthorn bush, a common species inhabiting open woods that produces a small apple-like fruit.  This species of bee readily adapted to pollinating apple blossoms after Europeans introduced the fruit to America.  Hawthorns are in the same family as apples.  The 2nd and 3rd most common bees caught in the traps were the wasp-like bees–Lasioglossum (dialectus) imitatum and L. (d.) pilosum.  Bee families in order of abundance were the Andrenidae (mining bees) composing 46.5%, the Halictidae (sweat bees) composing 34.2%, the Apidae (honeybees and bumblebees) composing 17.1%, the Megachilidae (mason and leafcutter bees) composing 1.8%, and Collectidae (polyester bees) composing .4%.  Incidentally, the authors of this study, even with outside help, couldn’t identify 10% of the species they trapped.  There are still many species of insects in North America yet to be described and named by entomologists.  All these species of bees pollinate a wide range of native and non-native plants.

Most of the species of bees in the Andrenidae family are solitary, but the hawthorn adrena does nest communally.  The authors of this study suggest the hawthorn adrena as a replacement for honeybees in areas where the latter have suffered severe population declines.

Andrena? - Andrena crataegi

Adrena crataegi is by far the most abundant species of bee that pollinates apples in North Georgia.  It’s native to North America and could be used to replace honeybees used for pollinating fruit.

Lasioglossum imitatum

The wasp-like bee (Lasioglossum imitatum) is the 2nd most common pollinating bee in north Georgia apple orchards.

European settlers planted apple trees in North America as soon as they arrived on the continent.  Apples were most important for the production of hard cider, a substitute for beer in regions where barley crops were unreliable.  Alcoholic beverages were considered an essential part of daily living during the colonial era.  Some rich planters imported young trees bearing the highest quality fruit known in Europe, but most settlers started their orchards from seeds they obtained at little expense.  Apple trees grown from seeds don’t produce the same quality fruit as their parent.  Most fruit from seedling apple trees is of poor quality.  Twigs from the rare tree that does produce good fruit are grafted on root stocks of other apple trees.  That is how good varieties of apples are cultivated.

Settlers moved inland and planted large orchards from apple seeds.  The majority of these trees produced fruit that was used to fatten hogs but served no other purpose.  A few trees produced fruit that was good enough to feed members of the household.  A few mature apple trees would provide plenty of fruit, even for the large farm families of the time.  Other apple trees produced fruit with certain qualities particularly suited for certain purposes.  Some trees produced apples that more readily fermented into cider and vinegar.  Some of the best cider apples were considered unpalatable fresh off the tree but made a superior drink when fermented.  Other trees bore apples that were only of fair eating but kept without refrigeration until late spring.  Still others bore palatable fruit as early as June.  A farm with a long-keeping variety and an early bearer could have a year round supply of apples.

Carolina Red June Fruit

Most apples ripen from August-October, but the red June apple is prized for ripening earlier.

 

The horse apple was one of the most popular apples in the south before 1930.  Not great for fresh-eating, the vigorous trees reportedly produce large crops of apples that are good for cider, drying, and jelly.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew Hewe’s crabapple for cider.

Johnson Keeper apples originated in Mississippi some time before 1885.  They keep until late spring without refrigeration.

The Mattamuskeet apple is a very rare apple originating near Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina. It’s known for its long-keeping quality.  Some claimed this apple could keep for years without refrigeration.  This variety has an interesting origin story that may or may not be true.  Supposedly, an Indian found the seed of this apple in the gizzard of a goose he shot along the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet.  He planted this seed and gave the twigs (scions) to European settlers.

Some of these antique apple varieties were better suited for drying and could be kept indefinitely.  Varieties that disintegrated in stews to add a tart sweet flavor increased the repertoire of country cooks.  Using apples to season pioneer stews of wild game precedes the common use now of tomatoes in stew.

Over 1800 varieties of apples were grown in southern orchards between 1600-1930.  The most successful varieties were well adapted to the southern climate with its long humid summers and mild winters.  Apples require a certain amount of cold weather or they won’t bear well.  Many varieties grown in the south had a low chilling requirement.  They were also resistant to local diseases.  Many of these old-timey varieties became rare or even extinct when family farmers left the land to take factory jobs during the middle of the 20th century.

Fewer than 20 varieties of apples are sold in grocery stores today.  These very sweet, all purpose apples probably do taste better than most of the antique varieties but lack the characteristics that made the older types better for certain purposes such as the making of apple butter, jelly, or cider. In recent years 2 major brands of hard cider have begun to appear on the beer aisle in grocery stores.  They both taste like yeasty bad home brew.  The makers of these brands might want to experiment with some of the older varieties of cider apples, so they can improve their product.

References:

Calhoun, Creighton

Old Southern Apples: A Comprehensive History and Description for Collectors, Growers, and Fruit Enthusiasts

Chelsea Green Publishing 2010

Schlueter, Mark; and Nicholas Stewart

“Native Bee (Hymenoptera: Apoidea) Abundance and Diversity in North Georgia Apple Orchards throughout the 2010 Growing Season (March to October)”

Southeastern Naturalist 14 (4) 2015