Archive for July, 2018

Did Large Carnivores Influence Dune Formation in Ice Age Georgia?

July 26, 2018

Over 100 years ago Australians built a 3480 mile long fence to keep dingoes away from livestock. For ecologists this provides a grand experiment of how the exclusion of a large predator influences ecosystems. However, there exists a considerable amount of conflicting scientific literature about this. Many studies report overgrazed regions on the dingo-less side of the fence that have poor soils as a result. The fence bisects a national park. One study confined to part of this park counted 85 dingoes and 8 kangaroos on the side of the fence with the dingoes, and 1 dingo and 3200 kangaroos in a comparably sized lot on the side that is supposed to be without dingoes. Tame livestock, feral goats and hogs, and rabbits along with the kangaroos contribute to these overgrazed landscapes. Parma wallabies, the greater bilby, and small rodents thrive on the side of the fence with the dingoes because the large canines suppress populations of smaller predators. Another study that claims to be more comprehensive than any other found no differences between either side of the fence. The authors of this study suggest there are no differences because dingoes have never been completely eliminated on the supposedly dingo-less side of the fence. They say other studies concluding there is a difference are local and anecdotal.

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Dingo on a sand dune.

I think the most interesting study is a recent paper that found the presence of dingoes influenced sand dune formation in arid regions. On the dingo-less side of the fence sand dunes were larger and stabilized with shrubby plants growing on top. On the side of the fence with dingoes sand dunes were more shallow, bald, and dispersed by wind because plant growth was sparse. This seems counterintuitive. But this difference in dune formation is caused by the suppression of small carnivore populations. Dingoes reduce populations of foxes and feral cats (neither of which are native to Australia). In turn dusky hopping mice and rabbit populations increase, and they eat the seeds of plants and shrub saplings that keep dunes stabilized.

This last study is most interesting to me because sand dunes rolled across parts of Georgia during the coldest driest stages of Ice Ages, and I wonder if large predators influenced their shape and pattern. The arid climate caused some small rivers in Georgia to run dry. Wind blew the riverine sand into big dunes that are still evident today, though scrubby vegetation has since stabilized them. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/the-ohoopee-sand-dunes/ ) I’ve hypothesized overgrazing by megafauna alongside shrinking water holes located in the river bed may have contributed to the erosion leading to sand dune formation. But maybe the presence of large carnivores played a role as well. Dire wolves, jaguars, and cougars suppressed populations of bobcats and foxes; causing an increase in rodent and rabbit numbers. The small herbivores stripped the vegetation bare, allowing sand dunes to roll. On the other hand hawks, owls, and snakes probably always remained abundant, and they likely provided a check on rodent and rabbit populations. Nevertheless, the notion large carnivores may have influenced dune formation in Georgia is an intriguing idea.

References:

Glen, A.; and C. Dietman, M. Soule, and B. Mackey
“Evaluating the Role of the Dingo as a Trophic Regulator in Australian Ecosystems”
Australian Ecology August 2007

Harris, Emma
“Dingoes have Changed the Actual Shape of the Australian Desert”
The Atlantic July 6, 2018

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Piedmont Plant Species Bartram First Encountered at the Augusta Shoals

July 22, 2018

I’ve read all or parts of Bartram’s Travels hundreds of times, but whenever I re-read it I always find something new that fascinates me.  William Bartram journeyed from Savannah, Georgia to Augusta during 1773, and in his book he describes the flora of the maritime forests, lower coastal plain, and upper coastal plain.  The descriptions are so packed with information I didn’t notice until recently a small paragraph about some piedmont plant species he first encountered alongside the shoals of Augusta.  He refers to this spot as a cataracts.  Several important Indian trails converged here because the shoals afforded a shallow crossing.  Augusta developed as an Indian trading village because of these shoals.  Bartram describes Augusta as a small village that reaches all the way to the “cataracts,” and it was surrounded by “gay lawns and green meadows.”  Augusta is on the edge of the hill country, and species that prefer higher elevations begin to occur here.  Bartram arrived in May when all of these species were in full bloom.  He listed Rhododendron ferruginumPhiladelphus inodorus, Malva, and Pancratium fluitans.   I haven’t visited the shoals in a while, but I don’t recall seeing any of these species next to the shoals.  They’ve been eliminated from the immediate vicinity, though the first 3 are commonly planted as ornamentals in people’s yards.  Bartram wrote Pancratium fluitans inhabited every rocky islet on the shoals.  (The common name of this species is rocky shoals spider lily.  It’s modern scientific name has been changed to Hymenocallis coronaria.)  Unfortunately, today there are just 50 populations of this species left because reservoirs inundate their favored habitat.  The natural beauty of rocky shoals has diminished since Bartam saw them.

Scenes around Augusta, Georgia - Savannah River shoals - Stock Image

Augusta shoals.  The lock was built 100 years after Bartram saw it.

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Rhododendron ferrugineum is a common ornamental plant in Augusta.  It grew wild near the Augusta shoals.

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Scentless mockorange is also commonly planted as an ornamental but wild populations grew near the shoals.

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Common mallow is a non native species that was already widespread in Augusta by 1773.  This is probably the Malva species Bartram mentions.  There is a native species of mallow–Carolina mallow (Modiola caroliniana), however Bartram described the mallow he saw as blue, and this is the wrong color for Carolina mallow.

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Rocky Shoals spider lily.  Only 50 populations of this species still exist.  Most have been wiped out by reservoir creation.  In Bartram’s day they inhabited every rocky islet on the Augusta shoals.

Pleistocene Peaches (Prunus kunningensis =P. persica)

July 17, 2018

The ancestor of the modern cultivated peach (P. persica) depended upon megafauna for dispersal and is now extinct in the wild.  Asian elephants and primates such as macaques and early humans ate the fruit and distributed the seeds throughout the environment, but without these species P. persica disappeared from the wild, and now only exists in cultivated fruit orchards tended by modern humans.  Peaches originated in China, and peach seeds dating to 2.5 million years BP have been found there.  Scientists designated these ancient peaches as a unique species they refer to as P. kunningensis, but they admit there is no real difference between this species and P. persica.  Peaches have been cultivated in China for at least 7500 years where evidence of early peach cultivation has been found in the Yangtze River Valley.  Farmers began grafting varieties with larger fruit to pit ratios on to root stocks of other peach trees then.

Peach cultivation spread from China to Persia (today known as Iran) and from there to Europe.  Early Spanish explorers brought the fruit to southeastern North America during the 1500’s, and John Lawson found peach trees thriving in Indian villages when he explored and settled in North Carolina between 1700-1711. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/john-lawsons-voyage-to-carolina-1700-1711/ )  The quality of some of the fruit was so much better than European peaches Lawson mistakenly thought some varieties originated in North America.  The real reason American peaches were better than the European fruit was because the climate in southeastern North America was similar to their land of origin–China.  Lawson planted peaches in his orchard, and he had 1 freestone yellow nectarine tree that produced 15-20 bushels every year, unless there was a late spring frost. (A nectarine is simply a smooth-skinned variety of peach.)  He claimed peach trees planted from seed bore fruit in 2-3 years, and the fruit from the offspring was the same as from the parent.  Peaches were so abundant he fed the excess fruit and corn to the hogs, resulting in sweet pork. He also made vinegar from peaches.

Lawson’s account of raising a peach orchard from seeds fascinated me.  Most fruit varieties are mutants grafted on to rootstocks because most wild trees produce fruit of inferior quality.  I researched online and found a discrepancy.  Some agreed with Lawson and claimed fruit from peach seeds produced fruit similar to their parent, but a study written by an horticulturalist from LSU found that fruit grown from seed was usually inferior.  So I conducted my own experiment.  I noticed peach trees often germinated in my compost pile.  I took these seedlings and transplanted them in my yard.  Now, 5 years later I have 4 trees that are bearing heavily.  1 tree produces freestone peaches during the last 2 weeks of June.  All the peaches on this tree were infested with plum curculio larva.  Plum curculio is a beetle that damages all kinds of fruit.  However, I cut away the worm-infested, bird-pecked parts and tasted the fruit.  (Birds get a double treat from my peaches–fruit and protein.)  For an early ripening variety it is a good peach.  The other 3 trees have fruit that ripens throughout July.  1 of them was partially infested with plum curculio, but the fruit is excellent.  Another tree produces very large peaches that are as good as the best farmer’s market peaches.  The 4th tree produces small, bitter, heart-shaped peaches that in appearance resemble the most common variety grown in Georgia and South Carolina–the red globe peach.  I’ve concluded Lawson was mostly right, and the LSU study was wrong.  75% of my peach seeds produced good quality fruit.

Late June peaches from a tree I planted from seed in my yard.  The fruit from this tree had an 100% plum curculio infestation rate.  They were still edible, if I cut away the damaged part.  The quality was good for an early season peach.

This tree produces large luscious peaches. None were insect-damaged but some cracked open because of rain, even though the soil in my yard is sandy and well-drained.  This was the best-tasting peach I ate all season.

This tree is a bit of a natural dwarf.  The fruit is small and bitter.  I’ve read thinning out the fruit may have improved the quality.  I might try that next year.

My experience with this peach tree growing experiment has taught me a few things.  Spraying insecticide doesn’t work.  Rain washes the insecticide off, and the insects just return.  The peaches with no insect damage were growing in open sunlight with no undergrowth.  I hypothesize shade and undergrowth shelters insects from predators and harsh sunlight.  I can’t do anything about reducing the shade over my other 2 peach trees, but I will try harder to control the Virginia creeper.  This vine is tenacious, but I think a thicker layer of mulch might suppress it.  Peaches need more nitrogen than other fruits–more evidence they evolved in plots rich in megafauna manure.  My fastest growing peaches just happen to be growing over the drain field to my septic tank.

The Georgia extension office recommends 58 varieties of peaches, but they don’t even list 3 of my favorite varieties–Indian blood cling, Oregold, and Halehaven.  Peaches stay in storage for just 2 weeks, so many varieties that have different ripening schedules have been developed to extend the season.  They recommend 1 late April variety, 12 May varieties, 16 June varieties, 23 July varieties, and 6 August varieties.  The mid-season free-stone peaches are the best-tasting.  There are also white peaches.  These are sweeter and more aromatic, and in my opinion taste like a completely different fruit.  After my difficult experience however, I recommend other fruit for the casual home gardener in Augusta, Georgia.  Blueberries, figs, muscadine grapes, and even apples are much easier to grow than peaches here, even though Georgia is known as the peach state.

References:

Su Tao; et. al.

“Peaches Precede Humans: Fossil Evidence from Southwest China”

Scientific Reports 2015

A 9 Mile Long Dogwood and Magnolia Grove in Alabama (circa 1775)

July 12, 2018

When William Bartram traveled through the south from 1773-1776 he observed many environments that today are either extinct or very rare.  In southern Alabama just east of Mobile he journeyed through a grove of dogwoods and magnolias that was 9 miles long.  This is how he described it.

We now enter a very remarkable grove of Dog wood trees (Cornus florida) which continuing nine or ten miles unalterable, except here and there a towering Magnolia grandifloria; the land on which they stand is an exact level; the surface a shallow, loose, black mould, on a stratum of stiff, yellowish clay; these trees were about twelve feet high, spreading horizontally; their limbs meeting and interlocking with each other, formed one vast, shady, cool grove, so dense and humid as to exclude the sun beams at noon-day.  This admirable grove by the way of eminence has acquired the name of the Dog woods.

The existence of an almost pure stand of dogwoods this large has long puzzled me.  Dogwood is a common understory tree throughout the south but I’m unaware of any natural location where it largely dominates as a canopy species.  Recently, I reread the passage, and the next morning I had a eureka moment–I believe passenger pigeon flocks created this unusually large stand of dominant dogwood trees.  The dogwood grove Bartram observed was likely the site of a massive passenger pigeon roost 50-100 years before he traveled through it.  Flocks of migrating passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) formerly caused eclipses of the sun lasting for 6 hours, and when they roosted their colonies would so damage the forest it would appear as if a tornado had struck.  The weight of the roosting birds would bust limbs and even crack enormous tree trunks in half.  The dung overfertilized the trees, often killing all of them.  These enormous colonies covered many square miles.  This explains the extent of Bartram’s dogwood grove.

Dogwood trees were already common in the understory of the forest, and the fruit ripens in the fall…exactly when passenger pigeons migrated to the south after nesting in the midwestern states.  It seems likely passenger pigeons fed on the dogwood and magnolia berries in the surrounding forest, and deposited the still viable seeds under their roosts in their dung.  Dogwood trees sprouted in the nutrient rich soil and thrived in the open sunlight created when the overstory trees were destroyed by the passenger pigeons.

Map of Alabama highlighting Conecuh County

Bartram’s dogwood grove was probably located in Conecuh County, Alabama.

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Passenger pigeon migrations eclipsed the sun.

Bartram describes adjacent open plains that also resemble a landscape recovering from a passenger pigeon invasion.  Most of the 70 mile forest surrounding the dogwood grove consisted of oak, hickory, black walnut, elm, sourwood, sweetgum, beech, scarlet maple, buckeye, and black locust with an understory of dogwood, crabapple, and plum.  (Chestnut and pine grew on rocky hills.)  But some pockets of treeless plains within the forest and alongside the dogwood grove were composed of shrubs covered in grape vines.  The shrubs included silver bud, buckeye, bignonia, azalea, and honeysuckle.

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Dogwood berries.  Passenger pigeons ate them.  They taste bittersweet to me.

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Flowering dogwood.  Bartram’s dogwood grove must have been beautiful during early March when the tree blooms.

I’ve always wondered how forests recovered following an invasion of passenger pigeons.  It didn’t occur to me until just recently that Bartram had described just such a site, though he was unaware of how the landscape he described originated.  In summary I shall list the lines of evidence for my hypothesis that Bartram’s dogwood grove was the result of a massive passenger pigeon roost 50-100 years earlier.

  1. The size of the site (9 miles in extent) is the same size as many passenger pigeon roosts described by colonists.
  2. Heavily fertilized soils support monocultures.  The site, fertilized by pigeon dung, supports just 1 dominant species with 1 minor component.
  3. From Bartram’s description all of the dogwood trees appear to be the same age, suggesting they all germinated during the same year.
  4. Passenger pigeons arrived in the region when dogwood trees bear fruit.  This makes my hypothesis plausible because passenger pigeons are the only species that could have planted dogwood seeds on such a large scale.
  5. Adjacent areas also appear to be recovering from a passenger pigeon invasion.  Bartram describes pockets of plains where there are no overstory trees, just shade intolerant shrubs covered in grape vines.
  6. The complete absence of overstory trees indicates a sudden traumatic tree-killing event in the recent past

The Pliocene Marine Extinction Event

July 5, 2018

A major marine extinction event rubbed out at least 36% of the ocean’s vertebrate genera about 2.5 million years ago.  Scientists believe the extinctions were caused by a sea level fluctuation, resulting from glacial expansion.  Ice Ages increased in intensity during the late Pliocene and as more atmospheric moisture became locked in glaciers, sea level fell.  Habitat for many coastal species simply disappeared because their near shore environments rose above sea level.  A new study determined 55% of marine mammals, 43% of sea turtles, 35% of sea birds, and 9% of sharks and rays went extinct. I believe this estimate may undercount the actual loss because there are likely some extinct species yet to be discovered by paleontologists.  Many species of invertebrates became extinct as well.

Most of the genera lost were impressive and interesting.  Metaxytherium were a widespread genera of dugongs that grazed sea grass off coasts all across the world.  Thalassocrus were a group of aquatic sloths that evolved from giant ground sloths.  Giant predatory sperm whales (Livyatan) preyed on whales.  Psephopherus, giant sea turtles, laid their eggs on beaches.  The islands off the coast of South Africa, where several species of extinct penguins nested, became connected to land when sea level fell, and predators were able to invade and destroy their colonies. And of course the famous giant white shark, Megalodon, hunted the many species of now extinct whales that lived during the Pliocene.  Most species of baleen whales were smaller and more agile then because they had to avoid these large predators.

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Metaxytherium floridanum swam near and over what today is Florida.

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Thalassocrus, an aquatic genera of sloths.

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2 of the largest predators that lived during the Pliocene–Livyatan melvillei and Carcharocles megalodon.  Both grew to 60 feet long.  Baleen whales were smaller and more agile then, enabling them to escape predation.  The extinction of these predators allowed baleen whales to evolve to a greater size, so they can gorge on food, then fast when they migrate to warmer calving grounds where killer whales, their only modern marine predator, are uncommon.

During the Pleistocene new marine species evolved that were better adapted to the fluctuating sea levels of alternating glacials and interglacials.  New genera increased by 21%.  However, this means there is still a deficit of -15% fewer marine vertebrates than there were during the Pliocene.  Sea life may reclaim the land though, if sea levels keep rising.

An octopus recently found its way into a Miami parking garage.  If sea levels keep rising, marine life may reclaim territory it lost during Ice Ages.

Reference:

Pimiento, C. et. al.

“The Pliocene Marine Megafauna Extinction and its Impact on Functional Diversity”

Nature Ecology and Evolution 1 June 2017