Railroad Ecology

George Stephenson invented the first workable steam engine locomotive in 1814, and he designed the first working rail system in 1820. The British government approved the construction of this first track used for hauling coal. The first rails were made of wood, but they wouldn’t hold locomotives filled with heavy loads of coal. The type of iron available then was also not strong enough to hold all that weight, so Stephenson invented an improved type of iron that could. Americans bought this technology and constructed our first working railway track in 1828. It was the Baltimore-Ohio Railroad and was 8 miles long. Tavern keepers opposed the construction of railways because they feared losing business when railway tracks were constructed far from their establishments, and religious nuts who thought railroads were sinful also fought against their construction, but the free market eventually won. Today, there are over 800,000 miles of railway tracks around the world.

George Stephenson invented the first workable locomotive steam engine in 1814. He also invented the iron used on railway tracks.

The many miles of railway tracks across the world have a big impact on the environment. They increase mortality of large animals, and they serve as migratory barriers for smaller animals, especially amphibians. Herbicides used to suppress vegetation influence the types of species that can live near railway embankments. Grassland corridors on railway embankments cut through forest facilitate the spread of invasive plant species. The impact is so extensive that railroad ecology has become a subset within the science of ecology. Railroad ecology has been more studied in Europe than the United States, but more and more scientists here are starting to pay attention to it.

A study in southern Poland looked at the influence of railway embankments on bird populations. This study counted 1644 individuals of 67 species. They found railway embankments hosted a greater diversity of species, but total number of birds was about the same as found in agricultural fields. They counted 923 individuals of 58 species found on railway embankments. The 3 most abundant in order were starlings, skylarks, and white-throated sparrows. 17 species were only found on railroad embankments, while 9 species were only found in agricultural fields. Railway transects had higher diversity, but birds were most abundant where railway embankments passed over wetlands, wet meadows, slopes, and bushy areas.

A scientific study found skylarks were the 2nd most common species of bird found on railroad embankments in southern Poland.

A study in Alberta Canada looked at wildlife mortality caused by train collisions with large mammals. This study determined 646 large mammals were killed by trains along 1 major track between 1995-2018. Species killed by trains here included grizzly and black bears, white tail and mule deer, bighorn sheep, moose, wolf, coyote, and Canadian lynx. 50 bears, 27 large carnivores, and 560 ungulates were killed. Areas with increased train speed and near water resulted in greater casualties. Trains coming around bends also caught large mammals by surprise.

This moose was rescued, but many large mammals are killed by trains every year.

References:

Cassady, Colleen, V. Whittingham, A. Forshner, A. Gangadhare, and D. Lietze

“Railway Mortality for several Mammal Species Increases with Train Speed, Proximity to Water, and Truck Curvature”

Scientific Reports 20776 2020

Kajzer-Bonk, J. et. al.

“The Effect of Railways on Bird Diversity in Farmland”

Environmental Science and Pollution Research 26 2019

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