Archive for the ‘Ecology’ Category

Pleistocene Oysters (Crassostrea virginica)

March 14, 2017

Before humans harvested them, oysters lived longer, grew larger, and produced denser quantities of offspring.  Scientists compared oyster shells from Pleistocene-age oyster reefs with those from Native-American archaeological sites and modern harvests.  Pre-human contact oysters lived as long as 30 years, while oysters since human colonization never live longer than 6 years.  Pleistocene oysters grew up to 10.2 inches, pre-historic oysters from Native-American middens grew to 7.4 inches, and modern oysters reach 6.1 inches.  Native-Americans harvested oysters in a sustainable way, but populations of oysters since European colonization have been reduced by over 99%, despite restoration efforts.  Pollution and overharvesting have destroyed oyster numbers.  This is unfortunate because oyster reefs are a productive natural community, providing habitat for at least 303 species that have co-evolved with oysters over the past 135 million years, ever since these bivalves first evolved. Scientists estimate the original oyster population of Chesapeake Bay was capable of filtering the entire contents of this estuary in just a few days, so they help clean the water as well.  Modern day estuaries are suffering without more abundant populations of oysters.

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Ancient oyster midden.

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Pelican in front of a Georgia oyster reef at low tide.

A representative of every species living in oyster reefs could fill a big city aquarium.  Barnacles, mussels, clams, and bryozoans attach themselves to the reefs and live out their lives filter feeding just like their hosts.  Mud crabs (Eurypanopeus depressus) graze on the algae and detritus that accumulates on the reefs and sometimes feed upon the smaller oysters.  Oyster pea crabs (Pinnotheres) depend upon reefs for their very survival. The seashore springtail (Anurida maratima), unusual salt water insects, prey on microorganisms living on the reefs.  Amphipods, worms (Polydora and Polychaetas), anemones, mites, and hydroids are commensal animals dependent upon the existence of oyster reefs.  Boring sponges (Cliona) and starfish directly prey on the oysters.

Anurida maritima.jpg

The seashore springtail is a true insect that lives on oyster reefs.

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The depressed mud crab grazes on algae, detritus, and small oysters on oyster reefs.

Many small species of fish swim in and around oyster reefs during low tide because the structure affords protection from predators.  Species of fish commonly found in Georgia oyster reefs include in order of abundance naked goby (Gobiosoma bosci), feather blenny (Hypoblennius hentzi), skilletfish (Gobiosox strumosus), seaboard goby (Gobiosoma ginsbingi), striped blenny (Chasmodes bosguianus), oyster toad fish (Opsanus sp.), and the crested blenny (Hypleurochilus geminatus).  During high tide larger fish such as sheepshead, black drum, and croakers move in and feed upon the shellfish and smaller fish living on the reef.

Image of Gobiosoma bosc (Naked goby)

The naked goby is the most common fish living in Georgia oyster reefs.  They feed upon worms, crustaceans, and dead open oysters.

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The skillet fish clings to oysters with its sucking mouth.

Land vertebrates forage oyster reefs during low tide.  Raccoons and wading birds find many a meal on the reefs.  Oyster catchers (Haematopus palliatus) specialize on feeding upon the oysters and other bivalves growing here.  Even boat-tailed grackles exploit oyster reefs–they eat the amphipods and pea crabs crawling over the reef.

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The American oystercatcher thrives on oyster reefs.

Oysters have a complex life cycle.  They expel sperm and eggs into the ocean water, and when these sex cells meet by chance they form larva.  (Oysters change sexes, so that males become females and vice-versa.  Some individuals are hermaphroditic  and expel sperm and egg at the same time.)  The larva lives in the zooplankton until they develop a foot.  The oyster senses pheromones from other oysters on a reef and will attach its foot to the structure where it will remain for the rest of its life, filter feeding upon diatoms, dinoflagellates, inorganic particles, bacteria, and marsh plant detritus.

Oyster reefs also have life cycles.  When oysters begin colonizing an area it is known as the clustering phase.  Oysters attach to each other and on old dead oyster shells during the accretionary stage, building reefs.  Eventually, oysters reach a vertical limit and start building the reef horizontally during the senescent phase.  Large reefs block sediment and shell debris carried by tidal currents and this action can create islands.  Little Egg Island in the middle of the Altamaha River mouth is an example of an island created by an oyster reef.

References:

Bahr, Leonard, William Larsen

“The Ecology of Intertidal Oyster Reefs of the S. Atlantic Coast: A Community Profile”

U.S. Geological Survey 1981

Lockwood, R.; K. Kusperck, S. Bonanani, and Gratt, A.

“Reconstructing Population Demographics and Paleoenvironment of Pleistocene Oyster Assemblages: Establishing a Baseline for Chesapeake Bay Restoration”

North American Paleontological Convention 2014

Rick, Turbin; et. al.

“Millenial-scale Sustainablity of the Chesapeake Bay Native American Oyster Fishery”

PNAS 2016

Wharton, Charles

The Natural Environments of Georgia

Georgia Department of Natural Resources 1978

Pleistocene Tornadoes and Windthrow Ecology

February 18, 2017

Unstable weather conditions spawn outbreaks of tornadoes.  Cold fronts collide with warm air causing the chilled air from the upper layer of the atmosphere to plummet, creating swirling winds of great destructive force.  Tornado intensity is classified according to the Fujita scale or F scale for short.  Tornado wind speeds range from less than 73 mph (an F0 tornado) to estimated wind speeds of 261 mph-318 mph (an F5 tornado).  One of the largest outbreaks of tornadoes in recorded history occurred in early April, 1936.  At least 12 tornadoes struck the south from Tupelo, Mississippi to Anderson, South Carolina.  A tornado from this system that hit Tupelo left a path of destruction 15 miles long.  Another tornado from this storm traveled 50 miles from Alabama to Tennessee.  Two tornadoes merged in Gainesville, Georgia, killing 200 people in a factory and a department store.  Overall, this storm system wiped out 454 human lives.

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F5 tornado in Oklahoma.  I hypothesize storms and tornadoes were much more frequent and severe during some Pleistocene climate phases than they are today, but they may have been less severe during others.

I hypothesize tornado frequency and intensity was greater during some climatic phases of the Pleistocene than it is today.  As far as I can determine, no scientist has ever published a study of paleotornado frequency, probably because there just isn’t any method to collect data about past transient phenomena. Incidentally, I invented the term, paleotornado, in case a scientist figures how to study them.  My hypothesis is conjecture, but I am confident it is correct.  I base it on 3 lines of indirect evidence.

a) Data from ice cores in Greenland shows average annual temperatures fluctuated dramatically during Ice Ages.  There was an alternating cycle of sudden warm spikes in temperature that melted ice dams which in turn released glacial meltwater and icebergs into the ocean, shutting down the gulf stream.  This caused an equally sudden reversal in temperatures.   By comparison today’s climate is relatively stable, yet even with a stable climate, tornadoes form with regularity. When climate changed more rapidly in the past, it seems logical to assume there was an increased frequency of colliding warm and cold weather fronts.  I believe the middle south was an Ice Age tornado alley.  Temperatures in south Florida and the Gulf Coast were warmer than they are today because oceanic circulation ceased and warm water stayed in the Caribbean, but the upper south was only a few hundred miles from the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered Canada and New England.  Cold fronts blowing off the Ice Sheet met warm fronts originating from the Gulf of Mexico in what must have been an exceptionally stormy transition zone.

b) An unusually cold phase of climate, known as The Little Ice Age, occurred between 1310-1850.  Anecdotal historical references suggest storms were more frequent and intense during this time period.  In Europe several storms killed hundreds of thousands of people.  The Little Ice Age is a tiny blip compared to the climate fluctuations of the Wisconsinian Ice Age as recorded from Greenland ice core data.

c) Geological evidence suggests river flooding in southeastern North America was much more severe during the early Holocene (11,000 BP-6,000 BP).  These massive floods caused supermeandering river patterns.  An increase in river flooding indicates an increase in storm activity and hence tornadoes.

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Windthrows open up the forest canopy and dramatically change the local ecology.

Tornadoes, thunderstorm downbursts, and hurricanes have a profound impact on forest ecosystems and may be a primary driver of evolutionary relationships.  Areas of forest felled by wind are known as windthrows among ecologists.  Tornadoes can travel for many miles, and they leave long scars of fallen and splintered trees that can be seen in satellite and aerial photographs.  These long windthrows create gaps in the canopy where shade intolerant species can thrive.  In southeastern North America canopy gap formation is beneficial for oak, pine, persimmon, sumac, grapevine, blackberry, composites, and grasses.  Windthrows can become tangles of luxuriant vegetation that provide forage and cover for forest edge species such as whitetail deer, cottontail rabbits, and ruffed grouse.  Fallen rotting timber attracts beetles, food for woodpeckers and other birds.  The extinct ivory-billed woodpecker formerly relied on vast tracts of timber with freshly created windthrows from annual storms.  Unlike extant woodpeckers, they depended upon early colonizing, shallow burrowing beetles.  Snakes and lizards lay their eggs in rotting timber.  Bears tear up these logs, looking for beetle larva, termites, and reptile eggs.  The pits created when trees are uprooted fill with water following heavy rains, and they serve as breeding pools for amphibians.  Most of the organisms that live in southeastern North America evolved to thrive in canopy gaps resulting from wind storms.  Plants able to resprout after sustaining wind damage have a competitive advantage over those species easily uprooted and killed, and the animals that browse and can digest those plants also enjoy a competitive advantage.

One study estimated wind felled 20 square miles of forest per year in pre-settlement forests of Wisconsin.  They also estimated the recovery time for northern hardwood-hemlock forests to erase the windthrow scar is 1210 years.  The recovery time in southeastern forests is probably quicker due to the longer growing season. A tornado can leave a long-lasting impact on the landscape, and wind may be a critical element, along with megafauna foraging and fire, that may explain why Ice Age environments were so much more open than they were in late Holocene environments.

Reference:

Canham, Charles; and Orie Loucks

“Catastrophic Windthrow in the Presettlement Forests of Wisconsin”

Ecology 1988

Pleistocene Pecans (Carya illinoinensis)

November 20, 2016

The pecan tree is 1 of 17 species of hickory trees.  Hickories are native to North America and Asia and formerly occurred in Europe, but Ice Ages, beginning about 2.5 million years ago, wiped them out there.  European mountains have an east to west orientation, while American mountains are oriented north to south.  Hickories prefer temperate climates, and the east-west mountains blocked their retreat in Europe during glacial expansions.  This explains why hickories and so many other tree species survived Ice Ages in North America but not in Europe.

Evidence of fossil pollen grains suggests hickory trees grew alongside dinosaurs during the late Cretaceous, though the oldest fossil hickory nut dates to about 34 million years ago.  Most early hickory species had thin shells, but they evolved thicker shells about 38 million years ago in response to the evolution of tree squirrels.  Squirrels love the nutrient rich nuts, so hickories evolved nuts with thicker shells, and the squirrels in turn evolved greater gnawing power.  Evolution is a constant struggle.  However, pecans retained the thinner shells of their early ancestors.  This puzzled me because it seems as if squirrels would have eliminated all hickory species with thinner shells because they were easier to exploit.  I wondered if pecans were a recent species, cultivated and spread by Native Americans.  I’ve concluded however, based on certain lines of evidence, that pecans are an ancient species of hickory, not a recently evolved species manipulated by man.

Wild Pecan Tree

Wild pecan tree.

{The native range of Carya illinoensis}

Native range of wild pecan trees.  Man has greatly expanded this range by planting pecan orchards.  Georgia is now the leading producer of pecans, though they are not native to this state.  Pecans need longer growing seasons than other species of hickory because their nuts mature later.

Genetic studies determined pecans have a large genetic diversity within populations.  If pecans descended from human cultivation, they would have low genetic diversity because they would descend from a small population initially cultivated by man.  I was also mistaken in considering squirrels the only major predator of hickory nuts.  The pecan weevil ( Curculio caryae ) infests all species of hickories, and pecan trees growing in mixed stands with other hickory species have an advantage over their cousins.  Pecans mature later in the season than other species of hickory.  The pecan weevil hatches and emerges in August and will infest whichever hickories have developed kernels.  Because thick shelled hickories mature before thin-shelled pecans, the pecan weevil will infest them first and go through their life cycle without ever infesting the thin-shelled pecan.  Weevils will wait for pecans to mature, if no other hickory trees are available.  So though thin shelled pecans may suffer heavier squirrel predation, they are less likely to have their nuts destroyed by weevils, if they grow near other species of hickory.

Pecan weevil larvae in nut

Pecan weevil larva.  Pecans mature later than hickories.  Though squirrels favor pecans over hickories, the later maturing pecans are less likely to be attacked by pecan weevils in mixed forests, giving pecans an advantage over other hickory species.

Pecans are native to river bottomland terraces where they grow in forests dominated by sycamore, sweetgum, and elm.  Other subdominants in these terrace forests include water oak, box elder, silver maple, cottonwood, green ash, hackberry, and other hickory trees. Pawpaw, bamboo cane, pokeweed, grape vine, poison ivy, and green brier make up the thick undergrowth of bottomland forests.

Pecans hybridize with 5 other species of hickory.  The nuts produced by wild pecans and hybrids vary in quality.  Most are smaller and have somewhat thicker shells than cultivated varieties of pecans, and some even have high amounts of bitter tannins–all part of their ongoing evolutionary war with squirrels and weevils.  Human cultivation of pecans on a large scale began circa 1900.  Though Georgia isn’t part of the pecan’s native range, the state is the leading producer, and there is a large demand in China and India, resulting in high prices at the grocery store for the nuts.

Most cultivated varieties of pecans don’t mature before the first killing frost occurs in Midwestern states.  A few small early maturing varieties can produce in the Midwest as can the hican–an hybrid cross between pecan and shellbark hickory.

Hican 5-nut sample prior to cracking. US quarters shown for size comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hican nuts–an hybrid cross between a pecan and a hickory.  They produce earlier maturing nuts  for northern locations that have frosts before pecans can fully develop.

The southern Mississippi River Valley has long served as a refuge for pecans and other hickory trees during glacial expansion cycles.  Here, they grew in mixed Ice Age forests with spruce, beech, walnut, and oak.  Pecans expanded their range north up the Mississippi River Valley following the end of the last Ice Age.

The oldest written recipe for pecan pie dates to 1886.  It was a custard pie made with sugar, eggs, and butter.  (Sugar/custard pies originated during the Middle Ages.)  Pecan pies became more popular in the 1930s when some unnamed employee of Karo syrup invented a recipe for a pecan pie using syrup as well as sugar.  I prefer my pecan pie made with maple-flavored corn syrup.

Pecan Pie

Pecan pie with whiskey maple cream sauce.  I like my pecan pies made with maple flavored corn syrup.

 

Forest Succession and Changing Song Bird Species Composition in Central Georgia

November 13, 2016

Cotton and corn cultivation were important in central Georgia until the boll weevil struck in the 1920’s.  Then the depression bankrupted many farmers who tried to persevere, despite this agricultural pest.  This economic calamity gave ecologists the opportunity to study forest succession as fallow fields eventually were transformed into climax forests.  In less than a year bare soil becomes covered in grass and weeds 2 feet tall.  Ragweed, asters, and broomsedge (a type of bunch grass) take over in the 2nd year, and by the 3rd year broomsedge and pine saplings up to 3 feet tall predominate.  These 1st three years are known as the “grassland stage.”

If left unmodified, years 3-10 are known as the “grass and shrub stage.”  Broomsedge and pine saplings are joined by blackberry, blueberry, sumac, greenbrier, and persimmon often covered by grape vines, Virginia creeper, Carolina jessamine, and honeysuckle–all plants that thrive in the sun.  Eventually, pine trees emerge above this tangled mess.  During years 11-30 the landscape is known as a “young pine forest.”  An “old pine forest,” years 31-60, hosts tall pine trees but with a dense oak understory.  This mixed pine/oak forest is habitat for more species of birds than any other stage.  Lightning strikes, red heart disease, and pine beetles kill many pine trees during this stage, opening up the forest canopy and creating uneven-aged stands of trees beneficial for many different species of birds.  After 60 years left fallow the land becomes a climax oak/hickory forest.

Below is a chart interspersed with photos showing the association of bird species with each stage of forest succession.

Years 1-3 (Grassland Stage)–grasshopper sparrow, field sparrow, song sparrow, meadowlark, killdeer plover, quail, junco, horned lark.

Female grasshopper sparrow returning to nest with prey in beak

Grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus summurum) are abundant in old fields.

Years 3-10 (Grass and Shrub Stage)–Add white-throated sparrow, rufus-sided towhee, cardinal, catbird, mockingbird, mourning dove, Carolina wren, and brown thrasher.

bobwhite quail covey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Covey of quail.  This species becomes most abundant 3-5 years after cleared land is left fallow.

Years 11-30 (Young Pine Forest)–Subtract most of the grassland species but add flicker, blue jay, chickadee, titmice, pine warbler, and white-eyed vireo.

Eastern Towhee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rufus sided towhees move into young pine forests.

Years 31-60 (Old Pine Forest Stage)–Subtract mourning dove, catbird, mockingbird, brown thrasher, and white-eyed vireo, but add summer tanager, woodpeckers, yellow-throated warbler, black and white warbler, wood thrush, flycatchers, red-eyed vireo, and kinglets.

Carolina Wren Photo

Carolina wrens are abundant in old pine forests with an hardwood understory.

> 60 years (Climax Oak/Hickory Forest) Subtract towhee, pine warbler, and tanager, but add white breasted nuthatch.

White-breasted nuthatch foraging in tree

White breasted nuthatches won’t move into a forest until it is at least 50 years old.  Last time I saw this species was when I visited Marshall Forest in Rome, Georgia which is a virgin forest.

Forest succession from bare soil to climax forest has occurred in Georgia ever since Indians began cultivating the land here over 1000 years ago.  However, habitat including each successional stage is much older than this because our present day species of song birds, especially habitat specialists, have existed for over 1 million years.  Before man impacted the environment, changes in the landscape depended upon natural disturbances.  Heavy acorn consumption by megafauna along with trampling and bark-stripping suppressed tree recruitment and growth.  Lightning-ignited fires thinned forest into open woodlands.  Tornadoes and downbursts flattened wide swaths of trees.  Drought, ice storms, floods, and fluctuating climate cycles also changed forest structure and tree species composition.  Landscapes are never eternally permanent.

References:

Johnson and Odum

“Breeding Bird Populations in Relation to Plant Succession on the Piedmont of Georgia”

Ecology 37 1956

Meyers, J.M. and A.S. Johnson

“Bird Communities Associated with Succession and Management of Loblolly-Shortleaf Pine Forests”

U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report

 

Pleistocene Ungulates of Interstadial Oak Woodlands and Forests in Southeastern North America

November 4, 2016

I have long been curious about the wildlife I would encounter, if I could travel in a time machine to a wilderness cabin located in central Georgia 36,000 years ago.  This climatic stage was an interstadial–a relatively warm wet phase of the Ice Age.  It was likely well before people entered the region, so I could experience an ecosystem completely uninfluenced by man.  Pollen evidence from deep ocean cores suggests an expansion of oak woodlands and forests during interstadials, while pine and spruce declined.  (Botanists distinguish the difference between woodland and forest.  A woodland has 50%-80% canopy coverage; a forest has >80% canopy coverage.)  Oak woodlands were probably the most common natural community in the Georgia piedmont during interstadials.  They had an open structure with centuries-old, large diameter trees in the overstory and herbaceous and grassy understories.  Megafauna trampling and foraging along with low intensity fires and occasional windstorms maintained the open structure of the woodlands.  Areas less frequented by megafauna and protected from fire fostered thicker forests.  Oaks dominated the landscape but co-occurred with hickory, chestnut, and pine.  The warmer the climate phase, the greater the variety of trees.

Oak woodlands provided ample food for a large population of animals.  Acorns and plants growing in the understory fed herds of ungulates as well as bears, small game, and birds.  Bison, horses, and mammoths prefer(ed) prairies and meadows, and mastodons foraged alongside streams.  Although these species occasionally wandered into woodlands, they were probably less common than other species of ungulates in this environment.  Instead, ungulates that fed mostly on forest vegetation prevailed in oak woods.  Studies of bone chemistry that determined dietary preference suggest forest denizens included white-tail deer, long-nosed peccary, tapir, and paleollama.  These are the ungulates I would expect to see from a window in my imaginary wilderness cabin.  Fossil remains of paleollama ( Palaeolama mirifica) have not been found north of the coastal plain, but they may have ranged into the piedmont.  Its cousin, the large headed llama ( Hemiauchenia macrocephela ), was more widespread and isotopic studies indicate it could subsist on either prairie or forest vegetation.  The presence of at least 1 species of llama in central Georgia seems likely.  And of course herds of ungulates attracted a whole array of predators.  The woods of today seem so destitute by comparison.

DNR Camera Project

 

 

 

 

 

10 white-tail deer and a turkey.  This species of deer and its immediate ancestor have populated southeastern North America for millions of years.

Long-nosed peccary.  The success of invasive wild hogs shows that forest environments in the south can support a large population of pig-like animals.

Mountain tapir and young

Mountain tapir with a baby.  Tapirs that lived in the upper south during the Pleistocene likely were adapted to temperate climates like this species.  Isotopic studies of tapir bones indicate they preferred the thickest part of the forest.

Paleollamas of the Pleistocene Period in Florida.

Paleollamas.  They occurred in Florida and the coastal plain and may have ranged into the piedmont.  This species of llama also preferred deep forest, but its cousin, the large-headed llama, was more adaptable.

 

Sisters Eating Each Other’s Babies

October 18, 2016

Animals are not people too, contrary to the emotional assertion of some humans who weigh the rights of animals as greater or equal to that of men.  Almost all vertebrates exhibit some behavior patterns that if they were human would get them incarcerated in prison or a mental hospital.  Imagine a mother, usually a vegetarian, who regularly attempted to break into her sister’s house to feed upon her babies.  A case such as this would horrify everybody, and it would attract national attention.  But it is normal behavior for the black-tailed prairie dog ( Cynomys ludovicianus ).

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39% of prairie dog litters are cannibalized by lactating sisters.

Prairie dogs are primarily vegetarian; feeding upon wheat grass, buffalo grass, scarlet globemallow, rabbit brush, thistle, prickly pear cactus, and roots.  They occasionally eat insects and bison manure as well.  However, lactating females regularly seek out and cannibalize their sister’s pups.  Prairie dog cannibalism is the leading cause of mortality among pups–39% of baby prairie dogs are killed by their aunts.  Cannibalism occurs among other species of squirrels but at a much lower rate, and the act is executed by unrelated squirrels.

John Hoogland, the scientist who first studied prairie dog cannibalism, believes this cannibalistic behavior evolved for 5 reasons.

  1. Removal of future competition.
  2. Extra nutrition for lactating females.
  3. Less competition for foraging.  After a prairie dog loses her pups she will stop defending her territory and range farther for food.
  4. Females without pups spend more time scanning the landscape for predators, thus helping the security of the entire prairie dog town.
  5. Lactating females who lose their pups are less likely to prey on other prairie dog pups

Prairie dogs are a keystone species that co-existed with bison in the North American short grass prairie region for millions of years.  Studies show prairie dog activity greatly benefits the environment.  Their burrows help drain the soil preventing erosion.  They churn up soil, increasing fertility, and prairie dog towns host a variety of plants that are more nutritious for grazers than areas without prairie dogs.  Yet, most local governments consider prairie dogs a pest and have mandatory eradication programs.  Prairie dogs wrongly get blamed for denuded ranges that have been overgrazed by livestock.  There is also a myth that cows and horses can break their legs in prairie dog holes, though an example of this has never been documented.

The late Larry Haverfield protected prairie dogs on his 7000 acre ranch because he recognized the benefits they provided.  In 2006 the Kansas authorities ordered him to poison the prairie dogs on his land and when he refused, they threw him in jail.  A court injunction stopped the local county in Kansas from eradicating the prairie dogs on his property, and now his land serves as an environmentally friendly refuge where once common but now rare prairie wildlife still thrives.  The endangered black-footed ferret, a predator of prairie dogs, was re-introduced here.  Hopefully, science will some day overcome the myths and misinformation so many ranchers have about this important beneficial species.

Reference:

Hoogland, John

The Black-tailed Prairie Dog: Social Life of a Burrowing Mammal

University of Chicago Press 1995

 

Heinrich Events Caused Annual Mass Whale Strandings during the Pleistocene and early Holocene

October 10, 2016

Despite the universal chorus of politicized alarmists, earth is currently experiencing a period of relative climatic stability compared to the dramatic climatic fluctuations that occurred during the Pleistocene.  The presence of vast ice sheets in the northern hemisphere contributed to this ancient climatic instability.  Glaciers blocked rivers, creating huge glacial lakes.  Warm spikes in average annual temperatures weakened the ice dams and caused breaches.  Massive outflows of frigid fresh water and icebergs periodically flooded into the North Atlantic, shutting down thermohaline circulation.  The gulf stream normally carries tropically heated water into the North Atlantic, and this keeps overall climate temperate, but after torrents of cold fresh water stopped this process, average annual temperatures dropped as much as 15 degrees F in less than a decade, precipitating severe stadial conditions that lasted for hundreds or even thousands of years. These meltwater pulses are known as Heinrich events, named after the scientist who first recognized this cycle.

During Ice Ages warm stages of climate cyclically caused glacier dams to burst, releasing massive amounts of cold fresh water plus icebergs.  This shut down the North Atlantic Gulf Stream which brings tropically heated water north, resulting in a sudden decline in average annual temperatures.

A graph showing average annual temperature fluctuations over the last 100,000 years from data gleaned inside Greenland ice cores.  Cyclical Heinrich Events caused the sudden declines in temperatures.

I assumed Heinrich Events severely disrupted marine ecosystems, causing decisive population declines in most fish and other ocean fauna, though a few species may have benefitted from reduced competition or other factors.  But I thought there would be no paleontological evidence because preservation and detection of animal remains during brief time intervals in marine environments seemed unlikely.  However, a recent paper highlights evidence that Heinrich Events were detrimental to marine life.  Scientists found this evidence in a seaside Sicilian cave named la Grotta Dell’Uzzo.  This cave had previously revealed the Pleistocene remains of mammoth, rhino, lion, red deer, and wild boar.  Humans have also periodically occupied this cave from the late Pleistocene through the Holocene, and scientists have excavated human skeletons, artifacts, and food remains.  Chemical analysis of human bones found in the cave helped scientists determine the diet of the hunter-gatherers who occupied the cave during the early Holocene.  They ate red deer, wild boar, shellfish, fish caught near shore (such as grouper), acorns, grapes, and wild beans and peas.  However, 1 human specimen and 1 red fox bone, dating to 8200 BP, revealed an interesting difference. Both the human and the fox ate unusual quantities of whale meat during their lifetimes.  Red foxes don’t normally include whale meat in their diet, and humans from other generations of cave dwellers here hardly ever exploited this resource. Moreover, whale bones with butcher marks on them were found associated with the human and fox specimens in the same strata.  The scientists who examined this evidence determined humans exploited climate-driven whale strandings at this locality.

Mass stranding of pilot whales in Australia.  Heinrich Events disrupted marine ecology and caused high annual mortality among many species of whales.

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Evidence of early Holocene mass whale strandings was discovered in this seaside cave in Sicily, known as la grotto dell’Uzzo.

The last major Heinrich Event occurred 8200 years ago, following the final dissolution of glacial Lake Agassiz in Canada.  This massive meltwater pulse disrupted fish migrations and reduced fish populations, making it harder for many species of whales to find prey.  Stressed and malnourished whales are more likely to strand on beaches.  The Gulf of Castallammare, adjacent to la Grotto Dell’Uzzo, is an acoustic dead zone difficult for whales to navigate.  This is where frequent, probably annual, whale strandings occurred for centuries, and the evidence suggests humans and foxes exploited this resource.  Based on the zooarchaeological record, the most common species of whales stranded here were pilot whales (Globicephala melus), Risso’s dolphin ( Grampus griseus ), and short-beaked common dolphin ( Delphinus dolphio ). Frequent whale strandings likely occurred worldwide following Heinrich Events.  Off the coast of North America dire wolves, bears, and other large carnivores scavenged this wealth of protein during the Pleistocene.  There were certain spots, such as the 1 in Sicily, where carnivores learned to regularly search for this bounty.  Carnivore populations may have been higher near the coast due to this additional resource.  Unfortunately, evidence of these sites were long ago inundated by rising sea level.

Reference:

http://www.nature.com/articles/srep16288

Marcello, Mannino; at. al.

“Climate-driven Environmental Changes around 8200 Years Ago Favored Incidences of Cetacean Strandings and Mediterranean Hunter-Gatherers Exploited Them” 

Scientific Reports 2015

 

Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) and Forest Succession

August 1, 2016

The former abundance of the now extinct passenger pigeon amazed all of the pioneers who witnessed their migration and roosts.  Some researchers estimate passenger pigeons composed 25% of the total bird population in eastern North America during colonial times.  Their migrations consisted of billions of birds that could eclipse the sun for as long as 14 hours.  Pigeon dung fell like “snowflakes” underneath this eclipse.  They nested in enormous colonies, covering many square miles.  Their survival strategy was predator satiation.  With synchronized hatching there were billions of squabs on the forest floor during the week they left the nest and were learning how to fly.  There were just too many for predators to eat all at once. They nested and reproduced in the great deciduous and coniferous forests of the Midwest, then migrated to the middle south during the winter where they still roosted in large colonies.  Passenger pigeon roosts destroyed vast areas of the forest.  The weight of all those birds broke limbs off trees and even busted thick tree trunks in half.  The armies of pigeons vacuumed all the acorns, beechnuts, and chestnuts off the forest floor, leaving no mast for other animals.  But their dung was the most detrimental element of their roosts–overfertilizing the soil and killing all the trees in the vicinity.  Yet, ecologists believe passenger pigeons played a critical role in creating habitat diversity across the landscape.

Illustration showing how passenger pigeons created more diverse habitats.

Flocks of migrating passenger pigeons could eclipse the sun for as long as 14 hours.  Areas of the forest where they roosted were devastated.

Stuffed specimen of a male passenger pigeon.

The response of the environment following the aftermath of a cataclysmic pigeon occupation would have been interesting to study.  Unfortunately, passenger pigeons were overhunted to extinction before scientific studies of their ecological impact could be conducted.  However, we can safely assume the environment recovered in stages.  First, plants; such as ginseng, pokeberry, and Virginia creeper; that thrive in soils rich in nitrogen were the initial species to grow in the open conditions strewn with fallen dead trees and limbs.  Second, as rain reduced the concentration of nitrogen in the soil over the years; ragweed, grasses, sedges, and composites returned.  A shrubby stage with pioneer trees including cedar and pine gradually replaced the grassy stage.  Acorns carried by jays and squirrels sprouted into oaks that grew with the pioneer trees before eventually outcompeting them.  If undisturbed for centuries, shade tolerant species such as maple and beech took over from the oaks. The dead wood from the original pigeon roosts was flammable during dry weather, and wild fires were likely more common, explaining why fire-tolerant species of oaks (burr, white, and black) predominated in the Midwest.

In many areas of the Midwest some species of oaks are in decline, especially white oak, while red oak is increasing.  White oak germinates during the fall when passenger pigeons were absent in this region.  But the pigeons were able to consume spring-germinating red oak acorns after the snow melted.  Moreover, red oaks are less fire tolerant than white oaks.  Oaks are also shade-intolerant and are being replaced by shade tolerant maples.  Ecologists think white oaks are missing the passenger pigeon invasions that created the natural disturbance they need and reduced the competition they now face from red oaks.

Scientists with the Revive and Restore Project hope to genetically engineer the passenger pigeon by cutting and pasting their genes into the embryos of their closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon.  I doubt they will successfully be able to re-establish passenger pigeons in the wild.  Passenger pigeons fail to breed unless they live in enormous colonies.  To survive predation, they must exist in large numbers…the sheer size of their population was the survival mechanism they required.  Researchers would need to release at least 10,000 birds to establish a successful breeding population in the wild.  Passenger pigeons evolved their survival strategy millions of years ago.  Though 1 genetic study suggests their overall numbers fluctuated with changes in climate phases, I am convinced they always occurred in large colonies. The task of re-establishing these numbers is probably an impossible one.

See also: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/pleistocene-passenger-pigeon-populations/

Palm Groves and Coastal Savannahs of the Pleistocene

July 28, 2016

Western Gulf coastal prairies are subtropical grasslands that were formerly widespread along the coastal plains of Texas and Lousiana.  Bluestem and Indian grasses, common components of tall grass prairies to the north, also grow here.  Near the coast and on wetter locations the coastal prairies often merge with freshwater, brackish, and salt marshes.  Drier soils host cactus, mesquite, Texas persimmon, and prickly ash.  Hurricanes and lightning-induced fires maintain these prairies where herds of bison used to graze.  Groves of Texas palms (Sabal texana) occur in the lower Rio Grande valley because the river serves as a fire break that protects this non-fire adapted species.  Palm groves grew as far as 50 miles inland during the 19th century, but now there are only 100 acres left, most notably in the Sabal Palm Sanctuary located in Cameron County, Texas.  Coastal prairies have also become rare–less than 1% of these remaining unique grasslands are considered pristine.  Most have been converted to agriculture.

Western Gulf Coastal Grasslands map.svg

Location of coastal prairies.  This environment was likely more widespread during Ice Ages when dry land extended into the Gulf of Mexico for 50 miles.

A grove of Texas palms.  Paradoxically, this environment may have been more widespread during Ice Ages.

Coastal prairie adjacent to a salt marsh in the Aransas National Wildlife refuge.

Adults

Coastal prairies support 1 of the 2 remaining populations of whooping cranes.

Palm groves and coastal prairies were likely much more widespread during Ice Ages of the Pleistocene.  Glacial advance caused the Gulf of Mexico to recede, resulting in a larger region of dry land where both environments could expand.  The prairies served as a corridor that facilitated the movement of western and South American flora and fauna into southeastern North America.  Prairie chickens, upland sandpipers, and 13-lined ground squirrels are some western species that lived in the south during the Pleistocene.  Ground sloths, glyptodonts, pampatheres (a type of giant armadillo), and mixotoxodons (a large primitive ungulate) used the corridor to advance from South America to what today are the southern United States.  The coastal grasslands supported great herds of grazers including mammoths, bison, horse, and giant tortoises.  These in turn attracted large predators such as lions, scimitar-toothed cats, and dire wolves.

Paradoxically, this region may have been warmer during the coldest stages of Ice Ages.  Glacial meltwater periodically flushed into the North Atlantic, shutting down the Gulf Stream (the tropically heated water that flows into the North Atlantic and keeps climate mild).  This caused average annual temperatures in the upper and middle parts of North America to plummet.  So this tropically heated water stayed in the Gulf of Mexico, making average annual temperatures in this region warmer than modern day temperatures.  The geographical location of the transition between the colder region of the continent and the warmer region may have been abrupt, perhaps explaining why species with northern affinities are often found associated with warm climate species in so many Pleistocene-aged fossil sites.  This transition zone likely shifted frequently, on a decadal or even annual basis. Conversely, during interstadials when the Gulf Stream restarted, the middle latitudes enjoyed warmer average annual temperatures (but not as warm as those of today), while the region adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico cooled down (perhaps cooler than modern day temperatures). Changes in the composition of flora and fauna lagged behind these sudden climatic changes.

The lower Rio Grande valley is the northern limit of many tropical species found nowhere else in the United States.  Bird watchers can find red-crowned parrots, green parakeets, brown jays, green jays, chacalacas, groove-billed anis, Altamira orioles, Aplomado falcons, and common paroques here.  These tropical species likely spread across the region during stadials when the climate was warmer, but they experienced range reduction during interstadials.

parrot

Red-crowned parrots recently colonized south Texas.  Woodpecker-excavated cavities in frost-killed palms provide perfect nesting for them.

Green Jay Photo

Green jay.

Groove-billed anis.

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