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Mt. Mitchell and Chimney Rock State Parks

June 20, 2014

For our family vacation this year, I wanted to visit St. Simon’s Island, so I could walk through an old growth live oak forest and also hunt for fossils in the lagoon behind the island.  However, my wife objected to the heat and expressed her desire to seek relief in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We have a successful marriage, meaning we compromised by choosing her destination.

We went to Mount Mitchell State Park located 35 miles north of Asheville, North Carolina.  To get there, it’s necessary to travel along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I was looking forward to this route but was unimpressed and very disappointed with the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park.  It’s simply a busy road through the woods, and I can’t believe this sorry stretch is part of the national park service.  There were gangs of motorcyclists and inconsiderate bicycle riders and even an 18-wheeled truck.  The road is narrow and winding with a speed limit of 35 mph.  The bicycle riders act as if they own the road–not a single one of those lazy assholes pulled off the road to let us pass.  The entire parkway is a no passing zone and around many of the bends visibility is too poor to safely pass the bicycle riding jerks.  The only wildlife I saw on the parkway was a woodchuck.  I didn’t even see a single bird or gray squirrel.  By the time I reached the road that leads to Mount Mitchell, I was in a foul mood.  My aggravation increased because I hated the endless, climbing, winding road that led to the top.

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Note the line of dead trees halfway up this mountain.  This forest is dying.

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See how open the terrain is?  If there were any large mammals in the park, they would be visible.  The population of large mammals in Mount Mitchell State Park is zero.  There aren’t even any white tail deer.

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At 6578 feet Mount Mitchell is the highest elevated point east of the Mississippi.  Nevertheless, a visit here is not recommended.

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Path through Craggy Gardens located off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  It’s a thicket of catawba rhododendron and stunted birch trees.  I saw a yellow-throated warbler here but little else in the way of wildlife.

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Note how the roots of this birch tree are growing over a boulder.

The sign welcoming us to Mount Mitchell stated that it is a “World Biosphere Preserve.”  This is a joke.  The trees are all dead or dying and the whole park is nearly devoid of wildlife.  Woolly adelgids, an invasive insect, have killed all of the Frasier firs, and acid rain is in the process of killing the red spruce.  Mount Mitchell used to host an interesting boreal forest with flora and fauna more commonly found in the Canadian life zones.  Now it is practically dead.  The landscape is open so from the top of the mountain, it’s possible to see every large mammal for miles.  I did not see a single deer, elk, wild boar, or black bear.  The population of large mammals in Mount Mitchell State Park, aside from Homo sapiens, is zero.  There are supposed to be red squirrels here, but I did not see a single squirrel’s nest, let alone a squirrel.  Bird populations are also very low.  I saw a few sparrows and swallows and a gray bird that I could not identify despite combing through my field guides for 90 minutes when I returned home.

A restaurant exists on Mount Mitchell.  They charge extra money for the view.  For example they serve a hotdog for $9.  Mount Mitchell totally sucks.

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Menu from the Mount Mitchell State Park restaurant.  9 bucks for a hotdog.  They suck.

 Chimney Rock State Park

The road to Chimney Rock State Park located about 30 miles south of Asheville doesn’t suck as bad as the Blue Ridge Parkway but I saw even less wildlife here.  The view of the cliffs is spectacular. 

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View of Chimney Rock cliffs.

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This tunnel was bored through 500 million year Cambrian-aged rock.  It leads to an elevator that ascends 26 stories in 30 seconds to the top of Chimney Rock.

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View of Lake Lure from the top of Chimney Rock.

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View of a cliff opposite Chimney Rock.

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Chimney Rock.  To be honest, as soon as I was on top of Chimney Rock, I wanted to go back down to earth.  I’m not afraid of heights but they make me feel uneasy.

The cliffs here reminded me of an article I wrote about a year ago. https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/piedmont-cliff-ecology/  Supposedly, peregrine falcons nest on the cliffs but the only bird I saw was a black vulture.  Surprisingly large birch and hickories grow on the rocky cliff faces along with many cedar trees.

Lake Lure

My daughter and I went for a walk around Lake Lure, a manmade body of water in the valley between the cliffs of Chimney Rock.  It was hot, and we were delighted to find a public swimming beach here.  The cool swim in the lake salvaged my mood.

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View of cliffs from Lake Lure.

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There’s a belted kingfisher nest in the mud bank on the shore of Lake Lure.  I saw more wildlife in the Lake Lure city park than on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Mt. Mitchell, and Chimney Rock combined.

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Ah Hah!  There is a public swimming beach here.  This swim after a hot walk was the highlight of my vacation.  Note all the Canadian geese.  I told my daughter to make sure not to swallow the water.  With all the goose fecal matter, it’s probably contaminated with E. coli.

The restaurants in Asheville serve “home cooked” southern fare.  The food may be good but it is not as good as my own cooking.  The Moose Cafe near the Asheville Farmer’s Market serves excellent biscuits and corn bread but their entree’s were overseasoned with salt while their sides were underseasoned.  The local cuisine is nothing to get really excited about.

The Squirrel-Conifer-Fungi Connection

June 14, 2014

The evolutionary divergence of the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) from the southern flying squirrel (G. volans) is an excellent example of speciation resulting from environmental change.  Genetic studies suggest both of these American species of flying squirrels diverged from Eurasian flying squirrels between 4-6 million years ago.  Eurasian flying squirrels are much more diverse and include 44 species, most of which live in southeast Asia–evidence this part of the world is where they originally evolved.  During the late Miocene about 5 million years ago, a forested landbridge connected Asia with America, explaining how the ancestor of both American species of flying squirrels colonized this continent.  Genetic evidence suggests the 2 American species of flying squirrels diverged from each other early during the Pleistocene between 1-2 million years ago when Ice Ages began to become more severe.  Boreal spruce forests expanded during Ice Ages, growing as far south as middle Georgia and Alabama.  In the middle south spruce forests grew in higher elevations while deciduous oak forests still occurred in adjacent lower elevation.  Oak forests are rich in mast such as acorns and nuts, but spruce forests offer less food for squirrels–seeds from spruce cones are only available for 2 months of the year.  However, underground fungi, also known as truffles, are available year round in spruce forests.  For most species of squirrels, fungi is a minor component of their diet, but truffles and other fungi make up 85% of the northern flying squirrel’s diet whereas southern flying squirrels eat more acorns, nuts, berries, and animal matter.  The ancestors of the northern flying squirrel were those individuals from the parent population best able to subsist on a diet of mostly fungi.  These individuals were able to colonize spruce forests, while the rest of the parent population remained in oak forests.  Eventually, this habitat partition resulted in a divergence between the 2 American species.

Photo: Northern Flying Squirrel, Glaucomys sabrinus.

Northern flying squirrels eat mostly fungi which is a minor component in most squirrel’s diet.  The ability to subsist on a diet of mostly fungi enabled this species to colonize spruce forests.  Eventually, they evolved into a different species than southern flying squirrels because of this capability.

Elaphomyces or truffle–favorite food of the northern flying squirrel.

 

 Red Spruce (Picea rubens)

Red spruce (Picea rubens).  Red spruce, truffles, and northern flying squirrels are beneficial and interdependent to each other.

Fossils of both species of flying squirrels have been found at Ladds and Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Bartow County, Georgia.  This is evidence that patches of spruce forest grew near patches of oak forest in this region during some climatic stages of the Pleistocene.  Northern flying squirrels are confined to the former; southern flying squirrels require the latter.

There is an interesting ecological interdependence between northern flying squirrels, red spruce, and several species of fungi.  Truffles grow intertwined with the red spruce roots, and they exchange nutrients.  The squirrels eat the truffles and spread their spores throughout the forest in their droppings.  A healthy spruce forest requires an abudance of truffles.  Many red spruce forests have been logged, and without the squirrel’s help, trees such as oak, maple, beech, and cherry are replacing them.  In West Virginia the U.S. Forest Service has successfully re-established red spruce forests.  Foresters discovered that red spruce seedling grow best in ground ripped apart by bulldozers and strewn with woody debris.  Some of these young spruce forests are on land reclaimed from strip mining. 

 Report fox squirrel sightings in Florida Sherman's Fox Squirrel

Fox squirrel.  This species may play a role in distributing fungi in longleaf pine savannah. 

Rhizopogon nigrescens–a fungi common to longleaf pine savannahs and likely an item in the diet of the fox squirrel.

Virgin stand of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) in east Texas (circa 1908).

Although fox squirrels (Scirius niger) have a much more varied diet than northern flying squirrels, they occasionally eat fungi and may play a role in the health of longleaf pine savannahs.  Certain kinds of fungi that grow in the soil of savannahs also exchange nutrients with longleaf pine trees, and fox squirrels spread these spores in their dung as well.  Fox squirrels and longleaf pine savannahs were formerly common in the south, particularly on the coastal plain, but today both are rare.  The changes man has wrought have really sickened the natural communites of the world.

Reference:

Arbogast, Brian

“A Brief History of the New World Flying Squirrel: Phylogeny, Biogeography, and Conservation Genetics”

Journal of Mammalogy 88 (4) 2008

Looking at Ice Age Georgia From Outer Space

June 10, 2014

 I have a great curiosity about the ecology of southeastern North America before man colonized the region and that has always been the main focus of this blog.  It’s a frustrating obsession because there is no way I can know the exact plant and animal compositions and their interrelationships, though I believe I’ve made good educated guesses.  I’m particularly interested in Marine Isotope Stage 3–an interstadial dating to between 60,000 BP-30,000 BP.  This was a time of great climatic fluctuations that likely caused a fascinating intermingling of northern and southern species in this region.  I even fantasize that I’ve time traveled to 36,000 BP, so I can live in a homestead there and study the ecology of this past environment.  Time travel is not feasible.  However, it occurred to me that images of Ice Age Georgia have not disappeared forever.  (I swear I wasn’t stoned when this thought occurred to me, although I may have been drunk.)

w49A, a star forming region on the opposite side of the Milky Way from earth, is 36,000 light years away.  A super advanced telescope located in this region could potentially see images of Ice Age Georgia.

Earth from Space

View of earth from 22,000 miles away.

W49A is a star-forming region on the opposite side of the Milky Way galaxy from earth.  It contains an astonishing 100,000 stars in a space just 10 light years wide.  By contrast, there are only 10 stars within 10 light years of our sun.  W49A is 36,000 light years from earth.  This means that, theoretically, an alien life form looking through a super advanced telescope could be watching Georgia as it was 36,000 years ago. This alien could not see what was happening in dense forests, but they could be counting mammoths, bison, and ground sloths living in open grassland environments. SBW1 is a star located 20,000 light years from earth.  Astronomers believe it is about to become a supernova.  Theoretically, an alien from this vantage point could be observing earth as it was during the Last Glacial Maximum.

Modern telescopes made by man are incapable of directly observing planets in the closest star systems to ours, though it’s now possible to detect them indirectly.  However, Europeans are building the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) on top of a mountain in Chile.  It’s scheduled to be finished in 15 years.  This telescope will be able to see planets in neighboring star systems.  Telescope technology on earth is only about 500 years old.  Imagine an alien civilization that has been developing telescopes for 5000 years.  They could have images of earth as clear as our present day satellite images.  Some being could be seeing earth as it was tens of thousands of years ago, and they would know facts about Pleistocene ecology that we will never know.

An artist's impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

Artist’s rendition of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) to be constructed on top of a mountain in Chile.  It will be able to directly observe planets in other solar systems.  It’s supposed to be finished in 15 years.

Of course, humans alive today will never know whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.  Developing a super advanced telescope that can observe life on planets thousands of light years away may be possible, but traveling those distances within a realistic lifespan defies the known laws of physics.  If I had to bet whether life existed on other planets, I would wager that it does, simply because the universe is so vast.  But life is probably rare.  It would be really weird if earth was the only planet where biological life evolved.  Without biological life, nothing would be aware of the existence of the physical universe, so the physical universe itself would not exist…or it may as well not exist.  As Rene Descarte once wrote, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I am an agnostic.  I don’t know whether there is a God or not.  I think agnosticism is the most honest belief system.  The concept of and belief in a supreme being who can see everything we do seems very bizarre to me.  Yet, the way space and time are intertwined shows it is theoretically possible that a supreme being could witness everything we’ve ever done…as long as we did it outside in an open environment.  ATTENTION SINNERS!  This means that if there is a God, you should sin in doors, under a roof, where you can’t be seen by a supreme being who is observing the entire universe from some vantage point in space with his super duper telescope.

The Pre-historic Plant Composition of the Vero Beach, Florida Fossil Site

June 5, 2014

The Vero Beach Fossil Site in Florida has provided scientists with a remarkable treasure of data.  The initial excavation took place in 1915, and it sparked a controversy at the time because conventional wisdom assumed humans did not overlap in time with Ice Age megafauna in North America.  The discovery of human remains in the same strata here as mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths debunked that conventional wisdom. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/the-vero-beach-mammoth-engraving/) A few years ago James Kennedy found a megafaunal bone with an engraving of a mammoth on it here, re-igniting interest in the site.  James Adovasio of Mercyhurst University is conducting a re-excavation of the site before the city of Vero Beach eventually converts it to a concrete sewer drain.

Location in Indian River County and the state of Florida

Location of Vero Beach.  

Excavation begins at Vero Beach

Re-excavation of the Vero Beach Fossil Site.

In addition to the human remains and artifacts, the Vero Beach site has yielded the bones of mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, pampatheres, bison, horse, tapir, deer, saber-tooth, jaguar, dire wolf, rabbit, cotton rat, round-tailed muskrat, shrew, and alligator.  Most people are more interested in the archaeological finds than anything else uncovered at this site, but I’m more fascinated with the paleoecology.  So I was delighted when I came across an old paper written in 1915 by Edwin Berry entitled “The Fossil Plants from Vero Beach, Florida.”  I knew scientists had recovered plant remains here, but I thought they’d all turned to dust after being exposed to the atmosphere.  Apparently, Edwin Berry was able to identify and describe some of the plant remains prior to their dissolution.

The plants identified by Berry are typical of the same species found in the area today, suggesting little change in central Florida’s floral environment since 14,000 years ago.  Oak was the most common tree growing alongside this now extinct river.  (During the Pleistocene it was a tributary of the St. Johns River.)  The most common species of oak was swamp laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia), an evergreen species commonly found on moist sites throughout the modern day southeast.  Other components of this primeval forest were live oak, Chapman’s oak, willow oak, loblolly pine, corkwood, red maple, magnolia, cypress, saw palmetto, sabal palm, myrtle, holly, and pawpaw.  Arrowleaf viburnum, cocklebur, and sedges grew in the understory.  Water lettuce, water lilly, and knotweed occupied aquatic habitats. 

Live oak in Jacksonville, Florida.  Wow!  What a tree.

Diamondleaf Oak, Swamp Laurel Oak (Quercus laurifolia)

Leaves and acorns of swamp laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia).  These were the most common plant remains found at the Vero Beach Fossil site..

Sabal Palm.

Berry includes Pinus caribaea in his list of plants found at the Vero Beach fossil site.  At first I was excited that an extralimital species such as Carribbean pine might have formerly ranged into central Florida.  However, he wrote that Pinus caribaea still ranged into Florida.  I believe he was either using an archaic synonym for a species other than Carribbean pine such as slash pine or pond pine; or he simply had it confused with another species.  I just can’t figure out which species he was referring to because range maps of Carribbean Pine show that it originally was confined to the Carribbean and Central America, though it has been widely transplanted worldwide.  As far as I can determine, it did not naturally occur in central Florida when Berry published his article.

Berry listed the jujube (Ziziphus celata) among the plant remains found at this site.  This species prefers open sunny conditions on dry sandy soils and is the 1 species that doesn’t fit in with the habitat preferences of the other species listed here.  Berry wrote that it no longer occurred in Florida, but he was wrong.  Jujubes were discovered growing in Florida in 1948.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/the-florida-jujube-ziziphus-celata-a-pleistocene-relic/)  This species was once more widespread.  The Florida population is a disjunct relic related to similar species found in the America southwest.

I did find 1 species on Berry’s list that no longer ranges into this part of Florida–the willow oak (Quercus phellos).  Berry used Q. brevifolia, an archaic synonym as the scientific name for this species.  Willow oak still occurs in south Georgia but is more common in the piedmont.  Warmer summer temperatures may have made it difficult for this species to compete with other species in central Florida.  Its range may be in the process of contracting north.

Reference:

Berry, Edwin

“The Fossil Plants from Vero Beach, Florida”

Smithsonian Institution publication 1915?

The Mystery of the Silver Bluff Shoreline

June 1, 2014

Scientists give names to prehistoric sea shorelines along the Atlantic Coast.  Logically, we know the oldest shorelines are the ones located farthest to the west because otherwise subsequent high sea stands would have obliterated them.  The location of the Georgia shoreline during part of the mid-Wisconsinian Interstadial (~46,000 calender years BP-~30,000 calender years BP) is called the Silver Bluff Shoreline, and it roughly corresponds with our modern day shoreline.  This correspondence puzzles scientists.  During the mid-Wisconsinian Interstadial, glaciers covered most of Canada about as far south as the Great Lakes, and therefore sea level should have fallen many miles to the east as it eventually did between ~29,000 BP-~7,000 BP.  The carbon dating of Silver Bluff organic material is consistent, eliminating the possibility that scientists have been misled by contaminated dates.  Some scientists suggest a tectonic explanation for why sea level was as high as today when it should have been much lower due to the glacial expansion.  There is some evidence of this–buried oyster beds in the St. Mary’s River have been found in sediment that dates to a time period when the ocean should have regressed far to the east.  However, I have a different hypothesis.

I believe sea level regression lagged behind glacial expansion.  Though more and more of earth’s moisture was becoming locked in glacial ice, there was still enough atmospheric precipitation and groundwater to keep the ocean filled with water comparable to modern levels until some critical threshold was reached.  Perhaps this threshold was the Great Lakes themselves.  As long as the Laurentide Glacier remained north of the Great Lakes, there was enough atmospheric moisture to keep sea levels high, but once this glacier advanced over the Great Lakes and froze all that water, sea levels dropped dramatically.  Sea levels remained low until 7,000 BP.  Then, enough water was released from melting glaciers for the sea  to rise to modern levels.

The Silver Bluff Shoreline is colored red.  The oldest shoreline is colored yellow and dates to the Pliocene (~2 million BP).

Scientists have taken numerous cores of sediment from several areas of St. Catherines Island, Georgia that date to this mid-Wisconsinian Interstadial when sea levels were as high as they are today despite cooler average annual temperatures.  The northern part of St. Catherines Island was part of the Pleistocene-aged Silver Bluff shoreline but currents are eroding into this part of the island, and this sediment is accreting on the southern side of the island.  (Most of Georgia’s barrier islands are of Pleistocene age on the north side and of Holocene age on the south side.  The Holocene side is built from eroded Pleistocene sediment.)  The pollen record from these cores reveal some interesting and unique environments that existed on St. Catherines Island during the interstadial.  The most unusual core sample was taken from Yellow Bank Bluff.  The pollen composition consisted of 41% composites (flowers from the aster family), 17% alder (a shrub related to birch), 10% grass, 5% ragweed, and with the presence of pine and hickory.  There is no natural community in the modern day south that even closely resembles this.  The closest modern analogue would be a midwestern tag alder wetland.  Just visualize an open grassy meadow covered in a variety of colorful wildflowers and thickets of alder shrubs and widely spaced trees.  Megafauna foraging likely had a great influence on this landscape.

Yellow Bank Bluff on St. Catherines Island.  This was a much larger hill well above sea level between ~29,000 BP-~7000 BP.  It was connected to Guale Island which didn’t become submerged below rising sea levels until as recently as 4000 years ago.  The most unusual core sample of ancient Pleistocene pollen was found here.

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A tag alder wetland in Wisconsin.  An environment like this existed on St. Catherines Island, Georgia about 40,000 years ago.

Cores taken from other sites on St. Catherines Island reveal less unexpected environments.  The St. Catherines Shell Ring core shows that pine and oak were equally common in a diverse forest growing next to a salt marsh.  Pollen from this core also included hickory, sweetgum, tupelo, birch, elm, cypress, grass, ferns, and salt marsh chenopods.  Beech was a surprisingly common component here.  Beech no longer occurs on the Georgia coast.  Today, the nearest population of beech grows on north facing bluffs along the Savannah River.  An abundance of grape and aquatic plant pollen suggests a cypress swamp covered with grapevines.  The ample fern and grass pollen is evidence of a fire-influenced environment such as a freshwater “prairie”, not unlike those found in the modern day Okefenokee Swamp.  The core from the Cracker Tom Hammock indicated an environment similar to that from the Shell Ring Core.

Several sites from Skidaway Island have also been cored and analyzed for pollen composition.  They also show that southeastern coastal plain environments have long hosted a stable diverse composition of pine, oak, hickory, cypress, and sweetgum, but during the cooler interstadial northern species such as beech, alder, spruce, and even hemlock were present.

Scientists have recently investigated the Central Depression Savannah on St. Catherines Island.  This was a beautiful 5 square mile wet meadow with many freshwater springs.  This site is considered to be of unusual and unknown origin.  Unfortunately, it was drained during the 1930s.  Pollen analysis of Pleistocene aged sediment here revealed a forest consisting of myrtle, heaths (blueberry or rhododendron), pine, oak, sweetgum, and a significant presence of hemlock, though the latter pollen may have been windblown from the coastal plain.  All of these studies suggest the floral composition of this region has remained stable for tens of thousands of years, but northern species did colonize this area during cooler climatic stages.

See also https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/pleistocene-fossils-found-on-the-georgia-bight/

Reference:

Rich, Fred; and Robert Booth

“Quaternary Vegetation and Depositional History of St. Catherines Island”

From Geoarcheology of St. Catherines Island, Georgia: Proceedings of 4th Caldwell conference 2009

Anthropological Papers of AMNH #94

Southeastern Grasslands are of Great Antiquity

May 29, 2014

I enjoy watching a summer thunderstorm.  Lightning strikes offer a natural fireworks show that sometimes surpasses the manmade kind.  The furious wind and roaring thunder show the excited side of mother nature.  It’s the dangerous side of nature–a human could be vacuumed into the sky by a tornado, electrocuted by lightning, or clobbered by a hailstone or wind-strewn debris.  Nobody, not a king nor a baby, is immune to these hazards.

Natural fireworks.

Some anthropologists and a few old school ecologists wrongly believe most of the grasslands that occurred in southeastern North America when Columbus accidentally sailed into the Caribbean were the result of manmade fires.  Reed Noss dispels this notion in his book, Forgotten Grasslands of the South. The map below shows the frequency of lightning strikes in North America.  The south, and especially Florida, has more lightning strikes than any other region of the continent.  Dr. Noss believes the high frequency of lightning strikes can spark enough wild fires to maintain abundant grasslands without any human activity.

Map of average annual lighting strikes in North America between 1989-1999.  Lighting strikes were naturally common enough to have sparked grassland-creating wild fires long before humans arrived in North America.

Long Distance Controlled Burn

A longleaf pine savannah on fire.  Longleaf pines are one of the few species of tree whose seedlings can survive fire.

Several lines of evidence support Dr. Noss’s conclusion that anthropogenic activity was not necessary to maintain grasslands.  Formerly, longleaf pine savannah covered most of the coastal plain region of the south.  There were even patches of pine savannah in the piedmont region, though oak and hickory dominated that area.  There are over 900 species of plants endemic (meaning they live nowhere else) to longleaf pine savannah compared to just 80 endemic species found on the grasslands of the Great Plains.  A high number of endemic species suggests an ecosystem of great antiquity and stability.  Because evolution is usually a slow process, it’s not likely that all of these endemic fire-dependent species could have evolved in just the last 12,000 years.  Longleaf pines require fire intervals of 1-10 years or hardwoods will crowd them out.  Longleaf pines grow slowly, taking decades to reach reproductive age.  A species that reproduces this slowly would have never been able to adapt quickly enough to survive a sudden change in fire regime caused by man.  These fire dependent species must have already been present before man colonized the region.

Many species of animals are also endemic to pine savannahs.  The gopher tortoise and the red cockaded woodpecker are perhaps the 2 most well known vertebrates dependent on this fire-influenced environment. Gopher tortoise fossils have been found that date to millions of years ago, while red cockaded woodpecker fossils come from deposits in the vicinity of 200,000 years old.  The presence of these species and many others in the fossil record long predate man’s entrance into the region.  This is obvious evidence that southern grasslands preceded man.

There was a lower frequency of lightning strikes during the coldest stages of the Ice Ages.  Evidence from most fossil sedimentary sites show little, if any charcoal, indicating reduced fire activity.  However, less precipitation combined with megafaunal grazing created grasslands during the colder climatic phases.  Following the megafaunal extinctions, fire activity spiked because so much vegetation was no longer being eaten and instead it became dry tinder.

During the Last Glacial Maximum, longleaf pine savannahs still occurred in refugium located in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and probably along the continental shelf where sea levels regressed.  Paradoxically, these areas were warmer and wetter during Ice Ages because the Gulf Stream shut down and warm water that normally circulated north pooled around these lower latitudes.  Oak scrub and prairie, the result of aridity and megafauna foraging, predominated in the upper coastal plain.  Longleaf pine savannah didn’t recolonize the upper coastal plain until about 6,000 years ago, but the pollen record suggests this type of environment has waxed and waned cyclically for millions of years, becoming common and widespread during warm and wet climatic phases.

Some Plants and Birds that Favor Overgrazed Landscapes

May 25, 2014

Herds of Pleistocene megafauna were mobile and could never stay in one location for long or they would outstrip their food supply.  They seasonally traveled along the same corridors for decades or even centuries, until varying climatic changes altered their migration patterns.  During interstadials when forested conditions prevailed, grazers were forced to travel far and wide to satisfy their nutritional requirements, and during stadials when grassy environments were more common, the browsers had to migrate greater distances.  Many megafauna game trails led to valuable resources such as salt licks and water holes.  The megafauna greatly influenced the composition of plants, insects, and birds along these game trails, creating unique ecological associations and natural environments.  They trampled the ground, overgrazed and overbrowsed vegetation, debarked and killed trees, and unleashed large quantities of manure.

Most of the unique ecological associations formerly found on megafauna game trails no longer exist in North America, but the buffalo traces that early settlers encountered were a final relic.    Many buffalo traces led to the Blue Licks in Kentucky–a freshwater spring and salt lick.  The “immense” herds of buffalo had eroded the land everywhere here from up to 4-5 miles away.  Tree roots were visible due to this erosion.  Two species of now rare plants are thought to have been more abundant then because they depended upon habitat created by buffalo herds traveling along these traces.

Short’s goldenrod–a rare species known from only 3 sites.  These sites were formerly connected by a buffalo trace.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle - Chauliognathus pensylvanicus

Goldenrod soldier beetle.  This is an important pollinator of Short’s goldenrod.

Short’s goldenrod (Solidago shortii) was discovered on Rock Island–a limestone outcrop located in the middle of the Ohio River Falls.  This was a former crossing spot for bison herds.  The Macalpine Lock and Dam later flooded this location, extirpating this population.  This species was later found growing on Blue Licks Battlefield Park in northern Kentucky and Harrison-Crawford State Park in Indiana.  All 3 known localities have 1 thing in common–they were formerly connected by the same buffalo trace.  Apparently, this species of goldenrod requires overgrazed trails, and they spread along this corridor, thanks to the bison.  It’s possible the goldenrod seeds were transported in bison dung.  Without trampling, grazing, and erosion, other species of plants outcompete and exclude this species of goldenrod.

Running Buffalo Clover–another rare plant that used to commonly grow on the buffalo traces.

Running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum) is another species now more restricted in range than in the past.  This is the only species of clover that does not have a rhizobial association.  All other species of clover and legumes have colonies of bacteria growing in their root nodules that help them absorb nitrogen.  However, running buffalo clover grew in patches frequently fertilized with nitrogen-rich bison dung, precluding their need for a rhizobial association.

Megafaunal trails likely had groves of wild fruit trees originating from seed-filled dung.  Persimmon, paw paw, plum, crabapple, wild squash, and passion fruit (maypop) probably were abundant on the sunny trails where large shade trees suffered high rates of mortality due to damage suffered from megafauna activity.  Dung beetles, scavenging birds, and predators all followed the mobile herds.  Thickets of shrubs and brier patches colonized abandoned megafauna trails and pastures, providing ideal habitat for rabbits.

Burrowing Owls

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burrowing owls prefer overgrazed cow pastures or frequently mowed golf courses and airports.

The burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) has an odd present day range.  It mostly occurs in western North America, but a relic population lives in Florida.  Recent studies determined the relic Floridian population prefers overgrazed pasture land.  They like short grass with few trees, so they can have a good view of approaching predators.  They’ve actually expanded their range in the past century to include land cleared by humans such as golf courses, cemeteries, and airports.  However, they are considered threatened by increasing development that converts cow pasture to suburbs.  Burrowing owls must have occurred throughout much of eastern North America during the Pleistocene when game trails provided a network of suitable habitat.

Audubon’s Crested Caracara also requires overgrazed grasslands.

The crested caracara (Caracara cheriway) also occurs as a relic in south central Florida.  The rest of its range includes South America north to Texas.  Formerly, a coastal grassland habitat connected Florida with Texas, but during the Holocene forested habitat, unsuitable for this species, replaced this coastal grassland environment.  This is a scavenging bird that eats carrion, bird nestlings, disabled small animals, and insects.  They inhabit open ground where they search for food under woody debris and even cow dung.  Caracaras were also more widespread during the Pleistocene, but are more limited than burrowing owls because they are less cold tolerant.

Refererences:

Morrison, Joan

“The Crested Caracara in the Changing Grasslands of Florida”

Proceedings of the Florida Dry Prairie Conference 2004

Noss, Reed

Forgotten Grasslands of the South

Island Press 2013

The Nature of 12 Years a Slave

May 21, 2014

Some past Oscar winners are so bad they’re unwatchable, but 12 Years a Slave is a great movie that topped a lot of other really good movies released in 2013.  The setting of the movie is primarily in Louisiana between 1841-1853.  Because this region was frontier wilderness then, the movie inspired me to read the book for insight into the area’s natural history.  Most of this essay will focus on this natural history, but first I want to comment on the literary quality of the book, and an odd misconception of slavery I found while researching this topic.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a freed black man, who was kidnapped and forced into slavery for 12 years until he was rescued by his white friend from New York.  Solomon Northrup is credited with authoring the book–it is his story.  But he had an excellent ghost writer by the name of David Wilson.  Though Northrup was not illiterate, he had been forbidden to read or write for 12 years, and there is no way such an unpracticed individual could have produced such a well written book without professional writing help.  Some of the best books I’ve ever read were written by ghost writers.  Ozzie Osboure had an amazing ghost writer for his biography.  Ozzie is admittedly illiterate due to a learning disability.  Moreover, it’s difficult to understand his mumbling speech.  Nevertheless, Ozzie’s ghost writer did a fantastic job capturing his voice, just as Wilson captured Solomon’s voice.

Northrup

Portrait of Solomon Northrup.  When one of his psychopathic slave-owners attacked him with an axe, he fled into a virgin bottomland forest and saw dozens of alligators and hundreds of cottonmouth water moccasins in just 24 hours.

While researching this topic, I came across a stupid blogger who claimed slaves were well off because they had room and board.   This is a surprisingly prevalent revisionist view among some right-wingers. I wonder if any of these right-wingers would be willing to trade room and board for whippings, forced labor, rape, and being separated from their children forever.  What kind of cuckoo land propaganda brainwashes these delusional dumb asses?

Solomon Northrup endured 4 “masters.”  One was a nice guy, though, of course, misguided; two were greedy sadists, and another was an homicidal maniac.  One day, the homicidal maniac tried to kill Solomon with an axe.  Fortunately, Solomon was able to overpower this crazy little dude and choke him unconcious, giving him time to flee into a virgin bottomland swamp. (This scene was not depicted in the movie.) When Tibeats, the name of this psycho, revived, he jumped on his horse and sought the help of professional slave trackers who used a pack of a vicious type of mutt to hunt down slaves.

Virgin bottomland forest of cottonwood and hackberry in Louisiana.  The forest Solomon fled through was swampier than this and had cypress and tupelo giants growing in it.

This  dog is known (if you’ll excuse the ugly adjective) as a nigger hound.  It isn’t actually a hound but rather a cross between an old fashioned working bulldog and a mastiff.  Slave-owners used them to hunt down escaped slaves.

The standard slave hunting dog, known variously as a Cuban bloodhound or nigger hound, was not an hound at all but rather a cross between an old fashioned  American bulldog and a mastiff.  In Louisiana most slaves were easily captured because few knew how to swim, and eventually they’d reach a bayou they could not cross.  The dogs would either tree the slave or trap them against the watery barrier.  Dogs often seriously injured or killed slaves before the trackers could catch up to them. Solomon knew how to swim and successfully escaped the dogs by fleeing deep into the swamp and losing his scent in the numerous watercourses.  He found himself inside a virgin bottomland forest of immense trees consisting of cypress, tupelo, oak, and sycamore.  Tree frogs croaked constantly as Solomon navigated around alligators and cottonmouth water moccasins.  He claimed to have seen over 100 of the latter during 12 hours of daylight.  He traveled all night and eventually found his way back to his old “master” who still owned the deed on him, though he had mortgaged him to Tibeats.  (Slaves were traded in lieu of cash for debts.)  Ford, the nicer “master,” convinced Tibeats to rent Solomon to another plantation-owner instead of punishing him for fending off the axe attack.  Tibeats later sold Solomon to a greedy sadist who whipped slaves almost daily.

Solomon later learned of a trick slaves could use to keep nigger hounds from tracking them, though he never again dared attempt a direct escape.  He knew of an escaped slave that built an hut in the wilderness and lived there for a year before she returned to the plantation.  The plantation dogs refused to track her because when no one was looking, she had intimidated the dogs and showed the dogs she was dominant over them.  Solomon often had to supplement his diet with raccoon or oppossum, and he used a club and the plantation dogs to hunt these critters.  When he was in the woods with the dogs, he’d become dominant over them, so that if he ever tried to escape again, they’d refuse to track him.

The ration Solomon received was miserable–cornmeal, maggoty bacon, and the occasional sweet potato.  With no cooking utensils he had to subsist on unleavened cornbread baked in ashes–in other words…a dog biscuit.  The bacon was often so infested with fly spawn it was not edible.  He built a box fish trap and baited it with corn dough, and this supplied him with most of his daily protein.  He didn’t write what kind of fish he caught, other than they tasted good.  The nearby Allemande Lake is known as the “catfish capitol of the world.”  Solomon likely caught channel, flathead, and blue catfish in his trap.

The area where Solomon slaved for most of his days in captivity is known as Bayou Beouf, named for all the feral longhorn cattle that formerly abounded in this neighborhood. These longhorn cattle were wild descendents of cows the Spanish brought from Europe.  This is a dangerous breed capable of fending off large predators.  There were also planty of feral hogs here.

La Bayou Boeuf was named after all the feral and semi-tame cattle that roamed the region when Americans first settled in this wilderness.  The cattle descended from those brought to Texas from Spain.

When Solomon was first brought to Louisiana he stayed at Ford’s plantation in “The Big Piney Woods.”  This plantation was located in the middle of a longleaf pine savannah–a now rare type of environment that formerly covered most of the southeast’s coastal plain.  While working for Ford, he also encountered Chickasaw Indians, still living in the region.

Tibeats rented Solomon to a man in the process of clearing a forest on his plantation.  To reach this territory, Solomon’s party traveled through a massive canebrake–a huge monotypical stand of bamboo cane, also a now rare environment that formerly was commonplace.  This is how he describes it:

“After passing through Baton Rouge swamp, and just at sunset, turning from the highway, we struck into the “Big Cane Brake.”  We followed an unbeaten track, scarcely wide enough to admit the wagon.  The cane, such as are used for fishing rods, were as thick as they could stand.  A person could not be seen through them the distance of a rod.  The paths of the wild beasts run through them in various directions–the bear and the American tiger abounding in these brakes, and wherever there is a basin of stagnant water, it is full of alligators.”–Solomon Northrup 1853

Apparently, jaguars occurred as far east as Louisiana until as late as 1887 (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/how-recently-did-the-jaguar-panthera-onca-roam-eastern-north-america/)  Early colonists referred to them as “the American tiger” to distinguish them from a cougar which they called “panther.”

Brutal: The 20-stone cat sunk its teeth into the eight-foot reptile before dragging it back across the water and into the jungle

Jaguar killing a caiman.  Solomon Northrup and the early Louisiana settlers referred to jaguars as the “American tiger.”  They abounded in an area known as the “Big Canebrake.”

Solomon didn’t mind the hard work of cutting down trees, but the mosquitoes and gnats were intolerable in this virgin swamp forest on the other side of the Big Cane Brake.

We may consider outselves more enlightened than people were in the 19th century, but I’m certain there are just as many greedy sadists and violent psychopaths now as there were then.  The wilderness, however, is gone.  I prefer the wildernes over humanity.

Primeval Monster Gators (Alligator mississippiensis)

May 16, 2014

How big can an American alligator get?  Early Colonial explorers and naturalists claimed these reptiles could grow to as large as 20-25 feet long.  William Bartram wrote that he saw individuals of this length during his trip through Florida in 1774, but he’s notorious for miscalculating distances.  I believe Bartram had poor eyesight even before he was struck with scarlet fever a few years later.  The largest alligator on record was a specimen killed on Marsh Island, Louisiana in 1890.  It measured 19 feet, however, this record was never verified because the beast was too heavy to drag away from shore.  It would have weighed an estimated 2200 pounds.  The largest verified alligator was a specimen measuring 17.5 feet, killed in Everglades National Park.  Modern day state records have recently been set in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas, but these all measured slightly under 14 feet.  Large alligators of this size are rarer today than during the pre-European settlement era because hunters kill most gators that exceed 6-8 feet.

lufkin record alligator

A nearly 14 foot long alligator killed in Texas.  A fossil of a Pleistocene-aged alligator was from an animal estimated to be 7 feet longer than this one.

If alligators formerly did reach over 20 feet in length as Bartram and others claimed, it occurred to me there might be some fossil evidence of this.  Alligators are one of the most common large vertebrate species found in Florida fossil sites.  Data from the University of Florida Museum indicates alligator fossils have turned up in probably over 100 fossil sites in Florida, and this doesn’t even include the many found by hobbyists.  Alligators have been a common component of Florida’s fauna for millions of years.  The American alligator has undergone little morphological change for nearly 5 million years.  Its evolutionary predecessor, Olsen’s alligator, was smaller and did differ in skull morphology enough to be considered a separate species.  One alligator specimen found at Haile, an early Pleistocene fossil site (~2 million BP),  represented an animal estimated to be 21 feet long when it was alive.  A gator this size likely weighed 2500 pounds.  This specimen certainly supports the veracity of early explorer’s claims of seeing alligators that were 20-25 feet long. 

maxilla of Alligator mississippiensis

Fossil alligator maxilla from Sarasota, Florida.  This specimen dates to the late Pleistocene.

Pleistocene alligators did not necessarily top the food chain.  During droughts, big gators often travel overland looking for deeper water holes.  When in this vulnerable situation, even large gators could have fallen prey to big cats such as jaguars or saber-tooths.  In some areas of South America, the alligator-like caiman is an important item of a jaguar’s diet.

Zombie Gators

Some Florida lakes have become so polluted from fertilizer run-off that large algal blooms occur.  Gizzard shad thrive in these polluted waters, while populations of other species of fish decline.  Alligators can safely eat gizzard shad as long as there are other species of fish in the water.  However, when alligators are forced to subsist on just gizzard shad they enter a zombie-like state known as ataxic neuropathy.  This is a fancy name for becoming paralyzed.  Gizzard shad flesh has thiaminase–an enzyme that breaks down thiamine, an important B vitamin.  This prevents gators from digesting thiamine without which their nervous system ceases functioning.  The zombie-like state is followed by death, unless the gator is given thiamine.

Zombie Alligators

A zombie gator.  Alligators fed on a diet of nothing but gizzard shad suffer a nutritional deficiency that paralyzes them.  They can be revived with thiamine, a B vitamin.

gizzard shad fish

Gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum).  Gators can safely eat this fish as long as they have other species of fish in their diet as well.  A diet of just gizzard shad will poison them.

Bartram’s Battle Lagoon

In 1774 William Bartram traveled on the St. Johns River, Florida.  He witnessed an incredible fish migration that attracted hundreds of large alligators.  A fish migration as he described no longer occurs on this scale at this geographic locality.  Few, if any places left on earth, provide such a spectacle.  It was probably a migration of gizzard shad.  This migration attracted largemouth bass which fed upon the shad, while gars preyed on the bass.  Alligators ambushed them all.  Bartram saw this migration on the part of the St. John’s River that flows between Lake George and Lake Dexter.  (There are 2 Lake Dexters in Florida.  This is the one located in Ocala National Forest.)  Below the next image is Bartram’s account.  (Incidentally, Bartram refers to largemouth bass as trout.  Old timers still refer to bass caught in brackish waters as “green trout.”)

Click to view larger image

Lake Dexter is the middle lake.  The part of the St. John’s River between Lake George in the distance and Lake Dexter in the middle is where Bartram witnessed a massive fish migration that attracted hundreds of gators.

It was by this time dusk, and the alligators had nearly ceased their roar, when I was again alarmed by a tumultuous noise that seemed to be in my harbour, and therefore engaged my immediate attention.  Returning to my camp, I found it undisturbed, and then continued on to the extreme point of the promontory, where I saw a scene, new and surprising, which at first threw my senses into such a tumult, that it was some time before I could comprehend what was the matter; however, I soon accounted for the prodigious assemblage of crocodiles at this place, which exceeded every thing of the kind I had ever heard of.

How shall I express myself to convey an adequate idea of it to the reader, and at the same time avoid raising suspicions of my want of veracity.  Should I say, that the river in this place from shore to shore and perhaps near a half a mile above and below me, appeared to be one solid bank of fish, of various kinds, pushing through this narrow pass of St. Juans into the little lake, on their return down the river, and that alligators were in such incredible numbers, and so close together from shore to shore, that it would have been easy to have walked across on their heads, had the animals been harmless.  What expressions can sufficiently declare the shocking scene that for some minutes continued, whilst this mighty army of fish were forcing the pass?  During this attempt, thousands, I may say hundreds of thousands of them were caught and swallowed by the devouring alligators.  I have seen an alligator take up out of the water several great fish at a time, and just squeeze them betwixt his jaws while the tails of the great trout flapped about his eyes and lips, ere he had swallowed them.  The horrid noise of their closing jaws, their plunging amidst the broken banks of fish, and rising with their prey some feet upright above the water, the floods of water and blood rushing out of their mouths, and the clouds of vapour issuing from their wide nostrils, were truly frightful.  This scene continued at intervals during the night, as the fish came to pass.  After this sight, shocking and tremendous as it was, I found myself somewhat easier and more reconciled to my situation, being convinced that their extraordinary assemblage here was owing to this annual feast of fish, and that they were so well employed in their own element, that I had little occasion to fear their paying me a visit.”–William Bartram, 1774

References:

Ross, J.P. et. al.

“Gizzard Shad Thiaminase Activity and its Effect on the Thiamine Status of Captive American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis)”

Journal of Aquatic Animal Health 2009

http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/vertpaleo/fossilspeciesAlligatormississippiensis.htm

The Land Walt Disney Ruined

May 12, 2014

1,145,956 people live in Orange County, Florida today, making it one of the most crowded colonies of Homo sapiens in the United States.  A satellite view of this county reveals a densely packed network of suburbs surrounding the many lakes that dot this once beautiful piece of real estate.  It appears as if green space has been entirely extinguished here.  Walt Disney is responsible for much of the ungodly mess Orange County has become.  He created Disney world, a shitty tourist trap constructed between 1965-1972.  In my opinion the entertainment value of Disney World is nil, and a blank television screen is preferable to 95% of the series presently aired on Disney-owned ABC network.  I can’t understand how even small children are entertained by the imbecilic cartoon characters created by Disney’s company.  Ironically, the man behind Bambi destroyed more deer habitat than any other business criminal in history.  It disgusts me how the real interesting fauna of Florida has been replaced by artificial anthropomorphized animals.

Map of Florida highlighting Orange County

Orange County, Florida.

Walt Disney with one of his imbecilic cartoon characters.  Real animals are far more interesting than Mickey Mouse.

There were at least 7 different types of natural communities that formerly made up the landscape of Orange County.  In 1774 William Bartram found hardwood hammocks growing on the lake shores and islands within the lakes in north central Florida.  The tree composition consisted of live oak, palm, magnolia, orange, and many other temperate and subtropical species.  Orange trees were not native to Florida but Indians widely planted this fruit from seeds they obtained from early Spanish colonists 200 years earlier.  Large orange groves, abandoned by declining Indian populations, were being invaded by native trees in some places.  Other wild fruit trees included papaya (Carica papaya), tallow plum (Ximenia americana), coco plum (Chrysohailaanos icaco), and pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  Ivy and grape vines covered the hammocks and spectacular flowers such as hibiscus grew in the understory.

Hibiscus coccineus.  Bartram found stalks of this flower growing 12 feet tall.

Silver Glen Springs in Ocala National Forest.  The numerous springs and lakes of Orange County acted as firebreaks protecting hardwood hammocks that would have otherwise been converted to longleaf pine savannah.

Florida has more thunderstorms and lighting strikes than any other region of North America.  Accordingly, lighting ignited wildfires shaped the most common type of environment found in Orange County.  Lakes acted as firebreaks that protected hardwood hammocks, but longleaf pine savannahs predominated on uplands away from water.  Widely spaced pines with grassy understories supported lots of wildlife.  Great herds of bison, feral longhorn cattle, horses, and deer used to roam the savannah along with mighty flocks of cranes and turkeys.  Burrowing owls and caracaras preferred the heavily grazed grasslands where they had a good view of potential threats.  By contrast the now nearly extinct grasshopper sparrow preferred to nest in tufts of bunchgrass perchance left ungrazed.  This species requires large ranges because the type of habitat they need is ephemeral, annually disappearing in some areas and appearing in others.  A slight dip in elevation of only a few inches differentiated 2 similar but distinct natural communites–dry longleaf pine savannah and wet pond pine savannah.  They shared some species of flora and fauna but carried many different species as well.  Crayfish for example preferred the latter.

Sand scrub habitat hosted gopher tortoises, a species Bartram referred to as abundant in 1774 but has probably been extirpated from modern day Orange County.  There are many commensal species that co-occur with the gopher tortoises, including the spectacular indigo snake.

Gopher Tortoise Burrow

Gopher tortoises, now endangered, were formerly abundant on all areas of Florida with sandy soils.

Cypress swamps with 1000 year old specimens grew in low lying areas.  Drought or storm-killed trees attracted the now extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.  This bird required freshly killed trees infested with beetle larva.  Some cypress trees were exceptionally large, and they were covered with Spanish moss.  The myriads of mosquitoes made these swamps a paradise for several species of bats that nested in cypress snags.  Mosquito county was the original name of Orange County.

An 1000 year old, 90 foot tall cypress tree in Louisiana.  Trees this age used to be common in Orange County.

Some low lying areas were treeless marshes where grasses and sedges grew.  This was the habitat of the marsh rabbit and many species also found on the savannahs.

Swamprabbit

Marsh rabbit.  The artificial Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck replaced this real living and breathing animal in Orange County.  Walt Disney, a so-called animal lover, hypocritically destroyed most of the marsh rabbit habitat here.

Modern lakes in Orange County are often polluted from fertilizer runoff.  Gizzard shad are the only species of fish to thrive in these algal blooms.  Formerly, these lakes supported much higher largemouth bass populations that fed alligators and wading birds.  Wintering ducks and geese used to be much more abundant.

Bartram wrote that the most common songbirds in Florida were green jays, loggerhead shrikes, and rufous-sided towhees.  I’m sure the jays he saw were the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens); rare now but still present in Florida.  Bartram must have been color blind because there is no green on this bird.  Green jays occur no farther north than the Rio Grande, but there was a species of green jay that lived in Florida during warm stages of the Pleistocene.  Bartram is the only person to record the king vulture in Florida–a bird that today is restricted to tropical regions of South America.  He saw them scavenging reptiles unable to escape wild fires.

Bartram saw bears, wolves, and bobcats in Florida.  Bears fed on oranges and wild fruits.  The Florida black bear is the largest subspecies of Ursus americanus, thanks to the year round foraging opportunities that preclude the need for hibernation here.

Rock Springs is a Pleistocene fossil site located in Orange County, Florida.  It yielded a typical Rancholabrean large mammal fauna.  For a list of species found at the site here’s a link to a wikipedia article. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_County,_Florida_paleontological_sites).  Rock Springs is a good avifossil site.  The abundant fossils of ducks and wading birds show that wetlands have often been common here.

Orange County was still a sportsman’s paradise in the first half of the 20th century.  Though many of the natural communities had been transformed into citrus orchards and cow pastures, there was still enough green space to make for superior deer and quail hunting, while the black bass fishing remained outstanding.  But the citrus business shifted south following a killing freeze, and pastureland has transmogrified into unending suburbs, and now the land is ruined.

The late George Leonard Herter lamented this ruination.  He enjoyed dining at a long gone local restaurant owned by Peter Miller.  Miller served largemouth bass, dressed, skinned, and boiled whole and covered with dill-flavored mayonaise and a side of garlic-infused sourkraut.  None of the chain restaurants that currently add to the congestion of this suburban nightmare serve a dish this unique.  The unique natural beauty of Orange County is as forlorn a thing as a locally-owned restaurant.

 


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