Posts Tagged ‘black bear’

Cades Cove

June 19, 2017

Most of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is heavily wooded, and wildlife usually stays hidden in thick vegetation.  Cades Cove is 1 of the few areas in the park where tourists can reliably see wildlife because it is an open beautiful valley of fields and thin fingers of forest, resembling what many southeastern landscapes looked like until the mid-19th century.  Indians set fire to the valley annually to improve habitat for game animals, and white settlers maintained the open nature of the valley by using it as pasture and by planting row crops.  The valley remained open when the National Park Service took over the site 90 years ago.  Today, a 1-way loop road encircles the valley, making for the best accessible wildlife watching in the park.  I rode my car on the Cades Cove loop road last Saturday evening with my wife and daughter.  We saw >50 horses, 20 deer, 2 black bears, 1 squirrel, 1 turkey, and lots of crows and chimney swifts.

The herd of tame horses is located near the beginning of the loop road.  Many different breeds are represented including spotted palominos, Clydesdales, and solid black and brown horses.  I saw cowbirds foraging between the horses.  Fossil evidence shows horses did inhabit this region during the Pleistocene.  I would like to see the park service allow horses to go wild here.  Wild horses belong in North America.

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There’s an herd of over 50 horses near the entrance to the Cades Cove loop road.

Black bear sightings caused several traffic jams on the loop road.  There are hundreds of signs telling tourists to pull over when they want to stop and see the wildlife, and other signs constantly warn to stay at least 50 yards away from bears and deer.  Most tourists ignore these signs.  They stop their cars in the middle of the road, rush toward the bear, and get as close as they can to photograph the bruin.  We were stuck in 1 traffic jam for 20 minutes.  At least I did get to see wild black bears for the first time in my life.  I’d rather live in a world where bears outnumber people.  It has been thousands of years since bears outnumbered the entire population of Homo sapiens on earth but before the development of agriculture they did.

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We saw 20 deer.  This buck snuck behind me.

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This was the only turkey I saw in Cades Cove.  I expected to see more.  While driving through the park the following day I saw an hen with 2 chicks cross the road.  Why did the turkey cross the road? 

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There are 4 deer in this photo.  2 are laying down but their antlers are visible.

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This was the only live squirrel I saw in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I was surprised I didn’t see more.

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We saw 2 black bears on the Cades Cove loop road.  Look at how close these 2 stupid asses got to the bear.  They are underestimating how dangerous this situation is.  There must be at least 100 signs telling people to stay at least 50 yards away from the bears and deer.  Instead, people rush in and try to get as close as possible to take a photo.  That bear could be mauling them in about 2 seconds.

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These are the rare and extirpated species that used to live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spotted skunks are rare, Indiana bats are endangered, northern flying squirrels are probably extirpated here, fox squirrels haven’t been seen for decades in the park, and northern water shrews are uncommon.

I was surprised I didn’t see more turkeys or squirrels.  The latter probably stay in the tree tops for much of the day.  I also expected to see woodchucks, rabbits, and maybe wild boars.  Woodchucks are more active in the morning, and I did see 4 of them while driving through the North Carolina mountains on the way home the following day.  I can’t explain the absence of rabbits because there is plenty of excellent habitat for them in Cades Cove.  Perhaps they were hidden in the tall grass.  Ironically, I saw a road-killed wild pig 5 miles from my house on the drive home the next day as if the wildlife watching Gods wanted to reward me with a kind of epilogue to my trip.  Despite how common wild pigs are supposed to be, this was the first road-killed specimen I’ve seen in the Augusta, Georgia area.

The National Park Service should introduce bison, elk, and cougars to Cades Cove.  I know the addition of cougars would be controversial, but the park service should be inspired to come as close to possible to establishing a complete ecosystem here.  More open areas should be created as well so that wildlife populations could increase.

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The National Park Service should introduce bison and elk to this side of the park to fill up this empty space.

Bird watching at Cades Cove was not as good as in Townsend, Tennessee where our hotel was located.  I saw 5 species of birds in Cades Cove compared to 11 species in town.  However, I did encounter 1 unexpected species outside of Cades Cove but inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I saw a raven while driving in the higher elevations, then saw another raven on the way to Cades Cove at a lower elevation.  This was the first time I’d ever seen live ravens in the wild.  I mistakenly thought ravens were rare here because there is only 1 raven nesting site in the entire state of Georgia.  But according to the National Park Service, the raven is a fairly common year round resident in the park.  Ravens look like humongous crows.  The birds I saw were far too large to be crows.  They were about the size of a red-shouldered hawk.  Crows are more common here, however. In addition to the 5 species of birds I saw at Cades Cove, I heard the constant song of the field sparrow.  Eastern meadowlarks are also supposed to be common here, but I didn’t see any.  I have never seen an eastern meadowlark.

Night fell by the time we left the Cades Cove loop road.  I was surprised at the abundance of lightning bugs.  Special tour buses take tourists through the park at night to see the amazing light show displayed by the synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) during late May and early June.  We probably saw some of the other 18 species of lightning bugs found in the park because it was too late in the season for P. carolinus. Lightning bugs are not bugs, nor are they flies.  They are beetles.  Their larva prey upon snails, slugs, and insects for a year or 2 before they transform into flying adults for the final few weeks of their lives.  Different species flash at different intervals and that is how males and females of the same species recognize each other.  Lightning bugs are only seen occasionally in Augusta, Georgia.  They are abundant in the Great Smoky Mountains because the moist forests support a large population of their favorite food–escargot.

Video from you tube of the synchronous fireflies.

The Pleistocene Great Smoky Mountains

April 23, 2017

I renewed my subscription to the Southeastern Naturalist, so I could read a recent monograph that inventoried the mammal fauna of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  According to this paper, 68 species of mammals have been documented in the park, and 1 scientist predicts an additional 4 species might eventually be found there.  I suspect this number is greatly exaggerated–many of the species are small animals not documented in the park since the initial survey when the park was established in the 1930’s.  Those species not documented recently could very well be extirpated from the park.  The flora of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is impressive but don’t plan a trip and expect to see much wildlife.  I visited the park once and saw just 1 squirrel and no other mammals besides lots of people.  There are 24 species of insectivores and bats allegedly inhabiting the park.  These species are difficult to see and enjoy.  That leaves 44 species and of these only 5 are considered megafauna (animals weighing over 40 pounds). The “big 5” are white tailed deer, elk, black bear, wild boar, and coyote.  The latter 2 are considered invasive, but I think of the coyote as a native species that is recolonizing former territory occupied during the Pleistocene.

There are probably more white tailed deer outside the park in the surrounding farmland.  White tailed deer prefer forest edge habitat, and most of the park has succeeded to old growth.  Elk were re-introduced here in 2001, but they inhabit a small area of the park difficult to access.  The road leading to this spot is a dangerous single lane dirt path on the side of a mountain.  Supposedly, the black bear population in the park is about 1600.  During the summer black cherries (Prunus serotina) make up 25% of the bear’s diet.  Garbage provides 8% of their diet here.  The author of the below referenced monograph claims to have several photographs of cougars taken by park visitors circa 2003.  These may be of captive cougars released by owners who no longer wanted to care for them.  Cougars are normally secretive, and semi-tame cats may have been easier to photograph.  I doubt there is a breeding population of cougars in the park, but I wouldn’t rule it out, and they may eventually recolonize the region, if they keep expanding their range from the west and south Florida.

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Location of the Great Smoky Mountains Park.  The diversity of megafauna species in this park is much lower now than it was in this region during the Pleistocene.

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Strange as it may seem, wild black cherries make up to 25% of the black bear’s diet during mid to late summer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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The below referenced monograph reports a population of 30 striped skunks inhabit the Cades Cove Campground of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  They den in drainage culverts.  Avoid them or you will endure a stinky vacation.

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A fluctuating population of endangered Indiana bats roosts in a cave in Cades Cove.  Bats can be seen at dusk.

The variety and abundance of megafauna in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is disappointing, but it was spectacular during the Pleistocene.  The natural communities then were similar to those of today, but during cold glacials there probably were more spruce trees and grassy balds and in higher elevations there may have even been tundra-like environments.  Here’s a list of large mammals (based on fossil evidence) that definitely inhabited the park region until ~11,000 BP or beyond.

Jefferson’s ground sloth

Harlan’s ground sloth

tapir

horse

half-ass

mastodon

long-nosed peccary

flat-headed peccary

stout-legged llama

helmeted musk-ox

bison

white-tailed deer

caribou

elk (probably not until 15,000 years BP)

giant beaver

black bear

Florida spectacled bear

giant short-faced bear

cougar

jaguar

saber-toothed cat

scimitar-toothed cat

coyote

dire wolf

Here’s a list of additional megafauna species that likely inhabited the park but whose nearest fossil remains are a considerable distance away.

pampathere

stag-moose

Columbian mammoth

woolly mammoth

Columbian mammoth x woolly mammoth hybrids

gompothere (during warm climate cycles)

giant lion

dhole

The Pleistocene Great Smoky Mountains hosted ~31 megafauna species compared to the present day total of 5.  This is a >80% reduction.  How sad.

Reference:

Linzey, Donald

“Mammals of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 2016 Revision”

Southeastern Naturalist 15 Monograph (8) 2016

 

The Sourwood-Lettered Sphinx Moth-Black Bear Food Web

March 26, 2017

There are many intricate relationships between different species of plants and animals yet to be discovered.  The interrelationship of sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), lettered sphinx moth (Deidami inscripton), and black bear (Ursus americanus) was first noted in the scientific literature just last year.  Sourwood is a small tree, seldom growing to over 6o feet in height, that lives in oak forests and woodlands with acidic soils.  It is the sole species in its genus and a member of the blueberry and azalea family.  The leaves have a sour taste and can be chewed but shouldn’t be swallowed because they are mildly toxic with a high amount of oxalates.  Scientists were studying the occurrence of a major defoliation event of sourwood trees near Unicoi, Tennessee a few years ago.  Here, sourwood trees along with dogwood, summer grape, Virginia creeper, and greenbrier form the understory of a forest composed of red maple, black gum, northern red oak, pitch pine, Virginia pine, chestnut oak, scarlet oak, and striped maple.  They found the sourwood trees were being defoliated by larva of the lettered sphinx moth.

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A sourwood tree in fall foliage.

Lettered Sphinx - Deidamia inscriptum

The lettered sphinx moth.

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The larva of the lettered sphinx moth feeds upon grape, Virginia creeper, and peppervine; but just recently was discovered to have a preference for sourwood over all those plants in the Vitis family.

The lettered sphinx moth is the only species in its genus that lives north of Mexico.  Lettered sphinx moth larva were known to feed upon the leaves of plants in the grape family which also includes Virginia creeper and peppervine.   Lepidopterists refer to these plants as “host species.”  However, when scientists discovered sphinx moth larva defoliating sourwood they conducted an experiment–they put sphinx moth larva in terrariums and offered them grape leaves and sourwood leaves.  The sphinx moth larva preferred the sourwood leaves.  This suggests sphinx moth larva will choose sourwood leaves wherever the ranges of sourwood and species in the grape family overlap.

Scientists hypothesize the oxalates ingested from the sourwood accumulates in the caterpillar, and the toxicity discourages avian predators.  Nevertheless, bears are able to eat the caterpillars.  The authors of the below referenced study found evidence bears were consuming large quantities of sphinx moth caterpillars during the defoliation outbreak.  They saw stem breakage, claw marks on limbs, and bear scat filled with caterpillar remains all around the sourwood trees.  Moth larva provides lots of protein and fat, and the partially digested plant material in their guts likely contains beneficial vitamins for the bears.  The bear scat in turn helps fertilize the soil around the sourwood trees.

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Black bear feeding on forest tent caterpillars.  Caterpillars are nice fatty snacks for the bruins.

The interrelationship between sourwood, sphinx moths, and bears probably began during the Pleistocene or perhaps earlier; but it wasn’t noticed or recorded by people until last year.  There are countless other examples like this, yet to be discovered.

Reference:

Levy, Foster; David Wagner and Elaine Walker

“Deidamia inscripton (Lettered Sphinx Moth) Caterpillars feeding on Oxydendrum arboretum (Sourwood) and their Predation by Black Bears in Northeastern Tennessee”

Southeastern Naturalist 15 (3) 2016

The Nature of Trials of the Earth by Mary Hamilton

August 10, 2016

One of the last great stands of wilderness in eastern North America existed along the Mississippi River during the late 19th century.  Loggers ruined this environment between 1880-1910, but in Mary Hamilton’s autobiography, Trials of the Earth, she described the awesome nature of this region.  Though her book focuses on her personal life and all the tragedies and hardships her family endured, I collected all of the interesting tidbits of natural history that she wrote about.

A fascinating book about the pioneer life of a woman in Mississippi and Arkansas during the turn of the 19th century.

In 1896 Mary Hamilton, along with her 2 young children and her brother and sister, followed her husband to a logging camp on Concordia Island, Mississippi.  The island was bound by a chute of the Mississippi River and the main channel.  Her husband was a supervisor at the camp, and he was too busy to bring her himself.  Instead, he marked a wagon trail through the wilderness, and a guide (actually an inexperienced teenaged boy) helped her find the camp where she eventually worked as a cook for 30 lumberjacks.  She was accustomed to this work, having boarded over 100 lumberjacks at a previous camp.

The family settled in a big white tent.  The island consisted of a dense forest of large mature oak, sweetgum, hackberry, and tulip trees with a thick undergrowth of bamboo cane that grew all the way to the lower limbs of the tall trees.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/canebrakes-are-forlorn-landscapes/)  Closer to the river, the forest thinned out, probably because of frequent flooding, and enormous sycamores and cottonwoods grew here.

The lumberjacks felled the trees and lashed them together in rafts to be tugged down the river to sawmills.  Some species of trees float, while others sink, so the lumberjacks had to lash “floaters” with “sinkers.”  Sweetgum and oak sink and had to be lashed to cottonwood, ash, or cypress.

Some species of trees sink, while others float.  Lumberjacks had to lash logs from “floaters” with logs from “sinkers” when they sent them downstream to the mills.

This is how people with wagons crossed rivers before bridges were built.  People who owned the ferry charged for its usage.

Mary’s younger brother was an accident prone Gomer Pyle type, and her husband was afraid he would hurt himself or somebody else, if they put him to work as a lumberjack.  Therefore, they assigned him the task of hunting and fishing to supplement their supplies.  It was difficult to supply this camp with food.  During times of high water, wagons couldn’t reach the camp, and supply wagons occasionally got lost in the wilderness and never arrived.  Sometimes the man in charge of the supply wagon ignored the grocery list and bought candy and cakes instead of the staples they needed.  So hunting was useful.  Deer and black squirrels were abundant.  Apparently, the black phase of the fox squirrel (Scirius niger) was the only species of squirrel on this island.  This surprises me because gray squirrels (Scirius carolinensis) prefer the kind of dense forest Mary describes.  In the south fox squirrels generally prefer more open woodlands.

Black phase of the fox squirrel.

One day Mary’s brother encountered a mother bear playing with her cubs.  He threw down his gun and ran for his life, yelling “there’s a dozen lions after me.”  Bears were plentiful on the island, and the lumberjacks’ diet here included bruin along with local beef and pork (wild hogs ran wild everywhere) and corned beef from New Orleans.  Animals took advantage of the lumber camp as a source of food as well.  A bear stole a quarter of a beef left to hang outside one night.  Raccoons, opossums, and bobcats fought over the camp garbage every night, and Mary heard panthers screaming and wolves howling nightly.  Later, when her family moved to an homestead on the nearby Sunflower River she insisted her husband shine the lantern on her when she went outside to bring in the laundry every night  because she heard a panther screaming regularly on both sides of the river.  People didn’t know much about panthers and wolves then and were very afraid of them. Mary didn’t consider all nature unpleasant.  She liked to hear the birds and frogs in the spring, and one day she collected 5 gallons of blackberries the size of Guinea hen eggs.  The rich delta soil produced berries larger than modern cultivated ones sold in farmer’s markets.

Mary’s husband built a “freshwater shrimp” trap for her brother.  The trap worked and captured bags of “shrimp” everyday, but her brother didn’t know “shrimp” meant crawfish.  He always threw away the crawfish until he was informed of his ignorance.

The Mississippi River shifted direction during their time on Concordia Island.  This caused a near disaster.  The river started eroding the bank overhanging all the rafts of lumber.  The rafts could have become covered in sediment and lost.  They immediately sent for tugboats that hauled the floating rafts and most of the logs were saved.  This event, referred to as “sloughing,” must have been an impressive sight.  Trees fell into the river, and the sediment collapsing made a “boom, boom” sound.

Next, Mary’s family moved to a lumber camp near the Sunflower River, a tributary of the Yazoo.  This region too was all canebrake and woods where panthers screamed and wolves howled every night.  Getting water at this camp was laborious and difficult.  Iron pipes were driven into the ground to reach well water, but oftentimes this was hard water high in magnesium and calcium.  Hard water is safe for drinking but can’t be used for washing dishes or clothes.  Mary softened the water by adding lye made from wood ashes.  The addition of a base binds the calcium and magnesium ions, making the water usable for cleaning.  Too much water became a bigger problem at this camp.  Rainy weather flooded all the surrounding bayous, isolating the camp from civilization, and they ran short of food.  They realized the rising water was going to completely inundate the camp and the wooden clapboard house where they were living.  So Mary’s husband cut a path through a canebrake that led to an Indian mound located above the floodplain, and he built a small boat.  The boat wasn’t big enough for all of them, and he had to make 2 trips to save his wife and 3 children.  Mary waited with her 5 year old daughter and infant son for 6 hours, while her husband carried their other small child to safety and returned.  She spent all this time standing on a chair on the highest ground, holding her baby and comforting her young daughter.  The baby slept the entire time, despite the rain.  She saw a bear, deer, rabbits, mice, and snakes swimming by them, looking for high ground.

Tornadoes often storm up the Mississippi River valley, then turn inland and smash through forest.  Mary describes one such area that was known as “the cyclone,” an area estimated to be at least 36 square miles.  “The cyclone,” located near the present day site of the Parchman State Penitentiary, was an eerie landscape without a single standing tree.  Instead, the ground was littered with fallen timber covered in grapevines, poison oak, and thorny brier bushes.  Ecologists call these environments windthrows.  This windthrow was on rich soil and hosted luxuriant tangles of vegetation, making the area impassable.  Mary tells the story of a well-liked Jewish paymaster who chose to take a shortcut through “the cyclone” rather than travel the 5 mile path around it.  He was bringing the pay to a neighboring lumber camp.  He got lost for 4 days and went half-mad from panic and dehydration.  The thorns tore all his clothing off as he scrambled through the briers.  Search parties failed to find him.  He finally wandered close to the camp, completely naked and incoherent but with the money in his hand.

Mary Hamilton described an area near the present day site of Parchman Penitentiary as “the cyclone.”  It was a windthrow of at least 36 square miles covered in an impenetrable stand of vines, briers, and cane.

Mary worked hard most of her life, but shortly after she married she did enjoy a bit of a vacation in Missouri where she stayed with friends by the Castor River.  Here, she learned how to fish.  She mostly caught bass, but on one early morning before anyone else was awake she caught an eel.  This sent her screaming in terror back to the house.  She was so scared she didn’t let go of the rod and carried the eel to the front door.  Mary wanted to get rid of it, but her husband was from England where eel is considered a delicacy, and he prepared it for supper.  One kind of fish that Mary caught here was referred to as a “white salmon.”  It took a little research, but I determined her “white salmon” was actually a walleye (Sender vitreus).  The old Ozark term for walleye is “jack salmon.” 

Mary caught bass, an eel, and walleye (which she called “white salmon”) in the Castor River.

I’d like to live in a wilderness where panthers scream and wolves howl every night.  And it would be rewarding to live off the land, gardening and raising animals for food.  But I wouldn’t want to do this without modern conveniences.  Mary worked from dawn to past dusk for most of her life.  I envy the wilderness she got to see but not the hard life she endured.

 

 

Georgia Eocene Chalk Prairies

February 1, 2013

Georgia Eocene Chalk Prairies are a variation of the blackland prairies that are found in a narrow belt across the southeast.  Most blackland prairies are dominated by 2 species of grass–Indian grass (Sorghastram nutans) and little bluestem grass (Schizachium scoparium), but Georgia Eocene Chalk Prairies are considered unique because little bluestem is absent and deceptive bluestem (Andropogen virginicus) occurs as a dominant instead.  Prairie clovers, a common component of most blackland prairies, are absent here as well.  Botanists recently recognized and designated Georgia Eocene Chalk Prairies as a unique and rare environment.

Location of Houston (pronounced howston) County in Georgia.  The Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area is in the southeastern part of the county.  Remnant blackland prairies occur within this WMA.

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Map of Blackland Prairies from the below reference.  Georgia Eocene Chalk Prairies are a disjunct from the more extensive areas located to the west of the state.  They host hundreds of plant species found in the south, the west, and nowhere else on earth.

Blackland prairies exist within forested zones because the qualities of the soil allow grass to outcompete trees.  During the Cretaceous and Eocene epochs, the ocean inundated the coastal plain of southeastern North America.  Feldspar-laced sediment from the piedmont washed down the rivers into the ocean where it accumulated along the marshy shorelines.  This sediment eventually became kaolin clay.  Limestone formed from sea shells and coral and mixed with the clay, making it alkaline.  This combination of shrink-swell clay and an alkaline ph favors grass over trees.

This is a photo on google images I found of a blackland prairie in Mississippi.

A Georgia Eocene Chalk Prairie.

Shrink-swell clay soil.

Botanists surveyed 6 tracts totaling 106 acres of Georgia Eocene Chalk Prairie located in the Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Areas, and they found 351 species.  Characteristic species of Georgia Chalk Prairies include Indian grass, deceptive bluestem, old field goldenrod, globular cone flower, diamond flower, coralbeads, milkpea, dropseed, panic grass, sages, asters (49 species such as sunflowers and rosinweed), hawthorn, persimmon, redbud, chinquapin oak, bastard oak, dogwood, elm, and southern black haw.  The site hosts western species, southern species, and species found nowhere else (endemics).  Rare species such as wedgeleaf draba, heartleaf noseburn, and Durands skullcap are found here.  Bastard oak (Quercus sinuata) is an example of a species that is common in the west, especially in Texas, but occurs as a disjunct relic in Georgia’s chalk prairies.  Kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, Johnson grass, and white clover are problematic invasive species.

Diamond flower (Houstonia nigricans) occurs with dropseed (Sporobolus vaginaflorus) in disturbed areas of the prairies.

Coralbeads (Cocculus carolinus) is common.  Birds like the berries which may be poisonous to humans.

Globular Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata).  Perhaps the most beautiful flower here. 

Redbud (Cercis canadensis).  This is in the legume family.  A caterpillar that feeds upon this plant is known as the catalpa worm.  It’s a popular fishbait.

Fringed campion (Silene catesbaei).  This is a rare plant found in only a few locations in the entire world.

Last year, the state of Georgia protected this unique environment when the legislature moved to stop a real estate developer from building a 20,000 home subdivision in the middle of the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area.  The Nature Conservancy offered to help fund the purchase of the land in 2002 but that deal fell through and some asshole was going to dam Big Grocery Creek, creating a lake that would have flooded 3 state record trees, centuries-old oaks and beeches, and Eocene fossils found on the exposed creek bed.  The development would have greatly fragmented the last population of black bears in the entire piedmont region of southeastern North America.  But an outcry from outdoorsmen stopped that travesty.  It ended up costing the state a lot more than it would have, if they’d made the original deal with the Nature Conservancy.  Unfortunately, the Georgia DNR opened a hunting season on the 300 black bears still living here, and 10% were killed on the first day of the hunt.  I think the Oaky Woods WMA was saved from developers, so rednecks could shoot bears and wild boars.  I guess rednecks are the lesser of 2 evils.

I would like to visit Oaky Woods, but my wife and daughter are not enthusiastic about a potential trip there.  It’s called Oaky Woods because a lush forest of upland hardwoods grows on rich soil in a geographcal region otherwise dominated (formerly) by open pine savannah and floodplain forests.  (Of course, today it’s surrounded mainly by tree farms and agricultural fields.)  12 species of oaks grow in Oaky Woods, and a southern disjunct population of chestnut used to be a component, as evidenced by still sprouting stumps. Weyerhauser used to own the land, and they grew pine trees on the uplands, but the area around Big Grocery Creek had not been logged in over 80 years, and it was never clear cut, so there are some trees as old as 150 years there.  Big Grocery Creek cuts through an Eocene fossil deposit that contains 40 million year old shark’s teeth, whale bones, sea shells, and sand dollars.  I’m sure glad it wasn’t destroyed by some greedy real estate developer.

Reference:

Echols, Lee; and Wendy Zomlefer

“Vascular Plant Flora of the Remnant Blackland Prairies in Oaky Woods Wildlife Management  Area, Houston County, Georgia”

Castanea 75 (1) March 2010

Pleistocene Bears of Southeastern North America

March 10, 2011

Nothing demonstrates wilderness more than a robust population of free roaming bears.  During the Pleistocene before people were around to kill them and destroy their habitat, there must have been tens of thousands of bears living within the boundaries of what today is Georgia.  It’s possible that 5 different species could have been found here in the same time span, though we can be more sure there were at least 3 sharing the same range.  Today, only 1 species of bear resides in Georgia–an estimated 5100 black bears still roam the mountains, the Okefenokee Swamp, the Altamaha and Ocmulgee river bottoms, and Houston County.  Occasional stragglers leave these last strongholds and raid urban dumpsters and suburban bird feeders, but these occurrences are rare.  One study of Georgia bears determined that suitable habitat can support 1 bear for every 3 square kilometers.  That means ideally, Pleistocene Georgia hosted a population of 30,000-40,000 bears.  (*Georgia is about 60,000 square miles. 1.86 square miles =3 square kilimeters.  Moreover, during stadials Georgia’s land mass increased by about 10,000 square miles due to the fall in sea level.)

Here’s a review of every known bear species that lived during the Pleistocene in southeastern North America.

Black bear–Ursus americanus

Photo from google images of a black bear in the Okefenokee Swamp.

Ursus abstruscus is the probable evolutionary ancestor of American and Asian black bears which once consisted of a geographically continuous population.  Glacial ice separated the two populations at the beginning of the Pleistocene, resulting in two different species.  Bjorn Kurten notes that Pleistocene black bears grew as large as modern day grizzlies.  I believe Pleistocene black bears were larger and fiercer than their modern day descendents because they had to survive confrontations with saber-tooths, giant panthers, jaguars, and packs of dire wolves.  Cavers and scientists discovered black bear fossils at Ladds and Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Bartow County, and the Isle of Hope Site in Chatham County.  They’re also commonly found in Florida fossil sites but only a few have been recorded from South Carolina.

Florida spectacled bear–Tremarctos floridanus

Photo of a spectacled bear, Tremarctos ornatus,  from google images.  This is the only living species from the once widespread short-faced bear family.  It is a close relative of the extinct Tremarctos floridanus.  Of course, scientists have no way of knowing whether Tremarctos floridanus was also spectacled, but they call it that anyway.

Now extinct, this was likely the second most common species of bear in southeastern North America during the Pleistocene.  Only 1 specimen has ever been recovered in Georgia (at Ladds), but its fossils have commonly been found in Florida and South Carolina.  It’s thought of as primarily a vegetarian, but a recent study of Pleistocene bears concluded that all were opportunistic omnivores that would eat anything they could obtain.  Tremarctos’s range in the late Wisconsinian Ice Age seems to have been restricted to the southeast.  During warm interglacials it expanded as far north as Kentucky.  It probably just lived in the coastal plain of Georgia and South Carolina as well as Florida during colder climatic stages.

Lesser short-faced bear–Arctodus pristinus

Photo of a fossil jaw bone of Arctodus pristinus from Additions to the Pleistocene Mammal Fossils of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia by Albert Sanders.

Photo of fossil bear teeth from the above mentioned publication.

It’s unclear from the fossil record whether this species co-existed with its larger cousin, the giant short-faced bear, or was simply ancestral to it.  Its fossils have only been recovered from a few eastern sites in Florida, South Carolina, Maryland, and West Virginia.  Teeth attributed to this species overlap in size with those of Arctodus simus.  Florida fossils of this species, including those from Leisey Shell Pit, indicate this animal lived from the early to mid-Pleistocene (~1.8 million-300,000 BP), whereas giant short-faced bear fossils in Florida date to the late Pleistocene (~300,000-~11,000 BP).  However, fossils of the lesser short-faced bear were found in South Carolina sediments thought to date from the Sangamonian Interglacial (~132,000-~118,000 BP) which is also considered late Pleistocene.  These South Carolina specimens haven’t been radiometrically dated, so no one knows exactly how old they are.  Perhaps this species did survive as a relic species in some geographical locations until the megafauna extinction.  Arctodus pristinus is considered more of a general feeder; Tremarctos floridanus a more herbivorous species; Arctodus simus a more carnivorous bear.

Giant short-faced bear–Arctodus simus

Dan Reed’s photo-shopped reconstruction of a giant short-faced bear.   

The giant short-faced bear ranks up there with mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, and saber-tooths as among one of the most spectacular creatures of this era.  Studies suggest it lived by aggressive scavenging.  It’s extremely acute sense of smell detected blood from a great distance.  Then, the beast would relentlessly trot toward the source of the appetizing odor, and its sheer size would intimidate the partially satiated carnivore that actually made the kill into surrendering the carcass.  Arctodus simus fossils are more common in western fossil sites, but a few have been discovered in the southeast, proving it did occur here, at least sporadically.  An Arctodus simus skeleton rested in the Fern Cave system in Jackson County, Alabama which borders northwestern Georgia, until it was discovered by cavers in 1970.  In addition a number of teeth from this species have recently been discovered in north Florida fossil sites, and some Arctodus simus material was also discovered in Virginia.

Grizzly bear–Ursus arctos

Photo of a grizzly bear and cub from google images.

Welsh cave in Kentucky yields grizzly bear fossils dating to about 12,000 BP.  This is the easternmost known occurrence of this species.  Grizzly bears roam hundreds of miles, so it’s likely if they lived in Kentucky then that they must have entered Tennessee.  But the lack of grizzly bear fossils in other southeastern states suggests they never penentrated the region in significant numbers.  Still, I believe a few irregular stragglers may have wandered into what’s now north Georgia.  It may be that the existence of 3 or 4 other species of bears prevented grizzly bears from colonizing much of the southeast during the Pleistocene, and then man arrived, creating another obstacle blocking their migration into the region.  Grizzly bears are a relatively recent addition to North America’s mammalian fauna, but they did live on the continent prior to the LGM, 30,000 years BP.  They’re the same species as the Eurasian and Alaskan brown bears.

If I could live in the Pleistocene (part 4).

For those unfamiliar with this blog, I occasionally fantasize living during the Pleistocene but with modern conveniences, such as an adobe house with woodstoves, solar heating, electricity, and a time tunnel that connects me to the modern world.

I’ve thought of a simple way to observe bears from my abode.  Connected to my Pleistocene house is a 5 story watchtower designed in the shape of a lighthouse in which I can view the surrounding landscape.  I would take a barbecue grill to the fifth story which has a canopy but an open window stretching for 360 degrees around.  There, I would grill meats.  The aroma should attract bears and other carnivores from miles around.  A bear could potentially climb up the side of a light-housed shaped building, so I would have to have some kind of designed guards that would prevent this. 

I would avoid hunting bears, if possible.  I think modern hunters who kill bears are jerks.  I can understand why the pioneers did it.  They didn’t have grocery stores and had to eat and make use of what they could obtain.  But there is no reason to hunt bears today, unless they prove a danger to tourists.  They don’t reproduce as rapidly as deer, and it’s just not ecologically necessary to hunt them.

Bears were a valuable source of meat and fat for early settlers.  Early accounts reveal an important dish of the Indians.  The Indians frequently diced up venison (which is very lean) and fried it in bear fat.  Bear fat was also the number one source of cooking fat in New Orleans in 1800.  It was gradually replaced by lard as the settlers brought in hogs.