Posts Tagged ‘canebrake’

Thomas Nuttall’s Journey through Arkansas during 1819

July 9, 2017

What did landscapes in southeastern North America look like before man modified them?  This question has long fascinated me, and it is the primary focus of my blog.  The Paleo-Indians who first invaded this region about 14,000 years ago left no written records, so the best available source of information are the journals written by early European naturalists including John Lawson and William Bartram.  Though Indians had already impacted the landscape for millennia, southeastern landscapes were  still much closer to the natural state when they saw them than they are today.  Lawson’s New Voyage to the Carolinas and Bartram’s Travels are well known works that I have read so often I’ve almost memorized every passage.  But I just recently discovered a lesser known journal of comparable value–Thomas Nuttall’s Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819.  I don’t understand why this journal isn’t as famous as the other 2.  I couldn’t even find a map of his route when I searched google.  I don’t know of any professor who has undertaken an exhaustive study of his journal.  It deserves more attention from academia.

Image result for Thomas nuttall

Portrait of Thomas Nuttall, a 19th century naturalist.

Image result for early arkansas map

Early map of Arkansas.  Thomas Nuttall mostly traveled by river boats because there were few roads.

Thomas Nuttall was an English citizen and naturalist who lived in the U.S. from 1808-1841.  He went on many plant collecting expeditions including his trip through Arkansas when the region was still mostly wilderness.  Incidentally, at the time of the expedition he lived in Philadelphia and was friends with William Bartram.  He began his journey by traveling on a stage coach for 63 miles before setting out on foot toward Pittsburgh, a town already so polluted  he described it as “filthy” and “smoky.”  He proceeded down the Ohio River on a skiff all the way to the Mississippi River.  The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 made passage down the Mississippi dangerous because of all the floating logs and snags uprooted by the moving earth.  Nuttall hired river boat guides but they weren’t always reliable.  On 1 occasion his boat was stuck against the current in a bad situation and some passing river pilots offered to help, if he paid them.  They took his money and left without helping.  Eventually, he made it to the Arkansas River and travelled to the interior of the territory through this route, exploring many of the tributaries of the river as well.

Fort Smith, Arkansas is a good-sized town today but was a small military garrison when Thomas Nuttall stayed there.  From here, he joined overland expeditions.  While wandering around looking for novel plant species, he got separated from his expedition and was forced to live with a pioneer family until he arranged to travel with someone familiar with the country.  He joined another overland expedition and explored eastern Oklahoma–Indian territory then.  By the end of his journey he was so stricken with malaria he could barely ride his horse through the untracked wilderness.  Nevertheless, he traveled for over 100 miles while suffering from malaria.  He ended his journey floating down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

The people Nuttall encountered resembled the rough stereotypical characters from an old western movie.  He met thieving Indians who always wanted to steal his horse.  (The Cherokee and Osage Indians were at war with each other.)  He later learned that 1 of his guides murdered a man and stole the deed to his land.  He was stuck for weeks in a poorly constructed tavern where men gambled and drank whiskey day and night while the cold January winds blew through the huge cracks between the logs of the walls.

Nuttall doesn’t mention food much in his journal, perhaps because it was bad.  The people who lived along the Ohio and Mississippi River subsisted on corn meal mush and milk.  Indians ate lotus seeds, and meat stews made from dried green corn and whatever animals they could catch and throw in the pot.  They also ate boiled corn and pumpkin.  In the woods he lived on poorly made jerky that rotted quickly.

I searched google images in vain to find the kinds of landscapes Nuttall described in his journal.  Probably, the scenes he saw no longer exist or are very rare today.  He saw virgin river bottomland forests consisting of pecan, hackberry, black walnut, ash, sweetgum, swamp chestnut oak, scarlet oak, red oak, honey locust, mimosa, sycamore, and cottonwood with an undergrowth of Texas frogfruit, false daisy, Virginia buttonwood, and grass.  Cottonwoods were the largest trees.  Canebrakes extended for miles on some sides of the rivers, while other sides had sandy bare beaches where members of his party often searched for turtle eggs.  Hackberry and Foresteria shrubs stood as isolated trees in cane brakes.  Acres of nettles grew in 1 bottomland forest along the Verdigris River.   Nuttall found stands of Osage orange trees with trunks 12 inches in diameter growing in grasslands.

Cypress/tupelo swamps existed adjacent to extensive prairies where the grass grew taller than Nuttall’s head.  The prairies were beautiful interspersed with thin fingers of forest alongside streams and covered with wildflowers of many different colors–Indian pinks, azure larkspur, yellow tickseed and Rudbeckia, phlox, false indigo, and blue-eyed grass.

Another interesting natural environment Nuttall often traversed were cedar glades (or cedar prairies as Nuttall referred to them). Cedar glades grow on thin soils and have exposed bedrock.  They are open communities where grass and flowers grow between widely spaced cedar, winged elm, and post oak trees.  Cedar glades alternated with the pine/oak woodland that covered hills.  Shortleaf pine and post oak dominated these ridges.  Indians frequently set fire to these environments.  On 1 day Nuttall couldn’t collect any plant specimens because the land all around him had been burnt over.  Canebrakes, prairies, cedar glades, and oak/pine woodland are all communities dependent upon fire.  Abandoned Indian villages were surrounded by fields of Chickasaw plums and peaches, but a late frost had wiped out most of the fruit the year of Nuttall’s expedition.

Nuttall explored several salt springs.  Some salt springs supported colonies of glasswort (Salicornia sp.), a salt-tolerant species (halophyte) commonly found growing in coastal salt marshes.  Other salt springs were devoid of saltwort.  I wonder how this species colonized inland sites.

Nuttall didn’t see much wildlife until he reached the Mississippi River because hunters had long before decimated game in Pennsylvania and Ohio.  But after he reached the Mississippi River and entered Arkansas, he began to see deer, bear, turkey, geese, ducks, swans, Carolina parakeets, and white pelicans.  Bald eagles nested on the Mississippi River.  On the prairies he saw bison and elk and large herds of feral cattle.  Wild horses were so abundant on 1 prairie it was named “horse prairie.”  Nuttall never saw a collared peccary, but 1 of his guides said they lived nearby.  Nuttall was aware of fossil peccary skulls collected from the Big Bone Fossil Site in Kentucky.  During 1 night Nuttall heard wolves howling, bullfrogs croaking, and whip-poor-wills serenading his campsite.

Nuttall never saw a cougar but a member of 1 of his expeditions recounted an interesting incident.  A cougar killed a deer and rested in a nearby tree.  It killed a wolf that came to scavenge the deer.  Then, it killed a dog that also came to the carcass.  The dog’s owner went looking for his dog and found it alongside the wolf and deer surrounded by cougar paw prints.  That forlorn scene of nature can be found in old journals like this, but not in present day Arkansas.


Nuttall, Thomas

Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the year 1819

Thomas Palmer 1821


Fire Suppression = A Decline in Biodiversity (part 1)

June 27, 2011

The title of this week’s blog entry seems to be a recurring theme in my essays about Georgia’s natural history.  Productive natural landscapes such as longleaf pine savannah, oak forests, and canebrakes are disappearing or nearly extinct due to fire suppression; and the same goes for “strawberry plains,” chinkapins, and many species of animals which will be the focus of part 2 of this series.

Prescribed burn at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.  After decades of a Smokey the Bear fire suppression policy, the U.S. forest service finally realized controlled fires were beneficial to the ecology.

Fire has always been an important component of Georgia’s ecology.  Before people colonized the region, wildfires occurred irregularly but were unchecked and often burned on a large scale.  Fires were more common during interstadials because of an increase in thunderstorm frequency.  Oaks increased in abundance in correlation with wetter climate cycles, thanks to lightning-sparked fires that opened up the forest canopy for these fire tolerant/shade intolerant trees.  Mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths littered the forest floor with tree branches and killed trees by eating the cambium under the bark.  During droughts, this litter dried into tinder ready to explode when struck by lightning.  I hypothesize that windstorms and tornadoes were common in the south during much of the Pleistocene.  Frigid katabatic winds blowing off the Laurentide Glacier met warm tropical fronts from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean in the atmosphere directly over the southeast.  Because cold air sinks, when cold fronts hit warm fronts, great downdrafts of cold air microbursts snapped trees in half and leveled forests.  All this deadwood added fuel to fires as well.  Pollen records show grass was abundant prior to human colonization of the southeast–evidence that natural fires and other disturbances must have been common, though lower CO2 levels in the atmosphere, drier climate phases, and megafauna foraging and trampling contributed to the expansion of grasslands as well.

Following the extinction of the megafauna, forests grew densely for a few thousand years but Indians changed this situation.  Indians began burning the woods to improve habitat for game, and to eliminate shrubby growth that might provide refuge for ticks, stinging insects, large predators, and hostile human warriors interested in carrying off attractive women.  Burning the woods created favorable habitat for bison, deer, and turkey–staples of the Indian diet.  Most fires would not kill healthy mature trees but would eliminate saplings and unwanted brush.  (See the appendix below for tree species fire tolerance.)  Fire created open woodlands which were pleasing to the eye.  Open woodlands allowed more sunlight to reach ground level and in combination with fire sparked the growth of nutritious grasses, flowering herbs, and berry bushes.  Much of the southern uplands consisted of open pine savannah in the coastal plain, and pyrophitic oak forests in the piedmont.  Canebrakes that stretched for miles grew along the piedmont riversides and creeks.  C.C. Frost reconstructed a map of the natural environments on the Savannah River Site based on descriptions of original land acquisition surveys.  This probably is a good representation of a typical section of southeastern coastal plain.

Presettlement vegetation map of the Savannah River Site  reconstructed by C.C. Frost and published in the below referenced book.  Longleaf pine savannahs made up 80% of the landscape.  Bottomland hardwoods, pyrophitic oak forests, longleaf pine-turkey oak sandhills, canebrakes, and Carolina bay wetlands were also common.  The area also includes a bluff forest with northern species of plants but there was less than 300 acres of this.

SRS lies within the coastal plain so longleaf pine savannah dominated the region until 1820.  Note all the yellow in the above map which represents pine savannah.  The pink represents canebrakes, now a completely extinct ecotone on the site, having been replaced by bottomland forests.  Pyrophitic oak forest (the brown) were well represented as well.  Early European settlers copied the burning practices of the Indians, but about 1820 an improved version of the cotton gin was invented, making cotton farming highly profitable.  This is when the burning stopped, and much of the natural forest was converted to farmland.

Vegetation map (also from the below referenced book) of the SRS in 1952 after the government purchased the land.  The federal government replanted much of the land in slash and loblolly pine because longleaf pine was hard to obtain, the trees grew more slowly, and seedling quality was poor.

By 1952 the remaining forests were of poor quality.  Fire suppression ruined the upland forests, and logging the best trees degraded the bottomland forests.  Most of the forests had been replaced by horizon-to-horizon cotton farming.  Note on the map that the cleared land closely corresponds to the former range of the pine savannah.  Note also how canebrakes completely vanished, replaced by bottomland forest.  Canebrakes required specific flooding and firing regimes to persist.  Bamboo cane colonized areas near rivers where the trees were either destroyed by prolonged floods or by the nesting of enormous flocks of passenger pigeons which would kill the trees via overfertilization as their dung accumulated beneath their nests.  Bamboo cane continued to dominate only if the canebrakes were burned about once every 10 years.  Fires more frequent than that created grassland; fires of lesser frequency than that led to the growth of bottomland hardwood forests which shaded out the cane.  Canebrakes provided lots of fodder for bison, denning sites for large carnivores, and habitat for many small species from swamp rabbits to rare types of butterflies.  The burning of canebrakes took place in winter, and it sounded like combat because the hollow stems exploded upon ignition.

Canebrakes were formerly very common in the piedmont.  In 1773William Bartram travelled through central Georgia on his way to the Gulf Coast.  His party traversed on high, dry, gravely ridges but were always in sight of extensive cane meadows which flourished at the bottom of the hills alongside creeks.  On the ridges themselves pyrophitic oaks forests grew.  He found plenty of fire adapted plants growing between the oak trees including goldenrod, asters, rosinweeds, cone flowers, milkweed, false aloe, and spurges.  Bartram noted that Indians set fires annually, and normally clear rivers turned black with ash.

All southern pines are fire tolerant and adapted to survive in environments with frequent fires.  Most oak species also are fire tolerant, though to a lesser degree than pines.  However, longleaf pine is adapted to fires as frequent as 1-4 years, a higher fire frequency than most oaks and pines can survive in the long term.  The long pine needles form a sheath that protects the main stem of a sprout.  Mature loblolly pines, shortleaf pines, and many oak species survive light to medium fires, but their saplings can not.  Longleaf pine saplings can survive fire, explaining why longleaf pine savannahs became the dominant ecotone on the coastal plain.  Fires were less frequent  in the piedmont and mountains because rugged terrain and myriad creeks formed natural firebreaks.


Kilgo, John; and John Blake

Ecology and Management of a Forested Landscape: Fifty years on the Savannah River Site

Island Press 2006

Appendix I: Ranking fire tolerance among species common in the southeast

Longleaf Pine

Loblolly and Shortleaf Pine

Black oak

White oak

Red oak

Appendix II: Best fire regimes


Longleaf pine Savannah–1-4 years

Canebrake–10 years

Oak forest–10-30 years (sources differ wildly on this)


The Natural Environments of Georgia by Charles Wharton

March 23, 2011

The Natural Environments of Georgia by the late Charles Wharton is a book I remember reading between classes in the Augusta College library in 1986.  Then as now,  local ecology and natural history fascinated me.  For my recent 3 part blog series about the Okefenokee Swamp, I read a research paper that referenced this book and reminded me about it.   I knew this source would provide a great deal of fodder for my blog, so I began to search for it.  It’s out of print, and the only copy on sale at is a used one for $186 which is about 10 times what I’m willing to pay for it.  The east central Georgia library has 62 copies of the book, so I asked for an interlibrary loan.  Again no dice–it’s considered a reference book, and they don’t loan it out.  Finally, I went out of my way to the downtown library to look at it, but I only had an hour.  I had to cram the 200 page book into my brain instead of being able to digest the interesting details at my leisure.  Research shouldn’t be this hard.

Dr. Wharton lists 100 different types of natural environments in Georgia, but this is an arbitrary and somewhat redundant list.  A new version of this book (which was originally written in 1979) is due from the University of Georgia Press within the next 2 years, and they list 72 types.  The new version will be entitled A Guide to the Natural Environments of Georgia, and I expect it to be an expensive volume.

Many of the plant associations found in these myriads of environment types probably date back well into the Pleistocene and perhaps earlier.  Certainly, some Pleistocene plant associations no longer exist.  Part of north Florida once consisted of a forest of spruce, beech, and hickory, a combination of trees now found nowhere in the south, at least naturally.  A plant fossil site near Winder, Georgia known as Nodoroc suggests a forest of northern pines (red and white), southern pines (shortleaf), and oak along with hickory, chestnut, and fir, and interspersed with many grassy meadows–another environment not found today.  All forest types including the extinct Critchfield’s spruce as a component, of course, no longer exist.  Critchfield’s spruce was a temperate species once widespread in the southeast.

The composition of plants within an environment depends on many factors, chief among them is chance.  Many plant species have a wide tolerance for different climates and soil conditions.  Some compete better than others according to environmental conditions, but still dumb luck plays a big role in the distribution of different kinds of plants.  For example wind blows seeds of one plant in one direction creating a pure stand here, but it didn’t blow in the opposite direction making that plant absent there.  A series of annual freezes destroys the fruits of a tree, wiping out that species here, but not there on a sunny southern facing slope.  Fire burns up a forest transforming it into a meadow here, but leaves a stretch of wood there on the other side of a stream.  Animals consume all the acorns here allowing beech which can reproduce from sprouts to dominate, but over there a score of acorns go uneaten and a lot of oaks still grows.

I’ve already discussed open pine savannahs and cypress swamps in previous blog entries.  Here are a few other types of environments Charles Wharton catalogued in his book.  I’ve focused on common environments of central Georgia.

Alluvial River and Swamp Systems: Piedmont Region

Dr. Wharton states this type of environment made up about 9% of Georgia’s landmass.  Common trees included river birch, sycamore, sugarberry, green ash, red maple, box elder, water hickory, and oak.  Stands of water, cherrybark, overcup, and swamp chestnut oaks outnumbered stands of just water and willow oak.  Thick stands of giant river cane or bamboo forming impenetrable thickets occurred at the heads of creeks.  These were rich environments providing lots of forest mast and bamboo forage for the megafauna to eat.  Bison and mammoths could graze year round upon the cane which is a giant grass, and munch down on acorns in the fall and winter as well.  Early naturalist explorers such as William Bartram and John Lawson found canebrakes that stretched for miles.  The Indians maintained them with fire.  Now, canebrakes exist as small patches vanishing in the face of development and fire suppression.

Bluff and Ravine Forests with Northern Affinities

Disjunct populations of plant species that normally range in the north exist along the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana.  Ecologists theorize that during the last Ice Age cold meltwater from midwestern glaciers rushed down the mighty Mississippi and hit warm southerly fronts creating foggy moisture which got trapped in river valleys with steep bluffs.  These blufflands host beech, shumard, white, and chinkapin oaks, tulip, magnolia, elm, basswood, mulberry, Florida sugar maple, pignut and bitternut hickory, white ash, hackberry, sycamore, holly, spice bush, paw paw, hydrangea, silver bell, red bud, hop hornbeam, elderberry, giant bamboo cane, 11 species of fern, nettles, ginseng, and many other plants that prefer cool moist conditions.  Such bluff forests are also found on the Atlantic coastal plain as far south as north Florida suggesting a similar climatic explanation here as well, though no rivers in what is now Georgia drained directly from glacial meltwaters.

Oak-Hickory-Pine Climax Forests

Soapstone outcropping in suburban Atlanta.  This land was never farmed because it was too rocky, and a good example of oak-hickory-pine climax forest grew here.  The Woodland Indian culture carved bowls into the stone before the development of ceramic pottery.  Picture from google images.

This type made up 50-75% of the Georgia piedmont before European settlement.  Dr. Wharton gave 2 examples: one in Elbert County and the other in Dekalb County.  The latter is known as Soapstone Ridge.  People from the Woodland Indian culture (3000-1500 BC) chipped bowls in the abundant soapstone located in this region which is right off the Atlanta bypass.  They heated stews by dropping hot rocks in the bowls.  The development of ceramic pottery put an end to this practice.  The chipped bowls are still visible in many rocks.  The rocky soils prevented the development of agriculture, but now a subdivision known as Soapstone Ridge (what else?) has fragmented the forest.  These forests hosted red, white, and black oaks, pignut, shagbark, and mockernut hickories,  shortleaf and loblolly pines, and red maples.  Formerly, before the blight decimated the species 100 years ago, chestnut was a common component.  Soils within this region containing high levels of iron and magnesium also host Oglethorpe oak, mulberry, basswood, and redbud.

Shortleaf-Loblolly Pine Climax Forest

Regions within the oak-pine-hickory climax type that are continuously burned become dominated by fire resistant pines.

Oak Savannahs and Woodlands

This is an extremely rare type within the oak-hickory-pine climax type that was probably more common during the Pleistocene when dry cycles of climate  created a landscape of widely spaced shortleaf pine, red, scarlet, post, and blackjack oaks, blueberry and haw bushes, and grass.  Today, this type of environment only occurs on thin soils.

Beaver Ponds

Photo by Karan Rawlins from google images.  This is a beaver pond somewhere in Georgia.

Without humans limiting their numbers, beavers dammed most of the abundant creeks in what is now central Georgia creating long chains of beaver ponds.  If beavers completely chewed down all the trees in a vicinity, they abandoned the area and sediment filled the ponds until the ponds transformed into a marsh.  After enough willow trees resprouted the beavers would return.  Treeless marshes were the preferred habitat of the extinct giant beaver.  Therefore, it’s reasonable to suppose that the present day beaver (Castor canadensis) created habitat favorable for the extinct giant beaver (Castor ohioensis).  Beavers don’t build dams on large rivers but instead live in riverside tunnels.  When trees grow scarce, they will dig canals connecting their home pond with distant woodlots.

Dr. Wharton’s book has a neat aerial photograph of a chain of beaver ponds along a tributary of the Flint River.  A hunter told him that one of these ponds alone held 1000 ducks.  King rails and Virginia rails, both of c0nservation concern in the state, live here.  Pickerel, buffalo fish, bowfin, and many other fish species swim in this pond–if it still exists.  Remember, the book is 30 years old.

Successional Forest Stages

An area in the piedmont stripped of its trees will soon become a grassy field with annual flowers.  If stripped of soil too, a stage where moss grows and soil builds will occur.  During the Pleistocene, megafauna foraging and fires probably prolonged the grassy meadow stage.  Next, perennials and pine tree and sweetgum seedlings, their seeds windborne, begin to take hold.  Berry bushes too, their seeds carried in bird turds, form colonies. Pine trees grow quickest and dominate while oaks try to catch up.  Eventually, oaks and hickories shade out the pines and they dominate.  Shade tolerant trees such as maples are the final colonists.  A mature piedmont forest was something beautiful and awe-inspiring, according to William Bartram who saw much of Georgia before Europeans ruined it. 

Granite outcroppings

1902 map of granite outcroppings in central Georgia.

Some rare plants live in shallow solution pits in this type, but mostly they’re just bare rock.  Below is a link to a virtual tour of Heggies’s Rock in Columbia County, Georgia.  In my opinion the surrounding woods are much more beautiful than the naked granite.   There are sandstone outcroppings in the coastal plain.

Rabbits will Inherit the Earth

February 16, 2011

Matthew 5:5 (“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”) always reminds me of rabbits for these meek creatures surely could outlast man.  Imagine if humans destroyed each other with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.  With a penchant for rapid breeding, rabbits could rapidly recolonize the world after the warlike species, Homo sapiens, annihilated itself.

Georgia is home to 4 species of rabbits, and during the Pleistocene the southeast also harbored at least 2 kinds of hares.  At various times the lagomorphs (hares and rabbits) may have been more abundant (as a biological mass) than any single species of megafauna.  Scientists interpeted a fossil site near Gainesville, Florida to have been a dire wolf den because they found a skull belonging to Canis dirus in association with hundreds of rabbit bones.  Rabbits must have been an easy and abundant food source, more reliable than any single species of megafauna.  Rabbits easily survived the Pleistocene extinction event that wiped out many of the larger, fiercer animals.  The meek really did inherit the earth.

Here’s a review of rabbit and hare species found or formerly found in Georgia.


Eastern Cottontail–Sylvilagus floridanus

Photo of an eastern cottontail from google images.

While this species is by no means endangered, there are likely far fewer than there were as recently as 50 years ago.  Suburbs and shopping centers are replacing the early successional forests they prefer.  And the natural areas we let remain are maturing into older stands of timberland which is not as favorable a habitat for rabbits.  Rabbits like young forests with saplings, shrubs, and grassy open areas.  This type of habitat was abundant during the Pleistocene, thanks to rapid climate fluctuations, unchecked fires, and megafauna foraging.

New England Cottontail–Sylvilagus transitionalis

In a blog entry from a few weeks ago I listed the species found at the Ladds fossil site and mistakenly noted, about the New England cottontail, that I thought it was doubtful a subspecies could be determined based on a bone.  I didn’t realize the New England cottontail was a distinct species, not just a subspecies.  Today, the New England cottontail is being considered a candidate for the endangered species list.  Hunters introduced the eastern cottontail to New England, and it is doing well, but the New England cottontail is not adapting to suburbanization and is restricted to a small number of locations.  It looks much like an eastern cottontail.  They can hybridize with eastern cottontails in captivity but won’t do so in the wild.  Before advances in DNA research, scientists had to compare skulls to determine whether a cottontail was an eastern or a New England.  But now scientists can analyze the DNA of rabbit scat to identify species.  However, the fossil specimen from Ladds that Clayton Ray identified as a New England cottontail was probably an Appalachian cottontail.

Appalachian cottontail–Sylvilagus obscura

Photo of an Appalachian cottontail.  They look exactly like New England cottontails.  Only DNA analysis can determine the difference.  For that matter, visual inspection can’t differentiate between this and the eastern cottontail.  A skull comparison or a DNA anlysis is necessary for species determination between those species as well.

This species wasn’t identified or recognized until 1992.  Before then, it was considered the same species as the New England cottontail.  Scientists noted enough genetic differences to mark it as a distinct species, though there is academic debate about this.  Again, visual determination of live speciments can’t distinguish the difference between this and the eastern cottontail.  Instead, DNA tests or skull measurements are necessary.  The Appalachian cottontail inhabits heath balds in the north Georgia mountains.

Swamp rabbit–Sylvilagus aquatica

As this photo from google images shows, swamp rabbits readily take to water.  This is the rabbit that attacked President Carter.

Many readers of this blog may be too young to know about an event that occurred involving this species during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.  On vacation from the presidency Jimmy Carter sat in a canoe and fished a  Georgia swamp.  A swamp rabbit attacked his boat–probably the only instance when a sitting president was attacked by an animal.  I guess the rabbit was swimming in the swamp and felt threatened by the canoe.

Swamp rabbits occur alongside rivers and streams in the Georgia piedmont.  They’re known as canecutters because they eat bamboo cane which used to grow in thick stands many miles long in low areas of central Georgia.  Though canebrakes are rare today, swamp rabbits still can reside near the existing and numerous beaver ponds, another favored habitat.

Marsh rabbit–Sylvilagus palustris

Photo of a marsh rabbit from google images.

The range of this species takes up where the swamp rabbit’s leaves.  Whereas swamp rabbits occur in low areas of the piedmont, marsh rabbits inhabit coastal plain wetlands.


Antelope Jackrabbit–Lepus alleni



Photo of an antelope jackrabbit from google images.

Fossil hunters occasionally find jackrabbit bones in florida.  Antelope jackrabbits inhabited the southeast until, at least, the middle Pleistocene (~300,000 BP).  Dry climate phases created large scale grassland and even desert-like chapparel habitats where antelope jackrabbits shared the range with pronghorns, cheetahs, and camels.  As I speculated in my blog entry “The disjunct range of the burrowing owl,” a corridor between western grasslands and eastern grasslands must have existed until the Stagell Interglacial.  Forested habitats increased during this lengthy interglacial, and this probably ended the occurrence of many western species (though not all) in the east.  The skeleton of a large unnamed extinct species of jackrabbit, estimated to be about 2 million years old, has also been discovered in Florda.  Both species undoubtedly occurred in what’s now Georgia.  Today, antelope jackrabbits must be considered a relic species, restricted to southwestern deserts.

Snowshoe hare–Lepus americanus



Lynx attacking a snowshoe hare.  Photo from google images.

Fossil evidence proves Arkansas was home to snowshoe hares during the last Ice Age.  It’s quite possible snowshoe hares occured in north Georgia during the Pleistocene, and they probably lived in what’s now Tennessee.  Arkansas is well south of the present day range of this species.

Red Stewed Rabbit

In my irregular series on this blog, “If I could live in the Pleistocene,” I imagine living 41,000 years ago in what’s now east central Georgia but with modern conveniences such as a nice adobe brick home with solar-powered electricity, woodstoves,  running water from a well, and fresh produce grown in a well protected garden. (See my September and December archives) Though I raise poultry and milk cows in this imaginary utopia, I try to utilize as much game and fish as I can.  Rabbit would likely have to be an item in my diet, though I’m not too keen on killing them–their alarm call sounds like a human baby crying.  In real life I’ve experimented with rabbit and have learned that it is a good stewing meat.  Rabbit is all white meat with a flavor slightly superior to chicken.  If you’ve never had it, and someone served it to you, and you didn’t notice the different bone structure, you would think you were eating chicken. There’s not much fat on a rabbit but that’s the only part that might taste a little unusual in my opinion.

Many people fry rabbit like chicken.  It’s ok this way but I think a little dry.  Other cooking methods are apt to make the rabbit have a rubbery texture.  That’s why I recommend stewing rabbit in a crockpot.  Here’s the best recipe for rabbit I know.

Marinate a disjointed rabbit in 1 cup of soy sauce, 2 tbls of vegetable oil, 2 tbls of honey, 1 bunch of chopped green onions, and 5 spice powder and ginger powder to taste.  Place the rabbit pieces and the marinade in the crockpot and cook for 6 hours.  The meat falls of the bone.  A little bit of the sauce goes a long way–it’s a marinade, not a gravy, but a couple of sp0onfuls will season a side of egg noodles well.

Rabbit meat stewed in a crockpot with just onions, water, and salt also makes a good base for a Brunswick stew.  Just shred the meat, remove the bones, and add crushed tomatoes, cooked potatoes, canned limas, canned corn, and red and black pepper.