Posts Tagged ‘cypress trees’

40,000 year old Bald Cypress Logs Discovered in South Carolina

July 24, 2011

This cypress tree stood with the mastodons.  (All the photos in this blog entry are from

In 2003 workers mining sand along the Little Pee Dee River and the Lynches River in South Carolina discovered ancient cypress logs 40 feet below the present day surface of the land.  They found 70 cypress logs at the Lynches River site that were carbon dated to between 39,000 and 45,000 years old.  They found 20 logs at the Little Pee Dee River site dating to 25,000 years old.  They found woody material from other species as well but information on them has yet to be published.  Some of the logs were 96 feet long and a few had 1000 growth rings, meaning they lived to be over 1000 years old.  The logs were between 1-8 feet in diameter.

Depth of the excavation where the cypress logs were found.

Just imagine all the now vanished wildlife that roamed around, landed, climbed, and even lived on these trees.  Mastodons, a semi-aquatic species that inhabited river bottomland swamps and ate cypress twigs, certainly stood with these trees when both lived.  (In an article written for The State newspaper a journalist incorrectly stated that woolly mammoths may have rested in their shade.  It’s unlikely woolly mammoths lived this far south, though Columbian mammoths did.  Mammoths probably avoided swampy habitat.) Long-horned bison grazed upon the cane grass in openings by the trees when the swamp dried out.  Perhaps, if these trees had eyes, they could’ve witnessed jaguars or saber-tooths lurking in the swamp, ready to spring upon deer and peccary.  Maybe monster-sized catfish swam by their roots during high water.  Ivory billed woodpeckers, Carolina parakeets, and Pleistocene vampire bats nested or roosted in the cypress cavities.

The find is a tremendous source of scientific knowledge.  Scientists can use dendrochronolgy (the study of tree rings) and correlate the tree ring growth with carbon dates to determine past climatic patterns.  Just like with upland trees, cypress rings grow fat during wet years and skinny during dry years.  40,000 years ago, the cypress swamp at the Lynches River site stood during an interstadial, a warm climate phase within the Ice Age when sea levels rose due to glacial meltwater.  One would expect to see larger tree rings during the interstadial.  The cypress forest near the Little Pee Dee River stood during the Last Glacial Maximum–evidence that a warm thermal enclave did occur on the lower southeastern coastal plain then because cypress swamps couldn’t exist, if the climate was too cool.  Both sites are on the lower coastal plain, relatively close to the ocean.  Scientists believe slow sedimentation from changing river patterns eventually covered the forests in both locations, but they haven’t ruled out a marine transgression.

The discovery of fossil cypress wood was not only beneficial for scientists, but businessmen took advantage of it too.  The owners of the sand quarries established Ancient Bald Cypress LLC, and they manufacture custom made products out of the wood.  Incredibly, although the wood was water saturated when excavated, it had not become fossilized, and when dried proved excellent for fine artisan furniture.  They make and sell everything from $500 duck callers and $1200 bread bowls to $25,000 queen-sized beds and $150,000 custom made canoes.  This is a real testament to the durability of cypress wood.  I can understand why cypress wood is used for roofing shingles.

The sites in South Carolina aren’t the only ones where cypress logs have been discovered.  In 1921 construction workers building a skyscraper 4 blocks from the White House discovered ancient cypress logs dating to over 100,000 years old.  They were buried by ocean sediment after rising sea levels caused the Potomac River estuary to cover the cypress swamp with mud and sand.  Washington DC is slightly north of the present day range of cypress–a clue that the climate was warmer during the Sangamonian Interglacial than it is today.  That sea level eventually rose even higher than where it is today is definite evidence that climate was once warmer, and if as scientists predict, sea level rises due to present day global warming, the nation’s capital will some day have to be moved.  Pleistocene-age cypress logs have also been excavated in Newport News, Virginia; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Flanner Beach, North Carolina; and in Illinois.  A >50,000 year old fossil beaver dam consisting of cypress wood was excavated in a kaolin clay mine in Deepstep, Washington County, Georgia as well.

Cypress trees lived during the time of the dinosaurs and were once more widespread, living as far north as the Arctic Circle when the hot humid worldwide climate fostered the growth of swamps all over the planet.

Today, the oldest cypress tree in the world is found in the  Black River Nature Conservancy Reserve  in North Carolina.  It’s 1700 years old.  Its great age saved it from being logged because cypress wood from trees that old is of poor quality.



The Geological and Ecological History of the Okefenokee Swamp (part three)

December 3, 2010

Common and Interesting Plants Found in the Okefenokee Swamp

Most of the aquatic  plants that dominate the present day landscape of the Okefenokee Swamp were restricted to small scale marshes alongside the reduced number of rivers and streams that still incised the Okefenokee basin during the arid milleniums of the Ice Age when the water table fell and the swamp dried up between 36,000 BP and 7,000 BP.  The rest of the basin during this time period probably consisted of grassy pine savannah and scrub oak.  Nevertheless, these relic aquatic remnants provided the nucleus of the population that eventually re-established itself as the primary vegetation of the region.  Here are some interesting floral components of this environment.

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)–Eight-hundred year old giants still stand in a few coastal swamps near Georgia’s coast.  One-hundred years ago, when loggers decimated much of these ancient bottomland forests, they skipped over the biggest cypress trees because they were too large and hollow, and therefore too much trouble to economically harvest.  One of these gigantic cypress trees is located in the Townsend Wildlife Management Area in McIntosh County.  It’s 44 feet in circumference.  Imagine 7 men, all at least 6 feet tall, laying end-to-end in a circle around the tree and they still wouldn’t completely encircle it.  It’s understandable but not generally known that cypress trees are relatives of the famous Californian redwoods.  They sure have great size and long life in common.

For more about Georgia’s big cypress trees see this following link

I took this photo of a cypress tree in autumn foilage at Phinizy Swamp in Augusta, Georgia.  Unlike most coniferous trees, cypress trees lose their foilage in the winter, like deciduous broad-leafed trees.

Unlike most coniferous trees, cypress trees are not evergreen, and they shed their needles in the winter.  They usually live in flooded swamps. They have mysterious knees–wooden knobs that grow above water.  Scientists are uncertain whether these aid in respiration or simply balance the trees in the watery muck where they grow.

Water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica)–Cypress trees hollow out and provide roosting habitat for bats and homes for other animals, but tupelo trees become hollow more frequently.  Matt Clement, a grad student at UGA, found 97 roosts of Rafinesque’s bats along the Altamaha River, and most of them were in hollow tupelo trees.

Water shield or dollar pad (Brasenia schreberi), Floating Heart (Nymphoides sp.), and White Water Lilly (Nymphaea odorata)–These are three completely unrelated plants, but their leaves look similar.  In fact, I can’t really tell their leaves apart.  It’s an example of convergent evolution when different species evolve similar structures to solve the same ecological problems.  All three are what people think of as the lilly pads so commonly seen floating on the surface of the open water habitats in the Okefenokee Swamp that are often confusingly referred to as prairie because they’re treeless.  All three species have round floating leaves attached via long stems to underwater roots.

Panic grass (Panicum sp.) Saber-tooths and jaguars lurked hidden in patches of this tall cane-like grass, stalking the long-horned bison and horses that fed upon it during the Pleistocene.  The large fauna are gone but the flora remains.

Photo of some panic grass also known as maiden cane that I took at Phinzy Swamp, Augusta, Georgia.  There was another patch on the other side of the path that was 12 feet tall.  I wish I would’ve taken a photo of that.

Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)–Oddly enough, Spanish Moss is related to pineapple–both are Bromeliads or air plants.  Wind and birds spread seeds and fragments.  The seeds and fragments of the Spanish Moss lodge in other tree branches.  The Spanish Moss then grows (both from seed and vegetatively).  The plant survives by extracting nutrients from air and rain water, not from the trees upon which they land, thus they’re considered epiphytes, not parasites.  Birds, bats, spiders, and snakes live in and about the moss.

Spanish Moss hanging from either a water or laurel oak at Phinizy Swamp, Augusta, Georgia.  Spanish Moss is quite common in the lowlands of the Augusta area, but I’ve never seen any in hilly sections.

Bladderwort (Utricularia sp.)–Like strange creatures from a low budget horror film, carnivorous plants thrive in the Okefenokee Swamp.  Bladderwort is an underwater plant with no roots.  The bladder-shaped structure on the plant works like a trap door, a suction-on-contact action captures fish fry, mosquito larvae, tadpoles, and protozoa.

Pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava, Sarracenia mino, Sarracenia psittacaea)–There are three species of pitcher plants found in the Okefenokee–the hooded, the parrot, and the golden.  A sweet rotten odor emanating from the plants attracts insects which get trapped in tubular stems.  Backward hairs block insects from being able to escape, and eventually, they tire and fall into the toxic water at the bottom of the tube.  Bacteria in the water digests the insects, releasing nitrogen that the pitcher plant is able to absorb.

Round-leafed Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)–The sticky hairs on this plant work just like flypaper, trapping hapless insects.

Burreed (Sparanium sp.)–Fossil mastodon dung discovered in the Aucilla River, Florida contains many types of aquatic plants, including most discussed here.  Cypress was the most common item in their diet, but the beasts ate nympoides, nymphaea, and this one–burreed.  Burreed is an important plant in the second stage of forest succession that occurs when islands develop within the swamp.

The five stages of forest succession in the Okefenokee Swamp

1.  Sphagnum moss floats to the surface of open water and soil begins to accumulate on it forming an island.  Beakrush takes root.

2. Burreed, panic grass, and redroot are the second stage of plants to colonize the island.

3. Sedges take over.

4. Bushes and saplings colonize the island.

5. Trees such as cypress, tupelo, water oak, and pond pine form the final components of island forest succession in the Okefenokee Swamp.