Posts Tagged ‘Frances Harper’

The First Ever Ornithological Expedition to the Okefenokee Swamp in 1912

February 6, 2016

In 1912 an expedition composed of 4 Cornell University professors, 2 graduate assistants, the principle of Ithaca High School, 2 Georgia state entomologists, and 4 local guides conducted an ornithological survey of the Okefenokee Swamp.  The expedition lasted from May 6th-July 13th.  They found 75 species of birds, and 19 species were added to their list based on descriptions of the local guides who were considered reliable sources.  At the time of the expedition the Okefenokee was still a vast wilderness of cypress swamps, flooded marshes, hardwood hammocks, and larger islands topped by open pine savannahs.  River bottomland forests grew along the Suwanee River.  A few families lived on the edges of the swamp and within it, but a lumber company was making inroads at the time because they were felling much of the best timber.  The expedition wrongly assumed the swamp was going to be destroyed, like so many other remnants of wilderness left in North America then.  They did not know Franklin Roosevelt would eventually make it a protected wildlife refuge.

The most abundant bird in the swamp was the red-bellied woodpecker followed closely by the crested flycatcher.  Old growth forests provide plenty of food for woodpeckers.  Bobwhite quail were abundant on the larger islands where “pine barrens” prevailed.   Prothonotory warblers were also considered abundant.  The expedition found a rookery consisting of 500 little blue heron nests with eggs.  However, they saw just a few egrets because a recent fashion craze for egret feathers on women’s hats had led to the decimation of this species.  Georgia outlawed egret hunting in 1910.


The information for this blog entry comes from an article published in The Auk from October 1913.  I purchased this vintage scientific journal from .

The red-bellied woodpecker was the most abundant bird in the Okefenokee Swamp during Frances Harper’s survey of 1912.

The crested flycatcher was the 2nd most abundant bird during his survey.

File:Everglades Little Blue Heron.jpg

Harper found an active rookery of 500 little blue heron nests in the Okefenokee during his 1912 survey.

The expedition saw 150-200 wood storks feeding in shallow water, and 1 day a flock of 40 bobolinks flew over their heads.  Carolina wrens and brown-headed nuthatches were also considered very common/abundant in the swamp.

Woodpeckers in order of abundance were; 1. red-bellied, 2. pileated, 3. red-cockaded.  Hairy, downy, and red-headed woodpeckers were present but considered uncommon.  Ivory-billed woodpeckers, extinct since ~1945, still occurred in the northwestern part of the swamp on Minne Island then.  A guide heard an ivory-billed call during the expedition, and they found some recently used nests.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers, rare and endangered today, were still common here in 1912.

Ivory-billed woodpecker and nest.  Frances Harper found ivory-billed woodpecker nests in the Okefenokee that had been in use within 3 years of his survey.  One of his guides heard the call of an ivory-billed woodpecker during the survey, but Harper did not see or hear any.

Swainson’s warbler, considered uncommon now, were reported to be “not uncommon” in the swamp during the expedition.  Chimney swifts were a common bird seen hunting for mosquitoes over the water.  Evidentally, large colonies of this bird nested in hollow cypress trees for the local guides said they did not nest in their homestead chimneys.  Other common song birds included grackles, yellow-billed cuckoos, yellow throats, pine warblers, bluebirds, tufted titmice, eastern meadowlarks, and cardinals.

Red-shouldered hawks were the most common bird of prey during the day, while barred owls dominated the night.  Turkey vultures and black vultures were both common and made quick work of skinned alligators killed by hunters.  The expedition found 15 osprey nests.  They also often enjoyed seeing the aerial acrobatics of swallow-tailed kites.

Swallow-tailed Kites

Harper saw flocks of swallow-tailed kites summersaulting above the tree line.

Wood ducks were common year round residents, but the expedition came at the wrong time of the year to see winter migrants.  However, the local guides informed them that hooded mergansers, mallards, and coots commonly wintered in the swamp.  Shy sand hill cranes were  more often heard than seen because the local people hunted the delicious birds whenever they could.  The locals also relished wood ducks.  Oddly enough, white ibises were on the local menu.  I would suppose a fish-eating bird would taste too strong.

Anhingas could be found along the Suwanee River and in some of the larger bodies of water.  One of the guides was blind in 1 eye because his pet anhinga had stabbed it with its bill.

A single loggerhead shrike was seen chasing a bluebird.  A dead bluebird impaled by a shrike was further evidence of this species.

The only species the expedition was surprised to find was the spotted sandpiper.  This bird prefers open shore type habitat, but apparently some individuals were content to forage around fallen logs adjacent to marshes.  Spotted sandpipers winter south of this region and spend summers to the north.  The birds the expedition saw were probably in the process of migrating north.

Remarkably, not a single common crow was seen in the swamp.  The crow is 1 of the most common birds in my neighborhood in Augusta, Georgia, and I always see them wherever a travel.  This demonstrates just how attached crows are to the neighborhoods of man.  They thrive in manmade environments but avoid deep wilderness.  They like to eat human agricultural waste and garbage–a rich source of food compared to what they can forage in deep wilderness.  The expedition did identify a few fish crows along the Suwannee River.

Carolina parakeets became extinct in 1914.  Sadly, this species had been gone for so long from the Okefenokee that none of the old-timers were able to give any personal accounts of their encounters with them.


Wright, Albert; and Frances Harper

“A Biological Reconnaissance of the Okefinokee Swamp: the birds”

The Auk 30 (4) October 1913

Another Excerpt from Frances Harper’s Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp–the Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans)

August 21, 2013

I’ve been periodically posting excerpts from a rare book published in 1927 entitled Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp by Frances Harper.  This time I’m posting Harper’s collection of accounts about the southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans).

Southern flying squirrel

Youtube video of a southern flying squirrel gliding from tree to tree.  They can glide for up to 30 yards.

Supposedly, the southern flying squirrel is common and widespread throughout the state of Georgia, but I am skeptical.  They prefer old oak forests with lots of  snags and woodpecker holes.  I’ve never seen one in the wild and my cat never brought me a specimen, so I really doubt there are any in the woodlot behind my house or in any of the woods in my neighborhood.  Thirty years ago, a  college buddy of mine  did find and tame a specimen he found living in a birdhouse in his backyard, but that is the only time I’ve ever seen a flying squirrel in person.  Most flying squirrels commandeer woodpecker holes (sometimes eating the eggs and nestlings of the evicted birds in the process), although they do build their own nests on occasion.  The old oak forests of the Georgia piedmont have been replaced by young 2nd growth forests with far fewer snags and woodpecker nests than in former days.  Moreover, as far as I can determine from an internet search, no study on flying squirrel abundance in Georgia has been conducted…ever.  Flying squirrels are probably still common in the north Georgia mountains where unlogged oak forests still occur (See: ).  And they are a problematic predator of red-cockaded woodpeckers in south Georgia.

Fossils of southern flying squirrels have been found in several Pleistocene-aged sites in Georgia, including Kingston Saltpeter Cave and Yarbrough Cave in Bartow County, and the Isle of Hope site in coastal Georgia. The advanced evolutionary trait of gliding is probably an ancient characteristic of this species.

Below is Frances Harper’s collection of accounts of the southern flying squirrel which he refers to as the Florida flying squirrel.

Florida Flying squirrel–Glaucomys volans querceti

“The Flying Squirrel is known to most of the residents, and by its regular name.  It has been recorded or reported from the following localities in the swamp: Floyd’s, Minne Lake, Billy’s, Honey, and Chesser’s Islands, Clayhole Island, and Mixon’s Hammocks and Billy’s Bay.  It is said to be more or less common in various localities on the eastern side of the St. Mary’s River; north of Macclenny, Florida; along the Satilla River near Hoboken; and near Milltown, Lanier County…

…In the choice of its home within the Okefinokee this species does not exhibit a narrow taste, being found in such widely varying habitats as hammocks, pine barrens, and cypress bays.  It is perhaps attracted more particularly to the hammocks by reason of the acorns which it finds there on the live oak and other oaks.  Without the swamp it is found in unwelcome abundance in pecan groves.  It is entirely nocturnal, as far as my observations go.

In early January, 1917, at our camping place in the hammock on Floyd’s Island, several Flying Squirrels were heard moving about in the great live oaks overhead, and giving their slight, sharp, sibilant, little cries.  They were known to feed on some shelled corn stored in a large wooden box, and two specimens were trapped there.  In June, 1921, Jackson Lee reported hearing this species in the same camp.

On several nights in September, 1922, I heard the squeaky tseet, tseet, tseet of Flying Squirrels in the oaks about our camp in the hammock on Chesser’s Island.  One evening acorns began dropping outside my tent, and a couple of times one of the little creatures seemed to be scampering over the tent fly.  It was very successful, however, in eluding the rays of  a flashlight which I tried more than one to turn upon it. 

Ben Chesser once found a Flying Squirrel in a nest of  Spanish Moss which it had built in a quart cup about 6 feet above the ground by a spring in the piney woods on this island.

On June 19, 1922, David Lee cut down a dead slash pine (Pinus elliottii) in the pine barrens close to the hammock on Billy’s Island.  As the tree fell, a Flying Squirrel jumped out to another tree, then made for still another, but fell short and was caught.  It was kept in captivity for about six weeks, meanwhile feeding upon pecans, watermelon seeds, and huckleberries (the last with perhaps special avidity).  It refused peanuts.

Harry Chesser spoke of seeing several in the pine barrens on Billy’s Island.  Two sailed out of a living pine which he was cutting in the spring of 1922.  W.F. Keaton reported one or two during the previous spring in an old dead pine on Honey Island.

During the summers of 1921 and 1922 several were reported in holes in girdled cypresses, and one in a ‘green’ or living cypress.

On August 6, 1921, between 8 and 9 p.m. , a Flying Squirrel jumped on the roof of our tent, which was pitched on an oak ridge along the St. Mary’s River north of Macclenny, Florida.  At about the same time we began to take note of a shrill, sibilant, almost incessant calling on the part of two or three creatures of some sort, apparently in the trees overhead.  At the time I was inclined to consider them insects rather than Flying Squirrels, although, as David Lee remarked on a later occasion, the note of the latter is so much like that of some insects that it is difficult to tell them apart.  Meanwhile, several rat traps, baited with peanuts, were set on the trunks of near-by oaks, and presently, one of them contained a fine specimen of a Flying Squirrel.  Several nights later one was heard about our camp in a pine grove about 5 miles south of Traders Hill.

Some prejudice has been aroused against this species on account of its depredations on pecans in various localities near the swamp, where the pecan-growing industry has been considerably developed in recent years.  Its nocturnal habits enable it to pilfer to an extent not possible for a diurnal animal, and in places it evidentaly becomes a rather serious nusiance.  For example, various members of James Johnson’s family, living near Thompson’s Landing on the St. Mary’s, stated that a cat of theirs had caught 37 Flying Squirrels about their place during the pecan season of 1921.  The cat would eat each squirrel behind a certain door, and leave the tail there, thus enabling the members of the household to keep a tally.  They themselves made no effort to kill the animals saying, ‘It ain’t no use.’  Further complaints were heard concerning depredations on pecans near Cornhouse Creek, Charlton County, near Hoboken, Pierce County, and near Milltown, Lanier County.

Another Excerpt from Frances Harper’s Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp–“The Florida Cougar”

July 25, 2013

Testing 1,2,3

I’ve been periodically posting excerpts from a rare book published in 1927 by Frances Harper entitled Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp.  This excerpt is a collection of local accounts about the cougar.  It mentions the last known specimen killed by hunters in Georgia in 1925 (until 2007 when a hunter shot a wandering Florida panther near Lagrange).   The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has proposed the Okefenokee Swamp as a possible site for re-introduction of the Florida panther, although it’s unclear which subspecies of cougar used to live here.  The population that inhabited south Georgia may have been a blend of Florida panther and eastern cougar, the latter of which has been declared extinct.  I would like to live where cougars roam, but from one of the accounts below, I can understand why this might make some people nervous.  Cougars used to jump on people’s roofs.  I don’t think suburban moms would be too crazy about a 150 pound cat standing on top of their house while their kids were playing in the backyard.  The below account also uses a racially offensive place name.  I chose not to censor it because I favor historical accuracy.  Harper used the archaic scientific name, Felis coryi, for cougar.  The official scientific name for the cougar today is Puma concolor.

Florida Cougar from Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp

“When Goldsmith sang of the  ‘wild Altamaha Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey’  his zoogeographical knowledge was not so faulty as some critics have supposed.  For to this day the Cougar is almost invariably spoken of as ‘Tiger’ in the Okefinokee region, and doubtless it has been known since colonial times in many other localities in the Southeastern states.  There is little to record of it in the present region except the accounts of bygone days, for it is now very nearly if not entirely extinct.  Yet it lingered well into the present century, and it is perhaps not beyond the bounds of possibility that some solitary survivor may yet be taken.

James Henderson, one of the oldest of the local hunters, has heard one or two in his time, and spoke of having been ‘backed out by a Tiger one night.’

J.D. Hendrix, a contemporary of Henderson’s saw a ‘Tiger’ that had been killed by Judge Albritton on the Nigger Camp Islands, near the upper end of Cowhouse Island, about 1883.  The only one he ever saw alive was on the Big Water, about 1903.

He also spoke of one killed by William Gunter on the Little Okefinokee in 1864.  The latter’s wife went down to a spring about 4 p.m, and was followed by a ‘Tiger.’  She ran to the house, and tried to shut the dog out.  The ‘Tiger’ jumped on to the house, and walked from one end of the roof to the other.  The man meanwhile came back from the woods with an old flintlock.  He saw the animal, dropped down to his knees, and shot it off the house.  It measured 9 feet from tip to tip.

Harrrison Lee stated that about 1876 his father, Dan Lee, and a companion were pursuing a ‘Tiger’ with dogs on Suwanoochee Creek a few miles above Fargo.  While temporarily separated from his companion, he was mistaken for a ‘Tiger’ and seriously wounded with a rifle ball.

It is said that about 1896 a “Tiger’ appeared in the Lees yard on Billy’s Island, and fought with the dogs before running off.  It was seen by Avner and Farley Lee.

Allan Chesser has never seen a ‘Tiger’ but has ‘seen where they killed deer and kivered ’em up…I’ve seen many a deer where they’d been fought by the Tigers.  Jest the throat cut.  I’ve seen where they’ve jumped on ’em.  No sign er scufflin’ a-tall; just squashed ’em down ter earth an’ killed ’em right there.  One time one scared me out er goin’ out on the prairie.  I stood still a little while an’ watched  ‘is tracks fill up with water, an’ I decided ter go on.  I didn’t see nothin’ ‘uv ‘im.  The bushes wuz thick.  That’s ben, I expec’, erbout 18 er 20 years ago.  In what is called Buck Prairie, on the north side er Black Jack.’

About 1910 Allen and Sam Chesser saw the tracks of a ‘Tiger’ along their trail from Lake Sego to Chesser’s Island.  There was a distance of 4 feet between each track of the hind feet at a walking gait.  Its trail was followed to where it had pulled up ferns to make its bed in a prairie ‘house.’  Hair about 6 inches long was found in its bed.

Allen Chesser also reported that three of the animals had been killed by a man named Osteen about 1885 on the eastern edge of the swamp half a dozen miles southeast of Chesser’s Island.

About 1898, while working in the swamp about 3 miles east of Coffee Bay on the canal, Sam Mizell heard a ‘Tiger’ one evening.  He said the sound suggested some one ‘hollerin while hoarse,’ and that it ended with a sort of growl.  About 1903 he saw tracks where one had killed a deer on Craven’s Hammock.  He also found the skeletons of two deer that had been covered up with leaves, bushes, etc., evidentally by a ‘Tiger.’

Leonard Lloyd spoke of having seen the tracks of a ‘Tiger’ crossing the St. Mary’s River near Stanley Branch, above Trader’s Hill in 1901.

In 1916 John Hopkins, superintendent of the Hebard Cypress Company, informed me that seven or eight years previously there was a newspaper report, which he considered authentic, to the effect that a Panther had been killed between Mixon’s Ferry and Moniac, and exhibited in Valdosta.

On or about December 19, 1916, a hog was killed between Mixon’s Ferry and Fargo by some animal which a resident of that section, Sam Jordan, pronounced a ‘Tiger.’  A couple of weeks later Steve Williams was traveling in an automobile along the road between Fargo and Homerville, about 10 miles from the former place, when he saw a ‘Tiger’ cross the road very close in front of the machine.  Some hounds had apparently been in pursuit of the animal.

I heard from Samuel Davis a report of one passing along the St. Mary’s River near St. Georgia on July 24, 1921, and ‘hollerin almost like a woman.’ He also stated that ‘one comes through every year.’  On September 16, 1922, I heard from Ben Chesser another rumor of one having been seen recently in the vicinity of St. George.

According to McQueen and Mizell, ‘a large panther was killed a year or so ago (1925?) on the southern edge of the Okefinokee after it had killed an unusual number of grown range cattle.'”

An Excerpt from Frances Harper’s Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp–“The Florida Wolf”

July 8, 2013

Frances Harper was a biologist from Cornell University who lived from 1886-1972.    He conducted a biological survey of the Northwest Territories of Canada before WWI and again after WWII.  He served as a rodent control officer for the U.S. army during the first world war.  He was a also a historical scholar who followed in the footsteps of William Bartram, and he’s responsible for getting Bartram’s Travels re-published in the 20th century.  He edited that re-publication and added notes about where he thought Bartram was on the trail compared to modern landmarks.  After WWI he conducted a biological survey of the Okefenokee Swamp.  (He used the archaic spelling of Okefinokee.)  He was instrumental in getting the swamp protected as a National Wildlife Refuge.  He wrote a fascinating book–Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp– that was published as a scientific paper in 1927.  This book is long out of print, and I checked where they have 1 used copy for $86.  The book is worth closer to $20.  I have a copy of this book, so periodically, I’m going to type up excerpts from it on my blog for people who are interested in it but don’t want to shell out that kind of dough.  The first excerpt will be his account of the Florida Wolf .

Illustration of the Florida wolf.  Harper gives it the incorrect scientific name Canis floridanus.  Actually, it’s an extinct color variation of the red wolf–Canis rufus.  Incidentally, there are no illustrations in Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp.

“The story of the Florida wolf is now largely a matter of past history.  The Okefinokee was certainly one of its last strongholds and may even yet shelter a few survivors.  Many residents of the region have personal recollections of Wolves, and some of their reports are considerably later than the date of the last known capture, about 1908.

In former times the species was doubtless distributed throughout the surrounding country as well as in the swamp itself.  Apparenly it frequented a wide range of habitats, from the pine barrens to cypress bays, with perhaps a general preference for the former.  Evidentally it moved freely by day as well as by night.  It preyed upon cattle and sheep as well as hogs, and it must have been a far more serious enemy to the stockman than the bear ever was.  Yet the accounts seem to indicate that it was neither very wary nor very courageous.  Its wide variation in color is mentioned here and there in the following notes.

S.L. Davis, of St. George, said that his father brought 300 head of cattle to that vicinity (probably about the middle of the last century), and that within three months or so only about 60 were left, the others having been killed by Wolves.

Chester Burkhalter related how his grandmother, when a girl about 1850, was followed by a couple of black Wolves near Arabia, in Clinch County.  She passed through a herd of cattle, where the Wolves made a detour and lost her trail.  Meanwhile, she climbed up a sycamore and remained a couple of hours.

In 1866, when J.D. Hendrix came to the swamp, there were a few Wolves here, and they preyed upon hogs and calves.  In 1867, at Beaver Dam, near Fort Mudge, while turkey-hunting early in the morning, he heard a Wolf howling and coming closer.  Then a pair of them appeared in the road, playing like dogs.  The male came up to within 21 steps, and when shot, bit its sides.  The female ran off.  The specimen was ‘a right black one’ . Others he knew of were gray or yellow.

He added that about 1887 Obadiah Barber and Leroy Thrift killed a Wolf that was being trailed by dogs in Pipe Swamp, between Waycross and Cowhouse Island.

The only time James Henderson has heard Wolves howling was in the fall of 1874, on Barnum Branch.  He thought there were eight or ten ‘head,’ but another man with him said there were three or four.

His father once poisoned an old dog Wolf that had been killing his sheep.  This was about 1865, 2 miles north of Ruskin, Ware County.  He dragged a beef hide, with ‘lights’ in it, for half a mile or so, then put a bait about 3 feet up in a tree, and repeated this in several places.  The Wolf was later found dead about 75 yards from one of the baits.  It was black with a white spot on its breast.

Fifty years or more ago Allen and Sam Chesser, while camping with their father and mother at Gannet Lake, heard a Wolf.  Its lonesome howl sounded an hour or two before daybreak.  The animal was apparently between Mitchell and Black Jack Islands.

Allen Chesser added that Berrien Dedge had killed a Wolf on Number One Island about 1890 or earlier.

About 1895 Hamp Mizell saw a Wolf near his home on the eastern border of the swamp.  It lay down in the road and wallowed, looking like a shaggy dog.  It had several holes dug about 4 feet into the ground, with a turn at the end.

Once, about 1911, he carried a shoulder of a shoat from the Suwannee River to a shanty on Rowell’s Island.  Later he saw by the tracks that a Wolf had trailed him for 3 miles.  That night it came close to the shanty and dug a hole about 3 feet deep.

In 1901 Sam Mizell saw tracks, which he took to be a Wolf’s, on Burnt Island, between Indian Swamp and Cross Swamp.  They were longer and narrower than a dog’s.  At about the same time period Mitchell Mizell saw a brownish Wolf on Black Jack Island.

David Lee can just remember the time (probably about 1900) when several Wolves killed a cow within a mile of the house on Billy’s Island.  He himself heard the racket they made in killing the cow, which had a bell on it.  Jackson Lee recalls how, in the same locality and at about the same period, a yearling was bitten in the back, probably by a Wolf.

About 1908 a black Wolf was trapped by James Lewis in a creek called Indian Swamp, on the west side of the Okefinokee about 10 miles north of Fargo.  It was said to have been the smaller one of two in a pack.  The hide was shipped to market by Willian Mobley, and the skull was not preserved.  This is the last record of a Wolf being taken in the region.

In 1916 (probably in May), while traveling along the ‘run’ through Billy’s Bay, David Lee heard some animal howling.  He thought at first that it was a dog, but stopped and listened attentively, and then knew it was not a dog.  He does not know what it could have been except a Wolf.  The water in the bay was rather low at the time.

There have been a number of possible records on Floyd’s Island in recent years.  In November, 1916, Harrison Lee heard there a strange noise like the howling of a Wolf.  A similar noise was heard by Jackson Lee about 7 o’clock one morning in May, 1921.  On two different occasions, at about this time, he heard something moving about near the camp in the hammock, and he considered that it might have been a Wolf.

About 1918 Harry and Ben Chesser saw the tracks of a Wolf on Number One Island, heard it ‘holler’ and chased it with dogs.

The disappearance of the Florida Wolf, like that of many another interesting creature, has evidentally been brought about solely throught the agency of civilized man.”

The Co-existence of the Rice Rat (Orzomys palustris) and the Florida Muskrat (Neofiber alleni)

March 9, 2012

Water-loving rodents of many different sizes abounded in Pleistocene marshes and swamps.  It’s likely man overhunted giant beavers (Castoroides ohioensis) and capybaras (Hydrochoreus and Neochoreus) into extinction, but several medium and small species remain.  Beavers (Castor canadensis) and muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are still common throughout the southeast, except in Florida where both are completely absent.  However, the presence of round-tailed or Florida muskrats (Neofiber alleni) proves that an aquatic rodent can survive in environments that host significant numbers of alligators. 

The Pleistocene range of the Florida muskrat is a curious example of Ice Age mammal distributions and how they differed from those of the present.  Today, the round-tailed muskrat is restricted to Florida, but during warm climate phases, they use to have a range that extended north.

Datei:Neofiber alleni distribution map.svg

Range map of the Florida muskrat.  During warm climatic phases of the Pleistocene, it was more widespread living as far north as Pennsylvania and Kansas where it shared the range with common muskrats (Ondatra).

Fossils of Florida muskrats were among those excavated from Ladds stone quarry in northwest Georgia.  These likely date to the Sangamonian Interglacial.  Their fossils have also been found in Texas, Kansas, and Pennsylvania and in many of these fossil sites their bones were associated with common muskrat (Ondatra) bones.  This is evidence that the 2 species of muskrats used to co-exist but presently they do not.  Because Florida muskrats are thought to be maladapted to cold climates, they must have only co-occurred with Ondatra zibethicus during extremly warm interglacials when winters were warmer than those of today. 

Florida or round-tailed muskrat (Neofiber alleni)

Round-tailed muskrat nest in Putnam County, Florida.  Photo by Alan Cressler.

Florida muskrats still share habitat with another aquatic rodent–the rice rat (Orzomys palustris).  The latter, though restricted to the south, is more widespread.

Rice rat range map

Rice rat (Orzomys palustris)

The rice rat feeds upon many of the same foods and utilizes Florida muskrat runways and feeding platforms.  They even occasionally build their nests on the roofs of muskrat nests.  Muskrat nests generaly consist of 12-25 inch grass mounds that are accessed by 2 tunnels saturated with groundwater.  Rice rats construct globular nests 6-18 inches in diameter and are located about 6 inches above the flood line.  The preferred habitat of both is a grassy marsh where bamboo cane, sawgrass, cattails, arrowhead, and pickerel weed grow.  Rice rats are omnivorous, feeding on succulent plants, mushrooms, seeds including those of iris and rice, insects, fiddler crabs, snails, fish, and carrion.  Florida muskrats are more vegetarian, eating mainly the stems of water plants and the roots of ferns, but Frances Harper reported that they ate crayfish as well.  Unlike muskrats, rice rats are not specifically adapted to aquatic life–they do not have waterproof fur and webbed toes and they can live in grassy meadows away from water.  But they are good swimmers and divers.

Florida muskrats are members of the vole family.  Most voles are small mouse-sized rodents, and muskrats are just big overgrown voles.  Florida muskrats are gregarious and share feeding platforms with other muskrats.  This behavior is not like that of other vole species including Ondatra which are territorial.  Rice rats are distantly related to white-footed or field mice.  Only 1 species of rice rat lives in North America, but many more occur in South America.  The North American species probably is descended from rodents that colonized the continent when a landbridge formed between the two.

I’ve never seen a rice rat, but I have seen common muskrats (Ondatra) quite often in and around Augusta, Georgia.  I took a boat ride on the Augusta canal a few years ago and saw a score of them.  I see their sign in Woodbridge Lake in Evans, and once I witnessed a hawk carrying a muskrat away.  I’ve seen a Florida muskrat on 1 occasion.  When I was about 10 years old, my grandparents lived on a canal in Inverness, Florida.  As I walked along the bank of the canal in the morning, a round-tailed muskrat swam along beside me and barked at me the whole time.

Frances Harper surveyed the Okefenokee Swamp circa 1920.  He estimated 10,000 Florida muskrats inhabited the swamp but none lived north of it.  However, fossil remains of Florida muskrats, dating to the Boling-Alerod interstadial (~14,000 BP) were found at Clarks Quarry, near Brunswick, which is slightly north of their modern day range limit.  Curiously, their fossils were found with woodchuck fossils (along with mammoth, long-horned bison, etc.).  The climate must have suddenly become much warmer, because woodchucks (which are a cool climate species) were still present in the region, though eventually they would disappear here.  It may be that the Boling-Alerod interstadial was a climate phase with warm winters but cool summers, so both species of rodent were able to live in the same geographic range.

George Leonard Herter writes in his classic Bull Cook and Authentic Recipes and Practices that muskrat is a delicious animal formerly popular to eat among pioneers of Swedish descent who settled in Minnesota.  His method of cooking muskrat was to a) remove the fat, b) boil the hind legs and hams for about an hour, c) season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, d) sautee in butter and smother in onions and celery.  I assume removing the fat and boiling gets rid of the musky odor.

Pleistocene Vultures of Southeastern North America

July 13, 2011

It seems fitting to follow last week’s blog entry about saber-tooths with one about vultures, a whole class of birds that benefited from the big carnivore’s work.  The extinction of the megafauna led to the extinction of several vulture and condor-like species.  Other species of scavenging birds became less widespread and more local in distribution.


Teratorn–Teratornis merriami

This huge condor-like bird stood 2.5 feet tall but had a wingspan of 12 feet–the length of 2 average-sized men spread from head to foot.  Fossils of this species have been excavated in Florida, California, and several western states, so it likely ranged throughout most of the southeast.  An even larger species, Aiolornis incredibilis, had a wing span of 17 feet, but this may have been an early Pleistocene species, not present in the late Pleistocene.  The teratorn’s bill was much larger than other vultures, suggesting it often took live prey such as rabbits and bird nestlings which it swallowed whole.

African scavenging birds occupy different niches described as rippers, grabbers, and scrappers.   Rippers rip open thick-skinned, large, carcasses and eat hide and the tougher parts of the animal.  Grabbers eat the soft meat; scrappers eat the bits of meat that get scattered around the carcass.  Scientists believe the same holds true for scavenging birds in Pleistocene North America.  Teratorns were the rippers, capable of opening dead thick-skinned mammoths or ground sloths, helping make the meat available for other scavengers.

California CondorGymnogyps californianus

Photo from google images of a California condor.  Man, are they ugly.

I say this bird should be known as the North American condor because Pleistocene age bones of this bird have been found as far east as New York (the Hiscock site) and Florida.  Obviously, it lived throughout the southeast.  Scientists know from an analysis of its fossil bone chemistry that California condors survived the extinction of the megafauna because a local population of the birds learned to scavenge whale carcasses off the California coast.  Ranchers attempting to kill coyotes with ill-conceived poison control programs, instead nearly extirminated the beneficial condors.  Now, they’re back from the brink, feeding mostly on the abundant dead livestock on western ranges.

American griffin vulture?  No common name–Neophrontops americanus

An extinct American vulture related to old world vultures.  No representatives from the old world vulture family still occur in North America.

The accipitrids are old world vultures today found in Africa and Eurasia.  They’re more closely related to hawks than to extant new world vultures which are related to storks.  The physical similarity between old and new world vultures is a case of convergent evolution when unrelated species develop similar characteristics to adapt to similar conditions.  Both old and new world vultures have featherless necks to prevent the build-up of toxic bacteria.  Both are capable of digesting well-rotted food without getting sick, and they are adapted to tearing open carcasses.

American old world vulture.  No common name–Neogyps errans

This is another old world type vulture that became extinct with the megafauna.

King Vulture–Sarcaramphus papa

William Bartram described this vulture in north Florida during the 18th century.  For over a century ornithologists doubted the veracity of Bartram’s account, thinking he either had the bird confused with a mythical creature or a caracara, because no specimens of this still living species were known to occur north of Central America.  Then in 1932, Frances Harper reviewed Bartram’s field notes and discovered that Bartram actually had obtained a specimen.  The description in the field notes matched the king vulture even better than his account in his book, Travels, which was written years later apparently from imperfect memory.  Mr. Harper theorized the king vulture occurred in Florida until the great freeze of 1835.  Bartram also reported royal palms in north Florida which were extirpated from all but the southernmost region of the state after that freeze.  King vultures probably colonized and recolonized the south during warm interglacials.

Bartram noted an interesting habit of this species in Florida.  King vultures followed the frequent fires in the longleaf pine savannahs and ate the “roasted” reptiles that failed to escape the flames.

Black Vulture–Coragyps atratus

Photo from google images of a black vulture–still common.

It’s no coincidence that drivers often spy these still extant birds soaring over highways.  They’ve adapted well to the roadkilled supermarkets of our modern highways which offer a buffet of dead deer and dogs.  Two fossil specimens of black vulture nestlings found at Kingston Saltpeter Cave, Bartow County prove this bird lived here during the Pleistocene as well.

Turkey vulture–Cathartes aura

Photo of google images of a turkey vulture.  They’re easy to distinguish from black vultures even if one can’t see the red head because they’re flying high in the sky.  Note the tail is much narrower on a turkey vulture than a black vulture.

Turkey vultures are still common but don’t congregate in large flocks like black vultures do.  Their niche differs too–they subsist on smaller carrion such as dead possums, flattened road-killed snakes and squirrels, etc.

Eagles also benefited from the deaths of Pleistocene megafauna.  Grinell’s crested eagle and hawk eagles, now extinct, probably relied on carrion for an important part of their diet.  Golden eagles and bald eagles were probably more comman then, thanks to the abundance of meat on the range.

Caracaras, ravens, and magpies were also more widespread during the Pleistocene because of the greater supply of meat.


Harper, Frances

“Vultura sacra of William Bartram”

The Auk October 1932

Hertz, Fritz

“Diversity in Body Size and Feeding Morphology within Past and Present Vulture Assemblages”

Ecology 75 (4) June 1994

How Widespread were Open Pine Savannahs During the Pleistocene?

November 4, 2010

Photo of an open pine savannah from the Summer 2010 issue of the Nature Conservancy Magazine.  The photo was taken by Beth Young.

Modern day ecologists are attempting to protect and restore the last remnants of open pine savannahs in the southeast.  Open pine savannahs were the most common type of ecosystem in the coastal plain of southeastern North America when Europeans first colonized the continent.  They are rich unique landscapes dependent upon frequent light fires that incinerate brush and saplings, creating an environment where pine trees grow far enough apart for grassy glades to exist between the widely spaced conifers.  Typically, pine needles slough off the trees, falling on top of tufts of wiregrass.  Droughts dry this combustible material which later is ignited by lightning or humans.  The fires kill hardwood saplings, but longleaf pines have fire resistant bark, and the grass roots survive underground, thus explaining how the environment becomes dominated by pine and grass.  Scientists consider the sloughing off of combustible pine needles as an active evolutionary adaptation by longleaf pines to maintain the type of environment they need to survive–it prevents them from being shaded out in the closed canopy forests that would grow without fire.

Another name for this ecotype is the pine barrens, but this is misleading.  On first glance these savannahs may seem monotonous, but they’re quite diverse–over 100 species of plants have been surveyed in as little as 1/4 acre.  This is a higher diversity than any other ecosystem in North America.  Wiregrass is the most common grass.  It co-occurs with many species of grass in the Poaceae family, as well as species of legumes (Faboceae), and flowering asters (Asteraceae).  Low bush blueberries love to sprout and colonize fire-prone savannahs, and they abound here.  Bird diversity is high too, and one species occuring only here includes the endangered red cockaded woodpecker.

There are different kinds of pine savannahs as well–the types of plants and animals living on them vary according to how well drained the soil is.  On the driest sandy sites, where there isn’t enough tinder for even light fires, scrubby oaks predominate.  On well drained sites with good soils tall longleaf pines and wiregrass dominate the vegetation, and gopher tortoises and gophers can be found digging their burrows.  On poorly drained sites wet pine savannahs are home to sphagnum moss and chimney hill crayfish.  And there are areas grading between wet and dry savannah.  Rivers, streams, and Carolina Bays are watery barriers that protect some sites from fire, allowing cypress swamps and hardwood forests to grow.

In the 19th century man began the destruction of this ecosystem.  Workers harvested resin to manufacture naval stores (turpentine and tar).  This killed many trees and degraded the environment.  Later, lumbermen and farmers cleared the land and planted horizon-to-horizon field crops such as cotton and peanuts.  Fires were suppressed to protect lumber, and loblolly pine replaced longleaf pine as the dominant tree in now closed canopy forests.  So today’s coastal plain landscape bares no resemblance whatsoever to the original.  Thankfully, at least a few pitiful remnants still exist on military bases, and on lands belonging to hunting clubs specializing in quail which thrive in this type of enviroment.  Organizations such as the Nature Conservancy are working to protect these areas.

I don’t think scientists currently studying open pine savannahs are aware that Frances Harper extensively surveyed this ecosystem on the uplands surrounding the Okefenokee while researching his 1927 book, Mammals of the Okefenokee Swamp.  They never reference it.  Though many areas of the savannah were already damaged from naval store activity, he was able to study them before their final destruction at the hands of clear cutters and agriculturalists.  Here’s his list of plant and animal abundance by species, listed from most abundant to least.


Longleaf pine

Slash Pine

Black-jack oak

Live oak

Pond pine


Saw palmetto


Calico bush

Gallberry–a type of holly

Oak runner

Poor grub–Xolisma fruticosa

Dwarf myrtle

St. John’s wort

Chinquapin–a dwarf chestnut bush that used to be common but is now rare.  Saplings are available for transplant at



Lather bush–Clethra alnifolia

Possum haw

Cyrilla racemiflora

Parkerberry bush

Laurel–Osmanthus americana


Wiregrass–Aristida stricta

Andropogen sp.–Includes broom grass and prairie grasses like bluestem

Xyris flexuosa

Aster Squarrosus–a flowering aster

Rhexia alfifanus–deer grass

Polygala lutea

Ericaulon decangulare

Sporobolus curtissii


Linodorum tuberosum

Trilisa odoratissima

Habeneria nivea

Rhexia cilisoa

Asclepia cinerea–milk weed

Eleocharis baldwinii–road grass

Sabbatia decandra

Pterididum aquilinum–bracken fern

Baptisa lanceolata–gopher grass

Sarraceania minor–trumpet pitcher plant

Sarracenai flava–pitcher plant

Pogonia divericata–an orchid

Lilium catesbaei

Rynochospora filifolia–beak rush

Stillingia sylvatica

Sophronanthe hispida

Lycopodium alapecuroides

Galactiea Elliotii

Chrysopsis graminifolia–silver grass

Opuntia–prickly pear cactus

Aristida spiciformis

Servicarpus bifoliatus

Carphenophorus corymbosus

Cyperus cylindricus–sedge

Scleria glabra–nut rush


Lycopodium adpresum



Cotton rat

Cotton mouse

Rafinesque’s bat

Seminole bat

Pipistrelle bat

Cottontail rabbit

Red bat

Southern flying squirrel

Eastern mole

Pocket gophers

Short tailed shrew


fox squirrel–less common today because they like open forests. 

marsh rabbit


Striped skunk

Gray squirrel–more common today because they like closed canopy forests


Gray Fox

white-tail deer


Black Bear


Red wolf

Frances Harper was 12,000 years too late to record the animals that would’ve thrived on open pine savannahs during the Pleistocene.  Here’s my additions.  The order of abundance is, of course, unknown.


Columbian mammoth


Long-horned bison



Llamas–two kinds

Peccaries–two kinds.  The flat-headed peccary is thought to have preferred scrubby forests that would’ve been common during dry glacial climate phases.

Beautiful Armadillo

Harlan’s Ground Sloth

Jefferson’s Ground Sloth

13-lined ground squirrels


Dire Wolves

Giant Short-faced bears

Saber-tooth cats

Scimitar tooth cats

Giant Panthers


I believe open pine savannahs are a very old ecosystem descended from the first grasslands that evolved during the Oligocene or Miocene.  It’s true that Indian-set fires facilitated the extent of these grasslands, but savannahs must have existed prior to the advent of man here.  Ironically, pine savannahs were probably more widespread during wetter climate phases because lightning from more frequent thunderstorms would’ve ignited more fires.  During cold arid glacial stages, scrubby oak thickets expanded at the expense of pine savannahs due to lessened incidence of lightning-induced fires in an environment so dry that eolian sand dunes rolled across the landscape.

The Pleistocene climate fluctuated between wet and dry climate phases, depending on whether the Laurentide glacier to the north was in a melting or expanding phase.   The ratio of pine savannah to oak scrub habitat corresponded to these climate phases–the pine savannah expanding with melt water wet phases; the oak scrub/desert expanding with dry cool expansion phases.  But neither habitat was completely eliminated during the climate fluctuations unfavorbable to them.  Many pollen studies show these alternating dry and wet climate phases still occur, though they’re not as drastic as the Ice Age fluctuations.  Today, we’re in a wetter phase, but 5,000 years ago the climate was much drier.

The bigggest influence on open pine savannahs during the Pleistocene, besides climate, was the megafauna.  Cooler climate and megafauna grazing, trampling, and dung-depositing probably caused the savannahs to vary more in composition than they do today, but their basic structure was likely similar, and they were just as widespread as they were when white men invaded the continent.

Especially wet interstadials, however, increased the quantity and size of wetlands which made for barriers that stopped fires, allowing chestnut, oak, and beech forests to occur as far south as what today is Florida.  The dry cycles of climate of the LGM restricted the occurrence of these rich hardwood forests on the coastal plain to river sides and springs that didn’t completely dry up, following extended droughts and the dramatic drop in the water table.

The terrain of the piedmont and mountains localized fires and created patchy environments of mixed forests and meadows quite different from those of the coastal plain.