Posts Tagged ‘horses’

Cades Cove

June 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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We saw 20 deer.  This buck snuck behind me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video from you tube of the synchronous fireflies.

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The Congaree National Park, Home of the Giants

April 6, 2011

The Congaree National Park in South Carolina still held some surprises for me, even though I traversed this biggest last stand of bottomland forest in 1988.  Then, it was just a National Monument but in 2003 was upgraded to National Park status.  The park hosts 17 national and/or state record trees, including an 156 foot tall loblolly pine; and record shumard, southern red, and overcup oaks; as well as champion water hickory, Carolina ash, holly, box elder, persimmon, and paw paw.

Loblolly Pine–Pinus taeda

Loblolly pine.  The state record tree located in this park has a circumference of 16 feet.  This one looks to be at about 9 or 10.

The tree on the right is the loblolly pine from the previous photo.  The tree to the left is a red maple.  Some of the stands of loblolly pine in the park were found to be 227 years old.  The same study found that this species sprouts following hurricanes which open up the forest canopy.  The ages of stands corresponded with the history of hurricanes. (I took all the photos for this blog entry.)

This species is also known as old field pine because it reseeds so easily in lots devoid of other trees.  It has become a dominant tree throughout the southeast since much of the cotton and corn fields and horse pastures, which 100 years ago made up the face of the southern lands, were abandoned and went fallow.  Before European settlement it was merely a common component, but today it grows in pure stands as well as mixed with other species.  Therefore, it’s sometimes given the name bull pine due to its predominance.  Not only does it grow in upland locations, but it reaches prodigious size in wet areas from whence it gets its name, loblolly, which means mud puddle.  In the Congaree they grow in wet mud.

Sweetgum–Liquidamber styraciflua

Forked sweetgum trunk.

Another surprise for me.  I didn’t know this species could grow with its root system submerged in water, but I saw plenty of individuals in the Congaree growing in 6-12 inches of water.  Some had roots spread in structures similar to those of cypress and tupelo, enabling them to balance without tipping over in muddy soils.  Sweetgums, like loblolly pines, reseed readily in fields and are a common tree in upland sites.  But they’re adaptible enough to thrive in low muddy land as well.

Cypress–Taxodium distichum and Tupelo– Nyssa sp.

Cypress tree trunk.

Look at all of these cypress knees.  Scientists are unsure whether the cypress knees, which are part of the root system, grow for respiration or balance.

Up close view of a cypress knee.  Cypress trees are closely related to California red woods.

There are a lot of interesting microhabitats within a cypress-tupelo swamp.  Areas flooded in shallow water provide homes for fish, reptiles, amphibians, crayfish, and aquatic insects and spiders.

Flooded land in the cypress-tupelo swamp.

Fallen hollow logs and standing snags provide dens from everything from bats and possums to snakes and birds.

This hollow log is a possum mansion.

This standing snag could be hiding bats or flying squirrels.

When the water recedes lush grass and bamboo cane grow.  I can just imagine such Pleistocene mammals as long-horned bison, horses, and mammoths feeding in these grassy glades which often come about when a mighty old tree topples over allowing more light to reach the forest floor.

Note the grassy glade in the background.  There is plenty of grass and cane for a small population of bison and horses in the Congaree.  Too bad they’ve been extirpated.  The only big game left is deer and feral hogs.

A stand of cane.

When the mighty behemonths do topple over, their roots rip caverns in the forest floor.  Those often fill with water forming deep pools that are free of fish.  Amphibians can breed here without fish preying on their eggs and tadpoles.

Upturned tree root.

Pool formed in a hole from where a tree toppled over.

Beech–Fagus grandifolia

Beech tree canopy

Beech grows on sites that are near water but normally stay high and dry.  I love beech, and I wish I lived in a forest of these beautiful trees.  Their bark is white, the leaves turn a lovely yellow in fall, and they produce delicious little nuts.  Beech trees were common in the south during certain climatic stages of the Pleistocene, and as I mentioned in my blog entry “Pleistocene Passenger Pigeon Populations,” I think it’s a clue that passenger pigeon populations skyrocketed when beech was common because beech can grow and spread from sprouts.  The absence of passenger pigeons feeding allows more oak acorns to survive, and oaks outcompete beech.

The Congaree Swamp is probably as old as the Okefenokee Swamp

No studies on the age of the Congaree Swamp have been conducted as far as I know, but I assume it formed about the same time as the Okefenokee which became a swamp between 7,000-8,000 years ago following the final dissolution of the Canadian glacial Lake Agassiz when the water table rose all across the continent.  Throughout much of the Pleistocene, the region around the Congaree River was likely a mixture of upland oak and pine forests and savannahs with only scattered marshes perhaps near creeks and beaver ponds.  Particularly dry climatic stages even hosted oak scrub and sand dune environments.  It’s possible this region has repeatedly converted and re-converted to swamps with every full blown interglacial.

A comparison between my 1988 trip to the Congaree with my experience in 2011

The park system has considerably upgraded the facilities since I was here last in 1988.  Then, there was a gravel parking lot, and nothing else other than some gray paint marks on trees to demarcate the trails.  I hiked by myself in late July and was impressed with the giant trees.  This was before 1989 when Hurricane Hugo flattened many of the trees, but even then there were quite a few felled trees.  I saw a deer resting on a log, a scarlet king snake, and about a billion orb-weaving spiders that built webs across the entire trail at about 1 foot intervals.  After about 5 hours of enjoying nature, I became paranoid that I didn’t know what trail I was on, and I began jogging because I didn’t want to get lost in the park after dark–I feared the potential threat from feral hogs and rabid raccoons.  I didn’t see a single person while I was there until I got back to my car and met a park ranger.

Today, the Harry Hampton Visitor center is located at the entrance of the park.  It’s an air conditioned haven with clean lavatories.  Though the park is still not crowded, we did cross paths with many people.  Moreover, there is a pleasant 2.4 mile boardwalk which made the park accessible for us because my wife is wheelchair bound.

The lower boardwalk goes through a cypress-tupelo swamp.  The upper boardwalk goes through a bottomland forest dominated by sweetgum, loblolly pine, red maple, river birch, and ash.  I only saw a few oaks here–water, swamp chestnut, and willow; though in other areas of the park they’re more common.  Holly trees are common in the understory, and there are occasional patches of palmetto.  I saw no paw paw trees here, but I remember there were many on the trails.

The trails are now color coded, so there is little danger of becoming confused as to which trail one is on as I did 23 years ago.  The paint marks are on trees for the hiker to follow.

Georgia’s Pleistocene Horses

August 20, 2010

A herd of handsome, reddish-brown horses graze on a small beautiful prairie at the bottom of a lightly forested foothill.  A stallion pauses and raises his head from a clump of grass and white asters, while his harem of six with three foals continue tearing at the tawny and green broomsedge.  He detects the distinct odor of dire wolf nearby.  He whinnies in alarm and begins high-stepping as if signaling for his mates that they must gallop away from this place and now.  The mares get ready to follow his lead, but one seems reluctant to leave.  He nips her on her side to get her going, and they stampede 400 yards to the other side of the prairie where he leads them on a well-used trail through a young stand of oaks and pines.  A flock of grouse explode into the air, startling the horses and sending them in a different direction.  They hurdle bushes, vines, and fallen trees and reach a small creek.  Here they encounter a lone bull mastodon which they perceive as no threat.  They stop and drink, the wolves no longer close enough to pose an immediate threat.

A scene such as I described was probably a common one in North America during the Pleistocene.  Fossils of horses are usually found in most Pleistocene sites.  In Georgia disarticulated horse bones and especially teeth have been recovered from Ladds Mountain and Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Bartow County, and from the Isle of Hope, the Mayfair site, Porter’s Pit, Savannah River Dredgings, and Turtle River Dredgings along the state’s coast.

I perused the scientific literature to determine how many Pleistocene species of horse there were in what’s now Georgia and have concluded there were at least two.  An early paleontologist (Leidy, 18th century) identified one horse fossil from Georgia as belonging to the complex-toothed horse (Equus complicatus), also found in many eastern sites from Kentucky to Mississippi.  Horse fossils from South Carolina have been identified as belonging to the brother horse (Equus fraternus).  And Dr. Clayton Ray wrote that horse teeth from Ladds compared favorably to those of the Mexican horse (Equus conversidens).  However, a genetic study conducted by scientists from the San Diego Zoo compared DNA from the modern horse (Equus caballus) with that from Pleistocene-age fossils of the Yukon horse (Equus lambei), and they determined the two were actually one and the same species.  This calls into question the supposed large number of species of North American horses living here during the Ice Age.  It’s likely the number of species is inflated and many of the supposed different species are also simply no different than the modern horse, so loved by many today.

The confusing classification of Pleistocene horses is no surprise.  Different scientists in different places looked at newly discovered fossil horse teeth and couldn’t find an exact match, so they declared them as belonging to new species when the differences from known teeth were probably interspecific and due to a wide range of natural variance because horses were so abundant and widespread.  Imagine if horses went extinct today, and 10,000 years later a scientist in one region found bones of a large Clydesdale horse, and a scientist in another region found bones of a Shetland pony.  Each would conclude they’d discovered a new species, not realizing the great variability within the species.

True horses, known as caballoids, inhabited Georgia, but wild asses or donkeys, known as hemionids, lived here as well.  In Florida fossils of the pygmy onager (Equus tau) are sometimes found.  The hemionids are also split into many different species but probably can be simplified into one.

Upper left photo is of a wild horse.  Upper right is a photo of a horse tooth identified as Equus complicatus, that was discovered near Natchez, Mississippi.  Bottom photo is of Asian wild asses.  The confusing number of Pleistocene species of horses can probably be simplified into two:  the true horses or caballoids, and the wild asses, or hemionids.  The horse photo is from www.rewilding.org.  The ass photo is from www.birding-southamerica.com. The tooth photo is from an interesting website www.backyardnature.net.  An essay on this latter site discusses the glacial loess found in northern Mississippi.

During the Pliocene the zebra was probably the most common horse species in what’s now Georgia.  The zebra may have been one of the first single-toed horses to  evolve from their 3-toed ancestors.  There’s no way of knowing whether it had stripes like modern zebras.  Photo from www.JamesWarwick.co.uk.

Farther back in time, during the Pliocene, a species of horse (Equus simplicidens) resembling Grevy’s zebra roamed over what’s now Georgia along with the last of the 3-toed gazelle horses which were a dominant herbivore throughout the Miocene.  Horses first evolved in North America, and scientists found evidence of the very oldest known species of horse (the dawn horse) at the Red Hot Fossil Site in Mississippi.  A Wal-Mart has been built next to the site, but the site is still protected.  Fossils from here date all the way back to the Eocene, some 50 million years ago.  The dawn horse is famous for being at the bottom of the horse family tree in biology textbook discussions of horse evolution.

What happened to North America’s horses?

They became extirpated from the continent about 12,000 years ago.  I think human hunting contributed to the destruction of the entire population.  Humans didn’t kill every last individual, but they increased the mortality enough so that combined with normal natural mortality due to disease and predation, it exceeded the horse’s ability to reproduce and maintain a viable population.  Climate change models of extinction for North America’s horses don’t make sense.  When Europeans re-introduced horses, the beasts thrived in feral populations everywhere from Georgia to Nevada.  It’s hard to imagine a climatic phase that occurred 12,000 years ago that for only a narrow window of time rendered the entire continents of both North and South America unfit for horses.  And there is even archaeological evidence of humans hunting North American horses.  Clovis arrowheads with horse blood on them have been discovered associated with horse bones at Wally’s Beach in Alberta, Canada.  The scientists who studied the site think human-hunting combined with climate change caused the extinction of horses on the continent, but I disagree.  It was either one or the other.  I favor human hunting because horses survived millions of years of sometimes drastic climate changes but didn’t become extinct here until man shows up in the archaeological record.

Unlike bison, wild horses don’t migrate long distances.  Once humans exterminated them from a region, they were gone.  The last wild horses and asses lived in only the most remote areas of Asia and north Africa, indicating these regions remained less populated with people than any region in North America.

It pleases me to think of wild horses galloping across the woods and savannahs of Georgia.  Today, a nearby neighbor keeps horses that I sometimes hear whinnying in the evening.  I relax and imagine myself living in a cabin 36,000 years ago.