Posts Tagged ‘John Lawson’

An Alligator Bellowing at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, Augusta, Georgia

December 28, 2015

I live a short distance from the Phinizy Swamp Natural Area. I can hop in the car and get there in 15 minutes by driving on a back road behind a few factories.  The entrance is next to the Augusta Municipal Airport.  If I didn’t have to take care of my disabled wife, I would visit Phinizy Swamp at least once a week.  But I don’t want to leave my wife in the car by herself that often, especially during summer when temperatures are uncomfortable.  Last week, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, I decided it was the right time to look for winter migrant ducks at the swamp.  I left Anita in the car with her crochet, and my daughter and I hiked the trail that leads to an elevated boardwalk encircling a retention pond.  A surprise awaited us.

We heard a loud splash about 3 feet from where my daughter was walking.  I knew immediately that she had almost stepped on an alligator.  Augusta, Georgia is close to the northern limit of the American alligator’s range, but I didn’t realize there were any in this nature park.  We walked to the other side of the pond and heard the alligator bellow.  I’ve seen alligators on many occasions, but this was the first time I’d ever heard one bellow.  Alligators bellow during the mating season, and they also bellow to establish their territory.  Perhaps this alligator was telling us this was his pond.

On this blog I often lament the passing of the Pleistocene megafauna, so I must report that hearing the bellow of an extant species of megafauna makes me feel better…even thrills me.

Here’s audio/video from youtube of an alligator bellowing in the Okefenokee Swamp. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGyId1LMTnY

The bellowing of an alligator didn’t thrill John Lawson, the first European naturalist to settle in southeastern North America (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/john-lawsons-voyage-to-carolina-1700-1711/ ) He inadvertently built his house (it was probably little more than a wilderness cabin) on top of an alligator den.  I just love his account of his experience.

I was pretty much frightened with one of these once; which happened thus: I had built a house about a half a mile from an Indian town, on the Fork of the Neus River, where I dwelt by myself, excepting a young Indian fellow, and a Bull-dog, that I had along with me.  I had not then been so long a Sojourner in America, as to be throughly acquainted with this Creature.  One of them had got his Nest directly under my House, which stood on high Land, and by a Creek-side, in whose banks his Entring-place was, his Den reaching the Ground directly on which my house stood, I was sitting alone by the Fire-side (about nine a Clock at Night, some time in March) the Indian fellow being gone to the Town, to see his Relations; so that there was no body in the House, but my self and my Dog; when all of a sudden, this ill-favoured Neighbor of mine, set up such a Roaring, that he made the House shake about my Ears, and so continued, like a Bittern, (but a hundred times louder, if possible) for four or five times.  The Dog stared, as if he was frightened out of his Senses; nor indeed, could I imagine what it was , having never heard one of them before.  Immediately again I had another Lesson; and so a third.  Being at the time amongst none but Savages, I began to suspect, they were working some Piece of conjuration under my house, to get away my Goods; not but that, at another time, I have as little Faith in their, or any others working miracles, by diabolic means as any person living.  At last my man came in, to whom when I had told the Story, he laugh’d at me, and presently undeceived me, by telling me what it was that made that Noise.”

I also saw the migrant ducks I hoped to encounter, though they made it difficult for me to visually identify them.  Every time I stopped to take a photo with my new camera, they ran on top of the water and swam in the opposite direction, tantalizingly just far away that I couldn’t positively identify which species they were.  My new camera has a telephoto lens, but I didn’t know exactly what I was doing the first time I used it.  I’m fairly certain I saw black ducks, pintails, female common mergansers, and goldeneyes.  Cinnamon teal may have been present…most of the ducks were brown.  Wading birds included great egrets and an immature white ibis.

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Cormorant.

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An immature white ibis.

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I think these are pintail ducks.  There were many species of migratory ducks here, but they wouldn’t cooperate and swam away when I tried to take a photo.  This was the first time I used this camera and didn’t realize I could have zoomed in even more.

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Identifying the Species of Fish Described by John Lawson in 1710 (Part 1)

August 27, 2014

John Lawson wrote the first American natural history book circa 1710 after settling in North Carolina.  (See:https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/john-lawsons-voyage-to-carolina-1700-1711/)  I often consult his work to obtain insight about the early unmodified environments of the southeast.  His chapter on fish is particularly confusing because he uses arcane common names, no longer in usage.  He also mistakenly refers to some species as the same as those found in England.  This is not true of any species.  So I gave myself a little project and attempted to decipher which species he was referring to in each individual description.  I used descriptions typed into search engines and information found from the obscure book referenced below to identify almost all the species he catalogued.  It’s evident that he directly encountered some species, but only knew about others from hearsay.  I now offer the results of my study.

Lawson includes the whales with the fishes.  Like most people living during this time period, he never enjoyed the benefit of a biology class and was unaware that whales are mammals.  He wrote about 4 “sorts” of whales.  He did not know of the many more species that live off the coast of Carolina.  He reports 1 “sperma ceti” whale washed up on Currituck Inlet, and how the local beachcombers “profited” from it.  Apparently, there were people living along the coast then who made a living scavenging shipwrecks and dead whales.  His “sperma ceti” whale is obviously known today as just the sperm whale.  He was also aware of the bottle-nosed whale, a deep sea species that lives in underwater canyons where it feeds upon squid and fish.  Bottle-nosed whales can stay submerged for an astonishing 2 hours.

Bottle-nosed whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus).  Lawson was aware of this deep water species of whale.  He mistakenly classified whales as fish.

Lawson mistakenly refers to killer whales as 2 different species–the thrasher and the crampois.  He claimed bottle-nosed whales always washed ashore minus their tongues which were eaten by “thrashers” and swordfish.  Killer whales will attack and eat other whales but swordfish do not.  Lawson also knew dolphins as “bottle-noses.”

I could not identify 2 other whales Lawson catalogued.  I could find no whale matching the description of a “shovel-nosed” whale, and there is no whale that is 60 feet long but just 3 or 4 feet in diameter.  I assume he was just wrong about the measurements.

I was excited when I read Lawson’s account of porpoises being found in a freshwater lake in North Carolina.  I thought I had come across a unique curiosity.  However, large lakes on the North Carolina coastal plain are Carolina Bays with no outlet to the sea.  And the lake is described as being located in a “great sound” which would mean it was saltwater.  Therefore, I’ve concluded Lawson was mistaken again.  Instead, he may be referring to a bay in Maryland known as Porpoise Bay and the porpoises  it’s named after may have been dolphins.  Porpoises are a cold water species that differ from dolphins by having shorter snouts.  They do range as far south as North Carolina during winter, so it’s possible the place was named based on the correct animal.

Porpoise Pond is located in Assawoman Bay, Maryland.  Is this the body of water where Lawson claimed porpoises lived in freshwater?  I think he wrongly was told this was a freshwater body of water, but it is actually saltwater.

The manta ray was known then as the “divel fish” and still is in some archaic circles.  Lawson recounts a case when a “divel fish” got caught in a sloop’s anchor line and dragged it at least a mile against the tide.  A similar even occurred in 1933 off the coast of New Jersey.

Giant Devil Ray

This manta ray with a 20 foot wingspan almost sank a boat.  A Coast Guardsmen shot it 20 times to save the endangered men on board.  Happened off the coast of New Jersey in 1933.

Lawson includes 2 “sorts” of sharks on his list, but he called one a “Paracooda” that I interpet as a misspelling of barracuda which is not even a shark.  He later adds the dogfish to his list and correctly categorizes it as of the “shark kind.”

Many of the species in his catalogue were easy to identify because the names he used are still their common names–Spanish mackerel, mullets, swordfish, shad, stingray, thornback stingray, conger eels, eels, lamprey eels, red drum, black drum, sheepshead, flounder, trouts of saltwater, croaker, toadfish, ocean sunfish, and herring.  Others took just a little deciphering.  His name for menhadden was fat-back, an obscure name little used today.  His description of the “guard” indicates he probably misheard the locals as they referred to this fish as the gar.  Lawson classified the gar as a saltwater fish.  Although gars are common in brackish waters, they are considered a freshwater species. 

Cavallies was a little more difficult to decipher, but I learned this is an archaic term for crevalle jack (Caranx hippo). His bass, or rockfish, is the striped bass, still known as rockfish by many.  The fish he calls a “sea tench” is most likely the tautog (Tautoga onitis).  Boneto is a mispelling of bonita, a type of tuna.  His angelfish includes members of the Pomancanthidae family.

Crevalle jack (Caranx hippos).  Lawson called them Cavallies. He wrote they stayed sweet for twice as long as other fish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tautog-a wrasse that lives as far south as South Carolina.

Lawson lists smelts as a fish living in the region, but he probably was referring to a similar-looking fish known as the silverside (Meridia meridia).  Smelts do not live as far south as Carolina.  The fish he calls a “sea bream” is likely a porgy from the Caridae family.  I could not determine what fish he named the “taylor.”

The culinary properties of the fish he catalogued seemed to be the most important attribute in his descriptions.  This is not surprising–his diet mostly consisted of wild animals he could kill and vegetables he could grow.  He praised the good eating qualities of crevalle jacks, mackerel, drums, sea trout, and eels.  He liked sheepshead but wrote that it was no better than many other species of fish, despite its fine reputation.  He thought bluefish among the best of fishes, “full as good meat as salmon.”  Menhaden contained so much natural oil they could be fried directly in a pan without the addition of fat, and Lawson referred to them as “a very sweet food.”  Menhaden comes from the Indian word meaning fertilizer, and today this is the most common use for this species.  Early Settlers liked to eat menhaden as well as to use them to fertilize their crops.

North Carolina is famous for its bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix).  Lawson said they were as good meat as salmon.

In my next entry, I’ll decipher Lawson’s descriptions of freshwater fish.

Refererences:

Lawson, John

A New Voyage to Carolina

North Carolina Press 1967

Smith, Hugh

The Fishes of North Carolina

Originally published in 1907, republished by Cornell University in 2009

John Lawson’s Voyage to Carolina (1700-1711)

July 27, 2012

I love reading accounts of the early explorers in America because they describe the natural environments before man modified (or in my opinion destroyed) them.  John Lawson was a well-to-do young man of 26 when he decided to explore and later settle in the Carolinas beginning in 1700.  He gives us the first literate account of the environments of the Carolinas in his book,  A New Voyage to the Carolinas, which was published in 1709.  Although his botanical descriptions don’t match those of William Bartram, who traveled through the south 70 years later, his account is fascinating nonetheless, and his quaint manner of language is interesting to decipher.

Route of John Lawson’s 1000 mile journey through North and South Carolina in 1700.

John Lawson’s journey in America began in Charleston, South Carolina shortly after Christmas.  In 1700 European colonization was restricted to a narrow band along the coast, and Charleston was the sole “metropolis.”.  Lawson took 6 Englishmen and 4 Indians on the journey with him.  They spent the first few nights at various islands along the coast including Bull’s Island where feral cattle and hogs abounded.  They spent another night with a Scotsman on Dix’s Island and ate oatmeal the Scot had scavenged from a Scotch shipwreck.  Despite the cool winter weather, mosquitoes plagued Lawson’s party at night.  While in the low country the party lived on venison, wild hogs, raccoons, fish, shellfish, waterfowl, and rice, the latter of which they purchased from nearby plantations.  They left the coast in a canoe and went inland for miles through uninhabited cypress swamp til they came into contact with Indians burning a canebrake.  Lawson related how the hollow bamboo stems exploded after ignition.

As we went up the river, we heard a great noise, as if two parties were engaged against each other, seeming exactly like small shot.  When we approached nearer the place, we found it to be some Sewee Indians firing the Cane Swamps, which drives out the Game, then taking their particular stands, kill great quantities of both bear, deer, turkies, and what wild creatures the parts afford.”

They continued their journey through cypress swamps that were in flood that time of year.  All the trees in 1 swamp had been felled by a hurricane, and they had a hard time navigating between the fallen giants.  During the journey they only slept on the ground when they had no alternative.  Usually, they could find a hunter’s cabin or an Indian town.  The hunter’s cabins were often unoccupied but well stocked with food.  As was the custom then, they’d leave beads and trinkets in exchange for food–a kind of honor system.  A typical  cabin pantry stored red beans, dried corn, dried peaches, and chinkapins–much healthier food than can be found in a McDonalds or any other fast food dump adjacent to our modern highways.  Indian towns were spaced about 20-30 miles, or a day’s journey, apart with nothing but wilderness in between.  At this particular time in history, all the Indians they met were friendly, though some tribes had a bad habit of pilfering Lawson’s party’s belongings.  One of Lawson’s comrades got robbed by an Indian whore on one occasion.  She stole his moccasins while he was sleeping after the party paid a fortune just so this 1 guy could get laid.

Upon reaching the piedmont region Lawson noted that his party could travel a whole day without seeing a single pine tree.  This region then was mostly an oak forest–a contrast from the second growth woods found in the Carolina piedmont today where pine is a dominant species.  The oak forests supported huge flocks of turkies.  Lawson saw 1 flock numbering over 500 birds.  At this point they ran short of bread and salt, and the only thing they had to eat was turkey.  They became so tired of eating turkey that 1 of the Indian guides shot and ate a skunk for variety.  Lawson also witnessed the legendary passenger pigeon and gives the following account.

In the mean time we went to shoot pigeons, which were so numerous in these parts, that you might see many millions in a flock; they sometimes split off the Limbs of stout Oaks, and other trees, upon which they roost o’nights.  You may find several Indian towns, of not above 17 houses, that have more than 100 Gallons of Pigeons Oil, or Fat; they using it with Pulse, or Bread, as we do butter, and making the Ground as white as a sheet with their Dung.  The Indians take a light, and go among them at Night, and bring away some thousands, killing them with long Poles, as they roost in the Trees.  At this time of the Year, the Flocks, as they pass by, in great measure, obstruct the light of the day.”

His noisy party kept away most predators but he does give this account of an encounter with a cougar (what he erroneously refers to as a tiger).

As we were on our road this morning, our Indian shot at a Tyger, that cross’d our Way, he being a great distance from us.  I believe he did him no harm, because he sat on his Breech afterwards, and look’d upon us.  I suppose he expected to have had a Spaniel Bitch, that I had with me,  for his breakfast, who run towards him, but Midway stopt her Career, and came sneaking back to us with her Tail betwixt her legs.”

After the journey was completed, Lawson settled in a cabin near the Neus River and worked as a surveyor when he wasn’t farming, and he founded 2 towns–Bath and New Bern.  He recounts an interesting experience with an alligator that took up residence under his first cabin.

I was pretty much frightened with one of these once; which happened thus: I had built a house about a half a mile from an Indian town, on the Fork of the Neus River, where I dwelt by myself, excepting a young Indian fellow, and a Bull-dog, that I had along with me.  I had not then been so long a Sojourner in America, as to be throughly acquainted with this Creature.  One of them had got his Nest directly under my House, which stood on high Land, and by a Creek-side, in whose banks his Entring-place was, his Den reaching the Ground directly on which my house stood, I was sitting alone by the Fire-side (about nine a Clock at Night, some time in March) the Indian fellow being gone to the Town, to see his Relations; so that there was no body in the House, but my self and my Dog; when all of a sudden, this ill-favoured Neighbor of mine, set up such a Roaring, that he made the House shake about my Ears, and so continued, like a Bittern, (but a hundred times louder, if possible) for four or five times.  The Dog stared, as if he was frightened out of his Senses; nor indeed, could I imagine what it was , having never heard one of them before.  Immediately again I had another Lesson; and so a third.  Being at the time amongst none but Savages, I began to suspect, they were working some Piece of conjuration under my house, to get away my Goods; not but that, at another time, I have as little Faith in their, or any others working miracles, by diabolic means as any person living.  At last my man came in, to whom when I had told the Story, he laugh’d at me, and presently undeceived me, by telling me what it was that made that Noise.”

He also had lots of experiences with black bears while living in the North Carolina low country.

The bears here are very common, though not so large as in Greenland, and the more Northern countries of Russia.  The Flesh of the Beast is very good and nourishing, and not inferior to the best Pork in Taste.  It stands betwixt Beef and Pork, and the young Cubs are a dish for the greatest epicure living.  I prefer their flesh before any Beef, Veal, Pork, or Mutton; and they look as well as they eat, their fat being as white as snow and the sweetest of any Creature’s in he World.  If a Man drink a Quart thereof melted, it never will rise in his Stomach.  We prefer it above all things, to fry Fish and other things in.  Those that are strangers to it, may judge otherwise; But I who have eaten a Great Deal of Bears Flesh in my Life-time (since my being an Inhabitant of America) do think it equalizes, if not excels any Meat I ever eat in Europe.  The Bacon made thereof is extraordinary meat; but it must be well saved, otherwise it will rust.  This Creature feeds upon all sorts of Wild Fruits.  When Herrings run, which is in March, the Flesh of such of those Bears as eat thereof, is nought, all that Season, and eats filthily.  Neither is it good, when he feeds on Gum-berries, as I intimated before.  They are great Devourers of Acorns, and oftentimes , meet the swine of the woods, which they kill and eat, especially when they are hungry, and can find no other food.  Now and then they get into the fields of Indian Corn or mais, where they make sad Havock, spoiling corn ten times as much as they eat.  The Potatoes of the Country are so agreeable to them, that they never fail to sweep ’em all clean, if they chance to come in their way.  They are seemingly a clumsy Creature, yet are very nimble in running up Trees, and traversing every Limb thereof.  When they come down, they run Tail foremost.  They sit by the Creek-sides, (which are very narrow) where the fish run in; and there they take them up as fast as it’s possible they can dip their paws into the Water.”

By herring, Lawson meant shad which is in the herring family.  He also wrote a long paragraph about hunting bears and the uses of bear’s oil.  Today, I don’t think there are any bears in the Carolina low country.

Lawson enjoyed an idyllic life of fishing, hunting, and farming while he lived in the North Carolina low country.  Like the majority of people living in the days prior to grocery stores, his life focused upon food production.  He grew corn, wheat, and vegetables, and he had a successful fruit orchard.  Unlike most fruits, peaches produce true to seed–the offspring resemble the quality of the parent.  Peaches were so widespread among the Indians that Lawson mistakenly believed they were a native fruit.  The Indians obtained peaches from the Spanish as early as 1550, and it quickly became an important food they ate fresh, dried, stewed, and in bread. Most, if not all, of the varieties Lawson grew came from seed he got from the Indians.  One variety was large and luscious.  Lawson called it a vinegar peach because he made vinegar from the fermented fruit.  He also had a tree that produced yellow freestone nectarines.  He claimed this tree never produced less than 15-20 bushels of fruit every year.  This is surprising considering he only farmed for about a decade and the tree must have been young.  He also claimed his peach trees began producing when they were as young as 3 years old.  Lawson’s vinyard consisted of native grapes, but he did have to import apple scions because all good cultivated apples are mutants.  Cider was an important drink and a substitute for beer which was considered essential for civilized life then.  His list of apple varieties includes rare antique types and some that are probably extinct.  He planted a 200 foot row of native strawberries, and like Bartram, he reported seeing wild strawberry fields of miles in extent. (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/04/)

John Lawson is the sole source of information for many of the Indian tribes who inhabited the Carolinas.  Most of these tribes suffered extinction during the 18th century.  Lawson estimated the population of Indians in the Carolinas decreased by 85% between 1650-1700, explaining why wilderness was reclaiming so much land.  Smallpox and alcohol addiction caused the decline.  The Indian words for rum (the chief spirit they imbibed) was sick or poison, yet they couldn’t control their addiction.  Indians evolved in isolation from these 2 scourges, and they had little resistance.  Smallpox occasionally annihilated whole Indian towns.

I was surprised to learn some Indians that bring to mind the far west lived in the Carolinas.  Most of the tribes were Sioux.  Lawson even met some Flatheads who made their skulls flat by fastening a board to their infants’ heads.

Most Indian culinary practices revolted Lawson.  They cooked most game without removing the entrails.  A favorite Indian dish was deer fawn, removed from a dead pregnant deer and cooked in the natural placental bag.  However, Lawson did praise 1 particular Indian cook who repeatedly washed her hands before cooking and could make white bread.  Other Indian women ladled out stew with their bare hands even though they possessed wooden ladles.  Red beans were an Indian favorite, and Lawson provides an amusing account of its effects.

The small red pease is very common with them, and they eat a great deal of that and other sorts boil’d with their Meat, or eaten with Bears Fat, which Food makes them break Wind backwards, which the Men frequently do, and laugh heartily at it, it being accounted no ill Manners amongst the Indians.  Yet the Women are more modest, than to follow that ill Custom.”

Lawson held liberal views on Indians, so it’s a shame they captured, tortured, and killed him in 1711.  The stupid, sadistic brutes tied him to a stake, stuck wooden splinters all over his body, and set him on fire.  Lawson never married his sweetheart, Hannah Smith, but she bore him a daughter.  He left all his land to them in his will.

Artist’s depiction of the Tuscarora Indians capturing Lawson who was surveying land up the Neuse River.  He must have known the Indians were unpredictable and his job was hazardous because he wrote a will.   They let his partner go to spread the word and scare the settlers.  It was an act of terrorism that ultimately failed.  A war between the settlers and the Tuscarora Indians broke out shortly after they burned Lawson alive, and the Indians were defeated.

Reference:

Lawson, John

A New Voyage to Carolina

The University of North Carolina Press 1967

The whole book is available for free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1447078&pageno=6

Sturgeon and Lamprey

May 16, 2012

The destruction of the sturgeon population mirrors the devastation of southeastern primeval forests.  Both of these astonishing natural resources have been utterly obliterated.  In a previous blog entry from about a year ago, I excerpted William Bartram’s 18th century description of a magnificent forest in Georgia consisting of trees with diameters 8-12 feet thick.  I drove through the same area last summer and was hard pressed to find a single tree greater than 1 foot in diameter.  The story of Georgia’s most impressive river fish follows the same plotline.


 

 

 

 

 

Man Alive!  Look at the size of this Atlantic sturgeon.  There used to be so many of these fish in our southeastern rivers that they posed a navigational hazard.  Now, they are almost extinct.

The sturgeon run in southeastern rivers began in mid-May.  For the first month of the run most of the spawning sturgeon averaged 3-4 feet in length, but beginning in mid-June and lasting until mid-September sturgeon averaging 6-9 feet in length were common.  Captain John Smith, founder of the Jamestown colony, caught 62 sturgeon in 1 haul of a net, though that take was extraordinary, even for that time.  More often, netting would yield 7 or 8 large sturgeon in a few hours.  The schools of sturgeon “clogged” the river and made for a dangerous navigational hazard that could upturn boats.  Occasionally, the giant fish even jumped into a boat.  John Lawson, an early naturalist who traveled and settled in North and South Carolina circa 1704, wrote that he saw hundreds of sturgeon every day. (He also mentioned pulling 300 chain pickerel from 1 fish trap in a single day.)  Now, sturgeon are almost extinct.  There is a tiny breeding population in Georgia’s rivers but none of the rare sturgeon found in mid-Atlantic rivers breed there.  About 1850  men began overfishing sturgeon which formerly were considered trash fish.  This decimated the population, but dams and muddy erosion from agriculture blocked and smothered much of their former spawning grounds–perhaps the final death blow.  Sturgeon need shallow water with gravel bottoms for spawning, but instead, if the spawning fish themselves are not blocked by dams, the gravel bottoms have become covered in mud, making them unsuitable.  The sturgeon eggs need to adhere to gravel.

Three species of sturgeon, all endangered, live in Georgia.  The Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhincus) reaches the most spectacular size, obtaining a maximum length of 9 feet and a weight exceeding 800 pounds.  The adults live in the lower stretches of the river and near offshore ocean water, but they used to spawn as far as 300 miles up the river.  The juveniles stay in the river until they’re about 7 or 8 years old before they migrate to the ocean.  They return when they reach breeding age which isn’t until they’re between 10-30 years old, explaining why it’s so difficult to bring back sustainable population levels.  They feed on the bottom by scooping out depressions and lying in ambush nearby.  Smaller fish and invertebrates carried by the current fall into these saucer-shaped traps next to where the hungry sturgeon awaits.  The short-nosed sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum) is similar in habit to the Atlantic sturgeon, but it is smaller in size reaching 4-5 feet in length and just 50 lbs in weight.  A landlocked population of lake sturgeon (Acipenser fluvescens) lived in the Coosa River  until 1965.  In 2003 biologists reintroduced them to the Etowah River.  The Coosa River lake sturgeon must have been a relic population that some how made their way from the Mississippi River system, perhaps from a chain of wetlands that existed during the Pleistocene in northern Alabama.  Floods between river basins must have facilitated the spread of this species.

Flickr

Sturgeon piccatta, broccoli, and stuffed squash blossoms.  I’ve never eaten fresh sturgeon.  I think I’ve had smoked but it’s been so long I can’t remember for sure.  I’ve had caviar…tastes like fish guts.

It’s hard to believe the early settlers considered sturgeon a trash fish and fed the flesh and caviar to the hogs and dogs.  Sturgeon flesh when dressed correctly is reportedly supposed to be mild and durable and an acceptable substituted for boneless chicken breasts or veal in recipes.  Caviar, of course, is considered a delicacy but in my opinion tastes like fish guts.  Mixed with cream cheese, it’s palatable.  In my fantasy Pleistocene world, I’d definitely be harvesting and eating the sturgeon.

Sea lampreys parasitize fish, latching on and ingesting blood.  Sea lampreys no longer occur in the Savannah River, but they used to.  They must have been dependent on the large sturgeon population.

Sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are no longer recorded from the Savannah River, but there is a historical record of 1 from the upper part of this river where Clark Hill Reservoir now inundates.  John Lawson mentions sea lampreys as a fish the Indians refused to eat (though the French consider them a delicacy).  This anectodal evidence suggests sea lampreys used to be fairly common in southeastern rivers.  They’ve likely disappeared from the Savannah River because they depended upon sturgeon for sustenance and now that the sturgeon are all but gone, so are the lampreys.  It’s no coincidence that sea lamprey spawn in the same habitat as sturgeon–shallow water with gravel bottoms.  The larva move downstream after hatching, then burrow into sandy or muddy bottoms and become filter feeders, living on detritus and algae until they grow into their parasitic phase.  When they reach this stage they actively attack fish as depicted in the figure above.  I suspect sturgeon were their primary prey/host in southeastern rivers.  Striped bass and swordfish have been recorded as preying on sea lampreys, but probably any large predatory fish will eat them.

At least 3 other species of lampreys inhabit Georgia’s rivers–the southern brook lamprey (Ichthyomyzon gagei), the American brook lamprey (Lampetra appendic), and the least brook lamprey (Lampetra aegypidtra).  The former occurs in the Chattahoochee River, and the latter 2 live in north Georgia rivers.  None of these have a parasitic phase and they live as filter feeders burrowed in mud for most of their lives, except when they spawn.  They all have rasping mouths, however.  This is evidence they evolved from parasitic species.

Sturgeon are an ancient family of fish.  Fossils of sturgeon dating to the Cretaceous prove they swam when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  Lampreys long ago evolved to exploit this once abundant food source.  It’s a shame both of these remarkable fish have nearly vanished in the last 150 years in the wake of man’s environmental destruction after they’d successfully survived natural ecological changes for over 100 million years.

The Vanishing Chinkapin (Castania pumila)

April 20, 2011

Photo from google images of chinkapin nuts in a burr.

The chinkapin, a shrubby relative of the American chestnut and not to be confused with the similarly named chinkapin oak (Quercus muhlenberger), used to be locally common, growing on the tops of rocky hills in the piedmont region of the southeast and in the undergrowth of open pine savannahs on the coastal plain.  The early explorer, John Lawson, reported the trees as so common that hogs fattened on the nuts.  He described the nuts as smaller, rounder, and sweeter than those of its relative, the chestnut.  Most sources state that it was the better tasting of the two.  William Bartram found chinkapin growing in association with chestnuts and chestnut oaks (Quercus prinus) on the tops of rocky piedmont hills, a forest type that contrasted with that of the surrounding area which was mostly an oak forest but in the valleys between the rocky hills a much richer forest of black walnut, beech, hackberry, tulip, and sycamore grew.  Moist creek bottoms and richer soils kept the latter area from burning, but the thin dry soils at the tops of rocky hills endured frequent fires.  Oak and chinkapin thrive in fire prone sites because they’re shade intolerant and need open areas to grow.

Most of the jobs I’ve had in the Augusta, Georgia area have taken me to just about every neighborhood in Richmond and Columbia Counties.  I used to survey lawns for Orkin Lawn Care, and I worked for many years as a route manager for the Augusta Chronicle. While working I, of course, took note of the vegetation (ecology has always held a great interest for me), and I’ve never seen a chinkapin.  Botanists warn the chinkapin is in decline for a number of reasons: fire suppression, chestnut blight, and suburban development.  Without fire, shade tolerant trees begin to dominate, and chinkapin can’t grow in the shade.  The chestnut blight completely destroyed the once common chestnut forests.  The chinkapin is also susceptible but is better able to survive because it is a shrub that resprouts and can produce a crop of nuts before it dies back again from the disease.  Still, the blight reduces overall nut production.

The chestnut blight was a disaster for the ecosystem.  Chestnuts and chinkapins were important sources of food for wildlife.  Now, trees such as tulip, which produce no mast, have replaced chestnuts.  They may be beautiful trees but animals can’t eat beauty.  I think the lack of chestnuts explains why I saw almost no wildlife on my trip to the Smoky Mountains National Park last summer (see my blog entry “Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Tale of a Tourist Trap Nightmare” which is I believe in the June 2010 archives).

The chinkapin has two interesting adaptations that help it survive as a species.  It germinates quickly in the fall.  The nut ripens from September to November, and they produce heavily–up to 1500 nuts per bush, beginning when they’re just six years old.  Squirrels disperse the species by burying the highly valued food, but the chinkapins foil the squirrels when they germinate immediately.  After they’ve become a seedling, the squirrel can’t utilize them.  Fall germination prevents animals from destroying the entire progeny, but by producing a nut with high food value, they motivate the squirrels to disperse them.  The other adaptive characteristic is its ability to resprout vigorously.  Fire may kill the main trunk, but chinkapin will resprout and form thickets.  Deer also find chinkapin a favored food and will browse down the main trunk, causing the shrub to resprout and create thickets.  Their thickets provide great cover and food for turkey and grouse.

Fossil evidence shows that turkey and grouse were quite common in upland Georgia during the Pleistocene–both left abundant specimens at Ladds and Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Bartow County.  Two studies of sediment cores in Georgia found that chestnut/chinkapin made up about 2%  of the pollen spectrum during the Pleistocene.  Both sites (Nodoroc and Grays Reef) date to about 30,000 BP.  Chinkapin surely was a common component of the open oak and pine savannahs so prevalent then.  Its ability to resprout and fall germinate is an ancient adaptation to survive fire and megafauna foraging.  The more such animals as mastodon, horse, llama, and deer browsed, the more this shrub would bounce back and form thickets ideal for bird life.

The Indians used to cook chinkapin and hickory nuts with their venison in well-rounded stews.  Chinkapins are a nice starchy substitute for bread or potatoes; hickory nuts provided a nice oily substitute for butter.  Chestnuts, unlike most other nuts, are primarily a carbohydrate based food, rather than a fatty form of sustenance.  They’re sweet and bready and act as a laxative.  I hate to buy expensive imported European chestnuts when I think how abundant and cheap American chestnuts and chinkapins used to be.