Posts Tagged ‘long-horned bison’

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.


Shit-eating Sharks and Fish of the Cretaceous

October 15, 2010

To keep abreast of the latest paleontological finds in Georgia, I often check the Georgia Journal of Science.  The March 2010 volume has a couple of fascinating articles.  The first is “Coprolites of Deinosuchus: Late Cretaceous Estuarine Crocodylian Feces from West Georgia,” by Samantha Harrell and David Schwimmer.

Deinosuchus rugosus may have been the most powerful predator to ever live in what’s now Georgia.  This monstrous crocodylian grew to 36 feet long, weighed 12,000 pounds, and had a bite force of 13,000 newtons, perhaps the hardest bite of any land animal to ever live.  It dominated the salt marshes of Cretaceous North America (salt marshes were the most widespread ecotone of its time) even seizing and killing dinosaurs such as hadrosaurs and tyrannosaurs.  Its most common prey, however, were turtles that it crushed in its deadly jaws.  It survived as a species from 84 million to 77 million years BP, and left many fossils on the West Georgia/East Alabama border along Hanahatchee Creek near Columbus.  It was neither alligator nor crocodile but is thought to be related to an ancestor of the former.  Dr. Schwimmer, a professor from Columbus College, has been studying dinosaurs in Georgia for almost 30 years, and he wrote an excellent book devoted to the ecology of this fearsome creature.

Part of the dust cover of Dr. Schwimmer’s excellent book about Deinosuchus.

Dr. Schwimmer and Samantha Harrell now believe they’ve identified coprolites originally excreted by Deinosuchus which they found associated with its fossils in west Georgia. 

Picture of Deinosuchus coprolites from Dr. Schwimmer’s book.

Surprisingly, fossil shark and fish teeth are occasionally found on the outside of these coprolites.  These are not interpeted to have been prey of Deinosuchus.  Instead, the scientists believe it’s evidence that the sharks and fish were feeding on its feces.  It’s thought that the strong digestive juices would’ve destroyed and rendered unrecognizable the shark’s teeth, if they had been eaten by Deinosuchus, but the ones they found are identifiable as those from crow sharks (Squalicorax) , an extinct scavenging species.  See the link for a picture of a crow shark’s tooth.  Other crocodylian coprolites discovered in Georgia are thought to belong to another extinct crocodylian–Borealosuchus.

Coprophagy, or the eating of feces, is not that unusual in the animal world.  Box turtles eat deer feces.  Crows and ravens eat crap of all kinds.  Dogs fed dry dog food crave their own feces.  Rabbits and rats must reconsume their own feces for nutrient extraction.  Foals must consume the mama horse’s feces in order to obtain the bacteria they need to digest the plants they will eat as adults.  Some snails depend entirely on fish feces.  And many insects such as butterflies and dung beetles are all attracted to shit…like flies, as the old cliche` goes.


The second interesting article from the March volume of the GJS is a “Preliminary Description of Pleistocene Rodents from Clark Quarry, Brunswick, Georgia,” by Ray Cornay and A.J. Mead who is from Georgia College in Milledgeville.  Clark Quarry is a productive fossil site, yielding adult and juvenile mammoth skeletons, the complete skull of a long-horned bison which I discussed in an earlier blog entry, and many other large and small mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, and fish fossils.  Here’s the list of rodents found at this fossil site:

Woodchuck–Marmota monax

Bog lemming–Synaptomys cooperi

Capybara–Hydrochoeris holmesi

Florida or round-tailed muskrat–Neofiber alleni

Rice rat–Oryzomys palustris

Cotton rat–Sigmodon hispidus

Harvest mouse–Reithrodontomys

The first two species on this list no longer range this far south.

Current range of the woodchuck.  This map is a little off.  I’ve seen woodchucks in Lafayette, Georgia.  Notice how far south Clark Quarry is compared to this species’ present range.

Current range of the bog lemming.

The Florida muskrat ranges just a little south of Brunswick today by only a few miles.  This species was more widespread during the Pleistocene, but today is restricted to Florida and extreme south Georgia.  Rice rats, cotton rats, and harvest mice still live in the region.  The species of capybara found as fossil specimens here is, of course, extinct.

The presence of woodchucks and bog lemmings is evidence of much cooler summers than those of today’s south Georgia, but the other species indicate winters at least as mild as those of today.  Scientists believe a warm thermal enclave existed near the south Atlantic coast during the Ice Age, and many believe temperatures were more equable.  I think temperatures were more equable during some climate phases of the Ice Age, but not all the time.

Woodchucks and bog lemmings both prefer to inhabit meadow/forest edge habitat which was probably a predominant ecotone of the late Pleistocene southeastern coastal plain where a mixture of open forests, prairie and wetlands existed rather unlike the closed canopy forests of today.  Fire, megafauna grazing, passenger pigeon mast consumption, locust infestations, and rapid climate fluctuations created a dynamic habitat where the ratio of woodlands to grasslands waxed and waned.  Florida muskrats (which aren’t closely related to the common muskrat–Ondatra) like open marshes, and capybaras thrive in flooded grasslands, so I believe wet prairies must have been one of the common environments in this region during the late Pleistocene.

Were there Three Species of Bovid Roaming Southeastern North America during the Late Pleistocene?

June 11, 2010

After a thorough review of the evidence in the scientific literature I’ve come to the conclusion that three species of bovid–all of them now extinct–lived in what’s now Georgia until the great megafauna extinction, circa 12,000 calender years ago.

The long-horned bison (Bison latifrons) was long thought to be ancestral to a species of bison known as Bison antiquus that had horns intermediate in size between those of Bison latifrons and the modern species (Bison bison).  Bison antiquus probably did evolve from Bison latifrons, but apparently there was enough differentiation in habitat preference between the two, so that long-horned bison continued to exist even after a segment of that population had evolved into Bison antiquus and spread all across the continent.  On the rest of the continent Bison antiquus  may have completely replaced Bison latifrons, but in the southeast both survived, and perhaps occasionally shared the same range and hybridized.

This is a photo I took at the Georgia College and State Museum located in Milledgeville of a long-horned bison skull originally discovered at Clarks Quarry, Glynn County, Georgia.  The carbon date on this specimen approximately equals 14,000 calender years old, a time period which is 8,000 years later than when Bison antiquus supposedly replaced Bison latifrons.  Yet, specimens of Bison antiquus have been reported from Florida and South Carolina that date to about this same time, so the shorter-horned variety simultaneously inhabited the southeast as well.

The species are so similar that scientist have difficulty telling the difference between the two based on fossil material, unless the skull with at least part of the horn is found intact.  Teeth alone, the most commonly found fossil material, can’t be used because there’s virtually no difference between the two species.  Bones posterior to the skull do differ–Bison latifrons bones tend to be larger–but the range in size overlaps too much for certain species identification.  Horn size is the only definite way of telling the difference between the species.

A third bovid species, the woodland muskoxen (Ovibos cavifrons), ranged over most of North America.  Its fossils are more commonly found north of the Mason-Dixon line, but specimens of this species have been excavated in Lousiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia; suggesting the southern limits of its range probably extended into the Georgia piedmont.  The woodland musk-oxen was taller, thinner, and probably not as thick of fur as its living relative–the woolly musk-oxen.  It’s also known as the helmeted musk-oxen because its horns were shaped like a helmet.

All three were likely aggessive and dangerous animals–a real hazard for predators to attack.  The two Pleistocene bison species defended themselves from dire wolves, saber-tooths, and the giant panther/lion (Panthera leo atrox),  much like African water buffalo battle lions and hyenas in today’s Africa.  Woodland musk-oxen likely formed impenetrable defensive perimeters similar to those of their living relatives.

What could have been the reason these species co-existed here in what’s now Georgia?  According to one fleeting reference, the long-horned bison may have been a beast of open woodlands, while Bison antiquus  was a denizen of open plains.  Woodland musk-oxen preferred high dry meadows.  Though their ranges overlapped in places, the three species did have a preference for different individual habitats.  I think long-horned bison thrived on the warm coastal plain savannahs of Georgia where herds of Bison antiquus (or as I prefer to call them– northern bison) occasionally intruded, but the latter preferred cooler prairie-like regions to the north.    Cool dry prairie habitat spread due to fluctuations in climate related to the last glacial maximum, but the gulf stream created a warm thermal enclave, preferred by the long-horned bison, along the Atlantic coast.  The warm grasslands favored by long-horned bison remained, thus they were like a relic species.  Both northern bison and woodland musk-oxen were probably draught tolerant.  Long-horned bison may have been more dependent on water, limiting where they could live when the climate changed to cool and arid conditions across most of the rest of the continent.

Within historical times two species of bovine lived tothether in Europe and Asia.  The European bison or wisent (Bison bonasus) occurred along with the aurochs (Bos taurus), the extinct wild ancestor of our domestic cattle.  The former, though now restricted to deep forests, liked open grasslands; the latter preferred riverine woodlands and meadows.  The aurochs was more dependent on water, a trait of cows western cattlemen are well aware of.  They were less able to survive in dry habitats like bison can.  They were also less able to avoid human hunters because they couldn’t travel long distances away from water.  The ability to migrate long distances is what I theorize kept bison from completely becoming extinct until almost modern times when they came perilously close and would have become so, if not for human laws protecting them.  When bison migrated long distances, they were able to find areas sparsely inhabited by man, until the industrial age when such refuges became rare. 

It’s a shame Georgia’s remaining wilderness areas no longer have even one species of wild bovine.  Why?  Primitive people, like modern man, loved to eat steaks, roasts, and hamburgers (which paleo-Indians made by pounding tough pieces of meat with rocks).  The modern species of American bison (Bison bison) probably periodically colonized what’s now Georgia during the Holocene.  Indians extirpated these herds intermittently.  Europeans finally eliminated them from the state between 1760-1800 AD.

References: Mcdonald, J. N.

North American Bison: Their Classification and Evolution

University of California Press 1981

Note: My next blog entry won’t be until June 23rd.