If humans didn’t colonize North America, I believe the pine marten would have a much wider range than it does today. Presently, this small carnivore is confined to boreal and mixed forests in Canada, the northern Rocky Mountains, and upper Maine. In historical times they also ranged into New England. During the late Pleistocene pine martens lived at least as far south as northern Alabama, and they probably ranged into the piedmont. (The fossil record of the southeastern North American piedmont region is poor. I rely on educated speculation to imagine the faunal composition there.) Pine marten remains dating to the late Pleistocene have been excavated from Cave ACb-2 in Colbert County, Alabama, as well as 2 sites in Tennessee and 2 in Virginia–far south of their present day range. Pine martens live in low densities, hunting small mammals and birds on the forest floor and in tree tops. Unlike their relative, the fisher (M. pennanti), pine martens don’t readily re-establish populations after they’ve been extirpated from a certain area. Archaeological evidence suggests fishers ranged as far south as north Georgia until European colonization when their range was greatly reduced by increased fur trapping, and they thrive wherever they are re-introduced. But pine martens struggle to increase their populations when they are re-introduced.
Native Americans killed pine martens using deadfall traps. A heavy rock was propped up by a stick attached to a piece of meat with a string. The rock crushed the pine marten pulling at the bait. Pine martens often fail to replenish their populations after humans begin trapping them in a certain area. They’ve been able to survive in Canada because this region is more sparsely inhabited by people. The denser population of humans in the southeast not only trapped out the pine martens but planted agricultural fields and cleared the deep forest habitat they require. Humans can be just as detrimental to some species of small animals as they are to megafauna populations.
Pine marten. They are about the size of a small house cat.
Present day range map of the pine marten. Most of this range was under glacial ice during the Ice Age. However, they lived south of the ice sheet at least as far south as Alabama.
Fossil evidence of pine marten was found in Cave Acb2 in Colbert County, Alabama. This is its southernmost known occurrence.
Some scientists speculate evidence of pine martens in north Alabama during the Ice Age suggests the region was covered with boreal spruce forests because this is the type of environment where pine martens occur today. As I’ve noted in previous blog entries, the Ice Age forest that existed in the upper south then was likely a mixed forest consisting of an extinct temperate species of spruce (Critchfield’s) and hardwoods such as oak, hickory, walnut, elm, etc. Temperatures were only slightly cooler in this region then than they are today. I believe humans, not climate change, are the reason for the pine marten’s range reduction.
Ebersole, Jon; and Sandy Ebersole
“Late Pleistocene Mammals of Alabama: A Comprehensive Faunal Review with 21 Previously Unreported Species”
Alabama Museum of Natural History Bulletin 28 December 2011