Posts Tagged ‘white oaks’

Pleistocene Fossil Canid Ratios Recorded in the University of Florida Database

January 11, 2012

The abundance of Pleistocene fossil sites in Florida has allowed the university in Gainesville to become a center of information for other scientists.  Scientists excavating new fossil sites use existing fossils at the University of Florida Museum of Natural History to help identify the new specimens they pull from the earth.  It’s not always easy to differentiate closely related species–the subject of this blog entry, the canids, are notoriously difficult to distinguish.  Vertebrate zoologists and paleontologists measure and describe every part of every bone and tooth when examining new specimens.  They publish this information in scientific journals and accumulate knowledge of the size limits and shape variations of a particular species’ anatomy.  If a newly discovered fossil tooth for example doesn’t fit any known pattern of shape or size, than scientists suspect they may have discovered a new species.  The more data scientists have, the better able they are to identify new species and spot evolutionary trends over time within a species.

Fossil collecting is popular in Florida, thanks to all the sinkhole lakes and caves with basal chemistry in the soil that preserves bones.  Amateur fossil collectors have many more fossils in their collections than the University of Florida’s Natural History Museum..  Many are for sale as well.  It would be a great benefit to science, if collectors made arrangements to donate their collections to the museum upon their deaths.  Many valuable specimens have been lost when their owners die and family members, not interested in the subject, lose track of where they put the old bones.

My little study is limited to canid fossils listed on the University of Florida database and leaves out the great many more in the hands of amateur fossil collectors.  I also limited this survey to the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age (300,000 BP-11,000 BP), leaving out Armbruster’s wolf which dominated the middle Pleistocene before being replaced by dire wolves.  Nevertheless, I think there’s enough information to suggest relative canid species abundance during the late Pleistocene.  Keep in mind, I was counting on a computer screen while scrolling down, so my numbers may be off slightly.

Listed on the Florida Museum of Natural History’s database, I counted 64 dire wolf (Canis dirus) specimens, 34 coyote (Canis latrans) specimens, 1 red wolf (Canis niger) specimen, 9 domestic dog (Canis familiaris) specimens, 0 dhole (Cuon alpinus) specimens, and 55 gray fox (Urocyon cineorgenteus) specimens.

The fossil record strongly suggests that from 300,000 BP to about 11,000 BP dire wolves were by far the most common large canid being about twice as abundant as coyotes.  Red wolves were rare but present.  Gray foxes were just as common during the Pleistocene as they are today.  These neat little foxes have the ability to climb trees, a skill that saves them from their larger relatives.  There is no evidence of dholes but as I wrote in a previous blog entry http://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/did-the-dhole-cuon-alpinus-range-into-southeastern-north-america-during-the-pleistocene/ , I suspect they may have periodically colonized parts of the southeast but in numbers too low to leave fossil evidence.

Dire wolves were the dominant large canid in the southeast (and all across North America south of the Ice Sheets) during the late Pleistocene.

Coyotes probably occupied a niche similar to African jackals.

Gray foxes thrived in areas where they had access to trees and could escape larger predators.

The presence of domesticated dogs in the Pleistocene fossil record puzzled and surprised me.  I almost didn’t even do a database search for Canis familiaris and only did so as an afterthought.  Most anthropologists don’t think humans domesticated dogs until after the Pleistocene about 10,000 years ago, but the fossil evidence contradicts this.  In fact scientists recently discovered the skull of a domesticated dog in a Siberian cave that dates to 33,000 BP.  They determined  this particular domesticated dog was not the ancestor of the lineage that led to today’s dogs but instead its descendents died out.  It’s probable that there were many early lineages of domesticated dogs that ceased to exist for various reasons.  Perhaps that group of people died out or stopped keeping dogs.  The popular idea that people domesticated dogs by kidnapping and raising wolf pups is a misconception.  Scientists think it’s the other way around–dogs adopted us.  Dogs are descended from the wolves which had the least flight response.  Wolves that hung closely around human campsites for access to leftovers gave birth to pups with floppy ears, multi-colored coats, and other dog traits that differentiate them from other wolves.  The gene for tameness shares a pathway with the gene for these physical characteristics.  So it’s likely that dogs adopted people in many different geographic locations wherever wolves (Canis lupus) began occupying areas adjacent to human campsites.  Obviously, dogs either followed or were brought to Florida by the Paleo-Indians.

The authors of a chapter in the book The First Floridians and the Last Mastodons suggest that all the coyote fossils found in Florida are actually domesticated dog fossils, but they only knew of a handful of coyote fossils.  Apparently, they didn’t know 34 specimens had been found.  I doubt scientists made that many misidentifications.

Dire wolves succeeded in becoming one of the dominant predators in the environments of southeastern North America where they found a wealth of prey roaming the open woodlands and savannahs.  Everything from bison and horses to deer and rabbits sustained them, and a mammoth or mastodon that died of natural causes provided a feast.  Coyotes successfully co-existed with dire wolves by scavenging large predator kills and by hunting rodents.  Red wolves must have been restricted to islands and perhaps deeply wooded swamps where they could survive on deer and small game.  Their niche must have been areas with lower densities of prey as opposed to grasslands that hosted large herds of ungulates.  Following the extinction of the megafauna and dire wolves, forests replaced grasslands and red wolves increased in number and drove coyotes completely out of the south.  But after European settlers wiped out the red wolves, coyotes returned.

References:

Ovodov, Nikolai, et. al.

“A 33,000 Year Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum”

Plos One 6 (7) 2011

http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/databases/vp/intro.htm

The Dunwoody Nature Center

I attended my nephew’s bar mitzvah in Dunwoody, Georgia last weekend.  Dunwoody consists of dozens of subdivisions and plenty of shopping centers and absolutely no rural farmland.  I didn’t hold out much hope for a nice nature walk here–the traffic is terrible.  But at least the developers left a lot of trees standing.  I decided to walk from my sister’s house to a little park known as the Dunwoody Nature Center and I discovered a surprising gem.

This white oak was about 4 feet in diameter.  White oak is a common tree in Dunwoody.

From the composition of the trees left standing most of Dunwoody must have once hosted a pretty nice dry upland forest.  Too bad developers converted it into a crowded suburb.  Today, white oaks, black oaks, southern red oaks, shortleaf pines, and loblolly pines are the dominant trees.  The Dunwoody Nature Center slopes sharply down toward Wildcat Creek, the name of which is a relic to its former status as a wilderness.  The woods here are dominated by beech, white oak, sweetgum, river birch, and loblolly pine.  I was stunned to see a woodlot of mostly beech trees in central Georgia.

A mature beech tree growing on the edge of a rocky creek.  It’s surrounded by many immature beech saplings.

Fossil pollen studies show beech was a common tree in the south during the end of the Ice Age when the Laurentide glacier began melting and releasing more moisture in the atmosphere creating a climate that was still cool but more rainy than it was during the height of the Ice Age.  The presence of abundant beech in the fossil record is indirect evidence of massive flocks of passenger pigeons.  Passenger pigeons fed on acorns–in some places completely eliminating the oak seed crop…and the beech’s competition.  Although beech trees produce an edible nut, they can also spread from roots and could survive their seed being consumed by passenger pigeon flocks.  Since the passenger pigeon’s demise, oak forests have been replacing beech forests in many areas.  So I was delighted to see this remnant beech forest in central Georgia.

Wildcat Creek flows through a granite outcropping.  Here is a miniature waterfall.

Two little league baseball fields take up about half the space of the park.  The park is heavily used by dog and toddler walkers.  It’s popularity shows that the planning commission in charge of developing Dunwoody should have arranged for the purchase of more land for more parks.

Tornado Damage at Black Rock Mountain State Park

June 13, 2011

A greater variety of trees grow in the southern Appalachians than in any other region of the United States.  The temperate forests in North America are more diverse than those of Europe because the mountains run from north to south instead of east to west.  The ranges of European trees couldn’t retreat south when Ice Ages began–the Alps blocked their way.  Late in the Pliocene many plant species disappeared from northern Europe, never to return there.  But in North America, plant species ranges were able to expand and contract in correlation with the retreat and advance of glaciers.

I visited Black Rock Mountain State Park near Clayton, Georgia on my vacation last week and enjoyed seeing the diversity of trees.  I found white oak, black oak, red oak, sycamore, sweetgum, river or sugar birch?, elm, shagbark hickory, black walnut saplings (no mature trees), tulip, locust (Gleditsia sp.?), red maple, southern sugar maple, hemlock, white pine, Virginia pine, and shortleaf pine.  I also found a single chestnut but couldn’t locate the tree it came from.  It’s likely from a sprout that will eventually succomb to the blight.  The forests in north Georgia differ greatly from what I saw in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year (see “Gatlinburg Tennessee: Tale of a Tourist Trap Nightmare”).  I barely saw any oaks in that park, but I noticed in north Georgia that white oak is one of the most common trees from Hiawassee to Clayton and black and red oak are abundant as well.  The forests in north Georgia must be younger than those around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Oaks are fire tolerant/shade intolerant.  Tulip and maple shade out oaks in old growth forests.  The National Park trees are also much larger in diameter.  In north Georgia I couldn’t find a single tree greater than 3 feet in diameter.  Black Rock Mountain State Park was purchased from private landowners in 1939, so the forest here is only 72 years old.  I prefer the younger oak forest over old growth tulip and maple forests because they support more game.

View from Black Rock Mountain

White oak in Black Rock Mountain State Park.  White oaks are one of the most common trees in northeast Georgia but are declining in much of their former range in the midwest.

White oaks are declining in abundance throughout much of their range due to fire suppression.  In the midwest maples are replacing them, and oaks can’t grow in their shade.  Fire destroys maple trees and opens up the forest canopy for oaks.

I didn’t see any bird species in north Georgia that I don’t normally encounter in Augusta.  However, blue jays were very abundant–they go hand-in-hand with white oak forests.  Some scientists believe it was blue jays that helped facilitate the return of oak forests to the midwest and New England following the retreat of the Laurentide glacier at the end of the last Ice Age.  In the region about 100-200 miles south of the ice sheet, oaks persisted in small thermal refuges alongside rivers, but these oak woodland relics were surrounded by boreal forests and prairies.  Blue jays carried acorns for miles, storing them for future use in hidden caches.  Acorns never retrieved sprouted in sunny meadows and dying spruce forests that were failing due to a warming climate.

A tornado wrecked this tree.

When a tornado felled this tree, the roots ripped a big cavern into the earth.  This would make an excellent bear den with a fallen tree as a natural roof.  The bear might dig making it a  little deeper.  Bears are unlikely to use this one though because it’s next to a trail.

Earlier this summer, a tornado destroyed many of the trees on Black Rock Mountain.  Roofers were repairing all the houses bordering the park.

Many different kinds of flowers abound in sunny areas of the southern Appalachians.  This one looks like some type of aster but I’m not sure.  Maybe somebody can help me out with the ID.  I also saw orchids, field daisies, and many I couldn’t identify.

A chipmunk hole?  I saw a chipmunk not too far from this hole.  The park provides perfect habitat for chipmunks.  They like to tunnel under tree roots and boulders, and there are lots of acorns.  This is 1 of 2 species of mammals I observed in north Georgia that I don’t get to see in Augusta.

Hiawassee, Georgia

We stayed at the Ramada Inn across from Lake Chatuge (pronounced Chatoo as in Achoo…bless you for sneezing), an artificial reservoir created by a dam that backflows the Hiawassee River.  They have a handsome living room.

Bear skin rug and other trophies decorate the living room at the Ramada Inn in Hiawasee.

The lake meanders in front and in back of the hotel, but to get to the swimming beach it’s necessary to cross a fairly busy road.  The lake abounds with green bream which swarmed around me while I swam.

View of Lake Chatuge from the Ramada Inn.

Swimming beach at Lake Chatuge.  The good looking woman in the foreground was marred with tattoos.  What is it with tattoos these days?  It used to be just bikers and sailors had tattoos and they were small and tasteful.  Now wimps and women have big ole ugly tattoos all over their bodies.

The Cherokee Indians originally settled Hiawasee which was a major village on an Indian trail through a pass between the mountains, and they lived here until 1836 when greedy white crooks kicked them to Oklahoma.

A small patch of clover behind the hotel attracted a pair of fat woodchucks every afternoon.  Woodchucks are close to the present southern limit of their range here, so I got to see another animal that doesn’t live in Augusta.  During the Ice Age woodchucks occurred as far south as Brunswick–their fossil remains having been excavated from Clark Quarry.

This is the best photo I could get of the woodchucks that live behind the Ramada Inn.  I just missed getting a closer image.  It went down the hill, eating like a little hog all the while.  Click on the photo to enlarge and look to the left of the white pvc pipe.

There are no restaurants to get excited about in Hiawasee.  The people who live in north Georgia must not believe in seasoning their food.

We didn’t get to eat at the Smoky Rings Barbecue.  They had no handicapped access–the first with no wheelchair ramp I’ve ever seen anywhere.

At Daniel’s Steakhouse my daughter ordered a sirloin steak which was grilled to perfection but unseasoned.  They didn’t season my trout either.  The average age of their customers is 70.  Perhaps that’s why the restaurant served such bland food.  Older people are supposed to watch their sodium consumption, and they probably complain if food is too spicy. I regard bland food as an abomination. 

Here’s my recipe for steak seasoning salt: 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp ground black pepper, 1 tsp celery salt, 1 tsp garlic salt, 1 tsp onion salt, 1 tsp ground coriander, a few scant drops of soy sauce.  Mix all the salts and spices on a plate.  Be careful with the soy sauce–too much and the mixture will clump up and won’t go through a salt shaker.  Pour this mixture into a salt shaker.  Sprinkle liberally over steaks and chops, or in ground sirloin for chopped steaks and gravy.

Here’s my recipe for fish coating: 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup cornmeal, 1 tsp ground black pepper and lots of freshly ground black pepper, 1 tsp garlic salt.  Dip the fish filets in beaten egg, then in the flour and spice mixture before frying.  Adding egg, buttermilk, and minced onion to the above recipe makes an excellent hushpuppy batter.  Cut fish fillet into fingers and dip it in the batter before frying and use the leftover batter for hushpuppies.

All-you-can-eat buffets are popular in Hiawasee.  It’s hilarious to watch how much food some of these old folks can put away.  I guess they think they’re making a profit, if their stomach capacity surpasses the restaurant’s cost of the food.

The other local restaurant we tried was called Georgia Mountain Country.  Again, bland food rules here. On the buffet blackeyed peas were served separate from ham.  The peas were unsalted, but mixing them with the ham made it acceptable.  Pole beans mixed with fatback were cooked to smithereens.  I think this recipe is based on an old pioneer dish.  The pioneers used to store pole beans by stringing them together and drying them, creating something called leather breeches beans.  To make them palatable, it was necessary to stew them with salted pork for hours.  In modern times it’s no longer necessary to cook them this way. To produce a similar taste, steam pole beans until just tender and drizzle a little warm bacon grease on them.  The cornmeal muffins served were dry as a desert and not a pat of butter in sight.  I did enjoy the baby beets, despite the lack of seasoning, because they were fresh and naturally sweet.

The best meal I ate was in a bar in Helen where we stopped for lunch on the way home.  Helen is a tourist trap–everything is more expensive because the town is built to look like a German country village.  I ate a bratwurst served on a fresh baked herb roll and smothered with sauerkraut and cheese.  Too bad I was driving and couldn’t wash it down with a beer or three.

On the way home I stopped and took a photo of the approximate location of the Great Buffalo Lick, according to Dr. Devorsey.

Approximate correct location of the Great Buffalo Lick, according to Dr. Devorsey’s research.  It’s ~.5 miles south of Buffalo Creek on Highway 22.  Today, it’s just nondescript second growth.