Other Life Forms
When European explorers first traveled through the Southern Appalachians, beavers were found to inhabit virtually every stream and river. English explorer John Lawson wrote in the early 1700s that "Beavers are very numerous in Carolina, their being abundance of the Dams in all Parts of the Country, where I have travel'd."
Beavers were keystone engineers in many areas; altering the environment to fit their needs and fulfilling the needs of other species who depended on the beaver ponds for shelter, food and safety. As the fur trappers followed the explorers, millions of beavers were removed and beaver-created ecosystems disappeared, along with animals dependent on them. The last beaver was reported trapped in North Carolina in 1897, thus eliminating a vital component of the natural system along what is now the Blue Ridge Parkway.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, beavers were reintroduced to many areas of North Carolina. Their natural reproduction and dispersal, combined with protection efforts, allowed them to spread to almost every county in the state. Since about 1987 they have begun re-colonizing the rivers and streams of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The success of the relocation program has brought a mix of positive and negative consequences. Beaver-dependent ecosystems are being reestablished in areas where they had not been found for almost 100 years. As this has occurred, associated species have followed the beavers and have re-inhabited their old ranges. The Parkway staff welcomes the return to near-natural conditions, especially on undeveloped lands and in backcountry areas that will benefit from the beaver's presence. In these areas, the return of beavers have increased biological diversity and significantly changed ecological processes.
The bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii) is considered to be the rarest freshwater turtle in North America. Though the bog turtle occupies a range from Massachusetts to northern Georgia, the bog turtle's distribution within this range is spotty and disjunct. A 250-mile gap located between central Maryland and southwestern Virginia separates the species into a northern and southern population. Ironically, much of the bog turtle's range in Virginia and northern North Carolina is scattered along a narrow belt located in and along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Bog turtle populations are believed to be declining throughout their range. This population decline is thought to be the result of illegal collection for the pet trade, and loss of habitat through ditching, draining and filling in of wetlands for development and agriculture. However, other factors including the species' low reproductive rates, isolation of individual populations, predation, flooding of habitat by beaver, mortality due to vehicles, livestock grazing, and pollution may also be contributing to the bog turtle's decline.
Consequently, wetlands along the Blue Ridge Parkway are important for the protection of bog turtles--offering one of the last refuges where both the bog turtle and its habitat are protected. Wetlands along the Blue Ridge Parkway, however, are not pristine and many have been impacted by past agricultural activities and development. Parkway biologists are working with researchers to protect bog turtles on the Parkway. With assistance from other agencies the Parkway has begun inserting tags under the skin of turtles to deter poaching and to help with their recovery. As beavers return to the Parkway the number of wetlands and bog turtle habitat will increase. These activities will help secure the future of bog turtles in the Southern Appalachians.
Typically, throughout the month of October park visitors can expect to find good fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Leaves will begin changing first on the highest peaks and conclude in the lower elevations. Whether classified as "spectacular" or simply "average,” the leaf color display will nonetheless be pleasing to the eye somewhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We are very fortunate in that the most varied fall color, as well as the longest lasting, occurs in the southern Appalachians, where a dozen or more species of trees may change color at slightly different times over the longer fall season.
There is no simple formula for predicting fall color. The intensity of fall color and time of peak color vary and are determined by complex environmental factors, as well as the genetic makeup of the plants themselves. These factors vary from plant to plant and from region to region. However, with ideal weather conditions such as bright sunny and cool days in the fall, one can expect slightly above average leaf color.
The "best" fall color for an area occurs during the shortening days of autumn when days are bright, sunny and cool, when nights are cool but not below freezing, and when there has been ideal rainfall. Adequate rainfall also keeps the leaves on the trees longer and enhances the color. Wet, cloudy, warm weather or exceptionally low temperatures in early fall tend to mute the much anticipated autumnal display. We don't yet fully understand all of the complicated actions - and even more complicated interactions - involving pigments, sunlight, moisture, chemicals, hormones, temperatures, length of daylight, site, genetic traits, and so on that make for a perfect autumn color display. As research probes deeper into the basics of plant life, we will understand more about the processes that color the autumn landscape.
On a cold night in late February or early March, with the rain and sleet pounding on the roof, the last thing most people would think of would be venturing out to wade through a big puddle. On these nights, however, a migration is occurring along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The migrants are amphibians – frogs and salamanders – and they are on their way to usher in the coming of spring.
The puddles are vernal pools, bodies of water ranging from as small as a closet up to several acres in size. “Vernal” refers to spring, and the majority of these pools are temporary, being filled with water for only a short time during the spring. For this reason, many people don’t really think of them as true wetlands, or as valuable parts of the ecosystem.
However, they are critical breeding sites for many species of amphibians, including wood frogs and spotted salamanders. These species are terrestrial most of their lives, except for during the breeding season when they congregate in vernal pools. Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) are generally out first in February and can be identified near the pools as their “quacking” calls are heard. They call, mate, and deposit egg masses. They are soon followed by the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), a member of the mole salamander family, which spends its adult life underground.
Other species may use vernal pools, including American toads and spring peepers, but the wood frog and spotted salamander utilize vernal pools almost exclusively. The temporary nature of the vernal pool means that many species of predators, such as fish, will not survive the dry periods. This is a distinct advantage if you are looking for a nursery and don’t want your young eaten.
However, in years of drought, the pool may not contain water at all, or may not sustain water long enough for the young to hatch and metamorphose into terrestrial forms. It is a gamble, with the payoff being a new generation of young. But even if the water dries up it is likely that the adults will probably live long enough to return next year and try again.
A risk to the frogs and salamanders includes being run over by vehicles while crossing roads to get to vernal pools. Perhaps the greatest risk, however, comes from humans who fill in pools and who dig ditches to drain the pond. Such actions can lead to local “silent springs” without the familiar calls of our native frogs.