Current Research in Tennessee State Parks
By LinnAnn Welch
|Much is known about Tennessee’s vast natural areas and
biological diversity. However, nature is so complex that there is still
much more to learn about what actually lives in our state and how it all
ties together in the web of life.
Throughout the state, Tennessee State Parks serve as an outdoor classroom for thousands of people including school age children and adults. Many people do not realize, however, that much biological and archaeological research is presently underway across the state. Employees of Tennessee State Parks, as well as students and professors from local state and private universities, are actively learning more about our natural world and how to protect it.
In West Tennessee, several projects are currently in progress that should have interesting results. At Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Area near Jackson, research is ongoing with archaeologists discovering new aspects of the park’s intriguing past.
Pinson is the remains of a vast Middle Woodland Native American ceremonial center, which also has great natural attributes due to its close proximity to the Forked Deer River. This prehistoric site dates to the early centuries A.D. and contains many mounds, including Saul’s Mound, which is the second tallest mound in the United States.
Although research and mapping has occurred since the late 1800s, new discoveries appear to this day. Many hypotheses on activities at prehistoric Pinson are being explored. Mark Norton, archaeologist with Tennessee Division of Archaeology, is constantly trying to discover more about the area. Recent archaeological investigations within the western mound group led to the discovery of four previously unknown mounds. Farming and construction during the early part of the century often changed the appearance of the mounds. More intensive centralized study often brings to light features that have been unnoticed for centuries.
Technology in the 21st century can reveal even more about an area such as Pinson Mounds. Norton is currently updating the mapping of the area using G.I.S. (Geographical Information Systems) and other computer-based imaging. Much new information is expected with the use of these new methods.
Much of the biological research in Tennessee State Parks is completed by graduate students, college professors from local universities and high school students.
The University of Tennessee at Martin in West Tennessee has often been involved in studies at Reelfoot Lake. Reelfoot is Tennessee’s only natural lake, created by a series of earthquakes in 1811 and 1812. Flora and fauna abound in this area, particularly aquatic life. A turtle study is underway in the lake by biologists at the university. Simple viewing from the shore while watching for eagles offers the observer many opportunities for spotting several species of turtles. An intensive study should accumulate much information. Study results are often available for public viewing by contacting a park’s visitor center.
East Tennessee, with its mountain peaks and rhododendron-covered balds, is in sharp contrast to the flat river-surrounded lands of West Tennessee. Streams abound, flowing through lush vegetation and ambling downward to join rivers in the valleys below. Research such as that at Roan Mountain State Park focuses on the tremendous biological diversity of the surrounding Cherokee National Forest and lands which border North Carolina.
Gary Barrigar and students from nearby Elizabethton High School have facilitated an ongoing study of the past few years at Roan Mountain.
Barrigar teaches ecology as well as physics and chemistry. The ecology club that he sponsors decided several years ago to monitor the parts of the Doe River flowing within the park boundaries. Students of varying ages are involved in this study that includes testing the river once a month to compile data for analysis of water quality. As many as 12 tests are conducted including sampling for water hardness, turbidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and macroinvertebrate diversity.
Stream monitoring, such as that of the Doe River, is important to maintain the health of our rivers and creeks. Any deviation of yearly chemical testing or the absence of usual stream inhabitants often indicates that some sort of pollution is entering the water. Illegal dumping or spillage into a stream can be stopped and water quality maintained. Clean streams mean healthier animal populations, including humans living in the city.
Results of tests taken at Roan Mountain have shown that the Doe River is healthy, particularly within the park boundaries. The river supports trout populations that cannot survive in polluted, oxygen deficient water.
According to Barrigar, data has varied little during the years of the study. Occasionally, bacteria from a community upstream are detected. After the water is filtered through the lush vegetation of Roan Mountain State Park, however, bacteria levels are much less. This provides yet more proof for the vital importance of Tennessee State Parks to the health of Tennessee.
Middle Tennessee is blessed with the Highland Rim and Central Basin, both biologically diverse areas teeming with plants and wildlife. Unique habitats, such as the mixed mesophytic forests, cedar glades and limestone caves, provide homes for animals that are often misunderstood. Each offers learning experiences for visitors as well as park naturalists and rangers.
At Radnor Lake State Natural Area in Nashville, several biological studies are generating information helpful for maintaining the diversity of our parks. Radnor Lake is a man-made lake that has become naturalized. With over a million visitors per year, it is
crucial that the natural integrity of the park be preserved while also providing a place of solace for those seeking escape from the bustle of the city.
Fairly complete wildflower and tree inventories exist so that species can be monitored and any disturbance or stress reduced. Each year, a few new wildflowers or other herbaceous species are identified and added to the list. The staff also has a good idea of which amphibians, reptiles, and large mammals reside on the area, but virtually nothing is known about the species and numbers of small mammals. Usually, only glimpses of smaller mammals occur due to their choice of thorn-covered protected thickets and underground liars as homes.
In October 1999, Radnor Lake began a study focusing on small mammals with the help of research biologists Andrea English, Bob English, and Margo Farnsworth. Andrea and Bob English are known for their work with the Tennessee Amphibian Monitoring Program, as well as many other naturalist activities throughout the state. Farnsworth has been a naturalist around the Nashville area for many years and has many affiliations.
One week each month, live traps are placed in strategic spots in the natural area. Traps are checked twice a day. Animals that are caught are not injured. A door falls into place after the mammal enters the live trap to find the bait. Captured animals are photographed, weighed, and measured before being released back into their homes. Four habitat types are being researched including field, streamside, ridgetop and lakeshore.
Of a possible 37 total mammal species, 23 have been identified at Radnor Lake during the course of this study.
Larger mammals, such as raccoon and deer, are frequently spotted. The tracks of other more elusive mammals, such as bobcat and skunk, have also been seen. Recently, a River Otter was captured on video while a documentary was being filmed about the lake. Otter have not been identified there for several decades.
The Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) is most often captured since it is abundant in the area. During each check of the traps, several deer mice are caught from each habitat type. They are usually about three inches in body length and brown in color. Two less common species that were captured early in the winter are the Eastern Harvest Mouse (Reithrodontomys humulis) and the Southeastern Shrew (Sorex longirostris). Both are scarcely populated. In fact, the Southeastern Shrew is categorized as "in need of management" by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. It is particularly comforting to know that an animal whose population is declining resides at a protected area such as Radnor Lake.
Other species discovered during the study at Radnor Lake include the White-footed Mouse (Peromysus leucopus), Southern Shorttail Shrew (Blarina brevicauda), and the Hispid Cotton Rat (Sigmodon hispidus). The White-footed Mouse is very similar to the Deer Mouse. Color variation on the tail is often one of the few characteristics to distinguish the two species. Unlike the Deer Mouse, however, only a few White-footed Mice have been captured. Southern Shorttail Shrews have no external ears and tiny unnoticeable eyes. The largest of the mentioned species is the Hispid Cotton Rat, which can have a body as long as eight inches. It is a native rat with a long tail. An interesting result of this study is that no European rats or mice, most frequently found in the city, have been captured at Radnor Lake.
Another project originating from Radnor Lake is a native plant study for the management of archaeological sites. State Archaeologist Nick Fielder has long been interested in using some sort of native seeds to replace fescue at sites such as the Mississippian-era Mound Bottom in Cheatham County. Native wildflowers and grasses should require less management, particularly mowing, and therefore would save money that could be used more effectively elsewhere.
In cooperation with Tennessee Division of Archaeology and under the guidance of Middle Tennessee State University professors Dr. Kurt Blum; Dr. Jeff Walck; and Dr. Tom Hemmerly, I have established native plant plots in a field near Mound Bottom.
The seeds used in this study include that of Clasping Coneflower(Rudbeckia amplexicaulis); Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa); and Ironweed (Vernonia altissima). Grasses established include Broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus); Redtop (Agrostis alba); Little Bluestem (Andropogon scoparius) and others.
Some plots contain all plants used in the study and others, only two species. Plots were disked in fall 1999 using a farm tractor and disk. A spring distribution of seeds followed. Disking was used to see if costly, potentially dangerous herbicides could be avoided while trying to replace one species with another. The resulting information on numbers of reproducing plants and resistance to competition will give an idea of whether these species would be effective in a meadow surrounding mounds or other features.
Native plant landscaping is economical for natural areas and other Tennessee State Parks, as well, since natives are accustomed to the local climate and require little care. A handbook of recommendations for meadows and other native landscaping is being created from this study. It will be useful to all types of parks.
Another Tennessee State Park that needs more research to uncover the area’s past is Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Coffee County, which contains a misunderstood prehistoric American Indian mound site.
The site at Old Stone Fort is a hilltop enclosure that includes mounds and wall-like structures. A remarkable natural setting surrounds the park in its location between the forks of the Duck River. Waterfalls form deep gorges from where the rivers drop off the Highland Rim Plateau on each side of the enclosure.
Further research is necessary to better understand the function of Old Stone Fort, which dates to between 1,500 to 2,000 years ago.
The staff hopes that the next opportunity for excavation will be a project to refill the 1928 archaeological trenches by P.E. Cox. This would be an opportunity to see what Cox described in field notes and a brief preliminary report published before his death without causing further damage to the mound walls. Described features within the walls can be better understood by the use of more modern techniques. Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro may be able to take on this project in the near future.
The 21st century provides new opportunities for research due to all the advancements in computer-based technology. This is a particularly important time to learn more about our natural world since higher populations and a booming building industry make our wild lands even more precious and rare. Tennessee State Parks' diverse lands supply needed study areas to better educate the general public on natural and cultural issues while also helping protect, to quote State Naturalist Mack Prichard, "what comes natural".
Updated November 1, 2000; Send comments to Department of Environment and Conservation.