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Text and Photos By Jennifer A. Bauer
One visit to the highlands of Roan Mountain reveals its uniqueness and mystery.
Though the drive is short from the 3,000-foot elevation of the valleys below, to the forest service road that winds just below the 6,285 foot Roan High Knob, the immense change in vegetation and climate is immediately obvious and refreshing.
The Roan has often been described as a Canadian zone due to its shorter growing season and the unique high elevation plants and animals that live there. How remarkable it is to be able to drive into a cool Canadian environment set in the heart of the Southern United States! This unusual habitat is due, in part, to the fact that the highest mountains of the Appalachians become "islands in the streams" of surrounding, lower mountains. The conditions necessary for survival at this elevation are immensely different from those that live a little lower. The organisms that inhabit the high mountains, Roan Mountain being one of the highest in the Southern Appalachians, become reproductively isolated, adapting and changing according to their conditions.
As a result, the Roan is known for being the home to many rare, endemic plant and animal species. Living things that are specialized in their habitat requirements, thus creating the need for research and study.
The 18th and 19th centuries marked the beginning of recorded scientific explorations on and around the highlands of Roan Mountain. At this time botanists, traveling under the sponsorship of European governments came to this new world, searching for new and interesting plant species, which would be taken back to Europe for further study, planting, and documentation. In the United States, explorers were also making their way into the Southern Appalachians, also hoping to discover and identify the flora of their homeland.
Well-known explorers visiting the Roan at this time included John Bartram, Andre Michaux, John Fraser, Asa Gray, Elisha Mitchell, J. W. Chickering, Thomas Clingman, and John Muir. All contributed a great deal to the beginning knowledge of what the Roan, and the Southern Appalachians, were all about; cataloging plants, making notes on elevation, and recording initial observations of this uncharted environment.
Biologists and naturalists continually strive to gather more and more information about the myriad of flora and fauna that has made the Roan their home. Where early research revolved around naming and identifying species, current studies look more deeply into the lives of the organisms. Researchers are striving to understand how the prospective plant or animal interacts with its environment and how very small changes in a habitat can make or break the survival of a species.
The Spruce/Fir Moss Spider (Microhexura montivaga) is one such organism, which has been studied by Dr. Frederick Coyle from Western Carolina University. This tiny tarantula was first discovered in 1925 by Cyrus R. Crosby and Sherman C. Bishop while collecting on Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, but was not found on Roan Mountain until September 25, 1998, when Coyle and one of his students spent the day surveying for possible sites. They had searched previously, to no avail, but on this particular day they were surprised to quickly find the elusive tarantula. After a six-day survey, they found 31 Spruce/Fir Moss Spiders on the Roan.
The moss spider measures less than one-eighth of an inch in length. That is unusual, as most known relatives are much larger. The spider thrives under damp, cool mats of moss which are shaded by Fraser Fir trees. The spiders are generally found on rock and boulder outcroppings, which would subjected to the drying effects of the sun, without the protection of the fir trees.
Thus, the survival of this species depends heavily on the survival of the Fraser Fir forest atop the Roan. Being one of only two spider species on the federal list of endangered species, the specialized habitat requirements of this spider make good management decisions imperative.
To add a twist to the story, the Defenders of Wildlife have deemed the Fraser Fir and Red Spruce forest the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States.
In 1908, a small insect called the Woolly Balsam Adelgid was brought into the United States on plant material. The plant matter found its way to the Southern Appalachian mountains by the 1950s. This aphid began attacking the Fraser Fir trees on the highest mountains, including the Roan, with a voracious appetite.
Various approaches were taken to try to save the mature Fraser Fir forest, including spraying with lindane in the 1970s, followed by the use of insecticidal soap once lindane was deemed unsafe. Aerial spraying was not an option due to the high numbers of people on the Roan, so areas could only be treated within the reach of a truck and hose.
Ultimately, most of the mature Fraser Fir on Roan Mountain died and areas once lush and green, became stands of gray, ghost-like trees. In their place, a selection of sun loving herbs began to fill in, along with Red Spruce and fir seedlings. With a normal life span of up to 150 years, it is now believed that the young seedlings life will be cut short, but will mature and produce at least one seed crop, before being attacked by the aphid.
Remaining on the Roan are a few trees that are 80-100 years old, which are not infested. An interest exists among many to study these trees to understand why they survived, or if they will continue to do so. In the meantime, the seedlings will hopefully reach their maturity at around 20 years of age and have the opportunity to produce seed before being hit by another Woolly Balsam Adelgid infestation.
Also dependent on the survival of the spruce/fir forest is the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. Of the many birds that nest of the Roan, these very tiny owls are among the most beautiful and interesting. Their simple call, which resembles the whetting of a saw, is very repetitive and monotone, but exhilarating to hear. They nest in natural tree cavities or woodpecker holes, preferring old growth forests containing spruce, fir, and some hardwood.
Northern Saw-Whet Owls are much more common in the northern climes of the United States and up into Canada, but had rarely been found in the Southern Appalachians. In the late 1960s, Dr. Fred Alsop (presently a professor at East Tennessee State University) was working as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. At that time, he began placing nest boxes in the high elevation forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His studies continued into the Unakas in Unicoi County and then on Roan Mountain. From 1993 until 1995, graduate student Mark Barb placed 16 nest boxes on the Roan, which produced five confirmed nests.
The discovery of Northern Saw-Whet Owls on Roan Mountain led to a continued effort by professors and their students to understand the behavior and needs of the saw-whet. Dr. Matt Rowe of Appalachian State University began studying this owl on Grandfather Mountain and Mount Rogers in 1990.
In 1993, Rowe and graduate students Timothy Milling and Bennie Cockerel began studying owls on the Roan.
They placed transmitters on the birds from 1993-1996 trying to determine their location and their possible migration habits. In addition, student Dana Ann Tamashiro began performing genetic studies on the saw-whet, in hopes of determining whether or not this bird was genetically different from its northern relatives. Significant morphological differences were found between the northern populations and those in the Southern Appalachians. Though more genetic work needs to be done, researchers are led to believe that the Southern Saw-whet Owl is deserving of a subspecies status. In Tamashiros final thesis, she encouraged the preservation of these birds and their habitats, as they were a "genetic reservoir" "...unlikely to breed and mix with the Northern Saw-whet Owl populations."
Corrie Williams, now studying saw-whets at Appalachian State as a graduate student, is looking at breeding biology and the dispersal of juvenile birds. By using artificial nest boxes, she studied the nesting owls from the time they laid their eggs to when the young birds fledged from the nest. Through the use of radio-telemetry, the juveniles were monitored during the time they stayed in their home range to their dispersal to other areas.
Preliminary evidence suggests that the young birds are dispersing to the lower elevations, which are under threat of summer and second home development. After this dispersal, Williams is also finding there is a high rate of mortality in the young birds. Working with the non-profit Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute, Williams hopes to continue her studies after completion of her thesis as she feels further research is needed.
The Northern Flying Squirrel is a mammal that has been the subject of much study for many years. Dr. Peter Weigl of Wake Forest University has devoted a great portion of his career to monitoring the squirrels numbers and habitats. In addition, Weigl continues to hold an interest in the grass balds and the early impacts of the mega-fauna that once roamed their ridges.
The Northern Flying Squirrel is a small, dark brown squirrel with a white belly, ranging in weight from 45-70 grams. By its name, one would think that the squirrel might flap its little legs to fly, but this perception is not accurate. In reality, the squirrel stretches his legs and use a fold of skin, situated between its foreleg and hind leg, as a sail of sorts. This adaptation allows these flying squirrels to travel up to 80 yards or more from the trees to the ground.
Northern Flying Squirrels are nocturnal animals that feed on nuts, seeds, occasional insects and an underground hypogenous fungus, commonly called the truffle and false-truffle. It is believed that after ingestion of the fungus, the sporocarps spend about a month in the body and then are released as pellets. These pellets contain spores, which could spread the beneficial fungus throughout the forest.
The fungus has an interesting symbiotic relationship with the Red Spruce trees. Enzymes produced from the mychorrhizae enable it to feed on carbon sources from the tree. To help the tree, bacteria associated with the fungus capture nitrogen from the air and make it available to the trees roots.
Appalachian State University Professor Dr. Coleman McCleneghan and graduate student Claire Bird, have been studying the relationship between the squirrel and the truffle in hopes of finding information that will help us understand what role the flying squirrels might have in the dispersal of the fungi.
In the early spring of 2001, an unexpected need for a further understanding of the Pine Bark Beetle and its relationship with the Red Spruce became necessary. Don Duer, entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service, became quickly involved in the study of this insect and how it might affect the spruce populations, which are imperative to the survival of the Northern Flying Squirrel and the truffle.
The beetles primary host is the Loblolly and Shortleaf Pines, but over the past several years, infestations have spread in the lower elevations into the White Pine forests, killing large numbers of trees very quickly.
It is believed that the past years of drought, preceded by mild winters, have created conditions conducive to Pine Bark Beetle success. Many of the White Pine stands were comprised of overly mature trees, which were more susceptible to attack.
After wiping out their lower elevational food source, the beetles moved rapidly up to the top of the Roan. Within two weeks they had killed a small stand of Red Spruce at Carvers Gap, and had infested several other areas across the highlands of the Roan.
Needless to say, this rapid die off created a great deal of concern for the future of the Red Spruce on Roan Mountain. Meetings were conducted and Duer and others headed to the mountain to trap and study the Pine Bark Beetle and its natural predator, the Checkered Beetle. They placed funnel traps in the trees with a chemical attractant inside. Within these traps they found high numbers of Pine Bark Beetles, but also trapped sufficient numbers of Checkered Beetles.
The infestation in the Southern Appalachians was so severe that the Pine Bark Beetle had exhausted its common hosts. They have been known to move into Hemlock, Norway Spruce, Red Spruce, and other conifers in these types of extreme conditions.
Though it can only be surmised as to how the beetle got to the top of the Roan, it is possible that the adults were present in Loblolly and Shortleaf Pine stands that had been planted near Roan Mountain. The adults will travel on wind currents and it is assumed that high numbers of beetles arrived on the Roan at the same time.
The Pine Bark Beetle may engage in swarming activity where hundreds may colonize to search for a new food source. Swarming is uncommon in the beetle though; normally, a few adults will search for food and send out pheromones, a scent which travels by air that will attract others to the new location.
After much study, it was determined that since these infestations come in cycles, the Roan and the Southern Appalachian mountains would most likely be safe from such destruction for many years. It was believed that the Pine Bark Beetle had reached its peak and their populations would die off, for possible seven to 10 years, which is the average cycle of emergence. If conditions are not good, they may not return for an even longer period of time. These are the situations in which more severe infestations occur, much like the one that is just ending.
There are many more additional studies taking place and in the planning stages. Some studies are conducted by professional organizations and universities; others by competent, interested area naturalists who spend much time on the Roan throughout the changing seasons.
Dr. Craig Ashbrook is studying the effects the physical and chemical properties of the soil have on the Red Spruce. Jamey Donaldson, with the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, continues to inventory and monitor a host of rare plants, including the federally rare Spreading Avens (Geum radiatum); Roan Mountain Bluet (Houstonia montana); Blue Ridge Goldenrod (Solidago spithamaea); and Hellers Blazing Star (Liatris helleri).
The late John Warden, botany professor from East Tennessee State University, devoted his teaching career to encouraging students to study and document the plants and their ecology on the Roan. Following the work of the late Dr. Frank Barclay of ETSU, John Warden contributed a wealth of information to the knowledge base of Roan Mountains flora.
The butterfly populations are monitored by Dr. Jerry Nagel, retired professor from East Tennessee State University, and Don Holt of Johnson City. Annual butterfly counts provide much needed information as to the health and species diversity of this area. Nagel also keeps records of species information for the Friends of Roan Mountain organization and has studied the mountains salamander populations throughout his career.
Allan Trently has worked extensively surveying the Common Raven and has begun work on the Golden-winged Warbler in the Roan Mountain area.
Rick Knight, who operates a bird banding station at Carvers Gap each fall, conducts migratory studies on an annual basis. He takes measurements, bands, and documents the numbers of different species that pass through the gap each year.
Tim McDowell, botanist from East Tennessee State University, along with student, Dee Medford, worked with the rare plant species, Geum radiatum and Houstonia Montanum, comparing morphological variation among different populations on the Roan.
Moni Bates, botanist for the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, has spent several years working with the Grays Lily (Lilium grayii), which is only found in Tennessee atop Roan Mountain. Her work involves understanding why populations of this rare plant are declining across its range. Fungal infection, habitat destruction, illegal collecting, canopy shading, low seed capsule production, and early senescence of flowering plants prior to capsule production, have all played a role in lowering the numbers of this showy lily.
It would be an injustice to neglect mentioning the fact that many individuals have implemented studies on the grass and shrub balds of the Roan throughout time. The million dollar question: "Why are the balds bald?" remains to be answered, though many theories exist in the mix.
Researchers have looked for evidence of bald creation through burning, grazing, climatic factors related to the Wisconsin glaciation, impacts of Native Americans and colonial settlers, and effects of mega-fauna during the last ice age. The question of the origin of balds remains unanswered and balds management issues are continually debated.
In addition, various university professors have involved students in air quality studies and plant and animal surveys. Yet this is only a sampling of the individuals who hold an interest in researching and collecting data on the ecology of Roan Mountain.
An entire book could be devoted to the numbers of projects and the variety of subjects studied on the Roan alone. Each of the studies outlined in this article, not to mention the ones not discussed, are equally important to the overall understanding of the ecology and organisms of Roan Mountain. The Roan is a natural area whose survival is dependent on the health and interactions of all the living things residing there.
Though Roan Mountain has had its fair share of researchers and scientists over the years, their work is only a beginning. We have quickly learned that we know little about the world around us, including Roan Mountain. With time, the puzzle will continue to piece itself together as we add to our knowledge of the interactions of the organisms that live on this magnificent mountain, that has been fondly named, "the Roan."
(Jennifer Bauer is a park interpretive specialist at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area and the Carter Mansion in Elizabethton. She is the author of A Naturalists Teaching Manual; Roan Mountain: A Passage of Time; and Exploring Nature in the Southern Appalachians: A Unique Activity Guide, which is slated for release in the spring of 2003. She directs the Spring Roan Mountain Naturalists Rally, sponsored by the Friends of Roan Mountain.)
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