Mountains as Biodiversity Hotspots - Appalachain Expedition Part 1

The Expedition Begins

The Appalachians. Photo: TMIThe Appalachians. Photo: TMIAfter weeks of planning and preparation, your expedition is finally going to begin. First you land at Logan County airport in Ethel, West Virginia. After renting a car, you drive 20 miles to the town of Hetzel.

Hetzel, the closest town to Blair Mountain, is where you will spend a day making final preparations for your expedition.

Where is Ethel, West Virginia? On a map of the United States, locate the town of Ethel in West Virginia. What does the map tell you about this city?

The following day you drive from your hotel in Hetzel to the base of Blair Mountain. It is so easy to get to the mountain, it's no wonder so many people come here to hike, fish, camp, ski, and hunt. Do you think it is a good thing that tourists are visiting Blair Mountain? With your teammates, create two lists in your journal. On one list, write down the ways you think tourism could benefit the park. On the second list, write down the unfavorable impacts tourism might have. Share this information with the rest of the class.

Standing in the parking area, you look up the north face of Blair Mountain toward the summit. The forested land is green now, but you imagine how it must look in the fall when the leaves on these deciduous trees change color, painting the landscape spectacular shades of red, yellow, and orange.

The Appalachians in the Fall. Photo: Library of CongressThe Appalachians in the Fall. Photo: Library of CongressThe Appalachian mountain range is the oldest in the world. When they were first formed, the mountains that make up this range were tall and jagged. Over time, though, they have been worn down by the elements, giving them the smaller and smoother appearance they have today. The mountain range can be divided into several different regions. Blair Mountain is located in the Mid-Atlantic region, commonly referred to as the Southern Appalachians. Over the next four days, your expedition will take you to the summit of Blair Mountain (1,961 feet) as you conduct your inventory for the Environmental Protection Agency.

At the trailhead, you register yourself and your teammates. Have you ever registered at a trailhead before? Hiking can be a dangerous activity, especially if you get lost, so the United States Forest Service requires hikers to sign in. That way, in case of an emergency, they will know who needs to be rescued.

Finally you are ready to begin climbing! After taking just a few steps you can already see the incredible plant diversity that exists on Blair. You're not too surprised because, after all, the Southern Appalachians are a biodiversity hot spot. Also, you know that this part of West Virginia is home to one of the largest remaining tracts of forested land where several migrating birds from Latin America make their home during the summer months. In order to provide accurate data to the Environmental Protection Agency, you decide to keep track of the plants you encounter as you climb Blair in your Mountain Plant Log. Make sure you have your altimeter turned on so you can identify the elevation at which these plants are growing.

Leaving the parking area, the trail follows a small stream through a section (50 feet) of forest where many different kinds of trees are growing together. The most common trees are about 50 to 60 feet tall and have smooth, dark red bark. Up ahead you see an old man in a coonskin hat chewing on a small twig from these very trees. Introducing himself as Bob, he explains that the twigs of these black birch trees (Betula lenta) have a wintergreen taste. Because this man seems to belong to the forest, you take his word for it and snap off a small twig to chew on. Bob continues to explain that for years, these trees have been harvested by timber companies to make plywood, flooring, and wall paneling. Populations are declining as a result. In fact, almost 90 percent of the old growth forest in this part of the country was removed between 1890 and 1910. Your team Botanist is impressed with Bob's knowledge and asks him to tag along on the expedition. Without hesitation, Bob agrees to accompany the team.

Black birch canopy, bark, and leaf. Photo: John Seiler, VTBlack birch canopy, bark, and leaf. Photo: John Seiler, VT

At 275 feet in elevation, you notice several very large trees, somewhere between 60 and 80 feet tall, with shaggy gray bark. The ground beneath these trees is covered with what looks like nutshells. Not too far away from you a gray squirrel is holding a closed nut in its hands, trying to pry it open. In the areas that haven't been cut down, there are several other kinds of trees and plants growing above, alongside, and below these trees. The bark is so distinctive that you are able to identify the trees quickly as shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). What a fitting name! Apparently, the wood is used to make charcoal, which is probably why some trees have been cut down.

On the rocky stream bank, there's a 5-foot-tall shrub growing. It catches your eye because it has white flowers at the end of its branches, similar to a plant that is listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Using your field guide, you identify it as Virginia spirea, the plant you thought it was. Wow! One of the major threats to this plant is damage from recreational activities along rivers and streams where it grows.

Flowering dogwood. Photo: Library of CongressFlowering dogwood. Photo: Library of CongressA little higher up, at around 500 feet, the dominant tree changes. Growing with the shagbark hickory are 60- to 80-foot-tall trees with reddish-brown bark. These black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) trees are also growing with flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and another tree you aren't able to identify. The flowering dogwoods are smaller than the black gum trees, only about 40 feet tall. Each tree has many branches with large leaves.

Pawpaw fruit. Photo: John Seiler, VTGrowing next to the stream, under the black gums and flowering dogwoods, are thick patches of shrubs that stand about 25 feet tall. You are able to identify these plants as pawpaw (Asimina triloba) from the long, dark green leaves and purple flowers. In just a few weeks, these plants will bear a delicious fruit that tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana.

Pignut hickory. Photo: John Seiler, VTContinuing your climb, you come across more trees with shaggy bark, though not nearly as shaggy as that of the shagbark hickories. The younger trees of the same species actually have smooth bark. But they have nuts, leaves, and flowers that look similar to those of the shagbark hickories. They must be related, you think, as you consult your field guide. Sure enough, these trees are pignut hickories (Carya glabra). Between 65 and 100 feet tall, these hickories are taller than the flowering dogwoods and rhododendrons growing beneath them.

Leaves of the sassafras tree. Photo: John Seiler, VTLeaves of the sassafras tree. Photo: John Seiler, VT

Bear tracks. Photo: Library of CongressBear tracks. Photo: Library of CongressAt 1,000 feet, the dominant trees are between 90 and 120 feet tall with shiny, reddish-brown twigs and light grayish-brown bark. Although these sugar maples (Acer saccharum) dominate the forest at this elevation, there are several other trees, like yellow birch and beech, and plants growing alongside and beneath them. The prettiest among these plants is a daisylike plant. You also see several white oak (Quercus alba) trees. This is exciting. Not only are white oak acorns a favorite food of black bear, deer, squirrels, and blue jays, but black bear hibernate in white oaks. You have to take a closer look at some of these trees to see if there is any evidence of black bear from last winter.

Red oak. Photo: Library of CongressRed oak. Photo: Library of CongressNot too much farther on (1,300 feet) the sugar maples are growing with black gums, flowering dogwoods, and two types of tree you haven't seen before now. The first type of tree averages about 80 feet tall and has leaves and acorns that you recognize. It's an oak tree, of course! This is a red oak (Quercus rubra). The second tree, sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is smaller. The team Zoologist tells you that white-tailed deer eat the leaves and twigs of this tree and many birds feed on its fleshy fruit.

Growing in clumps on a steep section of this moist forest floor are ferns. Surrounded by decaying leaves, these ferns are 14 inches tall and have thin, wiry black stems. You recall reading about them because some Native Americans used the stems to create black patterns in their weavings. The stem is also what helps you identify this herbaceous plant as a maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).

Ginseng. Photo: Fish and WildlifeGinseng. Photo: Fish and WildlifeAlso growing on the steep forest floor, surrounded by rotting trees, is a 12-inch-tall plant with greenish-white flowers and clusters of red berries. Could it be? Yes, it's ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), a plant that has been listed as endangered by the federal government. It has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Unfortunately, this has led to its decline and the collection of wild ginseng is now strictly regulated in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency will certainly want to know about this sighting!

Appalachian Mountain forest. Photo: Library of CongressAppalachian Mountain forest. Photo: Library of CongressIt's been a long day, so the team decides to head back to camp. Before you do so, take a moment to look at the list of plants you recorded in your Mountain Plant Log. On the basis of some of your observations, can you categorize the plants you found at different elevations? Are you able to divide these plants into groups and decide what the common characteristics are for plants in each group? Why do you think the same plants are not found growing everywhere on the mountain?

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