When many people think about eastern North America they do not think about wild places, but the Appalachian Mountains are considered one of the world’s great wilderness areas. The Southern Appalachian Mountains, in particular, contain the highest and wildest mountains in the east and are one of the most diverse temperate regions in the world. Much of the region is considered a temperate rainforest. Large amounts of precipitation combined with topographic and habitat diversity has resulted in high levels of speciation and the region becoming a global biodiversity hotspot for animals such salamanders, fish, and invertebrates. The forests of the region are diverse with the highest number of tree species in any temperate region. Historically, the American Chestnut would have been the most dominant tree with one out of every four species being a Chestnut. But today, Oaks and Hickorys dominate as a blight swept across the forests functionally removing Chestnuts.
There is a long human history in the region, but the remote nature of the mountains has kept the region relatively wild throughout human history. Native Americans had large communities in the lower elevations and smaller communities in the mountains. They frequently used prescribed fire to increase wildlife habitat. European expansion into the region happened later than most regions of eastern North America with industrial forestry not impacting the region until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Thus, while most of the Appalachian Highlands was heavily logged, particular forests have only been cut once or twice while most other regions in the east have been cut many times. Currently most of the mountains in the region are protected in national forests and most of the human development occurs in the valleys. Many of the natural disturbances that once maintained wildlife habitat have been disrupted including fire, large ungulates, beavers, and ice storms.
Amphibian and reptile communities in the Appalachian highlands are characterized by incredible diversity of amphibians (especially salamanders) with lower diversity of reptiles as compared to other habitats in the southeast. However, some of the reptiles that live in the region are very rare at global or regional scales. The sheer amount of running water (such as rivers, creeks, and seeps in the region) is home to much of the salamander diversity but salamander species can also be found across the region in terrestrial and even arboreal habitats. Many of the reptiles in the region are found in some of the drier habitat types.
Bog Turtles are the smallest turtle in North America and inhabit shallow wetlands, especially those dominated by sphagnum moss with very loose or muddy soils. In the north of their range, Bog Turtles are primarily found in bottomland ecosystems, but in the south they are found in mountain hollow wetlands over 1,800 feet in elevation along the Blue Ridge. Very few populations of Bog Turtles remain, and those that remain may be separated by vast distances. Overgrowth of vegetation cause by nutrient pollution and invasive plants degrade the habitat of Bog Turtles, many of which may spend their entire lives in a single wetland.
Read more about Bog Turtles.
Eastern Hellbenders are fully aquatic giant salamanders that once occurred throughout much of the region. But their distribution has changed dramatically and in many places they are restricted to higher elevation creeks that have not experienced significant siltation. The females lay and guard their eggs typically under large rocks in the mid to late summer. The larvae depend on pebble like substrates where they burrow down in to survive.
Read more about Eastern Hellbenders.
Timber Rattlesnakes are icons for the high mountains that characterize the region. While they are found across the Southern Highlands, they have mostly disappeared from lower elevations where most of the human development has occurred. Most of the large predators that once hunted the region are extinct but timber rattlesnakes still remain as an important carnivore and a symbol of wilderness. Gravid females and shedding snakes are often seen in high open rocky habitats where they take advantage of the sun and rocks to increase their body temperatures. But they can also be found throughout the region in hardwood forests foraging.
Read more about Timber Rattlesnakes.
The Greater Smoky Mountain Ecosystem (GSME) is made up of multiple mountain ranges in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. These include the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment and the Smoky, Nantahala, Cowee, Balsam, and Unicoi Mountains. This region contains some of the most diverse temperate areas in the world and is one of the global hotspots for salamanders. The GSME also is an important region for conserving rare species such as Eastern Hellbenders, Bog Turtles, and Timber Rattlesnakes. It is an important region for The Orianne Society to work in because while there is a great deal of conservation and management in the region there is no group that focuses on the suite of rare reptiles and amphibians that make the landscape so special.
Despite the majority of the higher elevations in the region being protected in National Forest, there are multiple threats to reptiles and amphibians in the region. Most of these threats deal with human development and the resulting impacts. But there are also significant impacts in the disruption of natural disturbance regimes and social reluctance to implement management that would imitate some of the affects.
The economy of the Southern Appalachian Highlands is driven by tourism and second home development. While there are few cities in the region there is extensive development of rural homes. People understandably want to escape colder climates to the north or hotter climates to the South, but this has resulted in boom in the second home market and pressure on any areas that are not protected in National Forest. These extensive but dispersed development patterns result in widespread impacts on streams through siltation, makes active forest management such as prescribed fire more difficult to implement, and causes species such as rattlesnakes to encounter humans and end up killed more often.
The development of homes and the supporting roads and utilities has increased siltation of rivers and creeks. Much of the diversity in the region can be found in these rivers and creeks and many of those species depend on cold clear water and rocky substrates. As these creeks become silted many species that make the region so special, such as salamanders, fish, and invertebrates, disappear.
Natural disturbances that historically maintained diverse-age class or healthy forests (such as fire, ice storms, beavers, and large ungulates, have largely disappeared from the region. The result is much of the forests are even-age old forests. Older forest is important but so are young- and intermediate-age forests and as the diversity of forest age structure is lost so is biodiversity. The influx of second home owners (with perspectives such as prescribed fire and forestry is bad) is making it difficult for the Forest Service to implement management on the forest that would increase overall diversity and benefit species such as rattlesnakes and Bog Turtles.
Conservation in Action
The Orianne Society works with public and private landowners to conserve rare species in the region. We work with private landowners to improve habitat for rare species and minimize contact with venomous snakes that are often persecuted. We work closely with public landowners such as the United States Forest Service to implement species inventory and monitoring and to ensure habitats are managed for rare reptiles and amphibians.
We work with private landowners to lower persecution of rattlesnakes using education outreach, assessments of their property to minimize features that attract snakes, and by translocating snakes that end up around people's houses.
We work with public and private landowners to restore stream habitat for species such as Eastern Hellbenders. As an example, we work with farmers to keep cattle out of streams by fencing them, while providing watering sites in upland areas.