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This Month in the Ohio Woods: June

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“The State of Ohio, containing about 40,000 square miles, was once a magnificent hardwood forest. The forest types, thanks to the records of early surveyors, have been largely mapped. Yet it is almost impossible to form an adequate picture, from any surviving records, of the appearance of that forest. The state has its full share of memorials– statues, libraries, institutions; some useful, some not; some beautiful, many ugly. But somehow it never occurred to anyone to set aside a square mile, much less a township six miles square, of primeval vegetation for future generations to see and enjoy. Yet this could have been done for less than the cost of a single pile of stone of dubious artistic and cultural merit.” P.B. Sears, 1953.

Baneberry or “Doll’s Eyes”,
photo by Chris Graham

If you live in Ohio, you are in the Temperate Broadleaf Forest biome. That is your home!! Our home forest once spanned the entire eastern half of the U.S., from Maine all the way down into Florida. You may remember our Eastern Temperate Broadleaf Forest Quiz from last month, well here are the answers, and so much more. The story of our Ohio forest is a very old one, and this month we will pick up a few threads of the story in our interview with Nancy Stranahan, Co-director of The Arc of Appalachia Preserve.

Nancy encouraging us to fill up this
empty turtle shell with healthy Ohio

Mandy: Okay, Nancy, the first question on our quiz was to name five types of temperate forest trees at the species level. So the answer to that question could be quite lengthy! Any thoughts?

Nancy: You know, I read somewhere that the average person can name 300 brand names by logo, but not 3 native forest trees at the species level. It’s amazing how disconnected we’ve become from the forest we live in. It’s become this backdrop.

Mandy: How many species of trees live in the eastern temperate broadleaf forest of the U.S.?

Nancy: There are about 250 species of trees. Most woodland areas are dominated by 4-12 species, with a few odd things thrown in. In a large block of high biodiversity, such as the Smoky Mountains, there could be around 80-85 species of trees in a wooded area.

Mandy: Where did you get your figures?

Nancy: Peterson’s A Field Guide to Eastern Trees is a good book for that.

Mandy: Question 2 was what climate conditions our forests require.

Nancy: Yes, we are the porridge that’s not too hot and not too cold. Our forest needs moderate rainfall in every month of the year, and at least one month averaging below freezing. If it was colder here, we’d be in boreal forest. If it was warmer, it would be subtropical forest. We also have the right amount of moisture, we’re not in the dry pine forests which are guided by fire, or the grasslands. The temperature in Ohio is truly “temperate”– as in kind and gentle.

Mandy: Our forest is one of the earth’s 13 biomes. Question 3 was, where are the three places in the world where this biome can be found?

The Temperate Broadleaf Forest Biome around the world, almost all of this forest is gone

Nancy: Temperate broadleaf forests can be found here, in Europe, and in eastern China. But most of what’s left of it can be found in the U.S. So we really have a window here to protect it, it’s in our hands. Our sister forest in China has a counterpoint to almost every species we have. But Europe, that’s interesting. In Europe, the glaciers knocked out most of the diversity. In China and the U.S, our mountain systems run north-south, so our forests went way south when the glaciers came. But in Europe, the mountains run more east-west, and so when the glaciers came, the forest was trapped. It hit the Alps, and then died out. So Europe has lost its forest diversity over the last 2 million years. In the U.S, we have an amazing array of oak species. in Britain, for example, there’s only one, the English Oak. I keep waiting for someone to do some eastern forest home decor– we have such beautiful oak, and it’s so durable! Can you imagine, building your house out of something so strong, it could last 500 years or more?

Temperate forest in China,
photo by Zhehao Shen

Mandy: On that note, How old is the temperate broadleaf forest?

Nancy: It’s probably about a 40 million year old phenomenon. Paleobotanists believe it once may have been circumpolar, spanning the northern temperate latitudes. Some of the earliest species may be even up to 65 million years old.

Mandy: What are some of our oldest species?

Nancy: Sycamores, tuliptrees, magnolias and sweet gums are some of the oldest. I don’t like to say this, but sometimes I think our forests are too old. We are losing our forests to really young, aggressive, universalist species. Our forests are starting to look like our supermarkets. Tree of heaven is everywhere, garlic mustard, honeysuckle. Some of our major tree species are well on their way to becoming functionally extinct– ash trees, American elms. The American chestnut is already gone. The eastern hemlock is on its way out, and this is a keystone species. Warblers follow this species from north to south in their migration.

Left: American chestnut burr. Right: Historical image of a full-grown American chestnut. Once one of our most abundant trees, it is now functionally extinct

Mandy: Question 4 is, which of the earth’s thirteen terrestrial biomes is considered the most disturbed?

Nancy: It’s ours!!  Can you believe that? Not the tropical rainforest, not the grasslands. Our biome was the secondary birthplace of agriculture, and industrialization as a concept was born here and spread from here. On earth, we still have considerable boreal and tropical forests, but this one is basically gone. The culture of the Native Americans was in balance with it. What remains of our forest today in the East has everything to do with our indigenous history.

Ladyslipper orchid,
photo by Chris Graham

Mandy: Why was this biome so conducive to industry?

Nancy: Well for a lot of reasons. But in my opinion, Northern climates just tend to have more inventiveness in terms of technology. We have a lot of idle time in the winter, when we just kind of go up into our heads. Tropical climates tend to mellow people. Take a look at yourself on a July afternoon from 2-4 pm and you’ll understand why!

Mandy: So, Question 5 was to name four species of birds that lived in the Eastern U.S. that have become extinct since European settlement. You said that one of these species was so common at one time, that it was estimated to be one out of every 6 birds on the planet. Which one was that?

Nancy: This was the passenger pigeon. At times, flocks of these birds were so large that they could blot out the sunlight while flying overhead. A flock would land to feed, and they would be so numerous and docile in their nesting colonies, that Native Americans could simply walk up and pluck the squabs off of the trees, and eat them.

Martha, the last
passenger pigeon

The other species which have become extinct are the Carolina parakeet, the great auk, and the Labrador duck. The Carolina parakeet was an immensely charismatic species, that would have added a lot of personality to our forest. It was bright green, chatty, and very abundant. It was methodically killed off by farmers because it was hell on orchards. This is sort of a characteristic story: ornithologists knew the parakeets were disappearing, so they went to Florida and found the last flock, and killed a number of them to bring back to a museum. The last Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinnati Zoo, around 1915. But this is an important lesson: extinctions are not about the rare. Abundance will not protect. Just look at bison, chestnut trees, ash trees, box turtles. Sometimes it is more dangerous for a species to be abundant, people take it for granted that there are so many of them. We have eco-myopia, we only tend to see the small picture.

Carolina parakeet

Mandy: For Question 5, you had given us a list of groups of animal species, and you said that the U.S boasted more than 30% of the world’s species for five of those groups. You said that for one of the groups, we hold over 50% of the world’s species! Which one was that?

Nancy: The United States claims 61% of the world’s crayfish! And the majority of those species belong to our country’s Eastern temperate forest.

Mandy: I’ve been reading a lot of cookbooks lately, and more than once I’ve heard French authors jealously lamenting our abundance of crayfish.

Left: Crayfish. Right: These rocks in the Rocky Fork Creek are known as “The Three Sisters”, at the Cave Canyon Preserve, photo by Josh Grossman

Nancy: So, the other groups we have at least 30% of the world’s species in are freshwater snails, salamanders, freshwater mussels and aquatic stoneflies. It’s our waterways. Our forests are similar to eastern China’s in most ways, except in the horserace of waterways, we pull ahead.

Mandy: It’s so funny, because a frequent complaint in Columbus is “I won’t eat fish in any place that doesn’t have a coastline.” Which is so strange to say, given our abundance of rivers and lakes.

Ohio’s massive network of
rivers, image by the Ohio
Department of Natural
Resources (Click to enlarge)

Nancy: Oh my gosh! Wow! See, I much prefer the taste of freshwater fish to saltwater fish. Wow, I never thought of that. How strange. You know, a long time ago in Ohio, the Native Americans were able to have one of the most highly advanced cultures in world history, without a major dependence upon agriculture. For example, the Hopewell. So much of the food was river-based, and it was so abundant.

Mandy: I also keep reading regional recipes for seafood from around the world, and so many of them say “Only this type of fish should be used to make this recipe authentic, but those fish can’t be found anymore, so substitute this other fish instead…” All the rivers are fished out. All the fish are going away, all over the world.

Rocky Fork creek,
photo by Josh Grossman

Nancy: Yes. I know we have exterminated most of the top predatory sharks around the eastern U.S. coastline, so now the mid-predators are exploding. They have almost destroyed our scallop industries.

Mandy: In Question 7, you listed species that eastern North America and eastern China share, that are not naturally found in Europe. You said there was one species on your list that is only naturally found here, and not in China. What was it?

Nancy: Witch-hazel! It is only in the U.S.

Mandy: Oh wow, witch-hazel, the astringent I use on my face. I didn’t know it was so special [author’s note: I have since seen pictures of what is purportedly Chinese witch hazel].

Nancy: Yes, both eastern North America and eastern China have hemlock trees, pawpaws, mayapples, jack-in-the-pulpits, rhododendrons, ginsengs, trilliums, hickories, tuliptrees, paddlefish, alligators, giant salamanders, and flying squirrels!

Irises in Goodale Park,
photo by Chris Graham

Mandy: You said that most of our current native mammals originated in Eurasia, and only migrated to North America later. You listed some families of animals and said that four of them had actually originated here, what were they?

Nancy: Well squirrels are originally from North America, and only migrated to Eurasia a few million years ago. The dog family– including wolves, coyotes and foxes– originated here. Camels originated here! However, all cameloids went extinct in the New World except the llama relatives in South America. Horses developed here, then later went extinct in this part of the world. Mustangs and other wild horses of North America are reverted from domestic horses that escaped from Europeans during colonial times.

Mandy: You said that paleobotanists can often assign unidentified leaf fossils to prehistoric temperate forest ecosystems just by their appearance, because temperate tree leaves tend to possess distinctive characteristics. You gave us four examples and said one of them was NOT distinctive to temperate forests. Which one was it?

Nancy: The answer was A. Leaves in equatorial rainforests almost always have this shape, where leaves need to have water run off of them as quickly as possible so they don’t grow algae and epiphytes. The dissected shape of an oak leaf, in contrast, is found only in temperate climates.

Mandy: You said that a person born in 1940 and dying in 2020 will likely see 7-10 tree species become functionally extinct in the eastern temperate forest. Which species that you listed would be functionally extinct, and which species are least likely to go extinct?

Nancy: As we’ve said, the American chestnut is already extinct, and the American elm, white ash and eastern hemlock may be on their way out. But the sugar maple is doing well, and in fact is even spreading further north with the warming climate trend.

Wild strawberry flowers,
photo by Chris Graham

Mandy: You quoted someone saying that “an intact temperate forest has thousands of organisms, only a few of which are trees”. The largest chunk of old-growth forest left in the forest heartland is in the Great Smoky Mountains, a region being actively bio-inventoried. Approximately how many multi-cellular species do scientists expect to find when they finish with the project?

Nancy: They expect to find around 100,000 organisms, just in that one chunk of forest! As soon as you conduct a timber harvest on old-growth, the species count drops in half. The drop is not so much in trees. The drop occurs in the little things, like fungus, insects, and salamanders.

Mandy: Does an old-growth forest really claim more species of plants and animals when compared to a healthy secondary forest? What is the ratio of old-groth diversity to secondary forest diversity?

Mertensia (Virginia bluebells),
photo by Chris Graham

Nancy: An old growth forest has two times the species of a secondary forest.

Mandy: You said the temperate forest of the eastern U.S. can claim about 250 species of trees. Of the original temperate forest that once covered the eastern third of the United States, approximately how much of it remains as natural undisturbed old-growth forest?

Nancy: There is only about .05% of old-growth eastern forest left. Most of these old trees are unrecognizable to the average person– they are the trees that were too small for timber value, growing on marginal low-fertility soils.  The old, old trees are sometimes ones that nobody wanted to cut.

Ducks in Goodale Park pond, photo by Chris Graham

Mandy: You said that unadulterated forest soils are living earth membranes teaming with organisms, and that good healthy garden soils have a bacteria to fungus weight ratio of 1:1. Which ratio of bacteria to fungus can be expected in healthy eastern forest soil?

Nancy: In healthy forest soil, there should be at least 50 times the weight of fungi to every measure of bacteria, up to x200. Our soils are highly driven by fungus decomposition. Mushrooms in quantities are a temperate phenomenon.

Mandy: I remember you telling that story about an experiment where certain trees in a woodland were shaded with tarps, and the scientists expected them to die from lack of sunlight. But many of them didn’t, and it was theorized that the shaded trees were sent nutrients along an underground network of fungus that lived in symbiosis with the trees. Amazing!

Nancy: Yes, we project separateness onto trees, but all are connected by the diversity of life.

Mandy: The eastern temperate forest has exceptional diversity in one group of organisms that you listed, which one was it?

Nancy: Well, it’s not woody trees, birds, butterflies, or grasses. It’s aquatic life. Our rivers provide our biodiversity.

Mandy: I remember you saying that beavers can really make a difference when it comes to rivers.

Beaver hard at work, photo by Michael Leps

Nancy: Yes, beavers can take a place with no wetlands and turn it into 15% wetlands. People are often frightened of the beaver’s power. They are intimidated by capacity to be agents of change. But if we could put up with our beavers, we could really be a responsible and advanced society.

Mandy: In Question 17, you listed lungless salamanders, hellbenders and mudpuppies, darter fish, and snapping turtles. You said three of these groups are found only in North America. Which ones?

Nancy: Lungless salamanders, darter fish, and snapping turtles are all true North American endemics! But hellbenders and mudpuppies are also found in Eurasia.

Mandy: In a healthy old temperate forest in the Smokies, the greatest vertebrate biomass by weight, per acre comes from what?

Nancy: Believe it or not, in a healthy temperate forest, there will be more salamanders, by weight per acre, than deer or bear or anything else. But they nearly disappear with a severe disturbance in the canopy. Most logging diminishes habitat for salamanders. They need just the right shade, just the right moisture. They need dead wood, on the ground and standing. Dead wood, in this way, is one of the signs of a healthy forest.

Rocky Fork creek, photo by Josh Grossman

Mandy: Well, that takes care of the quiz. Thanks so much for writing it, I learned a lot!

Nancy: Don’t forget to credit Bruce Lombardo, as well, he helped a lot with writing the quiz!

Mandy: Okay, well thanks Nancy. Maybe I’ll see you soon!

Nancy: Okay, thank you too!!

The person who pm’ed me with the most correct answers from last month’s quiz has been found, and they will be receiving a free “Preserve Locally” t-shirt by Skreened!

Next month: A Butterfly and Flower Spectacular at Ka-Ma-Ma Prairie, and a Tree Identification Course at the Arc of Appalachia.

Kamama Prairie in full bloom, photo by John Howard

See you next month in the woods!


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