Above is Temnothorax tuscaloosae a new species (to Georgia) found with my nieces.
I took my nieces out for a day hiking in the woods and we traveled by car and hiked along some of my favorite trails in Northwest GA. Stop one was a plateau ridge trail on top of Pigeon Mountain. It is a place where nobs of sandstone have weathered away to create incredibly beautiful mushroom shaped and other morphologically-odd boulders. As sandstone weathers slower and has fewer soil enriching elements than many mineral rich rocks, the layer of topsoil here is thin and nutrient poor. Typical stands of trees include dwarfed hickories, pines, and oak trees often with a grass vegetative layer reminiscent of open long leaf pine savannahs in the lower piedmont region of GA. These open montane woodlands may be less common than in the past due to fire suppression which has increased the shrubby sub-canopy layer and other fire intolerant trees.
Below are examples of variability in habitats along the Pigeon Mountain Rock Town Trail.
It seems that water should be scarce in these sandy well drained soils, but micro-habitats called sag ponds occur and were formed in this region as underground caves collapsed and created surface depressions. Rain washed silt, sediment and organic matter into these depressions which, over time packs the sandy soil water-tight creating these ponds, and so unseen caves became above ground ponds! These ponds, although scarce, occur with some regularity, even on the tops of ridges and plateaus in this region. These ponds house many species of plants normally found further south and are considered rare communities in GA.
The open woodlands occur naturally in patches without fire and in rocky areas with little soil, but it is thought that the native Americans of this region used fire to maintain the openness of forests over the majority of the last 10,000 years. Open woodlands would have increased preferred ground vegetation for foraging deer and other wildlife and in essence fire-maintained habitats insured a sustainable hunting ground for these early natives. I find it interesting that these early Americans may have influenced natural plant and animal community assemblages over such a long period of time that included a major warming period after the last ice age. Thus, humans-with-fire would have affected the survivability of many plants and animals with consistency in a changing environment. So now when the forest service decides how to manage these forest, the question is -what is being managed for when we introduce fire management (again)? I’m fine for the goal of a management to be simply for biodiversity, but natural changes occur and I wonder if we are trying to capture a snapshot in time by managing lands with rigid schedules. Something that may increase biodiversity at present, but decrease biodiversity over time. We hardly understand long-term changes in plant and animal communities. Even on small time scales forests are rarely observed as long as a single human lifespan. – oh the thoughts that occur as you wander the woods…
Pictured above is stop two, a typical ridge along Taylor’s Ridge, the westernmost sandstone ridge of the ridge and valley physiographic region, which fingers along the southern base of the Cumberland Plateau.
Although in my research I am now trying to measure or quantify characteristics of habitats that might be important to ant diversity, at present my not-scientific gut says that abiotic heterogeneity may largely predict the number of ants I find in a given habitat. There is no environment so physically-variable than a rocky montane landscape. Maybe there is nothing so gratifying to my sense of discovery as flipping rocks to see what might live beneath, and under these rocks it is easy to see how basic physical differences may affect tiny creatures. Under one rock it is bone dry, under another -marshy, sandy, silty, cavernous, flat, deep, shallow, hot, or cold. This is a place of rocks and I’m not so sure if it is my favoritism of this landscape and therefore it is my extra effort in rock-flipping that results in a higher personal discovery rate (of ants) or if there are actual real differences in ant diversity here compared to a flat, rockless landscape. I expect my science to tell me how they differ, but when I’m out with my nieces I just want to get lost in the woods and have them experience something I cherish.
Though three of my four nieces went to the woods, only one stayed out for the entire day. Above, Pictured at our third stop at Keown Falls, GA, is my niece Farrah with forceps, on a log, experiencing discovery, and going outside. By this time she had already seen two species of army ants (Neivamyrmex nigrescens & N. carolinensis), fire-ants (Solenopis invicta X richteri), a small shy nut nesting ant not previously known from GA Temnothorax tuscaloosae (pictured at top), Temnothorax ambiguus (another state record from the habitat pictured at Taylor’s Ridge), watched Temnothorax schaumii duck around peanut butter baited bark crevices, helped me collect Temnothorax curvispinosus in bamboo stems, saw Temnothorax longispinosus, and found Temnothorax pergandei nesting in hickory nuts (Carya glabra), she saw Seed dispersing Aphaenogaster spp., and many other ant species as well. When I asked her which ones she liked best, she could tell me which species she liked best (she had learned many species by their common names but she could mainly distinguish them by describing the different ways they moved!). She said “fire ants are boring, all they did was come out of their mound and look lost”, and that her favorite were the army ants because they ran low to the ground, had quickly moving antennae, and moved in lines. She thought that although army ants are tough and fierce, and they ate other ant babies, they weren’t so mean to people. Once we got back to my parents house where we were staying, she pushed through her tiredness to stay up and help me blow out Temnothorax curvispinosus ant colonies out of bamboo sticks and count them as we placed them into one-dram vials. At ten O’clock, way past her bedtime, her mother (my sister) told her she had to go to bed. She told her to “wait” -annoyed that her mother would interfere with the importance of her science! As she finished with her head nodding off and with eyes that needed toothpicks to hold them open, she stumbled up the stairs to her bed as she told me she might not want to be an ant-scientist when she grew up, but said “maybe I’ll be a whale scientist”.