Project WILD Teacher Resource Guide
The Coastal Plain typically has a moderate climate with hot humid summers and mild winters. There is an average of 51 inches of rain, which comes from both convective thunderstorms in spring and summer and occasional hurricanes in fall.
Habitat Highlight: Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass
Longleaf Pine trees tend to grow widely spaced, creating an open park-like forest. Sometimes these forests appeared more like grasslands with scattered pine trees than true forests. At first glance a Longleaf Pine-Wiregrass forest appears to be composed of only two or three species, but the herbaceous understory forms one of the most diverse plant communities north of the tropics. In some areas over 40 plant species per square meter is not uncommon. In all, hundreds of species of grasses, legumes and other herbaceous plants grow beneath the pines. Many of these plant species are only found in the Longleaf Pine forest. Another defining feature of the Longleaf Pine forest and one that played an important role in its decline, is the forests dependence upon fire. In fact, fire is a crucial factor in maintaining many plant communities and is absolutely essential to the survival of the Longleaf Pine Wiregrass community. Without fire hardwoods grow up through the Longleaf Pine, competing for light, nutrients and space. Fire suppression throughout much of the last century contributed to the decline of Longleaf Pine forests.
Historically, fires started by lightning strikes swept through the understory every three to five years, burning back shrubs and hardwoods. Mature Longleaf Pine were protected from fire by thick heat-resistant bark. Native Americans also burned the understory to manage for game, and early European settlers burned to maintain good forage for cattle in forest understory.
Blow downs are the chief natural cause for mortality among mature Longleaf Pine trees. Older trees rise above the canopy, exposing them to direct wind. Without windstorms, it seems that the Longleaf Pine trees show very little signs of aging and can live for many hundreds of years.
Key Plants: Longleaf Pine
Every stage of the Longleaf Pines life depends on fire. The seeds require bare mineral soil to germinate. These soils are typically found after a fire has burned off the leaf litter. The germinated seed grows into the grass stage, which looks like a low growing bunch grass. Closer observation will show that the leaves are actually pine needles. The Longleaf Pine can remain in the grass stage for many years, awaiting a fire to clear the way for its growth. The dense clusters of needles protect the growth cells from this releasing fire. After a fire burns through, clearing brush away from the pine seedling, the tree enters the rocket stage. This involves a rapid period of growth during which the tree is vulnerable to fire. Once freed from the understory, the tree can continue to grow and eventually become a canopy tree. As it grows, it develops thick bark that protects it from subsequent fires.
Key Animals: Birds
Predators, such as rat snakes and other woodpeckers, can significantly decrease nest success. In order to discourage predators RCWs often drill many small holes around their nest hole to release sap making it difficult for snakes to get into the nest.
Habitat Highlight: Carolina Bays
The unique distribution, shape and orientation of Carolina Bays have generated some interesting speculation about their origins. Some hypothesized that meteor showers caused craters, which then filled with water. This dramatic origin is supported by the similar alignment of the Bays, but no meteoric fragments have been found. A more probable hypothesis suggests that gale-force winds during the last glacial period scooped these depressions out of the sandy soil. Sandy ridges occurring on the eastern side of many Carolina Bays support this hypothesis. Whatever their origin, Carolina Bays along with cypress and gum ponds are important inland wetlands that provide habitat for a wide range of plants and animals.
Carolina Bays are underlain by a clay layer that keeps the water from draining through the otherwise porous soil of the Coastal Plain. Carolina Bays tend to be isolated from other bodies of water, so their only access to water is rainfall. Water loss comes from evaporation and plant transpiration.
Carolina Bays tend to have some peat development, which is a layer of partially decomposed plant matter. Peat forms when plant production exceeds the rate of decomposition. Decomposition rates are slow in wetlands due to the lack of oxygen in the soil. Several Georgia Bays have peat deposits over 14 feet deep, the end product of about 9,000 years of plant decomposition.
Peaty saturated soils tend to become highly acidic (pH 4.5) creating a stressful environment for plants, leading to a limited plant community. Plants that can thrive in these oxygen poor acidic soils are called hydrophilic or water loving. Pond Cypress (Taxodium acendus) dominate in bays that are flooded for extended periods, while more irregularly flooded habitats maintain Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and Pond Pine (Pinus serotina) as well. Pickerel Weed (Pontedara cordata) and Water Lily (Nymphoea stellata) dominate open water habitat.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, fire plays an important role in the maintenance of Carolina Bays. During dry periods, peat becomes flammable, and lightning strikes can ignite fires that burn off woody vegetation and layers of peat. Historically, Bays probably burned about every 25 years, keeping them from growing over with vegetation. This is a great example of how a disturbance regime can play an important role in habitat maintenance.
Human impacts on Carolina Bays have been dramatic. Many have been drained and cut for farming and timber. Peat mining and fire suppression have both led to declining quality of our Carolina Bays. Carolina Bays offer an excellent place to learn about the importance of wetlands in the Georgia landscape. Unfortunately, wetlands are often viewed as inhospitable wastelands, dominated by things that bite, sting and otherwise impede human progress. This attitude has led to a loss of more that 50% of our wetlands in the US and threatens many of our unique wetlands in Georgia.
The benefits of wetlands are hard to overestimate. They provide critical habitat for many plant and animal species that could not survive in other habitats. They are also critical for water management as they absorb and store vast quantities of storm water, helping reduce floods and recharge aquifers. Not only do wetlands store water like sponges, they also filter and clean water as well, absorbing toxins and other pollutants.
Key Animals: Altamaha
Key Animals: American Alligator
Due to excessive hunting and wetland draining, American Alligators were placed on the Endangered Species list in the 1970s. In the last 30 years American Alligators have made a remarkable comeback, and there are currently an estimated 2 million Alligators in the southeastern United States.
Alligators serve many important roles in the swamps of Georgia. They keep rodents and other grazing species under control. Alligators also create wallows, which stay wet even if the surrounding swamp dries out. These wallows or gator holes provide watery refuges for aquatic plants and animals that would otherwise dry up and die during times of drought.
Key Plants: Pond Cypress
Both species of Cypress are valuable timber species, and many of the states most impressive stands have been cut. The wood is of particular value due to its resistance to rot and insect infestation.
Key Plants: Pitcher Plants
Pitcher Plants have tube-shaped leaves (known as the pitcher) that form a trap when partially filled with water. Insects are lured into the pitcher with sweet nectar. A waxy layer on the inside of the pitcher, coupled with many downward pointing hairs, makes it difficult for insects to escape. Once they fall into the water, they drown and are digested by enzymes the plants produce.
Building a Pitcher Plant Bog is a fairly easy way to encourage children to observe these carnivorous plants close up.
Other Key Species:
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