Another turn around the sun brings us to my favorite time of the year: fall! It’s no secret that autumn is the best: with color-changing trees, wild swings in weather, and most importantly: Halloween! Even though many places aren’t doing the usual Halloween festivities this year because of COVID-19, there are still ways to safely celebrate the season: Like learning about all of the spooky-themed BOOdiversity of the South. Let’s get started!
The US South is one of the most biodiverse regions in the country and even in the world. Don’t believe me? Check out these maps from biodiversitymapping.org! There are many amphibian, reptile, and fish species that call the US South home. Part of the reason our biodiversity is off the charts is because we have many “endemic” species. An endemic species is one that occurs in a very restricted area and nowhere else in the world. Endemic species might live in particular streams or caves or be special subspecies of more common plants and animals.
What’s More Dangerous Than Bats? Humans.
What’s spookier than a cave? The animals that live inside, of course! Many unique critters live in caves across the US South. At first glance, caves don’t seem too livable: they’re dark, they can have poisonous gases, and they’re damp and cold, too! What might not be very livable for humans, however, can be a great boon to cave-dwelling animals.
The most iconic cave-dwelling animal is the bat. There are at least 32 species of bats in North America. Bats are mammals, just like us, but they live in dark places like caves or under bridges, coming out at night to forage on fruit and insects. They’re a favorite to watch for as the sun is setting, and large colonies can draw large (human) crowds to watch as they go out for the night.
Despite being a feared animal, bats are actually very important to their ecosystem. Did you know that a single bat can eat hundreds of mosquitos in a night? Now that’s an ecosystem service I can get behind! Bats around here don’t attack humans or suck blood, but, like other wild animals, they can transmit rabies, so be sure to look but don’t touch.
Unfortunately, many of our bat species are in decline. The primary culprit is an unusual fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, infecting and killing entire colonies. First detected in 2006, white-nose syndrome has wiped out countless bats, and it is quickly spreading across the United States. Cases of white-nose syndrome have been linked to humans traveling between infected and uninfected caves. Researchers have tried closing off caves where bats live in an attempt to prevent humans from accidentally spreading the infections. It’s slowing, but not stopping the threat entirely.
Even before white-nose syndrome, bats were in trouble. Like many species, bats are vulnerable to the effects of human-induced climate change. The rapidly changing weather patterns are affecting how and when bats can get food. The sooner we can get climate change under control, the sooner our bats can prosper once more.
Why Are Worms Extra Spooky?
As a popular Halloween treat, jello worms is a good way to scare your friends and neighbors. But real worms can be just as scary! Did you know that most of the worms that we see today are invasive? That’s right! Even if you’re taught in school that worms are good for the soil, the fact is that they weren’t always here. When Europeans colonized North America, and stole the land from Indigenous peoples, they brought along their plants, soil, and earthworms.
Why are earthworms so scary? Well, our forests are an intricate ecosystem, and earthworms are seriously disturbing it. Basically, forests without earthworms have their soils decomposing at a different, slower rate, than forests with earthworms. The change in decomposition rate creates a change in the available nutrients in the forest floor, which in turn, can affect which plant species grow. When you change all of these things, you end up changing the ecosystem, which means that it might not be able to support the animal species that it used to be able to support. You know, the butterfly effect…the earthworm effect?
The worst part? It’s not just nightcrawlers. Scientists have detected a species called the jumping worm in some forests. Jumping worms are potentially worse because they live in large, dense colonies close to the surface, draining the topsoil of nutrients more efficiently than other earthworm species. Also, they jump. Shivers.
Things That Go AWOOOOOO In The Night
In the first few weeks after I brought my trusty hound dog, Bud, home, I would walk him in the evenings before bed. One of those nights, as we stepped out the door, he let out the first growl I’d ever heard him make – deep and low in his chest. I looked up and across the street, and there was a silhouette of a big, bushy haired creature moving very slowly across my neighbor’s driveway. Never the one for heroics…we went back inside. While peering out the window to watch from a safe distance, I soon realized that it was my neighbor’s elderly husky — not a coyote.
My poor eyesight aside, coyotes live everywhere in the US: even in cities and suburbs. Coyotes are important members of our ecosystem. In the South, coyotes prey on mostly small game: rabbits, nutria, raccoons, and squirrels. Unfortunately, outdoor cats and small dogs are also at risk of being food for coyotes. But humans are generally safe from interactions with coyotes, and a loud voice and a stick can scare them off if they get too curious.
Coyotes are one of the only large predators we have left in the ecosystem, because we drove wolves and cougars to extinction here in the Eastern US. We need coyotes, even if we think they’re a little creepy: without them, small species like groundhogs and raccoons would become overpopulated, spreading disease, getting hit by cars, and causing damage to our properties. Coyotes do more yipping than howling, but their cries are magical and musical, and yes – just a little bit spooky.
Did you enjoy learning about my favorite spooky season? If so, why not show us?
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