A Southern Appalachian Mountain Nature High

Since we are “homeless” during the summer after selling our VA farm, we have been alternating trips to northern cooler climates with stays in Englewood, FL. We have been exploring the possibility of buying a summer home near Boone, NC, and visited with family in WV near Seneca Rocks. The southern Appalachians are a beautiful area for the nature enthusiast in early summer, especially at the high altitudes. I was amazed by what I found near Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia (4862 feet). There are fantastic red spruce forests that seem relatively intact compared with similar habitats in VA which have been logged, grazed and damaged by insect pests.

The flowers were magnificent. Just to give three very different examples, consider a native rose, the fire pink and a large purple fringed orchid. The flat pink rose is mainly pollinated by bumblebees using buzz pollination (the bee vibrates its body to release the pollen). The bright red fire pink has a tubular corolla tube and its nectar attracts hummingbirds and butterflies with long tongues. The large purple fringed orchid was reported by Stan Bentley to be mainly pollinated by the silver-spotted skipper.

Butterflies were abundant on warm days. The gray hair streak has an interesting pattern/color that presents a false head on the rear of the wings to divert the attacks of predators away from more crucial body parts. Note the eye spots and the false antennae. Yet the azure butterfly of about the same size has none of these patterns and may have behavioral means of minimizing predation. The pipevine swallowtail feeds on a toxic plant (Aristolochia) as a caterpillar and passes this on to the adult where it is used to protect against birds. This black and blue pattern has apparently been used as a source of mimicry by a number of other butterflies (female black tiger, red spotted purple, spicebush swallowtail, etc).

Mimicry also seems to be involved between wasps and flies. The eastern yellow jacket (a queen shown here) is yellow and black and has a powerful sting. Various harmless flies mimic the yellow and black coloration to gain protection from birds. This bee fly was nectaring on flowers of a mountain maple (flower stalk sticks up unlike the striped maple with downward flower stalk which occurs at lower elevations).

The large fritillary butterfly at higher elevations is the aphrodite (differs in presence of a small dark spot on each fore wing and a narrow white band on the outside hind wing) whereas at lower elevations the sibling species great spangled fritillary is abundant. Note that the tasty aphrodite has a number of bite marks in the rear margin of its hind wing, showing some narrow escapes from hungry birds.

I strongly recommend a summer visit to the high elevation forests of the southern Appalachians to provide a very interesting perspective on the ecology of northern forests and wetlands. Florida is also wonderful in summer, but very different.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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