In the Land and Water sections, we talk a lot about the physical characteristics of the Catawba and North Fork Valleys, but we haven’t addressed anything about what lives in these environments. In this section, we will discuss the ecosystems, or networks of plants and animals that live in our forests, fields, and streams, as well as some of the threats and challenges they face. Though we discuss them as separate ecosystems, they all overlap and affect each other.
The forests of the southeastern Appalachians region are considered to be among the most biologically diverse in the world.1 Because this region was not covered in glaciers during the last ice age, many forest species which were wiped out by ice and cold in other regions continue to thrive here.2 When we talk about forest ecology, we are talking about trees and other vegetation that grows below the canopy, as well as the birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects that co-exist to make the forest a living system. There is a LOT of information out there about forest ecosystems in this region — one good source is the Forest Encyclopedia, which is maintained by the US Forest Service Southern Research Center.
The trees that make up the forests in the Catawba and North Fork Valleys are generally mixed hardwoods, though the specific tree species growing in a spot depends on the quality of the site. Site quality includes factors like soil types, the direction of the slope (or aspect), and the elevation, which all affects the depth of soil, the moisture that the soil can hold, and the nutrients available to the trees.3 The forests in this region are typically referred to as an “oak-chestnut region,” even though the majority of the chestnut trees have fallen victim to the Chestnut blight. The dominant oaks in our forests tend to be Black Oak, Scarlet Oak, Northern Red Oak, White Oak, and Chestnut Oak. In drier areas, we see pines including Virginia, Pitch, Shortleaf and Table Mountain Pines. Other common species are White Pine, Black Gum, Black Birch, Pignut Hickory, Black Walnut, and Red Maple.4 Find out what trees are around your house using this tree ID guide.
In addition to the trees, the forest supports a wide variety of “non-timber forest products” including edible and medicinal plants, nuts and berries, mushrooms, and ornamental plants and vines. There are large and growing markets for these products, which for some landowners can provide a means of offsetting the costs of forest management.
Most of the forestland in the area has been impacted by human activity over the last two centuries, meaning they may not be in great shape ecologically and might require management to improve their health5 A healthy forests provides many benefits for both wildlife and for humans. Beyond the market value of timber, healthy forests provide a range of services that happen in nature, which we rely on to live. These ecosystem services are things that we often take for granted, like filtering water, capturing and storing carbon, building soil, providing shade for our homes, and even just giving us piece of mind. These are all services which we don’t pay for, but if we had to replace them through technology or some other artificial means, would be VERY expensive. A market is starting to emerge for ecosystem services, where landowners can be compensated for providing and protecting these valuable services, but it is still in the early stages.
The wildlife living in the forests of this region is also quite diverse. We tend to just think of large animals like bear, deer, and turkey, but did you know that the Central and Southern Appalachians are actually a biodiversity hotspot because of our salamanders? Really, we have 30 species of salamanders here that you can’t find anywhere else in the world!6 So when we talk about the animals that comprise our forest ecosystems, we have to include ALL kinds of critters. We can only touch on a few here, but for a more exhaustive list of creatures that call our forests home, see the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries Wildlife Information page.
An exhaustive list of snails, beetles, butterflies,moths, and other invertebrates found in forests in the region can be found in the Southern Appalachian Forest Encyclopedia
The meadows and pastures of the valley also support rich ecosystems which frequently overlap with forest and stream ecosystems. Whether the field is left fallow and is allowed to become a wild meadow or is managed for forage and grazing, these areas support a range of plants and animals, as well as provide ecosystem services for communities around them.
What distinguishes a meadow from a pasture in this case is the management of the space for grazing. A meadow often left to grow all season and has a wide variety of wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs which provide food and shelter to different types of small mammals, birds, insects, and other living creatures. Meadows may need to be managed to control for or remove invasive species, which crowd out native plants. Meadows are critical habitat for the bobwhite quail, which has practically disappeared from the Catawba Valley. There is information about strategies and resources for establishing and managing meadows this in the Landcare Toolbox.
Plants, like animals, evolve over time. They adapt to the physical and biological characteristics of a region, meaning they become a key part of the ecology in a region. They adapt in order to survive and thrive in the climate and soil of a region. Meanwhile, plants and animals in the region are adapting to rely on each other to survive.7 It is important to maintain a healthy diversity of native plants because other species rely on them. Native grasses were a critical habitat for the bobwhite quail and when that habitat went away, so did the quail population. Wildflowers are important pollen and nectar sources for hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other insects that we rely on to pollinate our trees and crops. Native plants are really important to the ecosystem of the whole region AND they are easier to grow because they are adapted to the region!
Establishing and managing a meadow of native plants can require some effort and patience. There are plenty of resources about landscaping using native plants and restoring grassy meadows are listed in the Landcare Toolbox. For a complete list of plants native to specifically the mountainous western region of Virginia, their ideal uses and growing conditions, you can download this brochure.
Below are some of the more common native plants which can be grown in your meadows and gardens.
Animals that rely on the meadow habitat:
As we have mentioned, meadows and particularly the flowering plants and shrubs are a critical habitat for pollinators, which provide us the invaluable service of pollinating not only between flowers in the meadow, but also crops, trees, and plants around our homes. Bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other insects feed on the pollen and nectar, and transfer it from plant to plant on their bodies. The video below gives a great illustration of how pollinators do their job.
Other animals that rely on the plants in the meadow for food rely on both the field AND forest for shelter and protection. The edge or fringe habitat created where the field meets the forest is particularly important for these animals. It provides a quick refuge for animals fleeing predators as well as a protected area for predators such as hawks to hide and hunt from. As a result, some of the animals listed below are also listed above as part of the forest ecosystems. Like we said earlier, these ecosystems are interlinked and overlapping, making it even more critical that we care for ALL of the land.
Farm fields used for grazing can also support a thriving ecosystem for plants, animals, and important biological processes. Particularly when Best Management Practices such as rotational grazing, fencing livestock out of streams, maintaining hedgerows and forested buffers, and minimizing chemical inputs are employed, farm fields and pastures become a critical component to the regional ecology AND economy.
Farm fields provide a good habitat for certain types of wildlife, especially those which rely on the edge or border habitat we described in the meadow section. Ensuring that borders and hedgerows have trees, shrubs, and brush will create the necessary shelter for animals such as deer, rabbits, small rodents and the like. Of course, there is always the concern that by creating the habitat, we are also attracting predators such as hawks, coyotes, and foxes. This is certainly a possibility, as they are a key part of the ecosystem, but this should not deter farmers and landowners from managing and protecting for wildlife.8
A number of important processes and services which we rely on to eat and survive are also based in the ecosystems of pastures.9 These ecosystem services involve the grasses, animals, bugs, and soils of the pasture. One really important ecosystem service is the conversion of solar energy and other nutrients into an energy form we can use as humans. Plants and grasses use sunlight, carbon, water, and other nutrients to grow. A plant is then the consumable version of all of those critical elements for life. Human digestive systems can’t directly access the nutrients in some of those plants, but when they are consumed and used to grow livestock, they become accessible through the products of those animals.
Particularly when animals graze in pastures of native grasses as discussed earlier, this energy conversion system makes a lot of ecological sense. Rotational grazing, where animals are continuously rotated into different pastures (provided fresh water sources) increases the efficiency of this cycle because the nutrient waste from the animals is dispersed back across the pasture in limited amounts. The waste is broken down by insects and bacteria, becoming accessible to grasses and plants in the pasture. This add not only to the energy and nutrient conversion cycle, but also to the formation of topsoil. These practices add not only to the ecological health of the pasture and surrounding region, but it makes fields and animals healthier too. Studies have shown that rotational grazing and providing animals with off-stream water sources increases herd productivity and health, and reduces the fertilizers and inputs needed to maintain the pasture.10
In the Water section, we addressed the importance of water quality for both people relying on the valley’s creeks and streams for drinking water, but also for fish and insects living in the water. Here we talk more specifically about what lives in the creeks and streams in the Catawba Valley, what they need to survive, and they challenges they face.
Despite their size, the insects or invertebrates that live in our creeks and streams play a very important role in the stream’s ecosystem. Not only are they a major food source for fish and other animals, but they also serve as an excellent indicator of the health of the stream. When monitoring the quality of the water, bugs are used as a gauge how clean the water is. Water monitoring programs such as Virginia Save Our Streams looks specifically at Benthic Macroinvertebrates to measure water quality — “benthic” meaning those which live at the bottom of the creek or stream; “macro” meaning we can see and identify without using magnification; and invertebrate meaning they don’t have a spine. Most of these invertebrates are the larva of flying insects we know such as dragonflies and caddisflies.
Different types of these invertebrates can tolerate different levels of pollution. Some of these critters are like the cockroaches of the water — they can survive just about anywhere! Others are incredibly sensitive to pollution and can only survive in the most pristine of conditions. Unlike fish, these bottom-dwelling critters can’t swim away if they aren’t happy, so their presence or absence can be a good indicator of water quality. Click here to download a guide to benthic macroinvertebrates.
Virginia Save Our Streams has been monitoring water quality on the Catawba Creek for the last few years and have consistently found several types of benthic macroinvertebrates that indicate good water quality, including stoneflies, caddisflies, mayflies, and hellgrammites. There is a shortage of information about the North Fork — it’s really important that we collect it! (click here to learn how to become a volunteer water monitor).
Freshwater mussels are particularly important benthic invertebrates because as filter feeders, the actually remove dirt and algae from the water, helping to maintain and improve water clarity. There are several species of freshwater mussel which have inhabited the Catawba Creek and North Fork of the Roanoke River, though their numbers have dwindled drastically. The James spinymussel, which has been found in the Catawba Creek in Botetourt County, is listed as a federally endangered species. Click here to learn more about how to restore and protect freshwater mussels.
In the Land section, we talked about the prevalence of karst in the region, which creates caves. These underground caverns host their own uniquely adapted ecosystems. Bats are one animal we frequently associate with bats, but there are many smaller amphibians, insects, and isopods that live in these dark and wet spaces. Many of the creatures that live in Virginia caves have physically adapted to living in the dark, with little or no pigment coloring their bodies and even not having eyes! These specially adapted animals are referred to as Troglobites if they are terrestrial or live on land, and Stygobites if they live in water.
Many of the creatures found living in caves in Virginia are quite rare and found in only handful of places worldwide. DCR reports that of the more than 39 cave beetle species documented in Virginia, 23 are known to exist in five or fewer locations worldwide.11 There are several endangered, threatened, or “species of concern” that can be found in area caves.
Some of our unique cave creatures include:
The struggle to maintain the cave ecosystem has a lot to do with the challenges we discuss in the karst section about water quality. These species tend to be rather sensitive to pollution, so when contaminants enter the water in these underground systems through sinkholes or sinking creeks, these animals are effected. Another really big problem facing the bat population throughout the eastern US, including Virginia, is white-nose syndrome. What the US Fish & Wildlife called the “worst wildlife health crisis in memory,”12 white-nose syndrome is a fungal infection which has killed millions of bats since it was first discovered in 2006. Many caves have been closed to human traffic as an attempt to reduce the spread of the deadly fungus.
As this region of the Appalachians provides such a diverse habitat and supports such a range of biodiversity, it’s not surprising that there are species living here which are rare and considered in danger of disappearing altogether. Animals that are deemed “endangered” at the federal level are granted special protections under federal and state law. It is important to know if you have endangered species on your land before taking any significant management actions so you don’t wipe out a species, and so you don’t get in trouble with the law. Virginia Cooperative Extension has put together a useful guide to help landowners figure out how to deal with this issue.
Whereas native plants and animals are adapted to a particular region and are part of that region’s ecosystem, there are other plants and animals which are introduced into the cycle from elsewhere. This introduction can happen intentionally, by planting or releasing a non-native species in a place; or it can happen accidentally when seeds or bugs are carried unintentionally from one place to another. Some of these “alien” species never really cause a problem, but other “invasive” species can really wreak havoc on an ecosystem by out-competing or destroying the native species.
There are several invasive species listed in the box below which either pose problems or threats to the region’s ecosystem, and which need to be aggressively and carefully managed. Resources are listed in the Landcare Toolbox on managing invasive species on your land.