What America's Forests Looked Like 400 Years Ago
An artist's illustration of a pre-European settlement Pennsylvania forest, with red oak, American beech and sweet birch trees growing next to wetland streams.
Stuart V. Nielsen
The cocoa frog is one of six new frog species that were recently found in a rainforest-dominated mountainous region of southeastern Suriname. “At a time when so many frog species are declining and undergoing extinctions worldwide, it is particularly uplifting to discover so many new frogs in a single area,” Trond Larsen, a tropical ecologist and director of the Rapid Assessment Program at Conservation International, told Discovery News. He and his team found about 60 new species in the South American country.
The tiny Lilliputian beetle measures just 2.3 mm long and could be the smallest dung beetle in the entire Guiana Shield and among the smallest in the world. “Dung beetles act as a cleanup crew in the forest,” Larsen said. “By burying dung, they not only control parasites and disease, including those that affect people, but also disperse seeds and recycle nutrients that enable forest regeneration.”
Leeanne Alonso, director of Global Biodiversity Exploration for Global Wildlife Conservation, went on the expedition with Larsen. She thinks this beetle might be small and red to look like a seed stuck in poo, thereby fooling predators. “Dung beetles in forest areas are a good indicator of mammal diversity,” she added. Without mammals providing their food source, there would be few such insects.
Stuart V. Nielsen
The collection of new animals includes 11 species of fish that are probably new to science. “Small, brightly-colored tetras similar to this one are popular in the aquarium trade, and sustainable exports of wild species could provide financial support to local communities and incentives to conserve the species’ natural habitat,” Larsen said.
Alonso added that, as new species go, fish are relatively rare. “It’s amazing that so many were found in this region, which I believe has the world’s best and most beautiful and pristine forests in the world.” She loved it so much that she took her family there on a vacation after the research work ended.
Bats are another “good indicator of habitat quality,” Alonso said. She explained that, in this case, the bat thrives on fruit, so the region must support plenty of healthy fruit-producing trees.
Genuine coral snakes are highly venomous, but this false coral snake’s name is itself somewhat misleading, as the researchers found out the hard way. Alonso said that a helicopter pilot transporting the scientists was bitten by one. “His arm really swelled up,” she said, explaining that all such snakes have sharp teeth and venom, just not as poisonous as the “real” coral snake this species resembles.
This extraordinary new insect displays waxy fronds at the end of its body that was built for jumping among plants. “Maybe the fronds are meant to resemble anthers of a flower, helping with camouflage?” Alonso said, admitting that nature sometimes works in still-mysterious ways. She continued, “So little is known about insects from this region, so this was a real find.”
Top-level predatory big cats, such as this margay, are yet another sign of healthy habitat. More of them generally means there are more prey animals to feast upon. “Margays love to sleep and hide in caves at the site,” Alonso added.
Six new katydids, including this one, were discovered. Larsen described it as a “gangly species with oversized, spiny hind legs.” The newly discovered katydids "are indicative of the pristine, healthy forests of the Upper Palumeu Watershed," Larsen said, "and the forests in turn help to ensure continued flows of clean, plentiful water used by people throughout the rest of the country.”
“Despite their generally diminutive size, water beetles can be useful indicators of water quality, and also help to filter and keep water clean,” Larsen said. “Many of the 26 new water beetle species discovered on this survey are probably restricted to isolated habitats, especially in the mountains of southeastern Suriname, and may occur nowhere else.”
Sandra J. Raredon
Eleven new fish species were found in the region, dubbed a "tropical Eden" by the researchers. Larsen said, “This new sucker-mouthed armored catfish was rare, and only encountered in the narrow, upper reaches of the Palumeu River.
“This delicate slender opossum is really cute,” Alonso said. “It’s hard to find small mammals like this, which are indicative of primary forest.”
is the largest of all South American dung beetles, Larsen shares. Despite its name, this species feeds more frequently on dead animals than on dung. A highly unusual case in the Animal Kingdom, both males and females of this species possess a long horn on their head, which they use during intense battles with other individuals of the same sex. The vast difference in adult body size seen here is primarily determined by how much food was available to the developing larva. This species is capable of rapidly burying large animal carcasses, providing an important ecological service that sustains rain forest health.
“Given the beautiful coloration, high visibility and popularity of frogs in the poison dart frog family (Dendrobatidae), most species in this group are relatively well known,” Larsen said. “Therefore, the discovery of this species potentially new to science is particularly exciting. The toxic secretions of poison dart frogs hold great potential to yield new medicines that could greatly benefit the world -- yet with frogs declining globally, their protection in the wild is essential.”
The researchers could have just scratched the new species surface in southeastern Suriname, given that other animals, fish, insects and more unknown to science could be found there. The region’s human population is currently small -- only about 500,000 -- but it’s growing and there is a threat of future habitat-destroying activities, such as mining and logging. Alonso hopes that the wilderness can be protected, with money-generating activities such as ecotourism allowing both humans and amimals to thrive there.
European settlers transformed America's Northeastern forests. From historic records and fossils, researchers know the landscape and plants are radically different today than they were 400 years ago.
But little direct evidence exists to prove which tree species filled the forests before they were cleared for fields and fuel. Swamp-loving plants, like sedges and tussocks, are the fossil survivors, not delicate leaves from hardwood trees.
Now, thanks to a rare fossil discovery in the Pennsylvania foothills, scientists can tell the full story of America's lost forests.
The fossil site is a muddy layer packed with leaves from hardwood trees that lived more than 300 years ago along Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County, Pa. The muck was laid down before one of Pennsylvania's 10,000 mill dams, called Denlinger's Mill, was built nearby, damming the stream and burying the mud and leaves in sediment.
Researchers from Penn State University discovered the fossil leaves while investigating the lingering effects of milldams. The thousands of small dams — which powered mills, forges and other industry — changed the water table, altering the plants growing nearby and eventually changing the landscape from wetlands to deeply incised, quickly flowing streams.
Before Europeans arrived, American beech, red oak and sweet birch trees shaded Conestoga Creek, according to a study the researchers published today (Nov. 13) in the journal PLOS ONE. Some 300 years later, those trees are gone. The same spot is now home to mostly box elder and sugar maple trees, said Sara Elliott, the study's lead author and a research associate at the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology.
"This is a very unusual opportunity to compare modern and fossil forest assemblages," Elliott told LiveScience. "It's like you're time traveling," she said.
Elliott carefully peeled apart hundreds of leaves stuck together by mud and layered like a pile of sticky notes. Washing the leaves in a variety of chemical baths helped Elliott determine the leaves' structure and species.
Other kinds of trees found in the fossil layer that have since vanished from North America include the American chestnut, which was attacked by an imported fungal disease called the chestnut blight. Leaves from swamp plants also appear in the mud, confirming that the forested spot was on the upslope edge of a nearby wetland. [Image Gallery: Plants in Danger]
"We had a valley margin forest growing right next to the valley bottom in conjunction with all these wetlands," Elliott said. "I think we really have a rather complete picture now of what the landscape was like in this region."
The three dominant tree species found in the fossil forest leaves still exist today in the Northeast, but in different proportions and in different places, Elliot said.
The scientists hope that identifying similar fossil tree-leaf sites will help the massive milldam restoration projects underway throughout the Northeast. The dams left a legacy of toxic sediment piled up behind their walls, as well as reshaped the landscape.
"Having a more complete and enhanced understanding of this past dynamic and complex landscape will help in restoring an ecologically diverse and functional system," Elliott said.
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