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Forest Diversity

Forest Types
 

Ecology of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Mountains

Diversity of habitat and diversity of species await the
observant visitor to this long, linear national park.

Diversity is the key word in an understanding of the ecology of the Appalachian mountains. Multiple and overlapping habitats, exceptional examples of forest communities and locally wide variations yield a huge diversity of flora (plant life) and fauna (animal life) on the Parkway. Park biologists have identified 1250 kinds of vascular plants; 25 of these are rare or endangered. Four rare or endangered animals have also been identified on Parkway lands.

Forest Diversity

The reasons for this wide diversity are numerous. Elevation is a key factor, with Parkway lands as low as 650 feet above sea level at James River (milepost 64) and topping out at 6047 feet at Richland Balsam (milepost 431). The Parkway is also oriented on a north-south axis with its two ends almost 500 miles apart. Combining these two factors, the Parkway contains habitat as diverse as one may find traveling from Georgia to Newfoundland. Another factor is that many ridgetops may bear the full force of wind, sun and severe weather conditions, while protected coves are dark and moist. These factors contribute to the diversity and interrelationship of species.

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Forest Types

Beginning at the Parkway's lowest elevations and climbing up to the highest, visitors will notice numerous transitions among a variety of forest types. At lower elevations, the oak-chestnut forest dominates Parkway lands with a variety of oak trees composing the forest. In remote, sheltered cove forests, you may find dozens of varieties of species, and some of the remaining virgin timber that was inaccessible to loggers earlier in the century. Higher up on the mountains, northern hardwood forests remind many people of those in New England. Beech, birch, or buckeye may dominate depending on other characteristics of the habitat. At the highest Parkway elevations, it is the spruce-fir forest that crowns the ridgetops and mountain peaks. In front of advancing glaciers, remnants of seeds normally germinating in Canadian forests found a habitat in which to grow.

Interspersed among these various forest types are some small, unique habitats like mountain bogs and heath balds. Many species of animals find their niche in these small pockets of habitat. Bog turtles and Gray's Lilly thrive in mountain bogs. Sheltered, wet coves are excellent for finding a variety of salamanders, some of which are unique to the Southern Appalachians. A hemlock cove is an excellent place to find populations of red squirrel. Black capped chickadees replace the Carolina chickadees as you climb up toward the spruce-fir forest.

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