Shenandoah National Park

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Deer in Shenandoah National Park


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Wildlife in Shenandoah National Park

 
Shenandoah serves as a refuge for many species of animals otherwise pressured by human activities, development and other land uses. There are over 200 resident and transient bird species, over 50 species of mammals, 51 reptile and amphibian species, and 30 fish species found in the park. Only incomplete records of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates are available so the total number of different species of these groups is unknown. A handful of these species are large and conspicuous and therefore easily found by visitors. The park provides boundless opportunities for the public to search for and discover the thousands of other park residents.

Those who explored the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains in the early 1700s reported an abundance and variety of animals. As European settlers cleared the land, introduced domestic animals, and hunted native animals, the abundance and variety in species diminished. An unknown number of native species disappeared from the area, while populations of many other species dwindled. American bison were eliminated around 1798 and elk followed in 1855. Beaver and river otter disappeared in the late 1800s. Other species, including the eastern timber wolf, the eastern cougar, the white-tailed deer, turkey, black bear, and bobcats were either extirpated or declined drastically. Fortunately, most of these species have now returned to the park either through re-introductions on lands elsewhere in Virginia or through natural population recovery. The designation and management of the area as a National Park provides refuge to both the resident animals and those that are passing through on their migrations.

Today, Shenandoah National Park is a great place to observe wildlife. Countless visitors spend hours watching deer snip and tear plants. Other people look for tracks and scat of bobcats, listen for the rustling of raccoons in the brush, and occasionally smell striped skunks. The opossum, groundhog, gray fox, and eastern cottontail are more commonly seen mammals in the park. Because close contact with people is frequent and hunting and trapping are prohibited, some animals appear almost tame. They are wild, however. Even beautiful brown-eyed deer will defend their young from harm. Their elegant legs are powerful and their hooves are sharp; facts some visitors insist on learning the hard way.

A Young Whitetail Buck in Shenandoah National ParkMammals:

Over 50 species of mammals live in Shenandoah National Park. Virtually all park visitors see some mammals, such as white-tailed deer and gray squirrels. Others, like the big brown bat, striped and spotted skunks are more elusive, remaining largely out of sight until darkness falls. Black bears and bobcats, though active during the day, seem to remain hidden deep in the forest. The smallest mammals (moles, voles, and shrews) found in the park are rarely seen because they spend much of their lives underground or hidden under leaves and low growing plants. Careful observation should bring rewards in finding most of the wild inhabitants of the park.

Just as the number and distribution of mammals varies somewhat from year to year, the number of species present in the park changes over time. Coyotes, an adaptable predator not native to Virginia, are continuing to expand their range eastward and have been documented in the park. In addition, although not substantiated by park staff observations, reports of cougar sightings are received regularly from the public. Cougars, believed to have been eliminated from the park decades ago, may be recovering naturally or may have expanded into the park from re-introductions elsewhere.

Reptiles:

A Turtle in Shenandoah National ParkSpecies within this class are cold-blooded, such as snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and turtles. Reptiles have an external covering of scales or horny plates and breathe by means of lungs. Reptiles do not form a distinct evolutionary group as birds and mammals do. Instead, the Class Reptilia consists of four orders which are very different from each other. As an example, lizards are more closely related to birds than to turtles. Reptiles differ from amphibians in that they have dry, waterproof skin and they lay eggs. In addition they have more advanced circulatory, respiratory, excretory, and nervous systems. There are twenty-seven species of reptiles found at Shenandoah including eighteen snakes, five turtles, three skinks, and one lizard.

Manís fear of snakes likely results in large numbers of them killed each year. Others (including turtles) perish from motor vehicle activity along Skyline Drive. Additionally, illegal collecting (poaching) of certain species such as timber rattlesnakes or painted turtles, accounts for additional losses. These animals are usually sought for their value in the illegal pet trade and black market arenas. Currently, the park has little information as to how these illegal activities may be affecting reptile populations. The park is currently supporting a number of reptile-related research efforts that are attempting to describe species associations, habitat preferences, distributions, and relative abundance of these animals. A specific example is the long-term work Marty Martin is doing to monitor timber rattlesnake populations in core park areas.

Birds:

One of Many Bird Species in Shenandoah National ParkOver 200 species of resident and transient birds are known to use the park. Approximately half of these species breed in the park including eighteen species of warblers. Roughly thirty of the species are year-round residents including tufted titmice, red-tailed hawks, Carolina chickadees, wild turkeys, and barred owls. Due to the parkís location along the crest of the Blue Ridge and the extent of the forested habitat, Shenandoah provides essential habitat for neotropical migratory birds, both for nesting and as a travel corridor. Certain areas, such as Big Meadows, support species that can be found nowhere else in the park.

Fish:

Thirty-two species of fish have been recorded in park waters. The mountain streams of the park are one of the last completely protected strongholds of the native eastern brook trout (Salvinus fontinalis). Of the approximately 90 small streams in the park, over 50 contain brook trout. The cool forested slopes give rise to clear waters thus providing excellent habitat for this species. Other species known to occur in the park include the blacknose and longnose dace, the mottled sculpin, the bluehead chub, and the fantail darter. Monitoring efforts by park staff have revealed interesting facts about park fish. For instance, in 1998, greenside darters were found in park waters. This was unusual because the population in Virginia was split into two distinct ranges. One is in the southwestern counties of the state and the other in the Potomac watershed. This later population is suspected to have been introduced.

One can only speculate about what influence the presence of fish had on the selection of this portion of the Blue Ridge Mountains as a national park. We know that many of the people who were influential in this selection were ardent trout anglers. President Hoover established his camp on the Rapidan River as both a retreat to ease the pressures of political life and as a location with ready access to excellent fishing. Fishing and fish observation continue to be recreational activities enjoyed by thousands today.

Amphibians:

A Salamander Rests on a Log in Shenandoah National ParkThe word amphibian comes from the Greek amphibios meaning "both lives". This description is appropriate because most adult amphibians are better adapted to life on land, while their larval phases are entirely aquatic. For much of their lives, which may last several years or a couple of months, depending on species, larval amphibians (e.g. tadpoles) bear little resemblance to their adult forms. However, in a matter of weeks or days, the fish-like larvae transform into terrestrial, air-breathing, four-legged animals. Adult terrestrial amphibians can either breathe through their skin or with lungs. The families include frogs, toads, salamanders and newts. Shenandoah is home to ten species of toads and frogs and fourteen species of salamanders or newts. The Shenandoah Salamander is the only federally endangered animal species found in the park. It is endemic to high elevation talus slopes located in three scattered areas of the central section of the park. This salamander is closely related to the ubiquitous red-backed salamander.

The long-term health of worldwide and park amphibian populations remains in question. Acid deposition, heavy metal deposition (mercury), forest defoliation due to exotic insect pests may adversely impact amphibian populations. The park is supporting a number of amphibian related research efforts that are attempting to describe species associations, habitat preferences, distributions, and relative abundance of these animals. Research is also looking into the connection between stream water acidification and effects on park amphibian populations.

Insects:

Butterfly in Shenandoah National ParkThe insect world is one of the least well understood groups of animals at Shenandoah National Park. This is not uncommon in many parks where most investigations have focused on larger animals, plants, or organisms that are important to people because they are hunted, fished, or watched, or are hazardous or pestiferous. Thus we find that invertebrates (including insects) are not well documented in many parks. Insects are invertebrates (see the page on Other Invertebrates) and are grouped with a large number of other life forms known as arthropods. This group includes spiders (Arachnida), crayfish, fleas, and lice (Crustacea), centipedes (Chilopoda), and millepedes (Diplopoda) as well as insects (Insecta). Insects are differentiated from the others in this group by the presence of three main body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen), a pair of antennae, three pairs of legs, and distinguishing mouthparts. Insects are extremely important ecologically and to society. Many are a food source for other animals, some are important plant pollinators, and others serve important roles in the reduction and decomposition of organic matter. Insects produce products such as honey, silk, and beeswax.

It is estimated that the number of insects worldwide exceeds the total number of species of all plants and all other animals combined. Nearly one million insects have been described worldwide. Scientists speculate that there are another 20-50 million that have yet to be described. There are approximately 90,000 species of insects in the United States alone. It is unknown what the total number of different types of insects, present in the park, is. However, some groups are known more thoroughly such as butterflies, aquatic insects, and forest insects that feed heavily on trees.


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