These Animals Play it Cool
When Fire Sweeps Through the Woods
words in text indicate key words and concepts)
Fire plays an important role in longleaf pine forests. Most critters
in this forest have developed ways to escape the flames.
Like most people, you were probably raised on the words of Smokey
Bear. Because of his message, most people have grown up believing
that all fires are devastating and must be kept out of the woods.
And who can forget the horrifying scene from Walt Disney's Bambi,
where fire almost consumes Bambi and friends? In longleaf pine forests,
little of the message by Smokey or Disney holds true. In fact, fire
is an essential element in regulating many processes, maintaining
biodiversity and perpetuating the longleaf pine forest. These fires
are unlike the dramatic fires we have been seeing in the western
United States. Instead, fires in longleaf pine forest are small
fires that creep along the forest floor; burning only the dried
grasses, fallen pine needles,
pine cones, etc (called detritus).
Most critters in the longleaf pine forest have developed mechanisms
to cope with the frequent fires of this forest. The gopher tortoise
plays a key role in helping animals escape fire. Although greatly
exaggerated for this picture, numerous insects, reptiles and mammals
use the burrow
of the gopher tortoise as refuge
during a fire. In particular, we see the southern toad, eastern
hog-nosed snake (also called spreading or puff adder), the eastern
coachwhip, oak toad, cotton rat, eastern slender glass lizard (also
called glass snake), five-lined race runner lizard, box turtle,
velvet ant (also called cow killer), gopher frog, cottontailed rabbit
and even the wily Virginia Opossum (also called the grinner) heading
to the gopher tortoise burrow to escape the fire.
Many of these critters may use this cool burrow as a year-round
residence while others use it only temporary. In fact, over 120
different species of animals and insects depend on the gopher tortoise
directly or indirectly. For this reason, the gopher tortoise is
considered a keystone species
of longleaf pine forests. Specific food
web dynamics (tropic levels)
can be observed exclusively in these burrows. For example, the gopher
tortoise cave cricket (like the gopher tortoise scarab beetles)
eats the fiber-rich dung (also
called scat) of the gopher tortoise.
In turn, the giant wolf spider (not pictured) eats the cave cricket.
Field mice both live in the burrows and use it to cache food stores
(like seeds and acorns). The eastern diamondback rattlesnake preys
on the field mouse and, in turn, is preyed upon by the eastern indigo
snake. The gopher tortoise tick (not pictured) is a parasite
(harmful to its host) and endemic
(meaning found exclusively) to gopher tortoises. Note that gopher
tortoises are not found throughout the entire range
of longleaf pine forests.
White-tail deer, mourning doves
and bobwhite quail simply run
or fly ahead of the flame front. Insects like the tiger swallowtail
and cloudless sulfur butterflies, as well as red-winged grasshoppers
either fly ahead of the flame front or fly up to the safety of the
tree crown. Birds such as the great crested flycatcher take advantage
of this smorgasbord of insects. The fox squirrel simply climbs up
a tree and moves to the safety of the canopy while the fire passes.
Some plants of the longleaf pine forests like wiregrass or native
legumes (not pictured) depend on fire to help stimulate the flower
production they need to reproduce.
Key Words and Concepts (click
on for glossary definition): bobwhite