As far as habitat types are concerned, the longleaf pine savannas of southeastern North America are some of the most stunning. What's more, they are also a major part of one of the world's great biodiversity hotspots. Sadly, they are disappearing fast. Agriculture and other forms of development are gobbling up the southeast coastal plain at a bewildering rate. For far too long we have ignored, or at the very least, misunderstood these habitats. Today I would like to give a brief introduction to the longleaf pine and the habitat it creates.
The longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is an impressive species. Capable of reaching heights of 100 feet or more, it towers over a landscape that boggles the mind. It is a landscape born of fire, of which the long leaf pine is supremely adapted to dealing with. These pines start out life quite differently than other pines. Seedlings do not immediately reach for the canopy. Instead, young long leaf pines spend their first few years looking more like a grass than a tree. Lasting anywhere between 5 to 12 years, the grass stage of development gives the young tree a chance to save up energy before it makes any attempt at vertical growth.
The reason for this is fire. If young long leaf pines were to start their canopy race immediately, they would very likely be burned to death before they grew big enough to escape the harmful effects of fire. Instead, the sensitive growing tip is safely tucked away in the dense needle clusters. If a fire burns through the area only the tips of the needles will be scorched, leaving the rest of the tree safe and sound. During this stage, the tree is busy putting down an impressive root system. The taproot alone can reach depths of 6 to 9 feet!
Once a hardy root system has been formed and enough energy has been acquired, young longleaf pines go through a serious growth spurt. Starting in later winter or early spring, the grass-like tuft will put up a white growth tip called a candle. This tip shoots upwards quite rapidly, growing a few feet in only a couple of months. This is sometimes referred to as the bottlebrush phase because no horizontal branches are formed during this time. The goal at this point is to get the sensitive growing tip as far away from the ground as possible so as to avoid damaging fires. It is fun to encounter long leaf pines at this stage because like any young adult, they look a bit awkward.
Once the tree reaches about 6 to 10 feet in height, it will finally begin to produce horizontal branches. This doesn't stop its canopy bid, however, as it still will put on upwards of 3 feet of vertical growth each year! Every year its bark grows thicker and thicker, thus each year it becomes more and more resistant to fire. Far from being a force to cope with, fire unwittingly gives longleaf pines a helping hand by clearing the habitat of potential competitors that are less adapted to dealing with burns. After about 30 years of growth, longleaf pines reach maturity and will start to produce fertile cones.
Before European settlement, longleaf pine savanna covered roughly 90,000,000 acres of southeastern North America. Clearing and development have reduced that to a mere 5% of its former glory. For far too long its coastal plain habitat was thought to be a flat, monotonous region created by early human burning in the last few thousand years. We now know how untrue those assumptions are. Sure, the region is flat but it is anything but monotonous. Additionally, the coastal plain is one of the most lightning prone regions in North America. Fires would have been a regular occurrence long before any humans ever got there.
Evidence suggests that this coastal plain habitat has remained relatively stable for the last 62,000 years. As such, it is full of unique species. Surveys of the southeastern coastal plain have revealed multiple centers of plant endemism, rivaled in North America only by the southern Appalachian Mountains. In fact, taken together, the coastal plain forests are widely considered one of the world's biodiversity hotspots! Of the 62,000 vascular plants found in these forests, 1,816 species (29.3%) are endemic. Its not just plants either. Roughly 1,400 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals rely on the coast plain forests for survival.
Luckily, we are starting to wake up to the fact that we are losing one of the world's great biodiversity hotspots. Efforts are being put forth in order to conserve and restore at least some of what has been lost. Still, the forests of southeastern North America are disappearing at an alarming rate. Despite comprising only 2% of the world's forest cover, the southern forests are being harvested to supply 12% of the world's wood products. This is simply not sustainable. If nothing is done to slow this progress, the world stands to lose yet another biodiversity hotspot.
If this sounds as bad to you as it does to me then you probably want to do something. Please check out what organizations such as The Longleaf Alliance, Partnership For Southern Forestland Conservation, The Nature Conservancy, and The National Wildlife Federation are doing to protect this amazing region. Simply click the name of the organization to find out more.