Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains some of the largest tracts of wilderness in the East and is a critical sanctuary for a wide variety of animals. Protected in the park are some 66 species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds, 50 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians. Here are a few of the most interesting:
1. Elk. The experimental release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February, 2001 with the importation of 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals. All elk are radio collared and will be monitored during the five-year experimental phase of the project. If the animals threaten park resources or create significant conflicts with park visitors, the program may be halted.
2. American Black Bear. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places remaining in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. For many, this famous Smokies’ resident is a symbol of wilderness. Bears inhabit all elevations of the park. Though populations are variable, counts conducted in 2006 indicated approximately 1,500 bears live in the park. This equals a population density of approximately two bears per square mile. At one time, the black bear’s range included most of North America except the extreme west coast. Because of the loss of habitat, the black bear is now confined to wooded areas or dense brushland.
3. Hellbender Salamander. Hellbenders are the largest salamanders in the Great Smoky Mountains—sometimes reaching 29 inches in length! To view a short video of research into the life of this aquatic salamander, click for the broadband version or dial-up version. Want to buy a full-color, up-to-date field guide that covers 30 species, plus frogs, turtles, snakes, and more? Click here.
4. Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are one of 14 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns. Fireflies (also called lightning bugs) are beetles. They take from one to two years to mature from larvae, but will live as adults for only about 21 days. Their light patterns are part of the adulthood mating display. Each species of firefly has characteristic flash pattern that helps its male and female individuals recognize each other. Most species produce a greenish-yellow light; one species has a bluish light. The males fly and flash and the usually stationary females respond with a flash. Peak flashing for synchronous fireflies in the park is normally within a two-week period in mid-June.
5. Timber Rattlesnake. The first question that most park visitors have when they see a snake is “Is it poisonous?” The answer is almost always “no,” since only 2 of the 23 species of snakes that live in the park are venomous: the Northern Copperhead and Timber Rattlesnake. The likelihood of an average visitor even seeing a venomous snake in the Great Smokies, let alone being bitten by one, is extremely small. There is no record of a human fatality due to snakebite in the park’s history. Twenty three species of snakes live in the park.
6. Brook Trout. The brook trout is the only trout species native to the Smokies, although non-native brown and rainbow trout have been introduced into the park and today are found in most large streams below 3,000 feet. Brook trout have lost approximately 75% of their native range in the park since the early 1900s mostly due to logging and the introduction of non-native rainbow trout. The non-native rainbow trout out-compete native brook trout by producing more offspring, growing at faster rates, and occupying stream habitat once occupied by brook trout. Today, brook trout are only found in about 133 miles of park streams. Restoration efforts have restored brook trout back to 14.6 miles of their native range since 1986 and continue today. The City of Gatlinburg stocks the river every Thursday, but any other day you are welcome to cast a line. Visit our previous trout-fishing blog entry for all the details about which licenses you’ll need and where to get them.
7. Indian Bat Myotis Sodalis. Bats are unique mammals with forelimbs specialized for true flight. All eleven species of bats in the park feed exclusively on insects. Seven of these species hibernate during colder months while the other four species migrate. The big brown bat, eastern red bat, and eastern pipistrelle are most commonly seen. The park protects the largest colony of the federally endangered Indiana Bat in the state of Tennessee. Most of the caves in the park provide critical bat habitat. Because bats can be harmed by human disturbance in these caves, visitors are prohibited from entering them.
8. Woodchuck. The short-legged woodchuck is a large, stocky rodent with a broad, flattened head, a blunt nose, and a medium-length tail. It is the largest member of its family in the park. They are most abundant in the open meadowlands and along the mowed roadsides at the lower elevations, and are rare in dense forests and in the spruce-fir region. Woodchucks are less plentiful now than formerly, due to the ecological changes occurring as the park reverts to a more forested condition. Woodchucks have excellent eyesight, and are able to climb trees in order to escape an enemy. When startled, a woodchuck will give a loud, shrill whistle; hence the name “whistle pig.” It is also known as “groundhog,” but woodchuck sounds a lot less pesky, eh? I see a half-dozen of these critters a day on average.
9. European Wild Hog. The body of the European wild hog, a non-native (exotic) member of the park’s fauna, is built somewhat like that of a bison, being higher and heavier in the shoulder region. It is covered with thin, coarse hair. Hogs are usually black, but the tips of the guard hairs are silvery-gray or brown. A mane of long bristles may develop down the back. The upper tusks are distinctive in that they curve upward as they grow. The average weight of theadult males in the park is approximately 200 lbs. I only live about 10 miles outside of Downtown Gatlinburg, and I regularly see them run across the highway in front of my vehicle on my way home…cute (in an ugly sort of way) but destructive.
10. The Tourist. We love each and every one of the more than 9 million of these (mostly flatland) visitors that visited us in 2008. Can you believe twice as many folks visited Gatlinburg as visited the Grand Canyon in 2008? We can, and we welcome you. Just a few tips if you plan on becoming one of the Great Smoky Mountains’ most common critters: 1) Don’t feed the bears 2) Leave no trace 3) Stay on your side of the road…you won’t fall off the mountain. 🙂 4) Make the most of your stay and rent a cabin.
This blog is sponsored in part by ERA In The Smokies Realty and Rentals located at 207 Parkway in Gatlinburg, TN. For more information on a Gatlinburg Cabin for your Smoky Mountain Vacation or all the reasons to move to the Smokies, call 1-800-309-0277. ERA In The Smokies is a leader in chalet and Log Cabin Rentals and Real Estate Sales in the Gatlinburg area.