Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Flora & Fauna

The astounding variety of plants and animals in the Smokies is unequaled in most temperate areas of the world.

Biological diversity is the hallmark of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. No other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park's amazing diversity of plants, animals and invertebrates. Over 12,000 species have been documented in the park; scientists believe an additional 90,000 species may live here. 

The astounding variety of plants and animals in the Smokies is unequaled in most temperate areas of the world.

Biological diversity is the hallmark of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses over 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. No other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park's amazing diversity of plants, animals and invertebrates. Over 12,000 species have been documented in the park; scientists believe an additional 90,000 species may live here. 

Mountains, glaciers and weather are the primary factors in the park's diversity. Elevations in the park range from 875 to 6,643 feet, mimicking the latitudinal changes you would experience driving north or south across the eastern United States; the equivalence of a distance from Georgia to Canada. Plants and animals common in the southern United States thrive in the lowlands of the Smokies, while species common in the northern states find suitable habitat at the higher elevations. 

The Great Smoky Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the world, formed perhaps 200-300 million years ago. They are unique in their northeast to southwest orientation, which allowed species to migrate along their slopes during climatic changes such as the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. In fact, the glaciers of the last ice age affected the Smoky Mountains without invading them. During that time, glaciers scoured much of North America but did not quite reach as far south as the Smokies. Consequently, these mountains became a refuge for many species of plants and animals that were disrupted from their northern homes. The Smokies have been relatively undisturbed by glaciers or ocean inundation for over a million years, allowing species eons to diversify. 

The park's abundant rainfall, 55 inches in the valleys to over 85 inches on some peaks, and high summertime humidity provide excellent growing conditions. During wet years, over eight feet of rain falls in the high country. The relative humidity in the park during the growing season is about twice that of the Rocky Mountain region. 

Some 100 species of native trees find homes in the Smokies, more than in any other North American national park. Almost 95% of the park is forested, and about 25% of that area is old-growth forest-one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old-growth forest remaining in North America. Over 1,500 additional flowering plant species have been identified in the park. The park is the center of diversity for lungless salamanders and is home to more than 200 species of birds, 66 types of mammals, 50 native fish species, 39 varieties of reptiles and 43 species of amphibians. Mollusks, millipedes and mushrooms reach record diversity here. 

In recognition of the park's unique natural resources, the United Nations has designated Great Smoky Mountains National Park as an International Biosphere Reserve.

PLANT LIFE

The Smokies' diversity of flowering plants and deciduous trees makes for a colorful spring, summer, and fall. The spring bloom starts in the valleys in late March and works upward to the peaks through July, while the changing colors of the leaves starts on the peaks as early as mid-September and works downward to the valleys into early to mid-November

Flowers

The name of the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) plant is derived from its stem, from which Native Americans made red dye. A member of the poppy family, the bloodroot's flowers are white with a gold center. It grows along streams in wooded areas.

Bluet (Houstonia caerulea) blooms April to June in meadows and on grassy slopes. Its blossom is pale blue with a yellow center and measures about one-half inch in diameter.

The white flower shape of the dutchman's britches reminds one of a pair of pantaloons hung out on the line to dry. The leafless flowering stalk arches over the bluish, finely dissected leaves, which stand upright.

Trees

The black cherry (Prunus serotina) is the largest native cherry, growing up to 60 feet. It has white blossoms in spring and leaves that turn red or yellow in fall.

Black locusts (Robinia pseudo acacia) grow mainly in the southern Appalachian Mountains and have forking, irregular trunks. Their aromatic white flowers appear in late spring. The fruit consists of flat, brown pods, which appear in fall and then split open in winter.

The mountain laurel (Kalmia latinfolia) is a common evergreen shrub that ranges along the East Coast from southern Maine to northern Florida and west to Louisiana. Its small pink or white flowers appear in spring in clusters of pointed buds; its leaves are long and narrow.

Umbrella magnolias (Magnolia tripetala) grow in restricted regions and are best seen in the mountain valleys of the Smokies. Botanists theorize that magnolias were the first plants to bear seeds in a protective ovary, more than 70 million years ago.

WILDLIFE

  (Moved to paragraph below)Of all the animals in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the black bear (Ursus americanus) is a favorite with wildlife enthusiasts. Approximately 1600 bears live in the park. They range from 200 to 400 pounds in weight. All black bears in the park are black in color, but in other parts of the country they can be brown or cinnamon.

Bears are not true hibernators because they do not become dormant in winter and can be awakened. In November or December, they usually go into a deep sleep in a tree hollow or boulder cave. In January or February, a mother bear can give birth to one to four cubs—while she is asleep! Weighing only seven to 12 ounces at birth, the tiny cubs, whose eyes aren't yet open, manage to find their mother's milk using their sense of smell. Sometime in March, the mother bear awakens to spring and a litter of cubs.

Black bears are powerful and highly intelligent. They naturally feed on berries, nuts, seeds, acorns and insects. They have a keen sense of smell and are good at recognizing colors and shapes.   This remarkable sense of smell also leads bears to unnatural foods and in developed areas in search of human food.   The park's bears have been known to pry open car doors to get objects that they think are food. To a bear, a can of tennis balls might look like a can of potato chips. A bottle of suntan lotion might smell like coconut cream pie Be careful with any canned items and objects shaped like ice chests. While bears can't read the label on a can of pork and beans, they know food can come in cans. 

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is about as large as a medium-sized dog and is usually reddish in color (with white under-parts, chin and throat). Shy toward humans and primarily nocturnal, the red fox is hard to spot even though it is common in the park. The fox eats almost anything it can sink its teeth into, from birds and crickets to corn and apples. It usually locates its dens on raised areas so it has a view of the surrounding area. 

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) range throughout the United States but are a particular fixture in the park.  They are most commonly seen in areas with open fields such as Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley. Biologists estimate that more than 6,000 deer may live in the park. They are tan to reddish-brown in color in summer and grayish-brown in winter.  Deer populations can change quickly. Local over-population leads to widespread disease and starvation. Predation by coyotes, bears, and bobcats help reduce threats associated with overpopulation.

 Muskrats (Ondatra zibethica) are most active at night. The muskrat lives along the park's streams in multicompartment dens, which it constructs of plants, roots and mud. It also builds platforms for dining on surrounding cattails, water lilies, rushes and other vegetation.

The southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), the smallest of the tree squirrels, is nocturnal. Getting a glimpse of one is a real feat. The tree squirrel glides, not flies, by means of wide flaps of skin on its sides, which it uses as a parachute. The squirrel is grayish-brown on top and white on its belly.

Birds

The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) is the only woodpecker in North America that eats ants it finds on the ground by licking them up with its long tongue. It pecks on wood as a mating call or to proclaim its territory. It has a brown back and dark spots on its underside.

The red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus) is nicknamed "preacher" because it sings constantly throughout the day, even while attempting to catch and eat insects. It is among the most common birds in deciduous forests in eastern North America. The name comes from the bird's large, reddish-brown eyes.

Amphibians

Jordan's salamander (Plethodon jordoni) is red-cheeked and found only at high elevations in the Smokies. Because no other mountains in the East are as high, this limits its range. It is one of 31 salamander species found in the park.

The northern spring peeper (Hyla crucifer) heralds the arrival of spring with its peeping sound after it spends the winter hibernating in bark crevices and underneath logs. Mostly nocturnal, this tree frog measures about one inch long and is tan, brown, or gray. Identifying marks include a dark X on the back and a spotted belly. It lives in wooded areas near ponds and lakes.