Exploring Vertebrate Diversity on the Chattahoochee Fall Line

Exploring Vertebrate Diversity on the Chattahoochee Fall Line

By Geoff Sorrell, The Nature Conservancy

In March 2017, we hosted the third biennial Dickinson College Natural History of Vertebrates field course on the Fall Line. This is an elective component of a course taught by Dr. Scott Boback at Dickinson in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The primary focus of the weeklong field course is introducing students to the biodiversity of the piney woods in the Fall Line physiographic province. The students camped out, cooked over the fire, and spent every day exploring the Fall Line. The Chattahoochee Fall Line (CFL) is an ideal setting because of access to a variety of habitats, which harbor a wealth of species, in a small geographic area. After an introduction to the ecology of the region and the CFL project, we got out in the field. Field exercises exposed students to all of the vertebrate groups, and activities included aspects of natural history, species identification, conservation, habitat management, and field techniques. Students had the opportunity to learn about many of the iconic animals associated with longleaf. The class walked gopher tortoise burrow survey transects.

They observed red-cockaded woodpecker foraging activity. Students sampled ephemeral wetlands for tiger salamanders and other piney-woods amphibians. The class also surveyed for American alligators and alligator snapping turtles.  Time was spent sampling small mammals. Several outings were devoted to fish sampling in various habitats, using a variety of methods. We discussed invasive species management and demonstrated feral hog control techniques. The class also had the opportunity to observe a prescribed burn. The class attended the operational briefing, and during the burn, they were attached to a crewmember responsible for their safety and for keeping them informed. While on the Fall Line, the students interacted with researchers, fire crews, and land managers. These mentors represented universities, non-profits, and government agencies. Exposure to various professionals is another important aspect of this course. The Fall Line is the ideal outdoor lab setting for this type of course, and we are looking forward to the next time we host the Dickinson class.

Image 1: Dickinson class observing eastern diamondback rattlesnake captured during burrow survey. Photo by Scott Boback.