If you’re anything like me, you’re a plant lover. Maybe you acknowledge the beauty of a flower, or maybe you’re more of a biologist and acknowledge the sheer fact that we need plants to exist. I would say I’m both. We owe a lot to the plants on this planet. They give us food, shelter, medicines, and probably most importantly, oxygen! It’s time that we start giving back and realizing that it’s not all about gardens or pretty landscapes (although no one is against that), and it’s definitely not all about us. It’s about the health and well-being of our planet. Let’s start at the beginning.

What is an invasive species?

An invasive species is one that did not originally/naturally occur in the area that it is in, and one that can cause harm to environmental or human health. In our case, we will be talking about invasive plants!

Why are they here?

Most invasive plants are here (like privet, kudzu, and English ivy) because someone originally wanted them to be. They were planted as ornamental plants (people thought they were pretty), and now they are wreaking havoc on our landscapes. The thing is, these guys can reproduce at rapid rates because they don't have their natural competitors to keep them at bay. And unfortunately, our native plants can't simply move to a different location. Instead, they are out-competed by this more aggressive plant that was introduced into the landscape. It isn't fair!

Why should you care?

Invasive plants outcompete our native plant species by shading them from sunlight (think privet and kudzu) and using up all of their resources. Our native plants need adequate space, sun, water, and nourishment to live. With an aggressive plant like privet that grows very quickly, all of those resources are used up before our natives even get a chance. Kudzu can take over forests, killing trees by shading them from sunlight or becoming so heavy that they break the tree in half. And remember when I said that it’s not all about us? The wildlife that usually depend on native plants for habitat and food can be put in danger from dwindling resources. Invasive plants can also drastically change a landscape, affecting water flow patterns and nutrient cycling in the environment, as well as lowering biodiversity and therefore a healthy habitat for all living organisms. 

One example of how detrimental invasive plants can be is the example of Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and a native butterfly called Virginia White butterfly (Pieris virginiensis). Garlic mustard omits a chemical called sinigrin, an attractant found in most toothworts. The Virginia white butterfly uses this chemical attractant to identify the plant it wants to lay its eggs on (usually a toothwort, or Cardamine of some sort). Garlic mustard produces a much larger amount of sinigrin than toothworts, so the butterfly naturally chooses the plant with more sinigrin, being garlic mustard. The problem is that there’s TOO much sinigrin within garlic mustard, which is actually lethal to the caterpillars and causes them to die after ingesting the leaves. How sad is that? The butterfly evolved a certain way without this plant, and now it suffers because of its introduction to the butterfly’s habitat. This is just one way an invasive plant species can be bad for not only the land, but the wildlife surrounding it. 

Another example of invasive species is actually an insect from Asia called the hemlock wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae). It affects one of our native trees (and one of my favorite trees), the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). This adelgid is very tiny, but there are lots of them. They attach themselves to the base of the needles on the tree and deplete the tree of its nutrients, which eventually leads to needle loss and death of the tree. Whole forests of this tree are disappearing from this adelgid, which means tremendous habitat loss for the wildlife that depend on them.

 There are a multitude of other invasive species dynamics just like these two, and there is always something that we, as land owners and nature-lovers, can do to lessen the negative impact on the native plants that we know and love.

How can you help? 

When it comes to controlling invasive plant species, the best method is prevention - just don't plant them! Always plant native plants instead. Or at least make sure the plants you buy for your yard are not invasive before putting them in the ground. If you have invasive plants on your own property, you can easily do your part by removing them. It’s also good practice to check yourself before you leave an area that is infested and remove any seeds that may have attached to you while you were out, that way you are preventing the spread. And if you find that you enjoy being outdoors and helping out the land, maybe consider volunteering with a local nonprofit or state agency. A lot of organizations hold weed pulls and other opportunities for you to get involved! You could also talk to your local nursery to see if they’re on the right track when it comes to preventing the spread of invasives. Sadly, a lot of invasive plants such as Vinca and English ivy are still sold at nurseries as ground cover. Let’s put an end to this!

Here are some good resources for local information about invasive plants:

Tennessee Invasive Plant Council
Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health 

Join efforts with Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center! 

Let’s save our natives and show the invasives who’s boss!

About the Author

Melanie Flood is a nature-loving outdoors enthusiast. She constantly strives to take part in the conservation of our native plant species and hopes she can inspire others to do the same. When she isn't outside staring at plants, she's probably posting about them on her Instagram. Follow her @mflood023.

Posted by Melanie Flood  | Category: Horticulture

With Red Wolf mating season almost over, Director of Wildlife Tish Gailmard explains that it's near impossible to tell whether a female wolf is pregnant until the pups are born. We hope this year brings another litter! Read Tish's explanation below of why Red Wolf breeding is a concern worth your attention as well as different methods for breeding the captive population.

Photo by Bartel/USFWS

The Red Wolf is the most endangered canid in the world. With only 27-35 wild Red Wolves roaming one recovery release site in northeastern North Carolina and 200 in captivity, breeding can be critical to this species’ survival.

Reflection Riding is a breeding and exhibit facility for Red Wolves and has been since its membership in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan began in 1996. We’ve had litters in 2007, 2011 and 2016.

You might ask what’s the big deal? Why is Red Wolf breeding a concern?

There a few things you need to know.

First of all, we almost lost this species to extinction. In 1980, the Red Wolf was forced into extinction in the wild to conserve the last 17 remaining Red Wolves. Of these 17, only 14 were strong enough to begin a captive breeding program to save this species. That’s a really small gene pool. When you are breeding an endangered species in captivity, it is critical to maintain genetic diversity - we must diversify and grow the family tree. That means hyper vigilance over the breeding co-efficient. We must select Red Wolves to breed that are the least genetically alike. Luckily, science provides the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP) with a software program that tracks each Red Wolf’s pedigree - a road map of who’s closely related and who’s less related. Wouldn’t want to breed siblings, right? The idea is for the family tree to fork! 

Secondly, Red Wolves and coyotes can breed. This causes a serious dilution of genes resulting in hybrid offspring. Hybridization can quickly kill the family tree.

Thirdly, Red Wolves only breed one time per year. Males only produce sperm one time per year and females only go into estrus one time per year.  

So what do we do with all this information?

In captivity, we must determine which Red Wolves will breed based on their genetic value and we have to find a suitable mate - one who is the least related. As an institutional representative and management team member, I attend a summit meeting each summer where we determine who’s going to breed with whom based on the needs of the population. We must determine how many litters need to be produced to maintain or grow the population (whichever is deemed necessary for that breeding season), refer to the mean kinship list ( a measure of importance of an animal. Animals with low mean kinship are genetically important.  Mean kinship is calculated by the kinship (relatedness) of that animal with the entire current population (including itself). Therefore mean kinships per animal are relative to the current population) and begin the process of matchmaking. 

We’ve transferred Red Wolves to breed at our facility from as far away as Sioux Falls, SD. Red Wolves do not fly commercially, so all this travel requires driving or private planes. Usually, two institutions will pick a midpoint to meet and pick up or drop off a Red Wolf. Once the Red Wolf arrives at its new facility, there is usually an acclimation period (we call it a Hey, Howdy! time) where the Red Wolves are separated by fencing and have limited visual sight and physical proximity. After about 1 week of this introduction, the Red Wolves are placed in the same enclosure and with a little luck, (cue the Barry White music) they like each other and the relationship begins.

Red Wolf breeding season is January, February, March with the most northwestern facilities typically breeding last. After a 63 day gestation, pups are born in April and May. Litters can range from 1-9 pups. Eyes and ears open after 2 weeks and pups begin to wander out of the birthing place after about 5 weeks.

In the wild population, we do not engineer the breeding. Red Wolves select their own mates. To prevent Red Wolves from mating with coyotes and producing offspring - creative, out of the box thinking biologists came up with an innovative idea - a first in canid recovery. Sterilize coyotes in the recovery area and put them back on the landscape as place holders. Because this is their territory, they will hold out any fertile coyotes who try to move in and if they breed a Red Wolf, no offspring will occur. Brilliant and very successful! (Unfortunately, this has been halted by the state of North Carolina and US Fish and Wildlife based on a gross misinterpretation of data and inaccurate data- more on that in another entry.)

Another out of the box idea is introducing new genes into the wild population with cross fostering. When wild litters and captive litters are born within a few days of one another, captive pups can be fostered into a wild litter and are accepted by the mother with 100% success. This  genius idea is also a first in canid recovery. (and yes, it too has been halted by North Carolina and USFW). Less politics, more wolves!

In some cases when a genetically valuable Red Wolf has not bred, artificial insemination can be an option. Reflection Riding was fortunate enough to participate in this research. All of our current males have been collected and cryopreserved for future use. The research team that worked on this project consisted of our veterinarian, Dr. Chris Keller and his team from Mountain Hospital for Animals and two post doc students, one from the Smithsonian Conservation Institute and another who was on the team that first developed artificial insemination in dogs.

Luckily, Red Wolves breed fairly well in the wild and in captivity provided they are with the correct mate and are of breeding age. Reflection Riding has been fortunate enough to have successful pairs and hope to produce more litters in the future. As a very involved cooperator in the RWSSP, it’s our duty to support this program and this magnificent species. 

Red Wolves are...beauty, not beast and vital, not vicious.

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: Wildlife

There's a reason - we promise!

Prescribed burning is a land management technique that's been around for thousands of years. 

Video by Jeff Guenther.

Normally, it would be alarming to see a man pouring a flaming mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel onto your unmowed field, but the staff and volunteers at Reflection Riding were excited as they watched Bob Gray use his drip torch to set the Pine Savanna on fire last Monday.

Bob is a certified prescribed burn manager who volunteered his services to help Reflection Riding restore one of its many grassland habitats by conducting a prescribed burn. Prescribed (or controlled) burning is a land management technique that’s been around for thousands of years. Native Americans used controlled burning to manage their land for both game and agriculture. More recently many people have become familiar with prescribed burning as a method to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires fires. Burning off the excess plant debris that accumulates over time helps reduce the fuel load that feeds bigger, hotter fires.

Even more recently, ecologists have demonstrated that periodic fire is critical for maintaining healthy natural habitats. Fire has always been a part of natural ecosystem cycles, and many plant species are dependent on it. Decades of suppressing natural fire has resulted not only in larger, more damaging fires, but also in the deterioration of forest and grassland habitats. Grasslands are particularly dependant on fire, and natural grasslands have been on the decline in the southeastern US since Europeans began settling here. These natural prairie systems are home to plant and animal communities that can’t exist in any other type of setting, so their decline represents a loss of biodiversity in the region. 

While millions of acres of historic natural prairie in the Southeast have been lost to agriculture, what remains has been degraded for the past 100 years by fire suppression. Efforts are now underway to restore these remaining fragments through prescribed burning. Unfortunately, much of the small percentage of naive prairie that is left is under the threat of development. That’s why another strategy to mitigate the loss of prairie habitat is to transform man-made open spaces into native grassland communities. Federal and state agencies, along with non-government organizations, have been converting roadsides, powerline right-of-ways, pastures, and oldfields into high quality prairie habitat through seeding native species and employing periodic prescribed burns.

    Roads can help to prevent a burn from spreading.

At Reflection Riding one of our biggest resources is our space, much of which has been kept as pasture and open meadow for decades. In keeping with the emerging understanding of the critical need to conserve high quality prairie habitat, we have been changing our management practices to include mowing only once a year (usually in winter), and periodic prescribed burning. These practices prevent secondary succession of trees and shrubs and the encroachment of invasive species into the grassland habitat. Combined with the deliberate introduction of native prairie species into these sites, the result is a progressive transformation of ordinary meadows into high quality prairie habitat that will serve as a refuge for species that are otherwise losing their place in the Southeastern landscape.

We want to continue to protect these vital ecosystems throughout our 317 acres. To truly live our mission of reconnecting Chattanoogans with nature, we depend on your generous support. If you're not already a member, please join today, and consider a tax-deductible donation to make our educational resources available to those who may not be able to afford to pay.

Posted by John Evans  | Category: Horticulture

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