About Biology and Natural History

Shell Mound

I'm blogging again on Random Ferments after a long absence. The subject now is the biology of Shell Mound, an ancient Native American structure in Levy County, Florida, in the Big Bend of the Gulf of Mexico coastline.

Recent discoveries about Shell Mound by Dr. Ken Sassaman and his students from the University of Florida's Laboratory of Southeastern Archaeology are leading to development of a new interpretive trail. Partners in trail-building also include the Friends of the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges and the The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, of which Shell Mound is a unit. New informational panels to be placed along the trail are now nearly complete. They will explain much that was previously unknown about the function and significance of Shell Mound. The story they tell puts the mound in the context of ancient peoples, their adaptation to changing environments, and the world view and belief system that led them to create the huge structure.

One of the unique features of this and other coastal shell One of the unique features of this and other coastal shell mounds is their ecology. Each serves as an oasis in its coastal environment, and they host biotic assemblages not present anywhere else. As part of the overall effort to gain fuller understanding and appreciation of this and similar ancient structures, I have begun an informal effort to better understand the flora and fauna of Shell Mound.

To learn more about Shell Mound archaeology, you can visit the mound sometime after completion of the new trail, expected by late summer 2018. Until you can actually hike on the completed trail, you can learn more about Shell Mound and the trail here.
mounds is their ecology. Each serves as an oasis in its coastal environment, and they host biotic assemblages not present anywhere else. As part of the overall effort to gain fuller understanding and appreciation of this and similar ancient structures, I have begun an informal effort to better understand the flora and fauna of Shell Mound.

To learn more about Shell Mound archaeology, you can visit the mound sometime after completion of the new trail, expected by late summer 2018. Until you can actually hike on the completed trail, you can learn more about Shell Mound and the trail here.

Shell Mound from Offshore

Shell Mound is perched on the end of an ancient elongated sand dune extending out into the Gulf, and although connected to the mainland, it shares many attributes with the nearby Cedar Keys. In discussing the unique vegetation of shell deposits in the area, the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (2010) stated:

"Shell mounds on the Cedar Keys in Levy County on the Gulf coast are also northern outposts for tropical species most likely brought in by migrating birds. Tropical species found on these Keys such as white stopper (Eugenia axillaris), Florida swampprivet (Forestiera segregata), snowberry (Chiococca alba), and saffron plum (Sideroxylon celastrinum) are all species whose fruits are eaten by migrating birds." (http://www.fnai.org/PDF/NC/Shell_Mound_Final_2010.pdf)

Other uncommon plant species often found on shell deposits are soapberry (Sapindus saponaria), Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana), and a cactus, shell mound prickly pear (Opuntia stricta). Also likely to be present is the common and widespread red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) tree; it is partial to soils with abundant calcium and tends to thrive on soils derived from shells.

Shell Mound "Soil"
What is unique about Shall Mound ecologically, what plants and animals have been found there, and what possible connections do these things have to do with its construction and use by Native Americans? Look for some answers and ferments in blogs to follow.

Pasteur in the Laboratory
I began identifying myself as a biologist more than 50 years ago--sometime in the Spring of 1962. 

A year earlier as a college Freshman I had entered on a path to become a physicist or engineer. Full of patriotic energy, I would help America beat the Soviets in the Space Race (not to mention the nuclear arms race). Alas, formulas, equations, stress parameters, vectors, isotope decay rates, and velocity estimations had no romance and no appeal for me. Learning was supposed to be an adventure and, to my undisciplined mind, learning without adventure offered no incentives and few rewards. 

As my as not-yet quite launched career was about to take a turnabout, the allure of biology became almost irresistible. Biology was rigorous and scientific (both of which appealed to me) for sure, but it also offered limitless opportunities to venture into the intriguing undiscovered realms of barely known and hauntingly appealing realms. And, of course, America needed all kinds of science to be the light and hope of the world.

This blog was to be about biology, but in the past half-century the more spectacular advances in biology have left me in the dust. Many things previously unknown in the field have been brought to light, and molecular biology (not yet christened in 1962) has become a great boon to mankind and still promises to provide unimagined benefits in the future. I routinely scan scientific articles with titles like The evolution of DNA repair mechanisms in triploid mosquitofish. Interesting I think, realizing that I understand those studies or their significance no more than most of my countrymen who are not biologists. And I am all but certain that I never will understand them.

So, I have added "natural history" to the title that was originally to have been the simple "biology." Natural history is the part of biology with which I most identify, and if natural history also includes taking the influence of rocks, soils, winds, fires, tides, and nature's other contributions into account, that's fine too. As a biologist, natural historian, and ecologist, I must take all into account if I am to help us--we who walk upon the Earth--to decipher and more fully appreciate the wondrous mysteries all around us.

I'm looking forward to having fun with this part of the blog, and I hope you will enjoy it also.