Biodiversity in Your Backyard: Autumn Edition

There’s a certain mystery to autumn here in Western North Carolina. Most mornings, as the sun rises, the fog settles in for a few hours. Of all of the seasons, I probably love fall the most. There’s just something about being able to go outside, crunch some leaves, and watch stuff change. This month, we’ll be investigating the science of autumn: in trees, turkeys, and more!

How Do Trees Know WHEN To Drop Their Leaves?

The Blue Ridge Mountains are known for their beautiful fall colors and breathtaking views. Local businesses say that it’s one of the busiest times of the year – even during this pandemic. But how do the trees know when to drop their leaves…all at the same time?

For organisms without central nervous systems, trees sure do seem smart! Even though the intensity of fall colors may vary from year to year, trees are pretty synchronized when it comes to their leaves changing color and dropping from their branches. The answer to this mystery lies in their biochemistry.

Just like you and me, trees have a biological clock that tells them when the sun is rising and setting. In other words, trees can feel the nights getting longer. We know that trees rely on the sun, using their chlorophyll (that’s the green stuff in leaves) to produce energy. But, as the season winds down, the tree produces less energy because there’s not as much sun.

So, as the time between sun periods (night time) gets longer and longer, trees begin to break down chlorophyll and return its ingredients to their trunk and limbs. When the green chlorophyll goes away, we’re left with the stunning yellows, reds, and oranges of autumn leaves. The trees can then let the leaves fall to the ground to make room for new buds to grow and prepare for the following growing season.

Fun Facts About Turkeys

Turkeys always seem to me like modern-day dinosaurs. They’re big, they’re ungainly, and they just seem to appear out of nowhere. Turkeys are native to the Americas and are among the largest birds in the two continents. Most of the other large birds in the Americas are birds of prey like raptors and vultures. But hey, we all know what a turkey looks like, so here’s some fun facts about turkeys you might not yet know:

Photo courtesy Adel Alamo

Was the turkey almost our national bird?

Well, according to the Franklin Institute — no. Ben Franklin had defended the turkey’s honor against the trash-eating bald eagle, but he did not explicitly call for the turkey to be our national bird.

Turkeys can be remarkably aggressive

There are multiple instances of these majestic bird-dinosaurs being mean to humans. Don’t believe me? A wildlife biologist had to pose as an elderly woman to trap an aggressive turkey who had a “specific hatred of older women” and relocate him to somewhere without people. Wow. Another turkey out in California saved a driver from a speeding ticket by harassing the cop. Huh. Maybe it’s just something about California turkeys?

Turkeys have been caught doing some really weird stuff

Turkeys have bird brains, and so they’re not always on the up-and-up with their critical thinking skills. Check out the video below of turkeys circling a dead cat. According to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the turkeys are suspicious of the dead animal and end up following each other in a circle for safety in numbers, while keeping one eye on the potential threat. Or maybe they’re practicing their circle dancing.

Elk? Aren’t those just fancy deer?

Fall is one of the most active times for Cervid species (elk, deer, and moose) because it is their mating season. Unlike deer, elk only occur in certain areas of the Eastern US. Many consider their reintroduction to the Midwest and Eastern US a conservation success.

Photo courtesy Adel Alamo

If you’re willing to make the trek, elk can be found near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as in parts of Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. These creatures are like the jumbo-sized siblings of deer. Where deer top out at about 250 lbs, elk can weigh more than 700 lbs when they’re full grown. They also live longer, have super-charged antler growth, and can run up to 40 miles per hour.

Photo courtesy Adel Alamo

But the iconic thing about elk has to be their bugle. During mating season, also known as “the rut”, bull elks will give off an otherworldly cry to let other elk know where they are and when they’re ready to mate. The elk rutting season is truly an exotic time and draws tourists from all over the country. Bull elk fight, call, and more, amazing the human onlookers. In the Rockies, there’s actually an annual Elk Festival celebrating these majestic creatures.

And… Action!

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Check out the other blogs in our Backyard Biodiversity series!

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