Research on Ridge’s Mountain
Ridge’s Mountain Nature Preserve is located in Randolph County, west of Asheboro, North Carolina, about 12 miles from the North Carolina Zoological Park. The Natural Heritage Inventory of Randolph County says that Ridge’s Mountain is one of the most important natural areas in this region due to its high-quality natural communities, significant rare plant species and large area of continuous plant and animal habitat.
The mountain is also historically significant as it was occupied by both Native Americans and early settlers. The Great Indian Trading Path that extended from Petersburg, Virginia to the vicinity of Charlotte, North Carolina passed just north of its base, very near the route of U.S. Highway 64 today. In 1701, explorer John Lawson visited a Keyauwee Indian town surrounded by a ring of mountains. It is believed to be the same large town located by archeologists in 1936 on Caraway Creek, which lies at the foot of the mountain. During digs between 1936 and the present, over 265 separate sites, representing some 3000 years of history, were discovered in the vicinity.
The integrity of this natural area is threatened by timbering and development. The mountain is composed of gabbro rock, which has different mineral content than the surrounding granitic rocks, so different plant species grow there. Unusual plants found here include fragrant sumac, which looks similar to poison ivy but doesn’t cause an itchy rash. Poison ivy has a stalk on the center leaflet, while fragrant sumac does not. As you might expect, fragrant sumac also has a pleasant smell.
Another unusual plant is the resurrection fern, which looks like a dried-up dead brown plant during dry spells. When it rains, though, the fronds turn green and unfurl within minutes. After a few days or weeks without water, the fern dries up again, waiting for the next shower. This enables the fern to grow in tiny cracks in rocks and to survive without water for long periods of time.
Another special feature of Ridge’s Mountain is a series of upland depression pools and swamps. These areas hold water during the winter and spring, but dry up during the summer months—thus they have no fish. These pools provide excellent breeding habitat for many amphibians, including several frog and salamander species, like spotted salamanders, mole salamanders and marbled salamanders.
In 2000, the NC Zoo and the Greensboro-based Piedmont Land Conservancy worked together to acquire 180 acres along the crest of Ridge’s Mountain. An additional 93 acres were added in 2010. In collaboration with partners such as the Land Conservancy and the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, the Zoo manages the preserve for recreational and educational activities, wildlife habitat, conservation and research.
Dr. Stephen Hall, Invertebrate Zoologist for the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, conducted several moth surveys at Ridge’s Mountain Nature Preserve during 2010. These surveys are part of a research project documenting vertebrate and invertebrate animal populations throughout North Carolina. The goal of this project is to identify and evaluate blocks of habitat that are still large enough and/or well-connected enough to support the entire range of species associated with a particular landscape. The information collected in this study will improve our understanding of which sites are most important for conservation.
At Ridge’s Mountain, Hall focused on sampling moths in the genus Catocala, commonly called “underwing moths.” They are called underwing moths because the hindwings always have strikingly different colors and patterns than the forewings. These moths generally rest head-down on trees during the day. When they are disturbed by birds or other predators, the flash of the hindwings as they fly off may serve to momentarily distract a predator. Soon after they fly off, they land on a tree and hide their hindwings, leaving visible only the well-camouflaged forewings. Researchers believe that the predator will keep on searching for the more distinctive hindwing markings and will overlook the now almost-invisible moth.
During his collecting trips, Hall targeted and caught several species of hickory-feeding underwing moths, including Robinson’s underwing (Catocala robinsoni), a fall-flying species that specializes on shagbark hickory. The underwing moth species in the photographs below are all hickory generalists, and thus have caterpillars that feed on the many hickory species found in abundance on the preserve. As Hall said, “Ridge’s Mountain certainly seems to be living up to its promise as a hotspot for these species!”
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