By Austa Somvichian-Clausen, Communications Intern
Earth is the foundation upon which any forest thrives. Without earth, seeds would not be able to receive the vital nutrients in order to grow. But, the soils of the Earth depend on forests, too — plants and decaying matter play an important role in the creation of new soil and addition of nutrients. Forests also help the earth by preventing erosion — using their roots to stabilize the ground and prevent landslides on cliffs and ridges.
The earth and forests share a vital and mutually beneficial relationship. But, there are also many wildlife species who play a role in that relationship, too and benefit from both earth and forests. Here are some of our favorites!
The Gray Fox
The gray fox builds its dens in rock formations, hollow logs and trees, burrows and brush piles. Their dens are often lined with grass and leaves. Gray fox pups are born blind and don’t venture out of their dens for about 5 weeks. During this period, the father provides food for the entire fox family.
The female (also called a vixen) may dig her den into the soil or use the burrow of another animal. This den may be up to 75 feet long, with numerous chambers used for food storage and the transfer of her young. Gray foxes are unique creatures, being the only member of the canine family with the ability to climb trees. They do so by grabbing the trunk of the tree with their forepaws and scrambling up with its claws and hind feet, in order to escape its enemies.
The Gopher Tortoise
Gopher tortoises are a perfect example of an animal whose survival depends on both the earth and forests. They are dry-land turtles that live in well-drained, sandy soils in longleaf pine habitats and dry oak sandhills. Gopher tortoises are extraordinary diggers, and each tortoise will dig and use multiple burrows that can vary from 3 to 52 feet long, and 9 to 23 feet deep. Their burrows provide a home and refuge for more than 360 other species, such as black pine snakes, gopher frogs, foxes, skunks, opossums and many species of amphibians and invertebrates.
Unfortunately, gopher tortoises are threatened by significant habitat loss due to the clear-cutting of longleaf pine forests across the United States. Other threats to the gopher tortoise include habitat fragmentation and degradation. Gopher tortoises are considered a keystone species because so many other animals rely on their awesome burrowing abilities for a place to live — which makes it even more important to conserve forested land inhabited by the gopher tortoise.
The River Otter
Another unique animal that depends on the forest and earth is the playful North American river otter. The river otter makes its den in abandoned burrows near the water’s edge and can thrive in a variety of ecosystems such as rivers, lakes, swamps and estuaries. Their burrows feature numerous tunnels and usually feature a tunnel with easy water access. Den sites include hollow logs, log jams, piles of driftwood or boulders and abandoned lodges and bank dens made by nutria or beaver. Otter pups rely on their mother to learn swimming and survival skills. Although much of their lives are spent in the water, river otters can also bound and run quite well on land.
The Spruce Grouse
The spruce grouse is a funny bird with an extraordinarily nonchalant demeanor. Found commonly in the coniferous forests of the northern United States and Canada, this dark-colored, stocky bird may sit motionless while observers pass by just a few short feet away — making them easy to overlook. They are nicknamed the “Fool Hen” because of this unconcerned behavior, and on numerous occasions have been captured and, upon release, wander only several feet away before beginning to forage.
The female spruce grouse is paler than the male and is superbly camouflaged against the forest floor, where it forages for food. Spruce grouses feed mainly on the needles of pines, spruce and other coniferous trees. Their diet is comprised almost entirely of conifer needs in the winter, but at other times they also eat fresh green shoots and leaves of other plants, as well as berries, flowers, insects, snails and fungi.
The Gray Tree Frog
The gray tree frog needs aquatic ecosystems for breeding and inhabits all elevations of forested areas that are in, or near, permanent water such as swamps, ponds, lakes and mixed and deciduous forests. Gray tree frogs are both arboreal (tree dwelling) and terrestrial (earth dwelling). They hide in tree holes, under bark, in rotten logs, under leaves and under tree roots when inactive.
The gray tree frog plays a critical role in the food web of their ecosystems. As tadpoles, they can graze enough algae to change the community of algal species in a pond, and, as mature frogs, they can reduce local pest populations such as mosquitoes, gnats and flies. Larger animals that depend upon them as a food source include larger frogs, carnivorous birds and small mammals.