When I actually get around to updating this blog I have going here, I typically spend my time talking about specific biological phenomena, or species, that go relatively underappreciated by the non-biologist public. After all, the name of this project is Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology, is it not? However, as someone with a background in evolutionary biology, as well as ecology, I can attest to the significance of communities of organisms and large scale patterning over landscapes. Our planet can be broken up into distinct ‘bioregions’ or ‘ecoregions’, which contain geographically distinct groups of communities of species, and these regions tend to be unique to other defined regions. Think of them as neighborhoods of sorts, each one defined by a specific combination of factors from local geology, geography, climate, and recent biogeography (or, the local distribution of organisms in that region; for example, you aren’t going to find tigers in the grasslands of Brazil, or sloths in the jungles of Central Africa, since a combination of evolutionary history, lineage migration, and plate tectonics has influenced the biogeography of these critters). The one I’ve chosen to talk about sits in an isolated and generally unfamiliar corner of the United States. This bioregion is very dear to me, because I spent more than three years of my life living there in high school, and although I was not there long, I was continually impressed by how special of a location it is. It is known as the Klamath Mountains ecoregion, as those mountains are a dominant feature in the region; the region, more generally, is also referred to as the Klamath Uplift, the Klamath Knot, and the Klamath-Siskiyou area. From a historical and political perspective, the region is effectively the coastal two-thirds of the proposed U.S. state of ‘Jefferson’, which straddles the current border between Oregon and California.
The map above shows some formal boundaries of designated ecoregions in the Pacific Northwest, and 78 is generally accepted as the Klamath Mountains zone. I’ve circled a slightly differently oriented area in red as to show the areas with which I’m most familiar, and additionally, because the presence of the Klamath Uplift itself influences the climate and resulting biodiversity of coastal zones (zone 1 on the map), so that the coasts of far southern Oregon and far northern California are very different from rest of the coastlines from their respective states. In blue, where the Klamath ecoregion, and its associated uplands, come closest to the Pacific, is where I went to high school; Brookings, OR. The 150 sq miles surrounding this small town, down the coast and inland, are unique even within this special ecoregion due to this close juxtaposition of these ecological entities. I feel as though this region needs some devoted attention not only because of its one-of-a-kind attributes, but because it is an almost undiscovered place. This is true of both outsiders to the Northwest (or as I like to call them, the Those That are Seriously Missing Out), as well as people that have lived in the Northwest, even within Oregon, their entire lives. Part of the reason for this is because this area is sparsely populated; the nearest large cities, like Portland and San Francisco, are hundreds of miles north and south, along narrow, ill-maintained, rain-beaten coastal roads. Simply getting there is an arduous endeavor that involves transversing harsh, forested terrain, cutting through largely uninhabited river canyons, and putt-putting down Hwy 101 on the coast, trying not to drive off a cliff in the face of Biblical-style rainstorms with violent winds. It is largely because of this lack of habitation that this area has remained so pristine and the unique biodiversity has kept intact. The coastline does attract a modest seasonal tourist population every year, because the area has a more amiable climate than areas north and south of there, and the natural beauty of the place is unparalleled and untainted by the suffocation of human influence. It is this natural beauty and ever-present access to undistilled wilderness that many that I knew that grew up there to say ‘yeah, I guess it’s pretty special.’ But this doesn’t go far enough. The Klamath ecoregion is more than special for being pretty to live, work, and recreate in. This region of the world has among one of the highest levels of species endemism on the Pacific Coast; species endemism refers to species that are found in only one, distinct geographic area and that area only, often evolved to conditions in that special little micro-range. By this definition, it is exceptionally unique, ecologically, and this distinction, I believe, is more impactful than aesthetics.
Due to its warmer climate, which has more in common with California than Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest, it has been described as a ‘chunk’ of California brought up north and transplanted across the border. But this isn’t an accurate description either. The climate and geology-fueled Klamath ecoregion is wholly unlike anything found in Oregon, in California, or technically anywhere else in the world.
This region is a rugged paradise wilderness existing within the larger relative wilds of the Pacific Northwest, if that can be imagined. A land of lush forests, pristine waters, bright, hot sunshine, and the overwhelming silence of isolation from humans and their business, the Klamath bioregion is an unrecognized gem in the U.S.’s crown. The region is possibly the most enigmatic and enchantingly beautiful natural space I have ever known. And to it, the following entry will serve as my love song…
The history of the Klamath Uplift begins with the actual physical geology molding the area into existence. Unlike much of the mountainous regions in the Pacific Northwest, which have their history in the relatively recent volcanic events associated with the Cascade arc (within the last several million years), the Klamath has a much deeper, older origin story. Roughly 400 million years ago, the rocks that form the Klamath Mountains were seafloor sediments. These compacted sedimentary rocks patiently sat at the bottom of the ocean, until between 170 and 120 million years ago, when tectonic forces caused these rocks to buckle and rise, generating undersea mountains which became a series of offshore islands. Over the next tens of millions of years, eastward movement of the plate below these mountains rammed the islands into the coastline of the North American plate, crumpling and warping and twisting the emerging Klamath mountains like a discarded Taco Bell wrapper. These once free and normal mountains became fused to the mainland, becoming a nasty, knotted carbuncle of jagged peaks on the western shore of North America, and for the past 70 million years or so, they’ve been eroding from the forces of weather and glaciation, and have been reshaped by later volcanic spillages and intrusions of lava from the northern and eastern Cascadian events. The geologic history of the Klamath region is one of repeated torsion and pressure, meaning that much of the rock here is of a metamorphic, not volcanic, nature. The mountains are rich in serpentinite, which is often formed alongside the presence of seawater (see: Klamaths were once islands), and hence the soil tends to be ‘serpentine’, which means it generally has very low amounts of essential nutrients for plant life, as well as high amounts of toxic chemicals to plants, like nickel, chromium, and cobalt. As a side note, it should be no surprise then, to know that the Klamath-Siskiyou area has provided nickel and chromium mining opportunities galore for humans.
The unique, restrictive soil type in this region means that the native plants are, by default, toxin-gobbling badasses. While the evolutionary mechanisms that allow for populations of plants to tolerate unforgiving soils aren’t well understood, it can be said without doubt that special soil initiates the development of special ecologies, on the population genetics level, or the entire species level. It is likely that one of the drivers of the Klamath bioregion’s species endemism is simply the dirt of the area itself.
If you step away from the mountains themselves, and follow the raging waters precipitously downhill, you’ll arrive at the Pacific, and the rainforests jammed against the wall of rock, cradled by the sea to the west. The most magnificent of these forests are the remaining, un-logged swaths of coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) bordering the sea from as far north as the Chetco River gorge in Oregon (an area I am intimately acquainted with), to as far south as Big Sur in California…although the forests are oldest and densest in the dark, wild, most extreme northwest corner of California, in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties.
Redwood forests are, predictably, dominated by redwood trees. It’s not hard to imagine why, considering that coast redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth, and among the most massive. It is not uncommon for a redwood to reach more than 300 feet in height, and live for several thousand years. The tallest known specimen, Hyperion, located in a secret grove somewhere around the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park on the Northern California coast, tops out near 380 feet. To get an idea of how tall this is, if Hyperion was put smack in the middle of Portland, OR…it would be surpassed by just four skyscrapers…and only by a relatively small amount. Hyperion would also easily eclipse the Statue of Liberty.
I tend to have a hard time describing just how big redwoods get, and how large even the ‘normal’ trees are that make up the bulk of redwood forests are, to folks who have never seen them before…especially Easterners who haven’t lived around giant conifers and think a ‘big’ tree is that old oak on the corner.
“So, they’re big trees right?”
“That’s cool, but I’ve seen plenty of big trees before. There are some old ones in town. They have plaques and shit.”
“No…you don’t…this isn’t the same. They’re like REALLY tall.”
“Taller than a house? Two houses?”
“You can’t see the top of them. They are wider than some houses.”
“Listen, you don’t need to be a smartass. Seriously now, how big are they?”
…and so on and so forth.
The evolution of such great size in these trees is made possible by the climatic attributes of the region in which they live. The coastal areas of the Klamath bioregion receive a ridiculous amount of rain during the year, with annual totals typically above 100 inches. The coastline becomes a consistently sopping mess from October through May, with dense fog interlaced with driving wind and rain. When the ‘dry’ months of summer hit, the ocean doesn’t relinquish its cool grip on the land, and floats out a daily layer of fog in the mornings. This near constant precipitation makes it possible for such large trees like redwoods to grow; bigger the plant, the exponentially greater need for water. However, being exceptionally tall has its own set of problems. As a plant gets taller, it has to fight gravity that much more to suck water from underground, through the stem (trunk), all the way up to the leaves. The longer the straw, the more suction needed to draw up water. Luckily, coast redwoods grow in a place with plentiful fog, and have evolved the necessary tools to exploit that resource. Redwoods have the unique ability to siphon water vapor and fog directly from the air into their leaves, bypassing entirely the snail-mail option chugging upwards from the roots. Water that isn’t gleaned from the fog in the air is also condensed by the crowns of these giants so that forms what is essentially a rainfall that cascades from the tops of the trees to the forest floor, so it can be picked up by the roots. If, on a foggy day, you enter a dense stand of redwoods, you may find yourself getting soaked, not because of passive, post-rain drip…but because redwoods make their own fucking weather. Because if life doesn’t even have the decency to give you lemons, you can just summon lemonade from the sky like a badass tree god.
Not only do these regular Ororo Munroes generate their own rainfall, but they are remarkably resilient and long-lived. Many of the biggest ones were already as tall as telephone poles around the time Jesus was getting potty trained, and some are hundreds of years older than that. The secret to this longevity seems to be a combination of several factors. The first of which is a tough, spongy, fibrous bark that can be feet thick in some cases, that shrugs off forest fire like a warm breath. Trees that are hard hit by the cyclical fires that clean out the forest understory can be completely hollowed and charred in the trunk, but as long as the roots and crown survive, the redwood trucks along for decades like a champ. Another strategy the trees use is storing a massive amount of toxic tannins in their bark, which make them a very difficult meal for opportunistic insects. Redwoods are essentially fire and infection-proof, and this makes it really easy for them to just keep growing and growing. Often, the demise of a redwood comes from winds from a catastrophic storm, felling them at their shallow root base, or from lumber-hungry humans with saw blades. The unflinching, John McClane-esque hard-to-kill nature of redwoods is reflected in their scientific name, Sequoia sempervirens; ‘sempervirens’ meaning ‘ever green’ or ‘everlasting.’
Redwoods are so large and old that they tend to collect hundreds of years of dirt, decaying needles, and wind-blown seeds from various plants in the knotted branches of their canopy. Over time, this becomes a massive peaty mat of biomaterial, sometimes many tons in weight. Smaller tree species, and sometimes the redwood’s own progeny, grow on this aerial plot, drawing water from the soil below. These island ecosystems in the canopies of redwoods attract animals from the forest floor, and there are often salamanders and various insects living happily in their ‘treehouses’ hundreds of feet above the ground. The moisture content in these canopy microecosystems is quite high, due to the ever present layer of fog; so high, in fact, that many creatures capable of living up there, like some mollusks and amphibians, are actually typically associated with river and pond habitats.
These mats are also such effective sponges for extracting water from fog and rainfall, that redwoods, being the water-holics that they are, have evolved the ability to grow roots from their trunks and branches where these mats are, so that they can nab some of the delicious moisture for themselves. To put that in perspective, imagine growing a mouth in your bellybutton because a piece of potato chip fell in there and you forgot about it. Yeah.
Although, if you’re the kind of person who keeps getting food getting stuck in random divots in your body, you might have more things to worry about than the development of extra orifices….
Since redwoods influence the precipitation around themselves, they often have a specific set of other species accompanying them on the forest floor. This ecological property makes redwoods something of an ‘ultra-keystone’ species, in which without their presence in the ecosystem, the entire construct ceases to be. Other plants in these forests can be similarly large coniferous trees, like Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir, which are themselves among the tallest five species of trees in the world. Some others are the rain-loving western hemlock, which can often be found growing from the decaying remains of downed redwoods, roots wrapping around these softened, mossy trunks like squiddy tentacles. Rhododendrons, specifically the tickle-me-pink flowered Pacific coast rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) are a common sight in these forests and large shrubs can tower above at nine feet high. Blanketing much of forest floor are five foot high western swordferns (Polystichum munitum), which, while easy on the eyes and providing a primeval feel to the redwood forest, are a bitch to maneuver through during any trail-making foray. Smaller, more delicate ferns can be found underfoot, and bordering the streams and boggy areas are pockets of skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) which has all the stench of skunk, and little of the edibility of cabbage.
One leafy denizen of the redwood forest floor is redwood sorrel (also known as ‘Oregon oxalis’) (Oxalis oregana). It looks like clover, and densely coats trailsides and all the spaces in between ferns and tree trunks; this shit is the grass of the redwood forest. The leaves are edible in small amounts. I say small amounts, because they carry oxalic acid, which forms calcium oxalate in the kidneys…and in high enough amounts, makes your kidneys stop doing that immediately important task of filtering your blood. But, the taste of the oxalic acid gives the leaves a refreshing, Granny Smith apple bite, and can lessen thirst, making it useful on a long hike through the redwoods in the event you were too dumb to bring along enough clean drinking water. Redwood sorrel has also adapted to the very dim forest floor by conducting photosynthesis at low levels of ambient light (close 1/200th the strength of direct sunlight). In fact, redwood sorrel is so well-adapted to the dank, dark underbelly at the toes of their gigantic redwood masters, that any direct sunlight peeking through the fog, clouds, and canopy causes them to fold their leaves downwards. This fleeing-from-sunlight reaction occurs over a matter of minutes, and when the sunlight passes, they unfold right back.
So, plant life in redwood forests is a bizarre assemblage of stupidly huge, rain-making trees, forming a fairy-wetdream elven cathedral, with prehistoric, feathery ferns and giant flowery shrubs underneath, moss and mushrooms turning every exposed surface into moist, squishy, pillowy softness, swamp plants that smell like roadkill, parasitic trees living in the bellybutton lint of bigger trees, and the ubiquitous presence of what is essentially ‘vampire apple clover’…which, now that I think about it, sounds suspiciously like a Glade scented candle variety…
But, although coniferous forests aren’t the most friendly to animal biodiversity (most herbivorous critters can’t digest the tough, toxic needles of conifers…which limits the food chain in these forests some), redwood forests are hardly devoid of animal life.
One of the most endangered of these animals, other than the famous Spotted Owl, is the marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus).
These little birds are members of the sea-faring auk family, which means they are related to things like puffins, razorbills, auklets, and the recently extinct Great auk. They range up and down the coastline of the eastern Pacific, from Alaska’s Aleutian islands during the summer, to as far south as the San Diego area. Marbled murrelets are so threatened with extinction due to their picky nesting habits, depending entirely on the moss that grows in old-growth coniferous trees within fifty miles or so of the ocean. These big, old trees, over the past hundred and fifty years or so, have also been coveted by members of the species Homo sapiens, but for reasons of the house-building, toothpick-making, toilet paper-generating variety. So, old-growth stands of Sitka spruce up in the far north, Douglas-fir and western hemlock along the Washington and Oregon coasts, and redwoods along the California coast that were logged in recent history have had a dramatic impact on the marbled murrelet. Scientists weren’t even aware that the bird was nesting in these forests until the mid-1970s, and the marbled murrelet was among the last birds in North America to have its nesting behavior cataloged; this can be forgiven by the fact that almost all of its relatives nest in rocky, seashore outcroppings instead. By this point in time, a huge amount of damage had already been done to populations up and down the coast. As logging in some protected areas of old-growth along the coasts has ceased, there is hope for the species to make a slow recovery.
However, more recently, as more and more folks take up hiking and camping in these old-growth redwood stands, they open up the marbled murrelet to additional threats. The main predators of these birds are corvids (family of birds including magpies, crows, jays, etc…or as I like to call them, the Smartest (and Meanest) Birds on Earth), particularly Stellar’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) and ravens. These hyperintelligent (and I mean that, considering that evidence has mounted in recent years showing that many members of this family are as clever as our ape cousins…but that’s a topic for another day) and opportunistic birds are often fond of humans and our trash, and will follow us into these forests to pick up the scraps of what we leave behind…and in the process, discover hidden murrelet eggs they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. From there, it’s a smorgasbord of murrelet omelettes for these squawking imps. So, if you don’t like the idea of a murder of crows descending on some of the last remaining eggs of critically endangered bird, for the love of reason, PICK UP YOUR SHIT WHEN YOU HIKE AND CAMP. It’s not just aesthetically appalling, but it kills fluffy baby birds. You don’t want that on your conscience.
Sliding along the redwood duff on the forest floor is the banana slug, which is a name used to describe three distinct species of slug in the genus Ariolimax. Named for their yellowish coloration and large size, they range in temperate rainforest habitats all along the Pacific coast, with some isolated populations inland in Canada’s Columbia Mountains. They are regarded as the second-largest terrestrial slugs on Earth, and can reach nearly 10 inches in length and weigh as much as a hamburger patty. Although many are ‘banana-colored’, they are commonly seen in shades of olive green, and with big, black blotches covering their mantle.
These slugs are honestly only unique in regards to their size and coloration, as they live their lives as most slugs do; dutifully munching on whatever is left over in the forest ecosystem. They make for an interesting sight along the trail, I must say; little tongues of yellow flame in a sea of deep green and brown. One must be careful not to crush them underfoot, as their large size make them a more ‘meaty’ problem to scrape off the boot. Their large size also made them a worthwhile foodstuff for local populations of Native peoples, specifically the Yurok tribe, as well as German immigrants during the 19th century. Apparently, while they are edible, it’s incredibly difficult to make them even remotely palatable. Banana slugs, as far as modern U.S. culture is concerned, are perhaps most famously the quirky mascot of UC Santa Cruz athletics, and have made appearances on early-2000s alt-rock album covers.
Banana slugs also serve as food for things like this…
The hungry fellow pictured above is the coastal giant salamander (Dicamptodon tenebrosus), a member of the small salamander family of Dicamptodontidae, collectively known as ‘Pacific giant salamanders.’ They are found all over the Pacific Northwest, as far inland as the moist forests of northern Idaho, and down into northern California. These salamanders fit their namesakes well, as they can reach nearly a foot in length, and are the among the largest terrestrial salamanders in North America, and in the world. They are also active, dynamic hunters, with strong muscular legs and powerful jaws…and tend to behave in ways very different from their sluggish amphibian cousins. For example, these bruisers regularly take on small rodents, lizards, other amphibians, and literally anything they can clamp their toothy mouths down on. And toothy they are; if you are brave enough to grasp one of these wriggling beasts while on a hike, you will invariably find that they have a knack for twisting their head around and slicing into your hand flesh with many small, sharp teeth. Once you drop them into the ferns, clutching your bleeding hand in agony and humiliation, you will also notice that they are uncharacteristically fleet-footed over open ground for a salamander, scampering rapidly through the leaf litter. Pacific giant salamanders tend to behave in a manner usually reserved for the typically more lively reptiles. These amphibians with attitude also have the ability to vocalize, which is a skill found more often in frogs than in salamanders. If threatened, they will often screech or croak in an attempt to get whatever is in their face to back the fuck off. Some have described this noise as sounding similar to the barking of a dog. While I have seen one of these but once in the wild, I never had the privilege of seeing it bark at me. If I had, I would likely have decided that at long last, I had completely lost my mind.
The coastal regions of the Klamath ecoregion are dominated by titanic trees, hefty, neon-colored mollusks, and ornery salamanders the size of your forearm that could eat a box of chicken nuggets and bark at you for more. It appears that, at least here, bigger really is the way to go. And wetter is better.
Moving away from the ocean and into the many river valleys steeply cut into the dense metamorphic rock, the plant and animal communities begin to change. As one goes inland along rivers like the Rogue, Chetco (my personal favorite), Smith, Eel, Klamath, and the Mad, the influence of fog quickly dissipates, and the reign of redwood-dominated forests and salt-loving shore pine fades within miles. In the case of the Chetco, which I am most familiar with, during the summer months, the fog layer can be escaped by simply driving less than ten miles up the river, taking you into a realm of warm, dry sunshine.
An inhabitant of these sunny river gorges that I find particularly intriguing is Umbellularia californica, the only member of its genus. It is known throughout the southern part of its range, along the California coast, as ‘California bay laurel’ or simply ‘California laurel’. Down there, it is also called ‘pepperwood’ and ‘spicebush.’ The range extends north of the Oregon-California border, and the plant can be found, infrequently, as far north as Newport, OR, although it is far more plentiful along the coastal borders of the Klamath Uplift down at the far southwestern corner of Oregon. Here, it is called ‘Oregon myrtle’, although it is in no way related to ‘true’ myrtle trees.
It is actually a member of the Lauraceae family, which is a very primitive group of flowering plants. It is closely related to avocado, and this relationship is evident when one observes the plant’s fruit, a ‘bay nut’, that looks exactly like a hard, green version of an avocado fruit, equipped with a large, interior pit. The leaves give off a pungent, peppery aroma both in the ambient surrounds (particularly in the hot summer air), and when crushed. The odor is hard to describe, something like a bitter perfume combined with the muted backdrop of a cigar shoppe, but I find it pleasant.
I have many memories of spending sultry mid-summer days several miles up the Chetco River, and hiking to the river’s edge through shady groves of ‘myrtle’, the strong, spicy smell permeating everything, floating down from the trees as if the sun was baking the essence out of them; like a tea bag in hot water. The scent made everything seem far more tropical than you’d imagine for a place like this, and in the Mediterranean heat of summer, that added sharp, crisp odor in the air made everything seem even more dry. I hope I can return to those sleepy, sun-soaked, aromatic groves someday soon.
Umbellularia is prized for its beautiful hardwood, which is incredibly valuable for woodworking and luthiering. For this reason, there are multiple roadside craftshops on the southern Oregon coast specializing in the use of Oregon ‘myrtle.’
Umbellularia, unfortunately, currently is a major host for the invasive plant disease known as Sudden Oak Death. SOD (Phytophthora ramorum) is a protozoan plant pathogen that is presently devastating populations of oaks and related trees along the northern California and southern Oregon coastlines, and threatens the stability of the Klamath bioregion.
One species adversely affected by SOD is the tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), similarly the only member of its genus.
It derives its common name from the high amounts of tannin it accumulates in its bark and nuts (which are very much like acorns). Tanoaks can be found all over the northern Californian coast ranges, up into the Klamath Mountains, along the coastal gulleys north into southwestern Oregon, and as far east as the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. These trees are easily distinguished by their surprisingly sharp, saw-edged, thick leaves that persist through the winter. Evolutionarily, it is currently considered somewhat of a link between the true oaks (Quercus) and the chestnuts (Castanea). They are ecologically significant in the region, as they are among several ‘pioneer’ species to reclaim areas burned by fire. However, while other pioneer species, like red alder, are eventually overtaken by slower-growing conifers, tanoaks can often compete for much longer in their life cycle, so that many river valley forests in this area are a combination of redwood, douglas-fir, Oregon myrtle, and plentiful tanoak.
Another species adversely impacted by a pathogen (specifically Phytophthora lateralis, a very close relative of Sudden Oak Death) is the extremely endemic Port Orford cedar, named after the diminutive community on the southern Oregon coast (or as I like to call it ‘Port Awful’, a place whose main exports are meth, mold, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and gratuitous levels of rain). Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) is not a true cedar (Cedrus), but is more closely related to the cypresses. Like how a Douglas-fir isn’t actually a fir, and how Prince wasn’t actually royalty. Port Orford cedar is worth mentioning because it is only found in the river valleys and mountains of the Klamath Uplift, preferring areas adjacent to flowing water. While the biggest threat to this species is its current battle with an introduced protozoan disease, it is also exploited for its wood’s unique and useful properties. It is greatly sought after in east Asia for use in the construction of coffins, shrines, and temples. The wood is light, but strong and fantastically rot resistant; to boot, it also has a potent ginger aroma.
Inhabiting these river valleys is one non-plant organism that deserves some recognition. This is, of course, the ‘mountain beaver’, (Aplodontia rufia).
While the term ‘mountain beaver’ seems straight-forward enough (a beaver that lives in the mountains, got it), it is actually a hugely inaccurate name. These animals, which can be found across the wetter regions of the Northwest and northern California, are not beavers, nor are they exclusively inclined to inhabit the highlands, and in fact are most plentiful in coastal river canyons and forests. These rodents are the most primitive living rodents in the world, based on their many basal morphological characters (specifically jaw features and kidney functions) and they are the only living members of their family (Aplodontiidae). Genetic evidence suggests they most closely related to the squirrels, but that evolutionary split happened at least 35 million years ago. It is likely that Aplodontia shared a common ancestor with the lineage that gave rise of true beavers more than sixty million years ago, making them essentially as un-beaver-like as you can get. Calling this creature a ‘mountain beaver’ is the phylogenetic equivalent of calling a seal a ‘sea hyena.’ These rodents are slow-moving, big-headed, and generally unspecialized compared to their gigantic, highly-derived beaver namesakes. In fact, beavers take huge offense to even being associated with these backwards, bumpkin cousins of theirs.
Aplodontia lives its life as a quiet, turd-shaped, burrowing forest rodent that can grow to roughly the size of a rabbit. The tunnels in which they spend their days, munching on varied plant matter, can actually be relatively complex, and house many other rainforest species. Compared to other rodents, they have inefficient kidneys, and can’t generate the concentrated urine that has allowed many rodents to flourish in arid environments, perhaps pre-dating the development of this feature in the rodent evolutionary tree. It is possible this inability to salvage water efficiently has limited Aplodontia and all its extinct relatives, to wet, forest habitats where water is plentiful. Apparently, if you piss as much as a diabetic on a cold day, you need to be able to replenish your water reserves at a moment’s notice.
But, they do have the capacity for harvesting greens like a champ, it seems:
Ascending further in elevation, past the balmy gorges flowing and winding towards the sea, one reaches the crown on the Klamath Knot; the cool mountains and uplands. These mountains house perhaps some of the most unique and evolutionarily isolated organisms, and are by far the most uninhabited part of the ecoregion, with a large proportion of this region dominated by such entities as the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area. Some of these mountains cap out at above 9,000 feet, making them distinctly larger and more foreboding than the soft, rolling coast ranges to the north and south.
Tucked up in the serpentine nooks and crannies of the Klamaths are a whole host of native, exclusively so, plants and animals. In fact, the level of plant endemism high in the mountains is so great, that a special distinction of ‘Klamath-Siskiyou Floristic Province’ has been assigned to this biodiversity hotspot.
One of these unique species is the Brewer spruce (Picea breweriana).
It is one of the most basal, or primitive, members of the spruce genus Picea, and helps confirm that spruces evolved in North America. It is distinguished from more derived spruces by being, well, droopy. Those pendulous, flaccid branches are a dead marker for this species. The trees tend to do well on ridgetops in the mountains, so that they can be near the largest collections of snow, so as it melts across the spring and summer (which are very dry), the spruce can have a nearly constant amount of water available to it.
Another, perhaps more well-known, rare plant in the Klamath Mountains is the kalmiopsis (Kalmiopsis leachiana).
Kalmiopsis is quite a special plant. Firstly, it is a member of a diverse family of flowering plants; the Ericaceae. This group includes all the heaths, and heath berries like blueberries and huckleberries, as well as azaleas and rhododendrons (and a large array of weird, parasitic plants I can get into some other time). This family is particularly diverse in southern Africa, but the Northwest has its fair share of ‘ericas’ too. Kalmiopsis may look like a small, shrubby version of the giant rhododendrons of the redwood forests, but it is most closely related to Kalmia, or lamb-kill, a flowering shrub that is mostly found way over on the eastern side of our continent. Kalmiopsis is the only plant of its kind in the world, and was likely isolated from its closest cousins many millions of years ago, and has survived up in this desolate corner of the world, much like the mountain beaver and Brewer spruce.
Very recently (in 2007), a subtype of this plant, the North Umpqua Kalmiopsis was upgraded to species status (Kalmiopsis fragrans). While the spotted owl has long been touted as the ‘panda of the Pacific Northwest’, this unassuming ‘new’ species of kalmiopsis may be the realistic holder of that title. It is estimated that less than 2500 individual plants exist, pockmarked in the high ravines surrounding the headwaters of the Umpqua River in parts of the Cascade foothills in southwestern Oregon. However, since this rare plant tends to grow in incredibly inaccessible places, logging and construction are not major concerns for its continued survival.
Lastly, the Klamath Mountains are also home to some exceedingly rare animals as well. An example is the Siskiyou Mountains salamander (Plethodon stormi), which is only found in small pockets along the Klamath River in southern Oregon and into California. Its endangered status is the direct result of decades of logging and damming along the Klamath River, and it is in possession of big, wet, guilt-inducing eyes…
Ferngullyian ruminations aside, this little guy is pretty uncommon, but that rarity is really the only thing that makes the species unique. However, these salamanders do belong to a pretty intriguing group known as ‘lungless salamanders’; the Plethodontidae. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all salamanders in this family lack lungs, and instead respire directly from the air through their moist skin. They tend to be small because of this (bigger body means exponentially more volume for every additional square inch of skin…becomes physically unfeasible after a certain point); they also tend to have slow metabolisms as a result of this method of breathing. Plethodontids also possess a peculiar vertical slit between their upper ‘lip’ and nostrils, and while upon close inspection this makes them look somewhat like a rabbit or camel, the function is specifically for chemoreception, not unlike the forked tongue of a snake. Also, most members of the genus Plethodon do not go through the typical aquatic phase common to salamanders, and instead lay eggs in moist terrestrial place, which then hatch into miniature versions of adult salamanders. So, if it wasn’t bad enough that these salamanders are dying out…they don’t even get to enjoy their childhoods.
The Klamath Bioregion is a marvelous and spell-binding area. It’s a mystical kingdom of dark, wet winters and gorgeously clear and hot summers. Separated from the rest of the world by miles of unmatched wilderness, it rests as a biologically, ecologically, climatically, geologically, geographically anomaly in the West. I find it interesting that the dogged inability of the area’s natural space to conform to surrounding biospheres is strikingly similar to the political and cultural identity of those that live there. Many of the folks living in and around this bioregion recognize its lack of connection, in any way, to the main governing bodies in Salem and Sacramento. For this reason, for decades, inhabitants have taken up the mantle of the hypothetical State of Jefferson, which would encompass much of the Klamath bioregion. I find it no coincidence that there exists both this cultural and political rebellion, and the accidental ecological rebellion formed by the intersection of evolution and geology; we humans connect to consequences formed by our natural spaces in very subtle ways. The awe and uniqueness of this region can’t help but be passively absorbed, and it doesn’t take an ecologist, biologist, or geologist to recognize that, or to proudly craft a Double Cross flag as acknowledgement of the majestic beauty forged by maintained isolation from the outside world.
Below are more photos I’ve taken over the years of this little slice of the Pacific Coast:
* Jake Buehler
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