Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Many people think of New Jersey as being filled with cities, factories, and highways. After all, it is the most densely populated state in America. Yet nearly a quarter of New Jersey is just the opposite. The New Jersey Pine Barrens is largely undeveloped and relatively unpopulated. This area of 1.1 million acres definitely has more pines than people, and it’s home to some 850 species of plants and 488 species of animals “” birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
The name Pine Barrens originated in the 1600s when settlers found that the ground wasn’t fertile enough to grow traditional crops. The soil is too sandy, acidic, and nutrient-poor to be of much agricultural use. Today farmers grow native plants such as blueberries and cranberries, or they add nutrients and raise the pH of the soil to make it more receptive to crops.
The dominant pine of the Barrens is the pitch pine. It can grow up to 70 feet tall, but in an asymmetrical, ungainly form. It’s probably not a tree you’d want to put in your living room and decorate for Christmas. On the other hand, pitch pines do very well in the Barrens’ soil. There’s another advantage. The thick bark of the tree is highly resistant to wildfires, a not uncommon event in the Barrens. After a fire, many of the surviving trees sprout needles directly out of their trunks, and then get on with their lives.
Pitch pines are actually fire-dependent. Their cones remain sealed until heat from a fire opens them so the seeds can drop. With the arrival of the next good rain, it’s growing time.
When we visited the Pine Barrens, we were shocked to see pygmy forests, practically at sea level. Our previous views of such pygmies were high in the western mountains. But the Barrens have four areas where pitch pines top out at five to six feet tall, no bigger than humans. Botanists assume that the trees’ small size is caused by a combination of infertile soil, strong winds, and frequent fires that stunt their growth.
Don’t take the name Pine Barrens too literally. A number of plant species get around the nutrient-poor soil by becoming insectivorous, consuming very small prey. Here are three examples.
The leaves of the pitcher plant wrap into a bowl that opens at the top. Rainwater collects in the bowl and is sweetened by the plant’s nectar. Insects are attracted by the sweet smell, of course, and once inside they can’t get out. Downward-growing hairs on the inner surface of the leaves imprison the bugs until, exhausted from the struggle, they fall into the water and drown. The pitcher plant’s digestive enzymes get busy breaking down the insect and absorbing the nutrients.
The round-leaved sundew’s strategy is somewhat different, but it does the same job. It doesn’t need a rain-filled bowl to get its next meal “” it produces its own form of flypaper. Its hair-covered leaves produce sweet-smelling, sticky pollen. That way, when a small insect lands on the leaf, it’s stuck. And, as with the previous plant, when the insects die, the sundew absorbs their nutrients.
The aquatic purple bladderwort has its own method of getting its next meal. It catches tiny aquatic insects in bladders, small structures on its underwater leaves. After the bug dies, the creature’s nutrients are available to the plant.
The aforementioned plant species have special survival skills, but many other native plants aren’t surviving the presence of humans. Botanists estimate that of the 850 species of plants in the Barrens, 54 are endangered. And of the 488 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, 44 are threatened or endangered. That’s a tremendous number of native species, but they’re under an ever-increasing threat.
The plant species listed as endangered in the New Jersey Pine Barrens are threatened by the introduction of non-native plants, by the practice of preventing and extinguishing wildfires, and by using and changing the flow of water to enable farming and building.
Of the amphibians at risk, the bog turtle and the Pine Barrens tree frog, which once thrived in the bogs and swamps, have greatly decreased in numbers because of habitat destruction.
Fortunately, much human attention and effort is dedicated to saving these wetlands for the original inhabitants. State and federal laws have been passed to prevent all of it from being turned into housing developments and shopping centers. In 1978 the U.S. Congress passed a law designating 1 million acres as the Pinelands National Reserve, and a year later the state legislature acted in similar fashion. In 1983 the Pine Barrens were declared an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations.
We can’t close without mentioning another native creature that gets a lot of attention every half-century or so. The legend of the Jersey Devil has been rousing the passions of New Jersey residents and those of the surrounding states for more than two centuries. Witnesses claim to have seen a horrible beast with the head of a horse, huge wings shaped like those of a bat, cloven hooves on its back feet, and claws in front. Sound threatening?
As you can imagine, there are many legends regarding its origin. But one group, the Devil Hunters, is committed to finding the Devil and proving it exists. They take field trips into what they hope are suitable habitats.
According to one legend, seeing the Devil is an omen of a coming disaster, and its past appearances have come before shipwrecks and the onset of war. Although sightings began in the 18th century, documented sightings weren’t recorded until the middle 1800s. All the same, much of the population in the area did, and still does, believe in the critter’s existence.
The first flurry of sightings that really stirred interest occurred in 1909 when thousands of encounters with the Devil were reported. The old Philadelphia Record gave it considerable press, as did other city newspapers. One report said that the Devil had terrorized the entire Delaware Valley. About that time it began receiving national coverage.
In 1951 another outburst of Jersey Devil sightings occurred, but once it had the attention of thousands, the sightings diminished and finally ended. But if past patterns repeat themselves, more sightings are due just about now, certain to excite the locals. Maybe they’ll excite someone in the movie business as well, and we’ll be seeing advertisements for “The Jersey Devil, coming soon to a theater near you!”