If you have lived here in the South for any length of time, or just visited for vacation, then you know that it gets hot, and humid here in the summer months. So humid in fact that much of western North Carolina is considered as temperate rainforest. We have our unusual topography to thank for that, along with prevailing weather patterns that assist with driving moist warm air in from the deeper south. As that air gets pushed in, it rides up the steep cliffs of the Blue Ridge Escarpment to higher elevations where the air cools, causing condensation and the buildup of clouds. The highest elevations of the mountains spend a great deal of time in those clouds. The rest of the mountains and western Piedmont benefit from this effect by becoming the recipients of afternoon thunderstorms that form as a result of the cooling air aloft and the maturation of towering cumulus clouds into rain providing cumulonimbus clouds that bring lightning, thunder, and cooling afternoon showers. Now some of you may be thinking, well it’s cooler here than in Columbia, South Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia, or Miami, Florida, and you would be correct, but hot and cold are relative terms unless you are a species native to western North Carolina, or more specifically, the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
Because habitats and natural communities are so variable in areas such as Hickory Nut Gorge, summer can be a time of stress for many species. Many of the spring wildflower species that are so popular among flower enthusiasts have finished their flowering and are nearly finished producing the fruit that will guarantee the next generation of offspring. These parent plants are using the photosynthetic energy acquired over spring to grow their roots and store energy in the form of starch, which will help them survive the harshness of winter and provide the energy needed for their quick jumpstart when spring comes around again.
The spring ephemerals have now given way to a new array of plants that are tough, have thick leaves
and are much more resistant to drying out from the summer heat. Those species that are not quite as
tough flourish in wet, seepy areas or live in the spray zone of waterfalls. Some species of plants, such as
many of our summer orchids, use their association with soil fungi called mycorrhizae to help extract
water from the soil. Without these mycorrhizal fungi, these plants would not be able to extract enough
water on their own. In exchange, these specialized plants provide food energy that they make through
photosynthesis to the fungi, creating an interesting symbiotic relationship.
Summer is the time where snakes are moving around looking for mates. Buck deer are growing their
antlers. Many whitetail does are leading around one or two fawns that were birthed during the spring.
During this time, many insects are coming out of their larval stage and are laying eggs that will
overwinter. Species such as fireflies, June bugs, and cicadas can be seen and heard and are true signs of
summer in the South.
For many species, being outside during the day is a bad idea because it takes too much energy to
thermoregulate, so these species carry out a lot of their life activities at night. Evening primrose flowers
open after they have been warmed by the sun and don’t close until late at night. Bats come out at night
so, they can catch insects such as moths and mosquitos, which tend to be more numerous and active at
night when temperatures are cooler, and flight is easier. Many species such as foxes and bears are more
active in the twilight hours when it’s not so hot and uncomfortable.
Amphibians such as salamanders retreat to deep recesses within cracked rocks. Some species will lay
their eggs in damp places under logs or in rock cracks where they will stay damp and protected from
drying out in the hot sun. Even fish are affected by the heat of summer weather, with most species
becoming more sluggish during the heat of the day, feeding mostly in the early morning hours. Many
fish will even retreat to deeper waters where the water is cooler and more oxygenated.
So, as you grab that glass of ice-cold lemonade and think about every possible way to stay cool this
summer, give some thought to the different species that live in our area and think about how they deal
with the heat. It’s quite remarkable to think about all the adaptations so many species must
carry out their life functions, all in the name of survival. Humans can alter the
environment to suit our needs, but everything else must adapt to an environment that is hostile and
unforgiving. We could learn quite a lot from watching nature.
Until Next Time!
Clint Calhoun teaches high school science and outdoor education classes at Lake Lure Classical Academy and has worked as a naturalist and biologist in Hickory Nut Gorge for over 25 years.