Diversity of Species in North Carolina
North Carolina ranks among the top states in the country for biodiversity. That is, the amount of different living species within a given area. There are many reasons for this, and we’re going to discover some of them from the ground up. Literally.
The backbone of the ecosystem is the underlying geology. Curtis Smalling “It’s a remarkably diverse state from a Geologic Perspective.”
Curtis Smalling, Ornithologist and Director of Land Bird Conservation for Audubon, North Carolina.
“We have wonderfully diverse geology in our state, from the largely granitic Blue Ridge to the really broad, flat coastal plain. We have these broad categories of geology across the state that really separate the mountains from the piedmont to the coastal plane. From within each of those systems different plant communities, the animal diversity kinda flows from that.”
So, the geology dictates the soil’s characteristics. the soil influences the types of plants, and the plants attract certain animals. Voila! A habitat! Many species found at higher elevations here in North Carolina are associated with northern states, and even Canada. In the Appalachian mountains, the southernmost reach of many plants and animals dips down further south into the state.
Curtis Smalling “One of the reasons that the Appalachian chain is able to pull species this far south is that the plant communities reflect the northern hardwood forest; the Spruce fir forest at high elevation, The Northern hardwood forest above 4000 feet”
This is because a change in elevation comes with a change in temperature. Mountains tend to host several varied ecosystems. Species that typically live further north are perfectly at home in the cool higher elevations.
So what about the rest of the state?
Curtis Smalling “The really broad flat coastal plain, that varies from highly organic soil, out to very sandy soil. The big difference would be that North Carolina, thanks to our coast, has a much higher diversity of coastal and marsh based birds. So the numbers compared to other inland states at the same latitude is higher because of the coastal affinity.”
So our exceptionally large coastal plain, with diverse geology, allows for many different habitats. The result? Diverse species to populate them.
What about the Piedmont?
Curtis Smalling “The piedmont is that place where the mountain systems and the coastal systems mix. The piedmont is wedged between two really well known biodiversity hotspots. What that means is that certain parts of the piedmont reflect that diversity.”
We have three distinct regions of North Carolina, each with specialized species. But there’s another factor. In terms of latitude, we are at the geographic sweet spot, where the range of many northern and southern species overlap; even species from as far south as Florida. This is true on land and also off the coast.
Curtis Smalling “North Carolina is the mixing point between the Cold waters of the North Atlantic and the warm waters of the gulf stream. Birds of the cold north Atlantic mixing with birds of the South because of that geography that brings the warmer waters in to mix with the colder waters.”
When you put it all together, North Carolina has: Species from further north that thrive in the the cooler, higher elevations, many different habitats of the coastal plain, hosting wide ranging and diverse species, the Piedmont where East and West meet, and a latitude where the range of northern and southern species overlaps.
More concisely put:
Curtis Smalling “North Carolina's just a happy accident of Geologic history, of latitude and longitude, and all those things. We have a really wide mix of habitats.”