Trip 2 - Southeast
Trip 2 is the biodiversity trip. All major phyla of plants, fungi and animals will be introduced, and some will be explored in depth. Invertebrate animals, marine fishes and amphibians are some of the larger groups that will be focused on.
This trip has the potential to be quite large so it has been split into two sub-trips, a northern and southern trip. The nine core sites could be done in one trip but even if that's all you did, you may want to spend quite a while at each site. There are also a number of worthwhile alternate sites that could make it cumbersome unless it is split into two trips. But with the goal of experiencing all the major phyla, the more sites the better. If you have the time, you could make it one large trip. The description below will assume you are visiting all of the sites.
If you are visiting the alternate sites on the trip, the first stop would be at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Above ground, the forests are typical of forests in the eastern part of the U.S., containing Oak/Pine and Oak/Hickory forest types. But the focus at this park is underground, in the longest known cave system in the world. Organisms of many kinds inhabit cave systems like this and contrasting this environment with the above ground environment will get us started in looking at the diversity of environments and organisms that inhabit the planet.
In Trip 1, we started with the first national park in the world. The next stop in Trip 2, and the first of the core sites, is at the most visited national park in the United States: Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Like Mammoth Cave, the Smokies are dominated by the Oak/Hickory and Oak/Pine forest types. But there are also parts of the park covered by the Maple/Beech/Birch and White/Red/Jack Pine forest types and even the Spruce/Fir forest type at the highest elevations. Within this diverse set of forests is contained a very diverse set of organisms. Much of the focus of the entire trip could be seen in just this one park. But some of the things for which the park is particularly well-known is the diversity of its amphibians, particularly its salamanders. It also has a wide range of plant and fungus types. You will want to spend a fairly lengthy amount of time at just this one site.
The next stop, another alternate, introduces the concept of LTER sites. LTER is an acronym for Long Term Ecological Research sites, and there are sites with this designation across the country. Though these sites sometimes look park-like, they are actually outdoor laboratories for the purpose of studying ecological processes. To this end, the sites always have a partnership with a nearby university that engages in the study. This first site, the Coweeta LTER, is partnered with the University of Georgia where the research is focused on the montane deciduous forest biome of the southern Appalachian Mountains. LTER sites can be administered by a variety of entities, such as the Nature Conservancy or, in this case, the U.S. Forest Service. The site will look fairly similar to the Smokies National Park but its use and purpose are different. This is a site for learning more in-depth science.
Then it's across North Carolina to Durham, the home of the Duke Lemur Center. Not exactly a zoo, but definitely not a natural site, it is a good, intimate location for experiencing some organisms from the order of primates. There are no primates, other than humans, native to the U.S., so they must be experienced in artificial environments. Unlike a zoo, you must have a reservation to visit the Lemur Center. This is an alternate site but it is worth a visit,
Southeastern North Carolina contains the next site, the Green Swamp Preserve. This site is within the small worldwide range of the Venus Fly Trap plant. There are also representatives of the other types of carnivorous plants such as sundews and pitcher plants, and these plants will be the primary focus. You will also notice a new forest type, the Longleaf/Slash Pine forest type, though this will be explored further in following sites.
Heading back west brings us to one of the newer national parks, Congaree National Park in South Carolina. Congaree contains the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. This includes Oak/Gum/Cypress, Loblolly/Shortleaf and Longleaf/Slash Pine forest types.
To fully experience the Loblolly/Shortleaf forest type, drive through Oconee National Forest from Greensboro, Georgia to Athens, GA on your way to the next stops in Atlanta.
There are two sites in Atlanta. The first is to the Centers For Disease Control facility. Here, the focus is on the wide variety of microorganisms, from virues to bacteria to other single-celled creatures. While most microorganisms are harmless, or even helpful, to humans, the site is geared towards those that cause disease. But part of the purpose is to contrast these harmful organisms with ones that are not harmful.
The second Atlanta site is the Georgia Aquarium. A relatively new facility, it was the largest in the world when it was built. There will be opportunities to expereince aquatic creatures in nature in the second part of the trip but here you can experience them a little more easily.
If you are splitting the trip in two, this ends the first part. If you are continuing, or when you start the second part, the first site is in southern Florida at another artificial site, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. This is a site where you can experience plants that do not exist in the continental U.S. Southern Florida is the only part of the mainland with an environment warm enough to sustain many of the plants here in an outdoor setting.
Then it's down to the Florida Keys. Here, coral reefs and the organisms they support are the focus but a fair amount of time will be spent on ocean-dwelling organisms found in non-coral environments as well.
On the other side of, and including, Florida Bay from the Keys is Everglades National Park. A wetland of international importance, the kinds of organisms that rely on the unique environments that are not quite land and not quite open-water will be the focus.
Within and beyond the national park is the Florida Coastal Everglades LTER site. Partnered with Florida International University, the research there focuses on areas where freshwater and estuarine plants come together.
Then it's up to the northern Florida border at the Okefenokee Swamp. Predominately in Georgia, you may want to skip this site if you visited Congaree because they are similar environments. But if you split the trip into two it would be worthwhile to visit it anyway. After just leaving the more grassy wetlands of the Everglades, the wooded wetlands of Okefenokee would stand in contrast.
Finally, if you are visiting the alternate sites, you would end at the Georgia Coastal Ecosystem LTER site. Affiliates include the universities of Georgia, Florida, Houston and Ohio State and the site provides research area for upland, intertidal and underwater habitats along the Georgia coast.
This series is about experiencing life. That is a double-entendre. Learning about biology, the study of life, is one aspect of that. The other aspect concerns the kinds of experiences that make up a full and interesting life. These experiences can be purely emotional, as opposed to the rational experiences and interpretations required of scientific learning. So another goal of the series is to distinguish between these two opposing, yet equally legitimate, ways of experiencing life. To that end, it may be helpful to read this short explanation of the position of Experiencing Life on a scientific theory that tends to provoke emotions in some people: On The Learning Of Evolution. Hopefully, after reading it, you will feel less threatened by the topic, and science in general, and can have more fulfilling experiences.