By Steven L. Stephenson
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Additional resources for A Natural History of the Central Appalachians
The last eastern wood buffalo was killed in West Virginia in 1825. The eastern elk was eliminated by about 1890, and the gray wolf survived only about a decade longer. Although the animals are gone, they left a legacy of place names throughout the region. For example, there are the towns of Wolf Creek and Elk City in West Virginia and streams named Wolf Creek and Buffalo River in Virginia. At the beginning of the twentieth century only the white-tailed deer, black bear, and mountain lion remained, and the last had been reduced to very low numbers.
Fossils of Archaeopteris, an early tree with conifer-like wood, a trunk that could reach five feet in diameter, and branches that were flattened in one plane so as to resemble FIGURE 9 Archaeopteris, an early treelike plant with fernlike leaves 0 2 HISTORY OF THE FLORA AND FAUNA the fronds of ferns are known from the late Devonian in the Central Appalachians (fig. 9). It was thought that fossils of the flattened branches of Archaeopteris were from a large fern, and that fossils of the trunk belonged to an extinct conifer (assigned to the genus Callixylon), until 1960, when Charles Beck, a paleobotanist at the University of Michigan, discovered a fossil in which the two were attached and thus represented the same plant.
Ferns never achieved a dominant position in the earth’s vegetation. With the exception of tree ferns (which usually grow in the understory of forests) and some so-called “sun ferns” that can grow in total sunlight, ferns as a group seem to have had what might be called “secondary” ecological status throughout their history on the earth. To a modern observer, the ferns in a coal swamp forest would not seem out of place in a lowland tropical forest of today, and the leaves of some Carboniferous ferns are remarkably similar to those of certain living species.