Natural history is the study of organisms and natural objects, and their origins and interactions with one another. The natural history of West Virginia is most influenced by the Appalachian Mountains, which are the oldest continuously vegetated land mass on Earth. The numerous geologic formations and varied topography also contribute to the state’s diverse natural history. West Virginia’s topographic regions include the Ridge and Valley section in the east, whose western boundary is the spectacular Allegheny Front, a mountain range running in a southwestward diagonal across Mineral, Grant, and Pendleton counties. West of the Alleghenies is the Appalachian Plateau, which includes two-thirds of the state. Elevations in the state vary from less than 300 feet to nearly 5,000, providing a multitude of ecological niches.
The high Alleghenies force prevailing east-moving cloud masses to deposit heavier rainfall westward and create a desert-like ‘‘rain shadow’’ east of the mountains in the drier Ridge and Valley. The effect is dramatic: The annual rainfall in Canaan Valley averages about 60 inches. In Petersburg, which is about 20 miles east, the rainfall drops to 30 inches annually. Likewise, the growing season varies widely, ranging from 193 days in Logan to 92 in Canaan Valley. The extreme differences have created a magnificent mosaic of habitats for plants and animals.
There are nearly 2,600 species of vascular plants in West Virginia. A third of these are non-native exotics, which have been introduced from elsewhere. The larger families are grasses, sedges, mint, rose, and composite. Forty-four species of orchids and nearly 1,000 species of mosses, bryophytes, and lichens grow in West Virginia. About 320 species of birds and 179 species of fish are the largest vertebrate groups. Eighty-seven amphibian and reptile species and 66 mammal species occur in West Virginia. Invertebrate species of insects, mites, and worms are numerous, but their number can only be estimated.
Plant communities and species are often adapted to very specific soils and climates. Barren rocks, thin soils, and bogs are often habitats for mosses, lichens, and fungi. There seem to be plants adapted to every niche in the landscape. Some ferns, grasses, and herbs thrive in dense shade, while others display vigor in full sunlight.
The wide diversity of plant life produces abundant food for wildlife all year long, and West Virginia wildlife include animals that are as specialized as plants. There are crossbills and red squirrels that eat pine cone seeds. Herons and ducks must have an aquatic environment, while mollusks strain their food from flowing waters of larger streams and rivers. Insects are the most numerous group, and many rely on only one or a few plant species for food. The monarch butterfly must have milkweeds, and the eastern tent caterpillar depends on cherry and apple trees. Black bear, opossum, and deer are generalists, eating a wide variety of foods that permit them to have wider territorial ranges and more easily survive food shortages.
People and natural causes have greatly influenced the diversity of life in the Mountain State. Indians used fire as a hunting tool and to maintain openings in the forest for villages, grazing animals, and food plots. Early European trappers rapidly eliminated most furbearers and larger food animals such as beaver, river otter, wolves, woods bison and elk, as well as the passenger pigeon. George Washington’s journal and hunter Meshach Browning’s book are among the sources that inform us on the flora and fauna of the late 1700s and early 1800s.
Pioneer farmers cleared the vast majority of rich, level valleys of the major streams and rivers by the 1870s and greatly reduced the plants and animals of valley habitats. During the mid-19th century, Philip Pendleton Kennedy fished and hunted the Blackwater River. His book, The Blackwater Chronicle, provides early glimpses into the Alleghenies’ natural history.
Timber exploitation during the latter decades of the 19th century was followed by disastrous wildfires that turned forests into blackened, worthless landscapes. The Brooks family of naturalists described the negative impacts on animals and forests. Books by Maurice Brooks (The Appalachians) and A. B. Brooks (Forestry and Wood Industries) provide excellent descriptions of the timbering operations. Author G. D. McNeill of Pocahontas County gives a moving description of the loss of wilderness along the Cranberry and Williams rivers in his 1940 book, The Last Forest. Entomologist A. D. Hopkins described large areas of red spruce killed by bark beetles in the 1890s.
Coal mining and oil and gas development caused major pollution of water resources due to acid drainage and salt brine spills that killed fish and aquatic plants. The locks and dams on West Virginia waterways are invaluable for commerce and flood control but have devastated native fishes, freshwater mussels, and other aquatic species as free-flowing rivers became stagnant pools.
Contemporary threats to nature come from acid rain from burning fossil fuels, strip mining and mountaintop removal of coal, vacation homes on riverbanks and mountaintops, and fragmentation of habitat by urban sprawl and road building. The biggest threats to our unique natural forests, bogs, and shale barrens are exotic invasive plants and high deer populations. The conversion of wetlands, riverbanks, and other important wildlife habitats remains the major threat to animal life.
West Virginia’s natural balance is being severely challenged by exotic plants and animals such as kudzu, multiflora rose, ‘‘Kentucky 31’’ fescue grass, starlings, house finches, wild boar, and rainbow trout, which have frequently flourished at the expense of native species. Chestnut blight became established in the 1920s and virtually eliminated this common and valuable forest tree. Beech bark disease, anthracnose of butternut and dogwood, woolly adelgids of hemlock and balsam fir, and gypsy moth are introduced diseases and insects wreaking havoc on our forest.
West Virginia’s natural history is tied to its many headwater streams and rivers and the prized hardwood forests of oaks, maples, ash, hickories, and other trees. Virgin spruce once covered a half-million acres, and the remaining 50,000 acres of spruce still harbor many rare plants and animals, including the northern flying squirrel and Cheat Mountain salamander. Caves are treasures for unusual animals and insects.
West Virginia is blessed with a wide variety of common and rare flora and fauna, but this natural history has been and continues to be negatively impacted by human activities.
This Article was written by William N. Grafton
Last Revised on October 21, 2010