Animals of Virginia
The animals that occur in Virginia are mostly associated with the broadleaf deciduous forest upon which they depend for food and shelter. Relatives of many are found in Europe and eastern Asia where a similar climate and vegetation occurred in the past.
Virginia's fauna or wild animal species, like its flora, is exceptionally diverse for a mid-latitude location. The same combination of factors that contributed to high biodiversity in plants pertains to animals: physiographic variety (which includes geologic and microclimatic variation), accessibility, and opportunities for isolation. We could probably add to this list the diversity of plant species present in the state, particularly important for the vast but unknown numbers of insects, arachnids, and close relatives.
Notable centers of animal species richness are the streams of the unglaciated Cumberland Plateau and upper Tennessee River system, where until the 20th century, at least, an abundant and highly diverse fresh water mussel fauna existed. With some 73 species known from the state, Virginia ranks among the most diverse places in the world in terms of these organisms. Some of these species are now extinct in Virginia and the abundance of others is greatly reduced due to disturbance of stream beds, siltation, and chemical pollution of streams.
Another interesting group of organisms that occur in considerable variety in Virginia are the lungless salamanders, many of which originated in the southern Appalachians. The common red-backed salamander found under rocks and rotting stumps, is probably the most abundant vertebrate throughout the state. Others, like the Peaks of Otter salamander and the endangered Shenandoah salamander, have very restricted ranges and are found on one or two peaks in the Blue Ridge.
The more mobile birds and mammals tend to be widespread and occur in all five physiographic provinces. Among resident bird species, many consume both seed and insects and so can find found year round. Typical of these are a variety of woodpeckers, the chickadees and titmice that frequent feeders, the cardinalstate bird, and the blue jay. The last, which stockpiles acorns in the ground for a winter food source, has been shown to play a significant role in the rapid regrowth of the forest after farm abandonment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There is also a large number of migratory birds that live in Virginia only part of the year. Bringing color and song to the woods in summer are tanagers, warblers, orioles, and thrushes that are collectively referred to as Neotropical migrants. Mexico, Central America, the islands of the Caribbean and South America constitute the neotropics (new tropics) and are where these species winter. In recent decades many of these species have suffered alarming declines in population size due to destructive land use practices in both of their homelands.
There are other migratory species of birds that come to Virginia for the winter months. Many of these breed in the forests of Canada or on the tundra near the Arctic Ocean. They include a variety of ducks and geese, some shorebirds, and a few songbirds like the erratically occurring Evening Grosbeak.
About 80 land mammals are known from Virginia. Fifty five percent can be found throughout the state; the others are more restricted in their distribution, perhaps to only one or two physiographic provinces. The rarest are confined to particular specialized habitats like caves or spruce forests. The grey squirrel exemplifies a mammal well adapted to life in our forests, consuming acorns and nuts and travelling through the tree tops with ease. The tiny short-tailed shrew which is usually hidden under the leaf litter, may be the most abundant mammal in the state.
The composition of Virginia's fauna is constantly undergoing change. Three main periods of faunal change can be identified:
1. The End of the Pleistocene, approximately 10,000 years ago.
Pleistocene Virginia was a place of open spruce forests inhabited by large animals now extinct. It is valid to consider these species part of Virginia's original fauna, however, because they were present when people first colonized the area. Among the so-called megafauna of the ice ages were mammoths and mastodonts, giant ground sloths, native horses, tapirs, muskoxen, caribou, and moose. Mastodonts, which consumed spruce twigs and other woody vegetation, may have played a major role in keeping the forest open and thereby providing pasturage for the other animals. All of these species were prey for early hunting peoples, known as Paleo-Indians, all across North America. The demise of the megafauna is attributed to both a warming climate at the beginning of the Holocene that changed the nature of the forest and to human hunting pressures.
2. The Colonial Period.
European settlers affected the fauna is several ways, eliminating some species and adding others.
a. Extinctions: The largest predators were deliberately killed to protect the livestock species European settlers introduced to Virginia. The wolf and the mountain lion or cougar are examples of species eliminated from the state.
Furbearers such as the beaver and some weasels also suffered severe declines if not total extirpation.
The elk or wapiti was native to Virginia when European settlers arrived but was hunted out during the Colonial Period. The now too common white-tail deer nearly suffered the same fate. There may have been a few woodland dwelling bison here in the 1600s, but they were soon gone too.
b. Introductions: European settlers introduced all the livestock species: hogs, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, and the like. A few escaped the control of the farmer and established wild or feral populations. The most commonly seen example is the pigeon, which originally came to North America as a farmyard animal. Another example is the honeybee. These all represent deliberate introductions.
Other animals were accidentally introduced, essentially coming as hitch hikers on the ships from the Old World. Good examples of accidental introductions are the house mouse and Norway rat.
c. Natural range shifts: Encouraged by human-induced changes in the vegetation or still responding to climate changes after the Pleistocene, a few species entered or left Virginia on their own. The red fox, for example, was not reported by early English settlers in Virginia, although populations existed in the New England colonies. Valued by upper class folk for the fox hunting ritual, some were imported from England, but evidence suggests that today' foxes descend from foxes that have moved southward into Virginia from the northern states.
In contrast, the porcupine was reported in early journals but no longer occurs here naturally today. A creature of northern forest types, its range has contracted northward since the Colonial Period.
3. Contemporary (late 19th-20th Century Changes)
In more recent times Virginia's fauna has also changed with both additions and subtractions. There have been successful and unsuccessful attempts to re-introduce some of the species that became extinct or nearly so during the Colonial Period, species like elk, white-tail deer, beaver, and snowshoe hare.
Range extension accounts for the arrival of the newest (1980s) member of our mammalian fauna, the coyote. With the conversion of forestland to farmland and the extinction of the wolf over much of the interior of the US, this native of western grasslands and deserts expanded into the eastern states.
Species were introduced in this modern times too. The black-tailed Jackrabbit from the western US and the sika deer from Japan were released on the Eastern Shore as game animals. The rosy colored House Finch, a western species prized for its song, was released to north of Virginia and becoming increasingly common here during the 1980s. House Sparrows and Starlings, both from Eurasia, were released in Central Park, New York City, in the late 1800s and now have spread throughout the US, including Virginia. The most notorious addition to the fauna, the gypsy moth, was the result of an accidental introduction in Massachusetts.
Many animal species are considered vulnerable to extinction in Virginia today. Those officially listed as either Endangered or Threatened include 11 species of mammals, 10 species of birds (now that the Bald Eagle has been removed from the list), 5 terrestrial reptile species, 4 amphibians, 20 species of native freshwater fishes, and 36 species of freshwater mussels. Among those that have actually gone extinct are two bird species once renown for their great numbers: the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet.
For more information, consult
Linzey, Donald W. 1998. The Mammals of Virginia (Blacksburg: The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co.)
Mitchell, Joseph C. 1994. The Reptiles of Virginia (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press)
Pagels, J. F. 1979. "The Changing Scene," Pp. 603609 in: D. W. Linzey (ed.), Endangered and Threatened Plants and Animals of Virginia (Blacksburg: Center for Environmental Studies, VPI&SU).
Terwilliger, Karen 1991. Virginia's Endangered
Species (Blacksburg: The McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company).
Created by SLW, 3/16/00