The Southeastern mixed forests skirt the Appalachian/Blue Ridge Mountains, occupying the piedmont zone between upland forests and the Atlantic Coastal and Gulf Coastal plains. This ecoregion is by far the largest within the Temperate Broadleaf and Mixed Forests Major Habitat Type (MHT), crossing nine states and running northeast to southwest from Maryland to Louisiana. The Southeastern mixed forests are demarcated from the Southeastern conifer forests to the south by vegetation and elevation (the fall line of the Atlantic piedmont). The latter ecoregion is more dominated by long-leaf pine (Pinus palustris) and occurs on the coastal plain rather than on the piedmont. It is similarly separated from the Appalachian-Blue Ridge forests and Appalachian mixed mesophytic forests by elevation and vegetation. The Southeastern mixed forests, lying between all of these species-rich ecoregions, is enriched by the proximity to these other units. However, this ecoregion is perhaps the most heavily altered, having been heavily and repeatedly logged and now largely converted to agriculture.
The Southeastern mixed forests are famous as the center of gastropod diversity for North America and perhaps the world, but many of the endemic taxa are extinct. The freshwater ecosystems found within this ecoregion are among the richest in the temperate latitudes. The Southeastern mixed forests rank among the top ten ecoregions in richness of amphibians, reptiles, and birds and among the top ten ecoregions in number of endemic reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and mammals. Kartesz lists 3,635 species of native herbaceous and shrub species, the highest in North America.
The natural vegetation is dominated by oak-hickory-pine forests. At the time of European settlement this ecoregion was dominated by stands of pure pines and stands of pure hardwoods, with mixtures of each between these extremes. Hardwoods were much more prevalent in distribution than they are today. The most dominant ecological force in shaping composition and structure of the Southeastern mixed forests, prior to European settlement, was fire. Fire disturbance provided good seed beds for pines, and consequently maintained pine stands. Low-intensity frequent fires in hardwood stands favored oak regeneration over competing hardwoods.
With European settlement of the ecoregion, the natural vegetation pattern was significantly altered, as forests were converted to shifting agriculture. After World War II, many of these farms were abandoned. Pines outcompeted hardwoods for sun and nutrients, and survived better in the extreme environmental conditions of the abandoned fields. Common pine species of this ecoregion include shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata), loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), and longleaf pine (Pinus palustris). Hardwood species grew in after the pines and established themselves prominently in the understory. Since the mid 1960's pine stands have been harvested, and hardwoods stands have taken their place, outcompeting juvenile pines for dominance in the overstory. In addition, the suppression of natural fire regimes has shifted vegetation to hardwood forests. This unnatural management practice has altered the plant communities across the ecoregion and threatens the long-term persistence of many fire-dependent species.
The understory and herbaceous layers of the ecoregion follow similar successional gradients. On open fields with high light, grasses and forbs dominate. As pines and hardwood tree species overtop them and the canopy begins to close, more shrubs and small trees fill in. They include small tree species such as dogwood (Cornus spp.), red bud (Cercis canandensis), cedar (Juniperus spp.), and American holly (Ilex opaca). Common shrubs and herbaceous species include blackberry (Rubus spp.), sumac (Rhus spp.), honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.), and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).
About 99 percent of this habitat has now been converted to agriculture or other uses, or is highly degraded. Habitat loss is relatively uniform across the ecoregion. This is the most heavily settled ecoregion along the east coast of the U.S., and much of the land has been used for growing tobacco and peanuts. The once dense forests harvested long ago have never been allowed to regrow to a mature age. There are large amounts of Tertiary forests that offer little biodiversity value. A remnant tallgrass prairie, the so-called Black Belt, has been completely converted. A few habitats are in relatively good condition, particularly on granite outcrops.
Remaining Blocks of Intact Habitat
Nine blocks of habitat have been identified by this analysis, but most are in relatively poor condition, fragmented, and poorly protected. These include:
- Sumter National Forest (in very poor shape) - western South Carolina
- Uwharrie National Forest - central North Carolina
- Bienville National Forest - east central Mississippi
- Talladega National Forest (SW unit) - central Alabama
- Oconee National Forest and Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge - north central Georgia
- Sauratown Mountains - north central North Carolina
- Brushy Mountains - central North Carolina
- South Mountains - south central North Carolina
- Tunica Hills - southwestern Mississippi, eastern Louisiana
Degree of Fragmentation
Fragmentation is very high and creation of new corridors is unlikely except in riparian areas. The species most susceptible to fragmentation, such as black bears (Ursus americanus), have been largely extirpated.
Degree of Protection
Poor, as stated above.
Types and Severity of Threats
Because of the heavy rate of conversion, there is little left to conserve. Logging remains a threat, as does continued exploitation of remaining forests, and conversion to pine plantations. The lack of fire management in remaining areas is viewed as a serious degradation threat.
Suite of Priority Activities to Enhance Biodiversity Conservation
- Promote panther reintroduction and recovery in the largest blocks of forest remaining in the piedmont areas.
- Enhance protection of Forest Service areas to increase biodiversity protection and move away from production in last remaining blocks
- Improve fire management regimes
- Inventory last remaining sites to identify biodiversity priorities that may have been overlooked
- Alabama Natural Heritage Program
- Alabama Wilderness Assocation
- Georgia Natural Heritage Program
- Louisiana Natural Heritage Program
- Maryland Heritage and Biodiversity Conservation Programs
- Mississippi Natural Heritage Program
- The Nature Conservancy
- The Nature Conservancy - Southeast Regional Office
- The Nature Conservancy of Alabama
- The Nature Conservancy of Georgia
- The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana
- The Nature Conservancy of Maryland
- The Nature Conservancy of Mississippi
- The Nature Conservancy of North Carolina
- The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina
- The Nature Conservancy of Virginia
- North Carolina Heritage Program
- Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory
- South Carolina Heritage Trust
- Tennessee Division of Natural Heritage
- Virginia Division of Natural Heritage
- West Virginia Natural Heritage Program
- The Wilderness Society, Southeast Regional Office
Relationship to Other Classification Schemes
The Southeastern mixed forests corresponds to the eastern piedmont and southwestern portions of Küchler’s unit 101 (oak-hickory pine forest) east of the Mississippi River. In addition, this ecoregion contains unit 80 (Blackbelt). This ecoregion is in large part a combination of Omernik’s unit 65 (Southeastern plains), portions of unit 74 (Mississippi Valley loess plains), and disjunct unit 68 (Southwestern Appalachians). Several portions of Bailey’s sections 231A (Southern Appalachian piedmont), 231B (Middle coastal plains), and the northern section of 232A (Middle Atlantic coastal plain) correspond to this ecoregion.
Additional Information on this Ecoregion
- For a shorter summary of this entry, see the WWF WildWorld profile of this ecoregion.
- To see the species that live in this ecoregion, including images and threat levels, see the WWF Wildfinder description of this ecoregion.
- World Wildlife Fund Homepage
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