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14,000-11,500BP - Spruce Jack Pine Parkland
11500-9500BP - White Pine Forest
9500BP-1800AD - Oak Woodland and Hemlock- Beech Forest
1800AD-1925AD - Agricultural Fields and Woodlots
1925-present - Fragmented Oak-Maple-White Pine Forest
Modern Vegetation Types of New England
This region includes the 3 southern New England states and southeastern New York and encompasses 3 ecoregion types: The Northeastern Coastal Zone, the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens, and the Northeastern Highlands Elevations increase from the coast to the northwest, reaching their highest point at Mt. Greylock in northwestern Massachusetts at 3491 feet, while human populations range from very dense along the coastal lowlands to relatively sparse in the highlands. Climate generally follows elevation and latitude, becoming cooler and wetter from the lowlands to the higher northwest, although a slight reversal of this gradient occurs along a narrow coastal belt because of the ocean's moderating effect.
The Taconic and Berkshire Ranges -- uplifted some 450 million years ago-- define the western edge of the region and flank the Housatonic River Valley. Eastward, the land slopes down into the deep rift valley of the Connecticut River, formed some 200 million years ago, before rising again into the Central Uplands of Massachusetts and Northeastern Connecticut. To the south and east, including all of Rhode Island, is a broad coastal plain, some 60-100km wide. Glacial till blankets much of the region except for the river valleys -- where fine-grained sediments overlay extinct glacial lake beds and modern floodplains -- and parts of the coastal plain, particularly Cape Cod and the Islands, where sandy outwash and morainal deposits were left by the melting glacier some 18,000 years ago.
Forest is the default vegetation type of the region covering all land areas that are not developed or mowed or naturally inhospitable to trees (rock outcrops, extremely sandy coastal areas, and regularly flooded river banks). Oak-red maple and hemlock forests cover much of southern Connecticut and southeastern New York and are joined by white pine in northern Connecticut, Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts (except Cape Cod where pitch pine-oak predominates). Northern hardwoods such as sugar maple and paper birch become more important in the higher elevations of central and western Massachusetts, while spruce and fir replace other conifers at the highest elevations and in elevated forested wetlands.
Pre-European Human Settlement
The first humans are thought to have arrived in southern New England sometime around 13,000 years ago. Highly nomadic with very low population densities (perhaps only 100 individuals in all of CT), these earliest people hunted caribou and other large mammals with javelins and apparently traveled widely to obtain materials such as chert for stone tools.
As the temperatures warmed after 11,000 years ago, people became less nomadic and populations increased, peaking around 5500 years ago. White-tailed deer and tree nuts became staple food items, and local sources of quartz were used for stone tools. Populations declined considerably after 3500 years ago as temperatures cooled and oak forests declined. The arrival of cultivated crops from Meso-America after 1000AD reinvigorated human populations, and settlement patterns shifted to the arable soils and more moderate climates of the large river valleys and the coast.
Forest Landscape History
Note: The dates provided below are in calibrated "calendar years," which are more accurate than standard "C14" dates and have been adopted by the scientific community in recent years. Much of the popular literature, however, still uses the older C14 dates, which can be confusing for the reader. Below are some basic conversions:
900 Cal BP = 1000C14 BP;
5700 Cal BP= 5000 C14BP
11,600 Cal BP= 10,000 C14 BP
Ice Age Retreat (14,000-11,500BP).
A waning but still proximal ice sheet to the north supported cold and fire-tolerant spruce and jack pine woodlands throughout the region with pine more abundant in the sandy coastal areas and spruce more prominent on the glacial till to the north and west. The first humans arrived amidst a rich large mammal fauna that included the now-extinct dire wolf, mastodon, mammoth, and giant beaver, Sea levels, perhaps 70-80 meters lower than today exposed a vast coastal plain that connected Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Block Island to the mainland.
The North American Pleistocene Megafauna Extinction
The transition from late-glacial to early Holocene environments marked the end of a large animal fauna that in places far exceeded the diversity of today's African fauna. Some 40 groups or almost 75% of large mammals in North America (and many large birds) went extinct by about 10,500BP. The forces behind this extinction include rapid climate change, competition with invading species, and the impact of human hunters and their diseases, a striking example of the relevance of a 10,000 year old story to our world today.
Early Holocene (11,500-8000BP)
The hottest summers of the past 10,000 years caused the rapid decline of the Laurentide Ice sheet and likely contributed to the extinction of a suite of large mammals. White pine dominated forests quickly replaced the boreal parklands -- except for the sandy coastal areas where pitch pine-oak forests developed -- while red maple and hemlock re-colonized the region a thousand years later. Oak-hardwood forests and open oak woodlands became the dominant vegetation after 10,000BP with increasing drought and fire, while beech did not arrive until after 9000BP when conditions became moister and less fire-prone. Rising sea levels flooded today's Long Island Sound and separated Block Island from the mainland.
Middle Holocene (8000-3500BP):
Oak-hardwood-hemlock forests (and pitch pine-oak forests on the Cape) thrived in the first half of this period under very moist and warm conditions, with hemlock and beech more prominent in the cooler north and west. Hickory arrived some 6000 years ago becoming an important component of the southern and eastern forest, while 500 years later a drier climate and perhaps pathogen attack caused a precipitous decline in hemlock throughout the region. In the coastal region, beech forests became abundant in several areas, perhaps aided by enhanced fog, while rising sea levels separated Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard from the mainland.
Late Holocene (3500-400BP)
Moister, cooler conditions enabled hemlock to recover partially or fully from its previous decline only to begin a more gradual decline along with beech after 1000 years BP, apparently because of increasingly cold temperatures. These same climatic conditions enabled spruce and apparently caribou, both largely absent since the end of the ice age, to return to northern and some eastern coastal areas about 2000 years ago. About the same time, chestnut, the last tree species to recolonize the region after de-glaciation, arrived and became an important canopy species in the oak forests of the southwest.
European settlement (400BP-present)
The arrival of European settlers changed the landscape from one over 90% forested to one less than 40% forested and brought a suite of Eurasian plants, animals, and pathogens into the region, including the chestnut blight that eliminated American chestnut as a canopy tree by 1930. Habitat loss and overhunting caused the extinction of two terrestrial bird species (heath hen and passenger pigeon and caused a number of animals to be extirpated (wolf, cougar, beaver, wild turkey, moose, fisher) or greatly reduced (black bear and white-tailed deer). Widespread farm abandonment in the late 1800's began a period of reforestation; however intense residential development after 1950 reversed the upward trend in forest cover, a decline that has continued to the present day
The Modern Forest:
The legacies of European settlement have left white oak, hemlock, and beech much less abundant than in pre-settlement times, while black birch, white pine, and especially red maple have become more abundant throughout the region. Afforestation along with strict hunting regulations have enabled many of the once-extirpated animals to re-colonize the region; however four remain absent (wolf, elk, wolverine, and cougar). A new species from the Midwest, the coyote, has partially filled the vacant niche left by the wolf.
The Future Forest?:
Although forest shifts resulting from climate change, species invasions, and human activity have a long precedent in southern New England, ecological history informs us that when disturbances are rapid and great, as at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, the resulting changes can be enormous and long-lasting. Today, invading species, human development, abundant herbivores, and a rapid shift to warmer, moister conditions are exerting considerable force on this forested ecosystem. Under these conditions, red maple, black birch, white pine and Eurasian shrub and herb layers may continue to increase, while oaks may continue to decline. Mountain lions, extirpated from the region since 1800, could return.