More than 400 million years ago, natural forces conspired to make the Appalachians one of the most resilient, diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth. The Nature Conservancy has prioritized conservation across this ancient chain of forested mountains, valleys, wetlands and rivers as a global imperative due to the high biological diversity of species, the carbon stored in the forests and the rich history and culture of this landscape, beginning with the original Indigenous stewards.
Within the 2,000-mile Appalachian range are several sub-geographies. Here in the backyard of the mid-Atlantic we have the Allegheny Front, stretching from the panhandle of eastern West Virginia, north through western Maryland and into central Pennsylvania.
Our science has pinpointed the Allegheny Front as a priority landscape to preserve the rich biodiversity of the larger Appalachian range as climate change drives species to move and adapt. Serving as a habitat bridge between vast conservation lands in the southern and northern Appalachians, the Allegheny Front plays a critical role in keeping this continental ecosystem connected.
The forests of the Appalachians are home to a vast array of species. Nature and people rely on healthy and connected forests that provide an opportunity for species to move, migrate and adapt when necessary. But past land use threatens the health of our forests. At present, just 26% of these essential forests are under some form of protection. We must act now to protect the Allegheny Front and the species that call it home before we lose what we cannot replace.
Explore the page below to learn more about this astonishing landscape, the species that call it home and the work that TNC is doing to conserve this special place.
As the region’s only “wild cat,” the bobcat is an important but secretive predator that can be found in all types of habitats throughout the Allegheny mountain range. And those big, cute ears aren’t just for show! Their excellent hearing helps them find small prey while hunting at night.
Did You Know? Bobcats can jump distances of 10 feet or more.
Named for the colorful red, blond and gray bands on their back, tricolor bats are the smallest bat in eastern North America. Like most bats, mosquitos are a favorite food, so bats are great to see flying in your neighborhood.
Did You Know? Tricolor bat mothers deliver pups that weigh 60% of their body weight; that’s like a person having a baby that weighs almost 100 pounds.
American Black Bear
Black bears have a pretty wide palate when it comes to food, but they play an important role in the ecosystem. They help to disperse the seeds of the plants they eat, and also feed on moth and ant larvae, honeycomb, fish and occasionally other animals. Contrary to their name, black bears might be any color from blond, to cinnamon brown, to silvery gray or true black.
Did You Know? The American black bear’s sense of smell is seven times better than that of a domestic dog.
Good camouflage hides the Allegheny woodrat in its forest home, but these stealthy rodents are important food for bobcats, skunks, owls and snakes. Living in cracks and crevices, woodrats build food caches (or hiding places) and help disperse mushroom spores and seeds as they gather goodies.
Did You Know? Allegheny woodrats collect shiny objects for their nests, including human-made jewelry, silverware and dishes.
North American River Otter
Playful is the best word to describe these aquatic acrobats. They once roamed widely in the eastern U.S., but North American river otters are sensitive to pollution and have disappeared from many rivers. River otters hunt underwater for fish and crustaceans using their whiskers instead of their eyes—they feel their prey moving the water around!
Did You Know? River otters are the triathletes of the Allegheny Front: they can hold their breath for eight minutes underwater, swim eight mph and run 18 mph on land!
North American Porcupine
Size isn’t the first thing you think of when you hear porcupine, but the North American porcupine is the second-largest rodent on our continent! Best known for their black and white barbed quills, porcupines use them to warn and ward off potential predators.
Did You Know? Each North American porcupine has approximately 30,000 quills for self-defense.
North American Beaver
The North American Beaver is the U.S.'s largest rodent and certainly its most industrious. Beavers are famous for building dams that can completely change the surrounding landscape while creating ideal aquatic habitat for both themselves and other wildlife.
Did You Know? The largest beaver dam in the world is almost 800 meters long and can even be seen from space.
Southern Flying Squirrel
Despite their name, flying squirrels don’t actually fly. Instead, they use excess skin along the sides of their body to glide between trees at night in deciduous forests all over the Eastern half of the United States.
Did You Know? Both the Southern flying squirrel and its Northern cousin can be found in the Allegheny Front.
Very few animals would dare to hunt porcupines, but the fisher is one of them. In addition to porcupines, this omnivorous relative of the weasel feeds on rabbits, rodents, birds, insects, nuts, berries and more.
Did You Know? The fur trade wiped out fishers in many parts of their native range by the early 20th century, but conservation measures have helped them come back.
The pileated woodpecker is the largest in North America, and certainly one of the most striking. Woodpeckers benefit greatly from the structural diversity of old-growth forests, where dead and decaying tree snags provide a home for the ant colonies and other insects they like to eat.
Did You Know? Pileated woodpeckers have barbed tips on their tongues to help them nab insects from bark crevices.
Golden eagles use their strong beaks and sharp talons to hunt along the Allegheny Front. Rabbits, marmots and fish are their most common food, but these powerful birds have been known to hunt whitetail deer. Like many eagle species, Golden eagles mate for life.
Did You Know? Golden eagles are North America’s largest bird of prey; they have a wingspan of up to seven and a half feet.
Northern Saw-Whet Owl
These bright-eyed predators are beautiful to look at, but hard to spot since they are well-camouflaged and prefer to stay in dense thickets of forest. Owls are silent hunters, whose wings make no sound when they fly thanks to the velvety, fringed edges of their feathers. Abandoned pileated woodpecker holes are sometimes adopted by Northern saw-whet owls for their nests.
Did You Know? Northern saw-whet owls are the most nocturnal owl species, hunting only in the darkest hours of the night.
These warblers are named for the sky-blue color of the male’s feathers, which helps him attract a mate. Females blend into the canopy leaves of the forest, where Cerulean warblers make their nests out of twigs and spiderwebs. They thrive at higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains in tracts of deciduous forest with tall trees.
Did You Know? Cerulean warblers migrate over 2,000 miles each year to overwinter on South American shade-grown coffee plantations and the Andean mountains.
You will often hear ruffed grouse “drumming on air” before you can see them. Males beat their wings to create a drumming sound loud enough for rival males to hear from a quarter of a mile away! The state bird of Pennsylvania, ruffed grouse can digest toxic plants without getting hurt, and switch to insects, small reptiles and amphibians when they are available. Ruffed grouse like to live in thick vegetation in young forests.
Did You Know? Ruffed grouse feet grow wide projections in winter, providing snowshoes that help them walk in soft snow.
Sometimes referred to as a pigeon hawk, the merlin is a relatively small but fierce and agile bird-of-prey. They prefer to hunt in open areas where they can catch other birds directly from the air, which has made them very popular for falconry throughout history.
Did You Know? Though they share a name, merlin comes from esmerillon—the French word for falcon—and not the famous wizard.
Far more people have probably heard the whip-poor-will’s distinctive call than actually seen one. This member of the nightjar family is expertly camouflaged and mostly active at night when it flies between the trees of open forests hunting insects.
Did You Know? Whip-poor-will eggs hatch an average of 10 days before a full moon, since the parents time their mating and egg-laying with the lunar cycle.
If you’re visiting the Allegheny Front and catch a glimpse of a bird so brightly red it looks like it belongs in a tropical rainforest, there’s a good chance you’ve just seen a scarlet tanager. In fact, these birds spend the winter in South America and migrate across the Gulf of Mexico in the spring to reach their breeding grounds in the Eastern United States.
Did You Know? Only the male scarlet tanager sports the distinctive red coloring. Females are a more subdued olive-yellow.
The domesticated turkey is synonymous in the United States with Thanksgiving celebrations, but its wild counterpart is also one of the most widespread birds in the country, with populations now found in every continental state and Hawaii. Turkeys were almost hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, but now number between six and seven million individuals thanks to decades of conservation.
Did You Know? Wild turkeys are actually quite good flyers for short distances and do so to roost in tree branches at night high up from potential predators.
REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS
Cheat Mountain Salamander
Now found on just a few mountains in the eastern highlands of West Virginia, the Cheat Mountain salamander is thought to have inhabited the wider region’s red spruce forests before they were mostly cut down in the early twentieth century.
Did You Know? Despite only reaching three to four inches in length, these salamanders can live for approximately 20 years!
You know spring has arrived when you hear the distinct peeping (croaking) of male spring peeper frogs looking for mates. They make a big sound for an animal only one inch long and weighing less than half an ounce. The brown crisscross pattern on this frog’s back also helps it blend in with dried leaves or bark.
Did You Know? Tiny but tough: a spring peeper can survive being chilled down to 17 degrees Fahrenheit.
Timber rattlesnakes play an important role in the Allegheny Front by keeping populations of small mammals in check. They have a special pit organ on their heads that allows them to sense heat from mice, squirrels and birds hiding in forests and swamps. Timber rattlesnakes are not aggressive toward humans, but their venomous bite is dangerous.
Did You Know? Female timber rattlesnakes nurture and hatch their eggs inside their bodies, then deliver live babies.
Look closely at the wood turtle’s carapace (top shell), and you can see circles that look like a tree’s growth rings. In summer you may see a wood turtle basking in the sun, but they hibernate underwater over the cold winter. The biggest danger to wood turtles is being stolen from their habitats for the black market pet trade.
Did You Know? Wood turtles will stomp on the ground to startle earthworms to the surface where they are easier for turtles to catch and eat.
These beautiful reptiles are known for their bright blue tails, stripes running alongside their body and the red faces that males develop during mating season. Five-lined skinks are very common along the Allegheny Front, but especially in forests with fallen trees and stumps where they can hide.
Did You Know? Like some other lizard species, five-lined skinks can disconnect their tails to distract predators while they run away.
The hellbender is America’s largest amphibian, and one of the biggest salamanders in the world. It needs cool, clean mountain streams to survive, particularly since the hellbender’s special skin allows it to absorb oxygen directly from the water.
Did You Know? Hellbenders can grow up to 30 inches long.
This sport fish popular with anglers has been exported to waters all over the world, but its original home is the Eastern United States. They need cold, clean water to live in, which mountain forests of the Allegheny Front help provide.
Did You Know? The brook trout is quite popular. Nine different US states have claimed it as their state fish.
Clear water is the key to finding smallmouth bass because they do not stay in polluted or cloudy waters. Efficient predators, they hide until smaller fish, frogs or crayfish come into view.
Did You Know? Originally found in the Mississippi river basin and Great Lakes region, smallmouth bass is another species that was brought to the Allegheny Front by people.
White crappies are commonly found in rivers and low-velocity areas such as pools and backwaters of rivers. After hunting for food in open water, these silvery-green fish return to rocks, logs and submerged plants to hide out.
Did You Know? Female white crappies lay 5,000 to 30,000 eggs each year.
Perch live in shallow waters, especially in places with tree roots or piers, where they have good hiding places. Juvenile perches like to swim everywhere in schools; however, older and mature perch travel alone.
Did You Know? Worldwide, there are over 6,000 different species of perch.
Rosy Maple Moth
If you see a moth that looks like pink lemonade, you’ve probably found a rosy maple moth. They live in deciduous forests and—true to their name—mainly lay their eggs on maple trees including red maple, sugar maple and silver maple. In large numbers the caterpillars can eat most of the tree’s leaves, but the adult moths don’t actually eat at all.
Did You Know? Despite their bright color, these moths are camouflaged: they mimic the color of the maple fruits that look like helicopters as they spin toward the ground.
Allegheny Mountain Blue Crayfish
Though it’s sometimes referred to as a mudbug, the Allegheny Mountain Blue Crayfish is actually a type of burrowing crayfish that was only recently described by science. Though most crayfish spend the majority of their lives in water, this crustacean is often found on land near springs where they dig tunnels underground.
Did You Know? As long as they keep their gills wet, these crayfish can pull oxygen from the air.
The bright orange colors of the monarch butterfly aren’t just for show. It also warns potential predators that this insect tastes bitter and poisonous, thanks to the milkweed plants it feeds on in its caterpillar stage. Unfortunately, this beautiful species is also dangerously imperiled, having experienced severe population decline over the past few decades.
Did You Know? Monarchs migrate farther than any other insect, most spending the winter months in Mexico.
Mussels are filter-feeders, meaning they pump water through their body and remove algae, phytoplankton and other organic particles to feed themselves, leaving the water cleaner. Early in their lives, mussel larvae are actually parasitic, gluing themselves to the gills or scales of an unsuspecting host fish.
Did You Know? Mussels hold their fertilized eggs in for up to 11 months before releasing them.
These damselflies have beautiful black wings and an iridescent green body, adding a bit of sparkle to the river and stream habitats they call home. Since they begin their lives underwater as eggs and nymphs, these insects need both clean waterways and vegetation or rotted wood to attach their eggs to.
Did You Know? A female damselfly lays about 1,500 eggs at one time.
Pure Gold-Green Sweat Bee
These aptly named flying emeralds are found all along the Allegheny Front in forests and where flowers are in bloom. Unlike our familiar friends the honeybees, female Pure gold-green sweat bees live a solitary life and build nests in fallen trees. They fill each nest cell with pollen, nectar and a hard lining to protect the single egg within from predators.
Did You Know? It’s a short life for the male sweat bee, all of whom die off each fall.
Six-Spotted Fishing Spider
These spiders are ambush hunters and lie in wait until fish, insects or other edible invertebrates pass by. To get food or avoid predators, Six-spotted fishing spiders can either walk on the surface of the water or dive beneath and swim.
Did You Know? Six-spotted fishing spiders are capable of capturing fish up to five times their body size.
PLANTS AND TREES
Slender Ladies’ Tresses
This species of orchid is found all around the Allegheny Front in open spaces like meadows and disturbed forests. Delicate white flowers grow in a spiral pattern, wrapping around the stem so each flower can be accessed by the long-tongued bee species that pollinate this plant.
Did You Know? The northern variety of this orchid is easy to distinguish from its southern cousin by whether you can see flowers and leaves at the same time.
The Allegheny Front once contained over a million acres of red spruce forest, but they were almost completely wiped out by logging in the early 1900s. As part of the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, TNC is working to restore this iconic tree across many of our preserves.
Did You Know? The oldest known Red Spruce is estimated to be more than 465 years old.
Not your typical apple at all, the mayapple’s green, umbrella-style leaves grow about two feet tall in shady forested areas. Mayapples are tough, too. This herb can grow in places where most plants cannot and are deer- and rabbit-resistant.
Did You Know? Mayapple fruits are toxic to people and animals until they’re fully ripened.
Although it is a member of the pine family, the larch—also known as the tamarack—is also deciduous, meaning it drops its needles every fall and regrows them in the spring. Typically found up north in places like Canada, the larch trees in our region need cooler temperatures found at higher elevations, like the boreal bog at Cranesville Swamp.
Did You Know? American Larches can survive extreme cold, down to –85 °F
Northern Highbush Blueberry
This ancestor of farmed blueberries was cultivated for thousands of years by indigenous people in North America. Birds, bears and many other animals also depend on the shrubs' berries for food in the fall to prepare for winter migration or hibernation.
Did You Know? The highbush blueberry is one of several related plant species that sometimes go by the name huckleberry.
The pawpaw tree is most commonly found growing in the understory of deciduous forests and produces the largest fruit native to the United States. 10 thousand years ago, their seeds would have been commonly dispersed through the dung of large mammals like mammoths and ground sloths. Since those animals went extinct, pawpaw trees now mostly reproduce through their roots.
Did You Know? Pawpaw fruits are popular with foragers and are said to taste like custard when ripe.
When delicate white flowers turn to juneberries, you know it’s summer along the Allegheny Front. This shrub is important to pollinator species in spring and to birds in summer when the berries ripen. Look for them in forests, along cliffsides and in swampy lowlands.
Did You Know? In addition to spring flowers and summer berries, serviceberry shrubs blaze with red and gold leaves in the fall.
Imagine a tree as tall as a ten-story building; that’s how tall an average Eastern hemlock grows. These giants provide important shelter for mammals, birds and reptiles under their branches and are a winter food source for porcupines.
Did You Know? Eastern hemlock trees can live to be over 500 years old.
Southern Mountain Cranberry
After its delicate flowers have been pollinated by insects in June, the Southern Mountain Cranberry goes on to produce beautiful red berries that can be eaten raw or used to make jelly. The closest relative of this woodland shrub actually lives pretty far away; the other subspecies is found in East Asia.
Did You Know? Southern Mountain Cranberry bushes can grow to five feet in height.
Table Mountain Pine
Each year, these trees produce stout cones with sturdy spines all over them. Native to the Appalachian Mountains, they are often recognized by the twisted, bent trunks that give each tree a unique appearance.
Did You Know? Table mountain pine cones must experience fire in order to disperse their seeds.
Insects attracted to the sugary drops that appear on the leaves of the sundew are in for a nasty surprise. The plant uses these sticky droplets to trap prey in place so it can eventually close the leaf around them and absorb their nutrients. This allows carnivorous plants like sundews to thrive in habitats with poor soils.
Did You Know? The round-leaved sundew is also one of the most widespread species, found everywhere from Siberia to New Guinea to California.
Once the king of the Eastern forests, American chestnuts provided shelter, homes and food for both animals and people. They were almost lost forever to chestnut blight disease in the early 20th century, but conservation scientists are working to create blight-resistant trees and return them to their native landscapes.
Did You Know? American chestnuts produce 6,000 chestnuts per tree, each year!
Cardinal flowers need wet soil to thrive, so they are most commonly found in swamps or along riverbanks. The majority of insects can’t reach the nectar at the base of its tubular, vibrant red flowers, so it mostly relies on ruby-throated hummingbirds for pollination.
Did You Know? The indigenous Penobscot people historically smoked dried cardinal flower leaves as a substitute for tobacco.
Watch: Learn More
Hear from TNC experts Dr. Deborah Landau, Maryland/DC chapter Director of Ecological Management; George Guess, Pennsylvania/Delaware chapter Fire Specialist / Land Steward; and Mike Powell, West Virginia chapter Director of Land Conservation as they talk about their work and share some of their favorite Allegheny Front species in this webinar moderated by Central Appalachians Program Director Angie Watland.
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