Keep an eye out! The Smokies are brimming with wildlife! It’s fun to watch the local creatures feed, raise their young, and sometimes even put on a show. There are many animals that make this place their home and visitors love to see them in their natural habitat. Just remember to let them be and to keep a safe distance.
It’s hard to visit the Great Smoky Mountains and not come across the area’s unofficial mascots—the black bears. In the forested landscape there are easily over 1,500 bears—and despite their name, not all of them are actually black. Their fur can include shades of light to dark brown. Over the years, much has been learned about these intriguing creatures and their lifestyle. They are highly intelligent animals that can weigh approximately 400 pounds and stand nearly six feet tall. Many visitors are surprised to see them in trees, but the bears are quite adept at climbing and seeking sanctuary in the branches. Black bears are accomplished scavengers and their diets consist mainly of acorns, berries, seeds, insects, and nuts. Each day, they are required to eat 3-5 pounds of food in order to sustain them through their winter hibernation. While not usually aggressive, black bears can be dangerous if cornered. Therefore, approaching bears, feeding them or leaving food unattended is a crime. Please be sure to properly pack all food and dispose of scraps to do your part to protect these magnificent forest dwellers.
As the largest animal in the park, the stately elk with its massive antlers is an awe-inspiring sight. And it is big—with a weight between 500 and 700 pounds and a height that can reach 6 feet. Fortunately for today’s visitors, this large mammal was reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001 after suffering catastrophic losses due to overhunting during the last two centuries. Since then, the park’s elk herd has grown slowly but steadily from 52 animals to about 200. The bull (male) elk’s antlers go through various stages throughout the year. In the spring, the newly growing projections are covered with a red “velvet.” In the summer, as the antlers reach full size, the velvet actually works to cool the animal. It then begins to peel off in August, before September and October’s “rutting” season when the elk’s antlers are used to spar with other bulls and attract the female cows. You’ll likely be able to hear their bellowing calls that echo through the hills. The best place to view the elk is in the valley of Cataloochee, but for their safety, please note that it is illegal to disturb them or to be within 150 feet of them. These majestic animals still need our protection.
A most spectacular show takes place in the summer, courtesy of the synchronous fireflies (also called lightning bugs) of the Smoky Mountains. Millions of them come together in late May and early June and blink their lights in unison. Nowhere else in America is this witnessed and though it is related to the fireflies’ mating rituals, it is unclear as to why this phenomenon occurs. For their protection, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park controls the number of visitors who wish to see them through a parking pass lottery at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Visit www.recreation.gov/permits/Firefly_Event_Lottery to learn about the process, find the dates of the 2020 “show,” and register for a chance to see these spectacular insects.
With the abundance of rivers and streams in the Smokies come animals that also love the water. The North American river otter is one such creature. These playful and undeniably cute mammals live along the riverbanks in social groups. They hunt for fish and other aquatic creatures in the water with incredible speed, propelled by their tails. Upon catching their prey, the otters roll over and back-float to eat it. Like the elk, the otter population in the Great Smoky Mountains had declined to startlingly low numbers. The animal was reintroduced with great success in the 1990s and is currently flourishing. Lucky hikers who are near waterways in the park may be able to glimpse these animals as they frolic in the water near their homes.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more salamanders than any other vertebrate in the area (including humans). It’s justifiable then that the region calls itself “The Salamander Capital of the World.” These colorful little creatures can be found just about everywhere, but prefer moist areas near creeks or composting leaves. Salamanders are not picky eaters and will dine on a variety of items including insects, fish, frog eggs and more. There are nearly two-dozen species of this amphibian in the Smokies, but many of those found here have a unique feature—they’re lungless. That’s right! These little creatures exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through the walls of the blood vessels within their skin. It’s an evolutionary marvel that has seemingly helped the populations to thrive.
Anyone who loves birding will adore a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains where over 200 species of birds can be observed in their natural habitats. The topography and season dictate what birds will be seen where, and students of bird songs will have an even better chance of seeing unique birds by following their music. In the thick forests, bird watchers may glimpse harder-to-find specimens such as the black and white Downy woodpecker, the purple finch and the rose-breasted grosbeak. In wide-open fields, wild turkeys and killdeer with their uniquely ringed necks may be seen grazing for insects on the ground or flying overhead. At dusk, keep your eyes peeled for owls. The great horned owl and the eastern screech-owl can sometimes be seen hunting for prey in the evening hours. These are just a few of our feathered friends that can be seen in the Great Smoky Mountains. Be sure to bring your binoculars with you to witness as many as possible!
Always be alert when you’re in the park. There are many other animals that live here including bobcats, wild boars, wolves and coyotes that can be dangerous if provoked. The park strives to let animals and humans both enjoy the wilderness, but it’s up to each and every one of us to be responsible for our own safety and the welfare of the animals.