It's Red Wolf Breeding Season!

January 21st, 2021

The American red wolf is the most endangered canid in the world. With only eight known wild red wolves roaming one recovery release site in northeastern North Carolina and approximately 250 in captivity, breeding is critical to this species’ survival.

Reflection Riding is a breeding and exhibit facility for red wolves and has been since its membership in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP) began in 1996. We’ve had litters in 2007, 2011, 2016, and 2020.

So, what’s the big deal? Why is red wolf breeding a concern? 

In 1980, the American red wolf was forced into extinction in the wild to conserve the last 17 remaining red wolves. Of these 17, only 14 were strong enough to begin a captive breeding program — that’s a really small gene pool! 

When breeding an endangered species in captivity, it is critical to maintain genetic diversity and grow the family tree. That means maintaining hyper-vigilance over the breeding coefficient and selecting red wolves that are the least genetically alike to breed. Luckily, RWSSP has a geneticist to direct us and a software program that tracks each red wolf’s pedigree — a road map of who’s closely related and who’s less related. Red wolves only breed one time per year, adding another variable to the equation.

Red wolves and coyotes can also interbreed. This causes a serious dilution of genes resulting in hybrid offspring. Hybridization can quickly kill the family tree.

What do we do with all this information?

As an institutional representative and management team member, I attend a summit meeting each summer to determine who’s going to breed with whom based on the needs of the population. We must determine how many litters need to be produced to maintain or grow the population (whichever is deemed necessary for that breeding season) and refer to the mean kinship list (a measure of the importance of an animal). We then begin the process of matchmaking. 

We’ve transferred red wolves to breed at our facility from as far away as Sioux Falls, SD. Once the red wolf arrives at its new facility, there is usually an acclimation period (we call it “Hey, howdy! time”) where the red wolves are separated by fencing and have limited visual sight and physical proximity. After about a week of this introduction, the red wolves are placed in the same enclosure, and with a little luck, they like each other and the relationship begins.

Red wolf breeding season is January through March, with the most northwestern facilities typically breeding last. After a 63-day gestation period, pups are born in April and May. Litters can range from a single pup to a group of nine. Eyes and ears open after two weeks, and pups begin to wander out of the birthing place after about five.

In some cases when a genetically valuable red wolf has not bred, artificial insemination can be an option. Reflection Riding was fortunate enough to participate in this research. Males’ sperm is collected and cryopreserved for future use. The research team that worked on this project consisted of our veterinarian, Dr. Chris Keller, his team from Mountain Hospital for Animals, and two post-doc students.

Luckily, red wolves breed fairly well in the wild and in captivity once they have found the right mate and are of breeding age. Reflection Riding has been fortunate enough to have successful pairs and has two breeding pairs this 2021 season. As a very involved cooperator in the RWSSP, it’s our duty to support this program and this magnificent species. 

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: wildlife

Ask a Botanist

January 6th, 2021

Long-time Reflection Riding volunteer Dr. Charlie Belin is ready to answer your questions in our occasional "Ask a Botanist" series. Charlie is a retired professor of ecology, an expert botanist, and essentially runs a clinic in his home greenhouse for dying plants people give him. Send him your questions and he'll do his best to help you out!

Dear Dr. Charlie,

I have attached photos of grass that grows along the trail to Edward’s Point, Signal Mountain. It turns a beautiful deep yellow in late November/early December. That is the best time to see the extent of the patches. Can you identify this for me?

Thank you, 


Hi Carol,

Charlie and our horticulture team had to put their heads together for this one. Dylan identified it as Arundinaria gigantea, also known as giant cane or river cane. Scotty also suggested Arundinaria tecta as a possibility. Either way, what you have there isn't just a grass — it's actually the one genus of bamboo native to North America!  

Arundinaria has been used by Native American tribes in the Southeastern Woodlands for a wide variety of things, from basket weaving and flute construction to utilizing the roots for their painkilling properties. 

If you want to identify a plant, we always recommend using iNaturalist. There is a huge community of specialists and enthusiasts that can help you figure it out; plus, you're contributing to a collective of citizen scientists with your data! 

Thanks for your question,

Bess + the Reflection Riding Horticulture team

Edit: our Botanist in the Attic, Zach Irick, has weighed in as well! He says it is A. appalachiana, a cryptic species of the cane that grows stunted up on the plateau. 

Dear Charlie,

My husband and I recently moved into our first home. The back yard used to be a lovely garden, but it hasn’t been seriously cared for in likely over a decade. (Our main focus to date has been removing the poison ivy). It’s pretty overgrown, and we’ll need to take out at least one dead tree. 

I’d love some advice on how to begin to move forward with caring for our yard and making selected improvements in an eco-friendly (and affordable) way that’s good for our toddler to play in but doesn’t involve just turning the place into a lawn. Is this something that you could help us with? Perhaps with some recommendations of native plants that would be good to look into? Or, do you know of an ecologically-thoughtful landscaping company who we might want to consult with? We also may try to level it out a bit to deal with some of the erosion and add a retaining wall and fence. We’d be grateful for any and all advice and recommendations you may have. Thank you so much!

Best wishes,


Hi Lisa;

I was in your same situation about three and a half years ago with the home we moved into here in Chattanooga. The grounds had not seen any care in many years. After our experiences, I’m going to give you a staged series of ideas for the renovation of your yard. Please remember that this total process will take probably 3 - 5 years to achieve, but the final product will be very satisfying.

First of all, try to envision what the yard will be used for over the years. Will it be used for kids and games? Will it be used for just communing? Will it be used for some kind of crops? You might consider a landscape architect to help you develop a plan.

Second, take soil samples from several places in the yard in order to determine what you are dealing with. These samples can be sent to UTK for a few dollars for analysis, and it will help you plan for your goals.

Third, you should prepare a site plan that will incorporate the ideas for your yard that you have developed. You may want to divide your yard work into phases or stages that will make the work not only more affordable, but will also break out the work and species into groups.

Fourth, concerning the plant species you can insert into the yard, you really have come to the best place. Native plants you can purchase from Reflection Riding are already acclimated to our climate, region, and geography. Our experts (Scotty, Dylan, and Hannah) can guide you in your selections. Please take your plan with you when you visit so that they can see what you have in mind and help you even further.

Next, prepare for some dirty, aching work digging up weeds (the best way to get rid of weeds is to dig them up, not clip them at the surface). Please don’t work too hard or too long. That would just be counterproductive, and would turn you off of further efforts.

Concerning species of grass to insert into your yard, you have several species or hybrids to choose from. Fescues, zoysia, etc. are just some of them, but you might choose a reasonable landscape firm to help you. There are many around here that are great, but I would suggest you contact some of your neighbors who may have ideas. I would provide your selected landscaper with your plan so they may understand your ideas. Get them to grade your yard if needed prior to laying sod or spreading seed. They should also guide you when to work with grass. Now is NOT the time to either add sod or to seed a lawn.

Good luck, and have fun with your developing yard.


Charlie is a retired professor and Biological Oceanographer. He taught five courses in the University of Georgia System for many years from his home base in Savannah, Georgia.  

Charlie loves hiking at Reflection Riding, teaching children about the ecology of the area, and interacting with the Reflection Riding staff. They are GREAT!

Posted by Charlie Belin  | Category: native plants

American Sycamore

January 5th, 2021

Platanus occidentalis

Along the rivers and streams in Southeast Tennessee, there is one tree that stands out from the rest. In a winter world of brown and gray, the sycamore tree’s bright white bark is a stark contrast to its surroundings. This trait is why the sycamore is sometimes called "ghost tree." Its color isn't the only thing that makes it stand out, either. The American sycamore can grow to reach over 170 feet tall and over 10 feet in diameter, making it one of the largest trees found in our riparian forests.  


The most commonly used characteristic for identifying the American sycamore is its bark. As the tree matures, it develops brownish-gray flaky bark that extends up for approximately 30 feet. This bark often breaks off into large and uneven chunks. From about 30 feet up until the top of the tree, the mature sycamores have white bark. Younger trees can have white bark starting at ground level. As the tree matures, it forms a hollow trunk.

American sycamores also have large and easily identifiable leaves. These palmate and serrate leaves can regularly reach 10 inches long and wide.

Sycamore trees also produce a fruit that hangs from the branches. As the fruit matures, white fluffy seeds — very similar to those produced by dandelions — are exposed and dispersed by wind.


The American sycamore has a huge range, but is primarily found along permanent bodies of water. The range extends from southern Canada southward to Florida and westward to Oklahoma.  

wildlife uses

The large hollow trunks of mature American sycamore trees are useful to a variety of animals in our region. Some animals, such as bears and bats, will overwinter in the huge trunks. Others, such as woodpeckers, owls, flycatchers, chickadees and wood ducks, will use these trees for nesting. The fruits and seeds are also important food sources for small birds, such as chickadees, juncos, and finches. The leaves and branches provide food for deer and beavers.

human uses

Historically, humans have used the American sycamore for many things. There are even historical records of humans living inside of the hollowed-out trunks. The sap can be used as a source of water, or boiled down and used as syrup. The wood has been used for building barns, cutting boards, cisterns, and houses.  The inner bark of the sycamore tree was historically used to make a tea that treated dysentery, tuberculosis, coughs, and common colds.

Posted by Corey Hagen  | Category: native plants

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