Category Archives: Cool Science

5 Common Myths About Our State Park Critters

New York State is home to a variety of animals! There are nearly 100 mammal species, 375 bird species, and over 70 species of reptiles and amphibians found in New York. While we try our best to understand these animals, sometimes myths spread about them that may not be true. Can turtles come out of their shells? Do toads give you warts? These common animal myths stem from folklore, old sayings, misunderstandings, and more, but we can do our best to separate fact from fiction. Let’s take a look at some top myths about a few animals found in New York State Parks!

  1.  Are bats blind?

No, bats are not blind! The bats found in New York are part of a group called microbats, which do rely heavily on echolocation (the location of objects by reflected sound) to navigate and find insect prey. Scientists who have examined the eyes of these bats have determined that they have some night vision as well as limited daylight vision. Some species even have ultraviolet (UV) vision. Though not found in New York, megabats—the fruit-eaters—rely primarily on vision and smell, rather than echolocation. Overall, vision is important to help bats avoid predators and find food and shelter.

Fun fact: While several animals can glide (like flying squirrels), bats are the only mammals known in the world that are capable of true and sustained flight!

Little brown bat credit USFWS, Ann Froschauer
The little brown bat is one of the most common bats in New York. Photo by Ann Froschauer, USFWS
  1.  Will touching a toad give you warts?

Good news for all of us that grew up catching frogs and toads. No, touching a toad will not give you warts! Warts are actually caused by a virus that is spread between people. This myth probably began because of the bumpy skin on a toad’s back. There are two bumps to be careful of though; behind the eyes of toads are two large areas called parotoid glands. As a defense mechanism, these glands produce a toxin that causes irritation to a predator’s mouth. So if you do catch a toad, it is still a good idea to wash your hands afterwards.

American Toad-Photo Taken by Lilly Schelling
The American toad is one of three toad species in New York. Photo by Lilly Schelling, New York State Parks
  1.  Can porcupines shoot their quills?

No, a porcupine cannot shoot its quills! First, let’s take a look at what a quill is. A quill is a very stiff, hollow hair that can be found mixed in with the softer hair of a porcupine. When threatened, a porcupine’s quills may stand up to scare away the threat, but they cannot be shot from the porcupine’s body. There must be direct contact with the quills for them to dislodge, but even the lightest touch can be enough to dislodge a quill or two. Best to keep our distance around porcupines!

Fun fact: The North American porcupine has around 30,000 quills!

Porcupine-BioDome-2
Porcupines often rest in trees. Photo by J. Gloverderivative work: WolfmanSF (talk) – Porcupine-BioDome.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.5
  1.  Can turtles come out of their shells?

No, there’s no way a turtle can come out of its shell! A turtle’s upper shell, called the carapace, is partly made of bone from the turtle’s rib cage and is actually fused to the turtle’s backbone. The lower shell is called the plastron and the two shells are joined by a bony bridge. The shell is part of the body and grows along with the turtle, which is different from crabs and lobsters that must molt or shed their exoskeleton. And to address another common animal misunderstanding, turtles are able to feel when something touches their shells, due to the presence of nerve endings in the shell.

  1.  Do all bees die after they sting you?

No, it depends on the species! Honey bees, for example, have barbs (hooks) on their stinger that can stick into the skin of the target and prevent the stinger from being pulled out by the bee. If the barbs are stuck in the target’s skin, the stinger is torn away from the bee’s body when it tries to fly away and the honey bee dies.  Other bee and wasp species, including bumblebees, yellowjackets, and paper wasps, have stingers with small barbs, enabling them to sting multiple times.

Post by Kelsey Ruffino, Student Conservation Association and New York State Parks

Featured image: Eastern Pipistrelle, photo by Lilly Schelling, State Parks

Their Blood Runs With Antifreeze

Here in mid-autumn, most of State Park’s summer resident birds and some insects have flown off to warmer climates, but many other animals remain through the winter. Some of the year-round residents are either scurrying around looking for extra food to help to get them through the winter while others are looking for a safe place to sleep away the winter, protected from the cold and snow.

For a handful of animals in the park, finding a place away from the cold and snow can be a challenge due to their inability to dig deep into the ground to escape the cold. Instead, they burrow under the leaves, rocks, rotting logs, or tree bark to escape the worst that winter offers. So a few animals like wood frogs, common box turtles, red efts, and mourning cloak butterflies have a different strategy – the ability to tolerate freezing!

These close to the surface locations protect the animals from snow, ice, wind but not cold winter temperatures. When the temperature in the hibernation spot drops below 32o F, these hibernators freeze, solid.

jm-storey-carleton-university
Frozen wood frog in Ken Story’s Lab, Carleton University, photo by JM Storey , Carleton University

And there they can remain until the warming days of spring when they thaw, have a snack, and head off to breed.

Some of the animals that tolerate freezing include:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How are they able to freeze solid then defrost and still be alive?  Natural chemicals and processes in the animal’s blood prevent them from freezing.  The animal’s body produces an “anti-freeze” as the temperature begins to drop; the animal’s body concentrates sugars and other compounds that prevents the animal’s organs from freezing.  The antifreeze prevents the animal’s organs from freezing.  A frozen animal will stop breathing and the heart will stop beating. Most of the fluid in the blood pools in the animal’s body cavity.

In spring, as the weather warms, the animal starts to defrost, and its lungs and heart resume working.  They defrost from the inside out, with the legs and feet being the last to defrost.

Surviving by freezing is just one of the amazing adaptations animals have developed to survive northern winters.

Resources

Cold-blooded in the cold: hibernation Conservationist for Kids, NYS Dept. Conservationist

Emmer, Rick. How do frogs survive winter? Why don’t  they freeze to death? Scientific American

Ken Storey Lab

Rosen, Meghan. Natural antifreeze prevents frogsicles, Science News

Videos

NOVA scienceNOW (2012, July 23). Frozen Frogs.

Smithsonian Channel. (2015, June 18). Frogsicles: Frozen But Still Alive.

Fire Dependent Communities

Forest Fire Scorches 3,000 Acres in Ulster Park” was the headline of a story in the New York Times on April 21, 2008.  The park was Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Hudson Valley. From when it was first reported on April 17 to when it was finally out on April 29, the Outlook Fire burned roughly 2,800 acres in the park. People from 134 state and local agencies came together to control the largest fire to hit the region in 60 years. Recently, another large fire in Minnewaska, the fire at Sam’s Point that burned over 1500 acres in April and May 2016.

These fires were both wildfires, defined as uncontrolled fire in the forest or fields which spreads quickly and is difficult to control.  Historically, wildfires were ignited by lightning strikes. Wildfires are a natural component of many different ecosystems; they have helped to maintain healthy native flora, fauna and systems around the world for thousands of years.

Fires help ecosystems in many ways. They help plants by opening up the tree canopy to allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor to enable new seedlings to grow; adding nutrients to the soil and raises the soil pH, giving plants an extra boost of natural fertilizer; reducing the competition for water and soil nutrients by thinning out the underbrush; and decreasing some invasive species and forest pests and diseases. But other invasive species can proliferate after fire, so preventing their spread is an important management strategy.

Some of natural communities in the state — places like Minnewaska, the Shawangunk Ridge, Albany Pine Bush, Long Island Central Pine Barrens and many areas within State Parks are fire-adapted, meaning they can survive wild fires. If fact, the need occasional fires. The plants have special features to survive fires. Pitch pine are one of the best known fire-adapted trees, and they are common in Minnewaska.  If a pitch pine tree is damaged in a wild fire, the roots are not always killed and new growth will sprout from the base or the trunk of what appears to be a dead tree.  Chestnut oak is another tree that is able to withstand fires due to the thick bark. Other plants have seeds that lie safe below the surface, called a “seed bank”, waiting to grow when conditions are right like when there is space and more light following a fire. And perennials like the ferns and trillium and starflower lie dormant underground (like tulip bulbs in your garden), ready to burst upward every spring and summer.

And some plants are fire dependent, meaning that they need fire to thrive or greatly benefit from fire.  Pitch pine is a good example of this. Although some pitch pine cones will open on a hot summer day which drops the seeds to the ground, a fire also exposes the bare soil that helps their seeds to sprout.

Fires can help animals too, including insects, by creating new openings in the forest for the animals to thrive and by leaving snags (dead trees) which provide places for raccoons, squirrels, and woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds to nest in. Many animals avoid fire by burrowing deeper in to the ground, flying off, or skirting the edge of the fire. Very rarely will an animal be trapped by a fire.  Some species of beetles and birds hunt along the edge of the fire, looking for their prey as it escapes the fire.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Life was blooming in Minnewaska just after the Outlook Fire.  In coordination with the New York Natural Heritage Program and State Parks. a team of scientists worked together to study effects of the fire on breeding birds, tree regeneration, and vegetation response. Within a couple of weeks, there were hints of green. Approximately a month after the fire had ended, there was abundant new life in the Pine Barrens, with ferns and Canada mayflower sprouting up, trillium and lady’s slipper flowering, and a wood thrush nest with eggs hidden amongst the charred leaf litter. Pitch pines, chestnut oaks, scrub oak, huckleberry, and other trees and shrubs showed new leaves, bright green against the blackened landscape. Not lost after all, but alive and well.

Susan Carver, State Parks and Julie Lundgren, NYNHP

Niagara Rocks!

photo by Michael Drahms

Extending over 7 miles from Lewiston, NY to Niagara Falls, NY, the Niagara Gorge offers many recreational opportunities to explore nature. You can experience the gorge at Earl W. Brydges  Artpark State Park, Devil’s Hole State Park, Whirlpool State Park, and Niagara Falls State Park. While there, stop to see the amazing rocks that make Niagara the wonder that it is today!

Visible downstream at the lowest level of the gorge, is the oldest visible rock layer within the gorge wall. This layer was deposited along a coastal area of a warm shallow sea in the late Ordovician Period, alternating between below and above sea level. The periodic exposure of the iron rich sediments resulted in the coloration visible in the sedimentary rock of the Queenston Shale. As you travel upstream the tilt of this layer causes it to disappear below visible levels.

Niagara Escarpment

The rocks seen in the walls of the Niagara Gorge are sedimentary; they are made from sediments deposited in a shallow sea that covered much of the eastern U.S. and adjacent Canada around 440 to 410 million years ago (middle part of the Silurian Period). Rocks, such as limestone, shale, sandstone and dolostone, are seen as distinct layers. Some of these layers, for instance the soft, easily eroded Rochester Shale below the caprock of Niagara Falls, contain a great diversity of marine fossils, such as brachiopods, trilobites, corals and crinoids.

These rocks are layered, from oldest at the bottom to youngest at the top along a long ridge known as the Niagara Escarpment. The Niagara Escarpment is a prominent cliff-forming cuesta that extends from western New York into southern Ontario, northward to the upper peninsula of Michigan, and then bends downward into eastern Wisconsin and Illinois. The escarpment is capped by relatively hard, resistant rocks of the Silurian-age Lockport Group (chiefly dolostones and limestones), which are underlain by less resistant rocks (shales and sandstones, such as the Rochester Shale).

Layered Rocks

Near the end of the last ice age, around 12,300 years ago, the Niagara River began to flow over the Niagara Escarpment, located at what is now Lewiston, New York. Through the process of erosion the falls have receded to their present location.  In the past, the falls receded on average 3-6 feet per year. However, the rate has been greatly reduced due to flow control and diversion for hydropower generation, to a mere 3-6 inches per year. 50,000 years from now, at the present rate of erosion, the remaining 20 miles south to Lake Erie will have been undermined. There won’t be a falls anymore, but rather a series of steep rapids!

New Picture

While visiting Niagara Falls, or hiking in the Niagara Gorge, take some time to marvel in the events and processes that took place over time. From continental collisions to ice-age glaciers and the present day Great Lakes drainage basin, we are fortunate enough to witness the interactions of nature.

Last Photo

Links to additional information about the formation and geology of the Niagara gorge and the Niagara Falls geological area.

Post and Niagara Gorge photos by Mike Drahm, State Parks, Niagara Region

The Uniqueness of Water

Water is a natural substance that all of us encounter on a daily basis.  We rinse with it to clean ourselves and we drink it to stay healthy.  In addition, more than 60% of the human body is comprised of water.  But have you ever stopped to consider the uniqueness of this molecule that plays an intricate part of our lives and bodies?

H2O Molecule
Diagram of a water molecule. Figure by Melyssa Smith

Perhaps the beauty of water begins with the simplicity of its molecule, H2O.  It is made-up of only two elements: two hydrogen atoms (H2) and one oxygen atom (O).  The H atoms create a slight positive electrical charge on one end of the molecule (a positive pole), while the O atom creates a slight negative charge (a negative pole).  This polarity helps liquid water attract to, surround and break apart more substances than any other known liquid.  Thus, scientists call water a “universal solvent” – something that many other substances (e.g. salt, sugar, powdered hot cocoa) can dissolve into.  This attractive quality is how water is able to transport many vital minerals and nutrients throughout our soils, plants and environment.

Waterstrider_wiki
A Water Strider, kept afloat by the surface tension of water. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/WaterstriderEnWiki.jpg

Not only does water bind easily to other substances (adhesion), but it also sticks well to itself (cohesion).  The positive and negative ends of water molecules attract to each other and form water droplets.  These dual properties help explain how water can ascent up the trunks of trees – water clings to the inner walls of the xylem in tree trunks and pulls other water molecules along, travelling up against the forces of gravity.  You can observe water’s cohesive forces by filling up a glass of water slightly over the rim; water will hold onto itself and not spill over the sides.  Similarly, surface tension enables spiders and insects, such as the water strider, to walk on the surface of the water.  And so this seemingly simple molecule is capable of amazing feats.

Water has special physical qualities as well.  Unlike any other material on Earth, water can exist in solid, liquid and gaseous forms naturally.  The gas form floats freely in the air we breathe, with many molecules moving haphazardly far away from each other.  This vapor can condense into clouds and return water to the earth as either rain or snow.  When we hear the word “water” we usually think of the liquid form, and that’s probably because ~70% of our planet is covered in oceans.  Snow and ice are examples of water’s solid phase, with molecules tightly packed and organized into crystalline structures.  Unlike most other materials, the solid phase of water is less dense than its liquid form, which means ice can float atop liquid water.  This property is useful in lakes during the wintertime, as surface ice acts as an insulating layer for the water below, shielding aquatic life from extremely cold temperatures.  Clearly, water is a necessary ingredient for survival.

2013 letchworth falls downstream winter
A frozen Letchworth Falls, Letchworth State Park, Castile, NY. All three physical states of water are present: solid (ice and snow), gas (air) and liquid (stream below). Photo by OPRHP

New York State has more than 70,000 miles of rivers and streams and around 7,600 lakes, ponds and reservoirs.  Additionally, we are fortunate to share our borders with two Great Lakes, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.  Whether flowing, still, above or below ground, water is a ubiquitous feature in New York State Parks.  It supports life and creates habitats for aquatic plants and animals.  At the same time, water provides endless opportunities for recreation.

Many of our State Parks offer outdoor activities which involve water.  Check out the 2016 Empire Passport to learn more about how you can access our state parks in any season.  From swimming, boating and water skiing in the summer, to snowshoeing, sledding and cross-country skiing in the winter, to fishing (ice, fly or reel) year round — there is water-filled fun for every age all year long.  The unusual chemical and physical properties that make water so valuable are also what make water so unique and enjoyable.

Post by Melyssa Smith and Erin Lennon (OPRHP Water Quality team)

Resources:

Water as a universal solvent – http://water.usgs.gov/edu/solvent.html

New York State’s land and water resources – http://www.dec.ny.gov/61.html

Unusual properties of water – http://chemwiki.ucdavis.edu/Physical_Chemistry/Physical_Properties_of_Matter/Bulk_Properties/Unusual_Properties_of_Water