In late summer, if the humidity is high and we’ve had lots of rain, look for earth stars on the forest floor. Found in hardwood forests with beech, maple, birch, and ash trees, earth stars are the fruiting bodies of underground mushrooms.
Sporocarps, or fruiting bodies, are a specialized part of a mushroom that produce mushroom spores. These spores are how mushrooms spread, carried by the wind to new locations. Puff balls and truffles are other examples of mushroom fruiting bodies and you may have seen mushroom spores if you have ever kicked a dry puff ball. The grey powder that comes out of the puff ball are mushroom spores.
Earth star fruiting bodies make up only a small portion of a mushrooms mass. The rest of the mushroom is growing underground as mycelium, thread-like part of the mushroom. A mycelia (a single strand of mycelium) takes up nutrients from the place where they are growing. You may have seen mycelium growing under a log or in a pile of old leaves.
Since mycelium grow underground, it is hard to know the size of the fungus. In 1998, forestry scientists discovered a single fungus from a honey mushroom in the Blue Mountains in Oregon that was found in nearly four square miles (1,665 football fields) of forest soil.
While the fungi in the northeast US are not as large as the northwest US, it is still fun to find mushrooms in the forest. Keep an eye out for earth stars and other mushroom fruiting bodies during your walks and hikes in State Parks. Late summer through mid-October is a great time to see them. If you do find some, share your photo.
Learn more about earth stars and other New York mushrooms:
Baroni, Timothy J.; Mushrooms of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada; Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2017.
Bessette, Alan; Mushrooms of Northeastern North America; Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press, 1996.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
The Eastern box turtle has a hinge on its plastron (lower shell). This allows it to tuck its head, arms, and legs away from predators, forming a tightly sealed “box.” Photo by John Triana, Regional Water Authority, Bugwood.org
A turtle’s backbone is fused to the upper shell, shown in this drawing of a turtle’s skeleton. Photo Public Domain
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.
A stinger’s barb size varies by species. This stinger belongs to a paper wasp. Photo by Insects Unlocked, CC BY 2.0
A honey bee can only sting once. Photo by David Cappaert, Bugwood.org
Post by Kelsey Ruffino, Student Conservation Association and New York State Parks
Featured image: Eastern Pipistrelle, photo by Lilly Schelling, State Parks
Each June and July, visitors to several gorge parks are rewarded with an unusual treat – the chance to see a “living fossil.”
The term “living fossil” refers to species that have evolved very little over the course of millions of years. Some well-known examples of living fossils include elephant sharks, ginkgo trees, and horseshoe crabs. Although all of these organisms have evolved, these species have stayed so similar that fossils from millions of years ago are still recognizable as ancestors to the modern species.
Meet the gray petaltail dragonfly (Tachopteryx thoreyi), a species of dragonfly that closely resembles its ancestors who were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth during the Jurassic Period – almost 200 million years ago! During that time, the petaltail dragonfly was part of very widespread family known as the Petaluridae. Today, however, there are only 11 species of Petaluridae remaining worldwide.
The gray petaltail is found in several of the Finger Lakes gorge parks the gray petaltails love hunting in the gorges, because they can go to the sunny side of the gorge to get warm, which allows them to move much faster. Petaltails are drawn to the gorges to lay their eggs in the soggy seeps on wooded slopes. Most dragonflies lay their eggs in water bodies. The eggs grow into juvenile dragonflies, called nymphs that also typically live in water. That is not the case for the gray petaltail nymphs! The gray petaltail is the only species of dragonfly that does not have fully aquatic nymphs. Instead, the petaltail nymphs live and grow while hidden in the mud, moss and moist leaf litter in the forest seeps. As the nymphs mature, they climb up the trunks of trees to become the adult dragonflies that can fly fast and free all around the gorge.
While they are not nearly as large as their Jurassic ancestors, today’s petaltails are one of the larger species of dragonflies, with a wingspan of up to 5 inches wide. Their distinct black and gray coloring also makes it easy to identify. This species often perches upon rocks and tree trunks, but it is not uncommon for it to perch upon a passerby! Although they are large and ferocious insect predators (eating thousands of mosquitoes), dragonflies are harmless to humans. If you are lucky enough to be chosen as a dragonfly perch, you may be startled, but either brush them away very gently or just enjoy it!
The gray petaltail is listed as a species of special concern within New York State, as it is only known in specialized habitat in a small number of locations. NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) continues to survey for them and recently found another new site for them. Luckily, some of those locations are within New York’s state parks, providing habitat protection to this fascinating species – and maybe a chance to see this primitive insect for yourself, especially in June and July.
Post by Laura Young, FORCES Environmental Education Steward & Becky Sibner, Stewardship Project Coordinator, State Parks
Featured image: gray petaltail on a Jack-in-the-pulpit, Kerry Wixted
Paulson, D. (2011). Dragonflies and damselflies of the East. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
You’re walking through the woods on a late spring day and a loud bird song bursts from forest. It sounds as if the bird is repeatedly saying ‘tea-cher,’ getting louder with each note. You pause to look for the bird, thinking it may be the size of a robin, a blue jay, or maybe something bigger because it is so loud, but you don’t see anything.
The song starts again, and there on the forest floor, you see a small light brown bird with dark brown streaking on its breast singing ‘tea-cher, teacher’. That bird is only about half the size of a robin. It’s an ovenbird, a bird known for an over-sized voice and a unique nest that looks like an old-fashioned outdoor oven, after which the bird is named.
The female ovenbird builds her domed shaped nest on the forest floor. She builds it from the inside out using pieces of bark, small twigs, grasses, dead leaves and even hair. She leaves a side entrance so she and her mate can care for the young birds once they hatch. After she has finished weaving the nest, the female ovenbird drops small twigs and sticks on top of the nest to hide it from predators such as garter snakes, eastern chipmunks, and raccoons.
The next time you walk through the forest, listen for these birds. If you do spot one or see a bird quickly fly off of the forest floor, be careful where you step. Look closely to see if you can find that unique dome-shaped nest on the ground. If you are lucky enough to spot one, view from a distance for just a minute and then move on so the parent can get back to the nest.
Featured image by Tim Lenz, US Fish and Wildlife Service
Threatened in New York State and often misunderstood, the Timber Rattlesnake is an impressive and unique species that is essential for healthy ecosystems. At an average of 3-4 feet in length and described as “stocky,” timber rattlesnakes are the largest venomous snake species in New York. They are easily identified by their broad triangular-shaped head and rattle. Like other pit-vipers, timber rattlesnakes possess a heat-sensitive organ, or pit, on either side of the head that allow them to detect prey. Their rattles are comprised of segments that accumulate each time a snake sheds its skin, which is every 1-2 years in this region. Counting the number of rattle segments is not an accurate way of aging snakes, as rattles wear and break off. Rattles are used as a warning to potential predators to stay away, making a distinct buzzing noise when rattled.
Timber rattlesnakes can occur in two color patterns: The black phase, which consists of dark bands against a dark background, and the yellow phase, which consists of dark bands on a lighter background. Color shades and band patterns vary from snake to snake.
Their distinctive cross-bands allow them to camouflage themselves from unsuspecting prey as well as from predators. Rattlesnakes primarily feed on small mammals, but will also consume birds, amphibians or other snakes. They ambush prey as it passes by and inject a controlled amount of venom with “hinged” hollow fangs. They then release the animal, wait, and follow its chemical trail to consume it. Rattlesnakes play a vital role in maintaining stable numbers of prey populations, such as rodent species that can carry diseases and destroy crops.
The venom from a bite can be fatal to humans if not treated, but bites are rare. Snakes will not go out of their way to pursue or bite a person. They have the ability to sense the vibrations of an approaching creature and if it is too large to be prey, they rely on their camouflage to hide or they retreat. It requires precious energy to produce venom- Timbers will bite as a last resort if they are cornered and feel threatened. There has not been a death from a timber rattlesnake bite in New York State in several decades. In all of my encounters with these snakes, both for study purposes and chance encounters, one has never struck. While they might coil in a defensive posture and rattle as a warning, the snakes simply want to go on their way and be left alone. It is important to give them space.
These snakes will hibernate together in a den below the frost line, and it’s not uncommon for other snake species to den with them. The same den will be used for generations. They can live up to 30 years, though most live 16-22 years. Male timber rattlesnakes reach sexual maturity at about 5 years whereas females don’t reach sexual maturity until 7-11 years. Females give birth every 3-5 years, and they are among a few species of snakes that give birth to live young. Their slower reproduction rates make them even more susceptible to the threats they face.
Timber rattlesnakes were once more abundant. Indiscriminate killing and a bounty system, as well as unregulated collecting has greatly reduced their numbers, completely eliminating them from some areas. Though the bounty was repealed in the 1970’s and they are now protected by law in New York State, they still face poaching. Snakes are purposefully killed out of a misplaced fear or disdain, or are collected for the illegal pet trade. Snakes can also be killed by vehicles while attempting to bask in roads or cross them in search of food or a mate. Timber rattlesnakes are a slower moving snake, and they tend to freeze when they sense vibration, such as that of an oncoming car. This puts them at greater risk of being run over. People have said that snakes stretched out across the road look like sticks. It’s important for drivers to be observant in order to avoid hitting snakes (or any animal) in the road, and heed animal crossing signs.
Habitat loss due to human development and frequent recreational use of land has also had a negative impact on timber rattlesnake populations. Additionally, snakes in the eastern United States are facing decline due to a deadly fungal disease. Conservation efforts are underway to preserve the few populations of timber rattlesnakes left in New York State and the habitat that supports them. Surveys are conducted and sightings are tracked to help determine the size and health of populations. Snakes are also fitted with transmitter devices for tracking and monitoring. One of the biggest efforts in the conservation of Timber Rattlesnakes is raising public awareness. By educating people about the snakes at sites where they occur, it increases safety for visitors and for the snakes. While they can pose a threat to people (similar to many other species of wildlife), these graceful animals are not bad and are not out to get anyone. They occupy a key niche in the natural community and food web and help to keep the ecosystem in balance. It is rare to encounter a timber rattlesnake in New York State because of their reclusive and docile nature. However, if you do see one, remember — as with all wildlife — to keep your distance for your safety as well as to not stress the animal. Take the time to watch from a distance to appreciate the beauty of a part of the natural world we live in. Whether snakes fascinate or frighten you, if you are walking through their home territory, it’s important to be aware. Respecting their space benefits both you and the snakes.
Post by Amy McGinnis, State Parks
See the nose to left and body to right under the rock? Photo by NYNYP