Category Archives: Flora & Fauna

Rare or noteworthy wildlife spotted in New York State Parks

Hellbenders: salamanders in peril

As the largest salamander in the Western hemisphere, you wouldn’t think that hellbenders could easily slip under the radar. However, these well-camouflaged, aquatic creatures are rarely seen, and due to loss of suitable habitat, they are being seen with increasing rarity.

In New York, hellbender salamanders live exclusively in the Susquehanna and Allegheny river drainages, including their associated tributaries. Numbers are declining in both of these ranges, particularly in the former, where hellbenders are all but extirpated. A “hellbender head-start program” has focused on the Allegany Region, where earlier this year a number of captive-raised hellbenders were released into the park’s streams. The captive-rearing program has been a collaboration between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Bronx Zoo, the Buffalo Zoo, the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, NY, and the Seneca Nation of Indians. More information on that project can be found here.

Check out this cool video featuring awesome hellbender action produced by Freshwaters Illustrated, an organization which produces educational media about the life, study and conservation of freshwater ecosystems.

featured image is hellbender habitat in Allgany State Park, by Andrea M. Chaloux. Post by Paris Harper

Milkweed

Besides cleaning up our parks, invasive species removal teams sometimes get the opportunity to enjoy the truly lovely flora of New York State Parks. The following pictures are from Invasive Species Awareness Week, where a team cleared out wild parsnip from bird habitat in Thacher State Park.

Wild parsnip - beware! by Steve Young, NYNHP
Wild parsnip – beware! by Steve Young, NYNHP

Wild parnsip (Pastinaca sativa) is a member of the carrot family, but unlike their tasty orange relatives Wild parsnips can bite back! Wild parsnip contains chemicals called furanocoumarins, which, when exposed to sunlight on skin, can cause phytophotodermatitis, a toxic skin reaction. The chemicals prevent the skin from protecting itself from ultraviolet rays, resulting in the worst sunburn of your life.

A far-off bobolink thrives in the grassland, by Melissa Plemons
A far-off bobolink thrives in the grassland, by Melissa Plemons
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Lovely milkweed blossoms, by Melissa Plemons

The removal of wild parsnip from the field benefits grassland birds, like the bobolink, and also promotes the growth of native plants like milkweed. Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) have been used culturally as food, fiber, and medicine. In addition to being the only plant that monarch caterpillars can live and feed on, milkweed species are attractive to many other insects, including the large milkweed bug, common milkweed bug, red milkweed beetle, blue milkweed beetle, and all sorts of bees. Certain predators, like yellow jackets and crab spider, make a point of targeting flies and bees that visit the flowers. Native birds enjoy snacking on these insects, too!

 

The featured image is of milkweed blossoms at Thacher State Park, by Melissa Plemons. Post by Paris Harper.

Spotting the Leopard Frog

The discovery of a new species is always a big deal, especially when it’s been living right under the noses of over 8 million residents of New York City and the surrounding counties. A new species of leopard frog, still unnamed,  was first identified by Jeremy A. Fienberg of Rutgers University in 2009 on Staten Island, and DNA tests confirmed his discovery in 2012.

The deceptively similar northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens), by M. Schlesinger
The deceptively similar northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens), by M. Schlesinger

It’s no mystery how this mystery frog escaped our notice for so long. There are over a dozen leopard frog species that range between Canada and Central America, and until Fienberg recognized their distinctly different vocalizations, all the leopard frogs of NY were presumed to be either northern leopard frogs (Rana pipiens), or southern leopard frogs (R. sphenocephala).

New York State Parks is collaborating with the NY Natural Heritage Program on a regional study aimed at defining the range of the newly described species in comparison to the northern and southern leopard frog. The study’s objectives are to define the distribution, habitat use, and conservation status of the three species from Rhode Island through Virginia by matching calling surveys with follow-up surveys to catch, photograph, and get tissue samples from frogs. In New York, efforts are focusing on the Hudson Valley and Long Island, where State Parks contain some large wetlands that may be suitable as leopard frog habitat.

As part of this project, Natural Heritage biologists Kelly Perkins, Rich Ring, and Matt Schlesinger, and Parks biologist Jesse Jaycox, conducted surveys and habitat assessments for leopard frogs at wetlands in state parks. These surveys were conducted at Goose Pond Mountain, Tallman Mountain, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Taconic State Parks. Despite spending long evenings in the parks at night, when frogs are most active, no leopard frogs were found. However, these wetlands are home to many other types of frogs, including Green Frogs (R. clamitans), spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer), wood frogs (R. sylvatica), and pickerel frogs (R. Palustris).

For now, this new species remains a cryptic member of New York’s natural wildlife. Hopefully, we’ll get to know it better in the future.

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A swamp in Orange County where the new species makes its home. By M. Schlesinger

The featured image is the unnamed species of leopard frog, by Matt Schlesinger. Post by Matt Schlesinger and Paris Harper.

Update: The newly discovered leopard frog species has been named the Atlantic coast leopard frog, Rana kauffeldi.

Hail the Snails!

Need to slow down your fast-paced life?

The Chit in its natural habitat, by C. Gilbertson
The chits are well camouflaged for living in the leaf litter, by C. Gilbertson

Try watching a snail! No seriously, it’s quite calming. They glide along and seemingly know exactly where they are going. They are curious, and if you listen really carefully, you may hear them munching away when they eat!

Cody Gilbertson, a Master’s student of conservation biology at SUNY-ESF, has been working with and watching snails since 2010. On top of that, the species she works with is a small land snail that is also one of the most endangered species of New York. This little snail is quite famous because it is only found at one location in the entire world!

Not a bad field site! By P. Harper
Not a bad field site! By P. Harper

The Chittenango Ovate amber snail resides at Chittenango Falls State Park. At the base of a waterfall 167 feet in height, this unique species goes about its business amongst rocky ledges and lush vegetation. This summer, teams of volunteers signed up to help Gilbertson assess the size of the snail population and contribute data for her research.

In these snail surveys, volunteers survey small plots of snail habitat for a set amount of time, capturing small snails in tupperware containers as they go. After the collection, all the captured snails are sorted an identified, so we can figure out which are Chittenango Ovate Amber Snails (affectionately called “Chits”) and which are other snail species. After the count, the Chits are released back where they were found and the other snails are removed.

The team scrambles over rocks! By P. Harper
The team scrambles over rocks! By P. Harper

The data from these surveys is part of Gilbertson’s greater study on the life cycle of this rare snail and figuring out what is necessary for their survival. What do they eat? What conditions do they need to survive? How the heck do they live through upstate New York winters? She is looking for new methods to increase this snail’s overall numbers with a goal to help stabilize their population and create a template for other conservation efforts for land snail species.

Captive COAS_Cody Gilbertson_SUNYESF
This baby snail was born in captivity, and may provide clues to how we can protect the endangered chits. By C. Gilbertson

Another important aspect of the project is captive breeding. So far, Gilbertson has successfully bred a biologically similar snail species and yielded roughly 3000 hatchlings. She is also looking at how many other snail species live in isolated populations within New York State to find out if isolated populations are common or rare in this family of snails.

Not many people slow down to examine the small beings on earth. Some animals may almost be invisible, but they all play a big part in ecosystems and the small size of the animal does not make them less important. So next time you’re feeling rushed in life, take a moment to watch a snail, you’d be amazed at the calm steady creature before you!

Featured image is of Chittenango Falls at Chittenango Falls State Park, by Paris Harper.

Post by Cody Gilbertson and Paris Harper

Wildlife Spotlight: the Bee Fly

The bee fly is an adorable insect which can be seen buzzing around wildflowers in spring and summer. The one in this photo was seen near the shoreline at Harriman State Park. Bee flies are named for their round, fuzzy bodies and habit of flying from flower to flower in search of food. Unlike bees, however, these flies don’t sting! That long nose is called a proboscis, and it serves the same function as a hummingbird’s beak, allowing the bee fly to sip nectar from flowers. But as cute and harmless as the adult bee flies are, they start their lives as ferocious little larva! Bee Flies lay their eggs in the same burrows solitary bees dig for their own eggs. When the fly larvae hatch, they eat the bee’s winter cache of pollen, and then they eat the baby bees, too!

We think these guys are the cutest fly species! Photo by Paris Harper
We think these guys are the cutest fly species! Photo by Paris Harper