Category Archives: Research

“Paper Box Mystery” at George Washington’s HQ

Every house can tell stories about the people who have lived in it, and sometimes, that story is a mystery.

Last year, a worker at the Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh was doing renovations when he reached behind an attic chimney and found something he was not expecting.

There, in a place not easily seen or reached, was a small paper box, discolored with age and wrapped with a now-brittle ribbon. And inside were a ring and a thimble, both made of gold and engraved with the single letter “M.”

The gold again glitters on the ring and thimble after restoration by State Parks conservation experts.

The historic Hasbrouck House served as the headquarters for General George Washington from April 1781 until August 1782. And Washington’s wife Martha lived in the house during that time as well, so could the items have been associated with her?

As it turned out, that was not the answer. Further examination of the ring, thimble and box by State Parks conservation experts Amanda Massie, Heidi Miksch, and Michele Phillips from the State Parks Division of Historic Preservation determined the items dated between the 1850s to 1860s. That was long after the Washingtons had left, and in the era after the Hasbrouck House became the first publicly-owned historic site in the nation in 1850.

Both items were likely gifts meant to represent symbolic hopes for a happy domestic life, and for some reason, remained hidden in the attic for more than a century until discovered accidentally.

The ring and thimble shortly after being removed from the box, which shows the ravages of time.

The thimble was made of 20-karat gold and likely was not meant to be routinely used for sewing. Often given as keepsakes to a bride-to-be, thimbles were recognized as a sign of romantic courtship in 19th century America. The practice goes back in history to the time of William Shakespeare.

Made of 10-12 karat gold, the ring was found to have a latched compartment, which inside held a tiny bit of red fabric, possibly silk, encased in glass. Such cloth keepsakes were common in the 19th century as a way to remember a loved one or special event.

So, who put the gifts there? And who was “M”? At this point, we do not know for sure … But State Parks researchers have unearthed some clues.

“First, we identified that stone in the ring was goldstone, which is actually glass with coppery flecks in it,” said Amanda Massie, curator of the Bureau of Historic Sites, based in Waterford. “To date the ring and thimble, I used historic trade catalogs from the 1880s and 1890s _ both jewelry catalogs and stores such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward to see if they had any items of the same style.”

Those searches yielded some similar objects, but none were identical. Massie then researched museum jewelry collections. “Here, I found more success in styles close to the ring with generic 19th century dates,” she said. “With the help of colleagues, I was able to contact curators who specialize in 19th century jewelry to better date the items. They believed that the ring and thimble dated from the 1850s to 1860s. Goldstone was very popular then and the thimble’s more simple design, suggested an earlier 19th century date.”

An example of a goldstone ring from an 1887 catalog entitled The Busiest House in America.
Examples of gold and silver thimbles from an 1895 catalog of Chicago-based retailer E.V. Roddin & Co.

While the ring and thimble were not luxurious, they have been considered prized keepsakes to a person of average means at the time.

These rough dates suggested a possible time-frame as to when the objects might have been placed in the attic and who might have done it, with the letter “M” as the main guide.

“We looked in census records for both Hasbrouck family members and family members of the caretakers to find candidates,” Massie said. “Mary Hasbrouck Smith was the sister of the last owner of the house and lived in the house as a child. It is possible she left the ring and thimble in the house when it was handed over to the state, but it is more likely that it is from after the house became a museum in 1850.”

The first caretaker, Levi Woolsey, had a wife named Margaret and a daughter named Mary. There was also a servant in the house named Mary Murphey. “Any of these women could have hidden the ring and thimble. Another caretaker, Alfred Goodrich, had a daughter named May who also could be our “M” in question,” said Massie. “Though we do not know for certain who left the ring, we now have a wonderful treasure to add to the collections at our first State Historic Site. “

The historic Hasbrouck House at the Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site

Parks staffers at the Hasbrouck House later brought this discovery to the attention of 9th grade honor students at the Newburgh Free Academy, who used it in a creative writing assignment on the “Paper Box Mystery.”

The Newburgh students imagined tragic tales of love unrequited or unfulfilled for how the ring and thimble came to be hidden and never retrieved.

Michael Abrams wrote a tale about a young man who bought the items for a girl that he wanted to propose to, only to be called up to fight and die in the Civil War, never to return to the home where he had hidden his treasure.

Another story, by student Megan Bell, imaged a young man named Edgar, who loved a girl named Mary, with the story told by Mary’s sister. Edgar had brought the box to the family’s home, and hidden it as a surprise. But he never got to give it, and was found dead in a nearby river only a few days later. And Mary “never found someone else she wanted to keep company with.”

And to student Anthony Manzi, the box’s secretive location suggested a romantic scavenger hunt gone sour. A suitor had hidden the ring and thimble in the attic, with instructions to his supposed sweetheart on how to find it, only to learn she was going with someone else, leaving him to abandon the box altogether. The spurned swain then “avoided every place she could possibly be. I never set foot in her house again.”

The story of the mystery box even managed to find its way around the globe _ a class from Australia heard about it in news reports and crafted their own stories. Australian teachers often seek out interesting stories from the United States to help teach American history, and this tale caught their interest.


Here is what the teacher wrote:

Hello, I am a primary school teacher in Melbourne, Australia and I showed my class the news story about the paper box that was found in the roof of the historic Washington building. We were hoping there might be an update on that find from local historians, but we cannot find any information online.

Can you help us out?

Kind regards, Linda V.


Most people might think that for a historic site like Washington’s Headquarters, opened to the public for almost 170 years, there is nothing left to learn and no mysteries to find. That is obviously not true, especially here at Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site!

Our historic preservation experts here at State Parks have developed the clues we know so far about the two items in the mystery box. Whether the mystery is ever completely unraveled, only time will tell. History is alive, and with conservators, curators and other professionals at the helm, the journey into our past will continue.

It was in this house that the General announced the cease fire that signaled victory in the Revolutionary War, authored some of his thoughts for the new republic, and created the Badge of Military Merit, the forerunner of the Purple Heart awarded to all American service members wounded or killed.

To visit these and other objects in the collection, visit Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site.  For hours, directions and/or further information, call 845-562-1195 or visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/washingtonsheadquarters.

Post by Elyse B. Goldberg, Historic Site Manager, Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site

21st century technology Recreates 18th century Luxury

When Alexander Hamilton was married at Schuyler family mansion in Albany, the residence was a pinnacle of style in Colonial America.

Home to one of the region’s richest families, the Georgian-styled mansion was decorated with luxurious wallpaper, rich fabrics, and even an ornamental papier maché ceiling that had been custom made and imported from England around 1760.

This ornate ceiling graced the mansion’s Best Parlor, where Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler in December 1780, as the Revolutionary War raged into its fifth year.

Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. The couple have new-found popularity from the successful Broadway musical play Hamilton. Source: Friends of Schuyler Mansion

To get his decorative ceiling, Philip Schuyler had simply selected designs from a catalog, provided room dimensions with his order and a complete ceiling was shipped ready to install.  Schuyler could have chosen from birds, flowers, shells, moldings, festoons, musical instruments — images that represented his interests and image.

This was not made with the papier maché that people might recall making in school — no newspaper and white glue. This was cotton rag pulp and papier maché that was mixed with water into a oatmeal-like slurry, and then pressed into a variety of hand-carved wooden molds to dry and set. 

The resulting super-light and slightly flexible ornaments were inexpensive to ship and easy to install. After a little glue and few tacks to set the ornaments in place, a ceiling was ready for painting.   Once done, it gave a stylish look similar to more expensive plaster ornamentation.

During the years, the parlor ceiling at Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site was removed and lost for reasons unknown. But Historic Site Manager Heidi Hill wanted it back after part of efforts to restore mansion for its 100th anniversary as a State Historic Site. 

The challenge to the Peebles Island-based Bureau of Historic Site and Park Services, part of the NY State Parks Division for Historic Preservation, was how to recreate something that has not been commercially produced in 150 years.

Making new hand-carved molds was out of the question; it would take too much time and cost too much money.

However, the team at State Parks had an amazing resource — an existing, rare and wonderful example of a mid-18th century papier maché ceiling at the Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site in Yonkers, Westchester County. This mansion has the only complete surviving example of this type of ceiling in the United States.  

However, this ceiling was too significant and too fragile to risk being damaged by the pressure and stress of taking contact from a traditional mold. This is where laser-based, 3D imaging technology came to the rescue.

In a pioneering project, State Parks partnered with Ithaca College’s Physics and Astronomy Department and the Friends of Schuyler Mansion to have the Philipse Manor Hall ceiling 3D scanned by portable laser units that fire pulses of light up to one million times a second. Light is then reflected back to a receiver, which measures how long the light took to return, using the data to create high-resolution scans that captured details down to 100 microns or 4/1,000th of an inch.

Headed by Professor Michael “Bodhi’ Rogers, the Ithaca College team 3D scanned nearly the entire interior and exterior of the historic Philipse Manor Hall, said Charles Casimiro, an historic site assistant there.

Professor Michael “Bodhi” Rogers, right, with Ithaca College students Evan van de Wall and Ryan Fedora, using laser scanner at Philipse Manor Hall. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi” Rogers.

“This effort for Schuyler Mansion was a very exciting project to work on … we were using this technology to do something that had never been done before,” said Rogers, who recently became the new chairman of the Physics Department at the University of Colorado at Denver.

It took three visits to Philipse Manor Hall between 2015 and 2017 to get all the scans, he said. With the newest scanner, students could use a hand-held device, wave it around the room and watch the image on the computer as it filled in, “kind of like painting with your hand,” said Rogers.

Ithaca College student Demitri Hector sets up a laser scanner at Philipse Manor Hall. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi’ Rogers.
Lasers scan a ceiling bust of Sir Issac Newton. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi’ Rogers
The scans are rendered into an image on the computer. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi” Rogers.
Ithaca College student Kevin Pomer uses a hand-held scanner on the ceiling at Philipse Manor Hall. Courtesy of Michael “Bodhi” Rogers.

In 2015, Rogers’ team also 3D scanned the Grant Cottage State Historic Site in Wilton.

The scanning of Grant’s Cottage, where Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant spent the final six weeks of his life writing his memoirs, is now being used to help protect the 1870s structure from fire, said Ben Kemp, site manager for the Friends of Grant Cottage. He said the data is being used to help design a modern fire detection and suppression system.

Rogers said this kind of scanning technology also will help in the rebuilding of fire-damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which was scanned in 2015.

When the laser scans at Philipse Manor Hall were completed, State Parks had computer images that revealed every paint brush stroke, age crack and tiny detail on the manor’s 250-year-old ceiling, which features images of lute players, bagpipers and singers, as well as busts of Sir Isaac Newton and poet Alexander Pope .

A drawing based on the 3D laser scan of the ornate ceiling design at Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site

To reproduce this ceiling in Schuyler Mansion, the original idea was to use the scans for a 3D printer to create each unique ornament in plastic. The Bureau of Historic Sites would then use traditional molding and casting methods to make new molds, which would then be used to produce the papier maché ornaments.

But Rogers’ team then figured out how to use the 3D imagery to create computer commands for the State Parks printer to instead make the concave molds used to receive the papier maché .  A total of 55 unique molds were needed to recreate the Philipse Manor ceiling.  

These molds were printed in Peebles Island’s Architectural Conservation lab at the Bureau of Historic Sites & Park Services. A printer works using a spool of bioplastic filament, which is heated into a liquid and then fed through a printer head that created the molds layer by layer.

State Parks Architectural Conservator Erin Moroney making molds on a 3D printer at her Peebles Island offices.

Many molds were too large to fit the printer bed, and so were digitally rendered into smaller pieces and then physically welded together later with a high-temperature 3D pen.  

With molds ready, we started making papier maché. Traditional cotton rag papier pulp was pressed  into the molds and the water squeezed out  with large sponges. 

A section of papier maché ornament with its mold.

More than 300 pieces were cast to make the ceiling, using over 500 pounds of paper pulp. The edges of each casting were hand trimmed. Each piece of ornament was then primed and boxed up for installation.

More than 98 percent of the ceiling was installed by three State Parks staffers in under a week. Hot glue was used to adhere the ornament to the ceiling. The ornament edges were then caulked where necessary and the entire ceiling painted. Once finished, the ornamental ceiling now looks like it has always been there.

Now installed at Philip Schuyler Mansion, this is only the second complete papier maché ceiling in the Unite States.

Erin Moroney and Bill VonAtzingen install the new ceiling at Philip Schuyler Mansion.
Erin Moroney paints the new ceiling at Philip Schuyler Mansion.
Bill VonAtzingen, a State Parks restoration carpenter, paints papier maché ornaments for installation.
See the complete process, from 3D printing of molds, to installation of the ceiling.
A detail from the ceiling at Philip Schuyler Mansion.
A 360-degree view of the restored ceiling.

Over the next few weeks the Parlor also received a crystal chandelier, an imported English loomed carpet and new custom-made drapes. The result is amazing.  For the first time in over a century—the grandeur of the Best Parlor is restored to the time of the Hamilton wedding, from the floor to the ceiling.

Philip Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.

Post by Erin E. Moroney, architectural conservator, Bureau of Historic Site & Park Services.

Seneca Lake surrenders its watery secrets

The cold, dark depths of Seneca Lake are revealing a rare glimpse of the state’s early maritime history to a high-tech research vessel as it finds long-lost shipwrecks in the deepest of the Finger Lakes.

Armed with a multibeam sonar array, researchers from Middlebury College and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum are producing accurate three-dimensional images of the bottom that also pinpoint wrecks from Seneca’s heyday of commercial canal shipping nearly two centuries ago.

Starting in late June, the Research Vessel David Folger was based in the newly-rebuilt marina at Sampson State Park for a two-week survey, headed by Thomas Manley, an assistant geology professor at Middlebury College, and Art Cohn, co-founder and director emeritus of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.

The crew of the David Folger at Sampson State Park at the start of the two-week survey.

Called bathymetric mapping, the team’s work is providing valuable insights into an era when canals drove the state’s economy. The mission is being supported through a $15,000 grant from NYS Parks Historic Preservation Office and also by the NYS Canal Corp.

“On our first day on Seneca Lake, we found several shipwrecks,” said Cohn, pointing at a color-coded computer display that showed the crisp outline of one such vessel on the bottom. After a sighting, researchers sent down an unmanned, remote-operated vessel (ROV) to video, identify and document the scene.

“The vessels being found are intact ships, many with cargo, that have not been seen for more than 150 years,” he said.

Art Cohn speaks at the dedication of the new Sampson State Park marina.

Multibeam sonar works by sending sound waves in a fan shape into the water beneath a ship’s hull. The amount of time it takes sound waves to bounce off the bottom and return to a shipboard receiver is used to determine depth, with that data then used to produce detailed, color-coded maps.

These findings add to the eight shipwrecks located during a preliminary survey by the team in summer of 2018. So far, that brings the total number of confirmed shipwrecks to 14, with more potential finds still being analyzed, said Cohn.

A 3D multibeam sonar scan of the Seneca Lake bottom clearly shows the outline of a shipwreck. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report
The clear outline of a shipwreck. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report
Once a potential shipwreck is located, a remote-operated vessel (ROV) with a video camera is sent down to investigate. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report

The David Folger mapping project also will update lake navigation maps that date to the 1870s, when depth measurements were taken from ships by crews who dropped a lead weight from a metal chain into the lake until it hit bottom.

The newly-discovered Seneca Lake wrecks are canal boats that date from the mid-1820s to the 1850s, after the opening of the Erie Canal and construction the 20-mile Cayuga-Seneca Canal in helped make the lake part of the “superhighway” of the era.

The Erie (1825), Chemung (1833) and Crooked Lake (1833) canals helped make the lake commercially accessible from north, south and west, with hundreds of canal boats each year plying the 38-mile lake carrying cargoes of corn, coal, lumber, whiskey and other goods. But winds and storms on Seneca Lake posed a threat to such lake traffic, sometimes sending canal vessels to the bottom.

Canal traffic was a common sight on Seneca Lake from the 1820s to the 1850s. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report
The 38-mile lake is the longest and deepest of the Finger Lakes. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report

Seneca Lake is up to 625 feet deep, and water temperature at such depths is in the mid- to low-30s, said Cohn, making it the perfect low-oxygen environment for preserving wooden shipwrecks. In the ocean, salt water and aquatic organisms quickly corrode such wrecks

“The shipwrecks in Seneca Lake are in many way time capsules of the 19th century,” said Mark Peckham, a former maritime history expert with State Parks and now a trustee with the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston.  “I dove on some wrecks in the 1990s and was struck by their state of preservation.  Some still had glass in their cabin windows and household items remaining inside.”

Underwater images taken by the David Folger of a sunken canal vessel. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report
The bow of a sunken canal vessel. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report

“These discoveries are especially significant as we are in the midst of the 200th anniversary of the construction of the NYS canal system.  2025 will mark the anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal,” said Peckham. “More than anything else, the canals of the 1820s spurred economic development, settled broad swaths of the state, made New York State first in population and made the port of New York one of the greatest shipping ports in the world.  

The David Folger reached the lake from its home port on Lake Champlain by taking the Champlain, Erie and Cayuga-Seneca canals in the New York State Canal System.

The multibeam sonar array aboard the David Folger also allows researchers to understand the composition of the ground beneath the bottom of Seneca Lake, said Manley. Those sub-bottom images look almost like a slice through a layer cake.

Some images might offer clues into a long-running lake mystery _ the source of mysterious booming noises that seemingly come from the water itself. The sounds have been known locally as Seneca Guns, Lake Drums or Lake Guns.

One modern theory is that such sounds might be caused by the sudden collapse and depressurization of caverns or tunnels underneath the lake, which has a history of salt mining being done around and beneath it.

Middlebury College researcher Thomas Manley explains underwater mapping imagery to NYS Parks Police Capt. Michael Daddona

Manley pointed to a lake bottom image that shows such potential collapses _ a nearly-circular depression that is some 40 feet deep, and another such depression nearby that is shaped like a horseshoe.

As Seneca Lake shipwrecks are located, they will be protected as public resources under the Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987. All shipwrecks located under this survey’s permit issued by the New York State Museum will be reported to the Museum and integrated into the state’s archaeological inventory.

Said Peckham, “These sites are subject to environmental degradation, such as silt deposit, erosion, organic deterioration, and the effects of mussel encrustation, and human intrusions like anchoring, diver handling, theft of artifacts, and construction of bulkheads, marinas, pipelines, and cable crossings. The latter threats can be addressed through improved public education and interpretation, law enforcement and by providing appropriate submerged heritage diving sites that foster and support responsible recreation and tourism.”

In Lake Erie, recreational diving on such historic wrecks has proved to be a popular tourist attraction. That could make Sampson State Park’ s rebuilt $7.5 million marina the perfect jumping-off point for such trips.

But not all mysteries have been uncovered yet _ researchers aboard the David Folger spotted no trace of potential relatives of a mythical Seneca Lake sea monster that was supposedly deliberately run over by the captain of a steamboat in 1899, according to a Rochester newspaper account at the time… But stay tuned.

A newspaper headline on the alleged monster encounter. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report
An artist imagines the legendary beast. Source: Seneca Lake Archaeological Survey 2018 Final Report

Posted by Brian Nearing, NYS Parks deputy public information officer

Counting the Bristlesides, Sedgesitters, Leafwalkers

It’s National Pollinator Week! Scientists have been busy looking to see what pollinators live in State Parks. Here’s a first look at some of the early results.

NHP@Bumblefly
This is actually a fly! The bare-cheeked bumblefly is a very rare Syrphid in NY that mimics bumblebees and lives in old forests.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

In 2017 a cadre of NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) biologists working under a long-standing agreement with State Parks began testing out sampling methods for a multi-year statewide Native Pollinator Survey (ESNPS) under the auspices of the Governor’s NYS Pollinator Protection Plan jointly administered by Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Agriculture and Markets.

NHP_EasternCalligrapher
The eastern calligrapher (Toxomerus geminatus) is a very common species in State Parks all over the state.  Photo by Lindsay Dombroskie, accessed from iNaturalist.

The goal of the ESNPS is to determine the rarity of a wide array of native insect pollinators in non-agricultural habitats. NYNHP Zoologists honed in on the most important and vulnerable pollinating groups in the state, representing a wide variety of native insect pollinators such as bumble bees, mining bees, bee flies, longhorn beetles and flower moths.

NHP_Spider
Captured by a spider, a fate that befalls some flower-visiting flies.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

Between June 8 – October 3, 2017 on fair weather days, two biologists used sets of small painted bowls containing soapy water to trap pollinators (the insects mistake the color for a flower) in four different habitat types within each Park (see photo). The biologists also used insect nets to hand- capture pollinators (see photo), spending the better part of one day obtaining a snapshot of the Park’s pollinator community. The collections are the only way to document and identify most of the species.

 

Over the past winter the biologists then separated out the flies (Dipterans) from the bees and pinned these specimens so that they could be identified by fly specialists at SUNY Cobleskill (see photo). They focused on flies in one notable family, the Syrphidae – or Syrphids, known as the hover flies or flower flies.  Most of the remaining captured pollinators like the bees will be identified by experts at Cornell University as the project continues.

 

Preliminary results are in for the hover flies or flower flies that SUNY Cobleskill experts helped to identify. There are many different species or types of these flies and not anything like the plain black housefly. Some go by interesting names like Bristlesides, Sedgesitters and Leafwalkers. Many hover flies are mimics of stinging Hymenoptera (see photo) and known to be second only to bees in their pollinating prowess. This is because the adult flies feed on pollen and nectar to power their energy- intensive flight. In doing so, they help to pollinate a wide range of trees, shrubs and wildflowers in every conceivable habitat. At the same time, their larvae (the young stage) are predators of harmful insects such as aphids and adelgids. Many play an important role in aiding decomposition in aquatic and forest environments; in effect breaking down leaves, logs and other debris which then releases nutrients and builds soil.  In other words, Hover flies are very important to the health of our native ecosystems.

NHP@Goosepond
Look closely for the hover fly on a leaf at Goosepond Mountain State Park on September 28, 2017.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

A brand new hover fly field guide focusing specifically on northeastern North America will be published later in 2018 by a team of Canadian researchers. This will allow anybody with an interest to pursue these fascinating and colorful insects who will challenge your notions of what a fly is!

A few fun facts we learned about hover flies in State Parks:

  • Total number of Parks sampled: 22 (in all Regions)
  • Total number of different Syrphid (fly) pollinators: 50 species
  • State Parks with the highest diversity of hover flies (at least 7 different species plus more than 15 individual flies): Minnewaska, Thacher, Sunken Meadow, Letchworth, Taconic, and Allegany
  • Number of new species never before seen in the State, or were thought to be no longer in NYS: 5
  • Two out of every three individuals captured (67%) was a calligrapher (Toxomerus), small black and yellow flies whose larvae eat aphids (see photo)
  • Number of Parks with a species that mimic hornets (the rare eastern hornet fly (Spilomyia longicornis)): 3: Allegany, Knox Farm, Sunken Meadow
  • Number of Syrphid species whose larvae eat adelgids (adelgids are a small insect that can cause severe tree damage): 2 (in the genus Heringia) at Gilbert Lake, Grafton, Moreau Lake
  • Number of non-native, introduced species detected: 2. The common compost fly (Syritta pipiens), and common drone fly (Eristalis tenax)
  • Over half of the State Parks had at least one Syrphid species that lives predominantly in older forests.

Authored by Jeff Corser, Zoologist with NY Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP).

NY Natural Heritage Program is affiliated with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) and works in close partnership with NYS Parks and NYS DEC. The Empire State Native Pollinator Project is only one of many kinds of surveys and studies that the program conducts to provide guidance and tools for conservation of native biodiversity across New York State.

All photos by NYNHP for use by permission only

The Hudson River’s “Tough Turtles”

During the summer months along the Hudson River south of Troy, New York, it’s easy to notice the tides rising and falling, herons wading in the shallow streams, and the giant cargo ships purposefully streaming up and down the river. Difficult to spot, however, are the river’s many turtles. Several varieties call the Hudson home, but the northern (also called common) map turtle is perhaps the most interesting and understudied.

Princess
Northern map turtle “Princess” hanging out while her tracker tag dries before her release. Scientists use these tags to locate the turtles for months after capture.

Northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica) are large river turtles that get their name from the intricate circling pattern on their shells, which resemble the elevation lines on a map. These turtles are relatively secretive. In urban areas they have to work especially hard to find what they need to survive. For one thing, turtles need good basking objects—places where they can come out of the water safely and sun themselves to warm up. Fallen trees or rocks make the best basking habitat, specifically ones that are farther out into the water so they can easily escape from potential predators. Because of the tides, many potentially good basking objects aren’t reachable as they are either too high up the bank or underwater at any given time.

Luna
Scientists quietly observe northern map turtle “Luna” nesting from a safe distance. This nest received protection from predators and likely hatched successfully months later.

Another problem is finding places to lay their eggs. All turtles lay eggs and the northern map turtle is no exception. Most turtles prefer loose, sandy soil with plenty of sunlight for the eggs to develop successfully. Temperature determines the gender of the tiny map turtle babies—eggs toward the cooler, bottom of the nest often become males, while those eggs toward the warmer top (that therefore get more sun and heat) will become females. But in this highly urban area, good places to nest are few and far between. Natural areas, like those found in some of the State Parks along the river, help provide habitat for them. These spots seem perfect for northern map turtles, but they do tend to have a couple of drawbacks: 1) road and foot traffic and 2) predators smelling the eggs and destroying the nests soon after they’ve been laid. In addition, well-meaning people who are simply curious about these turtles (and with good reason!) approach nesting females that may “spook” and stop laying. People should give nesting turtles some space and observe quietly from a distance.

Nest
Probable northern map turtle nest destroyed by a predator. Shells that appear twisted indicate some animal has eaten them, whereas more intact shells mean the nest has likely hatched successfully.

 

Because good turtle habitat is hard to find in an urbanized section of the river, researchers Dr. James Gibbs and Master of Science candidate Julia Vanaman from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry are working to identify what habitats are most important to map turtles. Aquatic plants, basking objects, forest along the river banks, and shoreline development all likely play a role in where these turtles choose to spend their time. Once the researchers understand why a turtle likes an area, they can pass along that information to state and local park managers who can protect habitat and take measures to enhance it (e.g., by creating nesting habitat or increasing the number of available basking objects). With these habitat improvements, hopefully these fascinating turtles will stick around for many years to come.

Note: Northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica) occur across much of eastern North America from the Mississippi River, north to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, and east to small portions of the Susquehanna, Delaware and Hudson river systems. In New York State, the map turtle is considered vulnerable to decline and is recognized as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in the state’s wildlife action plan. For more information, please check out the following links:

New York State Species of Greatest Conservation Need

Rare Animal Status List

Common Map Turtle Distribution Map

Turtles of New York State

NatureServe northern map turtle

NatureServe Map

Post and photos by Julia Vanaman, Master of Science candidate, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Featured image attribution: By Dger [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons