Spring Tales About Springtails: Friends, Not Fleas!

photo1
Garden Springtail found in New York State. They’re not all this cute, but we want you to like them. From http://bugguide.net/node/view/652904.

Have you even been walking in the woods in late winter and seen a cluster of what look like fleas on the top of the snow?  You’ve probably thought “eww!” and hurried on your way to escape an itchy outcome. The truth is that these so-called “snow fleas” pose no danger to you or your furry pets.  You’re actually meeting one of the many species of Springtails, an order of arthropods that can be found on every continent, including Antarctica.  These incredibly abundant creatures may leap, but they are not biting fleas. They actually consume leaf litter, fungi, and even other smaller creatures.  Despite their tiny size, their existence may provide remarkable benefits that extend to you and me.

Springtails have six legs and antennas, but they are not classified as insects. Unlike insects, they have internal mouthparts and are wingless.   The spring in their step comes from a furcula, which is the springy two-pronged “tail” for which these fascinating creatures are named. It normally lies tucked under their abdomen. When escaping predators, the furcula is released almost instantly, and it vaults them up to 10 centimeters, which is no joke when your size maxes out at half a centimeter in length.

With 100,000 found in one square meter of forest, it is clear that these critters form a substantial base of the food web on the forest floor.  The red eft, the teenage stage of the red spotted newt, considers the springtails an ideal meal for their little mouths.  Even the harvestman, more commonly called “daddy long-legs,” preys upon the springtail.

Red Eft at Thacher -Photo by Lilly Schelling
The brilliant red efts you see on rainy days are prowling about for the Springtails, a little meal just right for their little mouths. Photo by Lily Schelling (OPRHP), taken at Thacher State Park.

Why should you care about these creatures?  They eat pathogenic fungi that can damage many agricultural crops. They also help spread the spores of mycorrhiza (fungi), whose symbiotic relationship with plants allow for an incredible array of plants to thrive, from wheat to beech trees.   The variety of Springtail that is sometimes called a “snow flea” is also a focus of biomedical research.  Scientists are trying to replicate the anti-freeze protein found in those ever-active Springtails in winter, and use it to aid the transition of body organs for transplant from donor to recipient.

We know nature’s ability to relax and soothe us in the midst of our busy lives, with scenic views and outstretched tree limbs. However the next time you take a walk in the woods, take a moment to appreciate the unseen world under your feet as well. It turns out that even the largely invisible, creepy-crawly world of wildlife in the woods may have myriad benefits for humanity.

A mass of live springtails in early spring. Photo by Greg Edinger, NYNHP.
A mass of live springtails in early spring. Photo by Greg Edinger, NYNHP.

 

Post by Liz Wagner, Grafton Lakes State Park.

 

 

 

 

 

Subnivean Life: A World Beneath the Snow

                                 Definition of “subnivean”:                                 the zone in or underneath the snowpack. 

Entrance hole in the snow.
Entrance hole in the snow. Photo by Patty Wakefield, OPRHP.

During the winter months when the temperatures fall into the single digits or below zero, and snow covers the landscape, survival in such harsh conditions is often challenging. Have you ever thought about the small mammals that reside in the fields along some of our country roads? One of those critters is the meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus); which means small ears of Pennsylvania. The meadow vole is an integral part of the food chain for many prey species such as the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and the red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

Meadow vole Photo courtesy of www.fcps.edu.
Meadow vole Photo courtesy of http://www.fcps.edu.

How do they survive? Meadow voles form runways or paths in dense grass in fields and/or wooded areas in the spring and summer months. You can see evidence of these tunnels by entrance holes.

Grass entrance
Entrance holes. Photo courtesy of http://www.pbase.com.

 

Grass Tunnels
Tunnels. Photo courtesy of http://www.pennlive.com.

These runways allow the meadow voles to forage, reproduce and survive while protecting them from predation. Meadow voles also dig shallow burrows where nests are constructed. During the winter months, the tunnels are under the snow.

Tunnels1

 

The snow actually works as an insulator to help protect them from the cold.

Tunnels2
Evidence of snow tunnels (2 images). Photos by Patty Wakefield, OPRHP.

Meadow voles often eat the green basal (bottom) parts of grass, berries and the cambium (under bark) of small saplings and bushes.

Tree damage
Sapling chewed by voles. Photo courtesy of http://www.tlehcs.com.
Cute voles eating
Voles eating berries. Photo courtesy of http://www.mnginteractive.com.

 

Next time you take a walk in a State Park see if you can find traces of these remarkable little winter warriors. The beauty and wonders of nature is all around us. We need just take the time to observe and see what we can see.

Post by Patty Wakefield.

 

 

Winter Tree Identification Part II: Evergreen Trees

Evergreen means these trees keep their “leaves” throughout the winter. Though we may call them pine needles, they are actually very skinny leaves that serve the same function as the leaves on a deciduous tree. Identifying evergreens during the winter months is almost the same as in spring and summer, with the added advantage of having mature pine cones.  Growth pattern, bark, cones, needle shape and number are used to identify the different species. Let’s learn how you can identify red pine, white pine, and eastern hemlock.

Last time we learned that leaves attached at the stem from the node. This is the same for evergreen trees, except these trees can have multiple needles attached to the stem in a bundle or sheath. This helps identify species since they differ by the number of needles they have per bundle.
See the example below:

Needles per cluster 2
This red pine has two needles per bundle.

 

Now we are ready to learn some tree species!

We will start with white pine. First let’s look at the bark and growth pattern:

WHITE PINE

White Pine LS Final 2

White pine usually grows straight and tall with horizontal, upturned branches. The tree has a uniformly full foliage appearance. The bark is a light gray in color with shallow ridges.  White pines can be found in well drained soils and are native throughout the state.

Now we will look at the characteristics of the twig and cone. There is a pencil in each picture for size reference:

White Pine LS 1

White pine has 5 needles per bundle. The needles and stem are flexible and slender. The cone is long and narrow and about 3 to 8 inches in length. Needles are light green in color.

RED PINE

Red Pine Tree LS Final

Red pine is a tall, straight growing tree with horizontal or dropping branches. The foliage looks clumpy, instead of uniformly full like white pine.  The bark can have a reddish coloring and is flaky/ scaly. This tree grows in well drained areas; such as rocky or sandy habitat. Red pines are native to a small area of the state, but are often planted around reservoirs or in parks.

Red Pine LS

Red pine has two long needles per bundle. The needles and stem are thick, unlike white pine. The needles are dark green and stiff – they break in half easily. The cone is short and round; usually about 1.5 to 3 inches in length.

EASTERN HEMLOCK

Hemlock LS Final

Eastern hemlock has a tall straight growth pattern. The branches grow horizontally. The foliage is more of a yellowish green in color compared to white pine. In this picture there are white pine trees in the left background for comparison. The bark is scaly when young, becoming ridged with age. The trunk is reddish-brown in color. These trees grow in shady-moist habitat, often along streams, on slopes or at higher elevations. Eastern Hemlocks are native to NY.

Hemlock LS 5

Hemlock does not have bundles of needles, just one short needle per node. The needles are yellow-green in color and are soft and flexible. The underside of the needle is whitish. The cone is small and round, under an inch in length. The twig is thin and flexible.

Learn more about winter tree identification by reading the Winter Tree Identification Part I: Deciduous Trees and Winter Greens blogs.

Post and photos by Lilly Schelling.

 

 

 

 

 

Long Island’s Winter “Wing – Footed” Visitors

A highlight to any winter beach walk on a Long Island State Park beach is the sighting of a seal, either hauled out on sand bars during low tide or swimming off the beach at high tide.

Harbor and grey seals, and more rarely hooded, ringed, and harp seals can be seen off of Long Island from late fall through early spring.  These seals belong to the family Pinniped, meaning “feather-footed” or “wing-footed.”    They are considered true seals – meaning they have no ear flaps, their front flippers are short, and their necks are short.   Seals are excellent divers; they can hold their breath for 40 minutes, swim up to eight miles an hour, and dive up to 600 feet.  They eat a variety of fish and invertebrates including crabs and squid.  Thanks to a thick layer of fat and a dense coat seals keep warm in winter.

The best time to see large groups of seals is at low tide when they haul out of the water to rest and sleep on sand bars and rocks. When seals are hauled out at low tide they hold their head and tail up in a “banana-shaped” position.  Be sure to watch the seals from a distance since seals can be easily scared.

Harbor Seals are the most common seal that you will see.  These 4-1/2’ – 6’ seals range in color from tan to brown to light gray with irregular black spots.  They have a smallish head that looks like a Cocker Spaniel in profile.  This profile gave them the nickname “sea dog.”  Their nostrils are “V” shape when seen from the front.  Harbor seals weigh 250 lb.

Harbor Seal
U.S Fish and Wildlife Service accessed from http://www.fws.gov/refuge/willapa/wildlife_and_habitat/harbor_seal.html.

 

Gray Seals are a large seal with gray coloration. Interestingly, adult males are dark gray with small black markings and adult females are light gray or brown with dark patches.  Males can be 8’ long and weigh 800 lb., females 7’ and weigh 400 lb.  They have a distinctive “horsehead” profile and their nostrils form a “W” when seen from the front.  Females have a slightly smaller head than males.

Grey Seal
Andreas Trepte accessed from Wikicommons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grey_Seal_Halichoerus_grypus_pup.jpg.

 

Hooded Seals are the largest seal that winters off of Long Island; males are 9’ long and females are 7’ long.  Males weigh 900 lb., females 670 lb.  The coat coloration of silver-grey with irregular black spots is the same in both adult males and females.  First year pups have a slate colored coat.  All female and juvenile male hooded seals have a larger head and broader muzzle than the harbor seal.  Adult males have an unusual nasal apparatus that they will inflate when they are angered or threatened.   Juvenile males do not have this nasal sac.

Hooded seal
From NOAA Fisheries accessed from Wikicommons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Hooded_seal.JPG.

 

It is always a thrill to see harp seals and ringed seals because they are rare visitors to Long Island.

Harp Seal adults are white with a dark harp- or saddle-shaped pattern on its back and flanks.  The more common juveniles have a light coat with dark blotches.  Harp seals look similar to harbor seals in profile but they are slightly larger (both males and females are 6’ long and weigh 400 lb.) and they have a stockier body than the harbor seal.

Harp Seal
Progressive Charlestown accessed from http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-hd_U5dR-kbk/U5sgdGx-4GI/AAAAAAAACmY/qzeNoJxoiUA/s1600/Puck+Back+Home.jpg.

 

Ringed Seals are the rarest and smallest seals found off of the New York coast in the winter; they measure between 4’-5-1/2’ long and weigh between 150-250 lb.  Generally, the coats are a gray-black color with numerous dark spots surrounded by light areas that look like rings. Juvenile ring seals have a fine silvery coat. From a distance, ringed seals have a slightly smaller head than a harbor seal and their nose is more pointed than a harbor seal.

Ringed Seal
From Osaka Aquarium accessed from Wikicommons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pusa_hispida_(Osaka_Aquarium_KAIYUKAN).JPG#.

Join us for a seal walk at either Jones Beach State Park or Montauk Point State Park. Be sure to bring your binoculars!

And please keep your dog at home.  You wouldn’t want your dog scaring the seals.

References:

Katona, Steven, Rough, Valerie, and Richardson, David (1983). A field guide to the whales, porpoises, and seas on the Gulf of Maine and Eastern Canada : Cape Cod to Newfoundland.  New York: Charles Scribner and Sons.

New York State Department of Conservation (n.d.) Harbor seals http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/60840.html accessed 01/22/2014

Dig Deeper in to Seals:

Bonner, Nigel (1994). Seals and sea lions of the world.  New York : Facts on File.

Kalman, Bobbie (2006) Seals and sea lions.  New York : Sierra Club Books.

Marine Mammal Stranding Center: http://mmsc.org/education/marine-species

The North Atlantic Seal Research Consortium: http://coastalstudies.org/programs/seal-research/cape-cod-seals/

Post by Susan Carver.

 

 

 

 

 

Safety, Streams & Salts

Whether you’re enjoying one of the numerous recreational opportunities of the season, or keeping warm by the cozy fire, one thing is on every New Yorker’s mind- snow! This frigid ice blanket provides more than a slick surface to ski, sled, and snowboard on; it can also create a hazard on our roadways and sidewalks. New York State, along with several other northeastern states, has historically used salt to melt any existing ice, prevent further ice from forming, and improve traction. While this method of salting has greatly improved the safety of our roadways, it has an acute impact on the environment- particularly on New York State’s reputable freshwater lakes, ponds, and streams.

snowfall at Allegany_KH
Fresh snowfall at Allegany State Park. Photo taken by Kate Haggerty, NYSOPRHP EMB Water Quality Unit (12/1/2010).

 

Cleared roadway over stream xing_Allegany_DM
Cleared roadway over a stream crossing in Allegany State Park. Photo taken by Dan Munsell, NYSOPRHP EMB Water Quality Unit (1/08/2013).

 

During the washout period of the spring, when snow and ice melt due to increasing outdoor temperatures, residual salts (and other chemicals) wash off of roadways and into our freshwater waterways. In large amounts, these salts can be toxic to aquatic organisms by altering the chemical composition of our waters. Several of our favorite fish, amphibian, and plant species aren’t adapted to these saltier environments, which can lead to substantial changes in the aquatic food web.

Currently, innovative alternatives are being studied to reduce the amount of road salt needed in the winter. This includes the use of granular volcanic material, beet molasses, and fireplace ashes to minimize or even replace road salts. Innovative infrastructure designs, such as pervious (porous) concrete roadways have also been suggested to reduce the amount of water (and ice!) accumulated on street and sidewalk surfaces. These innovative alternatives could ultimately eliminate the need for road salt use during New York’s winters, while still providing safety for drivers and walkers alike!

In order to decrease the environmental impacts of using road salt, while also ensuring the safety of our patrons, NYS Parks adopted a policy to minimize the use of road salt in our parks. By focusing the use of road salt on high-risk park roadways, and using other materials to improve traction (such as sand and gravel), NYS Parks reduces the amount of salt needed, which has further protected our park enthusiasts and our beloved freshwater resources!

Post by Nate Kishbaugh, photos by Dan Munsell and Kate Haggerty.

 

 

 

 

 

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