Tag Archives: Gorges

The Petaltail’s Tale

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.

Petaltail on Rocks, photo by State Parks
A gray petaltail perches in the sun along a gorge trail, photo by State Parks.

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.

Dragonfly nymphs - Wikimedia
Petaltail nymphs look very similar to these aquatic dragonfly nymphs, photo by 2109tristan https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dragonfly_nymphs_2013-06-20_16-36.jpg

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!

Petaltail caught during odonate survey, Becky Sibner
Gray petaltail caught during an odonate (dragonfly) survey, photo by Becky Sibner, State Parks.

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.

Petaltail_habitat_Lundgren_NYNHP
Look for gray petaltails in habitats  like this, photo by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

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

Sources:

Paulson, D. (2011). Dragonflies and damselflies of the East. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

NY Natural Heritage Conservation Guide for gray petaltail

Gray petaltail, IUCN 2017. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-1. <http://www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 12 May 2017.

Dragonflies – living fossils

Email correspondence with Jason J. Dombroskie, Ph.D. Manager, Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC) & Coordinator of the Insect Diagnostic Lab (IDL)

Celebrate Your Freedom In a State Park!

Fourth of July weekend is a great weekend to spend in a State Park or Historic Site.  You can build sand castles at Hither Hills State Park to camp on the banks of Lake Erie at Evangola State Park, fish in the St. Lawrence River at Wellesley Island State Park, listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence at Stony Point Battlefield State Historic Site, take a hike, enjoy the forest and more.  Find out all that State Parks has to offer this weekend at nysparks.com.

Thacher Indian Laddler Trail near Falls
Take a hike on the Indian Ladder Trail at Thacher State Park, Photo by OPRHP
Stony Point-3002
Hear the cannons firing at Stony Point Battlefield State Historic Site, photo by OPRHP
Spider Fishing
Try your hand at fishing at Wellesley Island State Park, photo by OPRHP
schuyler
Play one of George Washington’s favorite games at Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, photo by Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site
Lorenzo
Tour the gardens at Lorenzo State Historic House, photo by OPRHP
John Jay kids in pen with Rabbits and Chickens
Check out the Farm Market at John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, photo by OPRHP
Gorge
Enjoy a cool gorge in the Finger Lakes Parks or at Whetstone Gulf State Park – photo by OPRHP
John Williams
Build a sand castle at Hither Hills State Park, photo by John Williams, OPRHP
Glimmerglass State Park summer 2008
Picnic by the lake, Glimmerglass State Park, photo by OPRHP
Boy Salamander
Get to know the residents, salamander program at Allegany State Park, photo by Tom LeBlanc OPRHP
Rockland Lake Golf DSC_9783
Try your hand at golfing at Rockland Lake State Park, photo by OPRHP
Grafton Bike event_2267 copy
Go biking at Grafton Lakes State Park, photo by OPRHP
Cherry Plain Camping_AAT0238 web
Camp at Cherry Plain State Park, photo by OPRHP
Finger Lakes Boating
Go boating in the Finger Lakes, Allan H. Treman State Park, photo by OPRHP
Trees
Marvel at old-growth trees in Allegany State Park along the Conservation or Eastwood Meadows Trails – photo of old-growth ash tree in Allegany State Park by J Lundgren, NYNHP
Fireworks_PRT0033
See the fireworks at many parks across the state, photo by OPRHP
Sunset, Golden Hill
Or enjoy a quiet evening sunset, Golden Hill State Park, photo by OPRHP