On a warm afternoon this winter, keep an eye out for snow flies walking on the snow. Snow flies are typically a yellow brown to light brown fly with a body of about one quarter inch long, not including their long legs. Snow flies are wingless – scientists assume that they lost their wings because it takes too much energy to fly in winter. However, being wingless makes the snow flies more at risk of being eaten by predators. This may be why we see them in winter when there are fewer predators out. Snow flies are similar to woolly bear caterpillars and wood frogs, in that their bodies produce a natural antifreeze that prevents these small insects from freezing during winter.
Little is known about the life history of snow flies. Scientists have found that females lay eggs in the winter. In the lab, eggs hatch in as little as eight days or as long as three weeks. But where the female lays her eggs, what the larvae eat, how long the larvae take to develop into adults, and where the larvae or adults live in winter remains a mystery.
Snow flies are related to crane flies, like the above giant eastern crane fly (Pedicia albivitta). You may have seen a giant eastern crane fly clinging to window screens in the late summer. At first glance, you might have thought it was a large mosquito. But if you look carefully, you will notice that the crane fly does not have a proboscis – or tube mouth – like a mosquito. Since they can’t bite you, it is safe to hold them in your hand to take a closer look.
One common New York snow fly is Chionea scita that was first described in 1848. The translation of this fly’s scientific name is snow (chion in Greek) knows (scita in Latin).
If you see any snow flies this winter, please let us know!
Imagine that when you were very little, your mom drilled a small hole in a plant and placed you inside. The plant’s reaction to the hole was to quickly enlarge that section of the plant where the tiny you was nestled. This new plant growth gives you a round home that protects you from the weather and provides all the food you need to grow into an adult. This round home is called a gall.
Most galls are formed by insects, others by fungus or bacteria. Each gall is unique to the plant that it grows on. Galls come in a variety of colors from red to yellow, green and black. There are three types of galls:
Leaf galls are the most common. They can be found on the lower or upper part of the leaf, and they may deform the leaf.
Twig and stem galls look like an odd growth on the stems and twigs of plants. They can be small or large.
Flower or bud galls disfigure a plant’s flowers or buds.
The Smithsonian notes that in North America alone, there are almost 1,500 different insect species that cause plant galls and most of them, over 800 species, make galls on oak trees.
Here is a sampling of some of the many galls you may see during your winter walks:
Oak apple gall
Walking under an oak tree, you may notice small, brown balls about the size of a ping pong ball hanging from the branches. These galls are the home of the oak apple gall wasp, Amphibolips confluenta. The galls are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. If you see a small hole in the gall, that hole was made by the adult wasp as it was emerging from the gall last summer. Oak apple galls are commonly seen on scarlet and black oaks.
Oak apple gall after the wasp has emerged, Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Male,oak apple gall wasp, photo accessed from Wikipedia
Goldenrod ball gall
Round galls on a goldenrod stem are an indication that a goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis) is living inside the gall. Fly larvae live inside the gall all winter and emerge in the spring. You can find these swollen stems in meadows and along paths.
Goldenrod gall after the fly has emerged, photo by Mara Koenig_USFWS, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Golden gall fly, photo by USDA Forest Service – Ogden , USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Eastern spruce gall
Eastern spruce gall adelgids (Adelges abietis) cause galls on both Norway and white spruce. Look for the small (½”-1” long) pineapple shaped galls near the tips of the branches. One sign of eastern spruce gall adelgid is a scattering of brown spruce branch tips on the ground under a spruce tree. The tips break off during a heavy snow storm or wind storm.
Eastern spruce gall, photo by Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org
Eastern spruce gall adelgid, photo by Lorraine Graney, Bartlett Tree Experts, accessed from Bugwood.org
Cedar-apple gall and rust
The fungus Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginiana infects both cedar trees and apple trees during its two-year life cycle. In the winter, look for the fungus on eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana; also known as eastern juniper) trees. Spores develop in the gall during the early spring and they are released in May and June after a warm rain. If the spores land on apple or pear trees, they will infect the leaves of the tree where they land. Spores from cedar-apple gall on apple or pear leaves are released in June and July and may infect nearby cedars and other kinds of junipers and the cycle continues again.
Cedar apple rust on a cedar tree, photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, accessed from Bugwood.org.
Cedar apple rust on a apple leaves, photo by George Hudler, Cornell University, accessed from Bugwood.org.
One bacteria that forms galls is Rhizobium Rhizobium radiobacter. Grapes, walnuts, black cherry and other stone fruits are susceptible to Rhizobium radiobacter. The bacteria enters a plant when an insect or weather-related event injures the plant. For example, if the winter is severe, plants are more likely to get damaged from strong winds and crown gall bacteria will enter the plant. These galls can become enormous, over three feet in diameter when in the crown or body of trees, thus the name crown gall.
Every year, the New York Natural Heritage Program (NYNHP) conducts field surveys in New York State Parks in search of rare plants and animals and high quality natural areas and features. There are always adventures as well as some surprises. Here a few highlights from 2018.
We surveyed dozens of vernal pools in Parks this season as part of a statewide project to help identify pools that are critical for critters like fingernail clams, fairy shrimp, wood frogs, spotted salamanders and others. Just as we finished our vegetation sampling in a vernal pool in Minnewaska State Park Preserve, a huge black bear wandered in and sat down! So close. We watched quietly until it wandered off, then packed up our gear to head to the next site. What a great day!
The Joys of Sedge-ing
Keen eyesight and a skill for noticing subtle differences in the structure and color of plant parts is required to find rare plants. Sedges, a grass-like plant, are among the tougher species to identify. A trick is to looks for the triangular stems – “sedges have edges” – as opposed to round stems of rushes and grasses. From there, botanists use plant keys to figure out the identity.
Botanist Richard Ring and our summer botany assistant Ian Laih set out to to the hilltops in Franny Reese and Storm King State Parks in search of rare sedges. Success! They documented new locations in both parks for two rare and easily overlooked sedges; black-edged sedge (Carex nigromarginata) and Reznicek’s sedge (C. reznicekii).
A Flurry of Rare Dragonflies – Three in One Day!
The zoology team documented three species of rare dragonflies in one day at Harriman State Park: sable clubtail (Gomphus rogersi), arrowhead spiketails (Cordulegaster obliqua), and spatterdock darner (Rhionaeschna mutata)! The park’s forest habitat interlaced with streams, wetlands and ponds provides habitat for these cool critters.
Piping Plovers Return to NY’s Great Lake shoreline
State Parks and NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) stewards discovered a pair of nesting Piping Plovers at a park on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario and worked to keep them safe from pedestrians and dogs. Four chicks successfully hatched and entered the world. This is a really big deal, as the Great Lake plovers are federally endangered and the last successful fledging of chicks on NY lakeshores was in 1984! NYNHP had previously identified this area as among the best beach and dune habitats on Lake Ontario and has been working with State Parks to support protection of the rare species and habitats there. (Note you may be familiar with the piping plovers of the Atlantic coast which are listed as federally threatened).
Something Old and Something New
There are always many more places to survey and surprises to find. In the small Gilbert Lake State Park, while looking unsuccessfully for vernal pools, we were surprised to find a small patch of old-growth forest with large, over 120-year old ash, red oak, beech and maple. In Minnewaska State Park Preserve, NYNHP Botanist and Parks biologists surveyed the site of a proposed climbing route where a tiny rare fern, the mountain spleenwort (Asplenium montanum), was known. They confirmed and mapped an extensive population of the fern and also found a small but new location for the rare Appalachian sandwort (Mononeuria glabra). The new climbing routes can now be planned to avoid impacts to the rarities.
Park’s Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team discovered a new location for a rare Rich Sloping Fen community and assisted NYNHP ecologist with vegetation sampling. Fens are a type of wetland fed by groundwater and that tend to be less acidic than bogs which are typically rain-water fed. They often support rare plant species too and sure enough, NYNHP ecologist spotted the leaves of the state-threatened marsh lousewort (Pedicularis lanceolata), a new record for this plant. Park staff returned to photograph and document it when it bloomed in August.
Allegany State Park in late June was the time to look for salamanders. Zoologist Ashley Ballou discovered a rare longtail salamander (Eurycea longicauda) near where they were last reported in 2009. This is a significant update of this almost 10-year old record. The park supports extensive and high-quality habitat for this and other more common amphibians like the red efts and red-backed salamander which we also saw during the surveys.
We did a lot of work on insects! The Empire State Native Pollinator survey was highlighted in a previous state parks blog Counting the Bristlesides, Sedgesitters, Leafwalkers. There are still hundreds of specimens to be identified this winter, but some new rare insect species records have been confirmed already and there is such astounding diversity and beauty!
And thanks to expertise of others, we also obtained about 30 new records for rare moths in State Parks! Rare micro-lepidoptera (the smallest moths) were found in 8 state parks by Jason Dombroskie of Cornell University. And Hugh McGuinness finalized the results of a contract with us for moth surveys at two Long Island parks last year, adding a total of 20 records for rare moth species. All of this information goes into the NYNHP Rare Species Database.
Post by Julie Lundgren, 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. NYNHP conducts many kinds of surveys and studies to provide guidance and tools for conservation of native biodiversity across New York State.
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.
Mayflies (Ephemeroptera) are short-lived winged cousins of dragonflies and damselflies. Short-lived (ephemeros) because the adults of some species live for only 90 minutes after they emerge from water; others may live as long as three days after they emerge from water. Adults have no working mouth parts.
Mayflies belong to the subclass Pterygota, which includes most winged insects and some insects whose predecessors had wings. They have been around since for about 300 million years, the late Carboniferous period.
Mayfly larvae, on the other hand, will spend between 10 days and 2 years in water as larvae. The length of time they spend as larvae also depends on the species. They can be found in lakes and ponds, rivers, and streams; living on rocks, aquatic plants, and mud. They eat algae and fine organic materials.
When it is time to emerge as adults, all the mayfly larvae of the same species emerge from the water together, at the same time. Sometimes, the density of the adult mayflies is so great that they appear on Doppler radar and snow plows are needed to clear the roads.
Because mayflies are sensitive to water pollution, they are excellent water quality indicators. In the early 1970s mayflies were nearly gone from Lake Erie due to high pollution levels. Fortunately the International Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada in 1972 made it possible for the mayfly’s return to the lake.
Each summer, staff from the State Parks’ Environmental Management Bureau staff monitor mayfly larvae in Park streams to determine stream health.
Mayflies can be found in many Parks. Look for adult mayflies anytime between May through September, with the largest number of hatches occurring in late June through early July. Who knows, you might find a new species of mayfly – a researchers from Southern Connecticut University and Lake Champlain Research Institute found a new mayfly species in Connetquot State Park Preserve in 2012.