Tag Archives: Insects

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)

Mayflies

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.

Post by Susan Carver, OPRHP.

Sources:

http://old.post-gazette.com/healthscience/19990726mayfly1.asp

http://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/7470.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bees in the Butterfly Garden

It may be some time before we get to see bees and butterflies again, but when spring comes, we know that our friends at Fahnstock State Park will be ready to welcome them back with open arms and bouquets of native flowers. Check out this vibrant post from Native Beeology!

Native Beeology

Anne Odell Butterfly Garden – Fahnestock State Park –

In a recent venture to The Hubbard Lodge in Fahnestock State Park, I explored a butterfly garden flourishing with beautiful native flowering plants. The garden was alive with tired butterflies sporting tattered wings, queen bumblebees fattening up for a long winter hibernation, and a diversity of solitary bees finishing up their nests.  This garden named the Ann Odell Butterfly Garden was created in 2003 in memory of Ann Odell, an art teacher and gardener.  The winding paths in this tranquil place is a fitting tribute, inviting those who enter to explore and discover all things wild and beautiful.  Indeed, this garden is much more than a butterfly garden.

DSC_0218 Gazebo near the Entrance to the Ann Odell Butterfly garden

DSC_0222 Joe-pye-weed

DSC_0237 Asters and goldenrods

The most notable feature of this autumn garden is the purple New England asters that stand tall in the…

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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