Few creatures are as iconic in the public imagination as the spider. From the ancient Greek myth of Arachne, the Akan folktale character Anansi, or the titular hero of Charlotte’s Web, these stealthy, silk-spinning predators have a long history of popping up in our shared myths and stories.
However, despite their cultural prominence, these awesome hunters are often unfairly feared and misunderstood. Spiders play an important role in balancing our ecosystems, such as by consuming pests that may destroy crops or carry disease. Fortunately, there’s no better way to learn about our fascinating eight-legged friends than by getting out to our state park system and seeing them first hand!
Spiders belong to the class Arachnida, which encompasses other joint-legged invertebrates such as scorpions, ticks, mites and harvestmen – some 100,000 species all in all!
In New York’s seasonal northern climate, spiders typically live about a year. They typically survive the winter as eggs and develop into adulthood during the summer. All spiders produce silk – thin, strong protein strands produced in the abdomen. Although best-known as the raw material for spider webs, not all spiders use their silk to catch prey – they may also use it to cover egg sacs, create waterproof retreats or to produce draglines to help them travel long distances on the breeze.
There are about 40,000 identified spider species worldwide. Here, we’re going to focus on just a handful of the more common species you might find in New York state – and imagine what they might say if they could speak for themselves.
As a Marbled Orbweaver, I tend to get around. We’re found all over the continent grasses – basically anywhere in the woods or near streams or other running water. So when people ask me where I’m from, I tend to be at a loss – North America, I guess? When I look in the mirror I don’t see just another Araneus – I see me.” – Jose, Marbled Orbweaver, Brooklyn.
“I wake up early every day to at what’s left of yesterday’s web and build a brand new one in its place. Some people call me a perfectionist – I think I just see the value of a job well-done, even if you don’t always get noticed for it. Personally, I think it’s more satisfying to find meaning in the work you do – which you can control – rather than on being recognized, which you can’t.” Mike, Shamrock Spider, Utica.
“It can be lonely being a Garden Spider sometimes. I’m diurnal, so I like to be out during the day, unlike my nocturnal orb weaving cousins. But I just try to keep my head down, refreshing that web glue every day and eating my lunch out in the sunshine.” – Shereen, Black and Yellow Garden Spider, Niagara Falls.
Learn more about New York Spiders:
Borror, Donald J. and Richard E. White, A Field Guide to Insects: America North of Mexico; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998
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.
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.
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.
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.
NYNHP Zoologists Ashley Ballou and Andrea Chaloux filling bowls with soapy water for trapping pollinators at Moreau lake State Park on July 10, 2017. Photo courtesy of NYNHP.
Pollinator netting in Wetland Habitat Robert V Riddell State Park on August 16, 2017. Photo courtesy of NYNHP.
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.
SUNY Cobleskill student intern Liam Somers identifying hover flies in the lab. Photo courtesy of NYNHP.
A box of pinned and labeled hover flies. Experts will identify these individuals to species. The specimens become a permanent record that can be used for future research. Photo courtesy of NYNHP.
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.
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.
A flick of a tail or a blur dash across a rock – was that a lizard? Are there lizards in New York?
Yes, New York is home to three native lizard species. Lizards are cold-blooded reptiles that spend most of their time on rocks, sunning themselves on flat open spots or hiding in crevices. They also crawl up on logs, stumps and sometimes even up the trunk of the tree. However, male lizards are known for defending their territory from other male lizards by doing push-ups followed by head bobs. If this does not work, the defending male lizard may attack and bite the intruding lizard.
Lizards are all very well camouflaged, but if you are really lucky you might spot one of these reptiles on one if you hike in the southern Hudson Valley or in Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve.
Two of the three New York lizard species are considered rare in the state. Conservation measures are particularly important to maintain the populations of these vulnerable critters. State Parks works to protect habitat and educate park visitors about these seldom seen animals.
Two of these lizard types are called skinks. Skinks are a type of lizard with no visible neck, a long tail, and short legs. (Some skinks in other parts of the world have no legs at all!) Skinks have smooth scales, compared to other lizards which have keeled scales (scales that have a ridge down the middle). Smooth scales give the skink a shining gloss-like appearance whereas lizards with keeled scales have a dull matte-like appearance. (See below)
If a skink loses part of its tail to a predator or they release their tail to escape a predator, it will regrow (regenerate) a new tail. The new tail will not have the same shape as the old tail. Female skinks stay with their eggs after they lay them to guard the eggs until they are hatched.
The most common lizard in New York is the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus). Juvenile five-lined skinks are quite striking with their uniform black body, yellow stripes, and bright blue tails. As these animals approach adult state, the blue color on their tails fades to gray. Adult females five-lined skinks have faded stripes on their heads, but their body stripes remain strong. Look for these lizards on the ground on rocky summits and sloping hillsides with mixed deciduous trees. They mostly scurry along the ground, only occasionally climbing shrubs and trees. On sunny days, you might see one soaking up the sun on a rock or log.
Adult five-lined skink, photo by State Parks
Adult five-lined skink at the Trailside Museums and Zoo, photo by State Parks.
Five-lined skinks are between five and eight inches long, including their tails. They primarily eat insects and other invertebrates. Larger skinks also eat small shrews and other lizards. Skinks avoid being eaten by darting as fast as they can from an open area to a hiding spot. Look for these lizards from April through October in the some of the Hudson Valley State Parks such as Bear Mountain State Park and Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve.
One of our rare lizards is the coal skink (Plestiodon anthracinus) is found in central and western New York. Coal skinks are identified by the two wide black stripes, bordered by yellow stripes, that run along the length of the body on to the tail. Like the five-lined skinks, juvenile coal skinks have blue tails. Some people believe that the blue tail on a juvenile skink is very distasteful and acts as a warning to would-be predators. The main defense of most coal skinks is running quickly away from a threat or predator.
Coal skinks live in forested places, usually near a swamp or other wetland. You might see one on a rocky hillside near a wetland. Unlike five-lined skinks, they do not bask in the sun; they are commonly found under the leaf litter, or under loose flat rocks or moss. Their coloration helps them hid on the forest floor. If they get frightened, they run to water.
Coal skins are the smallest of our native lizards, measuring about seven inches long from nose to tail. Their diet consists of insects, including crickets, millipedes, and spiders.
Lastly, the northern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatushyacinthinus) is a state threatened lizard that lives in the southeastern park of the state. Their common name comes from their habit of basking in the sun on fence railings.
Male northern fence lizards have unpatterned grayish-brown back, bluish sides that are boarded by black and blue throats. Females, on the other hand, have a distinct pattern on their back of irregular wavy cross bands; their bellies are white and there is a patch of either red, yellow, or orange at the base of their tails. Fence lizards measure up to seven and a half inches long.
They prefer to live on dry, rocky hillsides in oak or oak-pine forests where they eat insects and spiders. They can be active both day and night, depending on the temperature.
If you are lucky, you might come upon a male fence lizard during mating season. If you do, stop to watch him defend his territory by standing stiff-legged and pushing out his head to show his blue throat.
Remember that these are wild lizards and should never be taken home as pets. Collection has caused the populations of our native lizards to decline in some areas.
Learn more about our New York lizards:
Fence lizards occur in a few locations in eastern NY, including in some of our state parks.