Tag Archives: New York Natural Heritage Program

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)

Magnificent Moths

Black-Waved Flannel Moth
The fuzzy, stout body is typical of moths. This black-waved flannel moth (Lagoa crispata) is uncommon in New York. Photo: M. Schlesinger, NYNHP

It’s National Moth Week! So let’s learn a little more about them.

Moth or butterfly?

Moths and butterflies are members of the order Lepidoptera (Greek for scale and wing). Most butterflies have club-shaped antennae – a thin stem with a ball at the end – whereas moths usually (but not always) have feathery antennae like the luna moth above. Moths often have fuzzy, short bodies compared to the more slender, smoother body of butterflies.

Luna Moth
The Luna moth (Actias luna) is one of our largest moths. Photo: K. Smith, NYNHP

Are all moths small and brown?

Many moths are small and brown, tan or white. But many are much fancier; in fact you may have mistaken some colorful ones for butterflies. Sometimes the colors are hidden while the moth is at rest, but revealed when in flight, like the tiger moth. The silk moths are spectacular in size and color – such as the Luna moth above.

How many different kinds of moths are in NY State?

There are over 1,000 moth species in the state. A single State Park can harbor dozens to hundreds of different species of moths. Larger parks and those with rare habitats are great examples of places that support a diversity of different species of moths. To date, scientists have identified about 90 species in Watkins Glen and Taughannock State Parks, over 300 species in Minnewaska State Park Preserve, and nearly 500 species of moths each at Hither Hills and Napeague State Parks!

Sphinx Moth
The sphinx moth – or hawk moth – can be mistaken for a hummingbird. Look for them hovering over flowers. There are many species in this group of moths. Photo by T. Weldy, NYNHP

Where and how do you find moths?

Most moths fly at night. The easiest place to see moths is at a porch light or around the lights of campground buildings. For better viewing hang a sheet or light colored cloth up with a light next to it. The moths will land on the sheet (see below) so you can get a close up look without even touching them. Other moths prefer daytime or can be seen resting during the day.

Tim McCabe
Moth expert Tim McCabe from the NY State Museum examines moths that were attracted to the light during a survey in Taconic State Park. Photo by George Heitzman

Why are those moths in boxes?

A lot of moths are difficult to identify. So scientists collect and preserve specimens in order to look at them closely to identify them. Collections are also important as a permanent record of what species were found at a site. Each specimen is labeled with location, date, and species name. Then the specimens are placed in ‘safe storage’ in a museum such as the New York State Museum or a university collection where they can be used for other research or study.

Are there rare moths in State Parks?

Yes!  For example, four rare moth species have been found in Minnewaska State Park Preserve and over 30 rare moth species have been documented in Napeague and Hither Hills State Parks on Long Island. Some have fun names like fawn brown dart (Euxoa pleuritica), pink star moth (Derrima stellate), chocolate renia (Renia nemorali) and black-bordered lemon moth (Marimatha nigrofimbria). Most areas of the state have not even been surveyed for moths, so there is much more to learn. Currently, over 100 species of moths have been identified as rare in the state. See the NYNHP Rare animal list  for the listing of New York’s rare moths.

Quiz: What moth does this caterpillar become?

Woolly bear
The woolly bear caterpillar is the young phase of what moth? Answer at bottom of page. Photo by M. Schlesinger, NYNHP

For More Information:

Fun for all ages Moth Week  

Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars by Amy Bartlett Wright, 1983 (includes moths and butterflies).

A field guide to the moths of eastern North America by C. V. Covell, 2005.

Peterson first guide to butterflies and moths: a simplified guide to the common butterflies and moths of North America. P.A. Opler, 1994.

Butterflies and Moths of North America

New York Natural Heritage Program, Animal Guides

Butterflies and Moths, BugGuide

State Parks Moth Week Events

Quiz answer: The woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) becomes the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). Moths are one of the few groups that have different names for different life stages of the same animal. This is one reason why scientific names are important; from the common names we might think this caterpillar and moth were not related.

Isabella Tiger Moth
Isabella tiger moth, Fyn Kynd, 2015, accessed from BugGuide, http://bugguide.net/node/view/1162577

Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

Fire Dependent Communities

Forest Fire Scorches 3,000 Acres in Ulster Park” was the headline of a story in the New York Times on April 21, 2008.  The park was Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Hudson Valley. From when it was first reported on April 17 to when it was finally out on April 29, the Outlook Fire burned roughly 2,800 acres in the park. People from 134 state and local agencies came together to control the largest fire to hit the region in 60 years. Recently, another large fire in Minnewaska, the fire at Sam’s Point that burned over 1500 acres in April and May 2016.

These fires were both wildfires, defined as uncontrolled fire in the forest or fields which spreads quickly and is difficult to control.  Historically, wildfires were ignited by lightning strikes. Wildfires are a natural component of many different ecosystems; they have helped to maintain healthy native flora, fauna and systems around the world for thousands of years.

Fires help ecosystems in many ways. They help plants by opening up the tree canopy to allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor to enable new seedlings to grow; adding nutrients to the soil and raises the soil pH, giving plants an extra boost of natural fertilizer; reducing the competition for water and soil nutrients by thinning out the underbrush; and decreasing some invasive species and forest pests and diseases. But other invasive species can proliferate after fire, so preventing their spread is an important management strategy.

Some of natural communities in the state — places like Minnewaska, the Shawangunk Ridge, Albany Pine Bush, Long Island Central Pine Barrens and many areas within State Parks are fire-adapted, meaning they can survive wild fires. If fact, the need occasional fires. The plants have special features to survive fires. Pitch pine are one of the best known fire-adapted trees, and they are common in Minnewaska.  If a pitch pine tree is damaged in a wild fire, the roots are not always killed and new growth will sprout from the base or the trunk of what appears to be a dead tree.  Chestnut oak is another tree that is able to withstand fires due to the thick bark. Other plants have seeds that lie safe below the surface, called a “seed bank”, waiting to grow when conditions are right like when there is space and more light following a fire. And perennials like the ferns and trillium and starflower lie dormant underground (like tulip bulbs in your garden), ready to burst upward every spring and summer.

And some plants are fire dependent, meaning that they need fire to thrive or greatly benefit from fire.  Pitch pine is a good example of this. Although some pitch pine cones will open on a hot summer day which drops the seeds to the ground, a fire also exposes the bare soil that helps their seeds to sprout.

Fires can help animals too, including insects, by creating new openings in the forest for the animals to thrive and by leaving snags (dead trees) which provide places for raccoons, squirrels, and woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds to nest in. Many animals avoid fire by burrowing deeper in to the ground, flying off, or skirting the edge of the fire. Very rarely will an animal be trapped by a fire.  Some species of beetles and birds hunt along the edge of the fire, looking for their prey as it escapes the fire.

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Life was blooming in Minnewaska just after the Outlook Fire.  In coordination with the New York Natural Heritage Program and State Parks. a team of scientists worked together to study effects of the fire on breeding birds, tree regeneration, and vegetation response. Within a couple of weeks, there were hints of green. Approximately a month after the fire had ended, there was abundant new life in the Pine Barrens, with ferns and Canada mayflower sprouting up, trillium and lady’s slipper flowering, and a wood thrush nest with eggs hidden amongst the charred leaf litter. Pitch pines, chestnut oaks, scrub oak, huckleberry, and other trees and shrubs showed new leaves, bright green against the blackened landscape. Not lost after all, but alive and well.

Susan Carver, State Parks and Julie Lundgren, NYNHP