Tag Archives: SUNY-ESF

Counting the Bristlesides, Sedgesitters, Leafwalkers

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.

NHP@Bumblefly
This is actually a fly! The bare-cheeked bumblefly is a very rare Syrphid in NY that mimics bumblebees and lives in old forests.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

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.

NHP_EasternCalligrapher
The eastern calligrapher (Toxomerus geminatus) is a very common species in State Parks all over the state.  Photo by Lindsay Dombroskie, accessed from iNaturalist.

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.

NHP_Spider
Captured by a spider, a fate that befalls some flower-visiting flies.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

NHP@Goosepond
Look closely for the hover fly on a leaf at Goosepond Mountain State Park on September 28, 2017.  Photo courtesy of NYNHP.

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.

All photos by NYNHP for use by permission only

The Hudson River’s “Tough Turtles”

During the summer months along the Hudson River south of Troy, New York, it’s easy to notice the tides rising and falling, herons wading in the shallow streams, and the giant cargo ships purposefully streaming up and down the river. Difficult to spot, however, are the river’s many turtles. Several varieties call the Hudson home, but the northern (also called common) map turtle is perhaps the most interesting and understudied.

Princess
Northern map turtle “Princess” hanging out while her tracker tag dries before her release. Scientists use these tags to locate the turtles for months after capture.

Northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica) are large river turtles that get their name from the intricate circling pattern on their shells, which resemble the elevation lines on a map. These turtles are relatively secretive. In urban areas they have to work especially hard to find what they need to survive. For one thing, turtles need good basking objects—places where they can come out of the water safely and sun themselves to warm up. Fallen trees or rocks make the best basking habitat, specifically ones that are farther out into the water so they can easily escape from potential predators. Because of the tides, many potentially good basking objects aren’t reachable as they are either too high up the bank or underwater at any given time.

Luna
Scientists quietly observe northern map turtle “Luna” nesting from a safe distance. This nest received protection from predators and likely hatched successfully months later.

Another problem is finding places to lay their eggs. All turtles lay eggs and the northern map turtle is no exception. Most turtles prefer loose, sandy soil with plenty of sunlight for the eggs to develop successfully. Temperature determines the gender of the tiny map turtle babies—eggs toward the cooler, bottom of the nest often become males, while those eggs toward the warmer top (that therefore get more sun and heat) will become females. But in this highly urban area, good places to nest are few and far between. Natural areas, like those found in some of the State Parks along the river, help provide habitat for them. These spots seem perfect for northern map turtles, but they do tend to have a couple of drawbacks: 1) road and foot traffic and 2) predators smelling the eggs and destroying the nests soon after they’ve been laid. In addition, well-meaning people who are simply curious about these turtles (and with good reason!) approach nesting females that may “spook” and stop laying. People should give nesting turtles some space and observe quietly from a distance.

Nest
Probable northern map turtle nest destroyed by a predator. Shells that appear twisted indicate some animal has eaten them, whereas more intact shells mean the nest has likely hatched successfully.

 

Because good turtle habitat is hard to find in an urbanized section of the river, researchers Dr. James Gibbs and Master of Science candidate Julia Vanaman from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry are working to identify what habitats are most important to map turtles. Aquatic plants, basking objects, forest along the river banks, and shoreline development all likely play a role in where these turtles choose to spend their time. Once the researchers understand why a turtle likes an area, they can pass along that information to state and local park managers who can protect habitat and take measures to enhance it (e.g., by creating nesting habitat or increasing the number of available basking objects). With these habitat improvements, hopefully these fascinating turtles will stick around for many years to come.

Note: Northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica) occur across much of eastern North America from the Mississippi River, north to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, and east to small portions of the Susquehanna, Delaware and Hudson river systems. In New York State, the map turtle is considered vulnerable to decline and is recognized as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) in the state’s wildlife action plan. For more information, please check out the following links:

New York State Species of Greatest Conservation Need

Rare Animal Status List

Common Map Turtle Distribution Map

Turtles of New York State

NatureServe northern map turtle

NatureServe Map

Post and photos by Julia Vanaman, Master of Science candidate, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Featured image attribution: By Dger [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Hailing More Snails

When ten endangered Chittenango Ovate Amber snails (COAS), located in only one known location in the world: Chittenango Falls State Park, were brought into an SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) lab for captive breeding and did not reproduce over the summer of 2014, graduate student Cody Gilbertson and advisor Rebecca Rundell knew they had to adjust something. Eventually the ten COAS were released, but as luck would have it, during the trial, a stowaway baby COAS came in on vegetation that was offered to COAS adults.  The tiny snail on the plant was placed in an enclosure to monitor closely. This was the beginning of a rapid learning curve for Gilbertson on the food preferences of COAS. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (in charge of endangered species permitting) granted permission for them to keep the one snail over winter and raise it alone in the lab. From this blessing in disguise, Gilbertson was able to figure out the specific species of leaves this one snail she named “Hatch” preferred to eat – dead cherry leaves! Cherry leaves collected in the spring were consumed regularly and “Hatch” began to grow rapidly. Gilbertson knew it was risky keeping a small hatchling snail because in the past, 80% of hatchlings would die within the first two weeks of life in captivity. She thought it was unlikely “Hatch” would live, but this one snail persisted and survived in the lab showing her what it most preferred to eat, and she watched closely. It turns out this was a very practical way of finding out what COAS needs without harming individuals.

When Gilbertson brought two more COAS in from the wild during summer 2015, adults flourished on the improved diet and reproduction occurred resulting in over 600 baby COAS in just two months! The two snails mated with each other and about seven days after mating, egg masses were laid.  A total of about six egg masses were laid by each snail with about 33 eggs in each egg mass. About 270 of these snails were released back to their wild habitat to help expand the wild population of COAS. The other 300+ snails are still in our lab and are thriving. Over 130 snails have reached maturity (over 14mm in shell length) and over 30 egg masses from the captive born snails have been produced so far.

This research, supported by United States Fish and Wildlife Service, has pushed the recovery of COAS species forward with some very large steps:

1) Researchers have performed a first ever release of captive snails back to the wild

2) Scientists now have information about what COAS eat and what they may need to survive in the wild and in captivity

3) Over 300 snails remain in captivity for assisting in securing this species existence.

However, there is still much to learn about this unique and rare species in our upstate NY backyard. Scientists will need to monitor and care for both the wild and captive populations over time for us to tell if this work is successful long term. But they have certainly put their best foot forward!

Gilbertson with 'Hatch'
Gilbertson with “Hatch,” photo by Cody Gilbertson

Post and photos by Cody Gilbertson, graduate student SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

From glass eels to silver eels and everything in between The life stages of the American Eel

Imagine yourself hiking next to a babbling creek.  You come to a small waterfall surrounded by rocks.  The rocks glisten from the spray of the falls.  You walk closer and see dozens of small snake like creatures slithering over the wet rocks.  You watch them move from the top of the rock pile to the bottom.  Then they slide back into the creek.

You saw the American eel utilizing one of its unique adaptations.  Their bodies are coated in a mucus layer, providing protection and a way to absorb oxygen through their skin.  This mucus, in combination with their muscular bodies, allows them to move out of water and across land to avoid barriers.  This, and other adaptations, makes the American eel able to live in more diverse habitats compared to most other fish species.

American eels are fish, despite their snake like appearance, and the only species of eel that live in North America.  They are catadromous, migrating from the saltwater of the Sargasso Sea to the freshwater of streams and lakes.  The Sargasso Sea spans a part of the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and Puerto Rico.  Once they reach maturity, they journey back there to spawn.

The vastness of the Sargasso Sea makes it tough for researchers to locate and observe eels spawning in the wild.  At this point, observations of spawning eels remain to be made, although one silver eel was tracked to the Sargasso Sea. Researchers believe the eels die right after spawning.  Some mystery surrounds the final life stages of the American eel.

What happens as they grow?

Let us review the known information about the life stages of the eel.  The eel’s life begins in the Sargasso Sea.  First, they resemble a willow leaf.   These small, oblong, transparent fish, called leptocephali, lack the snake like form of adult eels.  They are about one inch long and rely on the ocean currents to bring them to the east coast.  This journey takes about one year.

Lept
The beginning life stage of the American Eel is called a leptocephalus and these leptocephali use the current to travel to the East Coast. Kils at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Now they resemble vermicelli or rice noodles.  At two inches long and still transparent, they are called glass eels.  They make their way into estuaries which connect saltwater to freshwater.  Many of them find themselves in water bodies of local New York State parks along the Hudson River.  Once in freshwater, they develop a brown coloration.  This signifies the shift to their next life stage as elvers.

Glass
The American eel in their glass eel life stage as they arrive to the coast. Chris Bowser

As the elvers grow longer over the next few years, they enter their yellow eel stage.  They live in this stage right before they reach full maturity.  Their size varies based on sex.  Males can grow to two feet long whereas females can reach sizes of four feet.  Their size in each life stage is based on their surrounding environment.  They become silver eels when they reach full maturity to start their migration.

This silver eel stage happens to be the most understudied of all the life stages.  There is no set age that eels are known to reach full maturity and age cannot be determined from external characteristics. Researchers look to study silver eels right before they begin their migration.

What kind of research?

Sarah’s motivation to study silver eels stemmed from her previous experiences working with them in their other life stages.  Her work with eels started with a summer project at Bard College, eight years ago.  After graduation she continued to work with glass eels, elvers, and yellow eels as a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern at the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve and Estuary Program.  Studying silver eels seemed like the next logical and exciting step for her. Sarah Mount at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry conducted research on yellow and silver eels.  Her research led to a model that sorts yellow and silver eels into different maturity classes.  The model relies on external characteristics such as the length, weight, eye diameter, pectoral fin length, head length, head width, and body depth of the eels to differentiate maturity classes. This means that future researchers can utilize this model to study the relative age of eels with a capture and release method that does not harm the fish.

With the guidance of Karin Limburg at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, she developed her research ideas into a master’s level study.  With the help of colleagues at the Hudson River Research Reserve, she spent two summers and two autumns collecting yellow and silver eels from the streams of the Hudson River estuary.

Interns
SCA interns at the Hudson River Research Reserve help Sarah set up a silver eel fyke net. Chris Bowser

Silver eels migrate at night during rain events in the autumn.  To catch them, Sarah set up a fyke net the day before a predicted rain storm.  This v-shaped net spanned the width of the stream and was removed the next morning.

The final life stages of the American eel still remain a mystery.  Sarah Mount’s research begins to solve it both for future research and for herself.  Her model will help future researchers understand when eels reach their full maturity to begin their migration.  When asked about her next steps she said, “Now the only missing piece left is the ocean, I’ve got to get out to the Sargasso Sea sometime.”

Post by Brianna Rosamilia,  Master of Science candidate in Environmental Interpretation at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

 

Tracking The Elusive New England Cottontail

New England Cottontail
New York’s rarest native rabbit, the New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

 

It is a typical morning at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center (TOEC) in Fahnestock State Park. The sunshine beams through the forest, a chorus of song birds are greeting the day, and 60 elementary school students are making their way to breakfast to fuel up for an active day of learning in the outdoors. Meanwhile, a familiar truck and crew rolls in to begin their workday visiting several small animal traps set in specific locations in hopes that at least one will contain a rabbit, particularly a New England Cottontail.

The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) is collaborating with State Parks, and the Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct important research about the population decline of native New England Cottontail. Over the past decade, studies have indicated that their numbers have decreased about 50%. The two major factors contributing to the population decrease are loss of suitable habitat, and the expanding range of the Eastern Cottontail. The only native rabbit species east of the Hudson River is the New England Cottontail; however the range of the Eastern Cottontail has been expanding and now overlaps this territory which causes competition for resources. Predation is also playing a role in the decreasing population; part of this research project is keeping an eye on who’s eating New England Cottontails by using trail cameras. These cameras placed in baited locations and use a motion sensor to take pictures when an animal walks by. Different predators are “captured” in a photo as they come to investigate the bait, which shows the species that a present in the rabbit survey area.

Back at the TOEC, the students are gathering to meet with their instructors for their morning lesson, the phone suddenly rings. “We have a rabbit” says the voice on the other end. Flexibility is part of the job description of an outdoor educator, and no one passes up an opportunity to enjoy a teachable moment, especially when it involves a live animal. All plans are dropped for the moment and after a short walk the students quietly approach the researchers who are preparing to identify, collect data, and radio tag the small mammal.

Juvenile
Measuring a juvenile New England Cottontail, photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Many of students who visit the TOEC are from the New York City area and rarely get to experience being this close to a truly wild animal, and they have a lot of questions such as: “Why is it in a pillowcase?”, “How long are its feet?”, “Is that a baby?” and “What’s That!?”. Their sense of wonder is contagious and the SUNY ESF researchers return the enthusiasm by answering the barrage of questions being hurled at them, while also safely collecting data on their captive rabbit. Measurements are taken, and the data is recorded onto forms and will go into a large database to allow for comparison across the entire northeast. The final step is to attach a small antenna to the rabbit’s back so that the researchers will be able to locate the individual rabbit again through radio telemetry. Now comes the exciting part! The rabbit is released, and in a flash it darts away, immediately out-of-sight, camouflaged amongst the underbrush.

Camouflage
A well camouflaged New England Cottontail. Can you see the antennae? photo by Amanda Cheeseman

Upon reflection, many students will say seeing the rabbit was their favorite part of the week, and they walk away with the feeling of being included in something important. Nothing teaches better than experience; giving students the chance to interact with a living, breathing part of the ecosystem around them. It sure makes for a pretty great day.

Post by Dana Mark, environmental educator at TOEC