Archive for the ‘Master Naturalist Training’ category

Ants in the Hood

December 13, 2012
Amy Savage (left) shows me where to look for ants.

Amy Savage (left) shows me where to wield the electric ant aspirator.

Gathering ants in the city is a curious way to pass a few hours. I can’t say I’d ever given a thought to ant gathering.  But on a mild mid-October day, I joined biologists Holly Menninger and Amy Savage, in a green island in the middle of Broadway to look for, and collect, ants.


Amy Savage seeks ants in a Broadway median near 106th St.

I tend to look up and out when I walk, alert to the presence of urban birds and mammals like squirrels or raccoons. I scan trees, the sky, water towers, building ledges, the Riverside Park retaining wall. Seeking ants turned my gaze downward to the earth, and focused it narrowly on small patches of ground. My abilities as an ant collector are, to put it gently, undeveloped, but my few hours spent looking for ants has yielded an expanded appreciation for how much life is unfolding in small patches of ground beneath my feet. In a sense, my neighborhood has expanded.

Worlds within worlds: ant collectors in NYC, look for creatures below our feet.

Worlds within worlds: ant collectors in NYC, look for creatures below our feet.

But back to ant collecting.

Holly Menninger

Holly Menninger

Holly Menninger is an entomologist and Director of Public Science at Your Wild Life, a team of scientists interested in “exploring the ecological frontiers that exist right under our noses, from the surface of our skin to our backyards and neighborhoods.” Based at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, Your Wild Life conducts a variety of research projects.

I first saw Holly at the Arnot Forest in Ithaca, NY a little over a year ago. I was attending NY State Master Naturalist training, and she was one of our lecturers. She gave a lively lecture on invasive species with a particular focus on an invasive marine plant that, transported unknowingly by boat owners, was threatening the waterways. More recently, we met through the internet after Holly had moved to North Carolina when, in preparation for up-coming field trips to New York City, she started following NYC nature blogs, including Out Walking the Dog.

Amy Savage

Amy Savage

Amy Savage is an ecologist who studies ants and their beneficial relationships with other insects and plants. Her research on ant mutualisms has taken her to Samoa, New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, Panama, Washington State as well as New York City.

I was thrilled when I learned that Holly and Amy would be gathering ants in NYC, and not just anywhere in NYC, but in my neighborhood within steps of my front door. Needless to say, I joined them.

Here are a few things I learned about ant collecting that you may not know.

1. On a warm, pleasant day in mid-October, collecting ants is quite an enjoyable activity.

Amy and Holly among the trees in the median on Broadway between104th and 105th Streets.

Amy and Holly among the trees in the median on Broadway between104th and 105th Streets.

2. Ants are partial to Pecan Sandy cookies, which are considered the gold standard for ant bait.

Pecan Sandy crumbs await devouring ants.

Pecan Sandy crumbs await devouring ants.

Apparently, Pecan Sandies have just the amounts of sugar, salt and fat that ants love. Still the cookies Amy and Holly had laid out in the medians did not seem to be attracting ants on this day.

3. Real scientists, like Holly and Amy, suck ants. Let me explain. They use a tool called an aspirator which works through suction.

Amy uses the aspirator. (Click image to go to Your Wild Life blog.)

Amy uses the aspirator. (Click image to go to Your Wild Life blog.)

You breath in through a rubber hose, drawing ants up through a nozzle at the other end into the clear collecting jar at the center of the contraption. You are protected from the bits of soil, and other debris that come with the little guys by rubber gaskets that seal off the plastic chamber. Even so, Amy wasn’t too happy on an earlier trip to Broadway medians when she learned that pesticide, said to be rat poison, had been sprayed on plants in the median. (She was even less happy when a rat fell to her feet from a tree while she was collecting.)

4. Faux scientists, scientists-for-a-day, like me, are guided away from the breath-activated aspirator to an electric aspirator. This operates by means of a simple switch rather than human breath.  Yet even this very simple machine takes a little time to figure out how to use effectively. I’d spot an ant or two, aim my aspirator and then jab my thumb around in a futile attempt to find the on-button without losing sight of the tiny, well-camouflaged ants. In these early stages of my ant-collecting apprenticeship, quite a few ants escaped my scientific grasp, disappearing into grass or soil before I could get my machine working.

Ants in the collection jar, all labeled and ready to go.

Ants in the collection jar, all labeled and ready to go.

Sometimes the way to get the ants is a gentle and judicious use of tweezers.

Tweezing ants.

Tweezing ants.

We spotted other small creatures, as we searched. Snails, for example, and lots of roly polies, or pill bugs. Roly polies belong to the family of wood louse known as armadillididae, which roll up into tight little balls when threatened. This marvelous rolling-up behavior is given the equally marvelous name of “conglobation.”

Roly polies and snails.

Roly polies and a pretty snail.

Here is another collection of animals, found on the underside of a rock, that include roly polies and other creatures I do not know.

Roly polies and other small animals.

Roly polies and other small animals.

A bright orange spider.

Orange spider in its web.

Orange spider in its web.

A millipede.



And aphids.



We shared the median with members of our own species as well.

The median is a multiple-use miniature park, and its users come from many species.

The median is a multiple-use miniature park, and its users come from many species.


Amy on the hunt.

Amy and Holly were indefatigable.

Holly at work.

Holly at work.

But after a couple of hours, I said good-bye to return to my work.

Later in the day, Holly and Amy apparently hit the ant bonanza in Riverside Park, where ants were plentiful. The next day, they were joined in Morningside Park by Georgia, who writes NYC’s Local Ecologist blog.

Now they’re back in North Carolina, where the ants will be categorized and their DNA will be analyzed.

In a future post, I’ll tell you why these scientists are studying NYC ants, what they’re hoping to learn, and how you can contribute to their research as a citizen scientist.

Meanwhile, visit School of Ants for more on ants and citizen science.

One Million Bats Dead … and counting

October 26, 2011

Scientists have just officially confirmed that White-nose Syndrome, a swiftly-spreading disease responsible for the deaths of over a million bats, is caused by a previously unknown cold-loving fungus called Geomyces destructans.  The just-released study in Nature maintains that “the disease has the potential to decimate North American bat populations and cause species extinctions.”  It urges that “future research … focus on mitigating the effects of WNS before hibernating bat populations suffer losses beyond the point of recovery…”.

In popular culture, October is the month for bats.

In fact, by Halloween, it’s cold for the bats of the Northeast , and they are disappearing from the forests, fields and city streets.  Yes, city streets. New York City is home to bats.  Last summer, Richard Simon of NYC’s Urban Park Rangers told Amy Zimmer of that Central Park is probably home to hundreds of bats, although they go mostly undetected due to their nocturnal habits, speed and tiny size.

Like this federally endangered Indiana bat, many bats are a mere two inches in length.

Three of New York State’s nine bat species are migratory, heading south with the birds for the cold winter months. The other six species spend the winter in hibernation, often congregating en masse in the region’s caves, where they will stay until spring brings the return of flying insects, their only prey.

Hibernating bats. credit USFWS/Ann Froschauer

Sadly, the last few years have seen an astonishingly rapid mass die-off of hibernating bats, due to a virulent emerging disease known as White-nose Syndrome. Our bats really are disappearing.  First discovered in bats hibernating in a cave near Albany, NY in 2006, WNS has now been reported in 19 states and four Canadian provinces.

Map of white-nose syndrome by county/district as of 10/03/2011. Courtesy of Cal Butchkoski, PA Game Commission.

WNS is caused by Geomyces destructans, a fungus that thrives in the cold soil of caves.  During hibernation, when the bats’ immune systems are virtually suspended and their body temperatures drop to within a degree of the surrounding air, the white fungus lodges on their muzzles and attacks the sensitive membranes of the wings. The origins of the recently discovered fungus are unclear. While it has been found in European caves, it does not appear to be causing fatalities in European bats.

Little Brown Bat with White-Nose Syndrome; photo: Marvin Moriarty/USFWS

Under normal circumstances, bats rouse themselves several times during their winter hibernation to warm their bodies, groom, urinate and, possibly, reactivate their immune systems.  WNS appears to irritate the bats so that they rouse more frequently, depleting their fat reserves and sometimes even flying out of the hibernaculum in search of food. They may freeze to death or starve, since there is no food for them in winter and they cannot survive the cold unless in a state of torpor. Even those that survive the winter may have suffered damage to the wings that impairs their hunting ability, leading to further deaths in the spring.

Aside from their incalculable intrinsic worth, bats are an essential part of the ecosystem, not least because of their phenomenal insect-eating abilities. All of New York’s bats are insectivores, eating 20-50% of their body weight in insects each night.  According to Bat Conservation International, one million bats – the number that have been killed so far by White-nose Syndrome – eat  “just under 700 tons” of insects each year, including vast numbers of mosquitoes and agricultural pests. If we lose our bats, our world will suffer.

Today’s report has also confirmed that the disease can be transmitted from one bat to another.  Bats gather together in huge numbers to hibernate, then carry the disease with them when they disperse in the spring.  The fungus survives in the soil of the cave, waiting to infect surviving bats when they return in the fall. It also may be tracked out of caves by spelunkers and sightseers. For this reason, many caves have been closed to visitors.

With their extremely low reproductive rates, bats cannot easily recover from any drop in population, let alone one as catastrophic as is currently underway. Many bat species produce only one pup each year; under normal circumstances, a bat may live 20 years or more (one bat is known to have lived 34 years).  White-nose Syndrome poses the very real risk of extinction for some of North America’s bats.

To find out more about bats and WNS, visit any of the sites below:

National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Wildife Library: Bats

Nature: Culprit Behind Bat Scourge Confirmed

U.S. Fish & WIldlife Service: White-Nose Syndrome – Something Is Killing Our Bats

USGS: White-Nose Syndrome Threatens the Survival of Hibernating Bats in North America

With thanks to Kristi Sullivan of Cornell University Extension’s Master Naturalist Program for her presentation at the Arnot Forest last month.

New York Master Naturalist Training: Arrival

September 29, 2011

This post is the first in a series about the classes and field walks I participated in as a student of New York’s Master Naturalist Training, September 23-25, 2011. Future posts will cover specifics of our classes on NY State’s flora and fauna.

The New York Master Naturalist Program is a high-quality, science-based training program designed to teach adults about New York’s natural resources, empowering them to educate others and participate in on-the-ground conservation management projects.

I don’t know how I first heard about state-run Master Naturalist programs.  It was around a year ago, and the source may have been the nature blog of Philadelphia naturalist Donna Long.  I liked the idea, so I did some serious Google sleuthing (the program’s web presence still leaves something to be desired), and determined that New York does indeed have a Master Naturalist Program.  Unlike some states (Texas, for example) with long-established programs and multiple chapters, New York is new at the Master Naturalist game. Run by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, the program has been in existence only three years and is still making changes, based on feedback from participants.

The heart of the program is an intensive weekend of classroom and field training at Cornell’s beautiful 4,000-acre Arnot Teaching and Research Forest.

Heading out for some field study

The weekend provides 16 credit hours, after which participants receive a certificate, making them “Certified Naturalists.”

Yup, that's me.

To become a Master Naturalist, students must continue their training over the coming year with an additional 14 hours of approved coursework and 30 hours of volunteer work.

It all sounded good to me.  And besides, what Manhattanite couldn’t use an autumn weekend in the woods?

So it was that last Friday morning, I hitched a ride to the Arnot Forest with fellow student Kimberly Eierman, a Bronxville-based landscape designer and state-certified Master Gardener with a passion for native plants.  We headed north in sometimes heavy rain for a 4 1/2-hour drive, passing through some sadly flood-damaged communities on our way.

The largest pumpkin known to man appeared and disappeared in the fog.

Giant pumpkin on the lam

After arriving at the forest in the late afternoon, I snagged a bunk in a cabin and unrolled my sleeping bag.


Then students gathered in the Main Lodge for the official welcome and introduction by Kristi Sullivan, Director of the Master Naturalist Program and a biologist with Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources.  The lodge would serve as our indoor classroom, dining hall and social area.

Feed body and mind in the lodge

I was impressed with the turn-out. There were 26 of us from around the state: men and women, young and old, with a wide variety of backgrounds and knowledge of natural history.  There were trained foresters, elementary school teachers, nature center staff members, landscapers, backyard gardeners, a wildife rehabber with a particular interest in turtles, a recent college grad with an impressive knowledge of mushrooms as well as a couple of recent retirees and a few people considering a career change.

Kristi distributed fat binders full of information

Just a small sampling of study info & hand-outs

and a schedule of classes, some with an outdoor field study component:

Bats and Bat Conservation
Forest Ecology
Threats to Forest Ecosystems
Amphibians and Reptiles
Wetland Ecology
Wetland Restoration
Deer and Biodiversity
Mushrooms and Fungi
Invasive Species
Insect Biology

Check back soon for more on our classes in New York natural history.  First up: bats and white-nose syndrome.

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