Animal adventures

I am a plant biologist, but when I am out studying plants I am easily distracted by other organisms.  There is just so much cool stuff in nature, how can you not get distracted!  Here are some organisms from the Animal Kingdom that I have been lucky enough to see.  All of these were taken in New York, many right in our public parks.  If you have never seen these creatures in our City, you are in for a treat.  There is a lot of interesting biodiversity all around us, you just have to take the time to look.

When I was still a student,  I took a few ecology classes at Queens College with Prof. Jon "Doc" Sperling. They were among my favorite classes because he took us on many wonderful field trips.  In a Wetland Ecology course with him, one of the trips took us to the Long Island Science Museum ( We did an activity called seining.  We all held on to a long net, walked out into the water, swept it over an area and pulled it on shore to see what species we caught.  We examined the species and quickly returned them to the water. Some species we found just by walking along the shoreline.  Here are some highlights.

The Atlantic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus).  This large crab has blue pigment in its shell making it a particularly handsome crab, in my opinion.  It is an omnivore (it eats both plants and animals), feeding on all sorts of fish, bivalves, plants and even carrion (dead and decaying animal flesh).  It is also eaten by various species of fish, eel, shark and by humans (it is of significant commercial important to that last species).  The specific epithet "sapidus" means savory.

Atlantic blue crab Callinectes sapidus

I got a bit of a startle when I found this insect on my friend Ciro.  At first glance it looked like a scorpion.  It is a species from a group of arachnids (the class of animals to which spiders and scorpions belong), an order called pseudoscorpions.  This group is generally beneficial to humans as they prey on insects that we might consider pests.  They are usually very small, so I consider myself lucky to have seen this one.  


The American soft-shell clam (Mya arenaria) is a filter-feeder.  It lives just under the mud or wet sand and sends up its siphon to draw in water.  It filters food out of the water and then expels the water back into the environment around it.  When the tide is low, you can see the holes in the sand where they are located.  If you disturb the environment immediately around it, it sends up a spray of water, a behavior that gives rise to its other common name, "piss clam".  These clams are commonly eaten by humans and are also called "steamers".

American soft-shell clam Mya arenaria

The Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) is not a crab at all.  They belong to the same phylum as crabs, Arthropoda, the phylum that includes insects, arachnids and crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, shrimp, etc.). This group of animals all have exoskeletons, segmented bodies and jointed appendages.  But horseshoe crabs are more closely related to arachnids (spiders, ticks, mites and scorpions).

Horseshoe crabs come to shore in great numbers in the spring to mate and lay eggs.  It is an amazing event that can be seen right in our area at Jamaica Bay.  Aside from continuing the existence of horseshoe crabs, the eggs are an important source of food for migrating bird species.  The Audubon Society and the Littoral Society have walks each spring to see these organisms.  ( and

Horseshoe crab juvenile Limulus polyphemus

The fiddler crab (Uca sp.) is easily recognized by it's oversized chela (claw).  However, only the males have this characteristic.  They use this chela in a ritualized combat (no one actually gets hurt) to court a female. Fiddler crabs are detritovores (they eat decomposing plant and animal matter as well as fecal matter).

Fiddler crab Uca sp.

Not all the organisms we found are local residents.  This puffer fish must have gotten lost in a storm.


The spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) is a common salamander species in our area.  Not all parks have them, they need a specific habitat that is not found in all areas.  They breed in woodlands that have vernal pools (temporary pools that form usually in spring and dry up by summertime).  This one I found at the Cranberry Park Preserve out on Long Island.  Even though the adult does not live in water, it still prefers damp environments.  As you walk through the woodlands, occasionally turn over a log and you will find a whole host of organisms living under there in the damp soil.  If you are lucky, you might find one of these beauties.

Spotted salamander Ambystoma maculatum

But you don't have to go out to Long Island to see interesting organisms.  There are plenty of animals in the five boroughs.

Great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) nest fairly regularly in our parks.  This young one was born in Alley Pond Park in Queens in 2011.  There were siblings in that tree stump with him/her, but they were secretive and I only managed to get the one in the photo.  Other owl species migrate to our area in the winter from up north.  The harsher the winter, the more owl migrants we get due to limitations in their food supply.  They sleep during the day, so once you find where they are, you can generally look at your leisure.

Great horned owl Bubo virginianus

The Fowler's toad (Bufo fowleri) can also be found at Alley Pond Park.  This toad has a distinctive stripe along its back (not visible in this photo).  It uses camouflage to protect itself from predators (snakes, birds and small mammals).  

Fowler's toad Bubo fowleri

In the Bronx, you can head up to Orchard Beach, which is part of Pelham Park, to find a salt marsh with organism like the ones I found at the Long Island Science Museum.  A few others you can find include the following:

Ribbed mussels (Geukensia demissa) live in the intertidal zone, also called the littoral zone.  This is the area that is above water at low tide and below water at high tide.  Only well-adapted species can survive this daily fluctuation of being submerged in water part of the day, exposed to air part of the day.  When they are exposed to air, they have to protect themselves from drying out, from intense heat in the summer and from extreme cold in the winter.  Despite these difficulties, there are species of plants and animals that thrive in these locations.  Sometimes species have mutualistic relationships (they help each other).  This photo shows the ribbed mussels growing within a stand of Spartina alterniflora a perennial grass found in salt marshes. The mussels attach themselves to the basal (located at the base) parts of the stems of the Spartina.  The mussels help the grass by binding soil particles and preventing erosion of soil as well as increasing soil nitrogen, thus fertilizing the plants.

Ribbed mussels (Geukensia demissa) and Spartina alterniflora

Barnacles are another organism superbly adapted to the drastic environmental changes that are part of living in the intertidal zone of a salt marsh.  Barnacles are a sessile organism, that is, they live in a fixed location, they are immobile.  So it cannot swim to deeper water when the tide comes in.  When the organism is exposed to air, the operculum (lid) closes tightly to prevent desiccation and it patiently waits for the tide to come back in.  When the tide is in and the barnacles are covered with water, the operculum opens and it extends feathery appendages that filter food from the surrounding water.  There are many species of barnacles and I am not certain which this is, but I think it might be Semibalanus balanoides.

Barnacles Semibalanus balanoides 

Most people don't like insects.  They use words such as ugly, creepy, scary and all sorts of other negative terms when they talk about insects.  Insects are the largest group in the animal kingdom and they live in just about every environment on earth.  A few are pests to humans but many more are beneficial.  Some of our food crops are pollinated exclusively by insects.   Many of the bird species we love to see depend on insects for food. 

If you have ever seen what looks like heavy spider webbing on trees, you may have been looking at tent caterpillars.  Caterpillars are the larval (juvenile) stage of butterflies and moths.  In the case of the tent caterpillar, we are talking about moths.  The photo below shows the Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americana).  I found this in Alley Pond Park.  The female moth lays eggs generally on trees in the rose family, such as the Black cherry, a common tree in our parks.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae build the tent out of a silk they spin.  The tent is how they protect themselves.  When they are not out feeding, they are inside the tent protected from predators.  They feed on the leaves of the tree on which they have built their tent.  Many insects are specific about the species, genus or family of plant they can eat.  In this case, they prefer the rose family, but other species will do as well.  When they are out feeding and when they leave the tent to pupate (transform from larvae to adult), they are vulnerable to predators such as birds and turtles.  But this is part of the food web.  There are large numbers of these caterpillars, some become food for predators, others survive to become moths and continue the species.

Eastern tent caterpillar Malacosoma americana

Now, some of you might find the tent caterpillars ugly or creepy, but I can't imagine many of you would find this next insect anything but beautiful.

In Pelham Park, there is a wonderful meadow that I have visited on many occasions with my friend David Burg.  On one such occasion we were treated to a beautiful dragonfly that was kind enough to pose for me. The ruby meadowhawk, Sympetrum rubicundulum.  Dragonfly adults spend their time flying around looking for mates.  They are impressive aerial acrobats flying forward, backward, changing directions in mid-flight and hovering with ease.  They don't sting or bother humans in any way.  Their larvae are voracious predators feeding on large quantities of mosquito larvae.  If you didn't already love dragonflies for their beauty, love them for that.

Ruby meadowhawk Sympetrum rubicundulum