Category: 2016

Struggles of the pondlife

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Utricularia, the bladderworts, are carnivorous plants which capture their prey through their bladder traps by sucking them in through a trap door, and seizing them in a pod to digest and consume their hapless victims. Some of these plants are aquatic, others are terrestrial, though all have traps that depend on being submerged in water to operate. Here, floating in the water of a sunny pond, is the Common Bladderwort (Utricularia macrorhiza). In this first photograph, we have a close look at the structure of this plant and its traps, bringing us into its aquatic world. For the second photograph, the traps of the Eastern Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea) are visible floating just beneath the water’s surface. It can be seen how the traps are arranged on branching filaments, emanating from radial whorls along the main stem-like stolon. The third photograph, is of a Green Frog (Rana clamitans) sitting in the suspended muck of a slurry of peat and water, at the edge of a floating Sphagnum bog along a tributary to the Peconic River.

Among the brush at the edge of another nearby pond, a Female American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), is caught by the Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon). A gruesome sight to witness, as the snake slowly drew the still living frog deeper into its mouth, the victim’s panicked cries of fear and desperation becoming fainter as it began to disappear, sliding further down into the serpent’s gullet until it was little more than a silent lump deep in the snake’s belly. This theatric drama of life and death, played itself out mere steps from a boat launch used for recreational fishing by people who wish to enjoy the peaceful tranquility of this pond. It is a harsh reminder of how the laws of nature transpire, whereas an insect will be eaten by the frog, the frog will be eaten by the snake, and the snake will be eaten by the heron. All creatures great and small, are a part of this continuous cycle of life and death. Nature in all its glory, though it may be beautiful, can also seem ruthless in its lack of compassion. It is not from any cruel intention of brutality, but is simply the unforgiving competition of survival of the fittest, to advance life to ever greater complexities, by adapting to overcome the most insurmountable challenges.

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Larvae of the Tiger Salamander

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Eastern Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) are among the many interesting creatures found in the Suffolk County Boglands of Long Island, and these are a coastal plain lineage, subspecies (Ambystoma tigrinum tigrinum). They are known as Mole Salamanders, which spend most of their adult lives underground in burrows, except for when they emerge on rainy nights in the late winter, around February or March, to breed and lay their eggs in small ponds. Each female lays an egg mass that can contain up to 100 eggs which hatch in about two to six weeks, from late March to April depending on the water temperatures. The larvae are aquatic and small, measuring around a half an inch at hatching. As they begin to feed, they grow larger, and go through a metamorphosis growing limbs and transforming to terrestrial adults in a few months, usually by July, when they crawl out from the ponds and disperse, to begin their dark, subterranean lives underground.

These specimens seen in the photographs are of the aquatic larval stage, who some people call “water dogs”. Swimming through the water, with large, broad heads, and feathery gills ravenously eating anything that they can fit into their mouths, sometimes even the smaller members of their own species. Small crustaceans, insect larvae, molluscs, leeches, frog tadpoles, and the larvae of other salamander species are some of the many other things that they will eat as well. Their juvenile existence in the pond also consists of avoiding being eaten by predators such as larger aquatic insects, frogs, snakes, and birds. It is a highly competitive struggle for survival that these creatures are destined for, with only a small percentage of them ever reaching adulthood. Their natural predators may present formidable dangers for the salamanders, but it is the human influences that are the greatest threat to their long-term survival. Long ago, it is thought that all vernal ponds with sandy soils on Long Island once had Tiger Salamanders breeding in them. But today it is estimated that only about 90 ponds with breeding populations are left, and of those only about 13% are considered to be of excellent viability. Increasing development and pollution of their habitats are eradicating these strange and rarely seen creatures, at a rate that could unfortunately see them disappear from our local natural wildlands forever.