Tag: botany

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.

Threadleaf Sundews on the Pondshore

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The serenity of a fresh water pond, on a late Spring day. For us humans, it may seem a tranquil moment of bliss, but for the inhabitants it is a constant struggle for survival. The ecosystem goes on as it has for millennia, a food chain of energy extending through all manner of pond denizens, great and small, which eke out their existence in this symphony of life. Creatures such as the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), American Bull Frog (Rana catesbeiana), Chain Pickerel (Esox niger), Freshwater Leech (Macrobdella decora), and various Dragonfly and Damselfly species (Odonata), are all residents of this pond. All with voracious appetites for their prey, where even the plants can be dangerous predators in this community. It is these carnivorous plants that are of special interest, especially the threadleaf sundew (Drosera filiformis). Of all the ponds on Long Island, this location contains one of the greatest populations of this unusual carnivorous plant.

In the first photograph, we see a prey capture of what looks to be a Pine Barrens Bluet (Enallagma recurvatum) by Drosera filiformis. Though it may struggle, there is little chance that it will ever escape its fate of being consumed by the plant. The second photograph is a cluster of plants, they appear to have divided upon themselves into this mass, creating a formidable wall of death for any insect that may chance upon it.  For the third photograph, we see a pleasant portrait of a pair of plants along the sunny pond shore where they live, and the fourth photograph shows Drosera filiformis in their sandy habitat with other interesting plants surrounding them, such as the spoonleaf sundew (Drosera intermedia) and the Meadow Beauty (Rhexia virginica). The final photograph is a view of this coastal plains pond habitat where these plants grow. Surrounded by upland pitch pine-oak forest with understory shrubs, the gently sloping shores of the pond have sandy, nutrient-poor soils, and contain a great diversity of plant life. Some of which have adapted to deviously lure, trap and consume their prey. Another one of the many predators in this complex cycle of life and death, that of which takes place among the serenity of this freshwater pond, on a late Spring day.

Flowers of the Bladderworts

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Bladderworts, these strange carnivorous plants produce beautiful little flowers and sprout out stem-like stolons with numerous tiny vacuum traps under water, or underground, to capture and consume their minute prey. Often their flowers are the best way to identify these curious plants, and there are 12 species that are found on Long Island. Of those 12 species, 10 have yellow flowers, and 2 have purple flowers.

The first photograph, is of the purple flowers of the Eastern Purple Bladderwort, Utricularia purpurea. This aquatic plant is found freely floating in the water of a number of ponds in the pine barrens of Long Island, with their masses of traps arranged as branching whorls along their long stolons. In the second and third photographs, we see the flower of the Lavender Bladderwort, Utricularia resupinata, and the fourth photo shows its ripening fruit. This plant grows affixed to the soil and sends its traps underground, with only its flower visible to the world above. Mostly growing in sandy or somewhat mucky substrates, it sometimes goes for long periods of time without flowering. On Long Island, the plant is only known from two coastal plains ponds, and it seems to flower most when the water levels become low, in shallow water or very wet soil. Though the flowers may be very small, they are magnificent in their delicate beauty.

For the fifth photograph, we have the yellow flowers of the Horned Bladderwort, Utricularia cornuta. Most of the locations where this plant grows on Long Island, tends to be ponds that are isolated and go through periods of drying out, or brimming full with rain water, depending on the year. Some years will find a pond dried of its surface water, but where the soil still remains saturated. When this occurs, the pond basin completely fills with an explosion of growth of Utricularia cornuta. Appearing as a pleasant summer meadow bathed in the sunlight, a low field of little yellow flowers, that gently trembles with the wind of a passing breeze.

Floating Bog of Pitcher Plants

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Sarracenia purpurea, the purple pitcher plant, grows naturally in the Suffolk County Boglands. Some of their habitats are along the tributaries to the Peconic River, others in sunny and wet meadows of Sphagnum moss among the watershed. This location is on a floating Sphagnum mat in the middle of a pond, surrounded by uplands woods, and this place is of special interest because of its history. During the 1990’s, the land was bought by a developer, and slated to be paved over for a parking lot for a new shopping center. The one thing that had prevented this development, was that the pond was found to support a breeding population of the Eastern Tiger Salamander, Ambystoma tigrinum. While the Salamander lives in other areas of the eastern US, and even a few small parts of Canada, Long Island is the creature’s northern-most range along the Atlantic coastal seaboard. In New York State, it is only found on Long Island, and its populations have been dwindling due to development, and contamination of its breeding ponds from pesticides and other pollutants. And so it is considered as an Endangered Species, and its breeding ponds are designated as Class 1 wetlands in the State of New York. Because the Tiger Salamanders were found at this location, the pond and a large tract of the surrounding woodlands were set aside for a nature preserve. Other rare and interesting flora and fauna of the coastal plains community type of habitat exist in this preserve as well, including the Sarracenia purpurea seen here in these photographs.
Sarracenia purpurea is found across the eastern seaboard of the US and across parts of Canada. It exists in many areas of upstate New York, but on Long Island it is steadily disappearing from many of its historically known locations. There are a number of populations that persist, but they are fewer in number, and in habitats that are under stress, and so it becoming more and more unusual to find these fantastic plants in their wild habitat on Long Island. Of the habitats that are left, this is one of the most beautiful sites, with some of the finest and healthiest specimens found in the remaining locations on the island. It is thanks to the Tiger Salamander being found at this site, that the location and surrounding habitat were preserved and protected. Otherwise these pitcher plants in the photographs would no longer exist, nor would the floating Sphagnum bog where they grow, and all the other interesting creatures that live here would be gone as well. The land would have been dug out, flattened, and paved over for a parking lot for shopping convenience. Here is a wonderful example of how protecting one species of life can help preserve the ecosystems and habitats where they exist, as well as all the other life which live within, and depend upon, these beautiful and fascinating places. Sometimes in what looks to be an empty lot of undeveloped land in the back of a shopping center, there can be a rich and biodiverse ecosystem, flourishing with strange creatures while thousands of everyday people come and go all around it, day after day, completely unaware.