3 old growth forests in 3 days (Ithaca, NY)

Although I typically write about monarchs and milkweed, really I am a field biologist aspiring to study and understand the natural world, mostly in terms of the origin and maintenance of biodiversity. A life-long goal is to learn about the natural history of species, habitats, and interactions as a means to develop a view of life. It’s the interplay of our amazing diversity, history, and sometime absurdity, that make me think. A few months ago I wrote about North America’s only carnivorous butterfly, which revealed itself in my backyard. I have long-been fascinated by our extinct mega-fauna, which disappeared only 12,000 years ago, a the end of the last ice age.  Such giant and likely dominant creatures that aren’t part of our current existence, yet whose influences on the organisms we so love echoes through their evolutionary past.

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This past fall, I had the pleasure of teaching Field Ecology. Although most Cornell classes were on-line, Field Ecology isn’t the sort of class that is easily adaptable for an on-line experience. It isn’t a “show and tell” class, but rather an “observe and tinker” class. And we all were just waiting for the hatchet to drop… will we make it 2 weeks, or possibly 5, before it’s all over? We just braced ourselves and went for it. In the end, Cornell’s surveillance testing and tracing was a wonderful success, squishing tiny blips of covid that popped up, essentially eliminating it from campus.

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The classic membracid – goldenrod lab, introduced by Dick Root in the 1980s

Last semester I spent most of my days at home with the family, feeling a little (read: a lot) cooped-up. It’s hard to complain, but still, escaping home has been an essential part of covid life and well-being for me. And teaching Field Ecology certainly helped! I typically previewed each week’s exercise on Tuesday, to make sure it would run smoothly, and then took the students out on Friday afternoons. I always take students to an old-growth forest, in part to allow them to experience all that it is: messy, bumpy, and typically isolated among our fragmented and developed landscape. And this year, as a preview to the exercise, I visited three old-growth patches in the Ithaca area on three successive days. Just to experience the similarities and differences.

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Following in the footsteps of Cornell’s retired Forest Ecologist, Peter Marks, I distinguish between secondary, primary, and old-growth forests. Secondary forests are those that develop naturally in the decades after agricultural abandonment (via a predictable sequence we call succession). Although central New York was 97% forested historically, with European settlement came clearing of the land. The peak of land clearing was 1890 (at about 80% cut and open), and since then, our open lands, especially on our poorly draining clay soil, has been abandoned from agriculture, allowing for forest regeneration over past 80-100 years. Primary forests are those which have been heavily impacted by human activity, typically logging, but whose soils have not be ploughed. Here the soil history and seedbank remain intact, and forests naturally regenerate, often from the stumps of cut trees. Our local forests have many double-stemmed trees, for example oaks, with very large diameter bases. These are often regenerated from being cut, stimulating the tree to produce a few regenerating stems, often with two that thrive. A great book on reading the forested landscape is by Tom Wessels.

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The first old growth forest I visited (not obviously impacted by logging) was in the Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area, some 20 miles outside of Ithaca. This is also where I ended up taking my class a few days later. I will be returning here in the new few days to look for porcupines, but that is another story. Here are some things we found last fall.

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The false puffball, a slime mold (which is an amoeboid protist, not a fungus!) that has the typical two life-stages: single-celled feeders that eat microbes, and these goopy mats that reproduce. This second life-stage forms when single celled amoeboids find each other in the forest and agree to meet and conglomerate. Wonderful biology that is poorly understood.
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An old growth eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) that I have been visiting for 15 years died this year. But, what a way to go!  Lighting struck the tree, which causes the water in the pipes to burst from the expanding steam. Note the spiral pattern of growth typical of trees, but often not visible
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Red maple, Acer rubrum, the most common tree in NY State
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A towering white ash (Fraxinus americana), perhaps not long for our forests due to invasive insects and fungi
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Gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar) are invasive, they were introduced to North America in the late 1800s and have become a severe pest of deciduous trees. Females are flightless. This mass of eggs was laid late in summer, and would typically overwinter and stay dormant for 8 months or so. If they survived, hatching caterpillars would climb up the tree trunks to eat leaves or balloon on silks in the wind to find new tree hosts. But these gypsy moth eggs are toast, having been infested by a parasitic wasp, probably Ooencyrtus kuvanae. How do these tiny wasps find the eggs masses?
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An American basswood (Tilia americana) sapling infested with a leaf mining insect. Leaf mining is a “habit” that has evolved independently in several groups (flies, caterpillars, hymenopterans, and beetles)… they are sandwiched between the leaf layers, which both offers some protection from predators, but also traps the insect, preventing escape

Day 2: Next up, the Fischer Old Growth tract, a Cornell Natural Area, with a storied history of ownership by a logging company, the offer of sale to Cornell, and an agreement finally reached under duress. Expansion from a gift has buffered and further protected this jewel.

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An old tip-up, the process by which a tree dies and creates a mound, with a neighboring pit: micro-topography on the forest floor that undulates and matures over centuries
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The shagbark hickory, Carya ovata, which produces a sweet edible nut

Fall flowering forest herbs… Although summer in Ithaca can be dominated by goldenrods (tens of species in the genus Solidago), the fewer forest-adapted goldenrod species include this blue stemmed goldenrod (named for the waxy bloom on its stem), S. caesia. Below it, Ageratina altissima (white snakeroot), known for causing “milk sickness” due to the high levels of toxic tremetone in the leaves.  It is closely related to boneset, a common wetland plant, also with highly active chemistry.

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Dead eastern hemlock.  This old growth forest has much hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), some of which has been treated to protect against the invasive hemlock wooly adelgid.

My last trip was to Cornell’s Slaterville 600, which like many natural areas in the Ithaca area is a conglomeration of state land, private protected land (Finger Lakes Land Trust), and Cornell land.

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20Striped maple (also known as Moosewood, yes, the namesake for the restaurant and cookbook, Acer pennsylvanicum) occurs at the site. Stiped maple starts life male (produces pollen only) and later matures to be female. This leaf has been infected by some insect or microbe… but, instead of seeing the feeding, we see the “green islands” left behind as the tree resorbs its chlorophyll in autumn.  There has been some debate among botanists over the significance of these green islands
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Another lightning strike, this one on one of the giant old-growth black cherries (Prunus serotina). The Slaterville 600 has the biggest cherries I have seen in the Ithaca area
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Some abundant American beeches (Fagus grandifolia) seem to be escaping the invasive pest causing beech bark disease. So many invasive species in our forest!  Its a good thing we have a high diversity of trees which will buffer against collapse (typically >20 species per acre in the Ithaca area)
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Hemlock also abounds in the Slaterville 600
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The legacy of extensive sap sucker feeding on this decaying log (wood pecker holes were made on the living tree)… when alive, the holes fill with sap, and the birds lick it and take the dead bugs too

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The fruiting body of a  bracket fungus or “polypore” probably in the genus Ganoderma. These fungi eat dead wood… although we see the fruiting body, the bulk of the fungus is a webby network of hyphae that feed inside the log. Note the layers on the fungus, one per growth season.
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The Wild Grape Vine (Vitis riparia) the closest that eastern north America has to tropical lianas

Happy New Year folks, thanks for reading, and keep hunting for those breathes of fresh air. -Anurag

6 Replies to “3 old growth forests in 3 days (Ithaca, NY)”

  1. Pingback: Pick & Mix 56 – gardens, forests, bogons, rewilding, ovicidal plants, David Attenborough, bucatini and faeces using bees | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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