Independence Day is a great time to look back in history and celebrate what we’ve become. And we would not be where we are today without the influence of the animals, plants, and landscapes that share our home with us. Here are a few species that are so important that they were dubbed symbols of New York State, and a little bit about why they are so important.
1) New York State Mammal: Beaver.
The spirit of the beaver is a fitting symbol for the Empire State, where amazing natural and man-made creations can be found. Beavers are incredibly industrious animals that can completely change a landscape in a short amount of time. The engineers of the animal kingdom, beavers create elaborate dams with multiple entrances. These wetland rodents can be found industriously felling trees, turning rivers into lakes and changing habitats. Beavers eat woody debris such as bark, leaves and stems from plants like aspen, red maple, willow, and the aquatic water lily. The beaver’s dark, flat tail is a giveaway to their identification. The tail aids in swimming, acting as a rudder. Beavers also slap their tails as a warning communication.
Beaver were a main source of trading for the Lenape, the Native Americans inhabiting what is now Manhattan Island, and their pelts were used by the settlers as the newest clothing fad. By 1640, the beaver population in New York State was extirpated except for a few isolated areas in the Adirondacks. Beaver populations hav rebounded due to state efforts and beaver are a common sight in some areas. After over 200 years without beavers, the Bronx River has welcomed them back. Just this past spring I saw beaver-chewed trees adjacent to the Bronx River in the New
York Botanic Garden.
2) New York State Reptile: Snapping Turtle.
You wouldn’t think such a strange looking creature could represent the beautiful people of New York State, but the behavior of the snapping turtle, in particular its persistence and tenacity, is quite fitting. One spring a few years ago I came across a snapping turtle female who was digging a hole in a gravel parking lot to lay her eggs. Knowing that this would be a less-than-ideal place for eggs to be deposited, I transported the snapper to a safer place away from cars. The next morning, the snapper was back, working on that same hole. Again I transported her to a safer place, only to find that afternoon that she had returned to finish what she started. Eventually I gave up, and placed a crate over the underground eggs to protect them.
Snapping turtles can be found in freshwater habitats all over New York State. They grow to be very large, with shells that reach over 20 inches in length. Snappers are distinguished by their long “dinosaur-like” tails and their large heads. Like all turtles, snappers do not have teeth, but they do have sharp points on the end of their jaws and incredibly strong jaw muscles. Unlike most turtles, snappers are not able to hide completely in their shells. Their plastrons (bottom shells) are partial and do not cover their whole body. Because of this, snappers have developed their lightning-quick bite as a protective adaptation. They also use their strong jaws to lunge at and eat their prey, which is varied and includes frogs, insects, aquatic plants, small mammals, and fish.
3) New York State Insect: Nine-Spotted Ladybug.
Despite their name, ladybugs are not actually bugs, and they are not all female. Ladybugs are beetles that come in a variety of colors within the red-orange spectrum and with varied numbers of spots on their wing covers. According to the Lost Ladybug Project, an organization that gets kids and adults involved as citizen scientists in the monitoring of ladybug populations, there are over 500 species of ladybugs in the United States, and over 4500 in the entire world. Many of the ladybugs that we commonly see are species that were introduced to New York from other countries. There are still some of the original natives around, however, and a particularly special native is the nine-spotted ladybug. This species used to be abundant in New York State, well-loved as an agent of pest control because they eat aphids and other insects. Nine-spotteds have become increasingly rare after a decline starting in the late 1980’s. I have never seen the elusive nine-spotted in person, but every time I see a ladybug I count the spots!