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A Snail, a Fern Find No Place Like Home Here

from the Syracuse Post-Standard


By Jim Reilly
Staff writer

Of the 100 or so wild things listed as endangered or threatened in New York, more than two dozen are known to occur in the Central New York counties of Cayuga, Madison, Onondaga and Oswego.

They’re here partly because of climate, partly because of habitat, partly because neither people nor invasive plant and animal species have wiped them out.


Two of Central New York’s rarest and most famous endangered species are the Chittenango ovate amber snail and the hart’s-tongue fern.

The snail, whose scientific name is Novisuccinea chittenangoensis, is known to exist in only one place in the world: among the rocky crevices of a limestone ravine below Chittenango Falls. About 100 snails live on wet ledges in an area not much bigger than the average living room, said state biologist Alvin Breisch, who has studied the snail for 20 years.

The fern grows in 16 distinct colonies in more than a half-dozen sites in Central New York, including Clark Reservation State Park in Jamesville; Chittenango Falls; Evergreen and Lost lakes, near White Lake in DeWitt; and Split Rock in Onondaga, where it was first cataloged in 1807 by German botanist Frederick Pursh.

Although it's found in Michigan and a handful of other sites in the United States and Canada, the hart's-tongue fern still is "the most exciting, federally listed rare plant in New York," said Donald J. Leopold, a forest and wetland ecologist at State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.
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"The hart's-tongue fern is really one of the most beautiful native plants you'd ever see, one of the most striking plants you'd see if you were out walking," Leopold said. "You don't need to be a Ph.D. to appreciate it."

You do need to know where to look, though. The ferns, like most of the area's rare species, tend to be off the path. And the scientists and others who know them best are unlikely to tell you exactly where to find them. The last thing these people want are the curious or, worse, collectors tramping about in ecologically delicate woods, wetlands and waterfalls.

Al Breisch,of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Endangered Species Unit, is not too worried about people going after the Eastern massasauga, for instance, a native rattlesnake found only in Cicero Swamp and a swamp near Rochester. It's got fangs and poison and hides out in a tangled, wet, mosquito-infested place.

The bog turtle, however, is cute, harmless and easily scooped up. Which is why Breisch will not identify the two wetland sites in Oswego County where it is known to exist. He figures there are fewer than 100 individual turtles among these two and a third site in Seneca County.

Fortunately for the turtle, its neighborhoods also support healthy populations of poison sumac, something even a thick-skinned amateur herpetologist wants to avoid.

As it is in real estate, so it is with rare species: Location is key.

Central New York's rarest inhabitants live in some of its most distinctive habitats.

The eastern Lake Ontario wetlands, for instance, support nesting populations of rare terns, the least bittern and the pied-billed grebe; a variety of rare grasses and wildflowers; and the bog buckmoth, known to exist in only 10 colonies in the world, six of them in Oswego County.

The hart's-tongue fern requires shade, north-facing rocky slopes and the well-drained, calcium-rich soil provided by this area's underlying limestone, part of what geologists call the Canadian Shield. All come together at Clark Reservation, Chittenango Falls and similar spots in Michigan, Ontario and Tennessee.

Calcium-rich soils also nourish the striped coralroot, a rare orchid, and the spreading globeflower in Nelson Swamp.

The salinemarshes in the Howland Island and Montezuma wetlands support salt meadow grass, seaside bulrush and crowfoot.

The bald eagle, downgraded from endangered to threatened in New York three years ago because of its phenomenal resurgence here over the past 25 years, needs both the open water and surrounding tall trees of Montezuma, Cross Lake and Lake Neahahwanta.

Peregrine falcons, endangered in New York but removed from the federal list in 1999, have adapted their cliff-dwelling ways to bridges and skyscrapers as part of their recovery in the Northeast. Two peregrines, nicknamed Fritz and Amelia, created a Syracuse stir when they hung around the MONY towers several years ago, but they never raised young.
Other Upstate cities have been better peregrine incubators.

"Binghamton has a pair, Buffalo has a pair, Rochester has a pair, Niagara Falls and Albany have a pair. And Syracuse, we just keep waiting," said Barbara Loucks, who heads the Peregrine Project for the DEC's Endangered Species Unit. "I'm not sure why Syracuse doesn't have a pair. You've got your share of tall buildings."

Rarity canbe both relative and absolute. The short-eared owl, for instance, is endangered in New York, known locally only in the woods of Pompey and Cazenovia. It is more common elsewhere. The Chittenango snail, on the other hand, exists only at Chittenango Falls.

"There are different kinds of rarity, with different causes," said Nick Conrad, of the Natural Heritage Trust in Albany. One is that a species and its habitat are rare, period - there's not much of either around, maybe never has been.

Or, a species may be rare where it's on the edge of its range; it could be common elsewhere.

"Another cause of rarity," Conrad said, "is that something was once common, but has been depleted because of pollution, habitat loss, competition or direct hunting."

The pesticide DDT nearly killed off the golden eagle and peregrine falcon, among others, by softening eggs so young couldn't hatch. The timber rattler once was common in Onondaga and Madison counties, but was hunted to extinction 100 years ago.

And before the Erie Canal and the boulevard that followed, the tamarack swamp stretching from Onondaga Lake to Lyndon Corners "was packed with some of the rarest orchids in the United States," ESF's Don Leopold said. "If that swamp still existed, it would be the most interesting collection of rare plants in the Northeast."