When Nature Calls, Adirondack Biologists Listen

Early stage Splachnum on moose dung. Photograph by Steve Langdon

Last fall I received fundraising appeals featuring loons, moose, black bears—all the poster creatures of Adirondack environmental nonprofits. But this week I got a fresh pitch: an email with a photo of a pile of dung.

“It’s easy to overlook some of the less charismatic members of our biota,” Steve Langdon wrote. “One very interesting and rare group of species found at Shingle Shanty Preserve and Research Station that may be making a comeback in the Adirondacks are Splachnum mosses.”

Langdon is the project manager at Shingle Shanty, a remote, 23-square-mile biological field station near Lake Lila. He also sent a close-up photo of chili-red moss spore capsules, taken in a peatland on the preserve. He explained, “Moose have returned to eating and pooping in the Adirondacks over the last decades, creating new opportunities for species in this family of mosses to expand their range.”

Spore capsules on a Splachnum moss in a peatland at Shingle Shanty Preserve. Photograph by Steve Langdon

According to Mosses of Eastern North America (Columbia University Press, 1981), some Splachnum mosses grow only “on old moose dung (and cow dung in Europe) in boggy swamps and muskeg, exceedingly rare.” Splachnum rubrum is “very rare in the American north and probably only in the range of moose.“

The point of the fundraising appeal is not to be scatological. The point is to open our eyes. We love to talk about loons and brook trout and especially mountain lions, which may or may not be re-establishing here. But what we know about the smaller species in our midst—especially insects and other invertebrates—is limited simply because we have not looked. Luke Myers, an entomologist originally from Saranac, discovered a previously undescribed species of stonefly during a survey of aquatic insects at Shingle Shanty a few years ago.

“It takes time and patience and people in the field to identify and document such species,” Langdon says. “Part of our goal at Shingle Shanty Preserve and Research Station is to do just this.”

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