Cryptic Encounters

Winters on Long Island are long and gray. For half of the year, oak skeletons and decaying leaves indicate a dead, barren landscape. But a surprising number of discoveries can be made in the seemingly vacant forest. Cryptic coloration, or camouflage, is a major force behind what I perceive as species blindness. We’ve all seen Stony Brook’s white-tailed deer grazing beside the forest, but sometimes the most complex organisms are smaller and shyer. With the help of iNaturalist and some patience, I’ve learned just how diverse Long Island’s species truly are, and the ways in which they avoid being discovered. It may not be located in the tropics, but this island is full of hidden gems — if you know where to look.

On October 24, 2020, I came across the structures shown on the right; two white, fluffy balls on the forest floor. I snapped a photo, wondering if they were even biological at all. After consulting iNaturalist, I determined that they are actually wasp larvae from the family Cynipidae (shown right)! Cynipid, or gall wasps, produce spherical structures that encapsulate their larval offspring. At a glance, these structures resemble ripe fruits hanging from oak branches. The individuals on the right were not contained within gall structures, making them hard to identify. Instead, they sat patiently in the leaf litter.

Then, there was Prolimacodes badia, the skiff moth (shown below). Prolimacodes spp. take cryptic coloration to a whole new level, mimicking leaves in color, shape, and texture. When I first saw this specimen, it took me a few minutes to determine that it was, indeed, an animal.  It wasn’t until I turned it over and exposed its soft, white, underbelly that I could be sure. It stood strong in the breeze, clinging to the pavement on its trek across the sidewalk. 

Lastly, there was Cyclosa turbinata, the humped trashline orbeaver (shown below).

Trashline orbweavers are the messiest spiders around, saturating their webs with insect leftovers to draw attention away from their tiny, scrunched bodies. They even possess abdominal humps that further obscure their silhouettes. I had almost given up on what I thought was an abandoned web before I noticed the spider’s symmetry. It faded seamlessly into the many shades of gray and brown, and photographing it was quite the challenge.

So, what does these species tell us about our surroundings? Firstly, they are a reminder that things are not always as they seem. Sometimes, the line between plant and animal is thin, and it takes proper identification and data collection to properly make sense of what we are looking at. Secondly, iNaturalist is a game changer for biological research. This identification software has allowed scientists and hobbyists to make millions of identifications worldwide. iNaturalist provides us with valuable population data that may be a game changer for wildlife conservation. Lastly, there is always more to be discovered. The species above are only a few examples of what lies hidden in Long Island’s underestimated wilderness, and we have much more exploring to do. So, consider taking a closer look at the species that you walk past on your way to class, you might just surprise yourself.

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