Wild Notes Summer 2010 edition

Summer 2010

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Cosmo the flying squirrel


Preserving Presque Isle

It may not seem important when the population of eyed brown butterflies at Presque Isle State Park declines. Yet this decline signals other problems within this unique ecosystem, where a diversity of wild flowers in such a small area is not found elsewhere in Pennsylvania. When the diversity of plant life on Presque Isle changes, it also affects other wildlife. For example, when invasive plants like Phragmites move into an area, they replace a variety of plants that eyed brown butterflies and other animal species need to survive. As plant variety disappears, so do the eyed brown butterflies and other animals.

Because of dedicated volunteers like Jerry McWilliams, who collected the eyed brown butterflies for theNatural History Museum at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center (TREC), it is easier to respond to the problems that threaten the state park's biodiversity. “Without specimens and a permanent record of the area's plants and animals, it's difficult to make informed decisions on conservation and land use,” said Dr. Ed Masteller, professor of biology emeritus at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and curator of the TREC Natural History Museum.

gypsy moths on tress
This eyed brown butterfly is part of the collection at the TREC museum.
(Photo: Jerry McWilliams)

In 2003, Harry Leslie, Park Operations Manager at Presque Isle, contacted Masteller to find out what was needed for natural history collection rooms. Before the TREC there was no place for collections at Presque Isle to help track changes. It was the vision and passion of
people like Masteller, who volunteers his time, and other enthusiastic volunteers, primarily retired professionals, who have helped the two-room facility evolve into a state-of-the-art resource. They have donated many hours to create an archival and voucher record of the flora and fauna that inhabit the park and northwestern Pennsylvania.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History donated 180 Presque Isle specimens, which also includes a plant collection from 1941. The Presque Isle State Park management plan includes a list of park plants compiled by Carnegie Museum between 1917 and 1943. Some of the insects in the collection are from Masteller's work before he retired from Behrend. Masteller and the other volunteers have added many more.

In the four years since the TREC opened, retired engineer and volunteer Bob Harris has been collecting plants at the park. “In that short span, I collected over 30 plant species that were not on the Carnegie list!” Harris said. “These plants have migrated to and established themselves on Presque Isle since 1943. Unfortunately, we don't have the resources to check
which plants on the Carnegie list are no longer in the park,” Harris added. But through the efforts of Masteller, Harris and McWilliams, the current biodiversity of the park is being recorded. Other volunteers, including Chris Roth, Nancy Ware, Betty Muscarella and Melanie D'Silva, all play an important role in preparing, labeling and keeping track of the data.

gypsy moths on tress
Bob Harris volunteers his time to collect and press plant specimens.

The TREC museum's newly designed website, http://dynamicdunes.bd.psu.edu, brings information about the entire collection right to your computer. McWilliams, who is a naturalist and the assistant curator of the insect collection, is pleased with the new website. “Recent changes make our site more user-friendly so scientists, educators and the public can use this collection to learn about insects and the entire park ecosystem,” he said. Every time they collect a specimen, scientists like Masteller and McWilliams record all the collecting data, including GPS location, date, collector and environmental notes in field journals. This information is then entered into a database where all previous and new specimen data are stored.

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