Albany Pine Barrens – a few hours of amazing natural history!

Although I often write about monarchs and milkweed, really I am an ecologist aspiring to study and understand the natural world, mostly in terms of the origin and maintenance of biodiversity. A long-term goal is to learn about the natural history of species, habitats, and interactions as a means to develop a view of life. It’s the interplay of our amazing diversity, history, and sometime absurdity, that inspire me. 2021 was a remarkable year for so many of us… and for me, I too had a crazy year: my father passed away, I was elected the National Academy of Sciences, and in October, I was hit by truck.  But, in between those ups and downs, in July I had the pleasure of visiting the Albany Pine Barrens. To give away what the photolog below shows, I found a beautiful Florida-like habitat in upstate NY, an endangered butterfly first described by the Russian-American author (and entomologist) Vladimir Nabokov, and the clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis). Warning, great natural history ahead…

The Albany Pine Barrens is a couple hours east of Ithaca, and one of the largest inland pine barrens in the world. It is scrubby and a relatively open habitat, dominated by pitch pine and a couple of oak species in the canopy. It is a dry, sandy habitat that reminded me of open pine habitats in Florida. The Albany Pine Barrens has a very interesting geologic and cultural history
There was abundant Sassafras (a tree in the aromatic avocado family Lauraceae)
Spotted Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) of the Asteraceae, with pink flowers that typically emerge in wetlands late in summer
Too late for the orchid flowers, which typically display in late spring, this could be a pink lady slipper Cypripedium acaule (corrections welcome!)
pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is a fire tolerant (adapted) species that can resprout from epicormic buds (under the bark) if the main trunk is damaged by fire
A great shrub, very abundant in the barrens, the New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus (in the Rhamnaceae)
The spiny oak slug moth (Euclea delphinii), a species with even more interesting caterpillars that are sometimes called venomous; I think of them more as urticating
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) … in the same family as mango, poison ivy, and cashew (Anacardiaceae). This small tree is clonal and has separate sexes. You can make a fine tea from the berries in fall
A coexisting congener, Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) with a whitish waxy bloom on the growing stems, not furry like the staghorn
Like many Anacardiaceae, Rhus spp. produce a resinous latexy sap, often irritating to humans (and certainly a defense against insect herbivores)
Carolina rose
A willow, Salix sp., that has been damaged by a caterpillar
The culprit, a caterpillar of the viceroy butterfly, Limenitis archippus, named because it is a smaller look-alike of the monarch butterfly. Of course there caterpillar stages are quite different. While the monarch advertises its toxicity with bright bands of yellow, black and white strips, the viceroy blends in as bird poop on the leaf
The spotted beebalm, Monarda punctata, in the mint family (Lamiaceae)
Butterfly weed (it was Ralph Waldo Emerson that said “a weed is simply a plant whose virtues have not been discovered”) – Asclepias tuberosa (in the milkweed family, Apocynaceae)
A hairstreak on butterfly weed, likely Satyrium falacer (thanks Rob Raguso!)
Spreading Dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) a relative of milkweed (in the Apocynaceae) … here, an ant going to rob nectar without pollinating?
The dogbane beetle, Chrysochus auratus, a specialist feeder on Apocynum… they lay their eggs in a pile of poop, glued to leaves.  Larvae burrow out, drop to the soil and feed on roots. Then these jewels emerge to feed on leaves, mate, and start the cycle again
What a thrill to see the endangered Karner Blue butterfly, Lycaeides melissa samuelis, abundant in the Albany Pine Barrens, here feeding on water and concentrated salts in a drying puddle


From the book, Nabokov’s Butterflies (2000)


The only food plant for Karner blue caterpillars, wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). Monarchs eat milkweed and Karners eat Lupine. Host specialization is the rule for herbivorous insects
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in the understory of pitch pine, and with lupine
The curly leaf of clasping milkweed, Asclepias amplexicaulis, near its northern range edge


A waxy under-leaf, in contrast to the hairy bottom of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
A single plant in flower at this late date in July


What would milkweed be without its specialist insect herbivores, here with the seed predator Lygaeus kalmii
Towards the northern range edge of Asclepias amplexicaulis (from iNaturalist)
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Thanks for reading!  -Anurag

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