Amazing Ectotherms

Red-Spotted Newt

The Finger Lakes Region is home to some of the world’s most-diverse amphibian and reptilian life. From the common spring peeper to the elusive coal skink, these animals inhabit every facet of our ecosystem – woodlands, meadows, hills and valleys.

Otherworldly in appearance, ectotherms are distinct from other members of the animal kingdom in that they regulate their body temperature by absorbing heat from the surrounding environment. Taken from the Greek words ektós, meaning “outside,” and thermós, meaning “hot,” these organisms are often most visible when the sun is at its peak angle of intensity.

As a lifelong resident of Upstate New York, last year I set out to photograph as many native species of ectotherms as I could find. Not only did I succeed in capturing a number of these on film, but I returned with some interesting stories to tell.

Black Rat Snake

Driving home one afternoon on Route 327, a winding two-lane thoroughfare that parallels the 1,070 acres of Robert H. Treman State Park in Ithaca, I noticed something on the shoulder that resembled a piece of shredded rubber – the remains of a tire blowout, perhaps.

Call it intuition, but I turned the car around to investigate. It turns out that it wasn’t rubber at all, but the largest reptile in all of New York State – the black rat snake. Reaching lengths of 6 feet or more, these constrictors are a boon to area farmers because of their ability to control rodent populations.

This one, though not the largest I’ve seen, was still an impressive specimen – a good 5 feet from head to tail.

Mountain Dusky Salamander

On a cool, sunny day in July, my younger son, Elliott, and I visited Stevenson Preserve in Enfield in search of salamanders. This is an area rich with amphibian life. On more than one occasion I have encountered the slimy salamander, a rare terrestrial species that can reach lengths of more than 6 inches.

The preserve is graced with a smattering of vernal pools; these diminutive breeding grounds provide a safe haven for frogs, toads, newts and salamanders to deposit their spawn. Because these reservoirs dry up by mid-summer, they are not capable of supporting larger, predatory species such as fish.

Elliott and I turned over rocks, downed trees and forest debris near the path. On this afternoon, we identified three distinct species of woodland salamander, each retreating to the intricate web of tunnels beneath the leaf litter on the forest floor: the mountain dusky, the red-backed, and the northern two-lined. This one was holed up under a rock near the bank of the preserve’s creek.

Midland Painted Turtle

One afternoon I was loping along the shores of Coleman Lake at the Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve in West Danby when I came across a female painted turtle depositing her clutch by the water’s edge. What intrigues me most about this preserve is that I always find something new; the variation in landscape seems to court unique encounters.

The midland painted turtle is distinguished from its relative, the eastern painted turtle, by the alternating arrangement of scutes on the carapace, or upper portion of its shell. Both, however, are adorned with bright splashes of red, yellow and orange, as if nature had commissioned Monet to ornament one of its most endearing works of art.

The turtle retreated to the sanctuary of her shell, but over the ensuing moments gingerly crept out, enabling me to capture this photograph. She eyed me with caution before making an abrupt turn and vanishing into a forest of cattails.

Pickerel Frog

In his poem Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins professed his love for “dappled things,” and with good reason – nature disguises some of its most arresting subjects with mottled patterns, rendering them virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding landscape. To see them at all is to be blessed with good fortune.

Similar to its cousin, the leopard frog, this member of the amphibian family is distasteful to predators because of its toxic glandular secretions. Distasteful, that is, if they can find it – the frog’s speckled coloration and bright lateral ridges give it the appearance of the shadowy recesses between grasses and sedges.

This one was hiding off the main trail near the meadow at Texas Hollow State Forest.

Snapping Turtle

Some of life’s greatest discoveries are so obvious as to go almost unnoticed. So it was with this snapping turtle, which was basking near the entrance of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca.

Near the observatory’s parking area is a large stone bridge that overlooks a swamp. I hadn’t been walking more than five minutes when I glanced into the water and saw this dark aberration rising up from the murk.

No doubt immune to my presence because of the daily multitudes of people walking in and out of the observatory, the turtle paused, lifted its head out of the water, and regarded me with an air of curiosity. He then dipped beneath the surface and continued on his way.

Red-Spotted Newt

Upstate New York saw an unprecedented amount of rainfall in June of last year. In Newfield, where I live, flash flooding washed out roads, bridges and railroad beds. As devastating as this was to area homeowners, such conditions can serve as a windfall to the enterprising naturalist – animals that might otherwise go unseen move to higher ground to escape the threat of rising waters.

While walking the Abbott Loop in Danby State Forest one afternoon, the damp climate prompted hordes of these colorful members of the salamander family to emerge en masse. Seemingly everywhere I looked, they were crawling over leaves, rocks and logs.

Despite its fiery orange tincture, the juvenile red-spotted newt is not always so easy to find. Known colloquially as the “red eft,” this amphibian is notable in that it undergoes three distinct metamorphic stages: the larval stage; the terrestrial, or land-dwelling, stage; and the adult stage, when it assumes an olive complexion and returns to the water to live a semi-aquatic existence.

Gray Treefrog

By mid-September, I was on the lookout for a season-specific north woods phenomenon: the monarch chrysalis. Because every species of butterfly is allied with its companion host plant, these can be relatively simple to identify – if you know what to look for. The monarch’s favored plant, milkweed, grows in abundance in the lush meadows of Upstate New York.

Toward the end of my walk at the Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve, I noticed something possessing a glossy sheen; thinking it was a chrysalis I stopped for a closer look. To my surprise, it was one of the smallest species of amphibian in the Northeast – the grey treefrog. This one was so tiny, in fact, that it made the stalk on which it was perched look like a giant California redwood.

Because of their size, penchant for camouflage, and arboreal (tree-dwelling) nature, it’s possible to go a lifetime without ever seeing one. They are a proliferate species, but rarely seen. I considered myself fortunate to have shared the company of this diminutive amphibian on a balmy late-summer afternoon.

To learn more about these and other amazing Finger Lakes ectotherms, visit


story and photos by Jon Ulrich

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