The “Arms Race” in an Acorn


Twenty-two years is nothing in evolutionary time, but it is long enough to figure out some things about evolution if you are a diligent scientist. That is exactly what Huyck Preserve Research Associate Joan Herbers did. In the process, she spurred a generation of research on slavemaker ants, expanding the field of co-evolution studies and, along with several of her scientific protégés, made some important discoveries.

Now a professor [emeritus] at The Ohio State University, Herbers was a young assistant professor at the University of Vermont in 1979. A colleague invited renowned biologist Tom Eisner  to lecture and from him Herbers learned that that there was a hidden gem of a field station just 170 miles away that offered research grants and free summer housing—a boon for any young scientist earning an entry level salary.




She spent that summer and the following one, 1980, poking around the Huyck Preserve with her kitty litter pan—“essential for collecting specimens!—searching for something interesting to study. Her memory of the “aha” moment is vivid: “When I snapped open that first twig and saw those ants spill out, I knew I had my project.” What she saw that got her excited was a colony of two- to three-millimeter ants, then called Leptothorax longispinosus [now called Temnothorax longispinosus]. (Non-scientists know them as acorn ants; Herbers called them leptos.) In one twig colony there were two queens and in another nearby, three. The more she collected them, the more Herbers found the queen numbers to vary. It seemed random, but probably wasn’t. She realized that if she simply pursued the reasons why, a substantial project would unfold before her.

By 1981 and for nearly a decade, Herbers explained queen behavior in acorn ants in a series of research publications, all based on work she did at the Huyck Preserve, as well as Mallett’s Bay State Park in Vermont and Watoga State Park in West Virginia. Because the leptos in West Virginia never had more than one queen, compared with the multiple queens found in the nests in New York and Vermont, Herbers eventually determined that a combination of hard-wired genetics and variable environmental factors determined how the ants organized themselves. The research earned her several promotions and she eventually left Vermont for a new job in Colorado, with a rich archive of data. She also took on a brilliant young postdoctoral fellow named Susanne Foitzik.


This species of slavemaker ants, Temnothorax americanus, steals larvae from other colonies. CREDIT: GARY D. ALPERT

Although Herbers focused on leptos, time and again she found “harpies” in the mix. The harpie is similarly-sized (formerly known as Harpegoxenus americanus, now known as Protomagnathus americanus or Temnothorax americanus) to the tiny acorn ant. Every summer, the two types compete for resources among the forest leaf litter. Food, water, and shelter are basics that all animals seek. In the case of the harpies, add “labor.” The tiny acorn ants, the leptos, with colonies of just 30 to 50, are the prime targets for the harpies. The harpies evolved in such a way that they do not raise their own young or forage for food and water. Instead, they take slaves. They go out and kidnap the larvae of acorn ants, carry them back to their own acorn (or twig or hickory nut), and harness the power of the worker ants once they hatch. The leptos don’t even know they were born into slavery.

Foitzik, a young German researcher, was already interested in social insects and had worked on leptos in Europe as a graduate student with Juergen Heinze. She met Herbers in the summer of 1996 on a specimen-collecting trip in the United States. “She impressed me,” says Herbers. After a year of staying in contact, Foitzik inquired about doing a postdoc in Herbers’ lab, and the two turned their attention to slavemaker ants—the harpies. “I told her I thought the interaction between leptos and harpies could be interesting,” says Herbers. “She was the one who figured out how to ask the right questions and collect the right data.”

Initially, Foitzik explains, the two researchers thought that the slavemaker ants, with their peculiar ways, might be too rare to reveal anything general or important. After the researchers mapped large sections of the forest at the Huyck Preserve over the summer of 1998, however, they found that slavemakers were very common. Things got interesting from that point.

In a series of publications beginning in 2001, Foitzik and Herbers laid new foundation for the understanding of slavemaker ants. They documented large numbers of them at the Huyck Preserve and compared their presence in Albany County with colonies in Vermont, West Virginia, and Ohio. The research showed that slavemaker raids took place frequently during July and August. Perhaps most important, Herbers and Foitzik also discovered that where slavemakers live, slave-ant populations are powerfully impacted. “Slavemakers raid between five and 10 times a year,” says Foitzik. “Host colonies seldom survive these raids.”


TheTemnothorax longispinosusant is the species enslaved by the slavemaker ants.

Slavemakers attack and kill adult slave ants when they invade a nest, then collect the booty—unborn slaves—to take back to their own nest. The raids change the demographics of the slave populations in the areas where slavemakers are active. “We showed that host nests were smaller, had fewer queens and had a higher relatedness,” says Foitzik. In other words, the leptos’ very survival is compromised by the presence of slavemakers.

Once they documented how heavy the toll was on slave populations, Foitzik and Herbers unwittingly opened another avenue of inquiry. How were the slaves coping with the pressure?

Despite the bleak circumstances for slave ants under siege at the Huyck Preserve, the two species are far from doomed; extinction of slave populations would only mean trouble for slavemakers. Instead, the two species are co-evolving as players in what’s known as an “evolutionary arms race.” A classic arms race has no other purpose than keeping up. If one player gets an improved new weapon, the other gets a bigger one, or a better defense. The adjustments keep going to maintain a kind of equilibrium. The same is true in nature when the survival of two or more species is closely linked.

Slavemaker ants at the Huyck Preserve are “killing machines” according to Herbers. “They’re mean and nasty and leave no survivors.” Turns out, slave ants at the Huyck Preserve are also nastier than those found elsewhere. They bite the heads and bodies of the raiding slavemakers at a higher rate than any of the other sites Herbers and Foitzik study. Casualties are high even for the raiding ants.

The same species of slavemakers in West Virginia leave survivors at least half of the time, Herbers explains. The interesting difference is that the raiding ants consistently fail to block the entrance to slave nests when they arrive, which allows some workers and an occasional queen to escape, after which they can join or start a new colony elsewhere. The slave ants there also fight back less ferociously. Why the difference?

One explanation for the unmatched behaviors is that the sites represent different stages of co-evolution. There’s probably a longer interaction between the two species in West Virginia, Herbers explains, perhaps because that land was never glaciated. Slavemakers there already may have reached a point of overexploitation of their host population. The weaker aggression might be the result of both species backing off for the greater good. The Huyck Preserve ants may have not reached that point yet. Like the variation in lepto queen numbers Herbers observed early on, adaptive flexibility is a byproduct of evolution. Studying multiple sites allows for a potential snapshot of the process in evolutionary time.

“The Huyck Preserve is a hotspot for understanding how these two species co-adapt,” says Foitzik. Stable conditions in the Preserve’s forests mean that the leptos, the slave ants, are at their optimal abilities, she says. They are abundant and healthy. Slavemakers in New York, because of their forcefulness, “represent the very height of the negative impact of a co-evolutionary process,” explains Herbers.

Because the site is so robust, and Herbers and Foitzik’s groundwork so solid, a new generation of grad students and postdocs continue to arrive every summer to study slavemaker and slave ants. Many come directly from Germany, where Foitzik has a well-established laboratory at the University of Mainz. Their efforts are constantly refining our understanding of the co-evolution of the slaves and slavemakers.

In 2009, for example, Alexandra Achenbach, a student of Foitzik’s, revealed an interesting new defense in slave ants. They rebel. The enslaved workers care for slavemaker larvae as if they were their own. At a certain point, however, probably because the developing ants have a stronger chemical signature, or smell, that is different from what the slave ants identify with, they stop caring for them. Then they kill up to two-thirds of the slavemaker brood, either by tearing their developing bodies apart, or by pushing them outside the nest where they die of neglect. The mortality rate is even higher for unhatched queens in the care of slave workers. This sabotaging activity keeps the slavemaker nests smaller, which limits their raiding behavior and therefore their impact on the surrounding slave target nests.

Andreas Modlemeier and Tobias Pamminger, two students who also work with Foitzik, are repeat visitors at the Huyck Preserve. [In 2011 and 2012], they each published research about the range of behaviors among the slaves. While it’s true that slaves at the Huyck Preserve exhibit more aggressive behavior than slave ants elsewhere, the degree varies. Modlemeier is interested in the evolution of colony “personalities” among the slave ants, and Pamminger is creating a more detailed map of the co-evolutionary arms race by focusing on slaves.

Sebastian Pohl, another grad student, worked on a project at the Preserve, the results of which surprised even Foitzik. Pohl wanted to learn the criteria that drive slavemakers’ decision to raid a particular slave nest. When offered the choice of bigger versus smaller nests—and with them, bigger versus smaller risks of fatalities—the slavemakers consistently opted for the bigger risk. The reason is linked to nest size; a larger nest usually contains more larvae, which become the slavemakers’ future work force. “I would have thought the slavemakers prefer many battles with smaller nests,” says Foitzik.

Christine Johnson, who had been a postdoc with Herbers, came to the Huyck Preserve for several summers after she discovered a type of slavemaker that had never been seen before in Ohio. She wanted to compare the interactions among slaves and slavemakers in New York to those she examined in Ohio because she specializes in community dynamics—how the ants in one locale behave differently than those found in other locales. Based on her two summers here, along with her own new data from Black Rock Forest in Cornwall, New York, she has identified some additional factors that contribute to slave ant behavior, she says. Johnson [wrote] up the results for publication.

Finally, the very fact that Herbers and Foitzik have created an enterprising system for studying the co-evolution of leptos and harpies means that young researchers at the Huyck Preserve hail from other labs, too. Julie Miller, a graduate student from Cornell University who conducted her first experiments on slavemaker ants this summer is one example. Modlmeier and Pamminger even steered her in the right direction. “I would have been wandering around the Preserve forever unless they had showed me where to look,” she says. Though only her first season, Miller already wants to return [the following] summer to observe ants, as well as collect more specimens to take back to the lab. “There seem to be some general principles of collective decision-making for raids,” she says.

This article was adapted from, and used with permission, an article that first appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of the E.N. Huyck Preserve’s Myosotis Messenger.

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What the Preserve Has Meant to Rensselaerville


The following composition, a copy of which is in the archives of the Rensselaerville Historical Society, was written in 1956 by 11-year-old Cynthia Olson as part of an essay contest on the occasion of the Huyck Preserve’s 25th anniversary. On August 22, 1956, the Preserve board of directors presented Cynthia (who had turned 12 in May) with a $50 bond as a prize for her essay. Much of what is described in the essay is as true today as it was in 1956 (except there is no longer a caretaker or a campground; new trails are not blazed every year; and the Preserve has grown to over 2,000 acres).

The Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve, Inc., is a tract of land of several hundred acres within the town of Rensselaerville that has been set aside for the preservation of wildlife and forests. It is a living memorial to the late Mr. Edmund Niles Huyck who spent most of his life in Rensselaerville.

myosotis-panorama-cropped.jpgThe E.N, Huyck Preserve is very important to the everyday life of Rensselaerville. The people enjoy many happy hours at Lake Myosotis, fishing, swimming, and boating. There is a private picnic ground for the villagers with swimming facilities. Many families from the village cook and eat there are warm summer nights using the fireplaces provided. There is also a picnic ground for public use and a campground on the shore of the lake.


The campground on Lake Myosotis was closed in the early 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Bennett Hallenbeck.)

Fishermen come from the surrounding area to fish. At the caretaker’s cottage at Lake Myosotis there are boats for hire by the day or hour. Since there are no motors allowed on the lake, an afternoon spent there would be very peaceful and quiet.

Every year, the men and boys blaze a new trail on the Preserve. These trails provide footpaths for pleasant walks through the woods.

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The Rensselaerville Falls.

The Rensselaerville Falls, part of the Preserve, are a beautiful sight of tumbling waters over high rocks. Footpaths follow the course of the stream and cross several rustic bridges. These falls attract many visitors and in the summer the younger children swim in the small pool at the foot of the falls.

During the spring and summer, bird walks are organized through the trails of the Preserve. Records are kept of the birds seen.

You can understand that the Preserve means a great deal to Rensselaerville and that we are very fortunate to have the advantages of this nature preserve so close to our homes, bringing recreation to the children and adults of Rensselaerville.

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The Bee Man: Jerome G. Rozen Jr., Ph.D.

Jerome (Jerry) Rozen is a world-renowned entomologist and bee expert at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. And he’s a great friend of the Huyck Preserve. He joined the board of directors in the mid-1980s but his affiliation with the Preserve began long before that. Let me tell you how I met him.

I met Jerry in 1983 at the Mountain Research Station in Nederland, Colorado (near Boulder). I was attending my first OBFS meeting (Organization of Biological Field Stations) and, as a member of the Preserve’s board of directors, was representing the Preserve because we had no executive director at the time.

Jerry was representing the AMNH and its Southwestern Research Station located in Portal, Arizona. When I mentioned that I was from the Huyck Preserve, he regaled me with stories about the Preserve, his research on solitary bees, and the joys of working with and training young scientists. He clearly loved what he was doing and had such infectious enthusiasm and a wonderful sense of humor. Right away I started thinking that he’d make a great board member. When I returned from the OBFS meeting, I recommended that he be considered for the Preserve’s board of directors. He was indeed voted on as a board member in 1984 and has been deeply involved ever since. He was also on—and later chaired—the Scientific Advisory Committee, which chooses scientists to be awarded research grants to support their work at the Preserve. He’s generously hosted the winter board meeting at the museum each year. And, of course, he has continued his bee research at the Preserve.

I had no idea that he was such a famous entomologist when I met him. He’s so modest and down-to-earth. I loved the story he told about his 1978 discovery of a rare solitary bee species—Macropis nuda—on the Preserve. Nests of other Macropis species had been discovered in Russia in the 1920s, but no one had found any in North America…until Jerry did. Solitary bees don’t build hives like honeybees and other social bees do. Instead, each female solitary bee builds a tiny nest—containing one or more brood chambers—in the ground, packs each chamber with food, and then lays her egg in it. The eggs develop into larvae, and then emerge as adults the following spring.


The Macropis nuda solitary bee.

Jerry knew that M. nuda loved a flower called yellow loosestrife. In the 1970s, one of his Cornell entomologist buddies told him about there being lots of the yellow loosestrife flowers at the Huyck Preserve. Jerry figured there was a good chance he’d find the M. nuda there, too. So he and a Rutgers University student who was working for him went to Rensselaerville to search for the bees’ nesting sites. Sure enough, they discovered one on the Huyck Preserve—near the Ordway house on Pond Hill Road. It was the first nesting site of this rare bee found in North America. Later, Cornell scientists discovered another nesting site, with about 50 nests, near the Lake Myosotis dam. In the 1990s, when work was being done on the dam, Jerry requested that a temporary barrier be set up to protect the site from the construction. The construction crew was happy to oblige.

Epeoloides pilosula-by stephen thurston-275px

The Epeoloides pilosulus bee that parasitizes the M. nuda nest is rare. In 2014, Cornell entomologist Bryan Danforth (who was also a researcher at the Huyck Preserve) found one specimen at the Huyck Preserve. The specimens shown here, from the AMNH collection, were collected in Flatbush, Long Island in 1894, a year before Jerry’s grandmother gave birth to twins, one being his father. CREDIT: Stephen Thurston, AMNH

He is also interested in cleptoparasitic bees that sneak into the nests of solitary bees and secretly lay their own eggs there. They are also called cuckoo bees because their behavior is like that of cuckoo birds who lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. A cleptoparasitic female bee waits until the host female leaves the nest to gather provisions for the brood cell, sneaks into the nest to lay her own egg in the cell wall, and then departs swiftly. The host female returns with provisions, lays her egg on them, and seals the cell. The cleptoparasite egg hatches first and the larva, which has large grasping mandibles, assassinates the host egg and then consumes the provisions. Nasty business. Jerry once likened the cleptoparasitic bee larva to monsters hiding under the bed. I haven’t had a good night sleep since.

The Epeoloides pilosulus bee that parasitizes the M. nuda nest is rare and has been found in only a few locations in the northeastern United States and adjacent parts of Canada.In 2014, Cornell entomologist Bryan Danforth (who was also a researcher at the Huyck Preserve) found one specimen of E. pilosulus at the Huyck Preserve. “Learning that, I visited the Preserve within the last few years with the hope of finding it at the nesting site,” said Jerry. “Although M. nuda females were nesting, no parasites were found flying and none of the brood cells held their immatures. The only specimen of the cleptoparasite that I—or at least someone in my party—collected was from eastern Pennsylvania several years ago.”

obfs brochure-crop-160pxJerry and I continued to go to OBFS meetings almost every year through the 1990s. He eventually became president of the organization (1990). He and I had fun working together to create OBFS’s first brochure—called “Biology on the Spot: The Unique Value of Biological Field Stations.” The museum contributed the design, field stations around the country provided photos, and Jerry and I helped write the text.

In April 1993, I went out to Tucson, Arizona, to observe—and help—Jerry in his field research. He would spend hours in the desert searching for bee nests, the bees themselves, and the cleptoparasitic bees that invaded their nests. It was fascinating to watch him work. When he found a nest, he’d put a clear plastic cup, upside down, over the opening so he could see what kind of bee emerged—the host or the intruder. I remember there was one area that had a least a dozen plastic cups covering nest openings. He also made molds of the nests by slowly pouring a plaster-of-Paris concoction down the opening. After it dried, he’d carefully dig up the nest. The mold had formed a perfect 3-D impression of the underground tunnel.

When Jerry’s children were young, they and his late wife, Bobbie (nickname for Barbara), would accompany him to the desert to help. At the end of the day, he’d reward the children with ice cream; he and his wife enjoyed a special cocktail treat called a Simla Special. The drink is named for the William Beebee Tropical Research Station, established in 1949 in Simla, Trinidad. The cocktail is made up of dark rum, lime juice, and sugar with ice, and, according to Jerry, is best consumed while looking over the jungle in Trinidad’s Arima valley at sunset.I got to sample a Simla Special one time. (I’m sure I would have liked it more had I been in an exotic place like Trinidad.)


Jerry is demonstrating—to students in the Bee Course in Arizona—how to excavate the nests of solitary bees. Behind him is Corey Smith, a scientific assistant who works with him at AMNH.

I visited the Southwestern Research Station that same spring (1993). What a spectacular place! Jerry still runs a nine-day Bee Course there every summer for biologists, grad students, state and federal agencies, and other professionals from all over the world.

Jerry also impressed me with the way he could pick up a bee with his hands without getting stung. Well, he usually didn’t get stung. “It’s easy if one know that certain bees do not sting and [that] male bees never sting,” he says. “You simply have to know your bees.”He once told a reporter for the New York Times (2009) how he’d collect flowers and bees in a net and then put the net over his head to get a good look. But, he explained, they don’t like being compressed—one time an angry bee nailed Jerry right between the eyes!

He did his undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania (two years) and the University of Kansas, earning his B.A. in 1950. He got his Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley in 1955 and did his postdoctoral training at the University of Kansas, with Charles D. Michener, a leading expert on bees and later the author of Bees of the World. Although Jerry’s thesis and training was on bees, he first worked as an entomologist—studying beetles—for the U. S. Department of Agriculture at the Smithsonian Institution (1956-1958), and then as an assistant professor at Ohio State University (1958-1960). He returned to specializing in solitary and cleptoparasitic bees when he joined the AMNH in 1960 as Chair of the Entomology Department (1960-1972) and Associate Curator. Later he was appointed Curator (1965-present), then also Deputy Director for Research (1972-1986), and was responsible for the operations of the museum’s field stations—Lerner Marine Lab in Bimini, Kalbfleisch Field Research Station on Long Island, the affiliation with the Archbold Biological Station in Florida, and the Southwestern Research Stationin Arizona. He has held leadership positions in a number of professional organizations including OBFS, the Entomological Society of America, the Society of Systematic Biology, and other organizations. He is still a curator at the AMNH and continues his research on the nesting biology of bees and their evolutionary relationships and has traveled all over the world: the United States, Trinidad, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Namibia, South Africa, Switzerland, Austria, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Costa Rica, and Belize. His work has greatly expanded the museum’s holdings of bees. Thanks to Jerry, the AMNH has one of the largest, if not the largest collection of bees of any institution in the New World.


Jerry checks the M. nuda nesting sites whenever he’s visiting the Huyck Preserve. Former board member Laura Carter accompanied him on one of his recent expeditions.

Jerry certainly has an impressive worldwide reputation as a bee expert, museum administrator, and field-station-operations director, and has made many contributions to the scientific world. We are glad he’s been part of the Huyck Preserve family for so long. (It was so much fun when he and Bobbie came to Preserve meetings and told stories of where they’d been and what they’d discovered.) And we are grateful that he has so generously shared his expertise and knowledge to help make the Preserve, its board, and its Scientific Advisory Committee strong.

Having never lost a shred of enthusiasm for his subject Jerry absolutely lights up when he’s talking about his bees. One of these days, maybe I’ll learn how to pick up a bee without being stung. Jerry, how do you do that anyway?

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Table of Contents

A Labor of Love—Writing the History of a Research Station

Ego Observations: Bees vs. Dinosaurs

Bats, Bats, Bats

Tagging Frogs

Biological Field Stations Are Critical Laboratories for Environmental Scientists

What’s in a Field Station?

Beech Knoll Cottage

The Mill House Gang

Rescuing Historic Papers After a Flood

G. Kingsley Noble and the Huyck Preserve

1912 High School Biology Lab

Bullfrog Camp

What Else Was Happening in 1931?

Vincent J. Schaefer (1906-1993)

The Early Years of a Biological Field Station

Jessie Huyck: A Remarkable Woman


Lake Myosotis

The Mill That Huyck Built

Treasures in the Archives

What I Learned on Lake Myosotis

Pseudoscorpion Named for Huyck Preserve

The Many Lives of Lincoln Pond Cottage

Lincoln Pond (poem)


The Beast from Lake Myosotis

Scarneck, the Huyck Preserve Snapping Turtle

July 4: The Birthday of Vincent Schaefer

July 6: The Birthday of Kennard F. Stephenson Jr.

August 5: The Birthday of David Weininger

September 24: On This Day, the Research Station Was Founded

The Bee Man: Jerome G. Rozen Jr.

What the Preserve Has Meant to Rensselaerville

The “Arms Race” in an Acorn

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September 24: On This Day, the Research Station Was Founded

huyck logo

It was on this day in 1938 that the Huyck Preserve Board of Directors voted to establish a biological research station at the Preserve. The meeting—which was held Saturday, September 24, 1938, at 8:30 p.m., at Jessie Huyck’s home—had been postponed from September 21 because a powerful hurricane, nicknamed the Long Island Express, had swept through southern New England, New York, and the Albany Capital region. It was “one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history,” according to the National Weather Service ( But the meeting minutes merely “noted that a record should be made that in view of the severe storm on September 21st, that both dams stood up under very heavy strain.”

Instead, the board members were focused on a matter that would determine the future of the Preserve—deciding whether to accept the recommendation of Cornell biologist William Hamilton to establish a biological research station on the property. Hamilton had been invited to the Preserve in 1937 to assess whether scientific research might be conducted there, saw the potential, and presented his recommendations to the board and the members at the Annual Membership Meeting in July 1937. It wasn’t until September 1938, however, that the board “approve[d] the establishment of a biological research station on the Preserve for a trial period of three years, at an additional cost not to exceed $3,000 a year.”

Hamilton was then charged with assembling a Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) that would hammer out a plan for the research station as well as choose the scientists who would work at the Preserve. The SAC, which included some of the leading biologists of the day, chose Dutch biologist and ornithologist Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907–1988) as the first resident naturalist. He accepted the position, but was never able to assume it because he landed in a German hostage camp for two years during World War II. Incidentally, in 1973, Tinbergen shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz “for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns.”

The person who ended up being the Preserve’s first resident naturalist, in 1939, was ecologist Eugene Odum (1913–2002), who later became the founder of ecosystems ecology (the study of the fluxes and flows of material and energy through natural systems). And many important scientists followed. The research station made it past its three-year trial and is thriving today. You can read more about the founding of the Preserve’s research station in my earlier blog post The Early Years of a Biological Field Station (April 17, 2013):

About that hurricane…. My grandmother, Katharine Huyck Elmore, used to talk about how the community members worked all night putting sandbags on the Lake Myosotis Dam during a terrible storm. I’m trying to find out whether that storm was the hurricane of 1938. Stay tuned for a blog post about that soon.

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August 5: The Birthday of David Weininger


August 5 was the birthday of David Weininger, born in Brooklyn, New York (1952), and raised in Schenectady. He was considered a visionary and pioneer in the field of chemical informatics and he’s known for inventing a chemical nomenclature system called SMILES (simplified molecular-input line-entry system).

He got his start in science as a 16-year-old at the Huyck Preserve in 1968. He was part of a group we called the Mill House Boys because they lived in the Mill House on Main Street in Rensselaerville. The seven boys were gifted and talented high-school students who were taking part in the Natural Sciences Institute (NSI), founded by cloud-seeding inventor Vincent Schaefer. The Huyck Preserve was one of several NSI campuses in the country.

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Dave was 16 years old when he participated in the Natural Sciences Institute program at the Huyck Preserve in 1968.


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The 1968 Mill House Gang and their fearless leaders Jim Small and Doc Reynolds (from left): Jim Small, David Weininger, Jim Anderson, Horace McMorrow, Ken Colby, Jack Brundage, Dave Rankine, Bruce Maughan, and Doc Reynolds.

In the mornings, the Mill House boys attended lectures, hosted by the Institute on Man and Science, and in the afternoons, they worked on their research projects. I was employed by the Institute that summer and staying with my grandparents (Lee and Katharine Huyck Elmore). One of my jobs was selling books outside Conkling Hall, where the Institute lectures—featuring prominent scientists, educators, economists, and other leaders—were held. The boys and I attended the lectures and we sat at a long table in front of the stage. We all had nameplates so the speakers could see who we were in case we asked questions. Dave gave me his nameplate at the end of the summer and I still have it. I must have given him mine.

Dave’s Research Projects at the Preserve

Dave had two research projects—one involved studying the sediments of Lake Myosotis and the other was tracking the currents in the lake. For the sediments project, he constructed a simple coring device out of long lengths of 1.25-inch-wide iron pipe and lined them with plastic sleeves. He would row to different parts of the lake, drop the device into the water, push it deep into the lake bottom until the pipe was filled with sediment, and pull it back up. He’d extract the plastic sleeve, insert another one, and row to another spot to take another core sample. Later, he took the plastic sleeves back to the dry lab to analyze the sediments inside.

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Dave’s drawing of the simple coring device he built in 1968.

For the lake-currents project, Dave worked with Ken Colby to develop a photographic technique for tracing the currents on the lake’s surface. Dave had engineered tiny wooden rafts with masts topped by light bulbs that were powered by motorcycle batteries. On the shore, near the Ordway House, he and Ken had built a 50-foot tower and placed a camera on top. Each night, around 11:00 p.m., they opened the camera’s shutter, and released the rafts from the marsh on the north end of the lake. The shutter was open all night so by morning the exposed film would show a tracing of the light as the rafts moved south along the subsurface current from the marsh all the way to the dam. Before daybreak each day, the boys hiked up Pond Hill Road from the village to retrieve the camera and the rafts. Then, they’d ride back down the hill on their bikes. One morning, however, only one bike was operational. Ken and Dave decided to ride down the steep hill together on the bike that worked. Big mistake. The bike was going so fast by the time it got to the bottom of the hill that it sailed through the stop sign and crashed into the picket fence across the street. Dave was knocked unconscious. Ken managed to crawl back to the Mill House for help.

I actually met Dave for the first time a few days after the accident. I remember knocking on the Mill House door one afternoon when he appeared. He was home alone because he had just returned from the hospital and everyone else was out working on projects. His eyes sparkled mischievously as he regaled me with stories of the accident and his other escapades. We became good friends and stayed in touch off and on over the years.

Restless Dave

Dave dropped out of high school after that summer. He traveled around the country and the world trying to figure out what he wanted to do. Eventually he landed back in New York State and, even though he didn’t have a high school diploma, he was accepted at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (he played guitar). But after a couple of years, he realized that as much as he loved music, chemistry was his true passion. He attended the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol (England) for a while, but soon grew tired of that. He returned to Schenectady and took at job as an assistant chemist in General Electric’s research and development lab. But he was still restless. He left again, this time to enter a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1978, he earned a Ph.D.—his only academic degree—in civil and environmental engineering, with a specialty in water chemistry.

Inventing a Chemical Language

Next he took a position with the Environmental Protection Agency at the National Water Quality Laboratory in Duluth, Minnesota. He was in charge of cataloging all the toxic substances found in various bodies of water. There were hundreds of toxic chemicals and it was impossible to keep track of them all by using traditional chemical-nomenclature methods. So, in 1983, Dave invented a universal computer-friendly language in which the names and structures of all chemical compounds could be expressed and the records kept in a computerized database.

His new simplified molecular-input line-entry system, called SMILES—enabled chemists to perform most of their experiments on a computer rather than in a lab. Drug developers could use the system, too, to create medical compounds faster than before. Dave went on to become co-founder, president, and chief scientific officer of Daylight Chemical Information Systems, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The company does rapid analysis of massive chemical databases and also produces other specialized software packages for chemists, including Rubicon, a geometry program for creating 3-D forms, and Thor, a client-server database for chemical information.

More than a Chemist

Dave’s energy was boundless and he pursued many other interests, too. He was an accomplished musician who played the banjo and guitar and had his own recording studio. He was an amateur astronomer who designed and built an observatory—complete with two telescopes—on his property in Santa Fe. He was a licensed pilot, owned three aircraft including a decommissioned British military fighter jet, and was a stunt flyer. He was a licensed chef and built a kitchen sink inside a grand piano (and the piano still worked). He bought a surplus mass spectrometer from Los Alamos National Laboratory and used it to figure out how to decaffeinate chocolate. He sold his “caffeine-free chocolate” process to Cadbury. He took a course in film directing so he could create a chemistry educational film series called CHILE (Chemical Information Lectures and Exercises). And, for a doctor friend who wanted to take medical care to people living in the New Mexico desert, Dave purchased a surplus Swiss Army six-wheel, six-axle truck and converted it to a mobile medical clinic that could go anywhere—even up steep inclines, across streams, and over mountain ranges.

Farewell to Dave

He lived life to the fullest, accomplished many things, and always had fun. Sadly, Dave died on November 2, 2016. I will never forget Dave—neither will his many other friends—and will cherish my memories of him forever.

Read more about the Mill House Boys and their antics at

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July 6: The Birthday of Kennard F. Stephenson Jr.


Kennard F. Stephenson Jr.  (July 6, 1926-January 14, 2012)

On this day in 1926, my father, Kennard Frierson Stephenson Jr., was born. He grew up in Loudonville, New York, but spent his summers in Rensselaerville, where he met my mother, Ann Elmore, daughter of Katharine Huyck and Lee Elmore and great niece of Preserve founder Jessie Van Antwerp Huyck. My parents met at the Huyck Preserve—at the old boathouse, one of the swimming areas at Lake Myosotis. They were on the social committee and helped to plan parties for the young people. My father was rather shy and not particularly social, so it’s a surprise that he was in such a group. But if it weren’t for that committee, I might not be here, today. In June 1950, my parents were married in Rensselaerville. My dad had already served overseas in the Army and was in the process of getting his graduate degree in chemical engineering from Princeton. In fact, he was studying for exams when I was born in 1952. By December 1960, I had become the oldest of six children.

We moved a lot growing up because of Dad’s job, but Rensselaerville and the Huyck Preserve were the constants in our lives. We all enjoyed hiking the trails, picnicking at the falls, and swimming and canoeing on Lake Myosotis. We learned to swim at the lake. My brothers learned to fish there, too. My dad served on the Preserve’s board of directors in the 1960s and was secretary at one point. But even after his official duties ended, he remained interested in Preserve activities. He would pepper me with questions when I was on the board (1982-2014), and always had helpful advice particularly when it came to matters where his engineering expertise could be put to use—like with projects concerning the dams (at Lake Myosotis and Lincoln Pond) and the community septic system for which the Preserve provided land for the leach field. He was always intrigued with what the researchers were doing and would ask lots of questions about their work, too.

My dad died in 2012. If he were alive today, he’d be enjoying the tranquility of the Preserve and taking in the splendor of the Falls. He’d also be going to the Thursday night lectures and the Science Symposium, no doubt, so he could hear the scientists give firsthand accounts of their research. And he’d ask questions. Lots of them.

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July 4: The Birthday of Vincent Schaefer


schaefer older

Today is the birthday of atmospheric scientist Vincent Schaefer, born in 1906. As a scientist at General Electric in Schenectady, New York, he invented cloud seeding, a method of seeding super-cooled clouds with dry ice. He discovered the concept quite by accident in a lab in 1946. On November 13 of that year, he field-tested this technique by going up in a small airplane and scattering crushed dry ice into super-cooled clouds. Low and behold, it began to snow. Cloud seeding could be used to make it rain, too, but it turned out to be impractical as you can’t aim a cloud and force it to rain anywhere you want. Still, some airports do use the technique today to dissipate ice fog that occurs in winter.

Schaefer, who was self-educated and never attended college, accomplished many other things, too, including: holding 14 patents; helping to found and later serving as the director of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Albany; co-writing the Peterson A Field Guide to the Atmosphere; establishing the Natural Sciences Institute (NSI), a summer program for gifted high-school students who yearned to become scientists (one of the NSI campuses was at the Huyck Preserve); and fighting for the preservation of natural areas, including the Huyck Preserve where he served on the board of directors for many years.

You can read more about this remarkable man’s life at my blog post:

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Scarneck, the Huyck Preserve Snapping Turtle


turtle img188

Scarneck, the infamous snapping turtle at the Huyck Preserve, has been around since the 1940s.

Savage, sinister, vicious. A reptilian terror.

These are just some of the words biologists have used to describe the ferocious snapping turtle. He lives in muddy rivers, streams, ponds, or marshes. He’ll embed himself in the mud and look like a rock—his beady eyes alert for unsuspecting fish swimming by—or prowl along a pond’s edge, hunting frogs and stalking young waterfowl. Then he’ll suddenly thrust out his head to capture and devour his prey. He’ll drag a bird underwater, drown it, and then use his dangerously sharp, hooked beak, strong jaw, and forelimbs to tear it apart. In fact the jaws of a full-grown snapping turtle are so strong that they could sever a human finger.

There are a few of these savage creatures at the Huyck Preserve living in Lincoln Pond, Lake Myosotis, and elsewhere. Note that in the scientific name, Chelydra serpentina, “serpentine” suggests snake. Indeed, the snapping turtle’s biting motion is as quick as a rattlesnake strike. The most famous, and likely the oldest, snapping turtle at the Preserve is Scarneck, so named for the ugly scar on the back of his neck. Weighing 50-60 pounds, and measuring 13 inches wide by 16 inches long, he could be more than 75 years old. We have a photo of him from the 1940s as well as ones taken of him in summer 2016. He lives in Lincoln Pond.


Huyck Preserve staff netted Scarneck last summer so they could measure and weigh him.

Maybe Scarneck got that scar by fighting. Snapping turtles are aggressive and fight often. “It believes most thoroughly in the survival of the fittest, and to it the Fittest is ‘Number One,’” wrote American zoologist and conservationist William T. Hornaday in 1914. “It is a chronic fighter, and inasmuch as its jaws are very strong—and [it] never knows when to let go—it is a reptile to be either mastered or avoided.”

Researchers haven’t studied snapping turtles at the Preserve—they have focused on the more benign wood turtles and painted turtles instead—but they have recorded their observations about them from time to time. Jean Piatt, who specialized in frogs and was the Preserve’s resident biologist in 1941, reported collecting a 35-pound snapping turtle, which he and the other biologists promptly killed and ate for dinner. While it may seem startling for scientists at a field station to kill and devour specimens, they apparently thought catching and eating snapping turtles was no different than catching and eating fish. Snapper soup is still considered a delicacy by some.

One of the scientists who dined on the Huyck snapping turtle was Cornell biologist Ed Raney. He studied frogs at the Preserve (1939-1943), but in 1954, he wrote an article for the journal Copeia about a fight between two large snapping turtles at Cornell’s Ringwood Preserve near Ithaca, New York. The turtles were near a cleared hummock in the middle of a large pond. “In combat they faced each other and each attempted by rapid thrusts of the head to grasp the other by the neck,” Raney wrote. They used their front feet to keep from being grabbed and were making low puffing sounds throughout the struggle. “Occasionally one would make contact by mouth. Then both would either sink slowly under water where much bubbling could be seen and heard, or the one that was bitten would roll on its back, and with this twisting motion seemed to be consistently successful in freeing itself.” They’d be under water for about 30 seconds, and as they resurfaced, they’d start fighting again. Finally, when the fighting subsided, there didn’t seem to be a winner, but neither seemed to be badly injured. Raney was puzzled as to what the fight was all about—it was August, and typically mating season was in May and eggs deposited in June. “Therefore the combat seems not to be associated with territorial fighting in connection with reproduction,” he concluded. “Perhaps it indicates a tendency for a snapping turtle to defend an area at a time other than the spawning season.”

In the 1970s, another Preserve researcher—Edmund Brodie Jr., who was studying amphibians and aquatic insects—described defensive behavior in snapping turtles he’d observed in South Carolina. Most turtles, when threatened, defend themselves by retracting their head and limbs into their shell. But not the snapping turtle. Instead, he assumes the downward dog yoga position: He lowers the front of his shell and extends his back legs while he’s hissing and lunging at the predator. If the threat comes from the side, the snapper dips sideways so his shell faces the predator.

brodie-jr-defensive-postures-Screen shot 2017-03-05 at 10.08.11 PM

Snapping turtles defend themselves from predators by assuming threatening postures.

One can only assume that Scarneck must have been quite successful in defending his territory, and protecting himself from predators, to still be alive after so many years.

And who knows how many offspring Scarneck has produced.

The snapping turtle mating season is in May. In June or July, the female leaves her pond to find a suitable place to lay her eggs. She may travel a mile or more, even crossing roads, in her journey. Once she finds a good nesting spot, she’ll dig a hole with her hind legs, lay 20-40 creamy white eggs the size of small ping-pong balls, and bury them. The nest-building process could take as long as a week. Then she’ll trudge home. Generally it takes 80-90 days for the eggs to hatch. The inch-long, soft-shelled hatchlings burrow up to the surface, and then instinctively find their way to water. Of course, they have to evade all kinds of predators that want to eat them—raccoons, foxes, dogs, skunks, birds, and snakes. Even when they reach the water, they have to watch out for fish and other snapping turtles. But once the young’uns have grown and their shells harden, they are less vulnerable. It takes around five years for males to reach reproductive maturity; it takes females four to seven years.

Old Scarneck reached maturity a long time ago and he’s still going strong. We hope he stays with us for a good long time.


In June 2016, artist Jessica Heide came across a female snapping turtle who had crawled uphill  from Lake Myosotis to the edge of Pond Hill Road to lay her eggs. To see more of Jessica’s work, go to To see her blog post on this snapper, go to



Ditmars, Raymond L., “Reptiles of the World,” New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927

Dodd, C. Kenneth, Jr. and Edmund D. Brodie, Jr., “Notes on the defensive behavior of the snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina.” Herpetologica 31:286-288, 1975.

Hornaday, William T., The American Natural History, Volume 4—Reptiles, Amphibians, and Fishes, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, pages 39-41, 1914.

Raney, Edward C. and Josephson, Ruth A., Record of combat in the snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina. Copeia 1954:228, 1954.

 General info:

Snapping turtle fact sheet (Publication of the Snapping Turtle fact sheet was funded by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, Division of Wildlife, Pierre, SD.):

The Mating Season and Reproduction of the Snapping Turtle:

University of Michigan, Museum of Zoology:

Bosch, A. 2003. “Chelydra serpentine” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 05, 2017 at

Conn Dept of Energy and Environmental Protection:

Link to blog post on Raney:

Posted in Huyck Preserve, Natural History, reptiles, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Beast from Lake Myosotis


Could the Creature from the Black Lagoon have vacationed in Lake Myosotis?               (CREDIT: Reynold Brown)


You may be familiar with such New York State monsters as Champ (the Lake Champlain monster), Adirondacks Bigfoot, or the Kinderhook Creature, but did you ever hear of the Beast of Lake Myosotis? In the 1960s, people in Rensselaerville were all abuzz about strange-looking footprints that appeared each morning on the muddy shores of the lake. Was there a monster sleeping in the depths of the lake during day and coming ashore at night to hunt unsuspecting night swimmers or hikers? Not even the Huyck Preserve researchers dared to investigate.

Then late one night, some young people from the village were having an unsanctioned party at the boathouse when they thought they heard loud splashing near the spillway. Was it the beast? A couple of the guys bravely volunteered to investigate. They climbed in a car, kept the headlights off because the full moon cast a bright light over everything, and drove slowly down the dirt road toward the spillway. In the moonlight, they could just make out the silhouette of a hulking figure dancing around in the shallow water. It was holding what looked like a harpoon and every so often it would stop, aim the harpoon, and then thrust it down into the water. Eventually the figure waded out of the water and began walking toward the car. Frightened, the guys turned on the headlights to get a better look at the beast. Standing before them was the famous Japanese artist Kenzo Okada who had a home in town. It turned out that he often came up to the lake at night to do a little spearfishing. His traditional Japanese footwear left the strange footprints the townspeople were so worried about. Mystery solved.


The footprints from the so-called Beast of Lake Myosotis could have been made by traditional Japanese footwear similar to this.

Posted in Biological Research, Huyck Preserve, Natural History, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment