Tag Archives: american hart’s-tongue fern

Constructing conservation with a rare New York plant

Have you ever stood on a rooftop in New York City and gazed out at the cement forest of skyscrapers sprouting up from every direction? What you may not realize is that outside the large green rectangle of Central Park, there are other small patches of green breathing life into the city. In my first experience on a living roof, I found myself at a hidden sanctuary for rare New York plants, creatively integrated into the façade and rooftop of a residential building.

This is one of two sites in New York City growing a rare, threatened plant from central New York in an otherwise unlikely environment. Due to its specific habitat requirements, the American hart’s- tongue fern would not fit in among the forest of skyscrapers if not for the efforts of several partners including the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Local Office Landscape and Urban Design and Michael  K Chen Architecture.


Young American hart’s-tongue fern from SUNY-ESF, Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS

This evergreen, perennial fern has caught the interest of biologists, including Don Leopold and Danilo Fernando at SUNY-ESF, for nearly a century, due to its unique tropical appearance and rarity. Listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the fern occurs across only a narrow band of habitat extending from New York to northern Michigan, and in two very small populations found within limestone sinkholes in the South. Recently, SUNY-ESF has partnered with our New York Field Office to obtain funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for genetic studies and efforts to boost populations by producing plants in the university’s lab. SUNY-ESF has expanded these conservation efforts by donating some lab-produced plants from Central New York to a couple of new homes in New York City.


One of the new homes for American hart’s-tongue fern at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

So how might a few plants in a big city have an impact? I spoke with Uli Lorimer, a curator of native flora at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which is one of two sites harboring this fern in New York City, and he said:

“There really aren’t many places where the public can come and have a personal and intimate experience with a rare plant and especially one that is very much a New York plant.”


Uli Lorimer at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

Uli explains, “I think having plants that people can actually see and then combine that with good interpretation to tell people about the story of the plant are really powerful ways to get people to have some kind of value for not just the plant itself, but the hope is that they extend that same set of values to protecting habitat and wild places.” With a little under a million worldwide visitors coming to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden every year, there seems to be an opportunity for many people to be exposed to this plant as a small example of a greater effort for the conservation of endangered species.


Interpretive signage in the native flora garden describing the sensitive habitat of hart’s-tongue fern. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

After touring the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I was able to visit the second new home for these Central New York ferns. Local Office Landscape and Urban Design has come up with a unique designed experiment, now three years in the making, which features a variety of rare, native plants integrated into the wall and rooftop of a recently renovated residential building.


Five-story high residential building featuring the Greenwall in Manhattan. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

The Greenwall Project in Manhattan brings three upstate New York climates to the heart of the city, from the “cliff bottom” or “cave dwellers,” to the “cliff face” and reaching high to the “cliff top” of this five-story building. “Some of the habitats or microclimates, if you will, on this building are very close to a lot of the habitats that we find just outside the city or further upstate” says Walter Meyer, an urban designer for  Local Office Landscape and Urban Design and professor at Parson’s New School. These plants require very specific conditions, such as levels of moisture, wind and light, meaning this project was not as simple as putting soil in pots on a wall.
Meyer describes the Greenwall project as the “perfect canvas” for conservation with the American hart’s-tongue fern as a “poster child.” Meyer explains,“It is the Canary in the Coal Mine for climate change, meaning it’s one of the most exposed species in New York State to climate change.” With the threat of warming temperatures everywhere, there are increasingly fewer places for such a sensitive species with specific habitat requirements to thrive.


Walter Meyer on the roof of the Greenwall site, where a variety of “cliff top” plants are being grown. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

“Typically in science, biology, conservation, a lot of [experiments] are done in labs and the publications are for small circles to be peer-reviewed, but I think there are opportunities where certain lab experiments should start to influence public policy. And when you start to influence the mainstream and public policy, you get more funding opportunities, so it’s a self-feeding loop of funding science in response to climate change and loss of biodiversity,” says Meyer.


American hart’s-tongue fern, strategically placed near the bottom of the Greenwall. Photo: Justin Dalaba, USFWS.

“It’s sort of the perfect species,” says Meyer of the American hart’s tongue fern. He explains that If we had writers, artists, journalists, regulators, policy makers, and decision makers all exposed to such a beautiful plant that is so important to New York State’s biodiversity, it can have an impact on many levels, culturally and ecologically. With the plant and information available at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, many city-dwellers and visitors have the opportunity to relate more closely to an important conservation issue through this iconic plant.

Happy 40th, Endangered Species Act!


We know… 40th birthdays are branded as “over the hill.”

But when it comes to the Endangered Species Act, we just don’t agree (that’s not saying we agree that other 40th birthdays are over the hill, either!). With much of its work just getting started, the Endangered Species Act is much more “40 and fierce.”

Endangered species recovery is complex and difficult work, often requiring substantial time and resources. Just as it takes a long time for species to reach the brink of extinction, it takes a long time to bring them back. Many of the endangered species that have fully recovered were the original species protected under the ESA.

Forty years of hard, dedicated work by federal and state agencies, state and local governments, conservation organizations and private citizens have reaped much success for threatened and endangered wildlife.

We’ve got a lot to be proud of. As we near the anniversary on Friday, we’re celebrating the wildlife that has benefited from the protection of one of the world’s most important conservation laws.

Here are some Northeast state-by-state snapshots (click the links for stories).


Endangered roseate terns. Habitat for northeastern U.S. roseate terns has been greatly reduced by human activity and development on barrier islands, predation and competition from expanding numbers of large gulls. Credit: USFWS

CONNECTICUT provides homes to nearly 20 imperiled species, from the roseate tern to the bog turtle and Indiana bat. A portion of Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge has protected threatened tiger beetles (and migrating songbirds); restoration of Long Beach West returned the barrier beach to the threatened piping plover and other shorebirds; and a team is watching over one of the last remaining healthy populations of the endangered dwarf wedgemussel, found in the Lower Farmington River.


A loggerhead hatchling emerges from its nest and begins its seaward journey. The greatest cause of decline and the continuing primary threat to loggerhead turtle populations worldwide is incidental capture in fishing gear, primarily in longlines and gillnets, but also in trawls, traps and pots, and dredges. Credit: USFWS

DELAWARE provides homes to over 15 imperiled species, from the swamp pink lily to the shortnose sturgeon and nesting loggerhead sea turtles. Biologists translocated endangered Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrels to Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and just last year, our analysis showed the species has recovered and suggested removing it from the endangered species list! The Delaware Bay is arguably the most important spring stopover for one of the longest-distance migrants in the entire animal kingdom, the red knot. We proposed to protect the knot as threatened under the ESA, and the Delaware conservation community is out to ensure the Bay continues to provide that crucial place for resting and feeding.


This photo of a Canada lynx kitten is from den surveys conducted by our agency and Maine Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in the boreal forests of northern Maine. Credit: USFWS

MAINE also provides homes to over 15 imperiled species, from the Furbish’s lousewort plant to the Canada lynx and spawning Atlantic sturgeon.  Maine’s only cottontail, the New England cottontail, is a candidate under review for endangered species protection, and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, along with other partners and private landowners, is restoring its young forest habitat. Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery has cultured Atlantic salmon for over a century, and partnering organizations are working on restoring the free-flowing rivers, such as the Penobscot, on which endangered salmon depend.


The greatest threats to the bog turtle are the loss, degradation and fragmentation of its habitat from wetland alteration, development, pollution, invasive species and advanced plant growth. The species is also threatened by poaching—collection for illegal wildlife trade. Credit: USFWS

MARYLAND provides homes to more than 25 imperiled species, from the Maryland darter to the sandplain gerardia plant and Kenk’s ampipod. Landowners have partnered with our agency and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve their wetlands for North America’s tiniest turtle, the threatened bog turtle. In 1967, when the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel was listed, it could be found in only a handful of counties in the state, and after officials closed the hunting season and re-introduced it to several large farms, populations began to thrive! The Puritan tiger beetle has only four populations, one which is on eroding cliffs in Calvert County and another along the Sassafras River. An interagency team and federal grant funding has made substantial progress in meeting the needs of landowners while promoting the species recovery.


Piping plovers were common along the Atlantic Coast during much of the 19th century, but nearly disappeared due to excessive hunting for the millinery trade. Following passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, numbers recovered to a 20th-century peak in the 1940s. The current population decline is attributed to increased development and recreational use of beaches since the end of World War II. Credit: Diane Fletcher, Friends of Ellisville Marsh

MASSACHUSETTS provides homes to 20 imperiled species, from the northern red-bellied cooter to the roseate tern and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Friends of Ellisville Marsh have provided a community model to protect piping plovers, and volunteers like Judy Besancon on Newbury Beach keep an eye on plover nests. Every year, volunteers scan the Cape Cod beaches to save stranded, endangered sea turtles. Populations of the state’s only native rabbit, the New England cottontail, have dwindled as its young, regenerating forest habitat has disappeared. Experts are using controlled burns to restore this early stage of forest in places like Mashpee.


The Karner blue butterfly, an endangered species, is a small butterfly that lives in oak savannas and pine barren ecosystems from eastern Minnesota and eastward to the Atlantic seaboard. Habitat throughout the range of the Karner blue has been lost through human activity to suppress wildfire, cultivate forests and develop communities. Credit: USFWS

NEW HAMPSHIRE provides homes to nearly 15 imperiled species, from the northeastern bulrush to the Karner blue butterfly and red knot. A strong partnership to protect habitat and rear seeds in captivity kept the quarter-sized Robbins’ cinquefoil flower from extinction and ensured its future on the slopes of the White Mountains. In areas across southern New Hampshire, efforts are underway to conserve the natural habitat of the region’s only native rabbit, the New England cottontail. Much of the life history of the endangered small whorled pogonia remains a mystery, but recent efforts in New Hampshire have clued biologists in to this rare woodland orchid’s specific habitat needs.

Tagged red knot. Mispillion Harbor, Delaware. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

Some red knots migrate up to 9,300 miles one way, from the southern tip of South America, along the U.S. coast and up to the Canadian Arctic. Changing climate conditions are already affecting the bird’s food supply, the timing of its migration and its breeding habitat in the Arctic. The shorebird also is losing areas along its range due to sea level rise, shoreline projects, and development. Credit: Gregory Breese/USFWS

NEW JERSEY provides homes to over 20 imperiled species, from the Hirst brothers’ panic grass to the red knot and the Knieskern’s beaked-rush plant. In 1993, biologists confirmed a newly discovered colony of endangered Indiana bats in an abandoned mine near Hibernia, and surveys at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge have helped us understand the impacts of white-nose syndrome on the species. New Jersey almost lost its bald eagle population by 1980, but state and federal wildlife agencies creatively put the eagle on the road to recovery. Law enforcement have helped protect threatened bog turtles through investigation of ESA violations, and partnerships with private landowners and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service have improved and protected their unique wetland habitat.


The bald eagle holds the greatest endangered species success story, recovering from 417 nesting pairs in 1963 to more than 10,000 nesting pairs today. Credit: USFWS

NEW YORK provides homes to nearly 30 imperiled species, from the Houghton’s goldenrod plant to the clubshell mussel and (recently proposed for ESA protection) northern long-eared bat. Researchers are finding ways to cultivate the threatened American hart’s-tongue fern in the lab and plant them at suitable sites in New York, home to the largest population of this fern in the entire country! It’s not easy to love a rattlesnake (though we do!), but the eastern massasauga’s numbers here have dwindled. Biologists are returning what it needs most — a home. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve, National Grid, our agency and the state wildlife agency have come together to protect habitat for the endangered Karner blue butterfly (the Preserve releases captive-bred butterflies, too!). Last, certainly the tiniest and most difficult to pronounce but not least, is the Chittenango ovate amber snail. Partners are keeping an eye on the only known living population of this snail.


Kind of looks like a face, right? The threatened small whorled pogonia is one of the nation’s rarest native orchids. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons, NC Orchid

PENNSYLVANIA provides homes to more than 15 imperiled species, from the Virginia spiraea plant to the sheepnose and snuffbox freshwater mussels. Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge was established, in part, to protect threatened bog turtles and their habitat; this year, a natural resource damages settlement helped add 90 acres to the refuge! Additionally, a voluntary program helps landowners restore their wetlands with bog turtle habitat. Our Northeast Fishery Center scientists are following endangered Atlantic sturgeon in hopes of protecting and restoring their habitat. Last year, we worked with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and other folks to replace a bridge and transplant the protected mussels in Illinois, Ohio and West Virginia waters.


The New England cottontail, New England’s only native rabbit, is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The species has declined primarily due to loss of its young forest and shrubland habitat. Credit: USFWS

RHODE ISLAND provides homes to nearly 15 imperiled species, from the sandplain gerardia plant to the shortnose sturgeon and foraging leatherback sea turtles. The Roger Williams Park Zoo runs captive breeding programs for both the New England cottontail and American burying beetle, whose last remaining wild beetle population in New England is on Block Island. Avalonia Land Conservancy, our agency and locals have found a way to balance recreational use and conservation of threatened piping plovers and other shorebirds at Sandy Point Island.

The Jesup's milk vetch. Credit: Lisa Mattei, New England Wild Flower Society

The Jesup’s milk vetch is found in only three locations along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and Vermont. Credit: Lisa Mattei, New England Wild Flower Society

VERMONT provides homes to six imperiled species, including the dwarf wedgemussel, the northeastern bulrush plant and the (recently proposed for ESA protection) northern long-eared bat. What were threatened Canada lynx doing in Vermont last year? Biologists are surveying for these secretive creatures to understand the best ways to conserve the species. Ice, floods, drought, and invasions–and the endangered Jesup’s milk-vetch hangs on, thanks to a helping hand from wildlife agencies and partners. In 2001, biologists found that Indiana bats come from New York to summer in the Lake Champlain Valley; this information would become vital when white-nose syndrome hit years later.

Holding mussels

Endangered mussels bound for release in the Powell River. Credit: Gary Peeples/USFWS

VIRGINIA provides homes to more than 70 imperiled species, from the Virginia sneezeweed to the spruce-fire moss spider and Carolina northern flying squirrel. The yellowfin madtom was thought to be extinct here; after its rediscovery, biologists set out to ensure its future in the state, and its range in one river may now extend more than 60 miles! Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge has supported nesting sea turtles for 30 years on the shore of Virginia Beach. The Madison cave isopod isn’t cute and fluffy, but protecting this crustacean has meant safeguarding our water supply. In September 2010, biologists, students and other volunteers put on the largest release of endangered mussels to date in the eastern U.S. (and the work continues!).


The entire range of the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander is 935 square miles, the approximate area of Kanawha County in West Virginia. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons, Kerry Wixted

WEST VIRGINIA provides homes to more than 20 imperiled species, from the shale barren rock cress plant to to the pink mucket mussel and Virginia big-eared bat. Remember those mussels that were moved to West Virginia from a Pennsylvania bridge project? They included the endangered northern riffleshell. We worked with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to install a bat-friendly gate on Trout Cave, a hotspot for hibernating endangered Virginia big-eared bats. We’re also part of the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, which continues to restore the high-elevation red spruce habitat needed by the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander and recovered West Virginia northern flying squirrel.

Whew! Like, we said, a lot to be proud of! And we’re gearing up for a whole suite of efforts in 2014.

Forty and fierce, definitely.

Pots of young American hart's-tongue fern sporophytes. Once the plants grow larger and are able to withstand the changing temperatures, they will be planted at Clark Reservation, or another appropriate site. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

New York plant pride

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

Are a plant enthusiast? (Or maybe you have a lot of New York pride). Either way, you’ll be happy to know that our state is home to the largest population of American hart’s-tongue fern in the entire country! 

This fern was placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1993 after quarrying operations and collecting decimated its population. Quarries operated at the same sites as several American hart’s-tongue fern locations between 1924 and 1935, destroying habitat in those areas. The fern was also historically very popular as an ornamental plant because of its unique size and shape.

Now, it’s found in only 28 locations across the U.S., with about 70 percent of the population in New York. 

Our office is responsible for monitoring and protecting American hart’s-tongue fern populations across the country, and we teamed with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry to conduct exciting new research.  We’re trying to cultivate plants in the lab and plant them at suitable sites in New York, and eventually in other states.

Dr. Danilo Fernando and Dr. Donald Leopold started their project two years ago with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative administered by our office.

Dr. Danilo Fernando checking his plants at the SUNY-ESF lab. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Dr. Danilo Fernando checking his plants at the SUNY-ESF lab. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Here’s the process.

  • Spores (like fern seeds) were taken from Clark Reservation, near Syracuse, N.Y., and were planted in petri dishes in a temperature and light-controlled lab.
  • The spores grow into gametophytes: small heart-shaped, leaf-like structures that contain sperm and egg cells; this allows the gametophyte to reproduce on its own.
  • The gametophyte will release sperm and expose the egg.
  • Once fertilized, the egg forms into a zygote that will develop a root, stem and leaf that extend through the gap at the top of the gametophyte.
  • It’s now a sporophyte (a mature plant that produces spores) and is what we recognize when we see a fern.
Petri dishes full of American hart's-tongue fern gametophytes. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Petri dishes full of American hart’s-tongue fern gametophytes. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

But that’s not where the work ends. Once a sporophyte emerges, it is removed from the petri dish, placed in an individual pot where Dr. Fernando can measure its growth, and returned to another temperature and light-controlled room with other sporophytes. The room temperature resembles seasons, and Dr. Fernando monitors how well the sporophytes respond to the changing temperatures.

Once the sporophytes mature, Dr. Fernando will transfer the pots to a greenhouse located on top of SUNY-ESF’s Illick Hall (the same building the lab is located in). There, the plants will be given the opportunity to respond to irregular temperature fluctuations, similar to what they will experience when transplanted. If they don’t respond well, he can simply transfer the sporophytes back to the lab until they are ready to try again.

“If I leave the sporophytes outside too soon when they are not ready, the entire two year experiment will be a waste, so I want to take as much care as possible,” Fernando explained.

He hopes the sporophytes will be ready for planting in Clark Reservation or another site by next summer.

Pots of young American hart's-tongue fern sporophytes. Once the plants grow larger and are able to withstand the changing temperatures, they will be planted at Clark Reservation, or another appropriate site. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Pots of young American hart’s-tongue fern sporophytes. Once the plants grow larger and are able to withstand the changing temperatures, they will be planted at Clark Reservation, or another appropriate site. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Meanwhile, Dr. Leopold is developing models of the fern’s habitat based on the different soil, forest, and climatic variables that influence its growth and reproduction across New York. Researchers can then use GIS to match the suitable site characteristics of Clark Reservation with additional areas that can support the plant.

If all goes well, the experiment will be repeated in other states that were historically home to the fern. With the work of researchers like Dr. Fernando and Dr. Leopold, and support from the public, the plant could once again grow wild across the U.S.

Let’s keep New York beautiful and wild by preserving American hart’s-tongue fern!