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Animal, Mineral, Vegetable, Microbe: Parsing NJ’s Potential State Symbols

Will the Pine Barrens tree frog, horseshoe crab, Tom Edison, franklinite, and Streptomyces griseus — among others — join the bog turtle as official symbols of the Garden State?

Pine Barrens tree frog
Pine Barrens tree frog

While lawmakers argue the merits of their state budget plans, New Jersey’s elementary school students saw their legislative work pay off this week: Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday designated the endangered bog turtle as the official state reptile.

“This is a totally cool moment for me,” Murphy said at the bill signing. “I think after this, let’s all have a shell-a-bration.”

The bog turtle joins a long and quirky list that includes the state dance (square), seashell (knobbed whelk), tall ship (A.J. Meerwald), and dinosaur (Hadrosaurus foulkii).

More traditional symbols include the state animal (horse), bird (eastern goldfinch), insect (honeybee), butterfly (black swallowtail), flower (violet), fish (brook trout), and fruit (highbush blueberry). There is a state tree, northern red oak, and a state “memorial” tree, dogwood.

Symbols silly and serious

The official state symbol designation may seem silly, but lawmakers push these bills with many intentions: publicizing and protecting endangered species, memorializing a moment in history, recognizing the economic impact something (or someone) has had on the state.

The bog turtle was helped along by a fierce and organized Riverside Elementary school class and a vibrant social media presence. Fourth graders at Veteran's Memorial Elementary School in Brick also helped pass legislation designating the blueberry the state fruit in 2004.

“When students realized that New Jersey did not have a state reptile of its own, we all decided that this was a matter that needed our immediate attention.” said fifth grader Jamie Acevedo at the bill signing.

“We have been told that there are very few bills in the New Jersey Legislature that could ever pass a unanimous vote and we are very grateful that Democrats and Republicans can come together and support this effort,” said Jeremy Wachtell a fellow fifth grader. “We have also reached out to other schools across our state, and the majority of students have chosen the adorable and critically endangered bog turtle to be our best reptile representative.”

Still, although the bog turtle has swum through the legislative process, there are many more potential New Jersey symbols languishing in committees right now that are having trouble getting the legislature’s attention.

Here is a list of all pending state symbols, be they animal, mineral, or vegetable — along with the relevant legislation:

1. The Pine Barrens tree frog

The Pine Barrens tree frog is considered by many herpetologists to be one of the most beautiful frogs in the United States. The medium-sized, bright-green tree frog has a bold purple stripe down the side. One is featured on the Motor Vehicle Commission’s State Pinelands license plate and is the subject of an Andy Warhol silkscreen.

The amphibian was once high on the list of endangered species due to destruction of its natural habitat in the late 1970s, but thanks to preservation efforts and a hospitable climate, it was upgraded in 2003 from an endangered species to a threatened species.

According to the bill, “The Pine Barrens tree frog represents the qualities of resilience and fidelity and is an exemplary choice for the State Amphibian.”

2. Common eastern bumble bee

Common eastern bumble bee

The common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) is a furry yellow-and-black bee often seen with its head in a flower. Crucial to ecosystems up and down the East Coast from Maine to Florida, they are especially vital in the growth of New Jersey’s major agricultural products: blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, and peppers. The state has already named the honey bee its official insect, but lawmakers are seeking to increase it public profile.

Unfortunately, habitat loss, parasites, invasive species, and colony-collapse disorder have led to a serious population decline over the years.

The bill’s sponsors, Assemblymen Ron Dancer (R-Ocean), Adam Taliaferro (D-Gloucester), Parker Space (R-Sussex), Bob Andrezejczak (D-Cape May), and Eric Houghtaling (D-Monmouth) are hopeful that the official designation will remind New Jerseyans to treat bumble bees kindly as the summer continue.

3. The Horseshoe crab

Horseshoe crab

The horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) is an invertebrate sometimes known as a “living fossil.” These resilient hard-shelled creatures have survived more than 300 million years despite habitat loss and aggressive human attacks: Millions over the years for bait, fertilizer, and biomedical testing.

They spawn in the greatest concentration is found along the Delaware Bay shore, following Cape May through Elsinboro on the New Jersey side. Horseshoe crabs offer two remarkable benefits for New Jersey: They feed migrating shorebirds and supply biomedical companies with a vaccine-safety test.

The number of migrating shorebirds has been rapidly declining over the years, causing biologists to fear a deadly and impending global wave of extinctions. Their marathon migration takes them from the southern tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic —over 6,000 miles. Finding sustenance along the way is crucial; the birds rely on energy-rich horseshoe crab eggs during the journey. The Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor even holds an annual shorebird and horseshoe crab festival to celebrate both the migration and the crab-spawning season.

The blue blood of the horseshoe crab is highly valued for its ability to test contamination in vaccines. Their blood cells contain tiny amoebocytes that can detect and trap harmful bacterial endotoxins like E. coli and salmonella.

Pharmaceutical companies use the limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) test on every vaccine in the United States, as well as most worldwide. To prepare the test, companies catch adult horseshoe crabs, extract a third of their blood, and release them. Unfortunately, approximately 15 percent of the crabs don’t make it; 2016 data estimates the bleeding-mortality rate at 70,600 horseshoe crabs per year.

The NJ Department of Environmental Protection has done much to protect the crabs, including establishing an annual harvest moratorium and carrying out beach replenishment projects.

4. Little brown bat

Pine Barrens tree frog

As its name suggests, the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) is tiny. It weighs about 0.33 ounces and averages about two to four inches long. These small and helpful mammals are found all over North America but are among the most populous bats in New Jersey.

Especially active in the spring and summer, the little brown bat winters in New Jersey’s largest-known bat hibernaculum, the Hibernia Mine in Morris County. They can eat more than half their body weight in mosquitoes, beetles, gypsy moths, wasps, gnats, and other insects, reducing the need for pesticides. Experts estimate these bats can eat more than 1,000 insects an hour at peak feeding time, and nursing females can devour even more. Recent studies estimate these bats may be worth as much as $53 billion to U.S. agriculture.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources currently lists Myotis lucifugus as a species of “least concern,” though the population in New Jersey has taken an sharp decline in recent years. A 2015 count at Hibernia Mine, once home to nearly 30,000 little brown bats, recorded just 500, a 98 percent reduction.

The biggest threat to these bats is white-nose syndrome, a fungus that ravages them while they hibernate, causing wing deterioration and severe water loss. There is no effective treatment; since little brown bats only birth one pup every year, restoring the population is incredibly difficult.

5. The adoptable dog

Adoptable dog

Former Assemblyman Tim Eustace sponsored a bill to designate the “adoptable dog” as the official dog of the Garden State.

According to the New Jersey Department of Health, 33,464 dogs were impounded in 2016: 26 percent were reclaimed by owners; half were adopted; more than 8.8 percent — 2,976 — were euthanized.

The intention behind the state designation is to advocate for the adoption of dogs in animal shelters, humane societies, and rescue homes instead of purchasing through pet stores.

6. Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison

New Jersey knows him, loves him, and named a town after him. Now legislators want to codify the state’s Edison obsession by designating the “Wizard of Menlo Park” the official state inventor.

Edison’s work began in Newark in 1870, where he invented the electric pen, an early version of the copier, and the quadruplex telegraph, which could send multiple messages simultaneously over the same wire.

Western Union adopted the quadruplex as a way to supercharge the number of messages it could send without stringing new telegraph lines. Edison used the cash to move his operations to Menlo Park, where he later invented the phonograph and first commercially viable incandescent light bulbs. An 1879 New Year’s Eve demonstration on Christie Street in Menlo Park made it the first street ever to be lit by incandescent light.

He later moved to a bigger facility in West Orange, where he created the motion picture camera and a storage battery capable of powering an electric car.

The state now has several memorials dedicated to Edison including the Edison Memorial Tower in Menlo Park, the Menlo Park Laboratory Memorial, the Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, and of course Edison Township. There’s also a national historical park in West Orange with one of his factories, and Grantmont, his home in Llewellyn Park. This year, Centenary University also hosted the annual Black Maria film festival, named for Edison's original West Orange film studio, which resembled the black police wagons sometimes called “Black Marias.”

For Assemblywomen Nancy Pinkin (D-Middlesex) and Mila Jasey (D-Essex/Morris) designating him state inventor was quite the lightbulb moment.

7. Franklinite

Franklinite

Rockhounds know Franklin, as the Fluorescent Mineral Capital of the World, and lawmakers want to make that official by designating Franklinite as the state mineral.

Franklinite is a black, metallic zinc ore found in — and named after — Franklin township, home to a world-famous zinc mine. It operated for more than 250 years and yielded more than 33 million tons of high-grade zinc ore, something the bill says contributed “significantly to the economic vitality and cultural history of the State of New Jersey.”

The bill reads “In order to pay recognition to the scientific, economic, and historic importance of Franklinite, it is fitting and appropriate to designate Franklinite as the official mineral of the State of New Jersey.” The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection polled thousands of people nationwide and found 96 percent agreed.

8. Streptomyces griseus

streptomyces-griseus

Though microscopic, Streptomyces griseus managed to get stuck in committee last session, but it’s back. A bill designating the microorganism the state microbe cleared a Senate committee last week with unanimous support.

The Streptomyces griseus bacterium found in New Jersey soil was used to make streptomycin, the world’s first antibiotic to cure tuberculosis. It was discovered in 1944 at Rutgers University by Selman Waksman and won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers, an influential research program, is named for him.

Streptomyces griseus beat Azotobacter vinelandii (used to study nitrogen fixation) and Acidithiobacillus thiooxidans (a sulfur-eating bacterium found in sewer drains and cave slime) as contenders for the state designation.

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