Artistry Forged by Fire and Ice ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part II

“There are two kinds of truths:  the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart.  The first of these is science, and the second is art.  Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other….The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.”  ~  Raymond Thornton Chandler

Day 2 of the Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar “Observing Thermal Biology and Geology” took us to Mammoth Hot Springs, where art and the world of science collide.  Brace yourself for another geology lesson. 🙂

The geology at Mammoth Hot Springs, aka Mammoth Terraces, is older than that at Norris Geyser Basin, and without the “rotten egg” smell of hydrogen sulfide found in many of the thermal features throughout the park. Non-existent at Norris, limestone, a soft sedimentary rock with a high calcite mineral content, is found in abundance near Mammoth Hot Springs.  It is soluble in water and weak acid solution, dissolving into calcium carbonate, also known as travertine.  And it is travertine that has molded Mammoth Hot Springs in a big way.

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

Travertine is deposited here at the Mammoth Terraces faster than anywhere else on earth, at a rate of 5 mm per day or 7 feet per year.  Mammoth Hot Springs today would have looked far different to those early visitors to the park who actually climbed onto the Terraces to soak in these waters, seeking relief for their physical ailments.  In fact, travertine is being deposited at such a rapid rate that unstable rock formations have been created that often collapse under their own weight.  It is not surprising that no one is allowed onto these Terraces anymore.

As our class stood looking out over Palette Springs, found at the Mammoth Terraces, we were asked to describe what we were looking at.  I couldn’t help but feel like I had stepped onto another planet.  Almost devoid of trees, except for those left standing as ancient silent sentinels, this sculpted, terraced alabaster mountain loomed over me, capped by a dazzling cerulean sky.  Water cascaded over the edges in rivulets, and a patchwork of orange, gold, and green graced the sides and base, thanks to the work of a myriad of microbes.

Palette Springs at Mammoth Terraces. The large egg-shaped boulder on the left is Devil’s Thumb.

As at Norris Geyser Basin, microbes have created these intriguing formations.  This is how cellular life began on our planet, with microbes swimming in hot spring environments.  I have read that roughly 60% of all life on our planet is microbial, most buried deep below the soil we walk on.

Bruce Fouke, geobiologist who recently authored the book “The Art of Yellowstone Science – Mammoth Hot Springs as a Window on the Universe”, along with the help of professional photographer Tom Murphy, believes that it takes the blending of art and science to unravel the mysteries of hydrothermal features such as Mammoth Hot Springs.

Canary Springs majestically stands above the Mammoth Upper Terraces.  The white and gray travertine are older deposits.

He has said that “the water temperature, chemistry and flow at Mammoth are similar to that found on the early Earth, and the hot springs still harbor microbial life that evolved billions of years ago.”  And he should know, as he has studied this park since 1996, doing research for NASA and now through his own foundation.  He had the good fortune to meet Tom Murphy in 2008, whose photographic passion since 1975 has been in telling Yellowstone’s story in breathtaking images.  And I was fortunate to meet Tom Murphy and attend a slideshow presentation of his work several years ago, as well as listen to Bruce Fouke speak this past summer on his studies at Mammoth Hot Springs.  As volunteers we were given a copy of his new book, which I am in the process of finishing…a fascinating read.

“Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of this Earth.”  ~  Charles Darwin

There are several boardwalks surrounding both the upper and lower Terraces.  As we wandered those walkways during our class, Joshua broke down the creation of these terraces, what we were seeing above ground, and what was most likely occurring below the surface as well.  To say he bolstered the elasticity of my brain matter these two days was an understatement. 🙂

Our fearless leader Joshua challenged us to participate in active observation.

When we arrived at the Upper Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs, our naturalist assignment was made clear to us – find a pattern in color or structure and attempt to determine the microorganism involved and why the area we selected looks unlike others around it.  Huh?

This is the pool I studied for my assignment. The milky substance that floats upon the surface, then later sinks, is calcite ice.

Armed with an infrared thermometer gun, pH strips, a book identifying the characteristics of specific microbes, and a journal, we went to work. Suffice to say, this assignment challenged me, but it was a great exercise in looking beyond the surface and making observations, something we often don’t take the time to do.  And, I passed the class!

If you love the national parks and would love to learn more, check out the Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar catalog. There is something for everyone who has a passion for the natural world.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

“Humanity’s quest for a sustainable existence will define our present and future place in the universe.  The art and science of Mammoth Hot Springs provides an unexpectedly insightful vantage point from which to envision this future.”  ~ Bruce W. Fouke & Tom Murphy

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Artistry Forged by Fire and Ice ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 1

I have said time and again that this past summer was stimulating and educational for us, but I know as a blogger that my passions may not match yours so if geology isn’t your thing, feel free to look at the pretty pictures instead.  I say this as someone who gave geology a mere passing nod until I supported a couple of naturalist courses on the subject.  Now I am spellbound and will never look at Yellowstone the same, nor anywhere else for that matter, where geologic forces come together to create majestic peaks, valleys, and canyons.

I can’t say which of the Yellowstone Forever field seminars I supported was my favorite, but without a doubt I can say that the instructor who led the Thermal Biology and Geology course this summer, Joshua Theurer, is extremely bright, passionate about Yellowstone, and can hold a student’s attention like the most seasoned of instructors.  I was fully engaged in both his field seminars I supported and look forward to participating in more of his classes in the future.

Steamboat Geyser, world’s tallest active geyser, whose last major eruption occurred in Sept. 2014
Cistern Spring, which drains when Steamboat Geyser erupts. This spring grows more in one year than most do over 100 years – 1/16″.

Joshua’s “Observing Thermal Geology and Biology” course, which followed on the heels of Virginia’s “Landscape Geology” class (also wonderful), was fortuitous for me (or so I thought), giving me a leg-up, as it were…hardly. This is a complex subject, and we were required to complete an exercise before the end of the course, in order to receive credit for this naturalist class.  I could go on and on about everything I learned but instead will touch on some of the highlights, so as not to put anyone to sleep.

Imagine, if you will, the earth as an egg:

  • The outer layer of the earth, the crust, is analogous to the shell of the egg.  It is ~ 25 miles thick.  Yellowstone has a much thinner crust than average, as little as three miles thick in places.
  • The mantle, which makes up the bulk of the earth and moves in enormous convection cells, is like the egg white.  It averages about 3000 miles in thickness.
  • The core of the earth, resembling the egg yolk, is composed mostly of metals and acts as a nuclear reactor, our primary heat source.

There are about two dozen hot spots on earth, with Yellowstone being one of the largest.  The theory is that a hot spot originates at the core of the earth and doesn’t move.  The continental plates move across them.

Given the 10,000+ hydrothermal features in Yellowstone, one would assume a significant magma chamber below the park, deep in the mantle of the earth, and you would be right.  In 2011 the University of Utah’s research concluded that this chamber was at least 400 miles thick and this was all they could determine as their equipment went no further.  In 2015 they discovered a “mantle plume” of roughly 1000 miles below the original magma chamber, a reservoir 4.5 times larger than their initial discovery!  We now believe there is enough magma below Yellowstone to fill the Grand Canyon 11 times.  Although this sounds ominous, given Yellowstone is classified as a “supervolcano”, scientists don’t expect a major eruption is in the park’s near future, and feel that there would be weeks, if not months, of increased seismic activity prior to such an eruption.

Echinus Geyser, the largest acidic geyser in the world, and one of the most popular in Yellowstone.

Day one our course took us to one to the hottest and most rapidly changing thermal areas in all of Yellowstone – Norris Geyser Basin.  Mechanically it functions like other geyser basins but is far more complex, due to the converging of three fault lines beneath it.

Porcelain Basin resides within Norris and was so named for the milky color of the mineral deposits found here.

There are four types of thermal features found within the park:

  1. Hot springs – most common and have no constrictions.  Water continually circulates, preventing the water from reaching a temperature needed to produce an eruption.  The deeper the blue color, the hotter the water.  Deep blue signifies temps of at least 159º F.
  2. Geyser – around 500 in the park.  These features erupt when the gas bubbles’ surface area is so great that the water is lifted outside the reservoir.
  3. Mudpot – most acidic, with a pH of 2 or less and a limited water supply.  Gases convert rock to clay.
  4. Fumarole – known as a steam vent, and is the hottest hydrothermal feature in the park.  Water is converted to steam even before it reaches the surface, and is usually announced with a loud hissing sound.  Temperatures can reach to 280º F.  Norris’ hillsides are dotted with these steam vents.

Hot springs, geysers, and fumaroles can be found within the Norris Geyser Basin.  I am not aware of any mudpots within Norris, but some can be found just a few miles south at Artists’ Paintpots.  The varying colors found within these thermal features are due to special microbes, called thermophiles, that make their home here, and the off-putting smell (think rotten eggs) is due to the elevated levels of sulfuric acid and hydrogen sulfide gas found in the thermal features.

Thermophilic algae, known as “Cyanidium” create the bright-green color seen in this area of the Porcelain Basin in Norris.  Temperatures here average about 120º F, with a pH of 3-4.  This organism can be found nowhere else in the park.
Crater Spring

And one of my favorites…

Vixen Geyser, a sassy little gal, who is very active.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

Next Up:  Day 2 of Thermal Biology, where travertine abounds.

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Travel is…

 “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”  ~  Pico Iyer

We have returned home from our time on the road, where dreams of sinking into my comfy bed have once again become reality.  The last couple of weeks have been a flurry of activity, setting up my kitchen once again, including getting some ferments bubbling on my countertop, coordinating annual doctor visits, re-establishing a weight-training regiment (thanks to having a gym in our little community), and largely just getting back into a “normal rhythm”.

Time and again my thoughts return back to our summer in Yellowstone National Park, and then move beyond.  I find myself absorbed in what travel can do for us, beyond the stunning landscapes, to what it can do for our minds, our bodies, and our souls.  Whether travel serves as a walk in nature, a drive to a mind-blowing landscape, or a long plane ride to an exotic destination, there is ample evidence supporting the health benefits of travel.

Here are my top 10 thoughts on what travel is for me.

1/  Travel is humbling.

“Traveling tends to magnify all human emotions.” — Peter Hoeg

As I look out over a vast canyon or windswept mountain or stare up at a night sky, I feel small, yet mighty.  I feel more alive than any experience I could ever have sitting in front of a computer or television screen.  Travel opens not only my eyes, but my heart.

2/  Travel is a way to create meaningful relationships.

We are forever grateful for those we have met during our RV travels, many we know will be lifelong friends, all who have been sprinkled with the same wanderlust as have we.  And writing a travel blog has connected me with so many across this beautiful globe, many I will never meet, but who have ingrained themselves in my heart.

3/  Travel is challenging.

It forces us to endure long airport security lines, many hours of bus travel as we bump along a lonely highway, or painfully long airline flights to foreign lands.  Jet lag can zap energy, cause headaches, make one feel disoriented. But if we take a deep breath, are gentle with ourselves, and move beyond these initial challenges, we see the wide world that is open to us.  What frazzles our nerves can also expand our level of patience.  It’s called character building baby!

4/  Travel is an avenue for discovering who we are and who we want to be.

This gentle artist in Rome, Italy indulged us with a photo. How could I resist one of his paintings?

I know that I am much more open-minded than I was before my nomadic ways began.  Stepping beyond my country’s borders has given me a brand-new perspective on how I want to look at the world.  Taking a break from my norm allows me time to reflect upon my personal journey through this life.  Travel has restored my faith in humanity and broadened my world views as I have seen good reflected in the eyes of strangers.  Travel encourages philanthropy as we discover new causes and ways to assist those suffering in this world.

5/  Travel is a means for detoxing from the negative effects of social media and news feeds.

The power of the internet seen in Cirque Terre, Italy.

Although we all seem to live in the world of social media to one extent or another, disconnecting, at least for a time, is healthy for both our bodies and our minds, and can be quite liberating.  Our summer in Yellowstone forced us away from phones and computers and found us immersed in a world of  like-minded people excited about learning more about the natural world.  We met so many people we are now proud to call friends and reconnected with friends not seen for many years.  We will be eternally grateful for our time at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch and hope to do it all again soon.

6/  Travel is educational.

Whether you are hiking across an open meadow, zip-lining through the forest canopies of Costa Rica, participating in a cooking class in some foreign land, or walking the streets of a city new to you, there is always something new to learn, something exciting to embrace.  Travel is a magnificent teacher and hopefully, makes us more interesting.

7/  Travel is empowering and a confidence builder.

Travel forces us to step outside our comfort zone, as we navigate new territories, try a new activity that scares us to death, strive to learn a new language or embrace new customs.  If we don’t shrink away from these challenges, we might discover a feeling of empowerment arising.  And even if we learn only a few new words or phrases in another’s language, there is evidence to show that learning a foreign language strengthens our brains, not to mention the mental clarity that nature provides.

8/  Travel is a great story teller.

…and creates rich, lasting memories.

9/   Travel is a soul feeder.

Two ninas with a gift for me ~ Ajijic, Mexico

Need I say more?

10/  Travel is the ultimate happiness fairy!

Research shows that people who are anticipating an experience; e.g. a vacation, are much happier than those who are waiting for things, like that new iPhone.

Our lives have been forever enriched by our travels, friends met along the way, and the experiences encapsulated in our hearts.  We are already planning our next adventure.

How has travel changed you?

“Veni, vidi, amavi” ~ we came, we saw, we loved.  ~  Anonymous

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River Otters of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series

When I think of cute and cuddly mammals, both in kid and adult form, what comes to mind is the gregarious, charismatic river otter, which may be elusive but can be found in Yellowstone National Park.

I was preparing to support the river otter field seminar but I wasn’t confident we would actually see any otters.  It wasn’t that pessimism was rearing its ugly head, more that few otters had been spotted this summer.

There was a photography course running simultaneously with the river otter course and as the photographers were leaving for the field, I jokingly gave one of the instructors his marching order for the day – find river otters. His reply, “Since we are going to a lake, I guess we won’t be finding any river otters.” Ok buddy, I’m not that naïve.

Otter tracks…could sightings be in our future?

The otter class left for the field as well, hiking down to the Lamar River to scout for otters but, in lieu of the actual mammal, what greeted us was a fresh stonefly hatch. No matter how tightly I buttoned my shirt, those fat, juicy flies found their way in…lovely!  Although we found no otters that morning, we did find evidence they had been there recently – prints down by the shore, as well as denning signs and latrines.  We headed back to the ranch feeling one step closer to finding the real deal.

When the photography class returned later that morning they were gloating as they showed us photos of river otters at Trout Lake, just east of the ranch, where the cutthroat trout were spawning.  Our plan was to head there after dinner, hoping dusk would find these little cuties still romping around the lake.

Hiking around Trout Lake near dusk was lovely but devoid of otters so we headed over the hill to Buck Lake, where we found an otter trail but none in sight.  Thinking our day was going to be a bust, we hiked back over to Trout Lake and as we crested the hill we saw a mammal swimming across the lake and soon found not one but four otters on a fallen log, near the inlet where the cutthroat were spawning.  We spent two gleeful hours busily snapping photos of their antics – fishing, eating, and playing.  Nothing more would have needed to happen during this seminar and it would have been labeled a success.

Just a few stats on these little charmers:

  • The species found in Yellowstone National Park is the North American river otter.  They are a member of the weasel, badger, and marten family.
  • Mostly crepuscular, they can be best spotted at dusk or dawn.
  • They grow to an adult length of 3.5 to 4 feet and weigh from 11 – 33 lbs.
  • Long, stiff facial whiskers can detect prey, even underwater.
  • They close their ears and nostrils when swimming underwater, allowing them to easily stay under for 2-3 minutes.
  • They have large, fully webbed feet and a tail that serves as a rudder.
  • Females breed in the spring and the egg floats freely in the womb until winter, when it attaches to the uterine wall.
  • Typically 2-3 pups are birthed per litter.

We turned up ‘otterless’ the next two days but there was plenty of sign (scat) to collect, to clean and view under the microscopes, telling us on what these little guys were eating.  We were more than content with that. 🙂

Yellowstone river otters can most easily be seen in the winter, when their dark fur readily stands out against the white snow.  They do not hibernate like other park mammals, so can be seen slip sliding across the ice and snow.

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

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The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 2

It is 7:00 AM and the “Bison of Yellowstone” course is due to begin in a couple of hours.  There are a few of us mingling around the bunkhouse, enjoying our morning cup of joe.  As I look down the pathway to the cabins, I cannot believe what I am seeing.

I call over the students as I open the bunkhouse door.  A gorgeous bull bison, sporting a full beard, pompadour, and swaying pantaloons, is meandering down the walkway, heading for the bunkhouse.  His timing couldn’t be better!  He walks across the front porch and down the side of the building to the foot of the stairs at the back porch.  His behavior electrifies us as he grunts and snorts, then proceeds to urinate.  We believe he is agitated with us, as he trots off to the corner of the ranger residence next door.  He exhibits the same behavior there, then drops down, rolling in his urine.  As we look across Rose Creek, which runs through the ranch, another magnificent bull and the cow he is tending are watching, and this show is all part of the bull dominance so often displayed this time of year.  Welcome to the rut!

Beginning mid-July and continuing into the early days of September, the bison rut is on in Yellowstone.  Bulls do most of their communicating during this time of year, their breeding season.  Often during the rut the bulls could be heard from our cabins, snorts and bellows sounding more like a pride of lions.  It was eerie and exhilarating.

I watched from the bunkhouse as this bull was trying to tend “his” cow.
Here was his response to me when I opened the door to snap this photo. His bellow was hysterical.

During the rut bull bison focus their attention on the cows, trying to determine when they enter estrus, the time when they are receptive to breeding and can be impregnated.  A cow’s urine is full of information on when she is nearing ovulation.  The bull has a vomeronasal organ in the roof of his mouth than can analyze female urine and determine if she is receptive.  Sticking his nose into the cow’s urine,  he raises his head with upper lip curled, tongue reacting as if he is tasting a fine wine.  This action, called the flehmen response, is common in most ungulates.  We observed this behavior during our time in the field, after which the bull chased the female, a sure sign he felt she was ready.

So what does all this bull posturing mean during the rut?  Here are some of the questions that I had answered:

Q:  What does that raised tail mean?

A:  It could mean one of two things – charge or discharge.  When a bull or even a cow is agitated, they lift their tail into what looks like a question mark.  A raised tail is often seen on the bulls during the rut, as their testosterone levels keep them agitated much of the time.  As for the discharge, do I really need to explain that?

Two bulls…hmmm, wonder what that raised tail means? And what about that curled lip?

Q:  What’s all that rolling around in the dusty wallows about?

A:  All bulls wallow several times per day during the summer, probably ridding themselves of insects and perhaps reducing their body temperature.  No one knows for certain why a bull urinates into a wallow before rolling in it during the rut.  Perhaps he is showing his male dominance to other bulls, or is he trying to impress the gals?

Q:  How does a bull choose a female?

A:  Sorry guys, but the girl has the final say on who sires her calf.  The bull expends a lot of energy trying to “tend” a cow when he knows she is nearing estrus, but the cow is looking for a high-ranking bull, one who has been tested through a few winters, battles, predators, etc.  If she doesn’t think the guy lavishing her with attention is going to be a fit partner, she will take to running, prompting other bulls to chase her.  Who she ends up with may not be who she came to the party with.

Q:  Are bulls monogamous?

A:  Seriously, not even close.  Bulls are quite the cad, trying to impregnate as many cows as they can during the rut, in order to extend their lineage.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, they can’t be said to be good fathers either. After the rut bulls can be found alone, enjoying the warm sun, eating and ruminating, resting and preparing for the winter.  But I still love you guys!

A good-looking couple enjoying the sunshine in Hayden Valley

Q:  Now to the touchy subject of bison sex.  I don’t want to sound like a voyeur, but how does all that work?

A:  Don’t blink or you might miss it!  Bison sex takes a whole 4-5 seconds, with the bull putting his front legs over the flank of the female.  At the time of ejaculation, the force of his abdominal contraction is so strong that the bull is literally lifted off the ground, placing all 2,000 pounds of him on the cow’s back.  It’s no wonder that a cow can be seen limping for days afterwards.  It begs the question, can you blame a girl for not being that interested in sex?

Our bison class came upon this scene as we were heading to Hayden Valley to observe bison behavior. Two bulls were fighting for dominance, fur flying, stopping traffic.

Q:  How often during the rut do bulls fight, as in head-to-head combat, like we so often hear about?

A:  Surprisingly, bulls try not to fight with other bulls if possible.  They lose, on average, 200 pounds during the rut as they turn their attention to tending cows and having sex instead of eating.  Winter rapidly approaches after the rut, and they need as much energy as possible, stored as body fat, to help get them through the cold, harsh days.  Time spent fighting means time taken away from breeding and valuable energy expended.  Bulls try to modify another bull’s behavior instead, getting them to submit.  This is where all the posturing; e.g. grunts, bellows, rolling in wallows, stamping of hooves and shaking of pantaloons comes in.  The winners of this posturing don’t spare their rivals, rather themselves.  Some ecologists believe that it is typically the older bulls who are more likely to engage in battle to win the girl, as they have less to lose.   “An old bull is a bold bull”.

Because we have so much more to learn about these majestic creatures, doesn’t it make sense to preserve some wild spaces for studying them and other wildlife?

~  The Ends ~

If you are interested in learning more about the educational programs offered by Yellowstone Forever, go to www.yellowstone.org and check them out.  You won’t be disappointed.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.