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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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.  

The Bison of Yellowstone ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part 1

“Advice from a bison:  Stand your ground; have a tough hide; keep moving on; cherish wide open spaces; have a strong spirit; roam wild and free; let the chips fall where they may!”  ~  Ilan Shamir

Our summer volunteering gig in Yellowstone National Park has drawn to a close, a bittersweet moment for us as we hung up bus keys for the last time and helped pack up the ranch.  Our final days slowed to a leisurely pace as the crisp morning air announced the onset of fall.  As we drove away from the Lamar Buffalo Ranch we agreed that this magical place had seeped into our souls.  Without a doubt this summer, this park, has changed me.

One of many wonderful sunsets viewed from the ranch.

We are comfortably snuggled into a condo in the mountains of Colorado until we move to the big city of  Denver later this month for a family gathering, so it seems the best time to reflect upon a summer of learning and meeting some of the most interesting people who have ever crossed our paths.  We are always grateful to reconnect with old friends and meet other like-minded folks, and we did much of both these past several months.  What a soul-enriching summer it has been!

We each supported a dozen field seminars this summer and, if asked, I could not choose my favorite, although the ‘Bison of Yellowstone‘ has always stayed near the top of my list.  With two iconic instructors leading the course – Jim Garry, the consummate storyteller and expert of all things Yellowstone, and Harold Picton, one of the most seasoned Yellowstone Forever instructors and PhD bison extraordinaire, it made for a fascinating three days.  I have been so captivated by these big, beautiful beasts that I couldn’t stop reading about them, consuming four books this summer, my favorite being “The American Bison”, by Dale Lott.

A bison strolling through the ranch early in the summer, prior to losing his winter coat.
Yearling bison with a cowbird hitchhiker, who eats insects off the ground around the bison’s head.

Although so many who come to this first ever national park are in search of grizzly and wolf, and I too loved watching them through our spotting scopes at the ranch, I have always loved the bison, proud symbol of our American West.  After supporting this class, which took place during the bison rut, the love affair has only grown.

Who wouldn’t love this prehistoric-looking creature, whose history dates back over two million years to Eurasia? They have a long, beleaguered history and, with all they have endured through the centuries, they have still cleverly learned to adapt to their current environment.  Their complex anatomy allows them to thrive where other species would falter.  They have a blood supply that acts as a great temperature regulating system, cooling their brain as they expel water through their nose.  Their digestive system is a regular ecosystem, allowing them to eat various types of plants and grasses easily.  And due to the heavy insulation on their front-end, they fare far better in winter than other wildlife, with little change to their metabolism until temperatures dip to -40ºF.

A little red dog with mom, just a few weeks after birth.
Red dog with little horn buds.
No longer red but still being nursed by mom.

Each season provides an interesting study into the life of a bison – spring, when the calving occurs and the “red dogs” can be seen frolicking in the lush green grasses; summer, when the bulls become more agitated as they march towards the “rut”, the breeding season when testosterone-laden bulls strut their stuff and display their male dominance; fall, when the cows and calves band together and bulls begin their solitary foraging months, preparing for the desolate cold to come; and winter, when the bitter cold winds and the predatory wolf determine who will survive.

A small part of a larger herd seen in the Lamar Valley.

When I look upon the vast Lamar Valley dotted with bison, it is difficult to believe that in the early 19th century this herd had dwindled to no more than two dozen head, due to unconstrained poaching in the park. Today the herd has grown to ~ 4,000 in the northern range and roughly 5,200 throughout the park, thanks to the creation of the Lamar Buffalo Ranch around 1907.  There are no cattle genes in this herd, unlike all others, making it possibly the only true wild herd remaining and the herd with the greatest chance of survival.  Disease and sterility are the greatest threats to herds not truly ‘wild’.

A beautiful bull and his affectionate cow seen on the ranch during the rut.

Living at the Buffalo Ranch these past four months provided us with the rare opportunity to witness bison behavior up-close, from the safety of our cabin or the bunkhouse.  On many occasions large numbers of these beautiful animals, bulls, cows, and calves alike, graced us as they wandered across the campus.   Their presence reminded us that this is their home and we are just mere visitors.

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.

Next Up:  The rut, filled with bison love and aggression.

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

Citizen Science ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife.  To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research.  Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”  ~  Rachel Carson

I recently had the opportunity to support one of Yellowstone Forever’s naturalist programs, Citizen Science.  Although I have now supported many field seminars, this program continues to evoke special memories for me. Along with seeing breathtaking sights, as we do with all programs; e.g. wildlife, birds, plants, etc., and studying new and interesting topics, this was an opportunity to take the knowledge and data we collected and give back.  The research we conducted and data we garnered from the field was passed to the National Park Service, with whom we have a collaborative relationship.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is the name given to projects and activities sponsored by a broad array of organizations, state and local government, community environmental groups, and international organizations.  It is a wonderful way for “non-scientists” to make a difference.  Citizen Science programs allow the average layperson to contribute to scientific studies by supporting professional researchers.

Who can participate?

Volunteers of all ages who are concerned with the environment can participate in Citizen Science programs.

The Citizen Science program I supported through our Yellowstone Forever field seminar was three-pronged.  The first day we hiked to a one-hundred meter transect that had been laid out earlier by our instructor, Joshua.  We collected data on the specific wildflowers we located there, broken down into quadrants.

Students inspecting wildflowers along the transect

Our second day was focused on the invertebrates feeding and pollinating these wildflowers.  This study was led by the park entomologist, Erik.  We set up pit-fall traps at the transect the evening before and the next morning hiked back to the transect, doing net-sweeping to capture insects in the area, checking and emptying our pit-falls to see which insects had visited the previous night, and participating in timed observations to see which insects were actively pollinating the plants.  We returned to the classroom to look at these interesting little invertebrates under the microscope and learned how to mount insect samples, like you might find in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Our final day found us gleefully standing in the pouring rain and hail to study collared cow bison.  This bison survey was led again by Joshua.  Our research took us to a specific area of the park where telemetry had given him the information we needed to locate the collared cows within a herd.  Our task was to count how many cows, bulls, and yearlings we found, determine if the collared cows had any calves, and collect fresh scat and grasses found in the area where the herd was congregated.

Many of the yearlings were quite inquisitive but never aggressive as we approached.  It bears mentioning that wildlife should not be approached in this manner without a professional guiding the way.  It took some time for us to determine if one little “red dog” belonged to the collared cow, but eventually the adorable little calf wandered over to mom, touching noses, a tender moment that registered success.  We collected our necessary samples and moved along, letting the bison do what they do best, munch their way across the meadow.

We had an incredible three days, learned an immense amount about the landscape we walked, and left with the students feeling euphoric about what had been accomplished.

If you have a passion for nature and would love to give back, here are a few organizations that have established Citizen Science programs, also known in some circles as Citizen Naturalists:

Look for Citizen Science programs in your area.  Happy researching!

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

Intro to Wolf Management & Ecology ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series

After a few weeks of preparation, it was finally time to support my first field seminar, Intro to Wolf Management and Ecology.  Since the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995, debates relative to this alluring creature have been tireless and complex.  Wolf watchers in the park are enamored by them, ranchers and hunters not so much.

Sunrise at Slough Creek, site of an active wolf den.

I had heard several park employee discussions on the topic of reintroduction of the wolf, namely Doug Smith, project leader for the Wolf Restoration Project, since our arrival to the park.  He has studied wolves for the past 20+ years and still brings the same passion to the topic as he did as a Yellowstone freshman.  I was anxious to hear some fresh views on this subject from our class instructor, Jon Trapp.  Beyond  embracing many of the views presented by Doug, Jon also spoke on the topic of wolf denning, subject of his master’s thesis.

Our classroom time took us through the past couple of decades since reintroduction, how many of the wolves have been collared and tracked, the family dynamics of how they hunt together, and what happens when an alpha member of the pack is killed.  It was most informative and supporting this field seminar added another dimension to my time at the Buffalo Ranch.

Field time at the Slough Creek den

Wolves get a bad rap, some of it deserved, as they do kill some livestock.  No rancher wants to work hard to grow their herd, only to have a predator take from him.  The good news is that when this happens, the rancher is compensated for his loss.

Hunters who share the sentiment that the only good wolf is a dead wolf feel that the elk population has been jeopardized by the reintroduction of the wolf.  It is true that the mainstay of the Yellowstone wolf’s diet is elk; however, statistics have shown that many more elk are taken down by cougars than wolves.  I learned that 85-95% of the time when hunting an elk, the wolf is not successful, and their elk hunting is compensatory, killing weaker elk who were most likely going to die anyway.

Instructor Jon Trapp balanced over an abandoned wolf den

Our field studies were the most exciting, taking us to an area of the park where we could view an active wolf den using spotting scopes.  Watching the pups emerge from the den, tumbling over one another, frolicking in the sunlight, delighted us all.  Jon also took us to one of the first acclimation pens, Rose Creek, where we read the story of the first alpha female to the reintroduced to the park.  On another outing we inspected an abandoned wolf den.

With the wolf’s return to the world’s first national park, Yellowstone has regained its balance of historic mammals and is now described as the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate world.  We now see this region as it was before the Europeans arrived.

Biologists and scientists spend significant time in the field tracking the wolves of Yellowstone, but in the end what matters most is that we carved out another little piece of wildness with their reintroduction.  We need these wild spaces, their coarseness, erratic ebbs and flows, the magic and mystery.

Photo of the white wolf from September 2010, recently shot and killed within Yellowstone NP.

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

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