2017 Field Notes from Pennsylvania Mountain Natural Area Research Interns
Austin Lynn and Jacqueline Staab are the 2017 MALT research interns who along with conducting research on site, also lead summer hikes for the public. Austin and Jacqueline will be sending us updates on their work at Pennsylvania Mountain. Please find their Field Notes below.
"I am a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri. 2017 is the fourth summer I will spend on Pennsylvania Mountain conducting research on alpine plant ecology. Ecology is fascinating because of the myriad of ways different organisms can interact, and my research deals with two types of interactions, the impacts that exotic plants can exert on natives and the symbiotic relationships that insects have with pollen-producing flowers. All of my research is focused on dandelions, of which there are native North American Species that above treeline in the alpine! I am delving into the effects of exotic dandelion encroachment into native dandelion habitat, as well as differences in pollination ecology between the two species. Once I earn my PhD, my goal is to teach and mentor students at a small liberal arts college, while carrying on the summer alpine research at Pennyslvania Mountain!"
Field Notes from Austin:
The start of this field season has both brought back familiar feelings and yielded new surprises and tasks. I am working on the same sites that I have grown to love over the past four years, but now I am working with bees as well as flowers! I never paid the bees much mind before planning for this summer; I would occasionally stop to pet them as they fed on an alpine thistle or chuckle to myself as they tried to sip nectar from my blue and purple field shirt. This year however, I am exploring pollination of flowers, and what a better way to do that than to catch bees and make them forage on flowers you have selected! Working with the bees is more like a means to an end than the entire point of the project- I am curious about traits in pollen that enable it to be successful, and successful pollen must be picked up by bees and carried to another flower.
In addition to the novel bee work I have been delving into, I have been fascinated and alarmed by the accelerated pace of the progression of the field season. My research in the summer is driven entirely by phenology, or the timing of biological events. When things start to heat up and the snow melts earlier in the season, the flowers in turn bloom sooner as well. For example, I noticed one of the species of dandelions that I work with blooming at least ten days sooner than it bloomed at the same location in 2015! This makes me think not only of how global warming is intensely impacting the ecosystem, but also (and much more selfishly), it reminds me that I need to get in gear and get stuff done sooner than I had originally planned!
This past week I have been gearing up to do something that have not yet done- leave in the middle of the field season (while native alpine dandelions are revving up the blooms) to journey to the Evolution Meeting in Portland, Oregon to present my findings on the impact of the exotic dandelion on these native species. I am extremely excited to present here, as this will be the first national conference I have been to. I am especially eager present my poster and meet illustrious scientists who may present different perspectives on my research. This is important because I have enough data to present a poster, but not quite enough yet to publish a paper.
To balance my excitement for the conference, I am a bit nervous about not being in the field to conduct research. However, this year is a bit different from previous years in that I have a dedicated field assistant and a solid plan for experiments to perform. The first few years of my PhD I was always doing more exploratory work, scouting out sites and collecting samples up and down the whole Mosquito range, while this year I am mostly just on Pennsylvania with a few opportunities for exploring, especially later in the season. This is a nice change, and it makes it much more feasible to leave for a bit since I know approximately the pace that the different dandelion species at different sites will flower. I know I will have a blast meeting tons of new people and learning about exciting new research in Portland, but still I am looking forward to being back on top of Penn, delving into the dandelions!
Although I am mostly concerned with just plants and insects when I am doing field work in the alpine, occasionally certain charismatic vertebrates capture my attention when I am in the field. One of my favorite animals to run into on Pennsylvania mountain (and across the mosquito range) is the ptarmigan, or what I affectionately refer to as mountain chickens. Ptarmigans are fascinating creatures that I have spent quite a bit of time with, I usually run into them near willows and rocky areas far above the treeline. While I am not an animal biologist, I have noticed some fascinating behaviors of these creatures.
I recently encountered a group of male ptarmigan (recognized by their red eyebrow) and walked with them for at least twenty minutes, after standing still for awhile and talking to them a bit they eventually accepted me as one of their own. On the other hand, I typically have quite different interactions with female ptarmigan, especially when they have babies with them. One especially fascinating occasion, I saw a female with a large clutch of ptarmigan chicks. As soon as I approached the group, the mother bird made a loud alarm call, and all of her chicks ran to their holes! Meanwhile I watched the mother bird flop around, feigning an injury while making sad bleating sounds. In an effort to convince the bird I wasn’t a threat, I sat down next to it, which it eventually tolerated and allowed me to take some awesome close-ups. After awhile, I got up to leave and my feathered friend called her chicks to come out of their holes. Intrigued, I tried to take a video of the chicks, but the mother hen attacked me, charging and hissing so much that I had to run away! I suppose this is one of the reasons I work with plants, to avoid being attacked by mountain chickens.
This past week I have been working on many different projects, but perhaps the most exciting one involves “fishing” for ants! During my previous years studying dandelions, I have witnessed many ants drinking nectar and eating pollen from the flowers, and now I am trying to discover if these flower visiting ants (Formica neorufibarbus gelida) have any preference for either the native or exotic dandelions. Given that the ants have been evolving with the native for millennia, while they have only been in contact with the exotic for a few hundred years, I expect them to favor the native plant. To figure out if the ants have a discerning palate, I attach two tubes to the end of a fishing pole, one with the exotic and one with the native dandelion, and then I present the flowers to the ants in the wild and wait for them to choose!
Ants are especially interesting as flower visitors because they usually make poor pollinators. Instead, ants typically engage in a less than friendly relationship with the flowers, acting as nectar or pollen thieves. There is however, a third possibility. Even if the ants are stealing nectar without pollenating the plant, they may be defending the flower from other worse flower-chewers! Figuring out what exactly the ants out here mean to the dandelions is the focus of yet another project, which you can learn more about once my research assistant Ellie and I get the paper published!
The practice of science, while seeming endlessly precise and meticulous, is just as fraught with errors and mistakes as the rest of our daily lives. While I have had many experiences with the kinds of mistakes that can occur during scientific inquiry, a recent occurrence spurred me to think of this. I recently lost a set of samples- I had them sitting in water picks and they fell out of my car, leaving me unable to match the flowers to the site I had collected them from! Despite this setback, I was able to return to one of the collection sites today and resample. The project I am sampling for involves collecting dandelion seeds to look for hybridization, but it is hard to find them in the field when the seeds are fully set due to how easily they blow away! To work around this, I pluck the dandelion flower when it has closed up, and put it in water. Even disconnected from the roots and leaves, the dandelion flower will eventually (after a week or two) poof to reveal its white fluffy seeds if you put it in water!
So while I had to trudge back up mosquito pass to resample some dandelion flowers in little water picks, the timing was actually perfect because I was able to watch and cheer for the burro racers going up the pass for burro days! The burro race in Fairplay CO has been going on for 69 years, and involves an intense test of human-animal endurance, where marathon runner types pull, push, chase after, or run with a pack burro! This event offers hikers a wonderful opportunity to walk to beautiful alpine meadows and watch extreme endurance sport at its finest. And for me, it was a chance to both work and play at the same time!
"I am absolutely thrilled to be a MALT intern this summer on Mount Penn. I am originally from Morehead City, NC but have been living in Boone, NC for the past few years. I recently graduated with a degree in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology from Appalachian State University. Last summer was my first summer doing research on Mt Penn and I just couldn't wait to get back. This place lights my soul on fire. Have you ever been to a place that you've really just connected with? The Rockies are just amazing. Also, I LOVE field season. I'm happiest when surrounded by nature and that's all this place is. Plus I get to go on adventures everyday outside and hike through alpine tundras with phenomenal views and the most delicate little wild flowers (which really aren't delicate at all after all they live on the tops of mountains) or rich green forests with powerful blue rivers.This summer I will be doing preliminary research for my graduate studies. I’ve got a lot of options on what to study, but due to my borderline insane passion for bees, i’m thinking about studying something along the lines of nesting behavior and/or habitat suitability for either solitary or bumble bees."
Field Notes from Jacqueline:
I couldn’t imagine a more inspiring place to do research than here in the Colorado Rockies. They are absolutely breathtaking, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. After arriving in Colorado from North Carolina on Tuesday, I am finding it a little hard to breathe. Since I’m still in the acclimation process, I’ve been filling my time with scientific journals and books studying up for my research. I’ve also done a few scouting hikes just to see how far along we were in the season with the snow melt, bee behavior, and plant flowering. After all, I couldn’t remain this close to Mt. Penn without going. Mt. Penn is as beautiful as ever and still has some pretty big snow mounds in the krumholz area leading up to slope one but they seem to be quickly receding. I plan on officially starting my field work tomorrow continuing a pollen library I've started for alpine plants and doing some scouting for bee nests (wish me luck). I’m also waiting for my respirator to come in so I can get to some old bee boxes used for prior nesting experiments that have been stored under a porch without getting hantavirus, a virus which infects rodents without causing disease but is lethal to humans. I will use these boxes for one of my experiments to test bee preference for nesting sites.
This field season is going to be amazing and I can’t wait to share it with you! I also spent some time this week advertising our guided nature walks on Pennsylvania Mountain in and around town while raising local awareness of MALT, environmental stewardship, and conservation. The local shop owners and employees were very receptive and many plan to attend. It was really nice to get to know the awesome residents of Fairplay and Alma and to see all of their interest in our work up on Mt. Penn. I sincerely want to help the planet become a better place by sharing my passion, devotion, and appreciation of the natural world with others and inspiring them to action. I’m really glad for the opportunity to do that here in Park County.
"This week I’ve been focused on scouting bee nest sites both for solitary bees and bumblebees. I’ve definitely found some solitary bee nests but I’m unsure as to whether or not I’ve found bumblebee nests. This early in the season the bumblebee queens are out carefully inspecting and battling for nesting sites and provisioning the nests they’ve found for their brood. They generally nest in vacant holes created by other small creatures like rodents. It usually takes around a month for the 1st brood to hatch after queen emergence, which means that bee hole traffic will be increasing soon with both workers and queens using the entrances. This is when it will be easiest to find their nests.
While helping Austin’s field assistant Ellie with bees, we noticed one had what looked like a growth on one of its legs. After putting it on ice for a few minutes to calm it down, I started to inspect the leg and removed what seemed to be tree resin without hurting the bee. I collected some to analyze later in the lab and am looking forward to identifying that substance.
Flower phenology on Monday was awesome. We were on the mountain from 7:00 am to 5:30 pm counting flowers. It was a long day. There were significantly more flowers out versus last year at this time and the snow covered swale plots are quickly melting with buttercups starting to push their way through the thin snow."