I’m not crazy…I’m doing Science!

Hiking Penn Mountain

I’m not crazy…I’m doing Science!

2020 Research on Pennsylvania Mountain

Elsa Godtfredsen and Camille Oster

If you ask 22-year-old Elsa Godtfredsen what the worst thing about being a high alpine research scientist is she will immediately say “thunderstorms!” Having spent the past eight weeks conducting field research on the flanks of Pennsylvania Mountain Natural Area in Fairplay as a Mountain Area Land Trust (MALT) intern, Elsa knows first-hand the perils of turbulent weather at 12,000 feet.

Camille Oster, also a MALT intern would agree that hailstorms were unpleasant, but for her the most challenging part of this summer’s job was the cold. “I’m a warm weather person from Missouri, so I expect summer to be summer and that’s not the case on Pennsylvania Mountain!”

For the past seven years MALT has hosted research interns under the tutelage of Dr. Candi Galen from the University of Missouri. Her students as well as hundreds of scientists from universities around the country have been studying this region’s high alpine environment and ecology beginning with Dr. Galen herself in 1977. In 2013, MALT purchased 92 acres on the Pennsylvania Mountain Natural Area to ensure the protection and stewardship of this pristine high alpine region and assure its ongoing research. Camille and Elsa spent the summer doing their part to ensure that this important work continues.

Elsa hails from Bainbridge Island, Washington and graduated from Colorado College in 2019 with a degree in Organismal Biology and Ecology. Her summer research focused on how drought effects the flowering success of alpine plants by studying established clover plots growing on Pennsylvania Mountain. According to Elsa, studies have shown that there is a trend for accelerated snow melts, meaning a spike of water from snow melt earlier in the season which leads to longer periods of drought later in the summer. Elsa studied a phenomena called “phenological mismatch” referring to the time when a plant’s period of flowering does not match up with when pollinators (bumbles and bee flies) are present.

Camille who was born and raised in Missouri, graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a degree in Biological Sciences. She spent the summer managing two different projects. First, she monitored Polomonium viscosum (more commonly known as alpine skypilot), evaluating the behaviors of bees and formica ants who are frequent visitors to the purple flower. Bees prefer larger, wider flowers to pollinate while ants prefer shorter, wider flowers to “nectar rob.” Camille’s research assessed how these pressures alter flower shape in various habitats and phenology plots.

In addition, Camille studied the alpine dandelion which is frequently visited by bumble bees and bee flies, among many other insects. She compared the pollination effectiveness of the two pollinators, research that was a continuation of the experiments of Emelyn Piotter, one of MALT’s 2019 summer interns. The work was tedious as Camille shares, “Waiting around for a pollinator to show up to one plant can take anywhere from minutes to hours. If you see me staring at a plant for what seems like way too long, I’m not crazy – I’m just doing science!”

Both Elsa and Camille are passionate about their work and were thrilled with the opportunity to live in Alma and study at high elevation. Elsa said that she loved the outdoors and being in tune with the constantly changing landscape and waves of wildflowers and animal species. “I realized why I am never bored of this place. It is simply not the same mountain every day. The sky shifts between a steely grey of threatening storms to the light blue of early mornings, all within one hike. The hills have already changed their colors multiple times, new phases of flowering bursting onto the stage of rocky slopes.”

The planning, execution and independence of the field work involved in Camille and Elsa’s summer projects was a new challenge for each of them and laid the groundwork in preparing the women for the next stages of their academic careers in graduate school. Equally important, Camille and Elsa felt honored to be part of continuous high alpine scientific experiments that began in the late ’70s.
Elsa shares, “The ability to use data from a span of 40 years allows us to ask interesting and important questions about how climate change is impacting alpine plants and their pollinators. It has been a pleasure to count and observe these alpine jewels, but it is also an honor to be a part of such a long running research effort.”

MALT is grateful for the passion and commitment that Elsa and Camille brought to their research and educational pursuits and is fortunate to have had their expertise as interns.

Read their weekly field notes and learn more about MALT’s property at Pennsylvania Mountain Natural Area.

Together we’re saving the land and leaving a legacy.