Part of my research on Mount Saana is how the effects of increased nutrients on tundra plant communities depend on the presence or absence of herbivores. In the past I’ve worked in areas with cattle and elephants, but the dominant herbivore in this system is reindeer. Our first two weeks in Finland we saw a few reindeer wandering on the roads and in campgrounds. This week, a herd of hundreds moved into this area, including up and down the mountain where we work. It’s been incredible to see them in the forest, wandering on the steep cliffs, and even grazing in our study plots!
I have a really cool job where I get to spend my summers in beautiful places, hiking and looking at plants. I’ve done work in the Elwha river valley, Sierra Nevada mountains, burned California shrubland, Kenyan savannah, and more. I study how plants respond to disturbance—fire, drought, dam removal, build up of nutrients—and how those responses are shaped by other plants and by herbivores.
This summer, I’m working somewhere I’ve always wanted to go–Finnish Lapland–studying tundra plants. The project is testing how plant communities recover from years of added nutrients. It’s amazing to be so far north (the sun never sets! also, the sun never sets) in a patchwork landscape of mountains and lakes. And the tundra—the plant community itself—is incredible.
This is Mount Saana, where I’m working. From a distance, the area above the trees looks like a homogenous greenish-brownish blur. But get closer, and more and more variation reveals itself in the patchwork of ankle-heigh shrubs. Even closer, and stunning flowers pop out in all colors and shapes. Here’s a picture of one of our study plots—just a mere 25 cm x 25 cm—with 13 species growing in it!
Check out just a few of the beautiful species growing in the tundra (and the views aren’t bad either):
Even on a brief and busy trip home, we squeezed in a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Highlights of the trip included comb jellyfish, moray eels, garden eels, sea otters, and three octopuses. The deep sea exhibit was also swimming, with two sunfish joining turtles, tuna, and a school of sardines in the giant tank.
In August I got to attend a National Park Service event for volunteers who had worked on the Elwha restoration. After hiking around former Lake Mills, we visited the Elwha delta, where the river lets out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Washington and Vancouver Island. Before the dam removals, the delta beach was fairly limited. Removing the dams allowed enormous quantities of trapped sediment to move downstream, building up the beach into expanses of space for native coastal plants, birds, and other wildlife. A lagoon area has formed where thousands of seagulls were hanging out as we walked along. And I’ve been told it’s even improved the surfing options!
Someday after Whiskey Bend road is rebuilt I’d like to do a hike into the park following the Elwha upstream. How cool would it be to see the Elwha from source to sea!
Nowhere have I been so overwhelmed by the transformative, vibrant power of nature as on the Elwha river. The transformation that occurs every season since the removal of the two dams on this is mind-blowing (also road- bridge- and campground-blowing, with the river restored to unfettered flood patterns).
In this place, too, shines the strength of restoration management, as the plants brought in to supplement the natural regeneration of this area take hold and promote others to grow. The riverbank lupine shown below has improved soil quality for a variety of species that follow it–much as other nitrogen-fixing species have done on Mount St Helens. Planted woody shrubs and conifers also claim space, even the ones that die in turn enriching the soil. It’s also fantastic to see the effects of microclimates–such as the small hollows near decades-old logs where seedlings are sheltered from the wind and sun–and straight, thin rows of cottonwoods where three years ago the water pooled for just long enough for the seeds to germinate and put down their roots.
I stand in awe here.
One of my favorite things about living in Washington is getting to watch the progression of the Elwha reservoirs as the vegetation and wildlife re-establish more each year. Pictured above is the former Lake Mills in the summers of 2013 (top left), 2015 (bottom left) and 2018 (on the right).
The dams on the Elwha were removed between 2011 and 2013, and I spent the summers of 2013 and 2015 studying the plant communities that colonized the drained reservoirs. Although recent floods have closed the road to public vehicles, you can still bike or hike in to see Lake Mills. I’ve actually been there three time this summer–once hiking in from the Madison Falls parking lot, once on a Park Service organized volunteers’ event, and once hiking down 5000 feet from Hurricane Ridge. I also made additional trips out to Aldwell reservoir and the Elwha delta, both of which are more easily accessible. I’ll post more pictures from those trips as soon as I stop hiking long enough to go through all of them!
Fire–and what happens to plant communities after fire–is the core topic of my dissertation research. I’ve set up experiments in Sierra mixed-conifer forest and nutrient-poor but diversity-rich serpentine chaparral communities, and when my advisor discussed a project with prescribed fire in his study system in Kenya rangeland, I jumped at the opportunity.
For over twenty years, this project has been studying how the presence or absence of wild herbivores or cattle can affect this plant community–the acacia trees and understory grasses that grow on black cotton soil–and through them, the rodents, birds, and insects that also use this environment.
In 2013, the research team burned a section of each plot to test how past herbivory affected fire behavior, and how fire changed all of these interactions between wildlife, cattle, trees, grass, and insects. This year, we reburned all those sections to look at the effects of repeated fire, and burned a second set of sections in each plot to look at differences between fire in different years.
There were 36 burns total, each 30 x 30 meters. The whole process took our team of almost thirty people five days. Most of the crew was there not to light fire, but to keep anything outside of these sections from catching fire. In addition to the two main organizers and fire-lighters, there were people running two water tanks with hoses, people driving the trucks that pulled the water tanks, people running an even larger refill water tank–which was pulled by a tractor. Another crew wore backpacks full of water, to be able to spray any spot embers, and a final crew stayed behind after each burn, to rake apart coals or smoldering dung, and make sure all the hot spots were extinguished. Plus of course all the researchers recording temperature, wind speed, flame heights, bird movements, and tree survival.
For me, this project was a wave of experiences. This was my first time visiting anywhere in Africa and my first time working on a prescribed fire team. My original plan had been to arrive a week or so before the burning started, to have time to settle in and establish my own mini-experiment within the burn areas. However, due to concerns over the rains coming early, the entire project was moved forward, so we starting burning my second day after arriving. This meant that my first week I was trying to learn the system, help with the burns, keep ahead of the burning plan to set my experiments in the late afternoons or early mornings in the areas that would be burned the following day, and see and photograph as much nature and wildlife as I could. I didn’t have time to be jetlagged or tired from the 24 hour flight until over a week later!
From field assistants to coworkers, the team here has been absolutely amazing. Watching an unwieldy group of people with all these moving parts come together to accomplish all of these burns smoothly and safety was incredible. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way!
Mpala Ranch has two main soil types–black cotton and red soil–which host vastly different plant communities. Our research takes place on the black cotton soil, where the plant community is dominated by one tree species, the whistling thorn tree (Acacia drepanolobum). Acacias in general are known for having thorny stems and hosting mutualistic ant colonies. The whistling thorn trees have many long, straight spines on the branches, some of which have a swollen, hollow base, which ants can live inside. They also secrete nectar from the base of their leaves that ants can eat. In exchange, the ants may defend the tree against herbivores ranging from other insects to elephants.
The whistling thorn gets its name from the sound the wind makes when it blows through the holes in the hollow thorns. Other trees grown on the black cotton soil, including other acacia species, but the whistling thorn trees dominate. Underneath them grows a variety of grasses.
Many different animals use the black cotton, including wildlife (elephants, giraffe, antelope, buffalo, cheetah, lions), domestic herbivores (cattle, goats, sheep, camel), reptiles, birds, rodents, and insects. Each species affects the plant community in different ways. Grazers eat the grasses, often singling out their preferred species. Browsers pull leaves from the trees. Wood-boring beetles carve tunnels through the tree stems. Elephants will even rip up or knock over full-sized trees, possibly just because just because they find it fun.
These photos were all taken during the dry season, when the grass is brown and the trees drop most of their leaves. In a month or two it will all be vibrantly green again.
The last two years I have been working on a project at McLaughlin Natural Reserve studying the response of flowering plants and grasses to fire in shrub chaparral. The fire opens up the canopy, allowing for a large bloom of wildflowers. The reserve includes many areas with serpentine soils, soil from ultramafic rock with high magnesium, low calcium, low nutrient levels and often high levels of heavy metals, so only certain adapted species can grow on it. These serpentine regions tend to have many native California plants which have adapted over time to the harsh soils, often in very strange ways.
This year, the particularly wet conditions led to a bloom of many stunningly strange flowers in these burned patches. It’s been incredible to wander through these fields of bright colors, and to look up close at some of these strange flower forms.