Natural moments

These photos are from last September, a retreat that was hosted for the first-year graduate students in my program. We had a truly wonderful time getting to know each other in a setting where we ecologists are truly at our best–outside! Our weekend spanned forest and coast, and the great moments of sharing science got us started out on what turned out to be an incredible year.

As always, click on any picture to start the slideshow.

The Little Things

On a clear day, the hike to Hurricane Hill boasts views of the Olympic mountains, Vancouver Island, and even Mount Baker. Those who wander the trails on foggy days are offered sights much nearer and smaller, but no less spectacular.

The forest is my office

To an ecologist, summer means fieldwork. It’s a time to get off our computers and get on the road, migrating to wherever our research calls us. Between early morning starts and hours of outside work, long summer days get used to their fullest. This year, my summer is split between setting up a new experiment in a section of the Sierras that burned in a wildfire last year, and re-sampling my plots in Olympic National Park, Washington.

It’s wonderful being back in the Olympics. The project I’m working on here, a restoration of the Elwha river after the removal of two dams, continues to amaze me every day. The determination required by legislators, engineers, and ecologists to turn a legal decision into a reality is astonishing and motivating. In both reservoirs, plants are seeding in, growing tall in hospitable soils of the valley walls and fighting for survival in the harsher sediment on the valley floor. Take a look at how much things have changed!

The northern section of former Lake Aldwell, 2013
Aldwell reservoir, July 2013
Aldwell reservoir, July 2015
Aldwell reservoir, July 2015
Mills reservoir, July 2013
Mills reservoir, July 2013
Mills reservoir, July 2015
Mills reservoir, July 2015

Everything is bigger and greener, and yet some things don’t change: I’m still climbing around on old conifer logs, finding amazing wildlife from insects to eagles, and generally reveling in the opportunity to spend every day outdoors and call it work.

King Fire

One of my current research projects is examining how plants are regrowing in the King fire, which burned last summer. Later this summer I’ll be setting up a manipulative experiment, to see how climate affects this regrowth, but first I wanted to familiarize myself with the area.

Before the fire, these hills were mostly pine forests, with some sections of oak and a couple hillsides that were dominated by shrubs. The fire scorched through at fairly high severity, burning out all of the shrubs and flowering plants, and killing many of even the tallest pine trees. In some areas, the pines are just black poles, all their branches burned off all the way to the top. Old stumps were completely incinerated, leaving enormous holes in the dirt.

This summer, wildflowers are popping up across the region, taking advantage of the open space to grow quickly. Other areas have shrubs resprouting from the roots of dead plants, and in a couple places where cones have fallen baby pines and firs are starting to grow. The colorful flowers against the sharp black trunks is completely different from anything I’ve seen before. I’m looking forward to taking higher quality pictures later, but I wanted to share with you some shots taken last week with my field camera (which proved itself to be ash-proof as well as water-proof).

Science puzzles

Our professor tells us that he has brought in a puzzle for us today, and as he speaks his fingers tap against a shell sitting in an unlabeled box. Does anyone know what this is? he asks. It looks like a clam or a mussel shell–a bivalve, with two sides of shells that clamp closely together. Specifically, it’s one half of a scallop shell, which we can tell from shell ridges shaped like corrugated cardboard and a small triangular base where the other half would attach. And, he mentions offhand, it’s about ten million years old.

His fingers wander over the edge of the shell with a tapping that varies between uncontrolled tremor and directed sensory input. On the shell are some lighter-colored growths, clusters of barnacles, themselves now shells. Our puzzle, he tells us, is to determine whether the barnacles grew on the scallop while it was alive or after it was dead: that is, were the two species part of an interacting community, or were they separated by that all powerful fourth dimension, time?

We pass the shell around, wondering at its familiarity. You could find shells washed up on the beach today that to our untutored eyes would be indistinguishable from this ancient specimen. We looked at colors, textures, and shape before handing it on to the next classmate, shaking our heads in failure to answer the proposed question.

The shell is handed back to him and when he asks for our decisions–and the reasoning to support them–silence descends. As he encourages us to share some response, any thought, he turns the shell over and over in his tapping fingers. Inside. Outside. Inside. Outside.

And there it is, the subtle obvious difference. My answer comes out as a question: The barnacles are only growing on one side of the shell? So they must have been growing at some point when the shell was still closed? I don’t know how long it takes for scallop shells to split apart after the organism inside dies. Maybe this tells us they lived at the same time, ten million years ago?

The fingers stop spinning the scallop. Yes, he says, and puts the ancient, fossilized community back into its box.

 

After the fire

In 2013, the Rim Fire burned over 250,000 acres of forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The fire spread into Yosemite National Park, and burned right up to Tuolomne Grove, one of the park’s three ancient groves of Giant Sequoias. Thanks to some backburning efforts to clear out the brush, and mild winds on those days, all of the big trees were spared. Many of their younger neighbors, however, were not so fortunate. On my visit this spring, I was struck by the contrast of budding flowers and new growth against this charred landscape.

 

Ladybug Love

In the fall and winter months, ladybugs congregate for communal hibernation. Thousands of ladybugs cluster together in a ten meter area in grasses, under leaf litter, and on trees. This form of hibernation, called diapause in insects, also helps them save energy by becoming mostly inactive in the cold.