Wonders of biodiversity

Rock pools_Clark Fork_Thompson Falls_Sept 2018a

 

Wonder in numbers. Biodiversity is the measure of the diversity of living systems. Once, we measured this as a simple count of species, still a very effective way to communicate the diversity and wonder of nature. Now, we measure diversity using a sophisticated calculus with researchers focusing on functional and genetic diversity. And yet we can still contribute to our knowledge and wonder of biodiversity by studying the many species that are found in those rare, unique, and unquestionably interesting habitats. Here a few such aquatic habitats.

Rocking the pool. Rock pools are temporary pools created when rain or run-off fills a small depression in the rock surface. The water needs to be present long enough for invertebrates and microbes inhabiting these systems to complete their life cycles. Insects, for example, must hatch from eggs, go through their larval stages, emerge as adults, and oviposit or lay their eggs back in the pool. The eggs often need to be resistant to desiccation or drying out. Some species are anhydrous meaning that they can completely dry out, wrinkling up like a raisin, but are still alive until water returns, rehydrating them into action. A non-biting midge larva by the auspicious name of Polypedilum vanderplanki goes through cycles of desiccation and rehydration and has the nickname Rock poolsleeping midge, but more on that species later. The pools are common in rocky areas and if you have been out hiking after a rain you probably have seen a pool or two.  Although temporary, these pools may be thought of as permanent in terms of their cycles, reappearing every year once the rains come. Some pools have a longer-term periodicity, filling once every other year or even once every ten years or so, and still, the obligate inhabitants of the pool reappear. In dryer climes, this periodicity and the short length of time the pool is present select for species that are resistant to desiccation and/or have a short life cycle. An entire community dependent on these water cycles in rock pools. This community may be composed of small crustaceans, aquatic fly larvae, fungi and bacteria, and sometimes larger shrimp. So, next time you see a rock pool, take a look to see the tiny world contained within.

Waterfall spray. Hygropetric habitats are those zones of thin water flowing over rock or soil. The water width, or depth depending on your point of view, is only a few millimeters, but this thin zone is thick enough to host a diversity of organisms. Again, fungi and bacteria, the great decomposers of ecosystems, are present. Some aquatic fly

Hygropetric 2
Photo by Debbie Baker.

larvae are able to live here or use the habitat to travel from one moss to another as in the case of some species of Tipula, a crane fly larva. Other flies, though, live just here, such as the trickle fly of the family Thaumaleidae. This larva specializes in the horizontal hygropetric zones near waterfalls or along the vertical surfaces of rock faces. The zone supports a small ecosystem including algae that are grazed by the trickle fly larvae. The unique features of water such as surface tension and cohesion allow the small larvae to live within this thin membrane, a membrane separating rock and air. Little is known about the diversity of species that live in the hygropetric zone and even less is known about their biology and life cycles. If you like the splash zones of rivers, the spray from waterfalls, or the cool, moist surfaces of vertical rock faces, then this is the habitat for you to observe and enjoy.

Islands in the stream. Phytotelmata is a term referring to the water held in plants. Phytotelma range from water held in tree boles to that found in the bottom of pitcher plants. You may be most familiar with species of Heliconia commonly sold as house plants in which the leaves grow from the stem in a coiled form to slowly open. Some plants, such as bromeliads, have flowers shaped like boats that hold water. Phytotelmata 2Many types of phytotelmata in the subtropical and tropical regions of the world hold water long enough to support a robust ecosystem of vertebrates, invertebrates, crustaceans, and microbes. Bats and frogs have been found in these habitats as have dragonfly larvae and a diversity of aquatic fly larvae. Beetles can be common here. The food web within phytotelmata begins with the breakdown of leaves that fall into the water or from the nutrients secreted by some species that form these habitats. Microbes, fungi, and sometimes algae grow, feeding invertebrates, that in term feed top predators. Each habitat is like an island. Some species may only be found in these ecosystems while others are more flexible, temporarily living in this small world. Imagine a rainforest with small clusters of phytotelmata, each isolated from the other by a distance that may seem small to us, but that is as large as an ocean to those that live within the plant-held waters.

 

Blurring the Boundary

Leaves of autumn. Boundaries may be lines, walls, roads, or shorelines. The water/land boundary of rivers is a place of exchanging energy. Leaves, particularly in autumn, fall into the river, providing food for invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria. The leaves are

Leaves broken down into coarse particles, first by shredders such as certain caddisfly or mayfly larvae, then the food (sometimes thought of as energy) becomes smaller and smaller pieces of fine particles gathered in by the likes of net spinning caddisflies and black fly larvae. Eventually the leaves become suspended or settled organic food stuff fed on by midges, for example and then broken down by fungi and bacteria into forms of nitrogen and phosphorus.

Food web 3
Roots representing  parts of a web.

The webs of life. These essential nutrients feed small algae that grow on the rocks or sand or mud or just float in the river. The algae produce oxygen for the invertebrates and fish to breath and provide another source of food. Fish feed on the invertebrates or algae or other fish. This, a smorgasbord of food, energy, and nutrients spirals in the river, in place and then heads downstream. A lovely world of shredding and grazing and gathering and breathing, hidden under the surface of the water, unknown to most people.

What lies beneath
What lies beneath?

A river runs through it, Those who fly fish are aware of this world. They make use of their knowledge of the different forms of aquatic insects to tie shapes on their fishing hooks. Then in an act of performance art they cast into the river, mimicking the movements of larvae or pupae or adult insects in the hope of luring a fish to the hook. Perhaps one of the best descriptions of this kinetic poetry is by Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It. The knowledge of aquatic ecology possessed by some who fly fish rivals the that of the most knowledgeable of aquatic ecologists. Fly fishing works because the energy exchange across the water/land boundary or ecotone goes both ways, with energy emerging from the water and into the land or terrestrial environment, often in the form of adult insects.

To mate and die, The energy literally emerges from the water in the form of adult aquatic insects leaving their natal or birth environments to mate in air only for the females to deposit or oviposit her eggs back in the water. If you live near a river you may be familiar with large emergences of heptageniid mayflies, adults filling the air, swarming, mating, and falling dead back to the land and surface of the water. Fish have a feast, but so do many land animals ranging from birds to shoreline spiders and mammals. All that energy gathered in by the insect larvae from leaves and algae and from eating the insects that feed on leaves and algae is now shared with the land, crossing the land/water ecotone. Large swarms of adult midges may emerge in synchrony, so dense and large they appear as a cloud on the water or along the shore. The males swarm, waiting for females to fly through the swarm, to mate, to die. Dragonfly and damselfly adults fly on the hunt and are hunted themselves. Bats swoop down at dusk to feed on the aerial provender. Eventually, all the insects and birds and bats and mammals pass along the energy to the land as they die or defecate. Fungi and bacterial feast and pass along essential nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, to the land along the river, the riparian zone.

West Fork Bitterroot_Sept_2018d
West Fork of the Bitterroot River. This narrow river has a large riparian zone relative to its width with abundant energy inflow from the riparian vegetation.

 

Rivers swell and shrink. Rivers swell with the pulse, with the waters of the spring floods, then as the weather turns warm and dry, rivers diminish, flowing within their banks once more. In nature, the spring swell flows into nearby or riparian wetlands in places where the floodplain spreads out. These wetlands blur the boundary between water and land. The water flows over grasses, inundates the roots of riparian trees such as cottonwoods and burr oaks and willows, to reside in the wetlands for days, weeks, months, or years. Now the give and take of food and energy is more intimate, more immediate. The wetland water is in, on, and among the leaves, grasses, soils that provide the food and nutrients. The slow moving or standing water is an excellent habitat for algae, feeding more invertebrates and fish than the nearby river, exchanging this food and energy with the river and receiving water in return. The river water often flows over land to enter the wetlands but may also exchange under ground in an interstitial connective network of water flowing between the subterranean particles of rock, gravel, sand, mud, or clay.

Thank your local riparian wetland. With more food and energy, the wetlands produce more energy and food in return, sending the energy into the surrounding riparian zone. Although the poor hobbits suffer by walking through the midgewater marshes, those midges (more like biting midges from Tolkien’s description) feed the birds and bats and spiders, sustaining a complex ecosystem. The natural ebb and flow of the spring flood pulse brings more nutrients downstream to reside in riparian wetlands. The wetlands provide a service, retaining the water and energy locally for a while before slowly releasing the water and energy back downstream or to the nearby land. The wetlands also provide habitat for wildlife such as deer, wild turkeys, and migratory water birds. So, if you get a chance, go visit your nearest riparian wetland. Indulge in the beauty of these natural energy producers and please take a moment to reflect on the services they provide to all.

Metcalf_Oct_2018f
Riparian wetland at Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge

The Subaru Conundrum

Subaru wiki share MM

Researcher’s Obsession. I have wanted a Subaru Forester or Legacy wagon for decades. This obsession, and yes, it was an obsession, began when I started the strange, long, creative path called a research career. I do field work in streams and a Subaru Legacy wagon had the space to carry gear and the four wheel drive to get me where I needed to go. I could also get a dog someday, someday when the long work weeks and dissertation were over. This was the plan, but it never panned out. I took a left turn here and another left turn there and decades passed without the acquisition of a Subaru. Then, just recently, I had the chance to purchase a mid-2000s wagon. I was delighted. I was excited. I had visions of me rough roading it to research sites, driving through mud, across boulders, through streams to reach those hard-to-reach sites. Then I found out about the fuel efficiency. It was low, around 20 mpg. A conundrum! I really wanted the wagon, to fulfill a dream, to end an obsession. But. But, I could not do it. In the years between the initial dream and the final choice, I became a scientist, an ecologist, a taxonomist, and an environmentalist.

Climate Change. Climate change is natural. Yes. It is also caused by human activities. Yes. The ramifications of our choices, our decisions are no longer waiting around for 2100, but are happening now. Honestly, I thought I would pass from this beautiful biosphere called Earth long before the clear and present dangers of climate change became manifest. But I was wrong. I no longer worry ONLY for my children and your children who will inherit this catastrophe but worry for myself as I age into climate extremes and uncertainties. So, no, I could not purchase a Subaru.

Disconnect. Subaru has made more fuel efficient cars for American consumption in recent years, but an average of 28 mpg, an average between city and open-road driving, is not good enough. Interestingly, Subaru seems to be a favorite car among university and college professionals, many of whom are climate change literate, many of whom know that carbon emissions from our cars combined with our car/road culture are significant contributors to climate change. Why? Why is there this huge disconnect between knowing about the causal mechanisms of climate change and our actions?

Not a Little Thing. This is not a little thing. We play a game called “Subaru” when West Fork Bitterroot_Sept_2018ddriving around town. The first person to spot a Subaru shouts out “Subaru”. Yes, it is an inane, silly, and fun family game. And I still love Subaru wagons. And yes, I drive. I drive a very fuel-efficient hybrid that precludes me from getting to some beautiful stream sites in the region. I have had to turn back on many occasions. This blog is not about calling out people who drive Subaru cars or who drive at all. Or perhaps that is the point. Why do I drive at all knowing that a catastrophe is coming? And that the catastrophe is a direct result of my actions (in part)?

Cap and Trade. An individual cannot completely remove themselves from the trappings of modern life that include large carbon emissions. Trying to be “that” person can lead to a rabbit hole of insanity. We can reduce emissions in some ways while allowing for larger emissions in other ways, our own, personal cap and trade system. If I drove an early model Subaru Legacy, I could walk to work or take public transportation. I could cut out air travel or live in a multi-resident dwelling to cut fuel and energy costs. For some people, their other car is a Prius or Tesla. Perhaps if we were all aware of the ramifications of our decisions regarding carbon emissions, in a more intimate way than say filling out a carbon footprint web sheet, then we could make meaningful decisions in our cap and trade system. Drive a Forester, cut consumption by 2/3rd. Drive an old Legacy wagon, no more flying (look it up, flying leaves a huge foot print). I had a friend who flew to Central and South America to provide amazing experiences for his young children, but once he found out about the footprint he quite flying for years in an environmental existential crisis.

Size Matters. The reason for this disconnect is that the issue is too large. Sure, I may work on conserving large fish or small insects and my driving a low fuel efficiency vehicle is driving them extinct through climate change, but the linkages still seem so remote, so far away. We individually seem like such small cogs in the machinery of a global, changing climate. How can we confront this issue on a day to day basis? I have had more than one friend who just gave it all up, deciding that climate change was an inevitability and we might as well drive gas guzzlers or purchase high flow toilets. Perhaps they went down that rabbit hole.

Subaru Conundrum. For now, I shall forgo the Subaru and drive my fuel efficient car, but maybe in the future I will get a used Subaru Forester for sampling only. Or perhaps I will car pool with someone who has a rugged, four wheel drive research-mobile. Or perhaps I will car pool and take public transportation and never fly again. Mostly, I will be aware of my climate decisions and my role in this large, global phenomenon.

For more information.

https://cotap.org/reduce-carbon-emissions/

 

 

 

 

 

From the dark, deep, cold

Jezioro_Bajkał_2

Lake Baikal is the largest body of freshwater in the world. It holds nearly 1/4th of all freshwater on Earth, it holds the water for a long time, a very long time. Waters enters the lake from the south, from Mongolia, and stays or resides in the lake for over 300 years and the lake itself is ancient, over 20 million years old, by our best estimates. The length of its shoreline is about the distance from New York City to Miami, Florida and it is a long lake, a narrow lake at about 400 miles long and 50 miles wide. The large volume of the lake does not arise from its great length or width, but rather from its great depth.

And it is deep, close to a mile deep in its deepest reaches. Down in that deep, dark, cold Segentia_Hayford_2-environment lives a midge with the impressive name of Sergentia. Sergentia flavodentata so named by Chernovskij has been found in its immature larval stage from the depths of Lake Baikal. The larvae of this midge mine the soft, nutrient-rich sediments at the bottom of this lake in total darkness, perhaps for two years.

Eventually the larvae metamorphosize into pupae and begin the long slow swim, swimming up through thousands of feet (or meters) to the surface of this lake. The pupae flip their bodies up and down to produce a Sergentia_Swimming_Hayford_2018swimming motion. Now think about this, a small Sergentia pupa, less than an inch in length, maybe one to two centimeters long, must rise this great distance. Imagine an inch worm inching along the roadway for about a mile. That is a formidable distance. The pupae must accomplish this feat through water currents while avoiding predators such as fish, to get to the surface of the lake.

Once on the surface of the lake, the impossible begins. The adults, Jezioro_Bajkał_2males and females, must find each other in the wave-chaos surface of an immense lake. This lake shown here. They mate and the female lays the eggs, she oviposits the eggs on the surface of the lake and the eggs slowly, so slowly settle down the the bottom, thousands of feet below.

This wonderful and unique midge is not known to the world at large. This amazing, huge, and ancient lake is not well known outside of Russia and outside of the aquatic ecology community. Just a bit of brain candy from Tethysphere.

 

For more reading:

Kravtsova, L.S., Bukin, Y.S., Peretolchina, T.E. and Shcherbakov, D.Y., 2015. Genetic differentiation of populations of Baikal endemic Sergentia baicalensis Tshern.(Diptera, Chironomidae). Russian journal of genetics51(7), pp.707-710.

Linevich AA (1971) The Chironomidae of Lake Baikal. Limnologica
8:51–52

Wetzel RG (2001) Limnology, lake and river ecosystems. Academic
Press, New York

The photo image of Lake Baikal was retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Baikal and it is free to share.

 

 

 

 

The Sparkle and the Haze

sparkle and haze

Sometimes light seems to sparkle, to dance on every leaf of every tree, on every ripple in every stream.

After my recent move to Missoula, Montana, soon after the end of the rains and one of the coldest Junes ever recorded and before drought and wildfires glazed the sky with haze, the light was a gift and a blessing in my new mountain home. I am sure that a scientific explanation will provide a greater depth of understanding about how light produces this effect. Perhaps specular reflection creates the pattern, dancing off leaves. Perhaps changes in the direction of light caused by refraction leads to leaping and pirouetting, glissading, a chasseing of one proton after the other across the surface of water.  This beautiful pattern enchants in the late afternoon here, but it does not happen everywhere.

I have traveled the world and have only seen this sparkle in a few places. I have seen it on golden afternoons in southern Colorado, during infrequent clear, summer days in Northwestern Washington, once or twice in sub-Siberian Mongolia. This is not to say that light hasn’t infused beauty into every environment I have inhabited or visited, but the sparkle is different here, more unique, more palpable. I look forward to this autumn, to discovering whether light sparkles after the haze has departed.

This haze is everywhere now, produced both exogenously and endogenously by wildfires. I moved back to the intermountain West after a twenty-year exile. During those twenty years I came to love the prairies of the Great Plains, the ululating Sand Hills and rock-strewn Flint Hills. I came to despise humidity. In planning my triumphant return to the dry West, I hesitated briefly, knowing that the West will burn every summer, burn excessively, burn horrifically, for the rest of my life. One of the downsides of understanding Science and Climate Change is the Kassandra effect-foreknowledge of an impending disaster and the insanity associated with no one listening. I had to ask myself if I could live someplace with such a scythe positioned to fall over it for the foreseeable future. Obviously, my answer was yes, but was I prepared for the weeks or months of haze?

Surprisingly, my mind reacted the haze in strange, but familiar ways. First, the haze reminded me of my youth in Los Angeles, of the forested hillsides of the San Gabriel mountains emerging from the smog, of golden sunsets with smog-enlarged suns. Second, the haze reminded me of 1980s lithographs of mountains fading into fog, a mystery hidden behind each ridge. Third, I felt comfort in reminiscing about my former adopted home as the haze translated into prairie mists. I will not bright side such environmental and human catastrophes but find that I can adapt to this new summer season of haze in Montana, if that is the price I must pay for the sparkle.

 

 

 

 

Rivers go up, rivers go down.

I arrived in Missoula, Montana on the 4th of May. The Clark Fork River was entering flood stage, eventually cresting at levels not seen in the region for over 100  years. The river went up, then down, only to flood again a few weeks later. Now? Now the river is low, resuming a summer flow that is slow, lazy, and filled with rafts, kayaks, and inner tubes as people from near and far float down to Missoula. This is the river in a dry land, quick and flashy, running high and then running low. Rivers running through wetter climes are slower to build their floods and more reluctant to let the water go.

I experienced the 500 year flood on the Missouri River in 2011, having to change my travel plans again and again as the River overcame highways, back roads, and bridges. These two rivers behaved so differently in flood stage: the Clark Fork was aggressive, full of energy, violent even, a river to fear; the Missouri just spread out, full of silt, slowly settling downstream, reaching for the Gulf of Mexico so far away. But appearances are deceiving. The Clark Fork has little chance of eroding the Pre-Cambrian rocks of its bed no matter how fast it flows, whereas the Missouri has been rearranging its wide, meandering flood plain with each year’s runoff since before the last period of glaciation.

Rivers run through landscapes, linking water to air, linking the aquatic and terrestrial environments. When they flood, they leave behind the aquatic environment even as they carry away a part of the terrestrial environment, mixing both. My new home is a mile from the Clark Fork River and was built atop several feet of cobble and gravel from floods of springtime past. The world around me was formed by the creative forces of the river, carving out rock, bending time. The land I left behind, soft land near the Missouri River, was shaped more by glaciers grinding rock into Loess, water gently winding through this soft soil. Now that land is carved by the combine and the tile, driving streams deep into dirt, creating canyons of mud. In moving from the Great Plains to the Western Rockies, I have left one water shaped world for another.

If we look around us, look around us now, we will see that all of our landscapes, internal and external, have been shaped by water, by the flowing of rivers, by the tethysphere.

Water in life

The snow is water, the air is water, the rabbit is water. We are but different forms and phases of water woven into new shapes that life interprets to perpetuate life. Rabbit new year

The Solid Phase

At what point does your house become performance art? For me, the answer is now. I have created this piece called “The Solid Phase” by allowing last autumn’s leaves to accumulate in my rain gutters, then patiently waiting for a blizzard and three subsequent snow storms to leave a deep layer of snow atop my roof. Then, I simply watched to see what nature would bring once the air warmed. The true brilliance of this piece is the graceful glissade of melt water tumbling from my gutters. And yes, this piece is ironic. Ice, the solid, static phase of water, has metamorphosized into dynamic icicles, changing constantly.

Icicles 2

Let us get started

The creative arts may be used in the service of science and science may be used in the service of art, but why not say that creativity is the wellspring of science and art is the outcome of nature? Sparks of creativity lead to intuitive breakthroughs in science that allow us to leap beyond the boundaries of dogma. Threading our observations of the world around us through our neural symphonies produces the NEW, the creative, and the beautiful.cropped-mammoth.jpg

The Journey Begins

How does a solar eclipse work? See what one ERAU student put together combining art and STEM to help us understand this amazing event.

 

Bringing together art and STEM to inform the world about Peregrine falcons with the help of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University students.

 

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Gracie Creek

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