AGCI Insight

On the learning trail

July 8, 2015

The Viewline Trail. Credit: AGCI

This time of year is a beautiful season for field work. We have been visiting our monitoring stations for their spring check-ups and updates, and we’ve been generating all kinds of questions about the natural world along the way!

Visiting the Brush Creek station at the end of June, one of the first things we noticed was a small gang of ground squirrels basking in the dust of the pull-off from the road. I had suspected all winter that voles were the ones eating our wires, but it looks like there may have been competition in the rodent destruction department. So far, the new piping we buried in the spring has kept rodent visitors of all species out, though, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed that this prevention method will continue to be successful.

Coming down from the Sky Mountain station the following week, we spotted a mammal of a different kind. At the junction between the Ridgeline and Viewline trails, an ermine, also known as a short tailed weasel, paused to cast a glance our way. This ermine was sporting its summer color–a dusty tan.

Summer colors were in no shortage that day. The wildflowers were in vibrant bloom, and along the purple lupine edged trail, we stopped to take photos of some other wildflowers that neither of us recognized by name. One of our favorite discoveries was a white flower we later found to be evening primrose (Oenothera casepitosa). The distinctive nature of this white flower made it easy to identify in a search: its large petals were notably heart-shaped. Even more remarkable, however, was the manner in which the flower altered over the course of the day. In the morning, when we hiked up the trail, the flowers looked fresh and in full bloom, but by mid-day, when we hiked down, the flowers looked wilted and crumpled.

Even at the monitoring site itself we found a few moments to spare for curiosity. A furry caterpillar with a bright blue back and a row of white spots found its way on to a wrench. Research revealed it to be a forest tent caterpillar–and a potential threat to aspen trees. We delved further in our inquiry and asked the folks at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies about tent caterpillars. They reassured us that these insects are generally a threat to host plants only if other severe stressors already exist.

These types of learning experiences are one of the best parts of field work, in my opinion. They also help to inform the research we are conducting in an indirect way. The primary purpose of our monitoring sites is to shed light on the dynamics of soil moisture in a changing climate. In ecology, however, each component of the system interacts with the other components around it. The soil moisture helps determine which plants can grow in an area, and these plants in turn dictate the likely fauna of the region. The biotic and the abiotic factors of any ecosystem are intricately intertwined. As a consequence, keeping a weather eye open for changes in timing and presence of a natural event or species can prove helpful in creating a broad understanding of the ecosystem being studied. There is an even subtler benefit to this type of inquiry as well though. Curiosity is the driving force behind science, and by taking the time to ask questions and peer at flowers, two researchers at least are feeding the wonder that keeps them working in this field.