The Great Salt Lake, Utah

saltlake

Great Salt Lake photographed 05/18/2016 west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Beyond the Great Lakes that surround my native Michigan, the next largest lake in the United States is the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah. Although the lakes of both states share similarly impressive surface areas they are incredibly different in their geologic processes and resulting ecosystems and economic impacts.

The Great Lakes are the continent’s largest bodies of fresh water and teem with a massive array of fish and other interrelated organisms. This region receives a generous amount of annual rainfall, and all that water makes its way through streams and rivers across a vast watershed and eventually reaches the Great Lakes. There it collects and waits before it finally makes its way out to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence Seaway between the US and Canada. The constant flow of water ensures that salts and other minerals are continuously flushed out to sea and the system as a whole remains fresh. The abundance of fresh water lakes, rivers, and estuaries provide countless homes for a staggering array of invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Tourism and sport fishing are multi-billion-dollar industries, and the open channels to the sea provide billions of dollars in economic transportation benefits.

saltlake2

Great Salt Lake photographed 05/18/2016 west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Great Salt Lake, in contrast, harbors an entirely different yet equally fascinating environment borne of its unique geography. Located in the Great Basin of the intermountain west, this area is defined by its watersheds having no connection to the ocean. Runoff from relatively dry mountains and valleys collects in streams and rivers and makes its way to lakes, but from there the water has no outlet. Instead of flowing out to the sea it just sits and evaporates in the hot desert sun. Since salts and other minerals are not flushed out to the ocean they instead collect in these basins. They accumulate over time, increase the salinity of the lakes, and amass substantial mineral deposits. While the average salinity of the world’s oceans is around 3.5%, the salinity of the Great Salt Lake can fluctuate between 5% and 27% depending on location and environmental factors.

saltlake3

Great Salt Lake photographed 05/18/2016 west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The unique hydrologic cycle of the Great Basin gives the lakes within its borders some novel characteristics. The most common life forms within the water tend to be brine shrimp, brine flies, and salt-loving or salt-tolerant species of algae and bacteria. These novel yet abundant organisms provide a vast food source for a wide variety of migrating birds. Although the Great Salt Lake appears inhospitable to life, it actually hosts a complex web of organism interactions.

saltlake4

Great Salt Lake photographed 05/18/2016 west of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The abundant salt and other mineral accumulations within the Great Salt Lake have also offered opportunities for industry. Deposits of sodium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium sulfate, and other minerals have been significant for such uses as water-softening, ice melt, salt lick blocks for livestock, dust suppressants, fertilizers, magnesium metal, and chlorine gas. The Great Salt Lake and other lakes of the Great Basin have proved not only invaluable to unique organisms, but to unique human needs as well.

Posted in Botany, Culture, Ecology, Entomology, Environment, General, Geology, Invertebrate Zoology, Vertebrate Zoology, Weather and Climate | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Marmot Crossing

grbamarmot

“Marmot Crossing” sign photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Last week I spent a couple of nights camping at Great Basin National Park in east-central Nevada. One point of interest was a stretch of road near Baker Creek that was crawling with yellow-bellied marmots (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Marmota flaviventris). So many of these small mammals were scurrying across the road here that I had to drive very slowly to avoid squashing any.

grbamarmot5

Yellow-bellied marmot photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

A western relative of the eastern woodchuck (M. monax), these marmots are sometimes called “rockchucks.” Living mostly among rocky slopes they dig burrows in coarse gravel and sand. They hibernate underground from autumn through the winter, and once spring arrives they begin their activities in earnest.

grbamarmot3

Yellow-bellied marmot photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

In April and May one of their primary activities is breeding. Males tend to form harems and typically guard three or four females and their offspring. Females gestate for only about 30 days so new marmot pups are a common sight in May and June.

grbamarmot4

Yellow-bellied marmot pup photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Once reproduction is out of the way these animals focus the rest of the summer season mostly on eating. They feed on the stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds of a wide variety of plants. They are not picky eaters, and this generalist herbivory has allowed them to flourish throughout the North American west.

grbamarmot2

Yellow-bellied marmot photographed 05/19/2016 at Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Posted in Ecology, National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Random Insect: Short-tailed Ichneumon Wasp

ophion2

Short-tailed Ichneumon wasp photographed 05/13/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Ichneumon wasps are perhaps the largest animal family on the planet, made up of between 60,000 and 100,000 different species. Approximately 5,000 to 8,000 can be found in North America, and of these eleven are of the genus shown here (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Ophion sp.). These are among the most common Ichneumon wasps in North America and they also happen to be attracted to lights. Because of this it’s not unusual to see them from late spring to late summer hovering around porches at night.

Although Ichneumon wasps are a vast and very diverse group of insects, one notable characteristic they all have in common relates to their wing venation. There are technical terms to describe this, but most people just call it the “horse head” shape that appears mid-wing:

ophionwing

Wing detail of a short-tailed Ichneumon wasp photographed 05/13/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Many insects feature one or more simple eyes called “ocelli,” often in conjunction with larger compound eyes. Ophion species have three very prominent ocelli, effectively giving them five notably large eyes. While the compound eyes have enough resolution to make out images, the ocelli only detect light and motion.

ophionocelli

Head detail of a short-tailed Ichneumon wasp photographed 05/13/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Adult Ophion wasps breed during the warmer months of the year. Inseminated females seek out caterpillars and lay an egg on each one they find. Once the egg hatches the wasp larva bores into the caterpillar host and slowly devours it from within, eventually pupating and emerging as an adult. This parasitoid behavior is like parasitic behavior, but it ultimately kills the host. Since the caterpillars of many butterflies and moths are economically damaging pests of crops, many Ichneumon wasps are important biological control agents. Ophion species do not happen to be among of the more useful to humans.

ophion

Short-tailed Ichneumon wasp photographed 05/13/2016 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Posted in Ecology, Entomology, Invertebrate Zoology, Organism Interactions, Random Insect | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Strut Your Stuff

turkey

Turkeys in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Wild Turkeys (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Meleagris gallopavo) are found throughout large areas of the United States and Mexico, especially in the east. They are particularly common in the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

turkey2

Turkeys in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Males turkeys begin courtship in March and April and advertise their fitness by strutting, puffing their chests, spreading their tail feathers, and dragging their wings. Their brightly-colored heads attract potential mates, and their loud gobbling noises both intimidate rival males and attract females. Dominant males mate with as many females as they can, and after mating the females seek out nest sites on the ground.  They dig shallow depressions in the soil hidden in dense vegetation and lay as many as 14 eggs over a two week period. In spite of their best efforts to keep their young hidden, many turkey eggs and hatchlings fall prey to raccoons, opossums, snakes, owls, hawks, bobcats, coyotes, and bears. Adult birds, in contrast, will use their strong legs and talons to fight off all but the largest of attackers.

turkey3

Turkeys in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Although these birds face abundant predators, it was human hunting and habitat loss that drove them to the brink of extinction early in the twentieth century. It’s estimated that only around 30,000 animals lived in North America in the early 1900s. Conservation efforts have since brought their numbers back up to around seven million. In the time that humans have reversed their course on turkey protection, these large birds have since become one of America’s great success stories of conservation.

Posted in Ecology, National Parks, Organism Interactions, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Random Plant: Cutleaf toothwort

toothwort

Cutleaf toothwort on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Appearing in eastern woodlands in April and May, cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata, Brassicaceae) exhibits the four-petaled flower arrangement typical of members of the mustard family.  Its large flowers and relative abundance early in the season make it a favorite of insect pollinators.   It also seems to attract spiders that feed on the pollinators.

toothwort2

Cutleaf toothwort on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

The most obvious characteristic that sets cutleaf toothwort apart from other woodland mustards is the narrow and coarse-toothed form of the leaves.  The leaves are pretty distinct and make it easy to spot these plants even before they start to flower.

toothwort3

Cutleaf toothwort on Big Fork Ridge. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Cutleaf toothwort is one of many plants known as a spring ephemeral. Spurred into action by increasing day length in early spring, these plants complete their life cycles in just a few weeks. By the time deciduous trees have leafed out in May, these plants have already gone to seed.

Posted in Botany, Ecology, National Parks, Organism Interactions, Random Plant | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Random Insect: Scarites Ground Beetle

scarites3

Ground beetle photographed 05/06/2016 near Clayton, Michigan.

Of the nearly 3,000 known species of ground beetles (Coleoptera: Carabidae) that inhabit North America, seven of them are members of the genus Scarites. These insects can be found in lawns, gardens, and fields throughout the spring and summer. They are relatively large and grow to between 5/8″ (16 mm) and 1-1/8″ (30 mm) in length, depending on the species. The particular individual I found the other day was right around 3/4″ (19 mm).

scarites1

Ground beetle photographed 05/06/2016 near Clayton, Michigan.

In addition to their size these insects also feature relatively large mandibles. They use these formidable mouthparts to grab and consume the insects they prey upon.

scarites4

Ground beetle photographed 05/06/2016 near Clayton, Michigan.

Although these beetles are pretty common they are not seen very often. They do their hunting at night and seek shelter in the shadows during the day. It’s usually only when they are disturbed that they run into the open seeking new cover. This individual was just sort of standing around when I found it, and I suspected it was dying. Sure enough, the following day I found that it had been picked apart by some unknown predator or scavenger.

Posted in Ecology, Entomology, Invertebrate Zoology, Organism Interactions, Random Insect | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Elk of the Cataloochee Valley

elk3

Elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

When most people think of elk (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Cervus canadensis) they probably think of them as residents of the American west. From Colorado to Washington they live in large numbers, especially in protected areas like Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Olympic National Park.

elk8

Elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Today it may seem hard to believe but elk once roamed throughout most of the United States and much of Canada. In the east a particularly large subspecies known as the eastern elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis) was hunted to extinction by 1880. Other more widespread subspecies were extirpated from the east by overhunting and only western populations would survive. Before European settlement it is estimated there were about 10 million elk in North America.  Today there are only about 1 million.

elk2

Elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

The dawn of the 21st century saw the National Park Service reintroduce elk populations to a number of eastern states. In 2001 the NPS began importing elk to the quiet and relatively remote Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

elk7

Elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

I first visited this serene landscape along the Tennessee and North Carolina border with my wife in 2013. At that time there were a number of elk roaming around the valley, grazing the grassy fields around sunrise and sunset every day. All seemed to have radio collars so they could be carefully monitored to ensure their survival and success.

elk6

Elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

I revisited this valley last month and was pleased not only to see many more elk, but many without radio collars. It would seem that they are thriving here, making careful monitoring less important.

elk5

Elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/10/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

The elk were visible as always around dawn and dusk, feeding on grasses throughout the valley. During the day they disappear into the forests for protection from predators. Early one morning I hiked a few miles up the Rough Fork Trail at the end of the valley, and on my way back down I ran into half a dozen elk wandering up into the woods.

elk4

Elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Not wanting to stress them or violate federal law about approaching wildlife too closely, I moved off the trail and into the woods a bit. After crouching in the brush for about five minutes these animals finally made their way past me, keeping a close eye on me as they walked by.

elk

Elk in the Cataloochee Valley. Photographed 04/11/2016 at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

At the end of the day I am glad to live in a time when humans no longer seek to extract every natural resource for our own short-sighted needs, and instead work to repair some of the damage our ancestors have done. I hope these elk continue to flourish in the east and once again occupy but a small part of their former range.

Posted in Culture, Ecology, General, National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment