A diverse team of international scientists led by a Washington State University graduate student are trekking the high peaks of the greater Glacier National Park ecosystem this summer to better understand a tiny but important food source for grizzly bears—the army cutworm moth.
Erik Peterson, a master’s student in the School of the Environment, partnered with Daniel Thornton, WSU professor in the School of the Environment, and seven colleagues to collect data, map, and model the alpine habitats where grizzlies forage on moths by the thousands, finding calorie-rich meals in mid-summer.
“Glacier National Park is a grizzly mecca,” said Peterson, a former field biologist for the park. Glacier is a microcosm for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, and Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park in British Columbia and is home to as many as 1,000 bears.
By Stephanie Hampton, WSU professor in environmental sciences, and colleagues
Historically, research on inland waters has focused on the warmer months of the year. Limnologists have mostly avoided studying lakes in winter, especially lakes that experience seasonal ice cover, as if dynamics beneath the ice were unimportant.
But multiple lines of evidence now present a compelling case that winter is indeed a fascinating and important time for lakes. Under dark conditions, when snow and ice obscure light penetration, degradation of organic material already in lakes still occurs, and when clear ice allows some light through, this light can fuel primary production to levels even higher than those in summer.
Winter fieldwork on lakes is still difficult and dangerous, particularly on ice-covered lakes. Thus, although basic understanding about winter limnology has increased in the past decade, the pace of scientific progress has not kept pace with rates of ecological change.
Forty years later, the angry-looking ash cloud billowing above Mount St. Helens remains one of the most iconic images in state history. Those living in the state of Washington at the time of the May 18, 1980, eruption all have a where-were-you-when-it-blew moment.
Within an hour of the eruption, WSU geology alumnus Don Swanson (’60) was documenting the cataclysm from an airplane, flying in figure-eights on the south side of the volcano to film and take photos. On the other side of the state, students at WSU Pullman were studying for finals and doing everyday chores like laundry.
Don A. Dillman, now a Regents Professor in sociology, was roller skating with his wife and two young children. He wrote a detailed account, which the Manuscripts, Archives & Special Collections at WSU Libraries keeps for posterity.
Swanson, now 81, went on to become the scientist-in-charge of the Cascades Volcano Observatory and, later, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on the rim of the Kilauea Caldera—where he still serves as scientist emeritus. But Mount St. Helens has never left him. He knew three people who perished in the blast zone and dedicated his career to better understanding eruptions in order to prevent similar tragedies. “I think about it almost every day,” he says.
The Washington State University Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center has a new man-made cave, giving the bears something novel to explore in their exercise yard.
“Our bears enjoy digging dens in the yard, but they always collapse, so we figured we’d give them something permanent,” said Brandon Hutzenbiler, the manager at the center, which is jointly run by the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Natural, and Human Resource Sciences.
He hopes the bears will use it as another place to escape the weather, get some privacy, or play.
“In the heat of summer, this should give them a location that’s a little cooler,” Hutzenbiler said. “We’ll put in some straw and make it as comfortable as possible in there.”
The cave is actually a 10-foot long steel culvert buried in the side of a hill in the existing 2-acre exercise yard. The culvert was specially made to have a flat top and bottom, to be more comfortable for the bears.
In the past century, what most people think of as natural history—museums, expeditions, taxonomy—has experienced a steep decline in research and education support. This decline runs parallel to a decline in the direct experience of nature. While both are signals with troubling implications for society and science, new technologies provide novel insights into organisms and ecosystems that were not previously available—and also create new opportunities for public involvement in natural history.
In 2014, Stephanie E. Hampton, professor of environmental sciences, coauthored a paper in BioScience that defined natural history as “the observation and description of the natural world, with the study of organisms and their linkages to the environment being central.” While this definition is unlikely to satisfy everyone, what it does do is put an emphasis on natural history being multidisciplinary. It also emphasizes the idea that natural history is multiscaled, from the micro to the macro, from microscopic algae to entire forest ecosystems.