Riparian Zones and a Critter Quiz

Audio:  mp3

Hello, this is Jim Goodwin.

In a minute I’ve got a critter quiz for you, but first, a word about the huge importance of riparian areas in semi-arid Utah, the second driest state in the union. Utah State’s Extension Service calls riparian zones the green ribbon of life alongside a stream. They are shadier, cooler and moister than adjacent environments.

And with a diverse mix of plants and animals, our few riparian corridors are heavily used by wildlife for food, rest and shelter.

Ok, now for our critter quiz.

What is the largest rodent in North America? Here’s a hint: they can be up to four feet long and weigh 40 to 60 pounds.

Did that do it? No? Alright, this clue will: They spend much of their life in water. They have a beautiful brown coat, a broad flat hairless tail and big orange buck teeth that continually grow, which is why they chew and chew and chew.

Beaver with branch in water
Courtesy US FWS,
Steve Hillebrand, Photographer

Good, you got it . . . it’s the North American beaver. Or as Utah environmental author Chip Ward calls them: the Flat Tail Climate Hero for the restoration of damaged watersheds. Beaver are amazing aquatic engineers, second only to humans in their ability to manipulate their environment.

In our nation’s history, they’ve played a big role in literarily shaping our western landscape.
Joe Wheaton, Utah State wildlife and a beaver expert, rightly calls the work of the beaver “cheap and cheerful restoration” of our heat stressed watersheds.

In the wild, these mostly nocturnal animals, normally live five to ten years.
Fortunately, they are rarely killed for their pelts these days. Beaver are usually monogamous. They will produce up to 10 babies. The young kits will stay home until they are two or so, before they will take off on their own.

Beaver are master aquatic builders. the original geo-engineers. They build dams to flood areas for protection from predators, for access to their food supply, and to provide safe underwater entrances to their dens. Their dams create beautiful riparian habitat for many other animals, birds, fish amphibians, insects and plants. The flooded areas slow the flow of water and sediment downstream and raise the area water table.

Aspen, cottonwood, willow and dogwood are their preferred tree. Those trees regenerate quickly after beaver topple them. When their ponds freeze over, beaver jam smaller branches into the mud at the bottom of their pond for food storage.

Beaver dams can be 5 to 10 feet high and 150 feet across. They are constructed with branches, stones, and plants and plastered together with mud. Over 1200 beaver dams have been counted in northern Utah’s Bear River mountains alone. The World’s largest beaver dam in Canada is 2,789 feet in length. That’s more than 9 football fields.

Yes, sometimes beaver can be a nuisance to human property and activities. Often, learning to live with beaver and the many benefits they can bring, can be a solution. There are simple time-tested ways to prevent flooding. But if nothing works, they can be live trapped and moved to another area. There’s no need to shoot them.

Be a “beaver believer.” Here are some organizations you can check with to learn more:
Utah State wildlife researchers Wally McFarland and Joe Wheaton have created something called the Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool to track beaver dam building activities and their effects throughout the state.
The Bear River Watershed Council in Cache Valley and Mary O’Brien with the Grand Canyon Trust in southern Utah are excellent organizations to contact.

I’m Jim Goodwin for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy US FWS, Steve Hillebrand, Photographer
Text:     Jim Goodwin

Additional Reading:

Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool, http://brat.joewheaton.org/

Bear River Watershed Council, http://www.brwcouncil.org/

Grand Canyon Trust, http://www.grandcanyontrust.org/

Beaver Castor canadensis, National Geographic, http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/beaver/

Pot Holes and Fairy Shrimp

Audio:  mp3

Aerial view of potholes in Navajo sandstone, Grand County, Utah. Photo Courtesy USGS

Aerial view of potholes in Navajo sandstone, Grand County, Utah.

Photo Courtesy USGS 

Adult fairy shrimp
Branchinecta packardi.
Photo Courtesy USGS 

Adult Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp
Branchinecta lynchi
Photo Courtesy USGS 
 

Shrimp in the desert landscape of Canyonlands National Park? Yep. You can find them, –fairy shrimp– when the rainy season arrives and turns dry, dusty potholes into water-filled rock basins brimming with life.

A surprising array of creatures relies on these potholes for life, and one of the most curious is the fairy shrimp. These unique crustaceans are found in small potholes that dot sandstone outcrops found in America’s Southwest. Their eggs maintain resilience during the dry season, and when spring rains arrive, the shrimp hatch.

There are more than 300 varieties of fairy shrimp, the most common being the Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp. These little guys measure between a half-inch to one-and-a-half inches long as adults. They can be found anywhere ephemeral pools are present, though the majority of their population resides in California and Oregon.

Fairy shrimp vary in color depending on the menu found in their particular pool of residency, ranging from translucent, to orange, even to blue! They feature 11 pairs of legs to propel themselves upside-down, or more scientifically, ventral side-up.

They also use these incredibly helpful legs to eat unicellular algae, ciliates (sil-ee-its), and bacteria by filter and suspension feeding methods. They filter-feed by pumping water through filtration structures — located in their multi-purpose legs — thus capturing the food. They also are adept at suspension feeding by plucking food floating in the water, again, with their tentacle-like legs. They may also grab or scrape food from the surfaces of other things in their vernal pool, such as sticks and rocks.

What’s truly amazing is how fairy shrimp reproduce. They typically lay drought-tolerant eggs during the summer that over-winter in the dried sediment on the pot hole bottom and then hatch in the spring when the potholes fill with rainwater However, if drought sets in, eggs can be transferred to other pools by floating in gusts of wind or being carried by a particularly curious animal.

These eggs are tough and can withstand varying temperatures, drought, and even the test of time; eggs in laboratory settings have survived intact up to 15 years before hatching.

Under the right conditions, you can observe fairy shrimp in Canyonlands, Arches, and Death Valley national parks. Canyonlands and Arches boast at least two species of fairy shrimp: the Packard Ferry Shrimp, also known as the Rock Pool Ferry Shrimp or the Arizona Ferry Shrimp, and the Great Plains Ferry Shrimp.

Fairy shrimp hatch in the Spring, right after the potholes and vernal pools re-fill with water, so that will be your prime time to look for these interesting creatures. As travelers, you can do your part to help the fairy shrimp by leaving their vernal pools alone. Drinking water, stepping in, or touching a pool can throw off the entire mini-eco-system located in this fascinating habitat.

And remember, our fingers are very salty, so even if you’re using a gentle touch, do not put your fingers in a vernal pool, as it just might raise the salinity and throw off the dissolved oxygen percentage needed for fairy shrimp to survive.

For Wild About Utah and National Parks Traveler, I’m Kurt Repanshek.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek, www.nationalparkstraveler.com
Text:     Kurt Repanshek, NationalParksTraveler.com.

Additional Reading:

http://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=22782

http://www.nwf.org/wildlife/wildlife-library/invertebrates/vernal-pool-fairy-shrimp.aspx

http://www.arizonafairyshrimp.com/fairyshrimp.html

http://geochange.er.usgs.gov/sw/impacts/biology/vernal/

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/news/X-Press/shrimp_spotlight.html

http://www.fws.gov/sacramento/es_kids/Vernal-Pool-Fairy-Shrimp/es_kids_vernal-pool-fairy-shrimp.htm

Capitol Reef

Audio:  mp3

Fruita and the Wingate Cliffs
Capitol Reef National Park
Photo Courtesy US NPS

Orchard
Capitol Reef National Park
Photo Courtesy US NPS

Early settlers to the landscape we know as Capitol Reef National Park in south-central Utah planted cherry, apricot, peach, pear, apple, and walnut trees as a cash crop for survival along the Fremont River bottoms. Visitors today are often surprised by the fruit trees in light of the surrounding desert climate, and campers can pick apples and peaches from their campsites in the orchards. But the green fields and fruit trees also attract deer, marmots, and other small critters, which are easy to spot and are comfortable with humans in their environment.

Though the deer roam free in the tall grass between apple trees, there are other species that are a bit more dangerous lurking nearby. Mountain lions and black bears skillfully stalk around this historic district of Fruita without being seen. Mountain lions have been spotted within a half-mile of the popular campground, yet little is known about the species within the confines of Capitol Reef. With so many questions unanswered about the predator and prey relationship in the unique landscape, the park has received a Disney Nature Impact Grant to enlighten us.

Lori Rome, the park’s chief of interpretation, says, “We are setting up 10-20 infrared motion detected camera traps in surrounding areas. This is a non-invasive way to learn basic information about the species.”

The cameras will provide useful evidence and reveal the patterns of the quiet predators in the park. The public will be engaged through a citizen science project using social media and public interpretive programming, for example helping to survey deer populations.

If you’ve seen Disney Nature’s movie Bears, you, too, helped contribute to the Disney Nature Impact Grants program. Fourteen national parks are receiving funding via proceeds from the movie. Disney Nature has pledged a contribution to the National park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks, through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, for each person who saw the film during its first week in theaters.

This type of support helps preserve and protect Capitol Reef and the rest of the National Park System. The Disney Nature Impact Grant enables parks to conduct much-needed conservation projects, such as studying mountain lions at Capitol Reef.

Each park selected to receive a grant through this program had to demonstrate a clear need for the money, and how it would make a profound difference in habitat restoration, wildlife protection or conservation research. With this assistance, we should be able understand predator’s actions in Capitol Reef National Park.

For Wild About Utah and National Parks Traveler, I’m Kurt Repanshek.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek, www.nationalparkstraveler.com
Text:     Kurt Repanshek, NationalParksTraveler.com.


Additional Reading:

Capitol Reef And 13 Other National Parks Receive Impact Grants From Disney Nature’s Movie “Bears”, Submitted by Carli Jones, June 26, 2014, NationalParksTraveler.comhttp://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2014/06/capitol-reef-and-13-other-national-parks-receive-impact-grants-disney-natures-movie-bears25263

Capital Reef National Park, http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/park/capitol-reef-national-park

Capital Reef National Park, http://www.nps.gov/care/index.htm

Mammals in Capital Reef National Park, http://www.nps.gov/care/naturescience/mammalchecklist.htm
Amphibians in Capital Reef National Park, http://www.nps.gov/care/naturescience/amphibians.htm
Fish in Capital Reef National Park, http://www.nps.gov/care/naturescience/fish.htm
Birds in Capital Reef National Park, http://www.nps.gov/care/naturescience/birds.htm
Reptiles in Capital Reef National Park, http://www.nps.gov/care/naturescience/reptiles.htm

Snowflakes

Audio:  mp3

A free-falling snow crystal
photographed as it fell
Alta Ski Area on March 6, 2011
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2011
Tim Garrett, University of Utah
Alta Snowflake Showcase

A free-falling snow crystal
photographed as it fell
Alta Ski Area
March 6, 2011
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2011
Tim Garrett, University of Utah
Alta Snowflake Showcase

A stellar dendrite snow crystal Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

A stellar dendrite snow crystal Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

A hexagonal plate snow crystal Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
SnowCrystals.com

As winter draws to a close, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the amazing weather phenomenon that is a snowflake. When winter weather dumps inches of snow on us, it’s easy to overlook the tiny works of art, those intricate and delicate snowflakes, which make up the storm.

Snowflakes – or to use a more scientific term, snow crystals – come in a variety of different shapes including long, thin needles, flat hexagonal plates, columns, and irregularly-shaped pellets called graupel. The International Snow Classification System recognizes ten different shapes in all, only one of which is the traditional snowflake image. The classic six-armed snowflake shape is called a ‘stellar dendrite’ by scientists.

When teaching programs about snow, someone inevitably asks me, “Is it really true that no two snowflakes are alike?” As far as I can tell, the answer is, well, ‘maybe’, and here’s why.

Three things are needed to form these intricate crystals, and the first two are fairly obvious: water, and temperatures below freezing. The third item is a little more inconspicuous. Water cannot condense and freeze all on its own. Every snowflake needs a piece of atmospheric dust or salt at its core. This particle is referred to as a ‘nucleating agent,’ and it attracts water molecules which then condense and begin to freeze. From there, a snowflake’s overall shape is determined by a number of other variables including the atmospheric temperature, the amount of available moisture, wind speed, and mid-air collisions with other snowflakes.

To add more complexity, consider that each individual snowflake contains somewhere on the order of 10 quintillion water molecules. That’s ten with eighteen zeros behind it. While the way these molecules bind to each other is dictated by the laws of physics, the sheer number of ways in which 10 quintillion water molecules can arrange themselves as they freeze into place is mind boggling. But then again, how many snowflakes do you think fall in the typical March snowstorm in Utah? A lot. One scientist has estimated that the number of individual snowflakes that have fallen on Earth in the planet’s history is ten with 34 zeros behind it. In all of those snowflakes is it possible that two are exactly alike? Yeah, maybe… but good luck finding them!

For more information and some beautiful snowflake photographs, please visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy Tim Garrett, University of Utah,
Kenneth Libbrecht, Caltech University
Text: Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center

Additional Reading:

Halfpenny, J.C and Ozanne, R.D. 1989. Winter: An Ecological Handbook. Boulder, CO: Johnson Books, http://www.amazon.com/Winter-Ecological-Handbook-James-Halfpenny/dp/1555660363

Gosnell, Mariana. 2007. Ice: the Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, http://www.amazon.com/Ice-Nature-History-Astonishing-Substance/dp/0679426086

Libbrecht, Kenneth .1999. A Snowflake Primer: the basic facts about snowflakes and snow crystals. http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/primer
/primer.htm

 

 

 

Arches Wildlife

Audio:  mp3

Western Collared Lizard
Arches National Park
Photo Courtesy US NPS

Spadefoot Toad
Arches National Park
Photo Courtesy US NPS

Red Fox
Arches National Park
Photo Courtesy US NPS
Lee Kaiser, Photographer

Western Scrub Jay
Arches National Park
Photo Courtesy US NPS
Neal Herbert, Photographer

Petroglyphs
Arches National Park
Photo Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek, Photographer
NationalParksTraveler.com

The Organ
Arches National Park
Photo Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek, Photographer
NationalParksTraveler.com

Stairs to Window Arch
Arches National Park
Photo Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek, Photographer
NationalParksTraveler.com


As with its neighbor, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park conceals most of its wildlife from visitors. That said, lizards are easy to spot, as are mule deer in the cool times of the day. And if you spend a little time before breakfast, or after dinner, you just might see coyotes, porcupines, desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, and many songbirds.

Because of the high heat during the summer months, most of these animals will be most visible when humans are not typically out and about. Desert animals have a variety of adaptations to deal with the hot weather and aridity. A key adaptation is that most animals are nocturnal, being most active at night. Nocturnal animals in Arches include kangaroo rats, woodrats (also called packrats), and other small desert rodents, skunks, ringtails, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, bats and owls.

Some desert animals are “diurnal”, or primarily active during the day. These include rock squirrels, antelope squirrels, chipmunks, lizards, snakes, hawks, and eagles.

Many animals have are only active in certain temperature ranges, and they alter their active times of day depending upon the season. During winter months, snakes and lizards are in an inactive state of “torpor,” or sluggishness or even dormancy. But they become active during the day during the late spring and early fall, and then become “crepuscular,” or active mainly during the nighttime hours, to avoid the daytime heat of summer.

Insects, too, alter their times of activity. Mosquitoes, as you no doubt know, may be out from dawn through dusk, depending on the temperatures. But they are not active after the sun goes down.

In spite of Arches’ rather inhospitable appearance, almost 50 species of mammals live in the park’s landscape. But the hot climate and lack of water favors small mammals. Because of their size, these animals are less able to migrate, but have an easier time finding shelter, and require less food and water to live. Rodents are numerous: there are eleven species of mice and rats.

Desert bighorn sheep are one of the larger mammal species to be seen. They are frequently spotted along Highway 191 south of the park visitor center, and call Arches home all year long. They roam the talus slopes and side canyons near the Colorado River, forage for plants, and negotiate the steep, rocky terrain with the greatest of ease.

While Arches may not be considered a prime bird watching hot spot, 273 species have been seen in the park, which includes seasonal, year-round residents, and migrants.

Much of this diversity is due to the riparian corridors like Courthouse Wash and the Colorado River (which forms the park’s southern boundary). Mornings along these corridors often are filled with birdsongs during spring and summer. You might spot blue grosbeaks, yellow-breasted chats, and spotted towhees. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the trill of the canyon wren echoing from the sandstone walls. Great blue herons hunt the shallows for fish, while Cooper’s hawks deftly maneuver through the tangle of trees beyond the riverbanks.

There is life in the desert, if you know where, and more importantly, when, to look for it.

For Wild About Utah and National Parks Traveler, I’m Kurt Repanshek.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy US NPS
Images: Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek, www.nationalparkstraveler.com
Text:     Kurt Repanshek/Patrick Cone, NationalParksTraveler.com.


Additional Reading:

http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/browse/Arches%20National%20Park

http://www.nps.gov/arch/index.htm