Before Trees, We Had Giant Mushrooms

Mushrooms in the Grass Courtesy MW at Pixabay
Mushrooms in the Grass
Courtesy MW at Pixabay
Yes, trees are the answer. But they owe their magnificence to a less known life form that has long intrigued me. Long before trees overtook the land, Earth was covered by giant mushrooms 24 feet tall and three feet wide. And consider Utah’s Pando aspen clone, one of the largest and oldest, mycorrhizal-dependent, living organisms

Mushrooms are actually the reproductive manifestation of a much larger organism, a brief glimpse of the wonders that reside beneath the ground. Called mycorrhizal fungi, they form a mutually beneficial relationship with tree roots and other plants. They vastly increase the absorption capacity for water and minerals. Many trees and other plants cannot live without these fungal partners. It also makes the plant less susceptible to soil borne pathogens and other environmental stresses such as drought and salinity.

Regarding climate protection, mycelium make up the bulk of carbon storage in forests. Scientists in Sweden were surprised by this; they were expecting dead tree matter to shoulder the carbon burden. But as mycologist Paul Stamets states, “dead mycelium can store carbon for hundreds of thousands of years.

Remarkably, recent research has shown that plants connected by mycorrihzal fungi can use these underground connections to produce and receive warning signals. When a host plant is attacked, the plant signals surrounding plants of its condition. The host plant releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that attract the insect’s predators, as do the plants connected by the fungi network.

Further, fungi have been found to have a protective role for plants rooted in soils with high toxic metal concentrations. This is likely due to the metal binding to fungal mycelium.

Taking a broader view, recent research indicates mushrooms possess curative properties for many diseases, including neurological. Add to this bioremediation through cleaning up industrial waste and oil spills, and applications for reducing loss of our pollinators. Critical to soil function as decomposers and providing nutrients, mushrooms also play a major role in soil structure through hyphae networking and glomalin (that is biological glue) production.

The idea that a universal web of dark matter, plus our more familiar World Wide Web, plus the neurological networking in the human brain, all mimicking the mycelial networks of mushrooms under our feet that bind and feed all of Earth’s soil. The idea that this network, an enormous mass of fungus that branches and communicates underground, is in some way sentient. The idea that human brains went through an evolutionary growth spurt after we encountered “magic” mushrooms on the savannah of Africa- all worthy of serious rumination.
Fall has arrived, and with it mushrooms to titillate the imagination- and gastric juices.

This is Jack Greene and boy am I wild about Utah and Pando’s mycelium!

Credits:

Pictures: M W from Pixabay
Sound: Courtesy Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Pace, Matthew, (Intern, NYBG), Hidden Partners: Mycorrhizal Fungi and Plants, New York Botanical Garden, https://sciweb.nybg.org/science2/hcol/mycorrhizae.asp.html

Chadwick, Douglas H., Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Amazing Underground Secret to a Better Garden. Mother Earth News, August/September 2014, https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/gardening-techniques/mycorrhizal-fungi-zm0z14aszkin

See “Mushrooms” in the following:
Cumo, Christopher, Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia [3 volumes]: From Acacia to Zinnia, Amazon Digital Services LLC, April 25, 2013, https://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Cultivated-Plants-Acacia-volumes-ebook/dp/B00ODJN5BU
See also: https://books.google.com/books?id=Ja7WAQAAQBAJ&q=mushrooms#v=snippet&q=mushrooms&f=false

POCKING: Potentially the “best” technique for restoring remote canyon landscapes during mine reclamations

Pocking for Cottonwood-Wilberg mine reclamation Courtesy & Copyright Chris Brown
Pocking for Cottonwood-Wilberg mine reclamation
Courtesy & Copyright Chris Brown
In Utah, when a coal mine closes, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (OGM) is the agency responsible for overseeing the reclamation.

PacifiCorp is a mining company that provides electrical utility to one million customers in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming via Rocky Mountain Power. When it submitted the Cottonwood-Wilberg mine reclamation proposal, it claimed a sedimentation pond which catches run off, would not be needed. OGM was skeptical and initially rejected the plan.
Dennis Oakley, senior mine engineer at PacifiCorp said, “We explored the state and federal regulations and found there was some latitude if we could show we were using the best technology currently available.”

Tom Thompson, GIS Manager at OGM said, “Technology has come a long way, if we leverage it correctly we could do a lot better for our environment.”

The method PacifiCorp claimed as the best technology available was deep gouging, or “pocking”; a technique used to prevent erosion and stimulate vegetation growth on steep sloped landscapes.

To use pocking, the natural canyon slopes are first restored, then pocks three feet in diameter and one-and-a-half feet deep are dug into the slopes next to each other in a random and discontinuous fashion. The landscape soon resembles the surface of a golf ball with thousands of dimples.

Green dyed hydro-mulching, which contains native seeds, moisture and a protective layer of mulch is then sprayed over the entire pocked landscape.

When it rains the pocks capture the water, forming mini ponds. The moisture is slowly absorbed into the ground, preventing run off and giving the seeds a moist environment for growth.

Each year the sides of the pocks slowly erode into themselves, and the vegetation becomes established and spreads. Eventually the pocks fill with sediment and fade into a natural looking stable slope.

If pocking is the best technology currently available – then OGM wanted to know.

With the help of PacifiCorp, OGM set up the Cottonwood-Wilberg mine as a research site to determine the efficiency of pocking.

To add additional expertise to the research, OGM applied for Utah Legislature appropriated funds, to access to the knowledge of Doug Ramsey, the director of the Remote Sensing and GIS Laboratory, in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University, and his graduate student Chris Brown.

Ramsey and Brown explain, The RS/GIS lab is evaluating the pocks by using drone imagery of the entire landscape to create 3D models and topographic maps that identify where the vegetation is growing, and the depth of each pock across multiple seasons and years to show if the pocks are eroding as expected.

PacifiCorp installed monitoring devices around the reclaimed site so it could measure the amount of precipitation, the vegetation growth over time, and the sediment load of the runoff above and below the disturbed areas.

Oakley explains, “It’s our theory that the sediment levels of the background runoff will be equal to, or less than the runoff at the bottom of the disturbed area.”

Ramsey visited the site in June 2019 and found vegetation was already growing in the bottom of the pocks.

Data from the site will be gathered and analyzed over the next few years. A key part of this monitoring work will be a manual describing the drone data collection and analysis methods so OGM can establish a monitoring protocol for other reclamation sites.

Keenan Storrar, hydrologist from OGM, said, “We hope this research on the pocking technique, which PacifiCorp helped develop, will be published for future operators use.”

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Chris Brown
Audio: Courtesy
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Cottonwood-Wilberg Mine, Emery County, Utah Reclamation, US Department of the Interior, https://eros.usgs.gov/doi-remote-sensing-activities/2018/osm/cottonwood-wilberg-mine-emery-county-utah-reclamation

Cottonwood-Wilberg Mine, Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://www.ogm.utah.gov/coal/minedetail.php?C0150019

Josh Explains Wild Neoteny

Josh Explains Wild Neoteny: Annual Wildflower Festival Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Annual Wildflower Festival
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
“Hey, stop the truck!” my wife called from the passenger seat, her nose pressed against the window. I already knew what this was about; she was out the door before the dust had cleared the hood, kneeling in the grass. While she hovered over something newly found with purple petals, I stared out across the high, open meadow of blooming wildflowers, the urge to run surging into my feet. I turned at her exclamation several seconds later, half a football field of colored space between us now. Arms spread wide; grins from ear to ear. In a field of wildflowers, we were kids again.

Scientists call it neoteny, the retention of juvenile features in the adult of a species—basically, the harboring of a playful nature into adulthood. The research into the benefits of play, especially outdoor play, is becoming more replete by the day. In humans, play puts the right hemisphere of the brain into gear, that portion responsible for artistic and creative notions, imagination and insight, and holistic thought. The cerebellum and frontal lobes light up as well, increasing attunement to coordination, executive functioning, and contextual memory development. Neoteny, scientists say, is the key to a species’ adaptability and, therefore, its survival.

Alpine Pond Upper Flowers Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Alpine Pond Upper Flowers
Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Wild neoteny could be the term used to describe the human affinity to explore one’s natural surroundings, to wander off into the hills in search of something new and interesting, to learn the nuance of a place and to gain some intimacy with it—to call it home. We do that, I think, when we go on hikes into the wild hinterlands, catapult ourselves down the turbulent waters of our rivers, or climb the rock faces we stumble upon. It’s an adrenaline rush to be sure, a high on life as they say; but it’s also an act of survival—and of remaining human.

Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University, says “the natural environment is the principle source of sensory stimulation….” “Sensory experiences,” he says, “link [our] exterior world with [our] interior, hidden, affective world.” The outdoor environment is a medium of human connection where, as Moore puts it, the “freedom to explore and play…through the senses…is essential for healthy development….” Dr. Stuart Brown, clinical researcher and founder of The National Institute for Play, behooves us in his Ted Talk on the subject to explore our individual histories of play. If you close your eyes and imagine yourself at play, where are you? The open water, a deep forest, a mountain peak, or maybe a field of wildflowers?

In his national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv calls nature a “reset button.” It is the place where we are reminded of ourselves and our purpose. Australian musician Xavier Rudd sings, “Take a stroll to the nearest water’s edge/Remember your place.” It’s often proffered that in a time of industrial expectation and hyper-communication, we need the wild spaces more than ever. There’s some truth to that; but I think I’d go play there anyway, even if it wasn’t to escape the, quote-unquote, “workaday life.” I’m most human when I’m running through a field of blooming wildflowers.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Cedar Breaks, Plan Your Visit, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/planyourvisit/index.htm

Cedar Breaks National Monument, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm

Neoteny, Reference Terms, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neoteny.htm

Lower San Juan – Piute Farms Waterfall

Lower San Juan Piute Farms Waterfall, An Example of Superimposition Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Piute Farms waterfall is a 25-ft high cascade that has formed along the San Juan River and spans its entire width. The location is a remote spot in an upstream arm of Lake Powell reservoir.

To reach the falls it takes a rough two-hour drive from Mexican Hat, or a 100-mile-boat ride from Bullfrog Marina in Lake Powell.

It formed when the tributary re-routed itself, cut through a thick layer of sediment, and began flowing over a bedrock cliff.

Scientists call this phenomenon superimposition.

Jack Schmidt, Janet Quinney Lawson Chair of Colorado River Studies in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “When reservoirs are created by the construction of dams, the sediment load of inflowing rivers is deposited in the most upstream part of the reservoir. In Lake Powell…the deposits in the…San Juan arm of the reservoir are as much as 80ft thick.”

“[If} reservoirs…drop…the inflowing rivers erode into the accumulated sediment. There is no guarantee the location of the new channel will be in the same place as…the original channel.”

The San Juan River’s original route was buried under the thick layer of sediment. The river’s response was to form a new channel one mile south of the original route and over the ridge.

Schmidt continues, “A [similar] thing…happened in Lake Mead reservoir where an unrunnable rapid formed near Pearce Ferry where the new Colorado River flows over a lip… [of] consolidated sediment. Although not a vertical waterfall, Pearce Ferry Rapid is sometimes more dangerous to boating than any rapid in the Grand Canyon!”

With future droughts, we can expect reservoirs to be at low levels for extended periods, and superimposition will continue to occur forming additional waterfalls and obstructions. Managers monitor the positive and negative effects of these changes.

One impact of the Piute Farms waterfall is a novel subpopulation of endangered razorback suckers which are now blocked from swimming upstream to spawn.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Zach Ahrens, Native Aquatics Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and graduate student at USU says, “The razorback and other native fishes in the Colorado River basin have evolved over millions of years to play their roles in spite of the extremes of temperature and flow in their riverine environment. Given the uncertainty of future climate and water resources…it’s important to do what we can to ensure their continued survival.”

Before the waterfall formed, managers were not sure what percentage of razorback suckers travelled this far upstream.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Mark McKinstry, Biological Scientist from the Bureau of Reclamation, explains, “It took perseverance, technology, and dedication of a lot of different folks to find where…the Razorbacks are and understand the fish’s life history strategy.”

Peter MacKinnon with the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University and Biomark Inc. provided the technical expertise to set up a method to insert Razorback suckers with pit tags (similar to those used in cats and dogs) then track them with antennas placed below the falls.

With this tracking method, managers and researchers identified more than 1000 razorback suckers below the falls, apparently trying to ascend the waterfall. Approximately 2000-4000 suckers live in the San Juan River. It is estimated about 25% of the razorbacks are unable to spawn – because the waterfall blocks fish passage. This could influence the population of the endangered fish.

The Bureau of Reclamation consulted with experts on how to help razorback suckers get past the waterfall so they can move upstream and spawn. The most feasible suggestion seems to be, to build a naturalized fish passage around the side of the waterfall. Managers and volunteers would build a trap location on the upstream side of the passage where fish moving upstream could be captured; volunteers could then release the captured razorbacks and other native fish upstream where they choose to spawn.

Phaedra Budy, professor in the Watershed Sciences Department and Unit Leader for U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit said, “The Razorback sucker has intrinsic value to the San Juan River and beyond, is a critical member of the ecosystem, and deserves every effort for recovery.”

Managers and researchers hope their information gained and recovery efforts will give the endangered razorback suckers an increased chance for survival in its changing environment.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mark McKinstry
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by The National Park Service, licensed under CCA-ND
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Waterfall Still Blocks San Juan River, River Runners for Wilderness(RRFW), https://rrfw.org/riverwire/waterfall-still-blocks-san-juan-river

https://www.americansouthwest.net/utah/monument_valley/piute_farms.html

Razorback Sucker(Page 68), Utah’s Endandengered Fish, 2018 Utah Fishing Guidebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Services, https://wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks/2018_pdfs/2018_fishing.pdf

Fish Ecology Lab, Utah State University, 
https://www.usu.edu/fel/