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/planyourvisit/event-listing.htm?eventID=68A2C9C9-155D-451F-679007F885E5FA1A

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

Riparian Zones

Riparian Zones: Clear Creek in the Spring Courtesy & Copyright Holly Strand, Photographer
Clear Creek in the Spring
Courtesy & Copyright Holly Strand, Photographer
Summer’s heat has turned on. It was evident in a dramatic fashion as I ran a ridge in N. Utah where the early am temps were near 70 degrees, flowers had faded, and the absence of bird song. As I descended to the canyon bottom the temperature dropped a solid 20 degrees and bird voices returned where yellow warblers were competing with lazuli buntings for top songster. I had entered the riparian, or river side biotic community- from the burnt brown of cheat grass above to the lush “green zone” below supporting abundant life in our desert state. I won’t be running ridge tops any time soon!

Throughout the Intermountain West and Great Basin, these givers of life are critical areas for water, wildlife, agriculture, and recreation. About 80 % of all animal life is dependent on stream side habit sometime during its life cycle. As a birder and botanist, this is where I spend much of my time documenting and enjoying the abundance.
On a recent, brief bird survey along the Logan River golf course trail, I recorded 33 species with another ten or so known to nest in this river corridor. I’m planning to prepare a bird checklist for golfers to add more “birdies” to their score card.

Many of these special places have been seriously degraded through invasion of exotic species, agricultural practices, various forms of development, and channelization. But help is on the way.

The Logan River Task Force is one excellent example. Launched in 2016, the task force is well on its way to restoring a much healthier, biologically rich river system. Replacing crack willow, a Eurasian non-native tree, with native cottonwood and willow accompanied by a rich understory of shrubs, will significantly enhance the biodiversity along the floodplain. Another major change is underway as they replace the straight, channelized portion of the river to its meandering original channel. This will create more pools for fish, wetlands for flood control and filtering, while improving aesthetics and recreation opportunity.

In an earlier WAU reading, I mentioned the good work being done by western boxelder ranchers reintroducing beaver whose dams will assist with maintaining stream flow and water quality along with improved fish and wildlife habitat. I’m aware of the same occurring on a Mink Creek ranch in SE Idaho.

The world appears to be awakening to the many values of these critical wildlife and water quality riparian zones, as I awoke to the same on my early morning run.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Holly Strand
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Wheaton, Joe, Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://etalweb.joewheaton.org.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Downloads/BRAT/UTAH_BRAT_Management%20Brief.pdf

Riparian Zones, What is a Riparian Zone?, Water Quality, USU Extension, https://extension.usu.edu/waterquality/learnaboutsurfacewater/watersheds/riversandstreams/riparianzones

The Invasive Phragmites

Invasive Phragmites: Great Salt Lake Phragmites Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Great Salt Lake Phragmites
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Those unfamiliar with the history of the Utah’s wetlands may see Phragmites and say, “What a beautiful, elegant plant! It looks so graceful blowing along the shore.”

However, the plant’s attractiveness and ability to absorb pollutants may not compensate for its negative impacts.

Phragmites is an invasive perennial grass that now thrives in much of the wetlands around the Great Salt Lake and other marshes in northern Utah. It grows in dense clusters and normally reaches 5 to 10 feet in height. If the conditions are right it can reach 15 feet.

The patches of grass are so dense that wetland managers are called out each year to rescue duck hunters – who are lost in the Phragmites.

Karin Kettenring, associate professor of wetland ecology in the Department of Watershed Sciences at USU and her research team have been studying Utah Phragmites for the past decade.

Kettenring explains why Phragmites is a concern, “We fear it is fundamentally changing the habitat of Great Salt Lake wetlands which are renowned for being a home for migratory birds including waterfowl and shore birds.”

The exotic grass most likely started in the Great Salt Lake wetlands after the flooding of 1983. The flood washed out the marshes. When the water levels receded, the salty water had destroyed all the native vegetation in the wetlands. Phragmites then moved in. By 2011, the exotic grass had spread over 24,000 acres.

Mowing Phragmites Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Mowing Phragmites
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Scientists believe humans inadvertently brought Phragmites to Utah, since birds don’t migrate East and West, and the birds usually don’t eat the seeds. Someone’s boat may have transported the seeds into Utah. They sat dormant in the soil until the conditions were perfect, then the spread of Phragmites began.

Today an average small patch of Phragmites, about 20 feet square, can spread a couple yards a year just from the stems it sends out above and below the ground. However, research has shown it’s not the stems that cause the most reproduction – but the seeds.

Karin_Kettenring-in-the-Great-Salt-Lake-Wetlands Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Karin_Kettenring-in-the-Great-Salt-Lake-Wetlands
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Karen Mock, associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources and a long-term collaborator on this project helped Kettenring with the genetic work.

They tested the genetics of a lot of Phragmites pulled from the same patches and found many different genotypes – proving the plants came from different seeds, not the stems of neighboring plants.

With these results, Kettenring’s lab discovered the best way to control the invasive grass is to first control the seed production by mowing the grass mid-summer to keep it from spreading. Then in the fall spraying the area with herbicide three years in a row. An herbicide approved for use in wetlands can be used – such as Rodeo.

If the Phragmites has been there only a few years then the seeds of the native vegetation will still be in the soil, and they’ll come back on their own.

However, if the Phragmites has been there for a long time then re-seeding of native plants will be necessary.

To determine the best way to re-seed wetlands, Kettenring partnered with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands and David England – one of Kettenring’s past graduate students. England has spent extensive time in the lab determining how to help seeds germinate.

Emily Martin, Kettenring’s current graduate student will also help with the UDWR reseeding as she searches for techniques to make seeding more effective.

Ultimately their goal is to restore native plant communities to keep Phragmites from coming back and restore habitat for important migratory birds.

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

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

How to control Phragmites
Kettenring, Karin, Rupp, Larry, Whitesides, Ralph, Hazelton, Eric, Phragmites Control at the Urban/Rural Interface, 2014, https://works.bepress.com/karin_kettenring/92/

Extensive readings about Phragmites:
https://works.bepress.com/karin_kettenring/

Video: USU researchers mowing Phragmites in the Great Salt Lake wetlands. The passenger is Chad Cranney a past graduate student of Karin Kettenring’s:
https://bft.usu.edu/rqcq9

*****

Larese-Casanova, Mark, Phragmites-Utah’s Grassy Invader, Wild About Utah, August 23, 2012, https://wildaboututah.org/phragmites-utahs-grassy-invader/

Common Reed, Phragmites australis. National Invasive Species Information Center, USDA National Agricultural Library, https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatics/commonreed.shtml

Phragmites Factsheet, US Fish & Wildlife Service, https://www.fws.gov/GOMCP/pdfs/phragmitesQA_factsheet.pdf

Phragmites Phragmites australis, Aquatic Invasive Species, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Sept 17, 2013, https://wildlife.utah.gov/habitat/ans/phragmites.php

Phragmites Phragmites australis, Plants Database, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service(NRCS), https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=phau7

Jack Loves the Four Seasons

Red Admiral Butterfly, Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS Digital Library
Red Admiral Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

Glacier Lilies
Erythronium grandiflorum
Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore


I love the four seasons. Having spent my 72 years residing in the mid latitudes, I’ve learned to celebrate each of our seasons, but especially spring!

This is the rebirth flush with abundant water, new greenery, and air filled with bird song and sweet aromas as new flowers perfume the air hoping to lure in a pollinator.

With mid-April upon us and our 42 degree latitude, spring is in full swing here in northern Utah! Winter departs grudgingly slapping us with snow squalls intermingled with glorious, early summer days, a wild roller coaster ride which I truly enjoy!
I’m an avid phenology follower. Phenology is the study of how life adapts to seasonal changes. I revel in the first floral bloom, the first neotropical birds returning from Latin America with a heart full of song, and newly emerged, gaudy butterflies.

With a relatively stable climate, until recently, the timing of these events has evolved to near perfection
Let’s take a closer look at some of these phenomena. I’ll begin with our neotropical birds such as lazuli buntings, yellow warblers, and Western tanagers to mention a few. These species spend over half of their year in Mexico, Central and South America flying thousands of miles to for the breeding and nesting season in the Intermountain West. This may seem a bit extreme for these tiny flurries of life.

On closer inspection, you will find they have good reason for this daunting and dangerous task. The tropics have a relatively stable climate without the dramatic seasonal change that we experience. This results in relatively stable populations of flowers and insects, the primary food sources for most species. Further, the ratio of daylight to darkness is nearly constant with 12 hours of each. Our days lengthen as we journey toward summer solstice with nearly 16 hours of daylight! This allows a burst of energy to flow through ecosystems resulting in eruptive populations of insects and floral bloom. It also offers long hours of daylight for parents to gather food for their young which grow rapidly toward fledglings, thus reducing the possibility of predation and also preparing them for the arduous flight south as fall approaches.

Let’s examine flowers and insects. With our very warm winter and spring, I was expecting a much earlier arrival of both and was not disappointed. I counted 17 species of flowers by the second week of April! And butterflies were on a similar schedule with 9 different species during the last week of March- remarkably early! Although delighted, it occurred to me that returning birds may not be so pleased. If the flowers begin to fade, and insects begin their downward slide at the peak of birds rearing their young, trouble is afoot! A five year Audubon study revealed that 1/3 of our birds are predicted to be severely impacted by these rapid climate shifts.

On a more positive note, spring will continue as will bird song, vernal waterfalls, eruptions of wildflowers and butterflies. And spring repeats itself as we move to higher elevations. As cornices on our mountain ridges recede, up pops flowers for yet another spring bloom, and with them butterflies, bees, and birds!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS
Pictures Lilies: Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Kervin, Linda, USA National Phenology Network, Wild About Utah, July 2, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/usa-national-phenology-network/

Hellstern, Ron, Journey North, Wild About Utah, March 19, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/journey-north/

Greene, Jack, I Love the Four Seasons, Wild About Utah, May 3, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/i-love-the-four-seasons/

Conners, Deanna, Why Earth has 4 seasons, EarthSky.org, September 20, 2016, http://earthsky.org/earth/can-you-explain-why-earth-has-four-seasons