Science Story May 2024

Great things happen when we work together

Erik Hulm is one of those individuals who is often called upon to move projects forward. It’s what he does. He moves things forward. As implied in his title at RMBL, Director of Institutional Advancement, what he’s moving forward these days is RMBL.

He joined the staff in 2021 as a senior project manager. That was just when the Department of Energy’s SAIL (Surface Atmosphere Integrated Field Laboratory) campaign docked at RMBL to scale the heights and plumb the depths of atmosphere-through-bedrock research to understand mountainous water cycles using the East River Watershed as a model.

After a conversation with Ian Billick on the sidelines of a soccer field, it became clear that Erik was the right person to not only help with SAIL, but a host of other atmospheric projects coming into the valley to improve weather and water predictions in Colorado and beyond. Erik says, “It was like the Woodstock of atmospheric research.”

Not that he was out of his element. Coming from a 20-year career managing industrial-scale field projects, he was easily the right fit. He also had a grasp of the science, armed with a master’s degree in geology.

That role brought Erik’s other talents to the fore. His experience facilitating complex decisions and strategic direction made him a valuable asset for the reset of RMBL’s strategic plan to guide the organization into its second century. Erik says that it was exciting to play a central role in helping craft the strategy. As one who sees the big picture, he made sure that the plan was comprehensive and reflected the voice of all stakeholders. At the same time, he specifically advocated for reaffirming RMBL’s values. It was important to him that the organization didn’t lose sight of what it is and where it came from.

Erik takes values personally. As a geologist, he enjoyed a career looking into the Earth’s deep past and trying to unravel the information it held. But after many years in a multi-national corporation exploring for oil and gas it was time for a change. People need energy, he says, but when you start to think of the consequences of what it takes to deliver that energy, it can leave you conflicted.

“I’ve always wanted to make a meaningful contribution,” he says. “There’s a real purpose for working at RMBL.”

In this sense, coming to RMBL was not just a career transition but a life transition. He and his wife Melinda were looking to relocate. Being outdoor lovers and having lived several years in Scotland, they dreamed of seeing a bit of sun. You might be surprised how quickly Crested Butte pops up when you Google “sunshine, good schools, and great outdoor recreation.” The final nudge came when the two befriended another Crested Butte couple who happened to be living in Scotland at the same time. Over a few beers, they convinced Erik and Melinda to take a look. Erik feels fortunate to have found his way to RMBL.

To Erik, life is full of opportunities if you are willing to get on the bus. “When you’re a twig in a pond, opportunities rarely come floating by,” he says. “But if you put yourself out in the river, suddenly you’re intersecting many opportunities. If you open yourself to new experiences, good things come along.”

Now he says his journey is to help RMBL achieve the goals outlined in the strategic plan. It will take the efforts of a larger team to succeed. But making meaningful contributions to a bigger team is what Erik was built to do — especially when the team is a broad group of passionate, accomplished people who come together, bringing their strengths and enthusiasm to make it work.

Erik reminds us that there are still plenty of seats on the bus.

Erik Hulm joined RMBL as a Senior Project Manager in 2021. He is a geologist and manager with 20 years’ experience working complex exploration campaigns and data acquisition projects around the world. He earned his bachelor’s degree in earth science at the University of South Dakota and a master’s degree in geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. After several years living overseas, Erik and his wife Melinda moved to Crested Butte in 2018 with their boys, Hugh and Eli, to enjoy all the benefits of living in a small mountain town.

Science Story April 2024

Mining for marmots

Taylor Bastian is a PhD student at University of California Los Angeles and part of Dr. Dan Blumstein’s lab. Last year, she spent her first summer at RMBL working on the marmot project. We caught up with Taylor as she was heading to RMBL for her second summer. What led her to RMBL was a search for a graduate program and learning about Dr. Blumstein’s research with marmots. He’s a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA and runs the marmot project at RMBL.

Marmots are right up Taylor’s alley. She’s interested in studying the environment’s impact on social behaviors, and the marmot project has been studying the behavior of RMBL’s yellow-bellied marmots since 1962. That time span covers a lot of marmots. With 11 colonies to observe, the team saw 216 marmots last year, and there have been many more in previous years.

Science, shmience

Actually, Taylor’s journey to RMBL started years ago with a transformation. She wasn’t born loving science. As a young student, she hated it. But in eighth grade, she had a science teacher whose enthusiasm was so infective that she reconsidered her position. Maybe science wasn’t so bad after all. Then, as an undergraduate she ended up with a professor of animal behavior who made science so entertaining that Taylor was hooked. She’d found her calling.

At RMBL, Taylor’s hoping to find the relationships between different environmental variables — like temperature and the length of winter — and the social behaviors of the animals, such as how many interactions an individual has with others, the number of marmots they interact with, and how well-connected they are within their network. Ultimately, she wants to see how of all these variables — environmental and behavioral — affect each animal’s fitness.

Her dissertation will address three topics: the environmental impacts on social behavior, the effects of sociality on fitness, and a structural equation model that puts all these factors together to see which has the most influence on the consequences.

Catch as catch can

This early in the year, with snow still on the ground in Gothic, it’s too early to catch the critters, so the team’s work will be limited to observing and recording the marmots’ behavior. Each animal wears a sort of nametag, a unique mark that researchers give them to track their individual behaviors. The team watches what they do, where they go, and who they hang out with.

Come June, researchers start baiting traps and catching individuals to weigh, measure, and take blood, fur, and tissue samples to collect genetic and physiological data. Taylor is looking forward to tagging marmot pups this year. The tiny, screaming babies are irresistible study subjects.

The colonies lie in a wide range of elevations, from down Kettle Ponds road to almost as far up valley as Rustler Gulch. Observing the effects of elevation is part of the research. At higher elevations, the snow lasts much longer, the weather is harsher, and the health outcomes are worse. When the animals emerge, it’s important to see who’s still alive and how snowmelt timing affects each colony.

Fat and happy

Marmot hibernation is a marvel. Their bodily systems virtually shut down. As Taylor says, “they are as close to dead as you can get.” When they start to emerge, those who survive the winter are the ones with the highest amount of body fat. Longer warm seasons provide more chances to fatten up, but they also give predators more time to make a meal of the marmots.

Building fat for the winter is especially tricky for breeding moms, who must spend much of their time feeding babies while watching for predators and getting enough nourishment to keep them alive through winter. Males, on the other hand, have an easier time getting chunky.

Notwithstanding the adorableness of baby marmots, Taylor says that of all the aspects of working at RMBL, what she enjoys most is the community of humans. “There are so many wonderful people you can talk to about your research, hear their takes, and learn from,” she says.

Now, she sees her own future in education. She loves teaching and mentoring. She thinks about inspiring other young prospective scientists, especially those in smaller colleges who have fewer opportunities to experience the wonders of scientific research.

Who knows? Maybe someday, she’ll bring students of her own to RMBL to join the hunt for squealing baby marmots.

 

Taylor is a PhD student at UCLA studying the relationships between environment, sociality, and fitness under Dr. Daniel Blumstein. Her love of wildlife and ecology began at Critter Camp as a first grader and continued as she worked with Dungeness crabs at University of Washington and freshwater zooplankton at Gonzaga University. This year will be her second field season with Team Marmot at RMBL.

Science Story March 2024

Engineering the Future

One of the qualities that sets RMBL apart from other field stations is its knack for encouraging multidisciplinary collaborations among scientists. Think of Dr. David Inouye’s over 50-year-old flower phenology project and the research that has sprouted from it, such as Dr. Rebecca Irwin’s study of native bees and Dr. Aimee Classen’s research on root phenology and soil processes.

But why stop there? Why not explore the possibilities of mixing disciplines like computer science, mechanical engineering, and biological sciences to solve some of today’s most pressing issues? That’s the mission of Dr. Jenifer Blacklock. She’s the director of the Western Colorado University – Colorado University Boulder partnership. This summer she’ll oversee collaborative projects created by WCU/CU Boulder and RMBL in which mechanical and computer science undergraduates will design and develop tools to help researchers gather more highly detailed measurements of the area’s ecosystems.

Engineering fuels science

Dr. Blacklock says that these collaborations are taking science and engineering to the next level. One project involves developing an advanced sensor suite that analyzes the land surface energy balance, in other words, things like incoming and outgoing radiation, soil temperature, heat flux, air temperature, humidity, wind speed, and precipitation. By providing comprehensive insights into the complex dynamics of surface energy exchange, the system will deepen our understanding of environmental and climate processes.

Another project aims to develop a snowpack measurement device that detects how well mountain snowpack bears the weight of animals. Because it mimics nature’s own methods of adaptability, it can revolutionize snowpack measurement techniques for researchers.

One of the computer science projects is designed to measure the leaf area index, which means the amount of leaf surface area in a given tract of land. Leaf surface area is a key variable that controls how ecosystems store carbon and use water. So knowing how this measurement varies across different landscapes, seasons, and vegetation can help scientists understand how the Earth’s ecosystems are responding to environmental change.

Leaping forward

Putting biological and natural scientists together with engineering and computer scientists is a whole new ball game, according to Dr. Blacklock. She believes it enables groundbreaking research that may not be happening anywhere else. What this research could result in is getting better predictive models of the climate and environment.

With improved predictive modeling, the sky’s the limit for how it can be used. For communities, you can map forest composition and structure to predict how forest fires could travel. You could also make predictive models of snowmelt, delivering critical information to water resource managers.

Women welcome

Another area of progress Dr. Blacklock finds exciting is increasing the number of women in engineering. Studies show that it’s in middle school when girls decide whether or not they ‘can become’ an engineer. Based on this research, the Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering at Western CU developed a middle school engineering program for the summer. It consists of fun, hands-on, outdoor engineering projects that expose kids to different aspects of engineering. The goal is to make engineering exciting for girls, especially. There are courses on outdoor rescue engineering and other topics women are drawn to.

Rady also launches clubs and organizations in Gunnison schools to make engineering a friendlier subject. Lego robotics clubs, drone clubs, and other activities help kids understand that engineering is, Dr. Blacklock says, “not just getting under the hood of your car, but it’s being creative and helping the world become a better place.”

If kids learn early that anyone can be an engineer, then more women will see themselves as engineers. They can also see the value of engineering in solving social problems and improving the lives of individuals. Rady will launch a biomedical engineering degree in 2025 that will partner with the adaptive sports center in Crested Butte. The idea is to design and develop devices and sports gear that will allow those with impairments to do things they did not think were possible.

Projects that are human-centric are those most likely to bring women into the field. By this measure, Dr. Blacklock is not only helping engineering and science merge into a superpower for good. She is also changing the face of engineering itself.

 

With over a decade of engineering curriculum and industry experience, Jeni Blacklock holds dual B.S. degrees from Miami University in Manufacturing Engineering and Engineering Management, an M.S. degree in Biomedical Engineering, and a PhD. from Max Planck Institute in Germany. As a National Research Council Fellow at NIST, she worked in Boulder, Colorado, before becoming a Teaching Professor at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, CO. There, she focused on hands-on education and innovation, with many initiatives funded through multimillion dollar NSF grants. Transitioning to CU-Boulder, Jeni helped launch the Student Experiential Education initiative, integrating real-world industry and practical experiences into the mechanical engineering degree program. Returning to Mines, Jeni helped launch the Advanced Manufacturing program as co-principal investigator on a $2M NSF-PEER grant for workforce development. Returning to CU Boulder in 2020, Jeni launched the WCU/CU Boulder partnership program in Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science, with the first cohort of students graduating in May 2023. Jeni lives in Crested Butte with her husband and two boys.

Science Story February 2024

Force of nature

Never underestimate the power of family vacations to shape a child’s future. For Dr. Pat Magee, Professor of Wildlife Biology and Conservation at Western Colorado University, childhood family trips always led to the great outdoors. Growing up in Littleton, Colorado, he and his six siblings would pile into his parents’ Volkswagen bus and head to campgrounds throughout the Colorado Rockies, up to Yellowstone, Wyoming, Montana, and everywhere in between. Vacations meant hiking, exploring, listening to interpretive talks by national park rangers, and being immersed in the natural world.

In high school, Pat joined the Youth Conservation Corps with the US Forest Service and dreamed of being a park ranger. But he followed another path in college, studying wildlife biology and eventually earning a PhD in wildlife ecology. Now he teaches that and related courses at Western. Every other year for the last 24 years, he has taught a mammalogy course that features an intensive, three-day, two-night field trip in late January. He and two dozen or more students snowshoe into Gothic, stay in large group cabins, and learn how mammals adapt to and survive the winter.

The trip revolves around three themes. First, the students learn the basics of animal tracking, not only identifying whose tracks they find but also understanding the behavior and ecology the tracks divulge.

Second, they study snow science, seeing how the winter environment and forces of evolution mold the adaptations of mammals. Digging snowpits and looking at layers beneath the surface uncover the physics that allow mammals to live under the snow all winter.

Third, they study how mammals respond to the key forces of winter, or what Dr. Jim Halfpenny — author of Winter: An Ecological Handbook and other wildlife field guides — calls the SCREW factor: snow, cold, radiation, energy, and wind. There’s a vast array of physiological, anatomical, and behavioral adaptations mammals employ whether they’re actively enduring the winter or sleeping through it.

The course is an elective, but most students who take it say that it’s transformative. Many go on to graduate school, find careers as wildlife managers, or work for the Forest Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A recent student is finishing her PhD studying elk in Yellowstone.

The transformation is more than academic. For students who didn’t grow up camping and are novice hikers, it can push them to the limits of their physical ability. Yet the feeling of accomplishment they get when they meet the challenges can stay with them for life. Beyond the snow science and tracking, the course becomes an exercise in personal growth. Somehow, spending a few days tracking animals in the natural world can spur students to explore their own inner world and track their development as a human.

On this year’s trip, the class was blessed with plenty of snow, but the temperature was unseasonably balmy. That could be nice for those on a field trip, but if the warming trend continues as it’s expected to, it could be disastrous for mammals adapted to colder winters. Warmer temperatures mean less snow and more freezing rain, which crusts over the snow surface and prevents animals from going in and out of their subnivean environment. You might be surprised at how many mammals live beneath the snow. They depend on the integrity of the snowpack. When it changes, so do their survival rates.

Dr. Magee knows that no textbook learning matches the experience of his intensive field trips. “Nature is really the teacher,” he says. He’s also aware that he couldn’t do the trips without the support of RMBL.

On this year’s trip, the class saw the tracks of moose, snowshoe hares, pine martens, pine squirrels, and other rodents. They saw a fox in the flesh. What they took away from the course was more than an appreciation of the fierce beauty of Gothic winters. They learned what we stand to lose if the present global environmental crisis is not addressed. Our hope is that some of these students will go on to do just that.

Pat Magee, PhD, is Faculty Senate Chair and Professor of Wildlife and Conservation Biology at Western Colorado University. He also leads the Sustainability Action Committee.  His major professional goal is developing and delivering experiential courses for undergraduate students emphasizing field-based techniques and natural history. He works with researchers, managers, conservationists, and others to design and implement strategies for wildlife conservation. His recent research involves sagebrush ecosystems with emphasis on obligate and near-obligate bird species, and he has led a six-year study on the Great Blue Heron colony along the Slate River in Crested Butte. He works with undergraduate students in diverse projects from macroinvertebrates to mammals, focusing on habitat relationships and land management consequences to populations and communities. In cooperation with student interns and volunteers, he coordinated the Gunnison Sage-grouse Watchable Wildlife Program for over 20 years in conjunction with the non-profit organization, Sisk-a-dee. He also serves on the Gunnison Basin Sage-grouse Strategic committee and several sub-committees including the Information and Education group and the newly formed raven sub-committee.

Science Story January 2024

The price of nature

It’s a common story. A family visits Crested Butte to ski, falls in love with the alpine wonderland, and returns again and again. Soon they discover the gifts that other seasons bring, like summer’s riotous explosion of wildflowers and fall’s golden blankets of aspens.

Before long, they’ve bought a home and claimed a piece of the West Elk Mountains as their own. Spending any time in the Crested Butte area means rubbing shoulders with RMBL researchers. That leads to questions about what goes on at Gothic, which leads to the discovery of one of science’s hidden gems, a place so valuable that it influences environmental policies and attracts a star-studded cast of scientists from around the world to mine its treasures.

In the 1990s, Anna Reilly and Matt Cullinan made an accidental trip to Crested Butte as it was the only available destination for a last-minute ski trip. That began a multi-decade love affair with Gunnison Valley.

The more they learned about RMBL, the greater their admiration grew. Their daughter Grace, already interested in environmental biology, enrolled in a summer session assisting a scientist researching aspen trees. In addition to being a fascinating learning experience for Grace, it got her name added to an academic paper on the research.

Both Anna and Matt have a long history in higher education, so RMBL’s commitment to research opportunities for students caught their attention. They were especially impressed with RMBL’s focus on providing opportunities for students from socio-economic backgrounds that limit the pursuit of scientific careers. “RMBL gives opportunities to students devoted to science who would ordinarily never have the chance,” said Anna.

For the last decade or so, Anna and Matt have been regular donors to RMBL, specifically to fund scholarships for underserved students. In Winston-Salem, where they live, Matt serves on the Board of Trustees of The Winston-Salem Foundation, whose areas of focus include advancing equity in education. Contributing to scholarships for deserving students is right up his alley.

The cause is just as dear to Anna, who has supported nonprofits focused on early education and economic opportunities for more than three decades.

As for Grace, it could be said that her upbringing with philanthropic parents and her love of the environment, reinforced by student research at RMBL, have brought her to the vocation she was made for. She and her husband co-chair the board of Gateway Nature Preserve in Winston- Salem.

In the Reilly-Cullinan family, people put their money where their passions are. To the benefit of RMBL science, and especially the students whose dreams are sparked by it, Anna and Matt are well aware of their reasons for supporting the lab. “It’s worth investing in to ensure that we know what we need to know as the climate in the mountains, in the water, and in everything else we love here comes under pressure.”

It’s one thing to admire the beauty of this extraordinary natural setting. But as Matt says, “We need RMBL to remind us that this is not a given.”

 

Anna Reilly

Anna has supported nonprofits focused on early education and economic opportunity for the past 30 years. She is a director for The Lamar Advertising Company and a past director of St. Joseph Capital Bank in South Bend, Indiana. Anna is chair of the Board of the Boston Thurmond Community Network and the Advisory Board of Face to Face of Wake Forest University. Her other board service includes the Board of Visitors for Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the board of Bethesda Center for the Homeless and other community-based organizations. She also chaired the grants committee of The Community Foundation of St. Joseph County. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a Masters of Public Policy from Duke University. 

Matthew Cullinan

Matthew has spent nearly three decades in leadership positions in higher education at Wake Forest University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Denver. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of Winston-Salem State University and vice chair of Project Impact. Matt was previously chair of the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy Board of Visitors, board chair at Summit School, trustee of Be The Change, and on the advisory council of the University of Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters.

Science Story December 2023

RMBL in the News

With about 70 media mentions in 2023, RMBL attracted a lot of attention. Any summary (and apologies for paywalls) of RMBL media coverage in 2023 has to start with the National Geographic piece on the Phenology Project. Beautiful photographs and great writing, it captures the extent to which the RMBL Phenology Project, started by Dr. David Inouye, has become a critical part of the global conversation around climate change. Following this theme, NPR’s Science Friday interviewed David and what he and his colleagues are seeing in terms of the timing of annual flowering being disrupted by climate change.

Jumping from wildflowers to water, the Colorado River provides water for 40 million people across seven states. Improving our ability to predict and manage water resources is one of the most critical issues for the western US. Gunnison Country Times writer Bella Biondini did a nice piece on research by Dr. Jessica Lundquist (University of Washington) for the High Country News, which was then picked up in outlets across the country such as Wired.  Her research focused on working out the details of Colorado’s water budget, with a particular emphasis on sublimation, or the loss of snow to evaporation.

Multiple articles (e.g., NPR, LA Times, Vail Daily) captured how quickly technological change involving our ability to generate and process data is fundamentally transforming our understanding of the Earth. NPR covered how Dr. Jeff Deems (CU Boulder) is using plane-based laser technology to measure the water content of snowpack in the western US, transforming the ability of water managers to manage water resources, techniques which were calibrated in part through RMBL. In similar fashion, Dr. Ian Breckheimer released a map through RMBL’s Spatial Data Platform that combined satellite and historic data to predict when local trails would be snow-free in the spring, a tool that attracted a great deal of attention through social media and the Crested Butte News.

As always, RMBL’s charismatic marmots got their share of attention. The marmots were featured on the cover of Ecology, along with meerkats, with a research article on seasonality, population viability, and demography. The RMBL marmot project also contributed data to a Science paper on using epigenetics, or the processes by which genes are turned on and off, to age mammals. This research was also picked up by the New York Times.

Dr. Noah Whiteman (UC Berkeley) published a popular book, Most Delicious Poison: the Story of Nature’s Toxins from Spices to Vices, examining the role of plant and fungal secondary compounds to human drug use and disuse, with references to RMBL research. His interview on NPR’s Science Friday is worth listening to!

On the arts front, Mark Dorf’s art, rooted in RMBL research and inspired from time he spent in Gothic as an artist in residence, was featured in the New York Times Square. And how can we review RMBL media without a billy barr mention? The Elevation Hotel in Mt. Crested Butte named a bar after him at the base of the ski area, which attracted attention in the Denver Post! PBS also featured him as part of their Evolution Earth series.

Science Story November 2023

The science of giving

There is something about spending time in nature that ignites an appreciation for science. Char Carbone and Pete Rowland each carved an independent path from nature lover to science supporter. As a married couple, however, their journeys have both converged and become wider.

Pete had a place on the mountain near Crested Butte and knew about RMBL only in passing. He bought the home for the purpose of diving into fly fishing. Spending many days on the East River put him close enough to RMBL to pique his curiosity.

Char had been coming to Crested Butte for 20 years to explore the mountainous terrain in off-road adventures that frequently took her past Gothic. When the couple met and married, they found a home in Crested Butte, and their mutual curiosity about Gothic grew into a passion for funding environmental science.

An avid fly fisherman, Pete was already immersed in a charity that enables fishing enthusiasts to angle for a humanitarian cause. Known as the Fly Fishing Collaborative, its mission is to mobilize the fly fishing community to create sustainable solutions to poverty and human trafficking. One of the group’s strategies is to organize fly fishing trips that raise funds to build aquaponic farms in impoverished communities around the world.

Pete was looking for a place to host a fly fishing trip, and he contacted Elizabeth Hughes, long-time RMBL board member, who agreed to hold the fundraiser on the family ranch. Soon after the trip, Pete and Char were invited to a barbeque at the ranch for friends and supporters of RMBL.

At the event, Char had the serendipitous fortune of sitting next to David Inouye, who gave her a brief history of the lab and its multi-generational impact on science. She was enthralled and remembers telling Elizabeth, “I want to join right now!”

Meanwhile, Pete started his own research about RMBL’s near 100-year history and the work it does to help the world adapt to a changing climate. He says that he was blown away by what he learned.

The couple decided to become ongoing RMBL supporters and to help recruit others. They spend roughly half the year at their home in Denver and the other half at Crested Butte — or did until Char was in a car accident a year and a half ago and underwent spine surgery. She’s recovering slowly but was still able to visit in September.

Since first committing to become sustaining donors, Pete and Char’s admiration for RMBL has only deepened. Char is inspired that the lab’s investment in undergraduates and young scientists will continue building interest in and support for the science that takes place in Gothic.

From Pete’s perspective, as more people accept the reality of climate change, RMBL’s work will become more important to our world’s environmental crisis.

The couple also finds it meaningful that their support is a gift to the community they love. Donating to a globally influential institution that lives in your home town engenders a special kind of pride. But both Pete and Char insist that whether you’re a citizen of Crested Butte or not, the act of supporting RMBL will enrich your life.

What’s more, it allows you to become part of something that will outlive you, says Pete. “Your support is going to be important long after you’re gone,” he says.

Talk about leaving the world a better place.

 

Char Carbone Rowland is a Colorado native. For many years, she ran her interior design business in Denver four days a week and then headed to the mountains to explore the mountain passes in the Gunnison Valley and around her home in Buena Vista. Today she is retired and eager to get back to the mountains and RMBL after she recovers from back surgery.

 

Pete Rowland is a native South Texan. He came to Crested Butte for a visit shortly after retiring from the University of Kansas and started house hunting the next day. He and Char were married by Tim Clark in the historic UCC church. Today, he spends as much time as he can fly fishing and exploring the feeder streams in the Gunnison Valley.

Science Story October 2023

Dr. Rebecca Irwin is a bee researcher. And tagger. And curator. She’s also, as of 2009, a collaborator in Dr. David Inouye’s Phenology Project.

The 50-year study of the phenology of RMBL wildflowers Dr. Inouye founded has blossomed into a multifaceted exploration of flowers and their pollinators, particularly bees. While Drs. Brian Inouye and Nora Underwood now lead the team of wildflower phenology researchers, Dr. Irwin heads a group of scientists who study the phenology, diversity, and abundance of native bees around RMBL.

The Phenology Project’s overarching goal is to discover how climate change is affecting the phenology (timing of life events) of flowering plants and their pollinators. The project continues to grow in all directions. In addition to counting the flowers of more than 150 species in nine original plots plus over 12 added since 1974, the project is digging into root phenology and soil processes with research led by Dr. Aimee Classen.

Then there’s the equally long-lived dataset of billy barr’s observations of snow arrival, snowmelt, animal emergence from hibernation, temperature, and other climate measurements against which researchers can compare their data to see what trends are developing as the climate changes.

Dr. Irwin has been studying how climate warming and variation are affecting bees since 2009. After so many years she says that the flowers and bees seem like good old friends. One of the things she’s hoping to learn is how climate variation is shifting flower phenology relative to that of bees. She also wants to understand the effects of climate change on the bees’ abundance and success.

Before Dr. Irwin joined the Phenology Project as the keeper of bee data, she had been looking into pollination from the plant’s perspective, understanding how herbivores and pollinators affected plant reproduction and natural selection on flowers. But she first came to RMBL as an undergraduate student working with Dr. Kristina Jones who was studying the effects of pollinators on the natural selection of snapdragon flowers. That’s when she met Jennie Reithel, a fellow undergraduate at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.

At the time, Dr. Irwin was on an academic track to veterinary school. Once she got to RMBL, she said, “Oh my gosh, I could have a career doing this! This is way more fun!” She switched gears, steering herself towards ecology. She continued going to RMBL, doing graduate work with Dr. Alison Brody, studying the effects of nectar-robbing bees on floral traits.

Although her post-doctoral work was at the University of California-Davis, she continued spending summers at RMBL and kept returning after getting her first faculty position.

Since Dr. Inouye approached her about starting a dataset with bees mirroring his research on flowers, she has discovered more than 150 species of solitary bees ranging from Almont to the Mexican Cut Nature Preserve, along with a series of bumble bees. Every two weeks, her team samples bees at 16 sites across an elevation gradient stretching from sage brush to subalpine.

Irwin and her team catch smaller bees with bee bowls painted in fluorescent, bee-attracting colors and filled with soapy water. Larger bees, like bumble bees, are caught with a net, marked, and released. The bee-bowl captured bees are identified under a microscope, and the curated collection resides at North Carolina State University, where Dr. Irwin is Professor of Applied Ecology.

One of her team’s research goals is to understand how climate warming is affecting the time when solitary bees emerge compared to when flowers do. So far, it appears that increased temperature and early snowmelt trigger bees to emerge earlier. However, comparison of bee emergence to Inouye’s long-term flowering data suggests that bee phenology is less sensitive to climate variation than flowering phenology. This implies that climate warming has the potential to disrupt interactions between bees and their flowers.

The long-term study also looks at bumble bee abundance and asks whether climate variation affects bee abundance directly, say with changes in temperature or precipitation, or whether it’s indirect, caused by changes in flowers.

As it turns out, bumble bee abundance seems to be driven by changes in flowers, especially by very low flower abundance at the beginning of the season. That’s when bumble bees are setting up their nests. Bumble bees live in colonies, so the egg layers are queens. And during the process of laying and incubating eggs and tending to the larvae, these queens are single moms. There are no daughters around to help, so they’re working very hard to gather provisions. Early snowmelt followed by hot dry summers are very hard on larger social bees like bumble bees.

So far, Irwin and her team have found the ecosystem to be surprisingly resilient to the climate variation we have seen over the last decade. Bees may have one bad year but seem to come back the next. However, if hot, dry years continue getting hotter, what will happen to bees in the long term?

It begs the question: how can we help bees and their ecosystems adapt to a changing climate? Research and discovery at RMBL are invaluable for informing land management recommendations.

For example, on the front lines — at the level of home gardens — we can do a lot. Dr. Irwin is often asked by homeowners what they should plant to help bees and the environment.

She has a ready answer. Bump up the abundance of flowers especially early in the spring and early summer, when bees like bumble bees need all the help they can get.

 

Rebecca Irwin, PhD, received her bachelor of arts in biology from Middlebury College and her PhD in biology, with a concentration in ecology and evolution, from the University of Vermont. She is a professor in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University and Consortium Director of the USGS Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. Her current research projects include how pollinators and pollination are responding to climate change and the management of bee parasites in natural and agricultural landscapes. She also has a long-standing interest in the exploitation of pollination mutualisms.

Science Story September 2023

I was pretty excited when Ian asked me to write a piece on the intersection of geology and biology for the RMBL newsletter. My scientific career in soil geomorphology places my research at that intersection and many of my friends and colleagues work in that intersection as well. As you can probably imagine, the boundaries between earth science and biology are somewhat arbitrary. Biology is the scientific study of life at all scales – from molecular biology of cells to evolution of populations and, in general, earth science investigates the abiotic components of the earth system (geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere) as well as the long history of those systems and what that history might tell us about the future. These two scientific branches intersect in interesting and important ways.

For example, the long history of Earth is told in part through investigation of sedimentary layers and the fossils they contain. Paleontology is an obvious intersection of geology and biology. But did you know that the evolution of Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere is also a story of scientific intersection? The rapid rise of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria about 2.5 billion years ago caused our atmosphere to change from oxygen-poor to oxygen-rich. Geologists identified this huge biological change in the geological record as a striking increase in iron oxides (rust) in soils as well as bands of iron oxide deposited in sea floor sediments.

As advances in technology are catching up with our increasing need to predict environmental change, teams of scientists at the intersection of biology and geology are working on ever larger and more integrated projects. Recently, two groups of scientists teamed up at RMBL to better understand how mountains provide water resources around the world. Collaborations between Dept of Energy (DOE) atmospheric scientists (the SAIL project) and scientists investigating watershed-scale biogeochemical dynamics (Berkeley Laboratory Watershed Function SFA) close the gaps in our understanding of how mountains make their own weather, how water is stored and moves through complicated mountain watersheds, and how that water interacts with rocks, soils, and organisms. Maybe most importantly, the results from that research show us how we can most accurately model all those interactions. As water resources change with changing climate, modeling different scenarios in these mountain environments will help humans manage this critical resource.

Of course, modern high-tech research makes headlines, but research at the intersection of biology and geology has long been a part of what RMBL does. One of the best-known examples from RMBL’s early years was conducted when Jean Langenheim and her geologist husband, Ralph Langenheim, collaborated at RMBL in the 1940s and 50s. In her dissertation research, Jean used geologic mapping techniques – quite innovative for a biologist at the time – to map vegetation. Using a geographic information system approach, she overlaid her vegetation maps on maps of geology and related features (e.g. aspect, slope, etc.) to document how geologic diversity has contributed to both a rich flora and the diverse vegetation patterns observed in the Gunnison River watershed. RMBL researchers still build from her work.

If you’ve joined me on a geology tour, you’ve heard my spiel about how local geodiversity explains why Crested Butte is the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. If you haven’t, please join me for a tour next year! And in the meantime, you can check out my book “Geology Underfoot on Colorado’s Western Slope” at Townie Books or the Crested Butte Museum. Happy trails!

Science Story August 2023

Brianna Guijosa is an undergraduate who has spent the last two summers at RMBL studying how decomposition adds nutrients to the soil. The decomposing subjects are mice, and the creatures converting them to soil nutrients are carrion beetles and flies.

While a student at East Los Angeles College, Brianna got a scholarship from the National Science Foundation program Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) to create her own research project at RMBL.

The serendipitous way that Brianna landed on mice and carrion beetles as subjects is amusing to her. She was reading a newspaper tacked onto one of RMBL’s outhouses, and a story caught her eye. It seems that human waste left by hikers and campers in the outdoors has become a real issue because it takes so long to decompose. A project focused on recycling sounded appealing. Working with human feces? Not so much.

That’s when she seized on the idea of studying how the decomposition of small mammals helps fortify the soil, and she enlisted insects that make a living recycling dead things.

Mentored by Dr. Rosemary Smith, Brianna set up an experiment to study the impact of carrion beetles on soil nutrition. Using dead mice as the food source, she set the beetles and other insects to work breaking down the carcasses. Then to measure the soil quality, she planted oats in the enriched soil, harvested them after about two weeks, and measured the root weight fraction, which is the comparison between the weight of the root and the plant.

Roots that have to work harder to find nutrients are larger and heavier, whereas roots that find plenty of nutrients are lighter and smaller. In other words, more nutrients equal lighter roots; sparce nutrients mean heavier ones.

Among the treatments Brianna tried was piercing a mouse carcass to release nutrient-rich body fluids into the soil, simulating what would occur with a body ravaged by beetles. Out of all the soil treatments, Brianna found that the soil affected by the black carrion beetles and flies was the most nutritious.

Brianna herself caught the science bug at a young age. Growing up in Elk Grove, California, near Sacramento, she had easy access to wetlands, wildlife preserves, riparian habitats, mountains, and other natural wonders. Her affection for wildlife stayed with her when the family moved to Los Angeles.

At East Los Angeles College, a stroke of luck put her in a biology class taught by Dr. Jimmy Lee, who has served as RMBL’s undergraduate education program coordinator for many years. Dr. Lee has inspired many students to take advantage of the REU program and earn a spot at RMBL conducting authentic scientific research. In the fall, Brianna will continue her pursuit of science at Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, CA.

Brianna’s singular project was a source of pride. “It was cool that I was the only person doing a project like this at RMBL,” she said. At the same time, she was grateful to be welcomed into this supportive environment. Without the help of Dr. Smith, she said that she couldn’t have done the project. Staff members from administration to maintenance were helpful, too. Thanks to the REU grant and RMBL hospitality, she felt fortunate that even as a community college student, she was included in the science community.

She could interact equally with people from similar backgrounds and those from ivy league schools. As far as the scientists, she said “It was awfully nice to have access to all the wisdom.”

Beyond its scientific impact, RMBL teaches students that mixing with people from different backgrounds can introduce you to new outlooks, not only on science but also on life. After all, as humans we are in one sense all the same, but in another sense completely different, each of us molded by our unique circumstances.

And luckily, it’s the differences that yield discoveries.

 

Brianna Guijosa is a recipient of the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates scholarship and a student entering California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. She plans to earn her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology with a Wildlife, Wildlife Ecology, Conservation, and Management concentration, and she hopes to eventually work for the National Park Service. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.