Ecosystems of Yellowstone
- Alpine: Top of Tetons. Very harsh conditions, not much water. Not many animals live here.
- Sagebrush: Dry, full of sagebrush. Elk and mule deer feed on it.
- Conifer: Trees such as pines and furs.
- Aspen: Aspen trees are prominent. Support large communities of many species
- Riparian: Near water. Plants such as willows.
ASCAR was our groups way of remembering the 5 ecosystems we hiked through in Grand Teton. We learned that the alpine ecosystem is the harshest because it has the least amount of accessible water. As you follow the list down more water and more animals appear due to the amount of accessible water.
As a group, we conducted an experiment which tested the water quality of the Gros Ventre and the Snake river. We tested the water quality by examining aquatic invertebrates. Finding the creatures allowed us to find out exactly how clean the water was. Each of the different species had strict requirements of temperature, pH, alkalinity, DO, CO2, turbidity, etc. The invertebrates helped us figure out how clean the water was because if you found a bug that has very specific water requirements to live, the water must be clean. All of the tests are some what related. For example with a high temperature, DO leaves the water. A lower temperature means more DO. A higher temperature means more CO2, which means more plants and more decomposition. More CO2 correlates with a more acidic pH.
Yellowstone is not a museum, it's a functioning ecosystem that requires occasional burns. Fire plays an important role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. Fire in the parks help clean up brush under the trees, stimulate growth, and release nutrients.
Fires help with reshaping the forests. When a fire sweeps through an area of the park, the fires burn almost everything in it's way. As the fire lights trees on fire, it also cleans up the brush under the trees. When the tall and older trees eventually burn down and fall, it opens up an area underneath the trees that has not seen sunlight. The floor of the forest that gets exposed to the sun begins to regrow with the newly released nutrients and seeds. Lodgepole pines are abundant in Yellowstone National Park due to their serotinous cones and the 1988 fire. Lodgepole's serontinous cones open up when they hit a certain temperature (176 degrees), releasing seeds post fire. Serotiny is an ecological adaptation where a seed release occurs in response to an ecological trigger. In 1988, a major fire swept through Yellowstone National Park burning 36% of the park. The fire raged on and rangers did not know what to do. A few years after the fire, the rangers had discovered the fires actually had a positive effect on the ecosystem. Fire succession began to occur, first came annual grasses flowers and fireweed, and then lodgepole pines, and then firs and spruce. When the 1988 fire swept through Yellowstone, the fire came close to burning a lot of the infrastructure. It was a hazard to the people who worked in Yellowstone as well as the visitors. The famous Old Faithful Inn almost burnt down and still has some scorch marks. To make sure the fires stay in an area, the park keeps in check with where the fire has burned and where it will move. If the fire gets a little too close to buildings, like the Old Faithful Inn, they spray the buildings soaking them with water to make sure they do not ignite.
Fires have an effect on all of the types of trees found in the National Park. Most of the trees have some sort of adaptation to fires. For example, Douglas firs have a thicker bark that resists fire and Aspen have roots stay intact allowing them to regenerate. Fires were thought to have had a major effect on animals however they were minimal effects on wildlife. Bears use burnt down forests to make hunting for bugs and roots more easy. The soil gets regenerated by the decay of fallen plants. As the plants decay they release nutrients back into the soil which helps the growth of new plants. Wild fires seem to have no effect on wildlife, the only animal with a decline would be the moose. It hasn't been proved that fires have been the cause though. It is said that the decline in the abundance of willows and more snow fall has effected the moose population more than fires. Scavengers have benefitted off fires since rodents and other prey have a hard time hiding, the predators are able to find their kill much more easily. Some mammals like owls need thick forests, so fires have a minimal effect by making them relocate. If anything, fires have helped keep the natural balance of Yellowstone. Fire is apart of the Yellowstone ecosystem and the 1988 fire helped rangers and biologists realize that.
Ecosystems and Trophic Cascades
Key Stone Species of Yellowstone
In Yellowstone there is a varied of flora and fauna. Without these species, Yellowstone would not be what it is today.
- 7 native species of ungulates
- 2 species of bears
- 285 species of birds
- 16 species of fish
- 5 species of amphibians
- 6 species of reptiles
- 9 species of conifers
- 1000+ species of native flowers
- 225 invasive plant species
- 186 species of lichen
Yellowstone is home to the largest population of elk in the United States. It is also home to the largest population of free roaming bison. Yellowstone also welcomes and protects multiple packs of wolves, however it was not always like this. Without the wolves of Yellowstone the whole trophic cascade tumbles. A trophic cascade is very similar to a Jenga Tower. If you remove a vital block, the tower falls down. The same goes with Yellowstone, if you remove a key species, the whole ecosystem falls apart. It all started during the 1920s when Yellowstone was almost a petting zoo. All of the "cute" animals were habituated. The "bad" animals including the wolves and any top predators were shot and killed because rangers were worried they would kill the cute animals. In 1926, the last wolf of Yellowstone was killed but rangers did not know the lasting impact that would have on the environment. After some time, Yellowstone started to fall apart and no one could figure out why. Elk populations soared, disease spread like wildfire between the elk, coyotes became much larger, willows were being overgrazed, there was no tall grass in Yellowstone, lakes were getting warmer, and beavers were having a hard time staying alive. However, two lovely people Olas and Mardy Murie came along and made the connection that wolves were a necessity to the GYE. The two helped reintroduce the wolves after years of study in Alaska. Without their contribution to the GYE, Yellowstone would be a lot different than today. Today, there are still lasting effects of the murder of the wolves of Yellowstone, and there is no definitive answer to the question, will Yellowstone return back to normal?
Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park are both very nit picky when it comes to the spread of invasive species. Both National Parks make sure all boats are cleaned before entering the parks to limit the risk of spreading invasive species such as zebra mussels and aquatic plants. All boats have to pass an inspection upon entering the water. This strict policy helps with keeping Yellowstone in its nature state rather than introducing organisms that typically do not belong. If an invasive specie was to enter either park, it could cause great danger to the ecosystem because of their potential to spread wildly. Invasive species also have the potential to kill other plants near by using up the resources and growing more efficiently in the new environment.
Yellowstone is thought to be somewhat of an island. Yellowstone itself is a preserved landscape with animals that have the freedom to roam within "boundaries", however right outside of the boundaries animals might face danger. For example, wolves in the park are protected however, if they stumble outside of the Yellowstone boundary, they can be shot and killed. The surrounding area of Yellowstone National park is occupied by humans who do not always like animals walking through their yard. It is very difficult for animals to navigate through various fences and towns to continue on their natural migrating path. The idea of wildlife corridors is to focus on connecting national parks and protected land to make sure animals are able to freely without interruption from humans. The main focus is to connect Yellowstone to Yukon. This is so critical to making sure the GYE will continue to grow and flourish alongside many other protected lands.
Yellowstone National Park is sitting on a plume of magma. When the magma plume exploded 640,000 years ago, it left a depression in the center, that depression is called a caldera. Since Yellowstone is sitting on top of a plume of magma, there are many component features including geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles.
Old Faithful Geyser depends on three key components. First, water supply, heat source, and plumbing system. The water source is ground water that filters down into the plumbing system. That water is heated by indirectly by magma via convection. Convection is the heating of water where the hot water rises and the cold water sinks to be heated. The plumbing system is pressure tight due to sinter, a type of calcareous rock that is a precipitate from the geyser. The sinter builds up against the walls restricting the hole where the water shoots from. The pressure from water boiling makes the water and steam erupt.
Mud pots are giant pools of bubbling mud. Hydrogen sulfide gas is released making them a bit stinky. Microorganisms who live inside of the pot use the gas for energy which converts hydrogen sulfide into sulfuric acid which breaks down the surrounding rock turning it into clay.
A hot spring consists of three components, a water source, a heat source, and no restriction. A hot spring is a pool of extremely hot water that rises to the surface but does not erupt because of lack of restriction. Similarly to a geyser, the hot spring uses magma and convection to heat up the water. The water cycles up and down being heated and cooled in an endless cycle.
Fumaroles are steam vents that have such a small water supply the water boiling underneath the hole over boils and flashes to steam. Other gases like sulfur oxide escape the exit making them whistle.
Yellowstone Lake was formed when the plume of magma erupted 640,000 years ago leaving Yellowstone in a caldera. A part of the caldera is the basin of Yellowstone Lake.
The Grand Tetons were formed 5-13 million years ago. The normal fault line shifted which pushed the Tetons up, and left Jackson Hole to sink downward. The stress that the faults faced is called tensional stress which pulls apart the two plates making one rise and one sink. The foot wall is the Tetons and the hanging wall is Jackson Hole. Jackson Hole got its name from mountain men who felt like they were entering a hole, when in reality the went through the valley between the Gros Ventre and the Tetons.
Yellowstone and Hawaii sit on top of a moving hot spot which is the reason why both have incredible volcanic features. A hot spot is an area in the mantle where it is much hotter than surrounding areas. Hot spots are constantly moving as tectonic plates move. Hot spots are found on/near tectonic plate boarders. As the move they bring their hot magma with them. In the example with Hawaii, each island is created from a hot spot and an eruption from that hot spot. In the case of Yellowstone, the hot spot takes credit for all of Yellowstone's magma related features. The hot spot under Yellowstone fuels the plume of magma and fuels the convection of the boiling water for all of the geological features.
Our group took a closer look at two different kinds of magma, felsic and magic. Felsic lava is rich in silicon and oxygen. Felsic magma is typically lighter in color. They also have much larger crystals. An example would by rhyolite because it forms with very vicious lava. It cools faster than mafic which why it does not have large crystals. Dikes form from felsic lava eruptions, when lava flows through a crack in the rock and cools quickly.
Mafic is more dark, are rich with calcium and sodium. Mafic has a lower viscosity and cools at a much slower rate which gives time for crystals to form, much like granite or quartz.
Glaciology has a large impact on the Grand Teton National Park and the Grand Teton mountains. The features of the Grand Tetons have been formed by glaciers carving away at the Earth's crust.
Vocabulary Pertaining to Glaciers
- glacial moraine: deposit of debris that a glacier has carried and deposited once it has melted.
- terminal moraine: deposit of glacial debris at the foot of a glacier (Jenny Lake)
- U-shape valley: valley created by a glacier
- glacial striations: scratches on a rock caused by a glacier moving over other rocks
- cirque: bowl shaped depression at the end of the valley or the beginning of a glacier (typically have a lake inside of the bowl depression)
- horn: carved point of the top of a mountain caused by multiple cirques craving a point
- arhet: mohawk like structure caused by two parallel glaciers that carved out valley
- hanging valley: glacier valley ending in a cliff where it meets a deeper glacier valley.
Glaciers are a key feature to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Glaciers consist of ice, air, water, and rock debris. All of the components help carve away at the land leaving valleys, striations on rocks, cirques, horns, hanging valleys, erratics, and moraines. A key feature to glaciers are that they must move. Many of the glaciers in the parks are being questioned if they are still moving or not. Another feature of a glacier is a crevasse. A crevasse is a stretch mark in the glacier that cracks because of the glaciers movement over uneven ground.
Jenny Lake was formed by a moraine which is a deposit of sediment the glacier had been carrying with it. The moraine made a dam, and when the glacier stopped moving, it began to melt and that water filled the hole creating Jenny Lake.
Yellowstone is home to many different organisms, from wolves to beavers to bears to elk to aspen to douglas firs. All of the organisms in Yellowstone get greeted by 3.5 million people each year. Whether the organisms are greeted friendly or not is the question. Human impact has a huge effect on all parts of the GYE. When our group started to prepare to head into Yellowstone, our instructor Grayson explained how important the aspects of Leave No Trace were. Leave No Trace focuses on preserving the environment so many generations after you get to look at the same areas as you. As 3.5 million people pass over the same roads and tourist areas, the land gets worn and trash accidentally gets dropped. It is extremely important to realize you are not the last person to walk through Yellowstone or any National Park. It is important to realize that you expected a beautiful landscape that had no faults, so it is even more important to pick up after yourself and the others that may forget, so the people after you get to enjoy the same Yellowstone as you did. LNT does not only focus on trash, it focuses on the importance of preserving the environment. Staying on trial, not picking leaves, leaving things where you found them, and not removing anything out of the park is very important. We as humans need to try to limit our effect on the animals environment. Wolves, bears, elk, and much more are merely given 3,468 square miles compared to us, who have the world at our finger tips. Yellowstone is their home and damaging their home will have lasting effects on the animals lives as well as their environment.
Like I had said, the animals of Yellowstone are given 3,468 square miles of land which is surrounded by fully developed areas full of humans. Some of those humans are not fond of other animals entering their property and get so angry they kill the animals. There has been a constant debate about how the wolves should not be allowed in Yellowstone. Farmers who have property surrounding Yellowstone have a hard time living amongst the wolves. Farmers typically do not like the wolves because they are worried the wolves will eat their livestock. The farmers who instantly kill wolves and other animals that set foot onto their property need to understand it's the wolves property before its yours.
Loved to Death
Today, Yellowstone battles with the issue of too many park visitors. The park is getting "loved to death" which means with so many visitors that want to experience the beauty, each visitor takes a toll on the landscape. Many people who visit Yellowstone sadly did not receive the debriefing we received about being careful on paths, and refraining from picking flowers and plants. The park has seen so many visitors but sadly each visitor might accidentally take a rock home with them. However if every person were to take a small piece of the park with them, there would be nothing left. The visitors of the park need to realize that the park might not last forever if they continue to take, what they think is a small piece of Yellowstone. Management and park rangers are discussing the ways of how to solve the issue. Proposed ideas may include a limited amount of visitors per year, more education before entering the park, etc. The park rangers are in such a tough situation because how could you hold back the thousands of people that fly from all over to witness the beauty of Yellowstone National Park. I hope education will be a requirement upon entering the parks. Not all are as lucky as our group was to learn our effects on such a large ecosystem. The park will surely be loved more if it is not loved to death.