This summer, undergraduate students Max Wasser and Grace Kendziorski are spending time hiking in the mountains—and trapping pikas and counting flowers.
CU Boulder student Grace Kendziorski studies the mountain plant commonly known as moss campion to learn about the effects of climate change.
They are part of the 12 students participating in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at CU Boulder, who are conducting field research in the dramatic alpine setting above Nederland.
Wasser, a senior in ecology and evolutionary biology, is studying pikas with Research Associate Chris Ray. This is his third summer working with Ray at the research station.
Kendziorski is a senior studying environmental studies with a minor in ecology and evolutionary biology. She is working with Professor Dan Doak in environmental sciences to study Silene acaulis, an important plant in the alpine ecology.
Students accepted into CU Boulder’s REU program spend 10 weeks in the Colorado Rocky Mountains in individually mentored research projects and training workshops. The program is run by the Mountain Research Station (MRS) west of Boulder. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program covers housing and food, plus a stipend and travel expenses.
The goal of the REU program is to:
Dedicated to the advancement of mountain environmental science, the research station is an interdisciplinary facility of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and CU Boulder. Alpine ecosystems support an abundance of diverse and rare species that are being affected by climate change. At 9,500 feet in elevation, the station has provided research and educational opportunities for scientists, undergraduates and graduate students for nearly 100 years.
Bill Bowman, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been director of the research station for 27 years.
“The REU Program is an amazing opportunity for undergraduate students to experience what it’s like to be a scientist doing independent research in one of the best-known mountain laboratories in the world,” Bowman said.
From Laramie, Wyoming, Wasser is working as a field technician with Chris Ray, a research associate and population and conservation biologist. Ray’s work involves research on the American pika and how climatic influences are affecting their distribution, survival and occupancy in the Western United States.
With prominent ears and round bodies about the size of a baked potato, pikas live among the talus fields above tree-line. Since they don’t hibernate, pikas must cache a large dried vegetation pile under rocks to get through the winter. Rising summer temperatures are stressing the cute little mammals and keeping them from gathering enough hay to survive. Pikas have adapted to the cooler alpine temperatures, but when they are forced higher upslope and still find it too warm at the top, they are out of options.
This summer, Wasser is helping Ray trap pikas in the talus field on Niwot Ridge. They take blood and fur samples, gather fleas and ear mites, record their sex and body temperature, weigh and tag them, then set them free. Pikas are also being vaccinated for plague in a control study to determine whether that could be the reason for their decline.
This is Wasser’s third summer helping Ray with her research. He began in his freshman year conducting an exhaustive survey of historical pika habitats on the west knoll of Niwot Ridge and found 160 habitats.
“What I learned that first summer,” he said, “are that pikas are occupying a much smaller habitat on the west knoll compared to their historical distribution. This summer I’m trying to evaluate how snow cover affects pika occupancy.”
Wasser’s plans after graduation are either graduate school right away or to work first as a field tech in Costa Rica, another environment he’s interested in.
“It’s been an awesome opportunity working for Chris,” Wasser said. “I wanted to hike in the mountains and contribute to the pool of scientific knowledge. It’s hard to have a bad day up here. However tired, cold or hungry you are, it’s hard to not enjoy the view, smell the flowers, sit on a rock and appreciate where you are.”
Kendziorski is working with Professor Dan Doak, a conservation biologist who studies demography and climate change in relations to alpine plants, and with Doak’s postdoctoral scientist Megan Peterson. One plant of interest to Doak and which Kendziorski is focusing on this summer is Silene acaulis or moss campion, also called cushion pink. A circumpolar perennial with tiny pink star flowers, Silene acaulis is found in alpine and tundra areas and can live up to 400 years. The moss-like plant acts as an ecosystem engineer or nurse plant by providing a safe environment for other little plants to grow in and around the rounded cushions.
Three times a week, Kendziorski hikes up to four plots sectioned off in the treeless tundra to painstakingly count all the tiny flowers growing on each plant in order to understand how the two sexes (females and hermaphrodites) of Silene acaulis use flowers in reproduction. Both females and hermaphrodites produce seeds, but females depend on hermaphrodites for pollen, which creates an interesting difference in resource allocation by plants and quality of seeds.
In addition to the number of flowers, Kendziorski also records information on rainfall, snowmelt, soil nutrients, survival, number of new plants, reproductive strategies and weather
Researchers have data on Silene acualis from every year since the plots were established in 2001.
“In the coming years, we’ll be able to understand how the climate is affecting it,” she said. “If there is less snow and it melts earlier, will Silene have the same pollinator interactions? Will the bees not be around in time for the flowering? If silene can’t flower and can’t reproduce, what will happen to all the other little alpine plants and bugs that depend on it?”
The work she’s doing at the research station this summer is providing her with hands-on opportunities to experience what she has learned in the classroom. After graduation, Kendziorski’s plans to earn a master’s degree in either biology or environmental science.
“Here, I’m surrounded by people who love the outdoors, who love little plants and studying ants,” she said. “They’re giving up their summer to do things like count the nodules on the roots of various plant species. It’s inspiring to be around them and to see their real and genuine interest in what we’re studying.”