Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fremont Indian State Park

On my way to Yellowstone, I camped the first night at Fremont Indian State Park in Utah. I am fascinated by the petroglyphs and pictographs one can find in Utah and other areas of the Southwest. One of the best places to see rock art done by the Fremont culture is at Fremont Indian State Park off Interstate 70 just east of Interstate 15. Sadly, the park was established to make up for the fact that the largest Fremont village ever discovered was destroyed by the construction of Interstate 70. I have no idea why the Interstate couldn’t have been moved or re-routed a bit to avoid obliterating the village.

The panel below, called newspaper rock, is easily viewed from the road with binoculars, and has over 250 petroglyphs in it. Some idiot vandal by the name of Mike had the bright idea unfortunately of adding his name to it. When you view rock art, please just view it, don’t touch it since the oils on your hands can damage it.

At the visitor's center at the park one can get a trail guide that attempts to give meaning to some of the rock art. This is the only place I have been where this is attempted in such a serious way. The guide says that the panel below contains figures that are meaningful to the Hopi, and relates to levels of initiation.

This image is a "pictoglyph". It is both carved and painted. Petroglyphs are pecked or carved into the surface of the rock, and pictographs are painted. The red is painted, and the white is carved in this pattern. This is one of nine pictoglyphs known in Utah. Archeologists refer to these designs as pottery designs because of the similarity to the designs and those found on pottery.

Friday, September 21, 2007

At The Mammoth Hot Springs Visitor Center- Yellowstone

Here is another group of savvy elk. The irrigated lawns around the visitor center at one of the lower elevations in the park provide very nutritious food long after the other grasses have dried up and pulled nutrients back into their roots. The lawns have been in existence at this visitor center since the early 1900’s when they were planted by the Army. Soldiers were the first park rangers when Yellowstone was established, and this area was known as Fort Yellowstone. The soil is high in silica and was so irritating to the lungs of the soldiers, grass was planted to relieve the lung problems. While the elk that feed on the grasses go into the winter in better shape than other herds, all of the visitors in the area cause a nightmare for the park rangers. The bull elk is very protective of his herd and can attack people who get in between him and the females. One year a bull took out the back windows of five different parked cars. I guess he couldn’t understand why the elk in the window would not back down when he went through all the aggressive postures. Finally he attacked it and it went away, only to reappear in the next car’s window….and so on.
There are signs such as this one up all over, and a whole crew of rangers who try and keep people away from the bull elk especially. However some people just ignore the signs.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

At the Hot Springs

These ladies are no fools, they and their calves are lounging where it is nice and warm. After all, where would you want to hang out when the temperature drops? That’s right at the hot springs. What better place to sit around and chew your cud? But where are the boys? Well, with this group there is only one boy and he is busy making sure no others come around because September is the middle of the elk rut. During the rut male elk guard their group of females to prevent other males from mating with the females. This is an exhausting time of the year for the males. They don't sleep or eat during most of the rut. For about a half an hour before I took these pictures, I could here the male bugling and finally he stepped out from behind the trees.
Female elk ovulate in response to a variety of stimuli such as hearing the male bugle, and seeing and smelling him. Males also bugle to announce their presence to other males in the area.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Thermophiles: Heat lovers

So the blog moves from bison, some of the larger organisms in Yellowstone, to the thermophiles, some of the smallest. Yellowstone National Park was originally set aside due to the geologic wonders in the area. Who knew at that time that in the hot springs, geysers, and mudpots there were heat (and in some cases acid) loving organisms?
One can somewhat determine the temperature of the water by the color of the bacterial and algae mats. Algae can't stand the hottest water, so the green growth tends to be in cooler areas of the runoff. The thermophilic algae species Cyanidium, is an autotroph which means it does photosynthesis to use the energy of the sun to make food. It can survive in temperatures from 100-133 degrees F (38-56 degrees C). Many of the bacterial species are "chemotrophs" which extract energy from chemicals in the water such as iron and sulfur. One species of bacteria converts hydrogen sulfide to sulfuric acid in the process. These bacteria, in addition to being thermophiles, are also called acidophiles or acid lovers.While this may look like an aerial photo of a landscape, it is a mat of bacteria and algae. In some ways it is a micro-landscape with its own micro food web. There are flies that feed on the algae and bacteria called Ephydra flies. In turn they are fed upon by wolf spiders which are eaten by dragon flies, and the dragon flies feed a variety of birds such as killdeer. During the early spring as birds begin to fly into the park, these hot spring food webs may be their only source of food.
Some of the mats are thick enough to support the weight of small animals. The number of thermophiles living in a 10 inch square can exceed the number of people (over 6 billion) on Earth.
The colors of the bacteria indicate something about their ability to withstand heat. The brighter the color, the hotter the environment the organism can tolerate.
The photo above was taken at the Grand Prismatic Spring. The spring is the largest hot spring in diameter at Yellowstone. It is 120 feet deep and 370 feet across. There is no way to capture the true beauty of the spring except by air so I took a picture of one the interpretive signs to share that view with you.

Dr. Thomas Block was one of the first people to do research on the bacteria found in the hot springs. He started back in the 1960's. Today, enzymes produced from these bacteria are used for a variety of purposes. One enzyme from Thermus aquaticus is used as the driver of the reaction used in DNA fingerprinting.
In addition to the hot springs there are mudpots in which kaolin is dissolved to make clays. The mudpots are hot, and range from "soupy" to "ploppy". I have some video of these I will work on and post later.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Back to the Tetons

The Teton mountain range is spectacular, as is the wildlife in the park. The snake river runs through part of the park, and provides habitat for a host of animals like moose and river otters! I saw four otters one morning, and four moose while in the park. There was also a female grizzly bear around the Jackson Lake lodge with two cubs, but I never saw her. It rained and hailed while I was in the park, but cleared up usually by mid-day.


When entering Yellowstone, the first large animals I saw were bison, and these are LARGE animals. The males weigh as much as 1800 lbs and the females 1,000 lbs. For 10 months or so out of the year, the males congregate in bachelor herds, but during the rut join the females. Unlike other herbivores in the park like elk, males do not try to establish separate groups of females.

As the females become receptive, males will associate with one female in a behavior called "tending". During the middle of the rut there are plenty of females for the males, but early and late in the rut males do compete with each other for the receptive females.

Groups of bison will defend each other from predators, unlike some of the other large herbivores in the park , which flee. Unrelated animals will respond to the alarm cry of a calf and protect it from wolves, bears, or other predators. In the winter, bison move snow with their large heads to eat the dried grasses beneath the snow. Males can plow through snow 3 feet deep with their massive heads. In addition to grasses, bison can also eat coarse sedges.

Bison often formed "bisonjams" on the roads in the park. Bison walk where they want to, when they want to, after all they are as big as some of the cars on the road. I saw a number of motorcyclists and bicyclists in the park. I would be a little wary of riding along the road if I knew I might come into contact with a 1800 lb animal.

Monday, September 17, 2007

What Connie looks like at 22 degrees

Being from Southern California, it is not often I encounter cold temperatures. However, I knew it could get cold in Yellowstone in September, especially at the higher elevations, so I came prepared. The reason I look somewhat pregnant in the picture below is because I have five layers of clothing on my upper body. I know those of you raised in cold climates may think I am a total wimp, but the high that day was 46. In Southern California 46 is a night time low in the winter, not a day time high in September! So through the day I think I shed one of the layers. Oh- the fleece gloves I had with me came off just long enough to set the self timer on the camera and take the picture.

Here I am a couple of days later at a lower elevation in the park where it was in the 70s during the day. This area, in the northwest part of the park, forms some of the winter range for the Bison, elk, bighorn, and pronghorn in the park, and of course their predators.

Sunrise on the Yellowstone River

Getting up before the sunrise is hard, especially when it is 22 degrees outside the tent. It's hard but worth it. There is no one on the roads, or at the view points. It is very quiet, very peaceful. As I drove along the road to Fishing Bridge to capture the sunrise on the Yellowstone River, I suddenly felt the urge to pull off the road and roll down the window. When I did I heard one of the Hayden Valley wolf packs calling to each other in the early morning fog. Hearing wild wolves howl is something one can only do in a few areas of the US. I felt very lucky that morning to have both seen them the evening before, and then to hear them. Certainly worth getting up for!

The sunrise that morning was breathtaking.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunrise over Thumb Creek Yellowstone

As I was watching the sun come up from a bridge over Thumb Creek, I noticed a coyote "mousing" in the meadow. Can you see it in the photo below?
Here's a closer picture

The coyote wandered around in the meadow for about 15 minutes or so before stopping under some trees, and cocking its head back and forth to listen. It then began to dig furiously until it reached down and grabbed a pocket gopher. At that point it noticed me and ran off into the woods with its breakfast.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Back from Yellowstone and the Tetons

I've just returned from camping in Yellowstone and the Tetons. It was an amazing trip. There are very few places left in the US where one can see grizzly bears, wolves, moose, elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats, along with bald eagles and amazing geology. I've uploaded some photos to picassa at, and will have more photos and things to write about later.