Secrets of Grand Teton National Park

2/26/2016

Spring 2016

Hidden in Backcountry Streams and Locked in Glacier Ice Lies a Rare, Invisible World

“Well, this is fun,” I say with a laugh, turning my back against the icy rain, the cold still biting my exposed hands and face. I’m almost yelling. The steep, swollen stream makes it hard to hear. My colleagues, Joe Giersch and Lusha Tronstad, are busy sampling insects within its bounds. We are perched on a steep slope of rock debris at the bottom of a cliff below the Middle Teton glacier, high on the eastern slope of the Teton Range, with the raging stream cascading into fog below us.

Discovering Biodiversity

While our research is often enjoyable, the goal isn’t to have fun. The three of us, along with Debra Finn and Lydia Zeglin, are a team of scientists aiming to characterize the biodiversity of alpine streams in the Tetons. We’ve arrived in the range after a year of planning, having pored over maps, selected study sites, chosen equipment, and identified the necessary data to collect.

Our research lies at the nexus of natural history and climate change. At present, we know more about the biodiversity of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the oceans and one of Earth’s most inhospitable places, than we do of life residing in Grand Teton National Park’s alpine streams. This is particularly pressing given the current trajectory of global warming causing major decline of glaciers worldwide. This ongoing glacial recession has widespread implications, from reduced drinking water to the likely reality that Glacier National Park will no longer have its namesake glaciers within the span of our children’s lifetimes. The focus of our efforts, however, is understanding the effect of that loss on biodiversity and ecosystem health.

 

More Than Meets the Eye

Generally speaking, biodiversity is the range of life within an area of measurement, whether the Earth, a park, or an alpine stream. Above the treeline, the cold, extreme habitat produced by glacial meltwater has repeatedly driven the evolution of rare species that are known from only one geographic region. But there’s more to biodiversity than meets the eye. While the physically distinct species we observe are an important piece of the puzzle, and one focus of our group’s efforts, there is additional, cryptic biodiversity we cannot see. Two of these additional measures, genetic and microbial diversity, comprise the other aspects of our Teton Range research.

   

Genetic diversity is the underlying variation that makes all living things unique, and is an important aspect of population health. It’s also the template upon which the driving force of evolution – natural selection – acts. The role of microbial diversity, however, is more enigmatic. Evidence suggests that microbes play an important role in stream ecosystem function, likely contributing to everything from pollution buffering to nutrient cycling (how nutrients move from the environment into living organisms). Microbial diversity in streams stems primarily from rain and snowmelt falling directly into the stream or the accumulation of microbes as water filters through the Earth’s surface. Once in the streams, microbes concentrate primarily in biofilms, masses of tiny organisms attached to rocks in the streambed. Loss of glaciers will mean a disappearance of glacially tied microbes melting into streams. Understanding the degree to which this may occur (and what diversity may be lost) sets the stage for predicting its ramifications.

Taking Attendance

“Chironimids, black flies, no Lednia yet,” Giersch announces, listing a lineup of common alpine stream players. These streams are dominated by insects in the larval stage of a two-part life history, with a winged, adult stage coming later in the summer. Chironimids (nonbiting midges) and black flies can be found in nearly all aquatic habitats; Lednia, however, is a major reason we’re here. Giersch’s reference is shorthand for Lednia tetonica, a rare stonefly found in the Teton Range, known from only a few locations in the world. The first such location discovered, and perhaps the most interesting, is Wind Cave. Named for its typically windy conditions, the subalpine Wind Cave is part of a larger complex that includes the ice caves on the Idaho side of the range. The cave system is named for its unique hydrologic makeup – the caves fill with groundwater that freezes each winter and then subsequently thaws throughout the warmer months. Aside from its beauty – the opening is a 60-foot gash in the east side of Darby Canyon, complete with a thundering waterfall below – the icy meltwater emanating from it supports an invertebrate community more typical of glaciated streams found in much higher elevations.

 

Flaming Axes on Glacier Ice

Taking advantage of a break in the rain, I climb higher, first around a hornlike rock projection dominating the valley below and onto less steep, but still thigh-burning terrain. As I gain altitude, the precipitation restarts, but now it’s snow. Some 500 feet above my colleagues, I reach my destination, the snout of the Middle Teton glacier. Using a mixture of ethanol and flame, I sterilize the chopping end of my ice ax – the “adze” – laughing to myself at the strangeness of this part. Imagine a man standing on a glacier in a snowstorm, flaming ice ax in hand, as if saluting the alpine gods. I start digging. After a foot or so, I re-flame my ax and carefully collect ice chunks into sterile bags. This ice, and the microbes it contains, will melt in my pack before being filtered through tiny pores that are only 0.2 microns in size (approximately 100 times narrower than a human hair) to collect anything living in the ice. Back in the laboratory, we will extract DNA from these filters and use modern sequencing technology to reveal the microbial communities living in Teton ice, stream water, and biofilms.

We’ll combine these data to paint a picture of the diversity of the Tetons’ glaciers and alpine streams. Documenting this previously unstudied habitat will aid our understanding of the biodiversity present – and how melting glaciers may affect it in the Teton Range, North America, and abroad..

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Conserving Our World

There are many reasons to support the conservation of biodiversity. Some say humans, as the most advanced inhabitants of Earth, have a moral obligation to limit their impact on nature. That means conserving species, restoring dammed rivers, adopting “Leave No Trace” backcountry ethics, and more. More pragmatically, conservation efforts help protect our own species, as many rare organisms have historically played key roles in the advancement of medicine and technology. For an example, we only have to look to the inhospitable, thermal pools of Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park where a microbe discovered there, Thermus aquaticus, held the key to surpassing previous enzymatic limitations in polymerase chain reaction (PCR for short) experiments – essentially revolutionizing the landscape of molecular biology overnight. And, from an ecological perspective, biodiversity is an important component of ecosystem health and can be used as a monitoring tool, allowing scientists to track how ecosystems change in response to natural or man-made pressures over time.

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Steps in the Right Direction

Within Grand Teton National Park, an important step has been taken toward maintaining pristine, biodiverse ecosystems despite heavy visitor use. Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Inc. (SIA) was the first automotive plant in America to achieve zero-landfill status, in the process creating a template that they have freely shared with hundreds of other companies so that they might do the same. Now SIA and the National Park Service (NPS) have partnered to search for solutions to the problem of waste left behind by park visitors, and work toward the goal of helping the parks achieve zero-landfill status and preserve the parks for generations to come. Initiatives like these are particularly valuable when viewed through a wider lens as they influence perceptions of what is possible when it comes to wild places and visitor impacts. By working toward solving this problem of waste in national parks, SIA and the NPS show how partnerships built around a common interest can influence conservation and promote the maintenance of healthy ecosystems in real time.

The Fabric of Life

At the root of this broad discussion is natural history. In the Teton Range, before we can make any conservation decisions or predictions of how climate change and the decline of glaciers may influence ecosystems, we need a clear vision of what’s at stake. By integrating newer molecular and microbial approaches with elements of basic natural history, we can add a modern slant to one of the most fundamental question in ecology – what lives there? As the headwaters of the world’s rivers, alpine streams and the species inhabiting their icy flows are intertwined in a biological fabric that includes everything from insects threatened by glacial recession to their warm water counterparts in the valleys and lakes below.

For billions of years, life has evolved to fill specific niches in every corner of the Earth. By shining light on life at the world’s extremes, we can better understand how the larger puzzle fits together, as well as broaden the discussion of where we fit into it, as both participants and stewards.

Get details about the partnership between Subaru of America, Inc. and the National Park Service to work toward the goal of helping the national parks achieve zero-landfill status