Changing climates in the Rocky Mountains

Lower elevation site in the Rocky Mountains: Temperate conifer forest. Photo Credit: Alice Stears.

The activities are as follows:

Each type of plant needs specific conditions to grow and thrive. If conditions change, such as temperature or the amount of precipitation, plant communities may change as well. For example, as the climate warms, plant species might start to shift to higher latitudes to follow the conditions where they grow best. But what if a species does well in cold climates found at the tops of mountains? Because they have nowhere to go, warming puts that plant species at risk.  

To figure out if species are moving, we need to know where they’ve lived in the past, and if climates are changing. One way that we can study both things is to use the Global Vegetation Project. The goal of this project is to curate a global database of plant photos that can be used by educators and students around the world. Any individual can upload photos and identify plant species. The project then connects each photo to information on the location’s biome, ecoregion, and climate, including data tracking precipitation and temperature over time. The platform can also be used to explore how the climates of different regions are changing and use that information to predict how plant communities may change. 

Daniel is a scientist who is interested in sharing the Global Vegetation Project data with students. Daniel became interested in plants and vegetation when he learned in college that you can simply walk through the woods and prairie, collect wild seeds, germinate the plants, and grow them to restore degraded landscapes. Plants set the backdrop for virtually every landscape that we see. He thinks plants deserve our undivided attention.

Daniel and his team wanted to create a resource where students can look deeper into plant communities and their climates. Much of the inspiration for the Global Vegetation Project came from the limitations to undergraduate field research during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students in ecology and botany classes, who would normally observe and study plants in the field, were prevented from having these opportunities. By building an online database with photos of plants, students can explore local plants without having to go into the field and can even see plants from faraway places. 

Daniel’s lab is based in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, where the plants are a showcase in both biodiversity and beauty. These communities deal with harsh conditions: cold, windy and snowy winters, hot and dry summers, and unpredictable weather during spring and fall. The plants rely on winter snow slowly melting over spring and into summer, providing moisture that can help them survive the dry summers. 

The Rocky Mountains are currently facing many changes due to climate change, including drought, increased summer temperatures, wildfires, and more. This creates additional challenges for the plants of the Rockies. Drought reduces the amount of precipitation, decreasing the amount of water available to plants. In addition, warmer temperatures in winter and spring shift more precipitation to rain instead of snow and melts snow more quickly. Rain and melted snow rapidly move through the landscape, becoming less available to plants in need. On top of all this, hotter, drier summers further decrease the amount of water available, stressing plants in an already harsh environment. If these trends continue, there could be significant impact on the types of plants that are able to grow in the Rocky Mountains. These changes will have an impact on the landscape, organisms that rely on plants, and humans as well.

Daniel and his colleagues pulled climate data from a Historic period (1961-2009) and Current period (2010-2018). They selected two locations in Wyoming to focus on: a lower elevation montane forest and a higher elevation site. To study climate, they focused on temperature and precipitation because they are important for plants. They wanted to study how temperature and precipitation patterns changed overall and how they changed in different seasons. They predicated temperatures would be higher in the Current period compared to the Historic period in both locations. For precipitation, they predicted there would be drier summers and wetter springs.

Featured scientist: Daniel Laughlin from The University of Wyoming. Written by: Matt Bisk.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.5

Additional teacher resource related to this Data Nugget:

Fishy origins

Fred Bogue holding a striped bass.

The activities are as follows:

Striped bass, or stripers, make up one of the most important fisheries for seafood and sport fishing on the East Coast of the United States. Carleigh and Chelsea, biology teachers in New Jersey, were at the beach one day when they saw a couple of stripers in the Barnegat Bay Inlet. Both teachers have always been interested in research and even met while participating in a summer research program as undergraduate students. Since then, both have gone on to complete more research projects in biology and education. Their curiosity about striper populations led them to work together yet again! 

They headed to Monmouth University in New Jersey, where they began working with two scientists, Megan and John. They learned that locations where fish reproduce are called spawning grounds. Young stripers spend 2-3 years developing in the spawning ground before moving downstream. When stripers become adults, they return to the same location to breed. 

There are four main spawning grounds for stripers on the East coast: the Hudson River, the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River, and the Albermarle Sound. Stripers from these areas are considered to be different stocks. Stripers are migratory fish, and generally move north in the spring and south in the fall. Because they all migrate to New Jersey, fish from different stocks combine, which results in a mixed stock. When there is a population that has a mixed stock, we don’t know which spawning ground the fish originally came from. Conservation and management of New Jersey’s striper fishery requires knowing where the fish come from. Understanding which spawning grounds stripers are using helps managers make sure we are not overfishing or damaging these important environments. So, Carleigh and Chelsea joined a project that is working to find out how we can identify where mixed stock stripers come from. 

For their study, the scientists caught stripers in three different locations off the New Jersey coast in 2017. The fish were sampled by clipping off a small portion of the right pelvic fin. The scientists then extracted the DNA from each sample in the lab. They used polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to then copy regions of the DNA, called microsatellites. Microsatellites are small, repeating sections of DNA that can be variable enough to distinguish even close relatives. These data were then used to compare DNA samples from the unknown mixed stocks to the known spawning ground stocks. The scientists also recorded whether each fish was young or mature. The scientists then used the age data to tell whether the spawning grounds might be changing over time. 

Featured scientists: Carleigh Engstrom, Chelsea Barreto, Megan Phifer-Rixey, and John Tiedemann from Monmouth University 

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.2