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:

Mowing for monarchs, Part II

In Part I you explored data that showed monarchs prefer to lay their eggs on young milkweeds that have been mowed, compared to older milkweed plants. But, is milkweed age the only factor that was changed when Britney and Gabe mowed patches of milkweeds? You will now examine whether mowing also affected the presence of monarch predators.

A scientist measuring a milkweed plant.
A scientist, Lizz D’Auria, counting the number of monarch predators on milkweed plants in the experiment.

The activities are as follows:

The bright orange color of monarch butterflies signals to their enemies that they are poisonous. This is a warning that they do not make a tasty meal. Predators, like birds and spiders, that try to eat monarch butterflies usually become sick. Many people think that monarch butterflies have no enemies because they are poisonous. But, in fact they do have a lot of predators, especially when they are young.

Monarchs become poisonous from the food they eat. Adult monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which have poisonous sap. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars chomp on the leaves. Young caterpillars are less poisonous because they haven’t eaten much milkweed yet. And monarch eggs are not poisonous at all to predators.

Britney and Gabe met with their friends, Doug and Nate, who are scientists. Doug and Nate thought that Britney and Gabe’s experiment might have changed more than just the age of the milkweed plants in the patches they mowed. By mowing their field sites they were also cutting down the plants in the rest of the community. These plants provide habitat for predators, so mowing all of the plants would affect the predators as well. These ideas led to another potential explanation for the results Britney and Gabe saw in their data. Because all plants were cut in the mowed patches, there was nowhere for monarch predators to hang out. Britney and Gabe came up with an alternative hypothesis that perhaps monarch butterflies were choosing to lay their eggs on young milkweed plants because there were fewer predators nearby. To test this new idea, Britney and Gabe went back to their experimental site and started collecting data on the presence of predators in addition to egg number. Remember that in each location, they had a control patch, which was left alone, and a treatment patch that they mowed. The control patches had older milkweed plants and a full set of plants in the community. The mowed patches had young milkweed plants with short, chopped plants nearby. For the whole summer, they went out weekly to all of the patches. They counted the number of predators found on the milkweed plants so they could compare the mowed and unmowed patches.

Predators of monarch butterflies.
There are many different species that eat monarch butterfly eggs and young caterpillars. These are just a few of the species that Gabe and Britney observed during their experiment.

Featured scientists: Doug Landis and Nate Haan from Michigan State University and Britney Christensen and Gabe Knowles from Kellogg Biological Station LTER.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.2

Additional resources related to this Data Nugget:

Mowing for monarchs, Part I

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.
A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.

With their orange wings outlined with black lines and white dots, monarch butterflies are one of the most recognizable insects in North America. They are known for their seasonal migration when millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada south to Mexico in the fall. Then, in the spring the monarch butterflies migrate back north. Monarch butterflies are pollinators, which means they get their food from the pollen and nectar of flowering plants that they visit. The milkweed plant is one of the most important flowering plants that monarch butterflies depend on.

During the spring and summer months female butterflies will lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Milkweed plays an important role in the monarch butterfly’s life cycle. It is the only plant that monarchs will lay their eggs on. Caterpillars hatch from the butterfly eggs and eat the leaves of the milkweed plant. The milkweed is the only food that monarch caterpillars will eat until they become butterflies.

A problem facing many pollinators, including monarch butterflies, is that their numbers have been going down for several years. Scientists are concerned that we will lose pollinators to extinction if we don’t find solutions to this problem. Doug and Nate are scientists at Michigan State University trying to figure out ways to increase the number of monarch butterflies. They think that they found something that might work. Doug and Nate have learned that if you cut old milkweed plants at certain times of the year, then younger milkweed plants will quickly grow in their place. These new milkweed plants are softer and more tender than the old plants. It appears that monarch butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on the younger plants. It also seems that the monarch caterpillars prefer to eat the younger plants.

Britney and Gabe are two elementary teachers interested in monarch butterfly conservation. They learned about Doug and Nate’s research and wanted to participate in their experiment. The team of four met and designed an experiment that Britney and Gabe could do in open meadows throughout their community.

Britney and Gabe chose ten locations for their experiment. In each location they set aside a milkweed patch that was left alone, which they called the control.  At the same location they set aside another milkweed patch where they mowed the milkweed plants down. After a while, milkweed plants would grow back in the mowed patches. This means they had control patches with old milkweed plants, and treatment patches with young milkweed plants. Gabe and Britney made weekly observations of all the milkweed patches at each location. They recorded the number of monarch eggs in each of the patches. By the end of the summer, they had made 1,693 observations!

Featured scientists: Doug Landis and Nate Haan from Michigan State University and Britney Christensen and Gabe Knowles from Kellogg Biological Station LTER.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.2

Additional resources related to this Data Nugget: