Critters up in the mountains have a some amazing adaptations for survival. Pika, small alpine relatives of rabbits, spend all summer stacking and drying grass. The dried grass turns into hay and will feed the pika throughout the winter. And we thought only farmers made hay!! One common adaptation of alpine animals is dark coloration. While in Montana I found several common Garter Snakes, all of which were much darker than the usual low land snakes I as used to. The darker color is an adaptation that allows those snakes to absorb more radiative heat from the sun that lighter snakes. More heat means more energy, which in turns means more offspring in the long-run. Mr. Darwin had it right!!
Marmots (Marmota monax) are the alpine version of wood chuck, or ground hogs depending on where you call home. These marmots were living in a rock outcrop in the middle of camp. The make use of the human presence to fend of predators like coyote or mountain lion and gorge themselves on the vast supply of Kentucky Bluegrass.
Here you can clearly see the sunning behavior of Marmots. With a belly full of grass I’m sure a little heat does just the trick to aide digestion!
One of my favorite animals to catch is frogs. I found this Colombian Spotted Frog (Rana luteiventris) sitting in a backwater of the Boulder River. The water was numbingly cold for me but the frog seemed to right at home. Many tree frogs have the ability to turn their blood into antifreeze during winter months. Perhaps this species has something similar flowing through its blood to give it an advantage in the cold mountain streams it inhabits.
The Pine Borer Beetle (genus Dendroctonus) has been chewing its way through western forests for sometime now. The beetle is not a new problem. It has always been there. Nature had kept it in check for all of its existence until recently. Poor forestry practices, the suppression of all forest fires for nearly a century (thank you Smokey the Bear), and increasing average annual temperatures at higher altitudes has created the ideal conditions for the beetle to spread. The forests are composed of smaller, younger trees tightly packed together. This proximity allows the beetle to spread much quicker than in an healthy old growth forest comprised of trees of varying age and size. Forest fires periodically move through forests clearing out all but the largest of trees. With fire suppression efforts we have done nothing more that create a large tinder box ready to ignite. We have also created ideal habitat for the Pine Borer. Smokey had it wrong, the forests do need to burn.
The Pine Borer is so deadly because it lays its eggs under the bark of pine trees. The larva then bore through the cambium of the tree. This effectively prevents the tree from bringing nutrients or water to or from the leaves, suffocating the tree. When the tree falls it leaves behind a mosaic of stories under its bark. A subtle reminder of the destructive power of one small beetle.