An autumn rainbow


Before I came to the Norwegian mountains, I imagined them in a muted palette of grays and browns – heath, tundra, and rock. These were stereotypes, but not ones I found to be groundless after the experiences of a cold and foggy field season, and of hiking to the bare summits of more than a few mountains.

This year I returned during the same season and looked at these landscapes more closely, in places ranging from the mountains of Dovrefjell and Trollheimen to the Arctic coastal ecosystems of Lofoten. With a more careful eye, a full rainbow of colors revealed themselves. They were painted onto the occasional leaf, fruit, and flower, in clear view but on small enough scale to be easily missed.

Here are a few of these species in their autumn aspect.


Salix reticulata (Salicaceae), a small willow whose yellow-tinted leaves stand out against all backgrounds


Vaccinium myrtillus (Ericaceae), the bilberry, with sweet-tasting fruits that leave purple-blue memories on fingers and tongues.

purple black

Empetrum nigrum (Ericaceae), the crowberry, a shrub bearing purple-black fruits that remind me of onyx and look far better than they taste – a watery and seedy disappointment.


Eriophorum angustifolium (Cyperaceae), marsh-wool, a marvelous mat-forming sedge whose leaves turn red and whose fruits stream away on long soft white tassels.


Ranunculus glacialis (Ranunculaceae) – a high elevation buttercup whose pale petals rapidly become streaked in pink and purple, and whose flowers seem to persist far longer than any pollinator.


Rubus chamaemorus (Rosaceae) – the cloudberry, a close relative of the raspberry with orange-colored acidic fruits, here unfortunately found in an unripe state.


Drosera rotundifolia (Droseraceae), a carnivorous sundew common in wet areas, with red-purple stems and leaves and glandular hairs.

red (1)

Comarum palustre (Rosaceae), the marsh cinquefoil, a peat specialist whose orange-red leaves make a beautiful contrast against their mossy habitat.

red 2

Chamaepericlymenum suecica (Cornaceae), a bunchberry related to the dogwood tree, with bright-red and bitter-tasting fruits.


Rhodiola rosea (Crassulaceae), king’s crown, with rainbow-colored red-green leaves that have many medicinal uses.


Arctous alpinus (Ericaceae), a dwarf shrub whose prominently-veined leaves turn a brilliant scarlet color.

Although all of these species have circumboreal distributions (occurring at high latitudes around the northern hemisphere), most were almost entirely new to me. Only the Rhodiola and the Drosera occur in the Rocky Mountains I know much better, and there the Drosera is a very rare species restricted to rapidly disappearing habitats. The major factor is probably latitude – some of these Norwegian photographs were taken above 68°N, while my field sites in Colorado are closer to 38°N. The high elevation of the Colorado sites may counterbalance their relatively southern location and allow a few species to extend their ranges that far south.

It is a pleasure to find such bright colors at this time of year. The prevalence of red leaves and fruits is a marked contrast to many North American landscapes that are more dominated by yellow hues. Why should this be? Adaptive explanations have focused on protection from ultraviolet radiation or signaling to other species, but it’s unclear why patterns of redness would be stronger on one continent than another. A better non-adaptive explanation is that it is an artifact of evolutionary history and biogeography. I’ve written about this topic before, but seeing these red colors again after a year away from Europe renewed the pleasure of thinking about this pattern. Mountains are full of surprises.

The natural history of a familiar friend

I ran into an old friend five thousand miles from home last weekend. But the story actually starts several years ago when I first began exploring the Rocky Mountains.

Near my research sites there was one peak visible to the north, higher than all the others: the Treasure Mountain massif. And I had never climbed it. Below is a view of the peak covered in snow in 2013, taken from a different mountain.


This year I finally was able to satisfy my curiosity and climb to the top of Treasure Mountain. It was well worth it, and not just for the views.

summit ridge treasure

Near the summit I found a population of one of my favorite species, moss campion (Silene acaulis, in Caryophyllaceae). It grows in a low, cushion-like form, with small sharp green leaves. For most of the year it is under snow, but for the summer it puts out a beautiful display of five-petaled pink flowers. Observing it from ground level is a worthwhile exercise. Of all the plants I have met, only jasmine and orange flowers have a richer scent. It is a pleasure to find this species, because it is truly restricted to the high alpine zone and often does not appear on many high peaks.


So imagine my surprise when I found this familiar friend five thousand miles away on an unfamiliar mountain. I am in Norway this month on research collaborations at NTNU in Trondheim, and took last weekend to climb Blåhøa, the highest peak in Trollheimen.


The weather for the ascent was poor, and the views from the summit cliffs were nonexistent.

blahoa summit

As I navigated my way back down in the winds and mist, I noticed the same moss campion growing out of the rocks!

silene (1)

A familiar species in a foreign land is always a comfort. In this case, Silene acaulis has a holarctic distribution, meaning it can be found not only in the Rocky Mountains but also in the tundra of Svalbard, the peaks of Fennoscandia, and the windswept plains of Siberia. The interesting thing is that the species occurs at very different elevations in each part of its range. My photo in Colorado was taken at 13,500′ elevation – and my photo in Norway was taken at only 5,300′ elevation. The alpine zone starts at very different elevations in different parts of the world, generally becoming much lower at higher latitudes where growing seasons are shorter.

The other reason I was glad to see this species is that it is a classic example of how microclimate construction leads to species interactions. As a low and dark-colored plant, the moss campion escapes high winds and traps heat at the surface, enabling it to be much warmer than surrounding plants or bare rock (Körner 1999) – a notable benefit for growth in cold and short summers. And these warmer microclimates in turn facilitate the growth of nearby plants (Molenda 2012). I like to imagine Silene acaulis as a friendly ecosystem engineer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about microclimate recently, and this species provides much inspiration for my work. I am sure there is far more we don’t understand about the slow and quiet life of this foundation species. I will have to spend more time with it, wherever I may find it.

Summer is over

My field season is over now, but I could tell it was time to go. We tell the time by reading our organisms and need no calendar.

In the high Rockies, the meadows have begun to die back – late season aspen sunflower (Helianthella quinquinervis) and silver lupine (Lupinus argenteus) blooms struggle along, but all else is turning a dusty shade of green-yellow.

baldy dieback

Only at very high elevations is summer continuing. Here at 13,600′ elevation, an old man of the mountain (Hymenoxys grandiflora) is blooming, but colder and shorter days will soon put an end to this display.


Lower down, wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) has long discarded its flowers, and has seen many of its fruits eaten and seeds dispersed by its many consumers.


The autumn fungi have emerged after a period of heavy rains. Here a fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) displays an immature fruiting body.


And, a sure sign of fall, the marmots (Marmota flaviventris) have grown to an enormous size, putting on fat in preparation for the winter to come. Pictured here is the family that lived next to my cabin – Dandelion (who looks like he ate a watermelon), Stitches, and Question Mark, all tagged for long-term research by UCLA biologists.


Year-to-year, the relative timing of these signs of autumn shift, and sometimes are delayed or advanced compared to a standard solar calendar. Many of these phenological shifts and potential mismatches may be linked to ongoing climate change (Inouye 2008) and are actively being investigated by many researchers.

But for me, it’s enough to mark the passage of the seasons roughly by these living cues, and to make the transition from days on the mountain to days in the office, analyzing a summer’s worth of hard-earned data.

road grate

Who do we include in ecology?


A few weeks ago the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting brought over five thousand scientists to Baltimore. It was the 100th anniversary – an event marked by an opening video address by President Obama and the highest-ever attendance at the meeting. In the halls of the conference center we became a sea of poster tubes and name tags, a moving cross-section of the people who represent our field.

Most people passed as a blur in the hustle of getting from meeting to meeting, presentation to presentation. But occasionally a name tag would stand out. Some people who I knew by name, others who I wished to know, and others who had taken the time to decorate their badges with illustrations of their study systems and organisms.

But I remember one name tag more than any other. His name doesn’t matter as much as what he wrote after it – “, Ph.D.”. Of the thousands of people with Ph.D. degrees I saw at the meeting, his was the only one that indicated his academic preparation. Why was that? I only saw him for a second in the crowd, so I don’t really know. I wished that I had time and reason to talk to him, but I do think I can make a guess.

I wondered whether the name tag was trying to say something that couldn’t be said otherwise. He looked like he was in his mid-20s, no older. And he had dark-colored skin. I think the name tag was saying, ‘you need to treat me seriously, because you probably won’t otherwise’. As someone who also looks very young and has consequently had people expect little from me, I have some experience with age discrimination. But as as someone with mixed ancestry who can pass as white both visibly and culturally, I have not experienced any racial discrimination. At meetings like this one, so full of new faces, we constantly make decisions about how to allocate our time and who we should talk to. I imagine that there are many unconscious decisions people make at conferences that lead to some people getting much less respect than others. It doesn’t help that many of our field’s best-known thinkers happen to have been a bit older, white, and usually male (see a recent NCEAS working group below).

working group

So seeing this name tag, I was disappointed to imagine our ecological research community still not making everyone feel wholly included or at ease. Leah Gerber and Elizabeth Tellman at Arizona State University organized an excellent diversity workshop around these issues at the conference. It was attended by about thirty people, ranging in professional status from high school students to university faculty to directors of major environmental non-profits, and in background from a much broader swathe of society than most parts of the meeting.

For me, one of the big messages that came out of the conversation was the importance of community-building and inclusion. Providing opportunities and structures to recruit a more diverse set of people into the field is only part of the story. Building environments where everyone feels comfortable bring their whole selves should become a bigger part of that story. That means breaking down many of the unspoken assumptions about what our scientific culture should look like, and supporting people who can model and help build the alternatives. Not an easy road, but an important one.

Here’s an example that may help to illustrate the point. The photo below is from a sustainable recreation and youth engagement workshop run by the United States Forest Service last autumn in Arizona (photo credit to them). It was a useful and worthwhile meeting, but you can see from the photo that there is a key group who were not invited to the youth engagement dicussions: any young people!


Here and throughout our field, we can build better structures and make more inclusive decisions. The Baltimore workshop is going to soon generate some actionable outcomes and bigger conversations, but it is not my place to present them here. The Green 2.0 working group is also leading larger efforts to open up more conversations about diversity in environmental organizations, and proposing specific actions that our groups can all take to build community and inclusivity.

The road is long, and this will just be a small part of a bigger movement. We should all at least talk about these issues.

I look forward to a world where everyone can do ecology, and do it in the communities and cultures they belong to. I hope it will be a world where no one’s name tag need say anything besides their name.

What lies beneath


What do you see on this alpine slope? What you don’t see may be as important as what you do. You might see a rocky substrate with a very sparse cover of plants, all apparently similar. A few grasses and sedges, several asters, and a few other stragglers from other families. They are all short and small, with similar traits reflecting adaptations to the short snow-free growing season. Does anything distinguish them? How can they all coexist next to each other?


The answer may lie in the things you don’t see – in what lies beneath the surface of the soil. Species may coexist when niche differences between them are large enough. Although aboveground differences are minimal, belowground differences may not be. I decided to dig some holes to find out whether these species’ root systems were equally similar.

baldy site photo 76

Consider the example of this buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum var. aureum. This individual is about ten centimeters wide and just two centimeters tall. You, like me, might expect it to have a comparably small root system that would be easily extricated.

roots 1

Unfortunately for me the soil here is a primarily comprised of a blue-gray slate. The surface is a loose gravel, but within a few centimeters of digging, the soil becomes loose rocks, and after a few more centimeters becomes solid rock, only occasionally with a fracture plane present. Soil is a generous description. Yet somehow the plants manage to grow in this matrix, and their roots manage to slip into cracks or themselves make new ones. Digging is a precarious affair where rocks must be carefully removed, and fragile roots must be traced until they disappear into subterranean nothingness. Here you can see the beginning of an extraction operation, with a Phacelia hastata plant also emerging from the soil.

roots 2

It turns out that this diminutive plant has an impressively large root system, not only covering a wide area but also plunging deep into the rock. What you see here isn’t even the entire root system – I lost the deepest root into a crack that I was not able to fracture with my digging tools. Here you can see my collection effort back in the lab.

roots 4

And it also turns out that not every species has this same extensive root system. Here is a grass species I brought back to the lab, Achnatherum lettermanii. In this case I dissected it into leaves, stems, roots, and dead tissue. You can see here that the roots are much shorter and smaller – a marked contrast to the buckwheat.

roots 3

In the end I was able to unearth the full root systems of over seventy plants. The diversity was impressive, and may help to explain why so many species coexist despite such apparent aboveground niche similarity.

We ecologists rarely explore plants’ root systems. They are time-consuming and difficult to dig up. Measuring them often comes at the price of killing the plant. The whole plant measurements I took would be nearly impossible for a large tropical tree, with its roots hopelessly tangled amongst those of its neighbors. But sometimes these extra efforts and costs are worthwhile. They show us things we could not see any other way.

Getting to work

My commute to work this summer takes three hours each day. Most people have shorter journeys, but I don’t spend mine driving a car, riding a bus, or sitting in traffic.


I walk. A mile and a half of road, then two and a half miles of mountain, climbing from 9500′ to 11600′.

This is the route. Home is in the valley on the left.


And here is my office. There are no walls, no chairs, no windows – but neither are there
cubicles or computer screens. There is no dress code and there are no time-sheets. I get my exercise along the way.


My commute, beautiful as it looks, is not always perfect. It is a steep and sweaty journey, and all of my equipment must be carried up each day on my back. Some days I am tired, and some days I am sick, but the route does not get shorter or easier.


Some days there is heavy rain, and the journey is a cold, muddy, and slippery mess, with fieldwork requiring waterproof paper and frozen fingers. Unless there is thunder, every day is a work day.


I do spend most of my year at a real desk analyzing data, writing papers, having meetings, doing labwork, and thinking. But my favorite times of the year are during the summer field season, where happiness and health are easily within reach. Most of us are constrained year-round to jobs in cities, jobs indoors, hours spent on highways and bus stations. My work, though physically hard, is a choice, and not one on which my subsistence depends. I feel lucky to have escaped.

I do wish that more of our cities could be designed to promote healthier and happier lives (as the architect and planner Jan Gehl has eloquently argued in his book Cities for People – and then also been invited to implement in several major metropolises). But I am glad to stay away from cities, at least for now. There is too much beauty in the mountains.


Marmots, copper, and hot sauce


Usually I like seeing marmots. They represent everything I like about the high country out here. But recently our relationship has gotten much worse. The problem happened at 8:28:57 AM on July 1st, when a marmot bit through the sensor cable of the solar radiation probe for my weather station. I had left the cables weakly armored after the early-season installation and was planning to replace the armor with something stronger immediately. I got around to doing it just a day or two too late to avoid providing a breakfast for this rodent.


Finding the cables and mounting posts gnawed at was more than little disappointing. It meant I had to pull the entire set of instruments off the mountain for repairs.


Back in the lab, I found five or six places where the cables for various instruments had been nibbled, and three where it was chewed clear through. I cut away the problematic sections, stripped each cable and then all of its data lines, re-soldered the connections, heat-shrinked the joint, then waterproofed the repair job and patched the external wrapping.


And then I did what I should have done in June. I bought several meters of braided tin-plated copper sheathing and carefully enclosed each cable. It was hard enough to cut through the sheathing with metal shears, so I wasn’t very worried about teeth.


Then, back up the mountain with the weather station, the sheathing, the computer, and an assortment of tools in a backpack, plus one secret weapon.


Habanero hot sauce. We secured all the sheathing with metal wire, leaving very little to chew on – but just to be extra safe, we covered all the lines with the spiciest sauce I could buy. I don’t think anyone will want to even lick the station now.

hot sauce

My summer student, incidentally, was curious about how the hot sauce would taste on an apple. He discovered the answer shortly thereafter: it tastes awful. A culinary lesson for him, and an important lesson on protecting equipment for me. I’m glad to see our weather station back up and running, taking important data for the rest of the summer growing season and the beginning of the coming winter.


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