Ten Thousand Taxa

After leaving the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, we spent another long day driving east and south to and through Alberta. It was sobering to return to extensive civilization after about three months with only occasional glimpses thereof, in Whitehorse, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. We no longer had to pull off the road whenever we detected a cell signal (we actually kept a list of topics to google when we next had connectivity), and we began to be able to buy some groceries that had long been unobtainable. Having decided to forego the southern Northwest Territories this year, we now were essentially slowly headed home, with about six weeks to make it to Albuquerque, NM, to visit family and see the balloon festival. During this interval, we would be sampling interesting places along our route, some new to us, some old favorites – a distinct change of pace from our intensive boreal and arctic explorations.

Elk, Jasper NP, AB
Above: Bull Elk bugling, Jasper NP, AB

We reached Jasper National Park (NP), northernmost of the four national parks in the Canadian Rockies, on August 23. Like Yosemite and Yellowstone, these parks are heavily visited, and it is challenging to park a vehicle at the more popular areas, and to get a campsite. We spent three nights in overflow camping, and were not able to park nor see three different areas that we tried to visit in Jasper. But we still greatly enjoyed the spectacular geology and scenery, and had marvelous views of a Bighorn Sheep with a frisky youngster, already navigating nearly vertical rock outcrops with ease. We visited Athabasca Falls very early one morning; though only 75 feet high, the volume of water is impressive; the form is aesthetically pleasing; and interesting features like abandoned channels and potholes are visible from the trail system. In our wanderings in Jasper, we managed to find five new species, a willow (Salix candida), a fleabane (Erigeron caespitosus), an aster (Symphyotrichum falcatum), and two common dragonflies, Sedge and Variable Darners.

Bighorn Sheep, Jasper NP, AB
Above: Young Bighorn Sheep, Jasper NP, AB

Continuing south on the Icefields Parkway to Banff NP, we hiked up the Parker Ridge Trail, which goes above treeline, to excellent alpine habitat. Here we found two new mammals for the year, Golden-mantled and Columbian Ground Squirrels, and also saw many Clark’s Nutcrackers. This fascinating bird is in the corvid (crow and jay) family, and it is the only known agent for the dispersal of the seeds of Whitebark Pine, Pinus albicaulis. The cones of this western timberline pine don’t drop their seeds, and are restricted to the tops of the trees, providing easy access for the nutcrackers. These birds have an expandable gular pouch in which they can hold a remarkable number of seeds, which they then transport and bury, providing a cache for times when food is less plentiful. Many seeds are never recovered, and it is these that can potentially sprout and grow up into the next generation of Whitebark Pines. Buried seeds are frequently clustered, which is why it is so common to find clumps of the pines growing so close together that branches are intertwined.

Clark's Nutcracker, Bow Lake, Banff National Park, AB
Above: Clark’s Nutcracker, Banff NP, AB (photographed in 1991)

Our very finest day in the Canadian Rockies was spent paddling on spectacular Bow Lake, where we had excellent looks at American Pikas (complementing the Collared Pikas in Alaska and the Yukon). Like a number of other famous lakes in the Canadian Rockies (Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, etc.), the color of the water in some portions of Bow Lake is a nearly Caribbean hue of aqua. This color arises as follows. Pure water absorbs more red light than blue or green, so that for every ten feet of travel through water, only about half as much red light remains compared to blue and green. So, it seems that water should always have a pleasant blue-green hue, but many things can cause this not to be the case. First, if the pathlength of the light is too short, there is not enough absorption to color the light; this is the case, for example, when looking through a glass of water. Second, too little light may exit the water and reach the eye of the viewer, because the pathlength is too great (e.g., a deep lake) or the light is absorbed by other things, such as a dark lake bottom, or algae, or underwater plants. When little light exits the surface of the water, then reflected light, from the sky, dominates, and determines the perceived color – often the case in large bodies of water, which look blue on a clear day and gray on an overcast one.

Bow Lake, Banff NP, AB
Above: Bow Lake, Banff NP, AB

The native blue-green color, then, is best seen when light has a pathlength in pure water that is neither too short nor too long – maybe a few tens of feet – and there is some mechanism for the light to be returned to the surface. A common situation meeting these requirements is for the body of water to be relatively shallow and have a light-colored bottom – such as coral, white sand, or pale-colored rock. The beautiful Canadian Rockies lakes exemplify a different mechanism – the water contains extremely fine sediment, called glacial flour, which is produced by the grinding action of glaciers. The microscopic grains of sediment scatter the light over a wide range of angles, and the light may be scattered multiple times, but if the concentration of glacial flour is right, a good portion of the light will exit the water’s surface after traveling a suitable distance. If there is too much glacial flour, the pathlength will be too short, and the water will just look milky white, commonly seen in many rushing streams and rivers in glacial landscapes. Peyto Lake, in Banff NP, is an interesting case, in that the glacial flour concentration is intermediate, so that the water color is an unusual and attractive milky turquoise.

Peyto Lake, Banff National Park, AB
Above: Peyto Lake, Banff NP, AB (photographed in 1991)

We spent one day in Yoho NP, hiking around lovely Emerald Lake, and visiting the remarkable Takakkaw Falls, which has a single drop of 833 feet and a total height of 1224 feet. It not only is tall, but has a good water volume all year, as it is fed by runoff from a glacier. After returning through Banff NP, we headed southwest through Kootenay NP. Unfortunately, our favorite place in the park, the Paint Pots, a natural ochre deposit, was closed due to construction, but I’ve included a photo taken there, during our Canadian Rockies trip in 1991. We exited the Rockies near the park boundary, entering the Columbia River Valley, at which point there was an abrupt change from the moist, dense montane forests to the arid, open yellow pine (Pinus ponderosa) woodland of the valley, which surprised us as we had not taken this route before. At first glance, this habitat resembled that of large areas of the western U.S., but the admixture of Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) and Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) gave it a special character.

Takakkaw Falls, Yoho NP, BC
Above: Takakkaw Falls, Yoho NP, BC

Turning east, on our way to Waterton NP, we drove through the amazing Frank Slide, along Route 3, northwest of Bellevue, Alberta. In 1903, around 4 a.m., a large chunk of Turtle Mountain detached and plunged downslope. There is some disagreement about the size of the mass of limestone that broke off, but the commonly cited numbers are roughly 3300 feet wide by 1400 feet tall by 500 feet deep, with a weight of 120 million tons (and before and after photos make at least the width and height numbers seem plausible). The mass disintegrated into blocks, many about the size of a car, which probably fluidly spread across the valley and partway up a slope. Witnesses said they came to rest in about 100 seconds, implying a flow speed of about 70 mph. From satellite photos, the area covered by the slide appears to be about a mile in diameter, and it is said to average about 40 feet deep. It is a truly astonishing site!

Paint Pots, Kootenay National Park, BC
Above: Paint Pots, Kootenay NP, BC (photographed in 1991)

Waterton Lakes NP, in Alberta, borders Glacier NP, MT, and the two together constitute an international park. The Rockies are at their narrowest in Waterton Lakes NP, and make a very abrupt and striking transition from their east flank into prairie. Unfortunately, the Kenow Fire in 2017 did serious damage to the park, and most of it remains inaccessible by vehicle. We spent our one full day in the park paddling on Lower Waterton Lake and adjoining river channels, with less water depth than would have been desirable; however, we had a fine time, seeing a nice selection of plants, mammals, and birds – one of which really stands out.

American Pika, Bow Lake, Banff NP, AB
Above: American Pika, Banff NP, AB

In a November 2016 blog post, “Natural History Quests”, I stated that I would try to reach a lifetime total of 10,000 native species of plants and animals, worldwide. (I had originally called this project “Ten Thousand Taxa” because I was not certain if the count would be done at the species level, or if it would include subspecies and varieties as well – but the latter proved to be too easy.) At that time, I had seen 8522 species; since then I have expended innumerable hours identifying plants using dichotomous keys in technical floras, as well as carefully identifying many photos of butterflies and odonates using popular field guides. When we started out on September 2, we knew that I had only two species to go. Late in the afternoon, on the west shore of Lower Waterton Lake, we found an interesting gravel shoreline plant community. There we saw an Indian Paintbrush similar to one we had seen recently, but taller and growing at a substantially lower elevation. Sure enough, it was a new species, Castilleja septentrionalis, #9999. A bit later, we noticed from our canoe some pale lavender flowers growing from very coarse gravel at the shoreline. Approaching more closely, it was clear they belonged to the onion genus, Allium, but they did not look familiar. To identify onions, it is usually necessary to secure a bulb with a clean, undamaged coat, which can involve major, careful digging. But by moving the large stones next to the plants to make a hole, I was able to uncover some deep bulbs, which were more elongate than any I had ever seen before. These were quickly identified in Hitchcock and Gleason as Allium schoenoprasum, the wild progenitor of garden chives – species # 10,000!!

Allium schoenoprasum, Native Species #10,000, Waterton Lakes NP, AB
Above: Allium schoenoprasum (Wild Chives), #10,000, Waterton Lakes NP, AB

I have records going back to age 10, so it took about 50 years to reach this total, though of course things started slowly at first. I had only seen about 700 species when I turned 22, about 49% plants, 48% birds, 2% mammals, and 1% other. But then I went west for the first time, to graduate school in southern California, and in the next five years the total increased to almost 1600. Eileen and I married and moved to upstate New York, doing lots of local field work and also traveling each year within North America.  During our twenty years in New York, there was one significant event that increased the rate at which new species were accrued. In 1994 I still could not distinguish a grass from a sedge, but from 1995 to 2000, Eileen and I immersed ourselves in a study of the vascular plants of the Moose River Plains, in the southwest Adirondack Mountains of New York. By the end of that project, I was a functional botanist, and Eileen had mounted over a thousand beautiful plant specimens, now residing in the herbaria at the New York State Museum in Albany, and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Before the vascular plant study started, we averaged about 80 new species per year; once it began, that increased to about 150! When we moved back west in 2006, the total was over 3800, the breakdown being 59% plants, 32% birds, 5% mammals, and 4% others, and these numbers have changed little since then.

Yellow-Pine Chipmunk, Jasper NP, AB
Above: Yellow-Pine Chipmunk, Jasper NP, AB

During the ten years we lived in central California, we worked very hard on vascular plants, which are extremely diverse in the state, and also took international birding trips about once every two years. These factors combined to yield a more rapid rate of increase, and when I retired in late 2016, the total was just over 8500 species, an average increase of about 425 species per year. Approximately 43% of the new species were seen on international trips, about half being done with professional birding tour companies. Since retiring, we have spent an average of about 250 days per year in the field, compared to something like 100 before retirement, so one might expect a huge jump in the rate of new species per year, but the law of diminishing returns is taking its toll. It is harder finding new species both in North America and abroad. Since retirement, I’ve added an average of about 490 new species per year, with only about 22% coming from international trips (this figure being diluted by the large number of days in the field in North America). The breakdown of the 10,000 species by category is as follows: plants, 5764; birds, 3362; mammals, 402; butterflies, 167; herps (reptiles and amphibians), 150; odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), 62; fish, 42; other (mostly marine invertebrates), 51.

Brian with #10,000 (Allium schoenoprasum), Waterton Lakes NP, AB
Above: Brian after keying out #10,000, Waterton Lakes NP, AB

I’ll have to think up some new natural history goals for the coming years, but at present I am still basking in the glow of ten thousand taxa.

5 thoughts on “Ten Thousand Taxa

  1. Thanks so much for your comment, MC — it was very exciting to reach that milestone! We’ve just gotten back to El Paso and will get a new post out soon. We leave for Madagascar on Nov. 1 and are looking forward to that trip with great anticipation!


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