Fieldwork wisdom and scientific discoveries

You can probably tell from our previous blog posts that we are having the time of our lives in the Yukon, but do not be fooled by the fact that the radiation shields for our temperature sensors are made of beer can holders: we are doing some pretty intense science over here! Today we will let you in on a few of our recent discoveries from Pika Camp and share some secrets for successful fieldwork in the alpine – shhhh.

Our trip to Pika camp was a great warm-up exercise to get all of our respective projects going. Those newest to field ecology discovered, and those more experienced were forcibly reminded that:

  • When you plan your schedule, you must double the time you think it will take, and then add at least half an hour;
  • You must always carry a spare pencil;
  • And spare batteries;
  • A small piece of pink flagging tape goes a long way when it comes to retrieving eight sunflower seeds in the tundra;
  • On the other hand, you cannot always rely on bright colours to safeguard you: a lurid yellow notebook can be irremediably lost in a field of equally yellow wildflowers;
  • And just as a reminder, you must ALWAYS carry a spare pencil AND spare batteries.
Haydn and Isla hard at work planting teabags – yep the ones that we use for making delicious warm beverages – for a decomposition experiment.

The powdered coconut milk, dried hummus and refried beans that made up most of our midnight fusion cuisine fuelled lively conversations about the findings of the day. Here is a selection of our observations, musings and scientific discoveries:

  • Sandra and Isla discoverd that five years after being completely clipped to the ground, willows can resprout and reach up to a meter in height. Quite a consoling fact considering we spent most of our time in Pika camp uprooting shrubs, leaving a scene of total desolation behind us at the end of the day in our dendro sampling plots.
  • Joe and Jakob found the highest seed predation at intermediate elevations. Could this be because small mammals find the best compromise between foraging resources and predation risk at this altitude? Or is this just where the marmots and ground squirrels were hanging out on our elevational transect.
  • Shrubs are usually thought of as strong competitors that prevent other species from establishing, but they can also act as a windshield and create a favourable microclimate for tiny tundra flowers, the same tundra flowers that Haydn was picking for his decomposition experiment.
  • Jakob found out that dwarf birch is relatively rare up there in the alpine (especially when you are actively looking for it), but it can form dense, continuous patches at lower elevations, and isolated individuals can be found all the way up to the shrubline.
  • Sandra and Haydn discovered that the roots of medium-sized willows (half a metre tall and one or two meters in width) can run underground for over three meters, which means that below-ground competition between shrubs could be pretty intensive at greater distances than we previously thought.
Oh willow, what long roots you’ve got!

We are heading off again for four days of scientific adventures on the Kluane Plateau. Happy Canada Day (1 July) and stay tuned for fresh stories when we get back!

We will be camping out high up on the Kluane Plateau, at the foot of this snow-streaked peak called Observation mountain.

By Sandra