Few trails, fewer roads, and endless adventure: For Alaska Panhandle residents Stéphanie Hayes and Josef Quitslund, volunteering to collect samples of yellow-cedar trees means battling spiny devil's club, balancing on mossy logs suspended over the forest floor, and island hopping through the temperate rainforest they call home.
The duo were collecting samples for our Timber Tracking project. We've partnered with scientists who are using the leaf and wood cores from volunteers to build chemical and genetic databases that can pinpoint the source of illegally harvested timber, ultimately protecting our forests.
Stéphanie and Josef live in Petersburg, Alaska, in the middle of the Tongass National Forest, along the Inside Passage. From December to January, they collected 81 samples of yellow-cedar and Western redcedar.
"We are really in the prime range of yellow-cedar," Stephanie told us. "Some areas we just knew right off the bat that there are a slew of old growth cedars — like 1000 year old specimens."
The volunteers island hopped via kayak and boat, hiked up steep terrain, navigated cavernous ravines and cliffs, and followed old logging roads.
They heard wolves singing and spotted wolf tracks. They also found one old yellow-cedar tree with a long strip of bark removed from about knee height to as far as either Stéphanie or Josef could reach above their heads. The tree was a "culturally modified" tree, evidence of human interaction with nature. Indigenous and First Nations peoples, including the Lingít Aaní (Tlingit) and Dënéndeh whose traditional lands are in that area, have long used yellow-cedar bark to create baskets, clothing, hats, and many other items.
"It's very wild and very remote, you need to bushwhack," Stéphanie says. "But when you are really admiring the environment you are in, you really start to feel the grandness of the ecosystem here and you feel a part of it."
Stéphanie and Josef, your efforts put us over the finish line for completing our yellow-cedar work. A huge thank you to you and to all our volunteers for their incredible dedication, hard work, and willingness to adventure for science!
The yellow-cedar phase of our Timber Tracking project has wrapped, but you can sign up to be the first to hear about the next tree species we'll be working to protect here: https://www.adventurescientists.org/timber.html
From blasting through river rapids to rock-hopping along the spines of continents, our volunteers have amazing adventure stories from their pursuit of scientific data. In December, we invited four volunteers to share their stories as part of our year-end celebration event. Check out the video replay to hear from:
As we look forward to a brighter year ahead, these adventure stories from 2020 are a great reminder of the creative ways people went all in to advance science last year.
Inspired to become a volunteer adventurer? Learn about our current opportunities!
The drama surrounding the 2020 US presidential election has overshadowed some key victories for science and conservation. Feeling anxious waiting for top-of-the-ballot closure that may never fully come? Celebrate these big wins for the planet and learn about another bill in Congress right now:
Colorado made history by passing legislation to reintroduce the gray wolf. The move will restore the species to a key portion of its range between existing populations in the Northern Rockies and the desert Southwest. While this is a decisive win for recovery of the species, success on the ground will require empathy and statewide collaboration in learning to coexist with this apex predator–wolves are expected to move through ranching communities as they travel between wild habitats.
States across the country approved almost $3.7 billion in conservation funding. In Adventure Scientists’ home state of Montana, Initiative I-190 passed with bipartisan support to legalize the sale of recreational marijuna; this change is projected to generate $360 million for conservation over the next 20 years. Voters in California, Colorado, Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, and Texas opted for tax increases, bonds and constitutional amendments in support of green energy, public spaces, wildlife habitat, and natural resource protection.
Nevada passed Ballot Question 6, which ensures the state will shift to 50% renewable energy by 2030. The goal is to create energy freedom for a state that depends heavily on importing energy. By relying on more renewable energy, Nevada can invest in infrastructure to generate solar, wind, and hydroelectric power - creating jobs and taking control of their energy market.
With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ success at the federal level, the US can expect important changes in the first 100 days on the science front: 1) a speedy reentry to the Paris Agreement on climate; 2) rejoining the World Health Organization; 3) experienced scientists leading the country’s Covid-19 task force (and potentially more job security for Dr. Fauci).
While these are exciting steps for environmental and human health, there is still more work to be done. Energized to engage beyond the election? Consider contacting your senators and House representative to voice your support for the Environmental Justice For All bill currently before Congress. This bill “addresses longstanding environmental inequities that harm communities of color, low-income communities, and Tribal and indigenous communities across the country.”
Even if you never make it to the Arctic, microfibers from your fleece clothing likely will.
Researchers predict the Arctic Ocean will accumulate the highest concentration of plastic microfibers in the world, according to a new study led by Dr. André Lima and co-authored by Adventure Scientists. The insight came from water samples collected by the organization’s citizen-scientist volunteers around the globe.
Every time someone launders a fleece jacket or other piece of synthetic-fiber clothing, microscopic fibers of plastic wash into sewer systems, down rivers, and out to sea. These invisible microfibers absorb toxic chemicals such as PCBs and metals that, when ingested by marine animals and carried up through the food web to larger wildlife and people, may cause immune deficiencies, reproductive problems, and other harm.
Experts have documented microplastic fibers in all of the world’s oceans, yet they are still working to understand where the highest concentrations occur and how those concentrations impact plant and animal life. For this study, scientists turned to data from 1,373 seawater samples collected by Adventure Scientists volunteers. The researchers predicted where microfibers would accumulate based on ocean currents, salinity, temperature, and other metrics. Their results, published in the latest volume of the Journal of Hazardous Materials, point to several key hotspots.
Concentrations are predicted to be highest in waters near Greenland and in the wildlife-rich Hudson Bay, which may average 27,000 microplastic particles in a single cubic meter of water. A powerful ocean current that travels from the South Atlantic along North America’s East Coast is driving much of the flow of microfibers into Arctic seas.
The Antarctic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea are also among waters expected to accumulate large amounts of microfibers, as are several mid-ocean vortexes called gyres. The latter have become known as “garbage patches” because they also accumulate larger pieces of waste circulating through the world’s oceans.
Many of the hotspots identified are areas where ocean currents and cold, dense water form invisible barriers within the ocean. Once microfibers or other debris enter, they cannot escape and continue to circulate. Eventually, the fibers settle on the ocean floor where they encounter deep-ocean species.
“There was a big question when Adventure Scientists originally completed our microplastics project about why there were higher concentrations in places where there were fewer people and industry–where you’d expect to find the least,” said Michelle Toshack, a co-author on the study. Based on the modeling, the study shows that the global conveyor belt of ocean currents is driving microplastics into ‘dead ends’ in the polar oceans.”
Volunteers collected the samples between 2013 and 2017 across the world’s oceans and rivers. To date, Adventure Scientists’ Global Microplastics Initiative remains one of the largest-known microplastics pollution datasets. The open-source data, along with a citizen science toolkit for others seeking to understand microplastics in their own communities, are available here Microplastics.
A multi-day road cycling trip takes two adventurers nearly 270 miles, through the Missouri Breaks National Monument and across rolling grasslands, as they record data to help save human and animal lives.
When you start a multi-day outdoor adventure, you know it won’t go exactly to plan. That’s part of the challenge. It’s also a big part of the joy.
Adventure Scientists staffers Katya Koepsel and Ricky Jones experienced the challenges and joys of an epic cycling trip while volunteering for the Wildlife Connectivity Project. Through 2022, cyclists will document wildlife sightings and roadkill along Montana roadways. The data they collect will help wildlife and highway officials reduce and prevent vehicle-animal collisions by revealing wildlife crossing hotspots. Those hotspots are where mitigation measures such as signage or underpasses could be most effective.
Volunteers hit the road in the fall of 2019 for the first 10-day ride period of the project. In late June 2020, they rolled out again. Ricky and Katya chose a route that stretched almost 270 miles from Lewistown to Malta and back in central Montana. They expected to enjoy wide open skies, pronghorn sightings, camping on the banks of the Missouri River, and very little traffic. They did not expect mechanical bike trouble, a turtle in need, or moldy food.
In spite of the challenges, the duo returned with suntans, stories, and big plans for the next ride period, coming up August 7-16. We asked them to share their experience here.
This project needs volunteers to survey more than 11,000 miles of Montana roadways. The route options abound: You can ride along meandering river valleys, speed through forested byways, climb lung-straining mountain passes, visit wildlife refuges, and more. Ricky and Katya, why did you choose the route between Lewistown and Malta?
Ricky: I wanted to ride the prairie of Montana simply because no one else had during our first ride period. Why not? I had no idea. I’d never been east of Billings. As I poured over the map looking for possibilities, I started to think about the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Pirsig’s unnamed narrator said about roads, "The best ones always connect nowhere with nowhere and have an alternate that gets you there quicker." Instead of taking the fastest route, take the scenic one.
Katya: I think the relatively remote nature of where we would be going made the trip appealing. We’d have to carry our own water and deal with our own problems. I rode during the fall ride period and saw deer, mostly. I was eager to see different wildlife--animals I don’t really see as much.
The route contained more hill climbs than either rider expected. The prairie’s apparent flatness can be misleading. Midway through their route, the Missouri cuts through the plains. In this region of Montana, that means the landscape becomes “the Breaks,” where the grasslands abruptly fall away in rocky outcroppings, bluffs, and striped badlands. Singing birds, snakes (dead in the road), and sunshine abounded. Ricky tells us what happened next. Read more to find out.
Ricky: Our campground was nestled along the Missouri River, about halfway to Malta. Hot, tired, and mosquito bitten, we began to unpack our bikes and set up for the night.
We didn’t get very far into set up before we decided to jump in the river, bike clothes and all. The water was cool and kept the mosquitoes off. We sat for a while, cooling down, rinsing the sweat off.
There is something about that river, winding through the valleys and carrying clean, cool water. It wasn’t that hot out, but being in the river felt special. Maybe it was the magic and lore of the Missouri river, maybe we were slightly dehydrated and tired, or maybe I just hadn’t thought about our relationship to water for a while.
The second day of riding brought more hills and some trouble. Katya’s bike started acting up and she had issues shifting. But the two riders kept at it. They soon found someone in a more dire situation …
Katya: We were getting into Malta at the end of the second day and I was dead tired after biking 68 miles in the heat. Just as we biked up the last hill into town I saw a turtle starting to cross the road. There was a truck in the distance and I really didn't want to have to record this turtle as roadkill. I was already past so I yelled back to Ricky, “You have to move this turtle! It's going to get hit!”
Ricky pulled over quickly and was trying to nudge the turtle toward the road edge. But the turtle didn’t realize he was there to help. It kept pushing his hands away with its back feet. The truck was getting closer and it was time for Ricky to get out of the road. He got a hold of the turtle shell. It pulled in its limbs and Ricky slid it off the road. We then recorded our wildlife observation. Thankfully it wasn’t roadkill!
Katya and Ricky celebrated the rescue with beers in Malta, but then had a serious discussion about the rest of the ride. Katya’s gear shifting problem had worsened over the day, so they made a tough call. Katya would stop riding her bike and support Ricky from a vehicle while he finished out the route.
Ricky: On the third day, I was in the saddle and peddling south by 6:00 AM. Of course the wind had switched and I was fighting a headwind. But I was motivated. I got into a groove recording wildlife, pushing up the next hill, recording wildlife, cruising down the hill. Around me were 360-degree-views of the prairie. I saw pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, birds, snakes, sagebrush, and the occasional tractor.
I reached the top of the hill that sent me back down to the Missouri river just before 1 pm. I flew down. I could feel the cool breeze coming up from the river valley, the smell of the water and marshy floodplains. In that moment going down the hill, I made a decision. I decided to bike the whole way back to Lewistown that day. That would put my mileage at 130 miles and past an important milestone: a century ride. I’d never ridden that far in a day and I didn’t know if I was capable but I wanted to try.
Those last miles weren’t easy, I accidentally ate moldy food, nearly bonked going up a hill, and serenaded a herd of cows. But at 9:30 pm I rolled into Lewistown with almost 100 recorded wildlife and roadkill sightings.
The ride was a success! Ricky plans to ride 100 miles a day for the next ride period, which runs August 7-16. Katya is eyeing other Montana regions with interesting wildlife. What advice and perspectives would they give to other riders? Read on.
Katya: This trip was memorable because it was something I wouldn’t normally have considered doing. I found it fun to explain our trip to people we met along the way. I’d say to future volunteers: Try something that you have always wanted to. Or something that you have never even thought about. I think in some ways that makes the best adventure.
Ricky: I spent a lot of time thinking while I was riding. I thought about what the prairie would have looked like before the highways and fences. I thought about how the pronghorn would have crossed through the landscape without worrying about cars and trucks. I thought about humans too, and how we would have traveled the grasslands and the breaks before roads, bridges, towns, and boundaries. I imagine such freedom in both perspectives. I hope that my work will help make a difference to the wildlife.
Our little 270-mile route is just a small part of this project. There are 11,200 miles of highway that need to be recorded if you count each side of the road. In August we’ll ride again, as far as we can, but we need help. If you live in Montana and are reading this, I encourage you to sign up for the project, tell your friends, and convince them to come with you.
Inspired? Sign up to ride for Montana Wildlife Connectivity. Choose a 50-mile round-trip section of Montana highway to explore or string together a few sections for a multi-day experience.
Ricky and Katya’s route is available! Just choose the sections between Malta and Lewiston to experience your own prairie adventure. First come, first serve.
Live outside of Montana but still want to help? We have a Global Wildlife Connectivity Project and you can participate wherever you are. Apply to volunteer.
Pronghorn like to cross over highways; mule deer, under.
Bison don't just feast on spring greenery; they make it grow.
Large animals cover more miles each season than we ever imagined possible.
Science is yielding surprising discoveries into how wild animals move. Real-time GPS tracking systems paired with remote sensing technology reveal where and why animals travel across landscapes. Adventure Scientists is joining the effort by deploying a different type of tracker–the road cyclist. Now through 2022, thousands of cyclists will record wildlife sightings and roadkill along 11,000 miles of Montana roads to help highway and wildlife officials reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions. The publicly-available dataset should also provide insight into animal migrations in a state that boasts some of the most majestic wildlife in America.
Understanding wildlife movements is increasingly important for conservation and wildlife management. Climate change, habitat loss, and habitat fragmentation are three of the largest threats to wildlife around the globe, and each affects how and where animals move. Equipped with cutting-edge research, public and private land managers will be able to make informed decisions to try to mitigate these threats and restore once-connected wildlife habitats and corridors.
The Rocky Mountain West is leading the charge in migration research, with findings that are challenging long-held assumptions about animal movements, and informing land management decisions to help promote habitat connectivity. Below are major discoveries in the last decade of migration research in the Rocky Mountain West, including awe-inspiring revelations, fun facts to feed your inner geek, and paradigm-shifting discoveries that will shape the future of conservation and natural resource management.
Major Discoveries in Migration Research (2010-2020)
2011 – Hiding in plain sight
Researchers discovered a mule deer migration spanning 150 miles, making it the longest known land-mammal migration within the continuous United States. The discovery made it onto the national stage, with coverage in National Geographic and the New York Times. The deer cross a patchwork of public and private land, traverse natural and man-made obstacles, and highlight the need for a new era of conservation strategies that protect wildlife corridors and connectivity at expansive scales. In 2012, Canadian researchers found pronghorn antelope that ducked fences, crossed railways, and traversed reservoirs to travel up to 260 miles from northern Montana across the border and into Saskatchewan and Alberta.
2011 – It’s about the journey, not the destination
Until recently, migrations were thought of as a means to an end, or an investment animals make to get from point A to point B. “Stopover ecology” is a research field that is turning this idea on its head. First documented in bird populations, the concept is simple: at key areas along a migration route, animals take a pit-stop to fuel up and save energy. In 2011, researchers showed that mule deer rely heavily on stopovers as a strategy to load up on nutrient-rich plants needed to make their long journeys. This new information identifies stopover sites as a significant consideration for conservation efforts.
2014 – If you feed them, they will come
For more than a century, federal and state governments have fed elk during the winter to prevent animals from starving and to keep them out of ranchers’ haystacks. These feedgrounds have changed when and how elk migrate. On average, fed elk leave their winter grounds later, spend more time at stopover sites, migrate further, and leave for their winter range sooner than their unfed counterparts. This study shows that a management decision made during one season can influence an animal’s behavior in another.
2016 – Surf’s up! Riding the “green wave”
The herbivorous, charismatic megafauna of the Rocky Mountain West are excellent surfers of what scientists are calling the “green wave.” As large herbivores (including moose, bighorn sheep, bison, and mule deer) migrate from their winter to summer grounds, they are “riding the green wave” of new sprouts, which have the highest nutritional value.
2016 – To underpass, or to overpass? That is the question
Wildlife underpasses and overpasses are designed to allow animals to cross roads safely. But not all animals like the same structures. When presented with an option, the vast majority of pronghorn prefer to take the high road, whereas mule deer prefer underpasses. This study highlights that vehicle-wildlife collisions and wildlife connectivity issues require a multi-faceted and strategic approach, incorporating strategies that will work for as many species as possible.
2018 – Bighorn sheep migration: nature vs. nurture?
Bighorn sheep aren’t born as migration experts – they learn through a process scientists call “cultural transmission.” By studying a population of newly introduced bighorn sheep, scientists were able to show that sheep learned when to leave and where to go, and shared that knowledge with other sheep over time. This research has implications for re-introducing species to areas where they have been extirpated, and it also has implications for conservation of sub-populations that take different migration routes.
2019 – Why wait for the wave when you can build it?
It turns out bison don’t ride the “green wave,” they engineer it. Intensive grazing by a herd of bison stimulates new sprouts to grow continuously throughout the growing season. In areas where bison graze, a sustained green wave provides nutrient-rich forage for an animal that needs to eat 24 pounds of vegetation per day.
2020 – Wildlife Corridor Construction Goes Green
Wildlife crossing structures have shown great success in reducing vehicle-wildlife collisions, but they are often constructed with energy-intensive materials such as steel and concrete, which are major contributors to greenhouse emissions. To avoid creating a problem while solving another, researchers have shown that fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites can be a sustainable alternative, while still meeting the performance requirements and qualities of a steel and concrete crossing structure.
Want more cool animal migration facts? Check out the University of Wyoming’s Migration Initiative. Or check out this 2019 New York Times article about the longest land mammal migrations in world, including the incredible nearly 840-mile journey undertaken by caribou in the Yukon and Alaska.
What's the next discovery? Help collect data to find out.
Adventure Scientists is looking for volunteer cyclists for a scientific research project that can help save wildlife and human lives. Volunteers will cycle sections of Montana roads at set periods throughout the summer and fall, using a simple phone app to record data on wildlife sightings and roadkill along their route. This information, collected across more than 11,000 miles of Montana roads, will help highway and wildlife officials understand where wildlife are crossing roads and identify wildlife-vehicle collision hotspots. Ultimately, this will inform state-wide efforts to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions – an issue that results in more than 365 million animals killed, 29,000 humans injured, and $8.4 billion in damages incurred annually in the United States alone.
LINKS TO CITED WORK
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