Research fellowships offered by Alaska Geographic and Denali Education Center through the Murie Science and Learning Center help scientists conduct field research in Arctic and subarctic Alaskan national parks.

Population Genetics of Blackfish in Denali

Matthew Campbell, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Denali National Park and Preserve


Matthew Campbell, a graduate student in the Department of Biology and Wildlife at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, proposes to collect 20 to 30 Blackfish (Dallia pectoralis) from lakes near the headwaters of the Kuskokwim and Tanana Rivers. Campbell will use analyses of genetic variation to compare the sampled Blackfish to other populations of the species found in downstream areas of both rivers. By learning about living populations of Blackfish, a fish present in Beringia (an area encompassing eastern Siberia and most of Alaska that includes the Bering land bridge), we will better understand how Blackfish and other Beringian aquatic organisms migrated or dispersed among historic drainage connections in response to changes in climate, landscape, and drainage patterns.

Specifically, Campbell plans to sample fish tissues and whole fish from Blackfish Lake (southwest of Lake Minchumina) and Starr Lake (east of Lake Minchumina). In each sampled fish, he will examine genetic variation at 20 or more microsatellite loci, and at two regions of mitochondrial DNA to determine genetic profiles of each fish. Using analysis procedures that group fish according to their genetic makeup, Campbell can determine the number of genetically distinct Blackfish populations present in the two major rivers within the park. The genetic information can then be used to estimate past and current connectivity within and between the major drainage basins in the park. Historical changes in population size among defined populations of Blackfish can also be inferred from the genetic data.

Climate Change Underfoot: Permafrost Thaw and Nitrogen Dynamics

Discover Denali 2011 Research Fellowship:

Tamara Harms, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Michelle McCrackin, Washington State University - Vancouver
near Denali National Park and Preserve

Dr. Tamara Harms, a post-doc at the Institute of Arctic Biology in Fairbanks, and Dr. Michelle McCrackin, a post-doc at Washington State University – Vancouver, are collaborating on a study of how climate change and thawing permafrost may be changing the dynamics of nitrogen (N) in tundra ecosystems. N is an essential nutrient for organisms, but increased N availability can have ecosystem consequences by changing the species composition and abundance of plants and aquatic organisms. Microorganisms in soil and water can also convert dissolved N to gaseous nitrous oxide (N2O), a potent greenhouse gas. Thawing permafrost is hypothesized to release N from previously frozen organic matter and increase N availability, with potential for increased N2O entering the atmosphere.

Drs. Harms and McCrackin will use several methods to investigate patterns of dissolved and gaseous N. Dr. Harms uses environmental tracers and stable isotope analyses in her research and Dr. McCrackin has expertise measuring denitrification and N2O fluxes in arctic and alpine ecosystems. They will coordinate a study in the Stampede Road corridor (near Denali National Park and Preserve) where permafrost has thawed to various degrees. The two researchers will use this gradient of permafrost thaw and stability to test hypotheses about what happens to nitrogen dynamics when climate change warms frozen tundra.

Rising Temps and the Influence of Nonlinear Thresholds on Forest Expansion in Denali

Discover Denali 2011 Research Fellowship:

Rachel Isaacs, The Pennsylvania State University
Denali National Park and Preserve

Rachel Isaacs, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at the Pennsylvania State University, will be studying how rising temperatures and other factors (biological and physical) influence how trees "advance" upslope into tundra at treeline. Her project builds on previous research conducted in 2008 by Kirk Stueve and Rachel Isaacs in a 2000-ha (5,000-acre) study area near the East Fork Toklat River about 8 miles downstream from the park road. Isaacs will make plot-scale counts of seedlings, and infer tree establishment in the past from tree age, and offer predictions of future landscape dynamics in Denali based on climate change scenarios outlined in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Rapidly warming temperatures may mean that the ability of a tree species (e.g., spruce) to "migrate" uphill via seedlings and new trees doesn't keep pace with where the conditions are newly favorable to the species. This study will address the following questions: (1) Does the altitudinal expansion of forests into tundra truly reflect a temperature limitation for trees? (2) What dominant controls inhibit or facilitate the successful establishment of trees into favorable locations? (3) Are pulses of establishment indicative of significant climatic events or long-term climate trends?

A More Efficient and Reliable Immobilization Protocol for Grizzly Bear Researchers

Discover Denali 2011 Research Fellowship:

Justin Teisberg, Washington State University
Denali National Park and Preserve

Justin Teisberg, a Ph.D. student at Washington State University, has been working to develop a more efficient and reliable protocol for immobilizing grizzly bears, which maximizes safety to both the bear and handlers during field procedures such as radiocollaring. A bear can be quite vulnerable to weather or injury from other bears when they are left to recover from anesthesia. Essentially, the new drug combination will shorten the time to recovery for captured bears while maintaining stable and safe cardio-respiratory values.

After Teisberg concludes pilot trials of a new drug combination, known as dexMTZ, on captive bears at Washington State, he plans to come to Denali in May to accompany Denali wildlife biologist Pat Owen during grizzly bear capture. During aerial darting of grizzlies prior to affixing or replacing VHF or GPS collars, the team will apply appropriate doses of dexMTZ to assess drug efficacy under field conditions.

Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction of the Late Cretaceous Cantwell Formation in Denali

Discover Denali 2011 Research Fellowship:

T. Colby Wright, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Denali National Park and Preserve

T. Colby Wright, a Master's student in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, will spend a month near Fang Mountain studying clues (i.e., pollen, fossil soils, trace fossils, and sediment chemistry) found in the sedimentary rocks of the lower Cantwell Formation. His goal is to reconstruct what Denali was like in the Late Cretaceous (~70 million years ago--a time on the brink of a mass extinction event). In recent years, searches in the lower Cantwell Formation in Denali have yielded abundant plant and dinosaur trace fossils.

Specifically, Wright plans to measure and describe 10-20 stratigraphic (rock) sections in detail and photo-document the outcrops and any new paleontological finds. Within finer-grained rock strata (layers), he hopes to identify paleosols (fossil soils) and gather approximately 100 samples for making thin-sections in the lab (to look microscopically for trace fossils, microfossils, and mineral content) as well as bulk rock samples for isotope work and pollen study. Wright’s work will synthesize what is learned from each part of the study to model what the paleoenvironment of the lower Cantwell Formation was like in the Fang Mountain area. He’ll integrate his research with work done by other paleontologists.

Spatial and Temporal Melt and Velocity Variability of Glaciers in Denali

Murie Science and Learning Center 2011 Research Fellowship:

Seth Campbell, University of Maine
Denali National Park and Preserve

Seth Campbell, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maine at Orono, proposes to collect measurements of ice flow velocity on the Kahiltna Glacier using GPS. He will also use snow pit measurements to quantify glacier melt.

The questions he is asking are: (1) Is the surface lowering and velocity increase of the Kahiltna Glacier a short-term anomaly or a long-term trend, (2) Are the velocity increases and thinning rates occurring regionally in Denali's glaciers, (3) What are the seasonal velocity fluctuations of glaciers in Denali. He will address these questions by comparing short and long-term velocities from a 12-month period as recorded by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite data, with historical velocity and melt data.

Sub-debris Melt and Ice Wall Retreat and the Deflation of the Kennicott Glacier

Murie Science and Learning Center 2011 Fellowship:

Leif Anderson, University of Colorado - Boulder
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve

Leif Anderson is a Ph.D. student in the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and the Department of Geological Science at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He is studying the ablation (melt) of the Kennicott Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. At the terminus, the Kennicott glacier is covered by rocky debris, which forms due to the coalescence of medial moraines. The warming Arctic climate is contributing to glacier thinning and retreat. To better understand glacier melt on debris-covered glaciers, Anderson will make extensive field measurements and develop an ice melt model.

His research will determine the current ice melt rates on the Kennicott Glacier in areas with and without debris cover, and relate these melt rates to the river discharge into the Kennicott River. To accomplish these goals, Leif will measure the thickness of the debris across the debris-covered zone, and will drill stakes with marked intervals into the glacier to measure the amount of summer melt. Anderson will also install data loggers in the debris and under the debris to measure temperatures and assess how melting may be slowed under the debris due to its insulating properties.

Migratory Connectivity of Dunlin Breeding at Cape Krusenstern

Murie Science and Learning Center 2011 Research Fellowship:

H. River Gates, University of Alaska Fairbanks and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Cape Krusenstern National Monument

H. River Gates, a Master’s Candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is continuing a project she began in 2010 to learn the migratory routes of dunlin (a migratory shorebird that breeds in western and northern coastal areas of Alaska, including Cape Krusenstern). To better determine potential threats to dunlin populations when they leave the park, it is critical to understand their migratory pathways. Dunlin breeding at Cape Krusenstern may have diverse migration routes leading them to their wintering grounds in either China, Japan, and Korea, or along the Pacific coast of North America.

In 2010, 268 dunlin were equipped with geolocators at 7 locations in Alaska and Canada. Geolocators are small devices attached to the bird that regularly record light intensity and can be used to generate geographic locations. In 2010, 30 Dunlin were captured at nest sites at Cape Krusenstern. In 2011, Gates plans to revisit the same nesting territories in the park to recapture any dunlin with geolocators that have returned. Once the geolocators are removed from the birds, the data can be downloaded and interpreted as estimates of distance travelled, stopover sites, and overwintering locations.

Assessing Morphological Variation, Niche Space, and Genetics with a New Species

Murie Science and Learning Center 2011 Research Fellowship:

Stephany Jeffers, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Noatak National Preserve

Stephany Jeffers, a Master's student at the University of Alaska Museum Herbarium and the Department of Biology and Wildlife at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will be studying Spring Beauty (Claytonia) at Feniak Lake in Noatak National Preserve. There are several species of Claytonia reported to be present at Feniak Lake, and there is much confusion about species delineation.

Jeffers has three research questions: What species of Claytonia are growing at Feniak Lake (have some been misidentified in the past)? Are the differences in plant form at Feniak Lake due to genetic differences or the habitats they occupy? Do the populations of Claytonia that are growing on the serpentine barrens near Feniak Lake represent a new undocumented species? Through original field collection, habitat observation, molecular (genetic) analysis, and ecological niche modeling Jeffers will provide a more accurate description of Claytonia species found at Noatak National Preserve to aid land managers in making informed conservation decisions.

Mapping the Historic Geoscience Exploration of Stephen R. Capps in Denali

Murie Science and Learning Center 2011 Research Fellowship:

Ronald Karpilo, Colorado State University
Denali National Park and Preserve

Ron Karpilo, a research associate at Colorado State University, will be reconstructing and mapping the 1910s and 1920s field investigations of U.S. Geological Survey geologist Stephen Reid Capps in the Denali area. Where did Capps go and what routes did he take to travel to those locations? Have these locations changed since he explored them?

Karpilo will focus on the trips that Capps made in 1916 (McKinley-Kantishna region), 1919 (Nenana-Toklat region), and 1925 (McKinley region) because the locations are accessible by foot from the park road and represent the time periods before and after the Denali area received National Park designation. Karpilo will study Capps’ field notes and photographs, consult with local experts, and conduct field forays to try to find Capps’ photo locations. The project will result in an organized set of field notes and historic images from Capps, and Karpilo’s repeat photography, which will make Capps’ expedition information more accessible for education, research, or management uses.

For additional information and project updates, visit Karpilo’s website or follow him on Twitter, @RonKarpilo