History of Science in Yellowstone

Two men sit on a wooden boat with a square sail
In one of the earliest scientific studies of Yellowstone, the 1871 Hayden Expedition determined Yellowstone Lake was less than 300 feet deep.

William H. Jackson


A Long History of Scientific Study

Some of the first written accounts about the wildlife and thermal features of the Greater Yellow- stone area were in journals and letters from settlers, trappers, Indian scouts, and the military. These early accounts brought about expeditions to explore Yellowstone in the 1860s and 1870s (See also: “History”). It is in these explorations that the history of science in Yellowstone formally began with the expeditions of geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, who led US Geological Survey expeditions to the Yellowstone area in the 1870s.

Two bull moose near tracks in snow and a large bush from the air
Aerial surveillance of moose on the northern range.


Modern Research

By the 1960s, scientific research in Yellowstone had extended beyond the study of the park itself. Yellowstone was also a place where researchers advanced techniques for scientific study. The National Park Service changed its permitting policy at this time, requiring researchers to demonstrate their projects directly benefited park managers and would help make important decisions. As a result, many permits were denied. This gave some permit-seekers the impression that research in the park was not as welcome as it had been in the past. Around this time, the National Park Service also adopted a goal to host mission-oriented research, and managers sometimes felt free to suggest researchers accordingly adjust their proposals to meet that goal.

As important as wildlife science has been in Yellowstone’s history, the park’s hot springs have demonstrated immeasurable scientific value. In 1966, researcher Thomas Brock discovered Thermus aquaticus, a microorganism capable of surviving in temperatures extreme enough to kill most other living organisms, in a Yellowstone hot spring. In 1985, the Cetus Corporation obtained a sample of T. aquaticus from him for use in developing the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) process for rapidly replicating DNA.

Amplifying a segment of DNA to a billion exact copies in a few hours gives a scientist enough material to seriously study. The use of an enzyme discovered in T. aquaticus, called Taq polymerase (which does not break down at the high temperatures required in the PCR process), made PCR practical and is seen as the biggest advance in PCR. Today, PCR is still the main process used to study nucleic acids, and DNA sequencing is a multibillion dollar business. More than 40 patents involve research from Yellowstone. (More: Bioprospecting: Innovation Through Science)

Research studies provide valuable information to the park. Dozens of comprehensive studies were completed in the 20 years following the 1988 fires. The restoration of wolves in 1995 lead to increased research interest on the complex interactions on the northern range and continues today. The active volcanic ecosystem also fuels a wide variety of geologic studies. Many of these scientific studies have ramifications far beyond Yellowstone National Park.

Research Projects in Yellowstone

Today, permitted researchers study everything from archeology to zoology. Current research examples include:

  • Evaluating the effects of winter recreation on air quality, wildlife, and natural soundscapes.
  • Understanding prehistoric and historic use of the park, with emphasis on Yellowstone Lake and park developed areas.
  • Monitoring plant and animal populations and physical parameters that are, or may be, affected by changing climatic conditions.
  • Studying the interrelationship between carnivores, herbivores, and vegetation on Yellowstone’s northern range.
  • Conducting detailed population ecology studies on mammals such as wolves, elk, bison, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and moose.
  • Understanding the effects of landscape-scale disturbances (such as fires, insect outbreaks, and disease outbreaks) on the park’s forests.
  • Surveying rare, unusual, or thermally-adapted flora.
  • Monitoring of various geophysical systems that provide indicators of change within the Yellowstone caldera (e.g., seismicity; heat, chemical, or gas flux; deformation; subsidence and uplift).
  • Monitoring geochemical cycling in hot springs and thermally-influenced waterways.
  • Identifying new microbial species (and their survival mechanisms) found in the park’s numerous and diverse thermal features.
  • Studying the ecology and life-history strategies of nonnative plants and aquatic species to better understand ways to control or eradicate them.
  • Using tree ring data, pollen records, and charcoal evidence to understand past climatic patterns.

Quick Facts

  • 1871–1878: Expeditions of US Geological Survey Geologist Ferdinand Hayden to the Yellowstone area.
  • 1877–1882: Park superintendent Philetus Norris establishes scientific inquiry as an important aspect of park management and argues for employing a resident scientist in the park.
  • 1935: Eugene Thomas Allen and Arthur Lewis Day publish Hot Springs of the Yellowstone National Park (Carnegie Institution), the definitive literature on the park's thermal environment for many decades.
  • 1959–1971: A team of researchers led by John and Frank Craighead use the park to pioneer the field of radio telemetry in their ground-breaking studies of Yellowstone's grizzly bears. The Craigheads were also at the forefront of technological innovation in other methods of identifying and classifying grizzly bears.
  • 1967–1971: Park managers differed with the Craigheads over some of their scientific conclusions and were disinclined to implement most of their recommendations. The Craigheads concluded their work in the park. The disagreements were so well-publicized in the news media that a widespread, enduring mythology developed that the National Park Service was generally anti-research, especially when it came to outside researchers.
  • 1960s: The National Park Service changes its research permitting policy, only permitting projects that are of direct benefit to park managers and would help make important decisions.
  • 1966: Park researcher Dr. Thomas Brock discovers Thermus aquaticus in a Yellowstone hot spring. An enzyme discovered in the microorganism is eventually used to rapidly replicate DNA.
  • 1968: Yellowstone begins "natural regulation" management. The resource management philosophy has been highly controversial over the years, and has itself become a major focus of scientific study in Yellowstone.
  • 1970s and 1980s: Evolving management priorities—in which the need for scientific research became progressively more compelling both politically and practically—combined with increasing attention and interest in Yellowstone by the scientific community was reflected in an increase in the volume of research.
  • 1984: Total research permits exceed 100 for the first time.
  • 1987: Total research permits exceed 200.
  • 1990s–2000s: Total research permits average about 250 annually.
  • 1993: The Yellowstone Center for Resources is established as a separate operational division, further elevating the formal recognition of research as an essential element of management.
  • 2009–2014: Total research permits are approximately 180 annually.


More Information


Marcus, W.A., J.E. Meacham, A.W. Rodman, A.Y. Steingisser. 2012. Atlas of Yellowstone. University of California Press.

Wondrak Biel, Alice. 2004. The bearer has permission: A brief history of research permitting in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Science 12(3):5–20.

National Park Service Research Permit and Reporting System

Last updated: November 2, 2016

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