Did you know there are tigers in Yellowstone? It just takes a keen eye to observe them. These creatures--and countless others like them--live in a world that's not always obvious, but the role they play in Yellowstone is huge.
Music by Chad Crouch, Victrola Dog/Podington Bear Music
Telemetry: Episode 8 Narrator: Kelly Willemssens is leaning forward. Scanning with her binoculars. She lands her sights on an animal covered with spots and undulating stripes. KW: A lot of people like photographing them because they’re pretty charismatic. Narrator: Kelly records her field notes into a digital recorder. She doesn’t take her eyes of the creature. It’s an ambush predator. It crouches, stock-still. Then explodes into a run. Narrator: It’s one of the fastest land animals on earth… Narrator: …but it would fit on your thumbnail with room to spare. Narrator: This is Cicindela haemorrhagica. That’s the Latin name for one of Yellowstone’s resident species of tiger beetle. The wetsalts tiger beetle. Kelly is studying these insects as part of her PhD project with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Kelly: So the first thing we do is observational work. KW: It’s kind of repetitive as you may have heard. It’s “Run. Stop. Run. Stop. Run. Stop.” KW: Continuous focal sampling is what it’s called. Jen (off mic): What do you guys call it? KW: Watching one beetle for 10 minutes (laughs). Narrator: Several rounds of watching one beetle for 10 minutes marks the first step toward understanding the behavior of Cicindela haemorrhagica. Not much is known about this wee, little beetle. KW: So we want to know: where do they go? What do they eat? Do they drink? What temperatures are they at? Do they use different behaviors to cope with heat? Narrator: How tiger beetles respond to heat is actually a big focus of Kelly’s project. Tiger beetles have a cosmopolitan distribution. They’re found all over the world. And the wetsalts tiger beetle, as its name implies, is almost always found near water… KW: …But we’ve never ever documented a beetle before near the thermal springs. Narrator: And this is the thing that sets these tiger beetles apart. Here in Yellowstone, the wetsalts species is associated—exclusively—with thermal springs. KW: So we’re talking about water that’s 65 degrees Celsius. Some of the water we’ve seen here is 2.2 pH, which is extremely acidic. Narrator: Basically, that’s like lemon juice. 150 degree lemon juice. KW: …it has arsenic, it has heavy metals, it’s full of toxins. So the fact that these beetles are here and are thriving is absolutely unique and kind of a mystery. Narrator: So in addition to studying the different behaviors of Yellowstone’s tiger beetles, Kelly will be analyzing their physiology, too. KW: These beetles live at extreme temperatures, extreme environments, I want to figure out how they do it. What kind of mechanisms do they use and can we use those mechanisms for other purposes? KW: For instance there’s something called a heat-shock protein. Everyone has it. Humans, we have it too. If our cells get into too hot of an environment, our DNA will denature. So it will unravel and open up. Narrator: That’s not good. We don’t want our DNA to unravel and open up. KW: These heat-shock proteins will attach to the DNA and will recoil it. So they will bind it once again. Different species… can stay in warmer environments. It’d be really cool to figure out what kinds of heat-shock proteins these beetles use…So potentially…maybe someone in the medical field can use this knowledge. Narrator: Kelly says it’s a pretty far stretch, but investigations like hers could lead to those sorts of advancements someday. KW: Our environment is getting a lot more extreme, and by studying these extremists—these extremophiles, maybe we can come up with ways to cope with a changing world like that. Narrator: It’s hard to imagine that something smaller than a thumbnail could have so much to teach us. But Kelly says these teeny-tiny predators in Yellowstone are just the beginning of the mostly unknown world of insects. KW: I’m just focusing on this one tiger beetle, but there’s so much more left out there to discover and explore. < footsteps and field sounds of Erik Oberg cross-fading up >
Narrator: On the other side of the park, National Park Service biologist Erik Oberg agrees. Erik Oberg: Pretty much all of the vertebrates and birds and mammals here in Yellowstone have been described. We know about them, we know their home ranges, we know a lot about their life histories and ecologies…insects is wide open… Erik Oberg: This is the ‘Wild, Wild West’ of biological discovery out here. All you have to do to find new species or new discoveries is come out here and look for them Narrator: Like Kelly, Erik Oberg studies beetles, too. But Erik’s study takes a wider view of insect populations in the park. EO: Altogether we're tracking nine different orders, So, beetles plus eight additional orders of insects are all being sorted and preserved for this project. Narrator: Erik likes to say that his project is powered by citizen scientists. He and his team of volunteers spend their summers trapping insects across a variety of habitats in Yellowstone. And their winters identifying what they caught. EO: And it's it's an unassuming little scientific study. It's basically an eight inch by eight inch white square piece of plastic staked into the ground … Narrator: Erik removes the white, square cover to reveal what’s called a pitfall trap. It’s a plastic deli cup. Like the kind you’d get potato salad in. It sits down in a shallow hole and it’s filled with about an inch or two of clear liquid. Preservative fluid for the dozens of insects that have fallen in and are now floating in it. EO: We have a nice sample here. It's actually pretty clean. So just kind of an assortment—a smorgasbord—of insects if you will. EO: And so now we are going to take a second cup, and a very sophisticated scientific tool—a pasta strainer—and a piece of organza fabric which is available in any fabric store and or at any local wedding…. EO: And the mesh of that organza is small enough that it will catch even the smallest insect. So smaller than a millimeter biodiversity is going to be captured by this project. EO: Yeah. This this is quintessentially small game hunting. EO: Oh and look at this right here… Narrator: Erik holds up the deli cup. It looks like a tiny serving of soup covered with skin of ground pepper. EO: …You can barely see through to the bottom of the liquid because the entire surface is covered with springtails. Jen (in field): Remind the listeners what a springtail is EO: Springtails are in a group called Collembola. They’re the most numerous six-legged insect on the planet. And they are responsible for nothing short of creating the soil we are standing on. EO: So their whole life is all about eating dead plants, digesting it, and turning it into soil with nutrients that are able to be taken up by plants to repeat the whole cycle again. EO: Bison need springtails. Elk need springtails. People need springtails. It’s just that most people don’t know it...(laughing) We think we’re really important—way up at the tippy top of that food pyramid—but it’s a food pyramid of cards if we’re not careful. Narrator: I looked down at the tiny specks then out across the impossibly wide landscape. Springtails…Landscape…Springtails…Landscape… Mind. Absolutely. Blown. EO: I mean it's really easy to be fascinated by a beautiful butterfly or a dragonfly that might you know perched next to you on your on your picnic here in the park. But we're really just starting to understand how incredibly dependent on all of these organisms we are and how important they are to the fabric of the landscape and all of its interdependencies that are playing out here in Yellowstone. EO: And they're also just really cool looking. So we'll show you some under the microscope later on… Narrator As we pack up to leave, Erik checks in with one of his recruits. EO: How many steps on your Fitbit today? Jenny: Nineteen thousand six hundred and five. EO: So by the time we get back to the car that'll be twenty thousand steps…That's about a ten mile day in quarter mile increments from one pitfall to the next… Narrator: Erik’s pitfall sites move upslope from low elevation to high elevation. Erik will be able to record findings across a gradient spanning more than a vertical mile. What’s more, his project ties into nation-wide network of monitoring sites designed to understand how our ecosystems are changing over time. Erik will be able to compare what he sees here in Yellowstone to the results of the National Ecological Observatory Network. Narrator: In Erik’s office, two microscopes sit on a table tucked under a shelf lined with books. This is his insect processing laboratory. It’s where everything from basin to summit gets sorted and catalogued. EO: So we’re really establishing a baseline for what the current ecosystem looks like in Yellowstone from the Gardiner basin to the top of Mount Washburn. Narrator: Erik shows me a sampling of this season’s catch under the microscope. EO: If you adjust the black knob… Narrator: I finally figured that out EO: So this is a little time capsule of the biodiversity that happened to be crawling around under the sagebrush habitat here in Yellowstone. So for this tiny little two week window where we deployed our pitfall traps, this is what we found. These are all springtails. Jen: Oh my gosh! That’s Crazy! EO: Yeah. Narrator: To the naked eye, each springtail looks like a click or two of a mechanical pencil lead, but under the power of the microscope, they transform into extraordinary, shrimp-like beasts. EO: So, day in and day out, year in and year out, those little critters, those tiny, pale, translucent gems, those are things that make our soil. Narrator: Erik says that what’s really interesting is that they’re finding more springtails at sites that are heavily impacted by human activities and fewer springtails at sites that are considered more pristine. EO: I don’t know why that is. We would need to send these off to a taxonomist expert who might make some more informed speculations about this, but if your ecological niche is to make topsoil, it would make sense that you would be in a place where topsoil needed to be made… EO: So I don’t know what’s going on there, but those are clues that nature is telling us that something is going on that’s worth investigating. EO: Um, do you notice that it looks like they have kind of a long tail? Jen: Yeah I do, I see that EO: OK. That’s the furcula! Jen: (breaking up into laughter) Oh, well, of course! EO: (laughing) Of course, Jennifer! Clearly you can see the furcula. EO: The furcula is the modified abdominal segment that is the jumping, escape organ for the springtail… EO …So it folds that little lever under its abdomen and if anything frightens it or tries to grab it or eat it, it releases that furcular—that folded lever under its body—and launches itself 20 to 40 body lengths away from where it was. EO: Wouldn’t it be fun if you had the superpower of being able to launch yourself 20 to 40 body lengths away…that’s kind of a cool skill. Jen: We should look up what the world record is for long jump EO: I bet you springtails have got it hands down. EO: What you’re looking at is a piece of biological sculpture crafted over 350 million years. EO: So, I think we have a lot to learn from these little guys. EO: We know a tiny, tiny fraction of the life cycles of these different organisms that we’ve captured. Getting them into the lab where we can study them further is just the very first step in this process of discovery and exploration. Narrator: It’s discovery and exploration in miniature. But with huge impacts. What scientists like Erik and Kelly want us to remember is that it’s the little things. It’s often the things we can’t see that really drive ecosystems like Yellowstone. And without those little things in Yellowstone, Yellowstone as we know it might be a very different place.