Rivers thread the landscape of Greater Yellowstone, some no more than a trickle:
and some wide and fast:
There are lakes, some natural and some the result of dams. One dam was being repaired and the lake was deliberately low:
Yellowstone even has its own Grand Canyon, fed by the Yellowstone River as it drops over an impressive waterfall
The canyon deepens, and if you hike along the rim the river looks tiny below you :
On other days, if the wind drops and the light is right, you see double:
And when you come over the brow of a hill there are wide valleys miles across with streams running through them, and your heart leaps:
In 1871, on the Hayden survey expedition, the artist Thomas Moran painted watercolors of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. These first images of Yellowstone’s astonishing beauty were produced for the masses as chromolithographs,
and turned into the awe-inspiring oils we now find so familiar:
His work helped build public support for the establishment of the first national park in the US (and the second in the world), signed into law by President Ulysses Grant in 1872.
Of all the iconic animals of the American West, surely the Plains Bison is number one.
Their story is one of inexcusable near-extinction, followed by a remarkable recovery effort. Before Europeans arrived, they are thought to have numbered around 60 million. By 1905 their numbers were down to less than 1000, including those in captivity. The pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge shot this series of stills in 1883,
later composed into a video:
The numbers were brought back up to the current 350,000, initially partly by cross-breeding with cattle, but that practice has long since stopped. The Yellowstone bison are pure bred Bison bison bison with no cattle DNA. (Yes, that is their scientific name!). These numbers are far below what they once were, but their survival as a species is no longer in doubt.
The males have horns whose ends point straight up:
The females have horns that curve elegantly inwards:
Boys will be boys, as evidenced by these two play-fighting:
But an adult male can weigh 2500 lbs
and do a lot of damage. This adult’s flank has been pierced by a horn, not seriously:
And just look at what they can do to a human being:
They are not all brute force. This one has lovely eyelashes!
And their topknot hair is luxuriantly wiry:*
Their thick coat insulates them well, but one of their pleasures is a good wallow in the mud. These dark circles are wallows created by the bison:
When winter comes, that coat is a pretty good insulator and also fairly waterproof:
The main challenge posed by snow is getting at the food underneath. In Yellowstone, which is at an altitude of over 8000 feet, an average winter brings over 12 feet of snow, with much more at the higher elevations. The bison swing their huge heads from side to side to bulldoze their way through the snow.
PS Bison are often called buffalo, but they are unrelated to the African buffalo or the Asian Water Buffalo, so bison is a better name.
PPS: From The New Yorker, a few days after my return:
*Talking of their hair, this is Hilaire Bellocs’ assessment:
The Bison is vain, and (I write it with pain) The Door-mat you see on his head Is not, as some learned professors maintain, The opulent growth of a genius’ brain; But is sewn on with needle and thread.
[In between animal posts, I’m slipping in the occasional post to show you the stunning landscape of the Greater Yellowstone area (which also encompasses the Grand Teton National Park)].
The weather during my trip was mainly cloudy and sullen, with intermittent rain, and one day of snow. The mountains could only be glimpsed, and the dramatic vistas rarely got the kind of lighting they deserved. But its beauty still comes through. The cottonwoods and the aspens turn the most astonishing colors in the fall, and although some were bare by the time I arrived there were enough left to show flashes of brilliance in the otherwise sombre landscape:
Sometimes there were long golden borders between the evergreens and the meadows:
In the moister areas, the low-growing bushy willows were purple and orange in the foreground:
creating a tapestry of autumnal carpets:
Even where all seemed dead and gone, leaving this bleak aftermath from a catastrophic fire some years ago:
a closer look shows brave new trees returning:
And a few wildflowers hung on, a promise of new life when spring returns.
It is mating season, and the bulls that we met last time have harems of from 5-30 females each.
The one in the right foreground below had 26 females!:
The male guards them day and night, because younger ‘periphery bulls’ lurk nearby, hoping to impregnate any female that strays from the group.
The young spikes also have to be watched, just in case they get any ideas. If the seigneur perceives a threat to his sovereignty he stretches his neck out and curves his head back so his antlers touch his spine.
And other threats lurk. This periphery bull wandered away, and when I looked at my distant photos I noticed for the first time that he was not alone:
The watcher is certainly a canid, (confirmed by my guide), and probably a wolf, (though it could be a coyote). Since I never did see wolves I am going to claim this as a wolf-sighting! Elk is the preferred food of wolves in the Tetons, and they can tackle both calves, and older or weaker adults.
Bull elk make eerie calls during mating season, known as bugling. Listen here:
The result of these fall liaisons will be calves in late May to mid-June. This calf is now four months old, browsing with its mother.
When her belly is full, she lies down to digest:
They may look stiff-legged, but those hind legs can be used to scratch behind the ear:
As winter closes in, they drift southwards.
Traditionally, the Jackson herd of about 11,000 animals would have moved from the Grand Tetons to lower elevations further south. Now their way is blocked by the town of Jackson at the southern end of the valley, so to prevent winter starvation the National Elk Refuge was created over 100 years ago, in 1912. Controversially, they are given supplemental food during the winter. The migration routes for the Greater Yellowstone elk herds can be seen below: the largest magenta blob, bottom center, is the Refuge.
I am proud to live in a country that once thought to create a National Elk Refuge. Long may we continue to value such places.
My guide in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone was the wonderfully well-informed wildlife biologist Mark Byall of EcoTour Adventures. He was a constant source of fascinating information, and never ever boring. Thanks Mark. And Gloria and Rich (you know who you are).
The North American range of the elk is much more limited than it once was, (and Maine has never been their home), so this was my first chance to see elk.
They’re huge! A bull elk, Cervus elaphus nelsoni, can weigh over 1100 lbs and stand up to 5 ft at the shoulder (I am 5ft 3″). The most striking thing about them is of course their antlers. This one has five points on each antler:
and this one, confronting a potential rival, has six:
They don’t reach their maximum size for 9 1/2 years or so, and the record-holder had 14 points on each side. But most mature bulls are six-pointers, like my second photo above, and the one in this video, far off on a ridge and taken by Mark Byall through his spotting scope with his iPhone:
We will meet this bull again next time.
Young bulls are called spikes, for obvious reasons:
Look closely at his spikes:
They push out of the pedicles, and initially they are covered in a velvety membrane. He still has some attached to the tips of his miniature antlers. The velvet has a blood supply, and helps the antlers grow. Indeed, at this stage they will bleed if they are damaged.
This wonderful time-lapse video shows how antlers grow (it is a white-tailed deer, but the process is the same for elk, moose, or any antlered species):
They rub the velvet off on a nearby tree, leaving a scrape behind:
After the mating season is over, they drop their antlers. This video shows an elk just after he has lost his antlers. I suppose it feels like losing a tooth (Is there an antler fairy, I wonder?). He still behaves like the alpha male, and at the end of the video you can see it feels itchy and strange to him.
This arch in the town square in Jackson, Wyoming is made entirely of natural elk drops:
In Part 2 I will introduce you to the rest of the family, and an unexpected visitor.
* My title is grammatically justifiable since ‘elk’ can be plural as well as singular! ‘Quelques’ is the plural of the French for ‘some’ and can be pronounced [kelk] or [kelk-uhz]. And you try finding another rhyme for ‘elk’. The only other one is ‘whelk’.
[I’m in Yellowstone, looking for wolves, and on Sunday when I usually send you a post I will be in a Wifi-free zone, so I’ve pulled out a blog I composed earlier this year and stock-piled. If I see wolves, you will of course hear all about it in the fullness of time.]
It was a dreary cold gray day on the last day of May, even the birds had slept in, so I looked more closely at the understory. The alder bushes were garlanded with iridescent alder beetles:
and on a lower leaf, an orderly matrix of tiny cylinders
with a halo of spikes like the crowns on miniature Statues of Liberty:
The spider that is eyeing them is either curious or hungry, but she is not the mother of these eggs. They are the eggs of an assassin bug, and this (a hundred feet away down by the brook) is roughly what they will grow up to be: a Pale Green Assassin Bug, Zelus luridus *, lurking on the flower spike of a False Hellebore.
Their front legs are coated with a sticky substance that helps them trap their prey.
He was lying in wait for an unwary mosquito or blackfly, or even this 3/8″ Band-winged Crane Fly, Epiphragma fasciapenne, sitting on a neighboring leaf:
Its intricate wings are too small to catch the eye in the field, but that’s why I take photos.
I watched the eggs for several weeks, and nothing seemed to change. Here they are three months later. It looks to me as though some have hatched, such as the ones at top right, but is hard to be certain.
*The eggs may be from a different species of assassin bug, I can’t be that precise.
Painted turtles, Chrysemys picta, are perhaps the most-eye-catching creatures on my pond. They’re not rare: this spring there were eight on a log, basking:
One got wedged in a rotted tree stump. I was all ready to rescue it next day, but it managed to extricate itself.
There were three on a fallen tree some weeks later.
Two dived off when they saw my kayak but the smallest and youngest (and thus the most rash and least intimidated) let me get very close, so I can show you some details.
They have beautiful eyes,
with top and bottom eyelids, both closed in the next photo:
They don’t have teeth, but they do have ‘tomiodonts’ (my word of the week). Look at the center of the upper lip in the next two photos:
There are two bicuspid tooth-like things, with a notch in between.
Despite appearances, these are not teeth. Turtles have horny beaks made of keratin (think fingernails) that they use to grasp and crush food, and many species have a notch in the upper beak, flanked by two or even three tooth like tomiodonts. Their function is rather mysterious. Three explanations have been advanced. First, and most obviously, they may be useful in feeding, especially in immobilizing prey. Second, the fact that they are typically somewhat larger in males supports the idea that they may be used to immobilize the hapless females during mating. And third, they may be hangovers from some much much earlier ancestral species, and were perhaps just “spandrels”, in the sense of Stephen Jay Gould, by-products of some other evolutionarily-favored development.
And a parting wave goodbye!
PS If you’d like to know more, read Moldowan et al 2015. He was bitten by one, and it drew blood, so they are effective tools/weapons.