While many flock to Glacier National Park to view its craggy peaks and unusual wildlife, there are also a large variety of plants, including grasses, forbs and shrubs, that make the landscape of GNP beautiful.
Perhaps one of the most widely known species of flora within GNP is the glacier lily. The glacier lily (erythronium grandiflorum) is one of over thirty species of flora that are endemic to the Glacier National Park region. Known for its aesthetic beauty, the glacier lily is characterized by a bright lemon yellow flower and basal, elliptic leaves. The plant stalk can reach heights of thirty centimeters (Plant Life, 2013). The plant flowers early in the summer season, and it can be found in moist sites near the treeline of mountain peaks. The leaves of the glacier lily not only provide nutrition to mule deer and other herbivores; its bulbs are also an important and preferred food of the grizzly bear.
The glacier lily can serve as a key indicator for climate change within Glacier National Park because it is an early-season bloomer. Receding glaciers have caused the glacier lily to flower earlier than normal in the past century, which has had serious effects on the lily’s availability for pollinators and herbivores. The glacier lily, like many species of flora that are unique to the region, is exceptionally sensitive to changes in climate due to its occurrence at high elevations, its exposure to low temperatures and its relatively short growing season (Lambert, 2010). The glacier lily is so range-limited that it serves as one of the first species of flora in danger of becoming extinct due to global climate change.
However, there are many more, less well known species of flora in the park that are at a much greater risk than the glacier lily of becoming extinct. One of these plants is the pygmy poppy (Papaver pygmaeum). The pygmy poppy is native to North America and can be found in British Columbia, Alberta and Montana. It has very narrow distribution throughout these areas, though, and there are only about twenty-three known occurrences of the pygmy poppy, with all occurrences being in the Waterton-Glacier area of the Rocky Mountains, most commonly east of the Continental Divide (Lesica, 2005).
The pygmy poppy, most commonly found growing on rocky terrain such as scree or talus fields, is fairly small, with blue-green leaves growing up to five centimeters long. The flower, often orange-pink, can be about two centimeters wide. The pygmy poppy blooms in July and August. (Lesica, 2005).
The pygmy poppy has a G3 conservation status, meaning it is classified as “at risk” and “vulnerable,” because of its narrow distribution (Williams, 1990).
Another alpine plant classified as rare is the Jones’ columbine (Aquilegia jonesii). The Jones’ columbine is a tiny, tufted perennial with glandular, short-hairy herbage, growing to a maximum of four inches tall. The leaves are basal and the foliage has a slight blue tinge. The Jones’ columbine, like the pygmy poppy, tends to grow on stony ridges and slopes in subalpine and alpine zones (Lesica, 2005). The Jones’ columbine is considered poisonous.
Alpine plants such as the pygmy poppy and the Jones’ columbine serve as indicators of ecological change in alpine areas, because of their habitat on scree slopes in alpine regions. As snowfields recede and invasive species take over the delicate habitat of these plants, rare species such as these will disappear.
But why do we care about the disappearance of alpine habitat? For one, decimation of the rocky ecosystem above treeline will result not only in the extinction of sensitive rare plants, but also of animal species such as the pika, a heat-sensitive animal that lives in crevices of the rocky talus on high mountain peaks. Pika are small mammals that have short limbs and small rounded ears (Hordijk, 2010). These animals are herbivores that rely on the rocky alpine habitats. In recent years, activists have pushed to recognize the pika as threatened, to no avail.
With the disappearance of glaciers and permanent snowfields in Glacier National Park, the habitats of hundreds of rare aquatic insects are also disappearing, as well. Among those insects is the Meltwater stonefly (Lednia tumana). Lednia tumana lives in the frigid waters of streams coming directly off of glaciers or permanent snowfields in alpine habitats. Lednia, although not formally recognized as endangered, is being petitioned to be listed as such. The meltwater stonefly is considered to be an early warning indicator species of climate warming in mountain ecosystems (USGS, 2011).
Scott Hotaling, a Ph.D. candidate in his third year at the University of Kentucky, has crafted his thesis around decoding the genomes of rare alpine aquatic insects such as the meltwater stonefly. One source of unique DNA are the meltwater stoneflies of Cracker Lake, GNP. Hotaling believes that the Lednia in the area are genetically unique because of their isolated presence in a glacial cirque. The Lednia in the area inhabit a specific alpine stream which comes directly off of Siyeh glacier. After analyzing the DNA of the Cracker Lake Lednia, new advances could be made in the scientific knowledge of population distribution and physical adaptations to harsh climates.
Studying indicator species such as the pygmy poppy, Jones’ columbine, the pika and the meltwater stonefly carry a lot of weight in the scientific community. Not only do we gain knowledge of exactly how quickly the climate is changing, but we also can gain new technology when studying the adaptations these hardy species have made to their environment. It is important to channel resources into studying quickly disappearing habitats such as these, so we can preserve the memory of rare species of flora and fauna, even long after they are gone.
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