Acer glabrum “Rocky Mountain Maple” Aceraceae

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, MT
October 9, 2015
Robert Niese

Montana is home to two species of maple, but this is our only native. The Rocky Mountain Maple can be found in moist, open forests, avalanche slopes, and riparian areas throughout the Pacific Northwest, but is most common east of the Cascades. In the west, A. glabrum could be confused with A. circinatum, the Vine Maple, which tends to be much more common. However, simple differences in their leaf shape, fruit color, and fruit shape make the distinction quite straightforward. Like all maples, these plants have neat, aerially dispersed seeds called samaras that spin like a helicopter blade as they fall to the ground. During World War II these seeds inspired parachute-less cargo containers that could be dropped from planes to provide emergency supplies or mail to inaccessible locations.

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Populus tremuloides “Quaking Aspen” Salicaceae

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, MT
October 9, 2015
Robert Niese

This adorable Quaking Aspen sapling had lost all but three of its leaves by the time I photographed it in early October. While Quaking Aspen is famous for its adventitious, clonal reproduction, this little guy probably grew from seed because it was all alone in the at the edge of a stand of conifer saplings. Seedlings in the genus Populus are often the first to colonize abandoned mining sites that are too toxic for other species. Recent research suggests that they are only capable of this feat because of a mutualistic relationship with various species of mycorrhizal fungi such as these earthballs.

Acraspis macrocarpae “Jewel Oak Gall Wasp” gall, Cynipidae

Missoula, MT
October, 21 2015
Robert Niese

Female jewel wasps are adorable, wingless, pudgy little things when they emerge from these galls in October. Here’s another picture of these cuties for good measure. These unique organisms reproduce in cycles of alternating generations of all females and generations with both sexes. In years with only females, the wasps reproduce parthenogenetically. Apparently, parthenogenetic galls are different in size, shape, and color than their sexually-produced counterparts. I was unable to find specific information regarding this phenomenon in Acraspis macrocarpae, but most accounts suggest that only females occur inside these particular galls, which leads me to believe they may be the sexually-produced versions of these oak galls. Perhaps next year, we’ll see a completely different variety of gall on our local oaks! I’ll be sure to update you all next fall.

Also, fun fact, this species of gall wasp was originally described by Alfred Kinsey, the world-renowned human sex scientist! It’s true! Before studying sex, Kinsey collected more than 7.5 million galls and wasps and named dozens of species. Of the 18 million insect specimens currently housed at the American Museum of Natural History, nearly a third are from Kinsey’s dissertation! His work not only revolutionized our understanding of this wasp family, but also had profound impacts on the ways we conducted phylogenetic and entomological analyses. Read more about his fascinating work as an entomologist here.

Larix occidentalis “Western Larch” Pinaceae

Rattlesnake National Recreation Area, MT
October 24, 2015
Robert Niese

The Tamarack colors were in full swing around Missoula last week. They appear to be fading a bit now, but we’ll soon forget to mourn their bare branches when they become adorned with snow!

Gymnosporangium globosum “Cedar-Hawthorn Rust” Basidiomycota

Missoula, MT
October 23, 2015
Robert Niese

I first noticed these strange tendrils on the underside of Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasi) at a city park a couple months ago, but only just got around to photographing them. I thought they might be some sort of aphid galls after noticing that the leaves were covered with the insects. But the truth, it turns out, is far more spectacular! This is actually the fall life-stage of a rust fungus that infects Cedars (and Junipers). The fungus overwinters on Cupressaceous conifers, producing a small gall that grows large, orange gelatinous horns after spring rains. These jelly tentacles release spores that then infect the leaves of Rosaceous trees and shrubs such as Crataegus, Malus, and Sorbus. By late summer, fungi on these Rosaceous hosts produce the large porcupine-like clump of tendrils seen here. These tendrils release more spores that continue the cycle anew! I’m in love. What a phenomenal fungus!

Populus trichocarpa

Populus trichocarpa “Black Cottonwood” Salicaceae

Clark Fork Natural Area, Missoula, MT
October 23, 2014
Robert Niese

The brilliantly yellow trees lining our valley bottoms and riversides here in the Pacific Northwest are predominantly Black Cottonwoods (also known as Western Basalm Poplars). They are famous for their fluffy, cotton-coated seeds which fill our air and waterways throughout the early summer. These seedlings need moist, bare soil to germinate and will rapidly colonize riverbanks exposed by erosion. Seedlings become dominant, fully-grown trees after about 25 years making them ideal for cultivation both in farms for harvest and as ornamentals in neighborhoods. Unfortunately, they also rarely live more than 150 or 200 years, so many neighborhoods in our area (many of which were first constructed in the 1800s) are being forced to remove these dying giants.

Snowberry on gray, Apgar, Glacier National Park

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) clinging to the last days of summer

Apgar Lookout Trail, Glacier National Park, MT
October 9, 2015
Robert Niese

While brilliant fall colors are normally the highlight of dreary October days here in the Pacific Northwest, there’s also something to be said about the subtle beauty of bare branches. These ghostly grays criss-crossing in a spider web of angles and arcs provide an enchanting, textured backdrop in a world that is slowly dying and preparing for winter.

Symphoricarpos albus

Symphoricarpos albus “Snowberry” Caprifoliaceae

Mt. Sentinel, Lolo National Forest, MT
September 12, 2015
Robert Niese

Snowberry is one of our most abundant understory plants here in the eastern PNW. It’s so abundant that I often completely forget about it, and, in spite of cataloging PNW plants and animals for over six years, I have yet to get a photograph of this plant at all its phenological stages. Well, here’s Snowberry in fruit – its most recognizable life stage. These berries are not edible to humans, but are important food sources for winter birds such as grouse and ptarmigans.

Dipsacus fullonum, National Bison Range

Dipsacus fullonum “Fuller’s Teasel” Dipsacaceae with frost

National Bison Range, MT
October 26, 2013
Robert Niese

Here’s a family that you don’t see too often in the Pacific Northwest! Sometimes grouped with the Caprifoliaceae, Dipsacaceae has members that are native to the Old World only. Here in western North America, we get two invasive species – the Teasel and the Bluebutton (Knautia arvensis). In spite of being quite abundant in some areas (like the low basins of the north-eastern side of the Bison Range), I’ve never had the opportunity to examine these plants while they’re in flower. I’ve always just assumed they were some kind of Asteraceae! When it comes to natural history, there’s always more to learn!

Moose cow and calf, Two Medicine, Glacier National Park, MT

Alces alces “Moose” Cervidae, cow and calf

October 8, 2015
Two Medicine, Glacier National Park, MT
Robert Niese

The Moose (also called an Elk if you’re British) is the largest extant species of deer in the world. They have a circumboreal distribution and tend to be found most often around lakes and rivers in coniferous and mixed deciduous forests. The southernmost extent of the Moose’s global range occurs here in the northwestern United States. Southern Idaho is home to the largest herds of these southern residents, but small populations can also be found as far south as Utah and Colorado. In the fall, when bulls enter the rut and cows are protecting their calves, Moose are considered the most dangerous species to encounter here in Glacier National Park. In fact, in North America Moose kill more people annually than deer, bears, and mountain lions combined (including vehicle collisions).