Officially named the “Antelope Bitterbrush”, the Bitterbrush is extremely well adapted to live in desert environments, which is why it is one of the most common species in this area of Nevada. A closer look at the leaves shows that they have a waxy coating, and are covered in tiny hairs which diffuse sunlight - both of which help prevent water loss. The plant also grows roots that have been found to be up to 15ft deep, allowing the plant to access water stored deeper in the soil. Individuals range in size from shrubs to small trees, and most live to be several decades old; though, some of the most successful have been found to be over 100 years old.
Bitterbrush provides a crucial habitat for many small animals, namely rodents, snakes, and lizards. The plant has a symbiotic relationship with these creatures: lizards will defend the plant by eating insects that are after its leaves, while the plant’s seeds are a crucial source of food for rodents. Rodents will bury a “cache” to store food for winter, and when some of these caches are inevitably forgotten, the planted seed is left free to germinate and begin the process anew.
Take a walk anywhere in the greater Reno area and you will notice that Bitterbrush is also one of the first plants to bloom in the spring. Individuals that have direct exposure to the sun will already have bright yellow, flagrant flowers, while those that are more shaded should bear “bulbs” that will bloom within the next few weeks!
When the snow begins to melt in the Galena forest, it’s met with the contrast of a bright red pillar poking through, announcing spring. This plant contains no green foliage, causing the hiker passing by to wonder how it photosynthesizes. The secret is, it doesn’t! The Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) gets nutrients through other plants by way of the mycorrhizal (pronounced “my-ko-RY-zoll”) fungal networks of conifer trees. Pine trees, along with many other plants, develop a symbiotic relationship with fungi in their roots; the mycelial strands of the fungi extend beyond the roots and bring water and nutrients to the conifer, as well as connecting several trees together in a big underground network. The Snow Plant takes advantage of this network by parasitizing the mycorrhizae and taking some of the nutrients. Ultimately a parasite of conifers, you’ll start to notice that Snow Plants grow under or very close to conifers. Through this process, the Snow Plant doesn’t need to have any green foliage and can focus on reproduction and growth. Parasites are a natural part of an ecosystem and are more common than you think. Just like everything else, they play a role and are important for other organisms. Because Snow Plant is one of the first things to bloom in spring, they are an important food source for pollinators.
Learn more here:
US Forest Service - Snow Plant
National Forests - Snow Plant
Botanical Society of America - Snow Plant
Habitat destruction has been forcing wildlife into human environments, where zoonotic (animal-transmitted) diseases can flourish. Deforestation, for lumber and land conversion, is bringing humans and domesticated animals into closer contact with exotic species and animals that act as natural hosts of coronavirus-type diseases. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, ¾ of new diseases that infect humans originate in animals. There has been a lot of confusion as to the relationship between bats and COVID-19. Increasing reports show that the original strain of COVID-19 originated in bats, then spread to different intermediate hosts found in a wet market in Wuhan City, China because of our exploitation of nature, but it is now a human disease (spread from person to person). This means humans cannot get it from wildlife, including bats. Bats and other wildlife are natural hosts to coronaviruses, but we can only get this type of coronavirus from each other. That being said, bats in the wild are less likely to transmit these diseases to other animals (including humans) as these other species are specialized within distinct and well-established habitats and if they are protected and left undisturbed. This gives us even more reason to want to protect their habitat by supporting organizations that plant native trees and eat less meat and dairy from cattle that graze on recently converted pastureland. Bats must be protected as they are important for pest control, pollination, seed dispersal, global diversity, and ecosystem health.
Watts, Jonathan (2020). ‘Promiscuous treatment of nature’ will lead to more pandemics scientists. TheGuardian.com. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/07/promiscuous-treatment-of nature-will-lead-to-more-pandemics-scientists)
Rothan, H. A., & Byrareddy, S. N. (2020). The epidemiology and pathogenesis of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. Journal of autoimmunity, 102433.
Admin (2020). General News: BCI’s FAQ on Bats and Covid-19. Bat Conservation International. (http://www.batcon.org/resources/media-education/news-room/gen news/80-latest-news/1227-bci-s-faq-on-bats-and-covid-19).
It’s springtime and animals are coming out of hibernation! Rodents, specifically, are some of the first mammal species to emerge and dig up their food caches from the winter. Of the rodent population, there are 15 species of native chipmunks in North America, with the Least Chipmunk (Eutamias minimas) found in the Canada, Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, and parts of the upper Midwest. They are the smallest of chipmunks, typically 3 ⅔ to 4 ½ inches (9 to 11 cm) long and weighing 1-2 ounces (35 to 70 kg). They can often be confused with some squirrels, like the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus) and Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), but Least Chipmunks are yellowish-gray with tawny dark stripes down its back. They inhabit low sagebrush deserts, high mountain coniferous forests, and northern mixed hardwood forests, and live in burrows nearby different objects or buildings. Their burrows are inconspicuous and hard to see because they carry the dirt in its cheek pouches and scatter it away from the burrow entrances to evade predators. During the winter, chipmunks enter a restless hibernation and rely on food caches, ranging from berries to insects, they bring to their burrows at the onset of winter, as opposed to squirrels that enter a deep hibernation. You may start to see them coming out of hibernation as early as the beginning of March! Palmer's Chipmunks (Tamias palmeri), endemic to Nevada, are state-protected due to their extreme limited distribution in the Spring Mountains. Human activity, such as woodcutting, water diversion, and predation by dogs and cats have been ongoing threats to this species. The Nevada Department of Wildlife is continuing to monitor this species, but to help chipmunks residents can build rodent-proof structures to exclude them from entering gardens and store food items, like bird seed and dog food, in rodent-proof containers.
Nevada Department of Wildlife Palmer’s Chipmunks- http://www.ndow.org/Species/Furbearer/Palmer_s_Chipmunk/
University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Chipmunks- http://agri.nv.gov/uploadedFiles/agrinvgov/Content/Protection/Resource_Protection/Chipmunk.pdf
Have you ever wondered why we’re called Galena Creek, or perhaps you wonder why there’s a big G plastered on the mountain when you’re driving here from Reno? Let’s dig through some history and figure it out!
This area was developed as a mining property in 1860 by R.S. and Andrew Hitch. Their goal was to mine for gold, but the rock they were mining was too high in Lead Sulphide to be profitable. This Lead Sulphide is also known as Galena, hence the name. The prospects of mining were much better at the Comstock silver mines in Virginia City so the town of Galena became a source of timber for the Virginia City mines. The lush, forested area surrounding Galena was cut down and sent to Virginia City by teamster, or teams of mules. On the way back, the mules brought ore from Virginia City that were processed by mills in Galena. Between 1860 and 1865, the small town of Galena grew as the lumber business and ore processing took off.
Then, from 1864-65, a severe winter halted much of the movement between Virginia City and Galena resulting in most of the Galena mills being shut down. To add insult to injury, two devastating fires in 1865 and 1867 destroyed the town of Galena and shut down industry permanently.
The land located in the Galena Creek Regional Park is now jointly owned and managed by the USDA Forest Service and Washoe County Regional Parks and Open Space. They have created the beautiful picnic areas, visitor center, and trails we all know and enjoy today.
You are hiking along a gorgeous canyon in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Forest. You come across a small creek. Surrounding that creek, you see a stand of hundreds of Aspen Trees slowly rustling in the wind. You wonder, are these trees part of something bigger?
Well, you’d be right to think that. In fact, Aspen trees are considered one of the largest organisms on the planet with an resilient life force that resides underground in the form of an extensive root system. These roots can remain dormant or inactive for many years until the right conditions, such as sufficient sunlight, allow for a stand of trees to grow above ground. A stand of trees is also called a “clone” because each individual tree is genetically identical, creating one large organism. Fungi also operate this way. Fascinatingly, if a single Aspen clone was removed from the stand, its tough root system would barely be affected because it reproduces so rapidly!
In deciduous forests, Aspen trees can quickly colonize recently burned or bare areas. Their thin, white outer bark protects a green photosynthetic layer underneath which helps the trees to create sugars and thrive in sub-optimal conditions, often times when other deciduous trees stay dormant. This sugary layer can then provide dire nutrients for wildlife such as deer or elk during hard winters or when food is scarce.
The oldest and heaviest known Aspen stand can be found in Utah's Fishlake National Forest. It is rumored to be over 80,000 years old and weigh nearly 6,600 tons.
What an awesome tree!
This blog is managed by the staff and volunteers of Galena Creek Visitor Center. We write about parts of the natural world that we find fascinating and want to teach others about, as well as keeping you updated on the Visitor Center and park. If you want to learn more, please sign up for our monthly newsletter, where we share upcoming events, updates on the ecology of the park, and highlights from each month.