Trip 1 - Greater Yellowstone
The focus of Trip 1 is to introduce some of the foundations of biology including chemistry, cells, prokaryotes vs. eukaryotes and classification. Yellowstone National Park itself is rich in mammal species, big and small, so we will also explore the wide variety of these popular organisms there.
The first stop is Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was the first national park in the world, created in 1872. It existed as a national park for 44 years before there was even a National Park Service. There are more geysers within the park's boundaries than anywhere else in the world. These, along with hot springs, provide unique environments to which organisms need to adapt. Microscopic organisms of various kinds have needed adaptations to high heat and/or pH levels and other properties to be able to survive and thrive. A by-product of these adaptations is that many of the springs are beautifully-colored by the organisms themselves. This situation provides wonderful experiences for learning about how a wide variety of cells are built and function.
Since Yellowstone is a large park, and has been protected for so long, many animals that have struggled in other parts of the country continue to thrive here. Not just the large mammals, like bison, elk, mountain lions, bears and more, but smaller mammals like otters, foxes, porcupines and a wide array of small rodents. All of these animals are made of cells and have other unicellular organisms living in and on them, so the goal will be to tie together how everything interacts.
Much of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem lies outside of the park's boundaries, yet has many of the same fundamental properties of the park. The next stop takes us southeast of the park to the Wind River Mountain Range. Much less crowded than the park, it will be a different experience that may take a little more effort but can be even more satisfying. One sub-stop, on the east side of the range in the town of Dubois, is the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center. This is a good place to examine what it means to be a species, as they have four subspecies of bighorn sheep on display. Another sub-stop that is focused more on the life experience aspect of the series, is at Sinks Canyon State Park at thye southern end of the range. Here you can see a river disappear into a cave, only to resurface a quarter-mile downstream.
The next stop is not really a stop so much as a drive. Taking Highway 39 through northern Utah will expose you to the western hardwood forest type. This is a very different forest than the lodgepole pine forest that dominates Yellowstone.
The final stop is also in northern Utah at the Great Salt Lake. This site features another unique environment to which organisms have adapted: high salinity. Much saltier than the oceans, organisms have adaptations that allow them to live in the environment without becoming dehydrated. It is a good location in which to wrap up the first trip on a scientific note. It is also a good spot to have another unique life experience. The high salinity means the water is also very dense. By floating in the lake, a person will float much higher in the water than they would in a freshwater lake or even the ocean. We may even discuss the science of this phenomenon.
- Spring - Popo Agie river runoff obscures the cave at The Sinks
- June-August - Yellowstone most crowded but everything is open. May and September are less-crowded and many things are open.
- August - Bison rut
- Late September - Elk rut peak
- Late September - Peak aspen color
This series is about experiencing life. That is a double-entendre. Learning about biology, the study of life, is one aspect of that. The other aspect concerns the kinds of experiences that make up a full and interesting life. These experiences can be purely emotional, as opposed to the rational experiences and interpretations required of scientific learning. So another goal of the series is to distinguish between these two opposing, yet equally legitimate, ways of experiencing life. To that end, it may be helpful to read this short explanation of the position of Experiencing Life on a scientific theory that tends to provoke emotions in some people: On The Learning Of Evolution. Hopefully, after reading it, you will feel less threatened by the topic, and science in general, and can have more fulfilling experiences.