Arctic adventures from Northern Alaska, where we’re exploring the role of wolf spiders in the ecosystem (and discovering lots of other tiny wonders of the tundra along the way!).
From the Windy City to the tundra
We’re not in Chicago, anymore. Views, views, and more views! Photo montage: Nell Kemp
Nell's first day in the Arctic included an expedition into the Brooks Range!
from left: Amanda Koltz, Sarah Meierotto, Kiki Contreras, and Nell Kemp
Riding the road from Fairbanks to Toolik was bumpy, muddy, and long. But it was also a great opportunity for beautiful scenery and wildlife spotting. I got to watch as the primarily deciduous forest turned to conifers and then got shorter and shorter as we drove north, until there were no trees at all.
The highlight of the trip was seeing a brown bear from the road just before the pass through the White Mountains. The staff member driving the truck said he thought it looked like a female. She looked to be in good condition and not too thin after the winter. The bear ambled along, noticing the truck but not seeming bothered or very interested in it. She eventually crossed the road just in front of the truck and disappeared over a hill. The driver said this was the best bear sighting he'd ever seen, so I consider myself pretty lucky to have been along for the ride.
We also saw some ptarmigan in their winter plumage, a red fox, a caribou, several Dall sheep up on a ridge, and some arctic ground squirrels.
I moved to from the corn fields of Illinois to Alaska when I was ten, which I am happy about now, even if I wasn't thrilled then. My Alaskan summers were punctuated with motorcycle rides, sled dog puppies, berry picking, and wildfire smoke. My curiosity of nature influenced me to join the biology program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. At UAF I was a member of the swimming team for four tough but rewarding years. My previous biology work experience includes a summer in the Entomology department at the UAF Museum of the North and a summer doing insect surveys on Prince of Wales Island in the temperate rainforest of southeastern Alaska. Next, I hope to get some
experience in the Tropics.
See Amanda's post in the National Geographic Explorer's Journal!
Photo courtesy of National Parks Service
It's been a good morning for wildlife. As soon as I stepped out of my tent, I was greeted with a flurry of snow. The Seattle-kid in me was immediately excited (I haven't seen snow since last summer), but that wore off as soon as the cold permeated my down jacket. One local resident, however, was unperturbed by the change in weather. Word around camp was that an ermine had been hanging out in front of the dining hall. An ermine was on our list of animals to see, so we were excited when we looked out the window and saw a little brown and white shape bounding around in the fresh snow.
Ermine are small and fierce carnivores belonging to the weasel family (Mustelidae). Males are larger than females, and on average reach 13 inches in length (tail included). In the winter, they have a white coat with a black tip on their tail. By summertime, their coat is chocolate brown with a white underbelly. The one we saw was part way through its color change. They're very opportunistic and often take over ground squirrel nests. This ermine has probably been making meals of the local voles and shrews.
Photo by Kiki Contreras
Welcome to Wildlife Sightings! Even though we're focusing on spiders up here, we encounter all kind of cool critters on a daily basis. From here on out, every time we see a new plant or animal of note, we'll try and share a picture and a few words on the natural history with you.
We'd received a few reports from other researchers of wolf spiders running around on the few thawed patches of tundra, but we had yet to see it for ourselves. Until Wednesday, when I spotted a familiar eight-legged shape scurrying across the floor of our lab. This Wildlife Sighting isn't just about wolf spiders, it's about the first wolf spider. You'll be hearing a lot about spiders this summer, but we thought our first spider of the season deserved a special post. The picture above was taken after multiple attempts to get it to hold still, but we think we ended up with a pretty good glamor shot!
Kiki Contreras (Research Assistant)
I’ve spent most of my life in and around Seattle, WA, where as a child I learned to appreciate and study nature through bug-catching, frog-chasing, bird-watching and tidepooling. I took my love of the natural world with me to Durham, North Carolina to study biology at Duke University. Invertebrates really fascinate me, and I’ve had the opportunity to study them all over the country. I’ve spent time with clams and shore crabs in the San Juan Islands, Washington and all kinds of marine invertebrates on the coast of North Carolina. My studies took a terrestrial turn when I became a work-study student in Amanda’s lab at Duke, which led me to Team Spider and the arctic. I loved it so much here last summer that I decided to come back, but not before a short stint in western Montana studying grasshoppers. When I’m not catching bugs or digging for clams I like hiking, SCUBA diving, cooking, and exploring Seattle's live music scene.
I’m looking forward to another summer at Toolik and am really excited to share the research and stories of what it’s like to live and work in the arctic with you. By the end of the summer you’ll have a good idea of just how beautiful and special this place is, and hopefully you’ll think spiders are as cool as we do!
Welcome to the Team Spider field blog! We’re writing from the Toolik Field Station, 158 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. We’ll be writing about our research projects and other arctic adventures throughout the summer. You can learn more about why we care about the tinier animals of the tundra here.