Colorado Field Botany, EBIO 4460/5560

EBIO 4460 / 5460: Coloraado Field Botany (4 credits)

Syllabus, Maymester/Summer 2019

Instructor:  Dr. Erin Tripp (erin.tripp@colorado.edu); 303.492.2462, Assistant Professor (EBIO) & Curator of Botany (Museum of Natural History)

Teaching Assistant: Mathew Sharples, PhD Candidate, EBIO

Session 1: Monday, May 13th (9am) through Monday, 20th (most likely, evening); Session 2: Independent study time in herbarium and plant teaching lab to study course materials; Session 3: Sunday, May 26th (12pm) through Saturday, June 1st (most likely, evening)

Course Objectives: Colorado Field Botany is a 100% field course that emphasizes the practice of plant identification and learning of characteristics of major plant families and genera in Colorado, and their ecologies. Students will learn principles of plant classification and, through first hand experience, techniques of plant identification, collection, and preservation. Students will also be introduced to the fields of plant communities and biogeography, ecology, evolution, and conservation, all with emphasis on the flora of Colorado.

Requirements for Participation: All students enrolled must (1) be able to hike a minimum of 5 consecutive miles, in mountainous as well as flatter terrain; (2) be able to tolerate field conditions, rain or shine, hot or warm temperatures; (3) be able and willing to camp and supply his/her own camping gear basics, i.e., a tent, warm sleeping bag, a warm sleeping pad, basic warm clothes, and personal toiletries; other general gear (e.g., cooking supplies) will be provided; your capacity to camp means that you can keep yourself happy and cheerful while in the field, and not distracting to others with a negative attitude; this means that you will need to be content with showering/bathing opportunistically in streams and/or brought along camp showers, and group food/cooking (we will do our very best to accommodate all dietary restrictions… I for one am a very strict vegetarian), etc.

Required Texts: Colorado Flora, Eastern Slope, 4th ed. + Colorado Flora, Western Slope, 4th ed. (William A. Weber & Ronald C. Wittmann, University Press of Colorado; both can be purchased online or at the CU Museum of Natural History)

Required Supplies:   10x or 14x hand lens (aka a “loop”); I use a Hastings-Triplet 14x  manufactured by Bausch & Lomb; however, cheaper versions (<$20) will     work too. Make sure it is at least a 10x. Can be purchased well ahead of   the class online (check Amazon…). I am not joking about this purchase.      You will not pass the class if you do not own and learn how to master the use of a hand lens period.            

Learning Activities:

(1) Colorado Field Botany is structured for serious students, amateur botanists, aspiring ecologists or consultants, etc. to acquire the basic knowledge and skills of plant taxonomy, native plant identification, and analysis of plant communities

(2) Identify by sight (incl. scientific names, spelled correctly) many fo the common, native, or naturalized plants of Colorado (and in some cases, beyond)

(3) Identify unknown plant taxa using dichotomous keys and specimen comparisons

(4) Identify plants on-sight using hand lenses.. including important plant families of Colorado

(5) Learn the methods of proper collection, documentation, and processing (pressing, labeling, mounting, associated curatorial practices) a plant from the field and into the herbarium.

(6) Learn the major plant communities and vegetation types present in Colorado

(7) Learn basic techniques of plant community surveys

(8) Learn basic principles and philosophies of plant systematics and plant evolutionary biology

(9) Contribute to growing body of plant natural history knowledge of the flora of Colorado

Ecological Significance of the Colorado Flora: The Southern Rocky Mountain Ecoregion is rich in plant species with exceptionally narrow ecological affinities and landscapes that are sensitive to climate change. This region represents a biological mosaic of environments—several of them extreme—ranging from high elevation tundra and talus slopes to vast subalpine landscapes with year-round precipitation, to riparian woodlands along numerous major waterways or in deep canyons, to semi-arid piñon-juniper mesas of the Colorado Plateau, extensive shortgrass prairies, and sagebrush communities, to treeless, arid, and undisturbed high desert steppe and high dunes, and to ruderal environments typical of human-perturbed landscapes. In the midst of this mosaic are the untainted headwaters of many of the highest-flowing rivers of the great American West. The plant biota of the Southern Rockies tops neither diversity nor endemism lists within North America. Rather, researchers have long recognized the significance of this biota for the narrow ecological niches and adaptive zones demanded of life in environmental extremes or mosaics. Irreplaceable plant communities span steep altitudinal, latitudinal, or other environmental gradients and are home to numerous other lineages from across the tree of life with similarly narrow adaptive zones.

There are relatively few places in North America where can one encounter such dramatic plant species turnover over such short geographical distances as occurs at the intersections of the mountains and adjacent plains and plateaus in Colorado. Boulder County, Colorado alone spans a nearly 10,000 elevational gradient from ~4,900 to 14,300 ft., reflecting the abrupt transition from warm and semi-arid shortgrass prairies of the Great Plains to cool, moist mountains of the rugged and sparsely populated Southern Rocky Mountains. The vast highlands interspersed by equally extensive intermountain basins and canyons create an impressive assemblage of plant lineages with narrow ecological requirements yet marked biogeographical affinities to other regions nearby as well as others worldwide (e.g., Great and Uintah Basins, Colorado Plateau, Rio Grande Valley, Chihuahuan Desert, Tallgrass Plains, Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies, Great Lakes Region, eastern North America, Greenland, boreal Europe, east Asia, and the Altai Mountains.

The massive and highly buffered mountains of the southern Rockies yield the most crucial resource for human existence in western North America: water. Critical snowpack loads provide reliable clean water for expansive areas of farm or rangeland. Colorado alone contains 54 peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation, and 637 peaks that exceed 13,000 feet (in contrast, California has 11 and 147, respectively). From upper reaches of these peaks, the headwaters of numerous great rivers of the west originate and eventually give rise to watersheds that yield the highest outflow and freshwater runoff east of the Mississippi River. These rivers, which have been central to the history and development of the American West, include: The Platte, Arkansas, Colorado, Green, and Snake Rivers, as well as portions of the Missouri River. Together, these rivers rank among the most important watersheds in the United States, as defined by volume, drainage area, and length. The economic and cultural significance of these watersheds begins with the plant life that buffers them and ensures a clean, reliable resource to millions of dependents.

A contrasting environment that is as well represented in the southern Rockies as are the mountains is the extensive high plains and plateaus that flank both sides of the Continental Divide. These landscapes contribute significantly to ecological resilience of western North America, especially in light of environmental demands throughout the region. Levels of biomass, soil fertility, and carbon sequestration of the prairies rank among the highest in North America and yield net primary productivity comparable to the most productive ecosystems in the world. The high plains also overlay one of the largest aquifers in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer, which yields a third of all groundwater used for irrigation in the United States.

Together, the mountains (especially the tundra element) and the high plains of the southern Rockies are already two of the most endangered landscapes in North America. Yet, demands on ecosystems of western North America are escalating, and risk factors such as fire, development, and climate change are only predicted to worsen. Thus, understanding and conserving the uniqueness and expansiveness of a diversity Colorado flora will only be met with an increasing sense of urgency in years to come.