Voyage to the AleutiansJune 1 2016
We are tracing back the steps of Russian explorers in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to find out the origin of invasive monkeyflowers, a beautiful plant that invaded Europe and New Zealand in Victorian times, and which has become naturalised around the world.
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There are not many roads in Kodiak, and most of the island can only be reached by boat of seaplane. Today we found a way to combine our search for monkey flowers with sightings of Kodiak bears. In the morning we flew to Frazer lake in a small seaplane. The views were unbelievable, and along the way we saw humpback whales.
We flew to the south of Kodiak, and there, in a river full of salmon we prepared to catch some brown bears feeding. Our first encounter with a bear, though, was on the trail, as a bear decided to use the same path as us. We quickly stepped off the path so the bear could go continue, but the bear was not keen in getting too close to strangers either. This brief encounter was enough to send our heart racing!
When we got to the falls and pools where the salmon passes, three Kodiak bears were waiting for us! A sow and her two cubs were gorging on salmon. They seemed to fish salmon with such little effort, and eat wastefully only the best parts of it (brain, belly, eggs, skin). There is so much salmon in the rivers, that bears don’t bother eating them whole, and a flock of seagulls was quick to finish off the meal. We had a good couple hours watching these bears as they fed and played, laying lazily in the water or on the shore. A second group of mum and two cubs followed the first one, and the show repeated itself. The new cubs were younger, and the tiniest of them was a charismatic little rascal with a penchant for fishing. And he did not want to share the tasty salmon not even with his mom, and an endearing but decisive growl made mom and brother desist in their attempts to steal his fish.
After viewing the bears, we ran down the path to a Mimulus population and collected some material and photos. This is a very special population, and somehow I managed to convince Jannice to call it “OSO”.
In the afternoon, we joined Josh and set off to explore the southernmost place in kodiak that you can reach by car. We arrived to Fossil Beach late afternoon, and were amazed by the thousands of mollusk fossils embedded in a lost very rock! And lo and behold, we found monkey flowers here too! We first saw them in some inaccessible cliffs, but a lucky scramble in a more gentle gully brought us first a few monkey flowers, and then more near a small lake or river. We were delighted to find more plants at this slightly more southern location. The perfect day ended when, as we drove back, near Pasagshack, we found one of the largest populations of Mimulus I have ever seen! Thousands of plants (more than 10,000 according to the expert eye of Josh and Jannice) covered the floor at the base of a cliff. The extremely diminutive plants had managed an undeniable success producing even more seeds.
What a wonderful 48 hours we have passed in Kodiak. In barely over two days we have accomplished one of the key goals of our expedition: Sample monkey flowers in the island that Langsdorff visited 210 years ago. Little by little, I feel we are closing into finding an answer to the mystery of where do Scottish monkey flowers come from.
Tomorrow we embark on a big adventure. In the afternoon, we will board the Trusty Tusty (an old and well-known Alaskan ferry), to travel for nearly three days along the Alaska peninsula and towards the Aleutian Islands.
Today we flew into Kodiak, the second largest US island after Hawaii.
The clouds were low, hugging the tree-covered coast, and only at he last minute we saw the green island appear. The slopes were covered with Sitka spruce, and everything seemed wet and coloured with deep tones of green. After landing we picked up the plant press and satellite phone that Steffi had mailed for us. We left the airport and stopped near a harbour for the Coast Guard.
Jannice was first to spot them. A yellow streak coming down in a small stream that cascaded down the black mountain. “I think I saw them”. Josh and I looked incredulous but when we stopped and started looking around we quickly discovered that there were Mimulus everywhere!
“Look at the stolons!” shouted Jannice in excitement of seeing the lateral branches that Mimulus uses to clone itself. We were thrilled to have found it so quickly! A trip across continents to find Mimulus in Alaska had started well!
After this quick scouting trip we headed back to Kodiak where we met Stacy Studebaker. She is the local expert in the botanical riches of the Alaskan archipelago. And what a knowledgable and kind person she is! With her help, exploring Kodiak has been fun and very rewarding. So far we have sampled four populations, and spotted many more. Along the way we saw bald eagles, waiting for salmon, “psycho” ravens stealing bagels and shouting high-pitched sounds with unknown purpose, several Alaskan-specialists plants, which are too numerous to name here, a salmon weir, and floatplanes flying low above our heads. All against the amazing backdrop of the green, lush vegetation of Kodiak.
The day ended with processing leaf and seed samples, herbarium material, and a trip to the local restaurant. What a great way to start the trip!
And the day after we had planned a trip in float plane to look for Mimulus in more remote parts of the island… and also to try to spot Kodiak bears. Stay tuned!
I arrived to Anchorage late on the night of the 24th of July, after almost missing my connection in San Francisco. Josh and Jannice had arrived a little earlier and we met at an Atlantic puffin-themed motel near the airport. The plan was to leave early next morning by plane to Kodiak Island.
We wanted to explore Kodiak a little bit and then take the two and a half day ferry to Unalaska. In a way we were trying to do the reverse route that Langsdorff had taken 210 years earlier. Langsdorff had set off from the Kamchatka peninsula, Russia, towards the Aleutian islands and further on the coast of Alaska. The Aleutian islands were Russian territory under the control of the Russian-American company, a state-controlled company which exploited the natural resources of Alaska, particularly animal pelts including sea otters and seals.
Kodiak had a permanent settlement of the Russian-American company, and for a while served as a major centre of operations. From Langsdorff travel diaries, we knew that he had stopped there during the expedition in which he first discovered monkeyflowers. Thus, we were particularly interested in sampling Kodiak's monkeyflowers so we could later check them genetically and see if we could link present-day European monkeyflowers to Kodiak Island.
On the 24th of July 2016, we set off on our expedition.
Josh left from Virginia and Jannice from Syracuse. I left from Edinburgh and the plan was for the three of us to meet in Anchorage. Roger and Steffi would catch up with us later.
While waiting for my flight in Edinburgh, I picked up a copy of the Sunday Times. Julia Horton had written a very nice article about our upcoming expedition to Alaska. It was very exciting to start the trip this way!
I find very cool how a plant that evolved in one side of the world can thrive in a new environment thousands of miles away. Yellow monkeyflowers (Mimulus guttatus) evolved in the Pacific slope of western North America, and have been in the Old World for no more than 200 years.
Monkeyflowers are relatively common in the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland. In some places, they form dense stands along small streams and rivers. At the peak of their flowering they lighten up riverbanks with a bright shade of yellow. The small red spots at the center of the flowers add a beautiful splash of colour to these blooms. Flies and bumblebees often visit monkeyflowers, and you can see bees flying around covered with monkeyflower pollen on their back.
Yellow monkeyflowers, despite being non-native, are often appreciated by local people. In places like the Shetland Isles in the north of Scotland, M. guttatus is now part of the wild landscape of the islands. The yellow flowers along ditches and streams add a lively touch of colour, especially when growing among native forget-me-nots, red campion and other native plants.
A trip to the Aleutians to find monkeyflowers required putting together a team with expertise in monkeyflowers and in plant collecting in far-flung places. They also needed to be willing to travel to the Aleutians! Three of us put together the initial plan:
- Mario Vallejo-Marin. Team Leader (Principal Investigator), National Geographic Explorer. University of Stirling, Scotland. Plant evolutionary biologist with a long wish to visit as many remote islands as possible.
- Joshua R. Puzey. Co-Investigator. National geographic Explorer. The College of William and Mary, Virginia. Expert in plant genomics and adventurer at heart.
- Steffi Ickert-Bond. Co-Investigator. University of Alaska, Fairbanks & Museum of the North. Steffi has enormous experience plant-collecting in Alaska and around the world and was key to make the most out of our expedition.
In addition to the core team, we were extremely lucky to attract the interest of some outstanding scientists, naturalists and story-tellers that joined our expedition:
- Jannice Friedman. Syracuse University. An expert on North American monkeyflowers, plant evolution, and always up for sampling plants in cool places, Jannice was the glue that kept our expedition together.
- Roger Topp. Museum of the North. Director of Exhibits, photographer, story-teller, and wonderful colleague for exploring the far north.
- Suzi Golodoff. Author of the flora of Unalaska, and the best guide one could ever wish to explore the history and nature of the Aleutians
- Stacy Studebaker. Author of the wildflowers of the Kodiak archipelago and other nature guides, children books, amazing photographer, artist... a true polymath and the best person we could have chosen to start our adventure in Alaska.
When the naturalist Grigori von Langsdorff, set off from the Kamchatka peninsula in 1805 to explore the Aleutian Islands, he could not suspect that he was going to discover a new species of monkeyflower. This new species, Mimulus guttatus, was to become a staple of the northern rivers and streams of the British Isles 200 years later. The expedition was an off-shoot of the first Russian attempt to circumnavigate the World, and had the objective to explore the then Russian territories of coastal Alaska. While visiting Unalaska Island, Langsdorff encountered the new monkeyflower, and collected specimens which by 1812 have found their way to the Cambridge Botanic Gardens. A few years later, M. guttatus escaped cultivation and became widely naturalised in the British Isles and beyond.
In 2016 we set off from Scotland to trace back the steps of Langsdorff's expedition to the Aleutians. Our goal was to find Langsdorff's monkeyflower, and establish if the invasive plants now found across three continents once came from a Russian expedition to the edge of the world.