BOZEMAN – A Montana State University study of the history of Yellowstone National Park’s vegetation was recently highlighted by the editors of a prestigious journal dedicated to the advancement of science.

Science Magazine chose the MSU-led study, which was originally published in June in the Journal of Biogeography, to be featured it in its Aug. 31 edition as an “Editors’ Choice,” a section that highlights notable research published in other journals.

The article explained how MSU paleoecologists used fossil pollen in lake sediments in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to assess how the vegetation composition and distribution of a mountain system has varied as the climate changed over the past 15,000 years.

Cathy Whitlock, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and a fellow of the Institute on Ecosystems at Montana State University. (MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

“I am especially excited about this study because it uses new statistical approaches to examine long-term changes in vegetation and fire,” said Cathy Whitlock, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences in MSU’s College of Letters and Science and also a co-author of the study.

The work is important, Whitlock said, because it provides a baseline for understanding the current vulnerability of Greater Yellowstone’s ecosystems and how they might respond to projected climate change.

“The paleoecological record suggests that more fires and drought will alter both high- and low-elevation forests in the future,” she said.

Former MSU postdoctoral researcher Virginia Iglesias led the study, “Past vegetation dynamics in the Yellowstone region highlight the vulnerability of mountain systems to climate change,” which also included MSU doctoral graduate and co-author Teresa Krause. Iglesias is now a research scientist at the University of Colorado. Krause is a faculty member at Augsburg University.

Using pollen and charcoal records across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – most of which are the work of Whitlock and her students over the past 40 years — the researchers compared the ecological dynamics over both time and elevation, something that scientists haven’t been able to do before, Whitlock said.

“The analysis of the broader geographic patterns is something new,” she said. “Our results show that forests at all elevations responded to past climate variations, and the most abrupt and widespread change occurred at the end of the last ice age in response to a warming of 4 to 6degrees Celsius.”

The researchers were also surprised to see the dramatic shifts that have taken place in low-elevation forests composed of Douglas fir, limber pine and juniper.

“Our study shows that these dry forests have moved upslope and downslope continuously over the last 8,000 years as a result of variations in precipitation and fire,” Whitlock said.

Jordy Hendrikx, head of MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences, said he is excited that Science featured the study that came from decades of research by Whitlock and her past and current students and collaborators.

“This study not only highlights the vulnerability of mountain ecosystems to climate change, it provides important data for future studies and conservation efforts,” Hendrikx said.

“I think this is an important study, one that advances our understanding of present ecological changes in Greater Yellowstone by placing them in the context of changes that have occurred over the last 15,000 years,” said Whitlock who last year was named as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in recognition of her work. “It was a great honor to have it recognized in the recent issue of Science.”

View the study HERE

Read the Science article HERE .

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By Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service