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In Search of Alpine Ants

BY Tyra Olstad

img_4251If you hiked up to one of the Adirondack High Peaks this summer, you may have witnessed a different scene than the usual mountains, clouds, flowers, birds, and other intrepid hikers: a summit steward, crawling around on his or her knees, perhaps mumbling something like “Hold on!”, “Come back!”, or “Aha! Gotcha!” If you continued to watch, the steward may have gotten out a small plastic vial, notebook, camera, and GPS, and neatly recorded what they were doing—studying New York’s arctic-alpine ants. This endeavor—a trial to determine the feasibility of conducting more comprehensive research on mountaintop ants—is just one of many ecological inventory and monitoring projects stewards carry out as part of their daily duties.

Because they are already hiking up to the summits every day all summer to speak with hikers and do trail work, it makes sense for stewards to devote some of their time in the arctic-alpine zone to collecting ecological data. Informally, they record interesting wildlife sightings (i.e. a snake! a marten! a moose!), note what’s blooming where and when (i.e. a grove of gentians in early August on the leeward side of Algonquin), keep an eye out for invasive species (i.e. dandelions near the top of Marcy), and somewhat obsessively observe the weather (i.e. layer of cirrus over stratocumulus, thickening into drizzly nimbostratus, north-northwesterly winds gusting to 16 mph…). More systematically, stewards participate in “Mountain Watch” (a citizen-science program run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, focused on the phenology, or seasonal cycles, of select plants) and assist New York State Department of Environmental Conservation resource managers and university-affiliated researchers with projects on species of concern. For example, over the past several years, stewards have helped amass data on the blooming of diapensia (a true alpine cushion plant), population size and distribution of Boots rattlesnake root (one of the rarest flowers in NYS), and density of american marten (a formerly-abundant small predator whose populations are beginning to recover in the Adirondacks). (Unfortunately for the stewards, research on the latter involved an unusually smelly task—carrying vials of skunk scent glands to be set up as lures.)

208Interest in ants, specifically, arose after a presentation on New England alpine ants by ecologist Aaron Ellison at the 9th Northeastern Alpine Stewardship Gathering in 2015. He explained that although ants are known to perform crucial ecological functions (such as soil formation, seed dispersal, and, occasionally, pollination) and can serve as important food sources for other species, surprisingly little is known about the roles that these diverse and abundant organisms play in mountaintop ecosystems. Nearly nothing is known about ants in the Adirondacks. If a study proves feasible (and if stewards can become adept enough at finding and catching the little critters, which are deceptively fast and agile), stewards could more formally document ant species richness and abundance in the High Peaks, enriching overall understanding of alpine ecology.

Whether crawling around in search of ant colonies or counting flowerbuds in neatly-delineated plots, scientists and citizen-scientists collect data with the belief that the more we know and understand about ecological systems, the better-equipped we’ll be to develop strategies to preserve special places such as the Adirondack summits. As the world’s foremost myrmecologist Edward O. Wilson notes, “we should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.”

So the next time you hike up a High Peak, keep an eye out for all of the amazing arctic-a
lpine species—big and small, mundane and spectacular—and marvel at their intricate roles in the ecosystem. Also, feel free to ask the summit steward about their research, especially if he or she appears to be successful at pleading with ants to hold still.