Don’t move too fast, but there’s a Nutcracker like right down near the suet. [Crawww] That was him. [The whitebark pine relies on the Clark’s Nutcracker to spread its seed.] [The Clark’s Nutcracker relies on the whitebark pine for food.] [In ecology, this is called mutualism.] We have three Nutcrackers, basically circling. They want to come in but they’re a little skeptical. He’s on a branch right above the suet, looking at it. He keeps turning his head sideways and looking down. Oop, he just flew to the ground. His feathers are a little ruffled right now, but he will preen as soon as we let him go, and they’ll be totally back to normal in no time. This is a GPS transmitter. It’s actually solar-powered. It weighs five grams, so once I take this battery off the back, it starts sending out a signal, and every time a satellite passes over, it picks up the signal to get a GPS point. This is actually the first time a satellite transmitter has been put on any nomadic, seed-dispersing passerine. This goes onto the back of the bird, we put this over the head, so it’s just like a backpack. In the past when I’ve radio-tracked birds we were using VHF transmitters, so we were out there with antennas following the birds around, and we can pick up the birds 30 miles line of sight, but several birds completely disappeared, and now with the satellite transmitter, wherever this bird goes I will be able to figure out where it’s going. [Taza believes the birds will reveal how and where whitebark  pine can persist as the climate changes.] Right now we’re near the top of Togwotee Pass, actually at 10,079 feet, and we’re up here just to give you all a sense of where I’ve been working for the past six years. If you look out behind me that is one of the largest roadless areas in the southern 48 states, and up here it’s primarily whitebark pine. Whitebark is so important to have at these highest elevations because they actually help retain the snowpack. By retaining the snowpack longer in the year it decreases the spring flooding, and then decreases droughts in the summer, which is really important for people as well as all sorts of wildlife. One of the biggest problems that we’re facing is that as you can see, there is just devastating mortality of whitebark pine trees. As of 2009, almost 50% of the whitebark pine stands showed mortality. If I look around here I would take a quick estimate and say that 98% of the large trees are dead. One of the things I’ve been studying is how the decline of the whitebark pine is impacting Clark’s Nutcrackers, and there seems to be a really tight relationship between the trees and the birds, where when there are fewer trees there are fewer birds. [Recent warm winters created a mountain pine beetle epidemic in the Greater Yellowstone Region.] So this is a live whitebark pine! Those are all dead whitebark pines. So you can see that this was beetle kill because all of the trees that are large, all the trees that are about this big or bigger, are dead. You can see here, these J-shaped galleries, those are indicative of beetle kill. So the beetles go in and make these J-shaped galleries and then lay their eggs. And then the larvae hatch and eat the phloem. But this was definitely a beetle kill. Part of the reason that the mountain pine beetles are experiencing this epidemic is because of climate change. We know for a fact that the Rocky Mountains have been much warmer for the past 10-plus years, and because of the warmer temperatures the beetles are finally able to move up in elevation where usually it was too cold for them to exist. Plus, in some places they found that the beetles are actually having two sets of young instead of just one, because there’s a much longer growing season. Ooh, I just heard a bird. Ah, there we go. That’s what it’s supposed to do. They’re so calm in the hand. Ever so often you get a feisty one, but usually they’re pretty calm. The two years following low whitebark pinecone crops, I found that in this entire ecosystem, population-wide, the Nutcrackers did not seem to breed. Often he wants to hold onto something with his claws. If you give him a stick he’ll just hold on. So if whitebark pine is declining, which we know it is, if that’s leading to Clark’s Nutcracker declines, this is a problem, because there are fewer Nutcrackers to disperse the seeds of the whitebark pine. [This bird’s data will help forest managers identify habitat where the tree and the bird might have a chance to continue their interdependence.] When people think about the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, they often picture wolves and grizzly bears and buffalo and all these amazing charismatic megafauna, which are incredible, but the nutcrackers, this pretty small bird which lives up in the mountains and a lot of people don’t even recognize, is actually a keystone species. That should get plenty of sunshine. I wouldn’t necessarily say any one species can save an ecosystem, but I think the presence of Nutcrackers is really important to the overall integrity of the Greater Yellowstone and many other ecosystems throughout the entire western US. I think losing them would be detrimental. You, bird, are going to bring me lots of great data, ha ha. Hey, there you go. You see, he doesn’t try to escape and go far far far away, he just goes… right there. Cool!

End of transcript

A bird—the Clark’s Nutcracker—and a tree—the whitebark pine—hold a key to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The whitebark pine relies on the Clark’s Nutcracker to spread its seed. The Clark’s Nutcracker relies on the whitebark pine for food. In ecology, this is called mutualism. Cornell researcher Taza Schaming is tracking the birds to reveal how and where whitebark pine can persist as the climate changes. Recent warm winters have created a mountain pine beetle epidemic that has killed many of the trees in the greater Yellowstone region. Taza’s study found that following a low whitebark pinecone crop, the birds did not breed—a true sign of mutualism. The data she gathers will help forest managers identify habitat where the tree and the bird might have a chance to continue their interdependence.