More "dirt" on shaky bootstrapping

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Posted by Ballpark Frank ( on 10:54:40 04/06/14

In Reply to: Yellowstone research and "global" conclusions posted by Pam C.


I'm amazed that I have not come across this study before. It must not have been published in Yellowstone Science, for one thing.

I hardly know where to begin, so I guess I'll ramble.

I will expand on the theorem of "correlation does not imply causation" with a dramatic example that one of my professors used in class. "Studies show a strong correlation between the number of churches in a city and the number of murders in that same city." I think most middle schoolers could figure out the obvious problem inherent in jumping to the conclusion that the presence of churches somehow contributes to the murder rate.

I believe one of the greatest conundrums in trying to daisy chain problems in amphibian-land with climatic variation, global climate change, and various pollutants introduced by humans into the atmosphere is how to factor out uncontrolled variables.

I suspect these researchers were working in a relative vacuum regarding other research being conducted in Yellowstone. I am particularly fascinated with the dendrochronology work being done on limber pines. We have as much as 3 or 4,000 years of climate history being revealed by those tree rings. One of the early findings was just how much "swing" there has been in Yellowstone's climate over time. There have been multi-century instances of severe drought and heat. There have also been some killer cold spells that lasted for a century or more. Part of our problem is the short space of time in which we have been doing intense monitoring of our climate. Another part of the problem is our relatively short life span, compared to that of a limber pine.

Some of us are convinced that the 88 Fires had something to do with the dramatic decrease in moose numbers in Yellowstone, but we have not locked down exactly what the operant factor was. We have lots of theories, and I believe the demise of winter habitat is the most likely "smoking gun". Wildlife biologists are taught that the availability of winter range is the key determinant in the carrying capacity of a given geography. The fact is we still don't know what did in the moose for certain. Thankfully, there is research being conducted on the question.

I miss some of those ephemeral ponds on the Northern Range as much as the next person, particularly that fairly large one near the Specimen Ridge trailhead. I remember seeing ducks and swans swimming around on that pond, and coyotes sleeping on the ice years ago. Each spring over the past decade or more, we hope to see the pond re-established, but no such luck. (If we are going to see a rebound, this spring should produce it, given the well above normal snowfall this winter.)

Here is a good example of how we humans get confused about what causes a big fire year; and I'm as guilty as anyone else of falling into this trap. We always talk about how we fear a big fire year when we don't get much snow in the winter, yet we know from experience that moisture received during the summer and other prevailing weather conditions, like heat and wind, are the key determinants. We forget that in 1988 both April and May produced near-record moisture in Yellowstone. Unfortunately, the rain was truncated in June, and the remainder of the summer was exceedingly dry, hot, and windy. All we needed was ignition sources, and dry lightning and careless humans provided that.

I noticed the researchers observed catastrophic die-offs of tiger blotched salamanders during their study. I'm glad they did not try to tie that to climate change. I witnessed a "mass suicide" of those critters at Mammoth, back in 2000, in an almost lemming-like incident. We had a fairly rare (at Mammoth) intense thunderstorm, that dumped an incredible amount of rain in a short period of time. It must have flooded all the available salamander habitat around Canary Spring. Tiger blotched salamanders flocked onto the the travertine, where they were captured by the hydrothermal flow. Slowly, over a period of days, they were encased in calcium carbonate. A few of us went running up there when it first happened, to document the event with our cameras.

One other observation, this one on chorus frogs: They show up in all kinds of wet places, and I don't mean ponds. We encounter them in soggy bottoms all over the Northern Range, and they are still singing their hearts out!


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