Some like it hot…

Yellowstone national park has the highest concentration of thermal features anywhere in the world, but it is far from a sterile place as far as living organisms are concerned — even in the hottest of the hot springs, “life has found a way”.

Yellowstone hot spring

Bands of color in the hot pools reflect the types of microorganisms that live there. Clear blue or bluish green water in the center of the pool bubbles up just below boiling temperature, but cools rapidly toward the periphery, allowing various bacteria to colonize.

Two groups of microorganisms (Archaea and Bacteria) are the foundation of Yellowstone’s thermal ecosystems.  By utilizing the chemical elements liberated by steam and boiling water from the rocky matrix, they build vast and deep mats of bacteria that encircle the hot pools, different species existing in different thermal gradients from just below boiling temperature to simply “hot” water.

Gradient of hydrothermal life in Yellowstone hot springs

Types of organisms found in the thermal strata around a hot pool can often be identified by the colors they produce.

Yellowstone hot spring

Clear blue water with steam and bubbles arising from the surface indicates this pool is probably too hot to support life.

Yellowstone hot spring

Blue-green (cyano)bacteria are some of the most heat tolerant organisms. The color of the water in the pool is actually a blend of blue reflected light that normally occurs in clear water and the yellow light reflected by the carotenoids pigments of the blue-green bacteria.  Higher concentrations of the bacteria are growing next to the pool, giving it a more yellow color.

Yellowstone hot spring

This is a much cooler pool, indicated by an orange ring of thermophilic bacteria surrounding organisms that reflect dark green to brown colored light. According to the chart above, we might expect organisms like algae, Protozoa, and fungi, rather than just bacteria here.

Ephydrid flies specialize on eating the bacterial and algal mats in the hot pools, although they too (especially their eggs) must be heat tolerant.  These consumers in turn attract a variety of predators, like spiders and dragonflies, who must be mobile to escape sudden spurts of boiling water.

Dragonfly in Yellowstone hot spring

Half a dozen dragonflies met their demise at the edge of one hot pool. Perhaps wind blew them into the hot water.  The substrate here is not sand or rock, but clumps of bacteria that have formed small columnar structures.

Yellowstone hot spring

Sometimes the patterns formed by bacterial growth take on the form of familiar (to me at least) structures. This looks just like a huge capillary network, branching off an arteriole on the left.

Or how about this one — what do you see in this accumulation of bacterial growth at the edge of the hot water?

Yellowstone hot spring

What am I?


I’ve been trying out a new, quick photo editing program on the iPad, Snapseed.   It’s a real time saver, compared to my usual method of editing images in Lightroom.  It’s easy to get carried away with special effects, though, with these landscapes from the geyser basin at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.

Old Faithful geyser basin

Olf Faithful geyser basin

Kayakers on Yellowstone Lake

Kayakers move through the steam from a shoreline fumarole on Yellowstone Lake

Old Faithful

Crowds turn out for Old Faithful’s eruption about every 90 minutes.

Old Faithful

At peak eruption, Old Faithful shoots steam and water about 100 feet into the air.

Buffalo at old Faithful geyser basin

I don’t know how often bison fall through the thin crust of the geyser basin, but they must enjoy the warm steam baths.

Hot pools in Old Faithful geyser basin

Mirror reflections of the landscape show on the surface of the hot pools in Old Faithful geyser basin.

humans and wildlife

There’s no doubt that wildlife attracts human spectators.  Sometimes we seem to love the wildlife encounter a little too much, placing ourselves (and the animals) in danger by getting too close.

failure to read the sign

Like this guy, who just couldn’t get close enough with his smart phone to get a good photo of this buffalo’s eye. Yeah, he got yelled at by a ranger, but he could just as easily have been flattened by Mr. Bison.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds, who was shocked that anyone could be this stupid.

For the most part, the animals at Yellowstone National Park, however, seem to ignore the humans and go on about their normal lives in the midst of huge long lines of traffic that clog the narrow roads.

bighorn-sheep crossing a busy road in Yellowstone

Cars slowed down, but didn’t stop for this female Bighorn Sheep crossing the road.

bighorn-sheep-Yellowstone National Park

The bighorn sheep don’t seem to be too stressed out to continue eating along side a busy road.

However, I suspect quite a few sheep, pronghorn antelope, and elk may get hit by cars with all the traffic they encounter daily. To combat this problem of high roadkill deaths of Pronghorn, Wyoming has installed a few wildlife corridors over busy highways where these antelope migrate between Yellowstone and southern Wyoming (read about migratory antelope here).


I’m not sure what the elk find so alluring about “downtown” Gardiner, Montana, but they lay around on the grassy lawns near the visitor center and wander through backyards of local residents without a seeming care in the world.

It’s certainly more exciting to find and photograph wildlife in their natural settings, free of artificial structures, and that’s a challenge with so many visitors to national parks all seeking that same experience.


Unless you go out at times of day or in conditions that most people avoid, like a snow storm.

bull elk

Or in the evening when the light is just about gone. This bull elk had a harem of females he was protecting, and he’s massive compared to the town elk above.  Look at that neck!


Get along there ladies, get away from those pesky human photographers.

Channeling Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams introduced us to the grandeur of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains in his early photography in the 1920s and 30s, but his famous capture of the light on the Grand Tetons and Snake River was made about the time he invented the 10-point zone system of tonal contrast (varying from pure white to pure black) in the early 1940s.


The winding path of the Snake River draws one’s eyes right to the dramatic peaks that stand out so starkly and definitively in black and white.  Adams added some additional contrast to the sky to bring out the drama of the clouds and weather in this location.

It’s hard to reproduce that scene today, because the vegetation has changed quite a bit — in fact, the trees have grown so much they obscure part of the view of the river.

Grand Tetons-in-fall

Our view was marred by smoke from the Yellowstone fire, as well as low fog and haze.  The hill on the left lined with evergreens still dips toward the river, and the river’s path is about the same, although not obvious through the trees.

On another day (with better air clarity), we got a good sense of the rugged texture of those famous peaks, punctuated with a little fall color from the yellow aspens.

Grand Tetons-in-fall

The clouds constantly drifted by the peaks, uncovering various new aspects of them over time.

Landscape photography with Rick Sammon

This was going to be a 5 minute photo stop for the group of photographers in this Rick Sammon workshop, but turned into an hour long session, as the clouds drifted over the peaks presenting amazing new views.

This location provided an opportunity to try to “channel Ansel Adams”, for some dramatic Black and White photography.  So, here’s my rendition of the Grand Tetons a la Ansel Adams.

Grand Tetons


What a location for landscape photography, to say nothing of the wildlife we saw as well.

Where the buffalo roam

Home on the range, for the buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, is the sagebrush steppe that carpets the plains below some glorious mountains.  We had a few opportunities to photograph them, especially in late afternoon light.


Herds are generally made up of females, their calves, young males up to 2-3 years, and few older breeding males that compete with each other for access to females in heat.

A dominance hierarchy of studly males is determined by head butting and shoving contests; subordinate bulls know their place, and many are driven out of the herd to forage by themselves or in small bachelor groups until they reach the size and strength to challenge the “top dogs” in the herd.


There are marked differences in size between males and females (although this might have been a young female).  He was very protective of her and wouldn’t let her rejoin the rest of the herd.


Judging from his behavior, she must be in estrus (heat), exuding some very attractive odor.


His response to taking a good whiff of her scent…by taking it in on the tip of his tongue and pressing his tongue to the roof of his mouth (where there is an organ of smell).


Dense fur with about 10X the number of hairs per square inch that cattle have keep bison warm in the winter.  Short eyelashes keep their eyelids free of ice, thick mats of hair on the forehead protect males during head-butting contests.


Bison stay on the move all day as they graze, moving up to 2 miles as they forage mostly on grasses. They might seem slow and sedentary, but bison can sprint at 35 mph, and are known to leap over or plow through barbed wire fences.

The drool of the moose

Some animals have an amazing capacity for producing slobber, or saliva — moose and reindeer for example.


You might wonder why. After all, moose are just a bigger version of a cow, munching their way through their forest-wetland habitat.


Moose grab a big mouthful of water along with a bite of aquatic vegetation.  Any toxic compounds in these plants would be diluted by the water and their saliva.

Among the variety of leaves, twigs, and tree browse and aquatic plants that are fed upon, moose also favor a diet of red fescue.  But red fescue grasses have fought back against being eaten with a special kind of anti-herbivore defense: symbiotic fungi that live within the lower parts of the grass and produce poisonous alkaloid compounds.  Ingestion of too much red fescue could kill even a large herbivore like a moose.

In a counter strategy, to combat this potentially toxic encounter, moose secrete a host of anti-fungal compounds in their saliva, some of which have long lasting properties that diminish future production of alkaloids in patches of red fescue on which they have fed.  Reapplication of moose drool on the grass in their territory keeps the fungal toxins at a manageable level.


This is not all salivary drool, but you get the idea of the copious flushing of their food that goes on.

But it takes lots of saliva to make a moose’s favorite feeding areas palatable — hence the copious drooling for which they are noted.

How much drool? Well, a cow might secrete 10-45 gallons of saliva per day depending on the dryness of the forage. A conservative estimate of the quantity of moose drool produced might be 50-60 gallons per day to digest the 50-60 pounds of forage a moose must eat daily to stay healthy.


No wonder they stay near water, both to cool them off and to provide the basis for their continual drool.

Buttes, rocks, and views

Unbelievable scenery at on the Beartooth highway, as we climb up the twisty road and over the pass.  This is rugged country just to the northeast of Yellowstone park in Montana.

Beartooth lake and butte

The butte is a sedimentary upheaval of an ancient seabed dating 300-500 million years in age. It is surrounded by granite mountains.

Beartooth highway

Beartooth highway snakes its way up to the top of an 11,000 foot path.

Top of Beartooth Pass

The top of the pass is a small hill of boulders.

Top of Beartooth Pass

The view down the other side of the pass.

Top of Beartooth Pass

Even the smoke from the fires in Yellowstone can’t mar the view.

Waterfall on Beartooth Pass

Waterfall along the pass road

Yellowstone National Park sights

I’m on the road again, at a photo workshop in Yellowstone and the Tetons.  Just a few highlights of some of what we’ve seen so far.

Pronghorn antelope

Pronghorn antelope by the side of the road getting a drink

Wolf and buffalo in Yellowstone Park

Wolf and buffalo in Yellowstone Park–my first wolf shot ever and a lucky one that I happened to be in the right place when the animal ran across the highway.

Smoke from a fire that began in July this year and is still going has obscured some of the views of distant mountains, but adds a little extra to the landscape shots.

Beartooth lookout, Wyoming

Smoke-filled valleys near the 11,000 foot Beartooth Pass, east of Yellowstone.

lake near Beartooth Pass, WY

Pretty alpine lakes dotted the road up to Beartooth Pass.

The 68 mile Beartooth highway up and over the pass was constructed in 1936, and was called the most beautiful drive in America by Charles Kuralt.  More scenes from this dramatic landscape tomorrow…

a closer look

What do you see when you look at a patch of flowers?


Coneflowers — they all look the same, right?

Maybe not — let’s take a closer look.


The central (cone) portion of these Coneflowers (Rudbeckia species) are distinctly different in shape, with yellow tips emerging from different places in the cone.

Sunflowers, coneflowers and other members of the Compositae (or Asteraceae) plant family actually have two types of flowers on their floral structure.  The colorful petals are sterile ray flowers (produce no sexual structures) designed to attract insect pollinators, while the tiny yellow projections from the central cone are the disk flowers that project first male (pollen), and then female (ovary) sexual structures.  When fertilized, each ovary houses developing seeds, which cause the central cone to swell in size and in height.


A newly emerged flower has an almost flat profile, with a central disk that shows no projecting disk florets at all.


Later, a single row of disk florets emerges, and then fades after a couple of days, giving way to the next inner row of developing disk florets.


A cone is starting to form on this older flower, as the last rows of central disk florets emerges.


The seed head is almost fully formed here, and eventually the aging flower will drop its rays (petals), so that just the cone of developing seeds remains.


And so ends the lifespan of the flower…

Leaving a tightly packed seed head, ready to be harvested by hungry seed-eaters.