2007 Expedition to Alaska
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In the summer of 2007, Eric Sargis, Associate Curator of Mammalogy, joined a crew that spent two weeks collecting collared pikas (Ochotona collaris) and other small mammals at Twin Lakes (Lake Clark National Park) and Kenibuna Lake.

Located west of Anchorage, Alaska, USA, this area is both ecologically unique and breathtakingly beautiful. Well-known for two active volcanoes, sprawling tundra, and stunning turquoise lakes, Lake Clark National Park is a fantastic location for mammalogy fieldwork.

Visit Eric Sargis' Mammalian Evolutionary Morphology Lab website.

This expedition was funded by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Photo credit: Google Earth

The isolated Twin Lakes region is accessible only by float plane. It contains a 6-mile (9.7 km) upper lake and a 4-mile (6.5 km) lower lake.

To pick a prime collecting locale, the team flew over the lakes several times, scanning the talus slopes before landing. Because of weight restrictions, the crew was severely limited in what they could pack for the expedition.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Eric J. Sargis. All rights reserved.

After landing, the team set up camp on the north shore of Twin Lakes.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Eric J. Sargis. All rights reserved.

After long days of climbing talus slopes, the team usually spent evenings preparing specimens and recording field data in front of a fire at their base camp on the beach.

On one night, Link Olson, Curator of Mammals at the University of Alaska Museum, caught a Lake Trout and prepared it for dinner.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Neal Woodman. All rights reserved.

On an average day the team faced several miles of hiking through thick brush to reach collecting locations. Here, Link Olson slogs through the brush before ascending the talus slopes where pikas live.

Eric Sargis explains that these tall bushes made it very difficult to hear and spot bears. They saw both grizzly and black bears at both sites. The bears’ scat, fur and tracks made their presence very clear.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Eric J. Sargis. All rights reserved.

Eric Sargis scans for pikas on the talus slopes of the north shore of Twin Lakes. When tracking such small and well-camouflaged animals, the crew designated a spotter who was responsible for retrieving the specimen.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Link E. Olson. All rights reserved.

Link Olson looks and listens for pikas. Although pikas look like rodents, they are actually closely related to rabbits. These animals thrive in cold climates and usually inhabit the rocky slopes of mountains.

According to Eric Sargis, pikas are almost entirely undetectable because they blend in so well with their surroundings. They are found only when they emit a high-pitched alarm call and scurry from boulder to boulder.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Eric J. Sargis. All rights reserved.

Eric Sargis stretches to reach a pika specimen.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Link E. Olson. All rights reserved.

Link Olson collects an ectoparasite from a pika specimen while he waits for a GPS reading on the exact locality. The team kept scrupulous records about where each specimen was collected.

Ectoparasites, like fleas and ticks, are also important in understanding the overall health of the pika population and help to determine host–parasite relationships, so they are collected for future research by parasitologists.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Eric J. Sargis. All rights reserved.

After collection, a specimen’s skin, skull and skeleton are prepared. These study skins are from pikas, red squirrels, arctic ground squirrels, voles and shrews. Tissues are also collected from all specimens for later genetic analyses.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Eric J. Sargis. All rights reserved.

After a week of collecting at Twin Lakes, the plane returned to deliver supplies and transport the group to Kenibuna Lake. Here Eric Sargis hikes alongside Shamrock Glacier on the southeast shore of Kenibuna Lake.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Link E. Olson. All rights reserved.

After two weeks of fieldwork, Link Olson and Neal Woodman, Curator of Mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, load gear into the plane for the flight from Kenibuna Lake to Anchorage.

Specimens collected during the trip were deposited at the University of Alaska Museum. Some Alaskan specimens will eventually be shipped to the Yale Peabody Museum.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Eric J. Sargis. All rights reserved.

Hayley Lanier is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Her dissertation research involves the origin of collared pikas and their historical demography.

 

Photo credit: © 2007 Neal Woodman. All rights reserved.