Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/June 1905/Biology in the Rocky Mountains

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BIOLOGY IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS.
By T. D. A. COCKERELL,

UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO.[1]

FOR the purposes of this article the term Rocky Mountains will be understood to mean the states and territory including and surrounding these mountains in the United States; that is to say, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. The area thus indicated, stretching from north to south, and including both mountains and plains, is of course extraordinarily varied. Because of the different conditions of temperature, moisture, soil, etc., found within its borders, it possesses as a whole a fauna and flora extremely rich in species. It offers, in the high mountains and to the north, a large assemblage of circumpolar types, some exactly like those of northern Europe and Asia, others variously modified. It gives us, on the plains and to the south, a series of species of Austral origin, some of them intruders even from the tropics. Still again, in its valleys and forests, it has developed a large number of endemic types, found nowhere else in the world.

Such a region necessarily presents great attractions to the naturalist. It has been visited by numerous government expeditions and private individuals, beginning early in the nineteenth century, for the purpose of collecting its scientific treasures. It has yielded to these an abundant harvest, not only of living animals and plants, but also of fossil forms. Every museum of any consequence contains Rocky Mountain material, and innumerable publications are devoted to its description and illustration. These being the facts, a superficial observer might very well conclude that the natural history of the Rocky Mountains was thoroughly known. So far, however, is this from being true that it would be more correct to say that the scientific study of Rocky Mountain biology has hardly begun.

Any one who examines the published accounts of Rocky Mountain animals and plants will find, at least in the majority of groups, little more than descriptions of species. Putting aside the enormous number of species still undescribed, we find that the 'known' species are in fact very little known at all. Among the insects, for instance, there are hundreds of which we do not even know the locality, nearer than the name of the state, and those of which we know the life history are comparatively few. The details of geographical distribution, the character and extent of the variations, the interrelations with other species—these are things rarely mentioned in accounts of species described from our area.

The reason for this state of affairs is evident enough. Nearly everything has been done, until quite recently, by naturalists who resided in the eastern states. It is true that many of them visited the west, but usually to hurriedly gather together such miscellanea as came in their way, to take them home and there study them at their leisure, or turn them over to the appropriate specialists. Very little was done on the ground, except by a few resident naturalists, who were usually at a disadvantage because of the absence of libraries and museums. Even to this day, one comes across that deep reluctance to form independent conclusions, born of the feeling that in biology, as in other things, the wise men of the east hold the keys of knowledge. It is exactly the attitude which Americans of the eastern states, a hundred years ago, used to show to the naturalists of Europe.

Eastern science is the mother of that of the west, and European science is its grandmother. May this relationship never be forgotten; but the time must come when the young fellow will stand for himself. I think and hope that this time is rapidly approaching, and therefore regard with more than ordinary interest the new developments in the educational institutions, which begin (only begin!) to make intellectual independence in biology a possibility.

Such talk as this is not mere bombast; such wishes are not merely born of that mania for supremacy which afflicts so many peoples. We do not wish to do any more than look after our own affairs, and that we surely are entitled to do. The point is that, after all, biology is the study of living things, and the descriptions of museum specimens are only preliminary to the most important part of the work. It is utterly impossible that the innumerable problems raised by different aspects of our fauna and flora (biota, let us say, after Stejneger) can ever be solved except on the ground. And our eastern friends—they have their own region, very far from being exhausted, besides having to look after material from all sorts of countries where there are no resident naturalists, or very few, and adequate facilities are not even in prospect. I am not proposing a sort of Monroe Doctrine in biology. Professor Underwood, not very long ago, did advocate something of this kind; proposing that Europeans should attend to their own flora, or at least to that of their own hemisphere, while Americans looked after American plants. This, if I understood it rightly (and it was plainly put!), was not a very defensible proposition; for imagine the results of the two halves of the circumpolar flora being studied entirely apart! Indeed, one has only to examine existing publications to see numerous ill results of this provincialism—and it is provincialism, though one's province be as large as the two Americas. So far from wishing to isolate Rocky Mountain naturalists and their work from that of others, I wish exactly the reverse. The time will come, I think, when no single man will think of producing a monographic work on a group of organisms. He will compile the work, adding to his own contributions those of others from every region inhabited by his chosen beasts. In that day the local naturalist will contribute his part; but the point is, he will make his own observations, and will not merely send material for the all-wise one to ponder over.

The history of Rocky Mountain mammalogy is quite interesting. During the nineteenth century 68 new mammals were described from our area. Of these, six are not now considered distinct, but 62 remain. In the first decade, two were described by Ord. In the twenties, Say made known five, in the thirties Bachman described two, in the forties nothing was added, in the fifties we have six by Baird and one by Audubon and Bachman, in the sixties two by Kennicott and one by Hayden, in the seventies one by Coues, in the eighties one by Shufeldt and one by Merriam. Thus, to the end of the eighties, 22 had been described. Now in the nineties, counting 1900, no less than forty were added, mostly by Merriam and Allen! In 1901 three more were added, and in 1902 five. I first came to Colorado in 1887, and remember very well having the distinct impression that the species and subspecies of Eocky Mountain mammals were very well known. This, indeed, was the accepted view; but how wonderful was the result of assiduous collecting and study during the next ten or twelve years! It is admitted that not all of the newly named animals are very distinct, but some are, and all appear to have their characters.

Of all these descriptions, one was the joint work of two resident naturalists, but the rest were prepared by students living in the east. Perhaps one should make a second exception of the mouse described by Dr. Shufeldt, who resided for a considerable period in New Mexico. The number of new forms described from Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming is about the same, Colorado being a little in the lead; but only seven, less than half the number of the other states, come from Montana. The northern state, however, can pride itself upon containing the type locality of the grizzly bear; this and the common wood rat (Neotoma cinerea), also from Montana, being the two first-described animals from our region.

It is not necessary to similarly outline the history of other groups, but it may be said that the flowering plants are in the midst of a revival period quite equaling that of the mammals, while the description of new insects goes on at a very rapid rate. Of over 500 wild bees collected in the last ten years or so in New Mexico, more than 300 have been described as new.

In order that it may be understood that something is really doing in the Eocky Mountains, I propose to briefly describe the existing facilities for work and say a little about some of the workers. I begin with Colorado Springs, merely because it is near at hand. We have in this town a few good naturalists. The senior member of the fraternity is Mr. Aiken, after whom the snowbird Junco aikeni was named. Mr. Aiken has, I suppose, the best collection of birds in this part of the country, and what is more to the purpose, has a really critical knowledge of them. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing with him a woodpecker which he believes to be new, and I hope he will publish an account of this and other interesting birds which he has studied. Our other bird man, Mr. Edward K. Warren, is also interested in mammals, and is making a remarkably interesting collection of small mammals. Mr. Warren is much interested in the photography of living wild animals and birds; and some of his photographs, especially those showing the ptarmigan in all plumages, are exceedingly beautiful. Professor Cragin, the well-known paleontologist and zoologist, is resident here, but now devotes himself entirely to the history of the west. The types of most of his new species of fossils are in the museum of Colorado College. Professor Sturgis, formerly of Connecticut, now shares with the present writer a laboratory in the new Palmer Hall, and is very busy working on myxomycetes, making colored drawings of innumerable forms. As a result of his work the boundaries between several so-called species are becoming decidedly obscure.

Palmer Hall, the great new building of Colorado College, is the wonder and admiration of all who see it. From quarters which would have disgraced a high school, the scientific departments have moved into those which would do credit to any university. It is not possible to do everything at once, and it must be confessed that the equipment is not yet nearly up to the standard of the building. At the same time, there are very good facilities for teaching, and the museum contains a large amount of useful material. As regards the means for research, it seems to me that they are even now sufficient to keep any ambitious investigator from idleness. Of course the great opportunities are in the country itself, with the splendid mass of Pikes Peak close at hand, easily ascended by means of the cog railway. In the college, the large series of fossils—especially Cretaceous—collected by Professor Cragin invites study. Most of the material is from Kansas and Texas, but it would be invaluable for comparison to any one engaged in the study of the Colorado Cretaceous. There is also the herbarium of the late Edward Tatnall, of Wilmington, Delaware, which, although not rich in Eocky Mountain plants, is, on the whole, remarkably good, containing apparently most of the standard sets from the United States and Mexico which have been distributed in recent years.

The literature on biology at present possessed by the college is very insufficient, though the library contains many good things. There is, however, Professor Sturgis's botanical library, very complete for the fungi, and including, I think, all the standard exsiccati, even those of Europe. The books include a complete set of Saccardo, which is now so difficult to obtain. My own library is nearly complete in those groups (Coccidæ, wild bees) which I have especially studied, and contains much besides, among other things the Zoological Record from 1889 to date.

On the whole, therefore, Colorado Springs offers good opportunities for resident work along several lines; and I presume the facilities will be improved every year. The other Colorado institutions I do not know so well, but I have within the last few months visited the State University, the Agricultural College and the Normal School.

At the State University, at Boulder, I found Professor C. Juday in charge of the biology, the regular incumbent, Professor Eamaley, having departed on a tour round the world. I do not know very much about Dr. Kamaley's work, except that he has published some interesting studies of the epidermal tissues of flowering plants—a subject of particular interest in the arid west.[2] Professor Juday is doing some work for the Bureau of Fisheries, on the fishes of Colorado and their food, and the constituents of the plankton of the Colorado lakes. This work, of course, covers a field little explored in our state, and it is very fortunate that it can be undertaken by a resident investigator, though, as I understand it, his residence among us is only temporary. The university museum and herbarium are sufficiently good to be very valuable for teaching purposes, but from the standpoint of an investigator they are disappointing. Perhaps the most pleasing thing in the collection is a nice series of local birds, with full explanatory labels. Judge Junius Henderson, the curator of the museum, has devoted a good deal of attention to the birds, and also to paleontology. The new library building of the university is extremely beautiful and the library arrangement and facilities for getting at the books could scarcely be bettered. I noticed among the books a set of the Challenger Reports, Nature from the beginning, all of Pittonia, Edward's 'Butterflies of North America' and many other good things.

The Agricultural College, at Fort Collins, is chiefly noted biologically for the entomological work of Professor Gillette and his former assistants Professor Ball, Mr. C. F. Baker and Mr. E. S. G. Titus. From this institution have come the important 'List of the Hemiptera of Colorado' Professor Gillette's revision of the Typhlocybidæ and many other works known to all entomologists. There is just now ready for publication the first part of a catalogue of the Orthoptera of Colorado. As might be supposed, the entomological collections and library are very good, although the latter does not contain everything I expected to see. Professor Gillette is at present assisted by Mr. S. Arthur Johnson, a relative of the well-known curator of the Boston Society of Natural History. Mr. Johnson is doing very nice work on the Hymenoptera, especially on their nesting habits and parasites. He has discovered, for example, the hitherto unknown nest of Entechnia, and has definitely proved the association of Triepeolus with Melissodes. Also with Professor Gillette is Mr. Chas. Jones, a young entomologist who will be heard of in the future. Last summer he worked in a mine at Silverton, Colorado, and spent his leisure moments making by far the largest and best collection yet made of the insects of the Arctic- Alpine zone in the Rocky Mountains. In the Department of Botany and Horticulture at the Agricultural College, Professor Paddock is properly a horticulturist; but his assistant, Mr. F. M. Rolfs, a brother of Professor Rolfs, of Florida, is doing some very interesting work on parasitic fungi. The herbarium of the college gave me much surprise and pleasure. The last time I saw it, several years ago, it was in such a condition as to be of little use for critical work. Now, the Colorado material in it has all been gone over by Dr. P. A. Rydberg, of New York, who has in press a list of the flora of Colorado, i. e., of the flowering plants thereof. The greater part of the named material has been returned to the college, and I was naturally very much interested in the determinations. Although, as I learned from Professor Paddock, the college herbarium contains only about half as many Colorado plants as they have in the New York Botanical Garden, it is by far the best and most useful public herbarium in the state. I say public herbarium because Mr. Geo. Osterhout, of New Windsor, Colo., has long studied the native flora, and is said to have a very fine collection. He has described quite a number of new Colorado plants. At the Normal School, at Greeley, they do not pretend to do much research, but Professor Beardsley has made some studies of the minute fresh-water Crustacea, and of the Protozoa, describing some new species. He has also made a collection of Colorado reptiles and amphibia, and will, I believe, publish a list of them. The library of the Normal School is very well arranged, and contains some good zoological books I did not expect to see.

In Denver, the State Historical and Natural History Society has a collection, poorly housed in the lowest floor of the capitol building. Mr. Ellsworth Bethel, of the Denver West Side High School, has long studied the fungi and flowering plants of Colorado, and has a large collection. He has discovered very many new species, especially among the fungi, but his duties leave him little time for research. The East Side High School in Denver has a herbarium, presented by Miss Alice Eastwood, the well-known botanist of California, who used to teach in Denver, spending her summers studying the Colorado flora.

In New Mexico, biology is not very much studied. I will only refer at this time to Professor E. O. Wooton and his assistant, Mr. Metcalfe, at the Agricultural College. These botanists have made large collections of the New Mexico flora, and Professor Wooton's writings on the subject are well known.

In Wyoming, one thinks first and last of Professor Aven Nelson, the indefatigable botanist of the University of Wyoming. The herbarium he has accumulated there is by far the best within our region, and his critical studies of the Rocky Mountain flora in the field have given him a knowledge possessed by no other man. He has, of course, described very many new species, and I have heard it stated that he will cooperate with Professor Coulter in the production of a new edition of the latter's 'Rocky Mountain Botany' now so greatly behind the times. Between Professor Nelson and Dr. Rydberg we seem likely to possess in the near future works which will give a new impetus to the study of Rocky Mountain plants, making easy that which has been getting increasingly difficult. Professor Nelson has already issued a small school flora, including only the commoner and more conspicuous plants.

In Montana, we have Professor Cooley, the entomologist of the experiment station, and Professor Morton J. Elrod, of the University of Montana. The work of Professor Elrod in founding a biological station and studying the mollusca, dragon-flies, etc., is extremely valuable, and one may hope that it will continue to find hearty support. The publications of the University of Montana show that Professor Elrod has been able to interest a number of persons in the 'biological survey' idea, and the work seems to be growing in volume and value every year.

I have not attempted to refer to every Rocky Mountain worker, nor have I said anything about visiting naturalists; but it would be a serious omission not to allude to Dr. Clements, of the University of Nebraska, who for a number of years has been a 'summer resident' as they say of certain birds. Dr. Clements migrates to the mountains when his teaching work closes in Nebraska, and, with others, occupies a cottage at Minnehaha, which is on Pike's Peak, at an altitude of 8,400 feet. From this point he explores the slopes of the peak and the surrounding country, and makes ecological observations.

The above brief account of Rocky Mountain biology will make it apparent, I hope, that there are at least six places where fairly good facilities, of one sort or another, are offered for biological research. These are the University of Montana, the University of Wyoming, the University of Colorado, Colorado College, the Agricultural College of Colorado and the Agricultural College of New Mexico. In some instances, e. g., the botany at the University of Wyoming, these facilities are extremely good. It will also be clear that there are several resident naturalists within our area pushing forward the work to the best of their ability. Thus the outlook is in many ways satisfactory, but there are still great difficulties to be overcome. It is evident that the men already in the field can not nearly cover it; instead of a dozen or so, we need at least a hundred active workers, and a thousand would not find their hands idle. This is Utopian talk, of course; but I do think that the first need is to increase the working force. Then again, those who are at work, almost without exception, have to get their living in other ways, and thus can give comparatively little time to research. In the experiment stations, research is well provided for, but the popular clamor for 'practical' investigations and immediate results usually prevents the undertaking of anything very broad or fundamental. Furthermore, the experiment station officers mostly have to do a large amount of teaching. In the colleges and universities, teaching is naturally to the front, and in our mountain states this does not mean the teaching of graduate students to more than a very limited extent. A short time ago I appealed to the professor of chemistry in one of the Colorado institutions to do a piece of work of scientific and economic value. He immediately said that he longed to do it, 'but what can I do? I am giving seven courses!' This is a fairly typical case, and although I know very well there are many who would not do anything as investigators if they had the time, the fact remains that those who would, and in fact do, are handicapped to an extent little appreciated or understood. It is not that research is disliked; if anything is done it usually meets with approval, but it is not understood that it is fundamentally necessary to progress, and that it requires time as well as space to flourish in. Much of what has stood for culture in the west has been little better than a sort of intellectual parasitism on the east and Europe, and there is not yet an understanding or appreciation of the efforts to form an endemic product.

On the other hand, those who have accumulated wealth, or in some manner have acquired the means of living at the expense of others, will find in the mountain states ample opportunity. There are, of course, many such people, but with very rare exceptions they do not take to biological subjects. The well-to-do amateur is, for some reason, extremely scarce among us, though in England, for instance, his kind has done wonders. Thus there is plenty to praise and plenty to blame; but the only thing to do is to go ahead, and if the car of progress moves slowly, at all events it perceptibly moves.

  1. Since this paper was written, the writer has moved to the University of Colorado, at Boulder. Mr. L. C. Himebaugh is now in charge of Colorado College Museum.
  2. Since this was written Dr. Ramaley has returned from his journey round the world, bringing a large and most interesting collection from Java, Ceylon, Japan, etc. He is engaged in special researches on the anatomy of the cotyledon.