Top Story: August 31, 2012

Alaska Adventure

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Dave Kavanaugh is the Academy’s beetle specialist and even further, the Academy’s ice beetle specialist. He studies beetles that live on and beside glaciers—perfectly adapted for cold temperatures.

So when I heard he just returned from Alaska, it didn’t surprise me.  But his description of the area he studied did:  “painfully lush.”

His beetles are flightless, “long-legged runners” and like rocks and snow. But Dave went to a valley in the Juneau Icefield that was a green oasis—full of vegetation including blueberries and heather and hemlocks, willows and alders.

Eighteen years ago, Dave described a species of beetle from nearby Glacier Bay—about 34 miles south of his destination this summer. He wanted to see if he could find those beetles again or unearth a similar species.

His son is the director of the Juneau Icefield Research Program, or JIRP, which offers undergraduates an exciting summer of scientific study and fieldwork in glaciology, geology, botany and more. The students get to work side-by-side scientists in the different fields—in addition to Dave, this trip included a soil biologist, geologist, glaciologist and a couple of botanists.

At some point the Butcher Glacier cut across this area, creating a very unusual valley—about a mile long. The surroundings are mostly rock and ice so this “painfully lush” valley is quite an anomaly. The scientists are trying to determine how long it’s been ice-free.

The team was helicoptered in from Juneau and camped in the valley for six rainy days. Dave usually finds his beetles under rocks or at night on ice fields, but the lush valley produced very few finds. Fortunately, pit traps set-up on the valley floor were more productive.

Dave found very few beetles and almost no carabids (his specialty). Most were fully-winged finds, which could have flown in from the adjacent coastal lowlands, Dave says, or possibly even from nearby British Columbia. The one flightless beetle he found, however, is of special interest; its occurrence is unexpected and worthy of further study this fall.

Image: Dave Kavanaugh

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