After years of working on the systematics and evolutionary biology of the kittentail genus Synthyris, one of the few species I haven’t yet seen is Canby’s kittentail (S. canbyi). The species is restricted to alpine and treeline habitats of a few mountain ranges situated north of Missoula, Montana. I went after it last weekend.
Canby’s kittentail is one of three species, along with S. dissecta and S. lanuginosa, that form a group called the cut-leaf kittentails because of their characteristic leaf dissection. Both S. canbyi and S. dissecta are found in the Northern Rocky Mountains, and their sister species S. lanuginosa is restricted to the Olympic Mountains of northwestern Washington. We’re interested in characterizing the geographic pattern of genetic diversity among the cut-leaf kittentails to understand the processes that led to the differentiation of these species. Where S. canby sits in a relatively restricted region of mountains just to the north of the distribution of S. dissecta, we anticipate that their evolution may have been a consequence of a warm phase of global climate that fragmented the ancestor of these two species. Although both S. canbyi and S. dissecta are in similar alpine and treeline habitats, Canby’s kittentail may be specialized for growth on limestone outcrops.
The student who is conducting this research on the cut-leaf kittentails was successful in collecting the species in the high, rough Mission Mountains a few weeks ago but was unable to find a population in the Swan Mountains. My objective this last weekend was to collect leaves for DNA extraction and genetic analyses from the southern-most population of Canby’s kittentail in the Jocko Mountains.
I drove out of the dry, hot Palouse into rain in the Bitterroot Mountains on my way east. The intermittent rain stopped when I reached the Jocko Mountains, and I went up the nine miles of forest road to the trailhead. At the switchback just below the trailhead, I pulled onto a flat, grassy area that extended out a ridge as a campsite. Pieces of a thick rainbow sat in openings of clouds on the mountains to the north.
A two-track road ran down the ridge from the switchback, and I walked down it. The brisk, chill wind here at 6000 feet called for pants and a coat. The summer bloom was ending, but harebell season—when the Campanula rotundifolia reaches full bloom in the northwest—had arrived. The Sedum stenopetalum was down to the last couple of open flowers on each flowering stalk. Among the grasses, the glacier lilies were tall and spindly with one or two heavy, three-lobed fruits hanging from the top of each plant.
Rain began again just as I returned to my truck. What fieldwork I’ve had this season has been rainy. The leaky canopy of my truck has repeatedly soaked my pillows and gear. This rain was heavy. Thunder boomed periodically about the ridge to the south. Then the sky opened to blue beyond that ridge and also to the north, while the storm concentrated on my mountain. I waited out the storm in the cab of my truck, where I was splattered by water dripping from the slight opening I’d left in the window. When the rain stopped, bright sun ran on the water that streamed down the paired ruts of the road.
The evening was rainless. I read, swatted mosquitos, and watched the margins of the scattered clouds turn yellow. The forest slopes also yellowed, although “forest” is imprecise. All of the mountainsides I saw from my camp had been clearcut and were now covered by a second growth of scattered trees, a thicket of shrubs, and too many invasive perennials.
I had an early start for Sheep Mountain on Sunday morning. The trailhead began with a jeep road that had been blocked to motorized traffic. It was overgrown in the first 50 yards by shrubby alder that remained wet from yesterday’s rains. I emerged from the alder with my shirt, shorts, and boots soaked. It was perhaps two miles to the turn-off onto trail 513, where I also stepped from old clearcut to more natural forest, a cooler, more shady world.
I walked intently, anxious to reach the summit before a storm arrived. The trail went up to the valley rim, where I had a longer view of mountains and valleys to the east. Then the trail turned west and climbed gradually, switching back and forth, through thinning trees until it reached the open slopes of the summit. The summit buzzed. Bees were working the densely flowered mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis), beardtongue (Penstemon ellipticus), and parrot’s beak (Pedicularis contorta). I checked the locality of an earlier collection of Canby’s kittentail at the north end of the summit but didn’t find any. This locality was overgrown with mountain heather and didn’t seem right for Canby’s kittentail, which I expected to find tucked among rocks in more open habitat. For most of the next hour I wandered back and forth across the summit looking for the plant, looking back at my map, and wondering whether I was even on the right mountain.