Clark's Nutcracker and the Whitebark Pine: Keystone Mutualism in the Face of Habitat Degradation

This week’s Log Lunch talk, given by Dr. Taza Schaming, was about the relationship between Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pine in the Northern Rockies. Whitebark pine is a high-elevation tree that is a keystone species in its mountain habitat. It fulfills many important ecological roles, including maintaining snowpack and providing high-calorie seeds for wildlife to eat during the winter. It has an obligate mutualism with the Clark’s nutcracker, meaning it relies on the bird to disperse its seeds, ensuring the survival of the next generation of trees. In recent years, whitebark pine populations have been declining at an alarming rate due to a combination of factors, including an invasive fungus, the expansion of the range of a harmful beetle, and increased forest fires. The die-off of whitebark pine has had cascading effects on the ecosystem, and the government has been spending a lot of money on programs to save the species.

After describing this problem, Dr. Schaming explained the work she is doing to try to address it. Clark’s nutcrackers are essential for the survival of the whitebark pine, but it is a hard species to study and very little is known about them. She has been studying their breeding and migration patterns to try to determine the stability of their mutualism with the pine. She also stressed that an important part of her study is suggesting management strategies to help protect both the bird and the tree. This project has included difficult fieldwork, following birds up and down mountains and climbing precarious trees to look at nests. One surprising result of the study was the discovery that the birds’ ranges are much larger than previously believed, and they will fly from Wyoming to Utah or Montana and back during the year. This suggests that to protect them in one habitat, other habitats also need to be protected. Dr. Schaming ended her talk by emphasizing that everything in the natural world is connected and nothing is unaffected by human activities.

From left to right: Cristina Mancilla ’20, Dr. Taza Schaming, Professor Laura Martin