Gopher eskers, mounds, and stonelines: Evidence of the annual to centennial impacts of gophers in the montane meadows of Colorado’s Front Range

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 5:00 PM
Eric W. Winchell1, Elizabeth M. Lombardi2, Jorgie Anthony Marquez3, Daniel F. Doak2 and Robert S Anderson1, (1)Department of Geological Sciences and INSTAAR, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, United States, (2)Enviornmental Studies Program, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, United States, (3)Arapahoe Community College, Littleton, United States
Within the critical zone on montane hillslopes of Colorado’s Front Range, qualitative observations suggest that gophers not only dominate the modern meadow geomorphic rates, but are involved in a geomorphic-ecological feedback system that governs meadow migration on decadal-millennial time scales. Our observations suggest that gopher intensity and location is pertinent to forest/meadow (FM) dynamics. Field mapping of gopher activity as the snow melts in the spring revealed that subnivean tubes (“eskers”) are tightly clustered at the FM boundary while mounds generated over the remainder of the summer are concentrated strictly in the meadows. This suggests that gophers spend the winter months at the FM interface and spend the warmer seasons within the meadows. We hypothesize that variations in snow depth drive this spatial-temporal pattern of gopher activity; deeper snow near the FM boundary provides greater insulation, as near-surface ground temperatures in the wind-scoured meadow centers are colder. This motivates our initiation of monitoring and modeling of near-surface temperature across a FM pair. Numerical modeling supports qualitative observations that the following geomorphic-ecological processes are active: seedling establishment and damage, gopher tunneling and resulting mound generation, mound material transport driven by ungulate trampling, vegetative lock-down of mound material, and resulting changes in the soil depth of the landscape. This year’s observations suggest that we must add to this mix the annual cycle of the gopher activity. Finally, probing and soil pits within the meadows reveal that on longer timescales gopher activity leads to the development of a well-mixed upper soil layer that is sharply bounded below by high concentrations of large stones (“stone lines”) within the glacial till substrate of the hillslopes. The mean diameter of mound surface grains is half that of clasts comprising the stone lines. This motivates documentation of soil mixing rates utilizing the short-lived bomb isotope 137Cs, which in turn will further constrain numerical modeling of the gopher-geomorphic system.