Not a ‘pass-through spectator’

Doctoral student has amazing natural discoveries

Michigan Technological University doctoral student Ryne Rutherford is shown by one of his recent discoveries, a patch of eastern prickly pear cactus. The cactus find was in the Huron Mountains. (Photo courtesy of Ryne Rutherford)

MARQUETTE — Pixie foam lichen, blue toadflax, eastern prickly pear cactus — they’ve all been part of Ryne Rutherford’s world lately.

And it’s a world most people don’t get to see.

Rutherford is ecologist and owner of Biophilia, LLC, and a doctoral student at Michigan Tech. Through his consulting firm, projects this year for him have included plant surveys in the Ottawa National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service; an impact study of rock climbing on plants, lichens and mosses at Silver Mountain in the Ottawa National Forest; surveys for the chryxus Arctic butterfly in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin; wood turtle nesting surveys in the Ottawa National Forest; botanical surveys for the Coastal Wetland Monitoring project in Great Lakes coastal wetlands in Lake Superior and Lake Michigan; and acoustic analyses for birds.

“Each discovery is a little different, but making discoveries in nature has been a central element to my being since I began my intense studies of nature around age 5,” Rutherford said in an email. “It started with insect collecting and led to plants, reptiles, amphibians, then birds, and pretty much everything else.

“I’m constantly searching and trying to understand how natural communities work. Many of my finds come from when I am hired to do rare plant surveys for the U.S. Forest Service, which I’ve been doing for over a decade. Others come when I am exploring on my own.”

These discoveries don’t always happen by accident.

“Some finds do require planning and targeted effort,” he said. “Certain habitats are more likely to have rare species than others and some can only be found during a brief window each year. Others happen completely by accident. All of them come from decades of experience and knowing what already occurs in the places I explore.”

Rutherford is seeking his doctorate in forest science at Michigan Tech, and is undertaking a study of granite bedrock glades in the Huron Mountains in the Upper Peninsula.

“It’s a unique habitat with a warm microclimate and contains many unique species that occur far north of their usual range, such as fragile prickly pear cactus, five-lined skink, eastern milk snake, Edward’s hairstreak butterfly and many others,” he said.

Cactus in Michigan?

This year, Rutherford added eastern prickly pear and blue toadflax to the list of species known as “southern disjuncts,” with his cactus find making many headlines in the media.

However, it goes beyond simple recognition of his efforts.

“I believe that the conservation of these habitats is important because these are all species that could expand their ranges in a warmer climate,” he said.

For his doctoral research at Michigan Tech, Rutherford is studying a specific kind of rock outcrop habitat called “granitic bedrock glade.”

“It’s a very rare habitat in Michigan that is almost entirely restricted to the Huron Mountains and it contains a unique assemblage of life that is found nowhere else on earth, including many species that are more typically found far south of the U.P.,” Rutherford said. “Mostly notably, are the five-lined skink and fragile prickly pear cactus, which have been known from there for decades.”

More recently, he has been trying to document other species that follow this same trend. Rutherford said he received a tip while giving a presentation about granitic bedrock glades for the Marquette County Conservation District annual meeting last December about cacti occurring in an area of the Huron Mountains where it not been previously known.

He explored bedrock glades in the general location described to him and found a patch of eastern prickly pear cactus, which he said had not been previously documented in the U.P.

“Although it was quite a shock, it fits with the general pattern of southern species occurring in the Hurons, well outside of their normal ranges,” Rutherford said. “Later this summer I found another plant, blue toadflax, in similar habitats, which was a new plant for the Lake Superior region.”

He has some ideas about these unusual places.

“These habitats have not received the attention that they deserve from conservationists and it is my strong view that they should be better protected,” Rutherford said. “Most people who visit granitic bedrock glades don’t realize how special they are and consider them to be nice vantage points to obtain sweeping vistas.”

However, he pointed out that the tops of Sugarloaf and Hogback mountains receive thousands of visitors each year and the bedrock glades at their summits are heavily degraded from all the trampling and other alterations.

“I hope this work leads to greater recognition and on-the-ground conservation efforts,” he said. “It is very likely that some of these southern species will be able to expand their ranges with increasing climate change and may be important for rebuilding our local ecosystems in the Upper Peninsula and beyond.”

Rutherford’s expertise has been in demand in many ways, including through Facebook posts when an individual wants something identified. He also receives many congratulatory posts following a discovery, such as “What’s not to lichen about this!” about the pixie foam lichen.

Why keeps him going in his scientific pursuits?

“Several things. My kids for one,” Rutherford said. “They love exploring with me and that keeps me curious and inspired. I’m happiest when I’m out in nature on a mission and it’s the best medicine for the deep trauma I’ve experienced this year. Also knowing that these finds do have positive conservation implications provides fulfillment and a sense of purpose.

“I truly love being fully immersed in the sounds, smells and sights of nature. I often carry binoculars to look at distant things, and a hand lens to look at tiny things and I’m always watching, touching and even tasting the world around me. I fully tune in and become part of the environment around me.”

Rutherford acknowledged that he is never just a “pass-through spectator.”

“I’m continuously disappointed in humanity, but nature never lets me down,” he said.


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