If spring brings Monkeyflowers, what do monkeyflowers bring? Springs! Seep monkeyflowers indicate the locations of underground freshwater springs.
While working on my project with CPAWS Yukon this summer, I stumbled across information about a bright yellow flower that caught my interest. My project is focused on the biodiversity of the McIntyre Creek area, a wilderness corridor which passes through the City of Whitehorse. While gathering information about the area, I learned about a striking flowering plant that is found in a unique habitat in the Yukon.
This plant can be found along McIntyre Creek and I made it a personal goal to find and photograph it myself. Serendipitously, about a week later, my friend and coworker sent me an observation she had just uploaded to the community science site, iNaturalist. “By the way,” it said. “I found an interesting flower yesterday in the McIntyre Creek area … it is considered VU (vulnerable).” She had unintentionally found the same yellow flower I had just learned about and been looking for.
If you come across a large, bright yellow speckled flower growing in wetland areas in southern Yukon, you may have encountered something extra special. Seep monkeyflower is a model organism, meaning it is well-suited to experimentation. Findings about the species can be used to answer broader questions about evolution and ecology. A member of the figwort family, pollinated by bees, seep monkeyflowers bloom in large yellow flowers, of which the lower lobe is dotted with brown-to-red spots. Though rather inconspicuous prior to blooming, the monkeyflower’s bloom stands out vividly against the backdrop of deep greens found in its typical water-logged habitat. It can be found growing along creeks and springs from Mexico to the Yukon and Alaska. Seep monkeyflower’s survival is limited by cold winters, so in the northern portion of its range, the species is restricted to habitats that remain (relatively) warm through the winter.
In the Yukon, the flower is only found in warm habitats supplied with ample freshwater, so it’s ranked as vulnerable by NatureServe, meaning it is “at moderate risk of extinction or collapse due to a fairly restricted range, relatively few populations or occurrences, recent and widespread declines, threats, or other activities.”
Seep monkeyflower hasn’t yet been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The habitat requirements of the seep monkeyflower in southern Yukon make the plant an indicator species for something highly valuable: permanent freshwater springs.
Permanent freshwater springs are unique and biologically rich ecosystems found within the semi-arid and low-productivity environment of southern Yukon. The water in most springs flows seasonally, or only during wet years. Some springs are either saline or basic, occupied by plants specialized for that type of environment. However, permanent freshwater springs flow year-round, meaning they do not dry up or freeze in the winter. This feature, combined with fresh water flowing straight from the ground at anywhere between 2 and 7 degrees C, supports a variety of unique species. These include diverse invertebrates, insectivorous birds and animals, overwintering fish and drought, or frost-intolerant plants. Permanent freshwater springs can also contribute to maintaining open water, or sections of weak ice in the creeks the springs drain into. Though they are usually avoided by industry, permanent freshwater springs can be used for aquaculture, bottled water and mining. Permanent freshwater springs can be difficult for the untrained eye to identify, but there are a few plants to look for.
If you spot a seep monkeyflower (most easily done in June and July when they are in bloom), you can be sure you are at a permanent freshwater spring. There are also a few secondary indicator species of permanent freshwater springs, meaning they usually grow in this type of habitat, but can also be found elsewhere. Secondary indicator species include American brooklime, purple-leaved willowherb, and green-tongued liverwort.
Overall, the Yukon’s permanent freshwater springs are poorly documented. This lack of knowledge is also the greatest threat to these valuable areas. If you live in Whitehorse, take a wander in the McIntyre Creek area and keep an eye out for the seep monkeyflower. Watch where you step, though—like any wetland, these are sensitive areas that can be easily trampled and damaged, compromising their role as frog and bird habitat.
Once you know what to look for, keep an eye out for monkeyflowers while on other outings in the territory. In winter, watch for areas of melted snow that reveal a thick layer of moss and open water. You can also chat with the folks at Yukon’s Conservation Data Centre to let them know about the location of any springs you find and learn more about rare or at-risk species to look for while you’re enjoying the great outdoors.
A great resource for the budding naturalist is iNaturalist. The platform is accessible as a website and as a free phone app that makes uploading observations directly from your phone a seamless process. Consider creating an iNaturalist account and uploading your observations of plants, wildlife, insects, or any other interesting natural thing you encounter while outside, like I did when I finally saw a seep monkeyflower along McIntyre Creek.
I’ve found iNaturalist to be a great resource for learning about and identifying different species. The platform has impressive artificial intelligence software that matches your observation with others and suggests identifications. Experts then quickly suggest or confirm identifications. Once confirmed, observations reach ‘research grade’ status, used by researchers and contributing to scientific understanding of species distributions and phenology. For example, I’ll be downloading iNaturalist observations from the McIntyre Creek area as part of my work. I plan on highlighting the seep monkeyflower and the highly valuable permanent freshwater springs that quietly support biodiversity right outside our back door.