Kingston Hiker Discovers New Lifeform in Mountain Lake

Agnew

It’s not uncommon for backcountry hikers to come home with stories of bad weather or bear sightings. Kingston resident Bill Agnew came home with two new lifeforms.

During a five-day hike through the Rocky Mountains last summer, the retired home builder discovered what one scientist believes are two microbes that had never been seen before. One of them will likely be named after Agnew. Muelleria agnewii may soon grace the pages of microbial science journals, but Trails & Tides is getting it in print first.

“Your sample is a major contribution,” Dr. Loren Bahls, a University of Montana scientist and curator of the Montana Diatom Collection, wrote Agnew in a recent email.

About 20 species of the muellaria diatom are known, and only two have been reported in the United States.

“Your sample basically doubles the number of U.S. species,” Bahls wrote.

I met Agnew a few weeks ago while he was doing another of his hikes for science – this time closer to home in Olympic National Forest. The mission, as I wrote for Sunday’s paper, was to set up motion-activated cameras that scientists hope will capture images of the Pacific marten, a weasel-like carnivore that hasn’t been spotted on the Olympic Peninsula since 2008.

AgnewDiatom

Both projects were organized by Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit that pairs mountaineers, divers, paddlers and other outdoor enthusiasts with scientists in need of data from far-flung places all over the world.

Agnew’s Montana trek, which you can read more about here, covered 25 miles at elevations of around 8,000 feet.

Along the way, Agnew took water samples for ASC’s High Mountain Lake Diatom Collection project, which is gathering diatoms in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and five other western states. Volunteers collect samples from high-elevation lakes, ponds and other water bodies. They record location coordinates and water temperatures, and then ship the samples to Bahls once they return to civilization.

Under a microscope, diatoms’ glassy shells have “delicate ornamentation” and “striking beauty,” Bahls wrote in Montana Naturalist. Zoom way, way out, and you’ll recognize diatoms by their common name: slime.

As Bahls writes, diatoms – along with fungi, algae and bacteria – make up the slippery stuff that clings to lake and river rocks, making “footing treacherous.”

Diatoms are important indicators of water quality and overall ecological health, and their fossils provide important clues about past climate conditions.

Agnew did two other diatom-collecting hikes last year, both of which were in the Olympic Mountains. They ended up being more dangerous and a bit less productive than the Montana trip.

“On the first one, a friend was hit in the chest by a falling rock and went head-first down the snow slope,” Agnew said of the trip in the Mount Deception area. His friend suffered internal bleeding and had trouble staying conscious. “If it had hit him in the head, he’d be dead.”

On the second trip, this time along the Dosewallips River, a falling tree nearly flattened him and his wife.

“I complained that (Bahls) didn’t tell me how dangerous this would be,” Agnew joked.

The Olympic trips didn’t lead to any new discoveries, but Bahls said the samples contribute to the pool of information he’s gathering.

Agnew shrugged when I asked him what it’s like to have a namesake microbe.

“When I heard about it, I was more excited for the guy behind the microscope,” Agnew said. “That’s his life, his passion.”

For Agnew, the beauty of volunteering for ASC is that he gets to do something good for science while pursuing his own passion.

“Gathering information while we play…it’s an incredible idea,” he said.

PHOTOS: (Top) Bill Agnew helps measure out a marten monitoring station in Olympic National Forest. Tristan Baurick/Kitsap Sun. (Above left) A microbe Agnew discovered while hiking in Montana. Courtesy of Bill Agnew.

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