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Yellowstone Revealed: Ducks and faults

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Posted at 8:52 AM, Dec 19, 2022

(Editor's Note: This year Yellowstone National Park celebrates its 150th Birthday. In honor of that historic milestone we're bringing you a new series called "Yellowstone Revealed." These reports will offer a glimpse into the park's colorful history and stories that you've likely never heard before. The sixth installment - Ducks and Faults - explores a unique link between geology and biology in the world's first National Park.)

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - Yellowstone’s Supervolcano has erupted more than a hundred times over millions of years.

Geologists say those eruptions produced enough material to fill the Grand Canyon several times.

But there are positive effects of the park’s enormous geological forces.

LeHardy Rapids is a favorite spot in Yellowstone for photographers.

In the spring, grizzly bears often visit the area to eat the carcasses of bison.

But for just a couple of weeks each May, knowledgeable photographers arrive to see a rare sighting, even in Yellowstone — Harlequin Ducks.

The males look like they are painted: cobalt blue with white facial markings, and rusty patches on the heads and wings.

They’re named Harlequin Ducks after the Harlequin clowns of 16th-century Europe.

In 2020 two men from Utah brought big lenses to get good shots in Yellowstone.

“If you can get them resting on the rocks and get a slower shutter with the water looking all smooth it can be really cool,” said one of the photographers, Beau Day.

The rapid water-loving birds seem like they have a death wish.

They dive repeatedly into rapids that seem to swallow them. Then they come back up again, and again, after grabbing a bite from below.

Dr. Charles Preston, a wildlife biologist, explained as he watched the birds.

“Rapids are something here they really look for. You won’t find them outside of the rapids. This is a protected area. They feed in these rapids. They’re able to withstand the rapids, and this is a real protection for them as well.”

The colorful males will be at the rapids just long enough to mate, then they leave.

But what brings Harlequins to this place?

Dr. Robert Smith gave the answer. He started studying Yellowstone’s geology in 1956, but the Hebgen Lake earthquake near the Park’s western border sealed his life direction.

“I got up there and I got the see this huge fault scarp 20 feet high that marked the Hebgen Lake Rupture, which is 40 miles long," he said. "And I got really interested in earthquakes because of that particular event. It kind of turned me on to geophysics.”

“So what causes the unique habitat that draws in the colorful ducks? Well, it’s Yellowstone’s fault. Yellowstone’s faults, actually. Smith says there are two intersecting faults near the LeHardy Rapids, that cause the wonderful white water that brings in the Harlequin Ducks.