The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory

Transformed from the abandoned ruins of a silver boomtown, the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory is internationally known for its research in high-altitude ecology.

The home of the Rocky Mountain Laboratory lies in the abandoned silver mining town of Gothic in the Elk Mountains of the Colorado Rockies. John C. Johnson, a founding member of the Colorado State Normal School (later known as Western State College) discovered the town when he first visited the area in 1911. He was struck by the beauty of the untouched scenery, the diversity of biological life there, and its potential as an educational resource for a research field station. In 1922, Johnson leased 160 acres of land from the Forest Service, where he and his students conducted research on the high-altitude ecosystem for six years and established the Rocky Mountain Biological Station there. After Western State College decided to no longer finance the project, Johnson used his own capital to move the station to land purchased in Gothic, where it became the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in 1928.

Johnson and his team repaired and rebuilt the town over the next twenty-five years to fit the needs of the Laboratory and its members as abandoned cabins became living quarters and they converted the historic Gothic Hotel into a laboratory, library, and office space. However, it would not be until the end of the century that the Laboratory modernized with hot and cold running water in resident cabins, community shower facilities, electricity, telephones, and insulation. It also built a new community center, complete with a dining hall and seminar room.

Finances were limited during the first few decades. Johnson and his colleagues often worked without payment, but summer courses were very successful, progressive, and attendance continued to grow. The laboratory notably offered women more opportunities than most institutions at that time by actively encouraging them to research, publish, and teach courses. Through the 1930s and 1940s, it focused on recording and observing the environmental conditions of Gothic while collecting and cataloging plant and animal specimens. However, by the mid-1950s, the scientific field began changing as the next generation of scientists moved more towards methods of hypothesis and experimentation. The laboratory responded by recruiting more young scientists from elite schools and invested in long term studies in genetic adaptations, and the behavior characteristics of animals, plants, and insects, such as marmots, salamanders, and butterflies.

Since the 1980s, the laboratory has centered its core research on climate change and its impact on the region’s wildlife. Scientists monitor changes in snow and rain falls while analyzing how acidity in the precipitation affects nutrients in the soil, pH in ponds, and salamander populations. In fact, Congress consulted this research during its revision of the 1990 Clean Air Act. Laboratory scientists also focus on pollination patterns by studying changes to wildflower blooming schedules and the behavior and lifespans of bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Undergraduate and graduate students of botany and zoology still come to Gothic to study the characteristics of Rocky Mountain wildlife every summer, contributing to make the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory one of the top high-altitude research and education institutions in the world.

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