It has been an incredible summer, but finally things must end. I have been living here in southern Nevada for the last 5 months with my three fellow interns and we have had a great time and all got along very well. From the first two months of constant camping out in the desert that was at first freezing cold and then scorching hot, to being in the lab weighing out all of our samples, to now carrying out the data analysis and assisting our mentors in their reports. Laura, Elizabeth, and Olivia have been great coworkers and friends to me, and I am happy to have gotten the opportunity to move here and work with them.
I have learned so much during my time in this internship that I would have never thought I could so quickly. My mentors have really been great at letting us see all aspects of a research project. We went from doing the body destroying field work back in April and May all the way through to running statistical analysis on our data to be put in their publications. And this Thursday Elizabeth and I will be presenting a poster about some of our work at a conference here in Las Vegas! All of the skills I have gained from this internship will really help me in my future as I continue to pursue a field biology career. This Conservation and Land Management program has treated me so well and I am very lucky to have gotten accepted into it. I hope that all the other interns this year are having an equally great experience, and I wish you all the best of luck 🙂
Last week I was given the task to go collect Black Brush seed from Joshua Tree National Park and Anzo-Borrego State Park. So with my fellow intern Laura, we headed out from Las Vegas at 5:00am last Wednesday morning with our seed collecting nets and bags. After the morning 5 hour drive, we arrived in Joshua Tree and entered through the north entrance to the GPS coordinates our Mentor gave us. Seed collecting is not our specialty for this internship with the USGS. In fact, this was only the second time all summer that I have done any seed collecting. So I was not accustomed to the disappointment of searching for seeds and being unsuccessful. After driving around for a while and eventually finding black brush with no seeds on it, we decided to collect some Joshua Tree seeds, since our mentor told us that that was a secondary priority of this expedition. Once we were finished with that, we decided that all of the black brush in the park had already dropped all of its seed, so we headed southwards to our next destination. The highway through the national park takes forever to drive through because of the low speed limit, so after another four hours, we reach the Anzo-Borrego State Park in southern California. After this experience of searching for plants with seeds for hours and coming up completely empty handed, I really feel for the rest of my fellow CLMers who are doing SOS! Back in April and May when we were doing our post-fire monitoring research, we never had to deal with not finding our plots or having nothing to show for our long hours spent out hiking through the desert. But on this day, we had no black brush seeds whatsoever. I have much respect for my colleagues that have this sort of luck regularly. I imagine it takes quite a bit of getting used to! Anyways, after being unsuccessful, we drove back to Joshua Tree National Park and camped there at one of the few open campsites. In the morning, we broke camp at 6:00am and began our drive back to Vegas. While passing through the Mohave National Preserve, We stumbled upon black brush that still had seeds on them! So as it began to rain pretty hard on us, we quickly hopped out and did a collection! With our spirits much higher now, having some seeds to show for our journey, we made our way back to the office as happy interns! This was a good experience for me to continue to practice seed collecting, as I foresee using this skill in my future, and it was a great way to get a break from the normal data entry/analysis work that we have been doing regularly lately.
Even though I have been in my internship for almost 3 months, this week I got my first crack at seed collecting. Since my internship is with the USGS, we have been doing mostly plant ecology research field work this summer, not Seeds of Success. However, my mentor is considering doing some sort of analysis on Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia, seeds which I have not gotten the full explanation yet. So this week I got to collect some Y. brevifolia seeds from the Parashant National Monument in Arizona, near where some of our research plots are for a different project. Prior to this adventure, I had no experience with collecting seeds/fruits off of trees without a ladder or some other way of getting taller to pick them. So when my mentor told me to take a long stick and knock the fruit off the tree carefully I was a little unsure how this was going to work! After observing the fruits 10 to 15 feet above the ground for a while and wondering if I had the skill to get them, I decided to take a whack at it. Here is a picture of my attempt:
This is actually a staged shot that was taken post-collecting! We found a really short tree with no fruits on it near the side of the road as we were driving back to the office because I forgot to get a photo earlier. But I think it still gets the point across. I was very careful to not injure any leaves during this trial of collecting, and we gathered over 50 fruits for my mentor. Also, the leaves of the Joshua Tree are very pointy, but I was sure to not get pricked at all! The seeds are now drying back at the USGS office, and once they are ready, I am sure that I will begin the next step in the process of whatever type of analysis we will be running.
The Desert Tortoise is the main reason why the USGS hired us as interns this summer. It is an endangered species that inhabits the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. Tortoise populations have declined dramatically in recent years, partly due to loss of foraging habitat, caused by invasive grass takeover. Bromus madritensis is a non-native grass that has been reducing the native grass and shrub biomass that the tortoises depend on. B. madritensis takes over after wildfires (which were rare prior to B. madritensis invasion), and out-competes the slower growing natives. Conservationists, and hopefully the general public, are very concerned for the Desert Tortoise, which is where we come in! Three other interns and I are part of a research team that is investigating how to deal with B. madritensis by collecting and analyzing results of different desert shrub land restoration techniques. Since starting these post-fire monitoring projects two months ago, we had yet to actually encounter the reptile that we are working to protect, until now!
I give you the Desert Tortoise:
We came upon it as we were driving out to our sites last week. It seemed to be enjoying the morning cool sunrise while foraging for food. After we stopped for a few pictures, we continued on our way to begin our post-fire tortoise habitat monitoring for the week. I try to keep the image of the tortoise in the back of my head so that I can remember the big picture for this project. Hopefully this research can lead to successful restoration techniques that will make it more likely that future interns will come across a tortoise, sooner than two months into the program!
For the last couple weeks we have been collecting annual plant biomass on BLM land near Parashant National Monument. Today was the last day of collecting for this particular research project that our supervisors are working on. It has been an interesting week for us, hail in the desert just does not seem right to me! But despite a flat tire that took two hours to change at night due to a faulty jack situation, we still managed to get our field work done by mid-Thursday and make it back to the office for dinner. We have been learning plant identification and ecology for so many annual plants the last couple weeks, and next week we get to start all over, with perennial shrubs. It is so interesting to me to observe how desert grasses have adapted to the extreme environment they exist in. The purpose of this research project is to understand how Desert Tortoise habitat is being affected by climate change; and while it is still too cold to see the tortoise yet, we have seen and heard many other signs of desert wildlife, from coyotes, jack rabbits, snakes, and many other diverse forms of animals. As we march through the rest of April, I look forward to experiencing a warmer desert climate soon (wearing 3 layers during the daytime just seems so strange in the desert!).
Today was the first day of my CLM internship. My mentor went over quite a bit of paperwork with the other three interns and myself. It was mostly tax stuff and liability forms, but we eventually got to discussing the research projects that we will be working on this summer. It sounds like there is some very cool science that is going on in the desert that I had never considered interesting before. The way Sara and Leslie describe the adaptations that both desert plants and animals have to survive the harsh environment seems really neat. Tomorrow we will start our first over-night work trip, where we will be camping out on BLM land east of Las Vegas. We will be working on a monitoring project to collect annual data of a native shrub that is vital to a threatened desert tortoise species. Invasive grass invasion to this habitat has made severe wildfires more frequent, which has been decreasing the population of this desert shrub. We will be taking turns recording data in the field notebook every night this week, and I am sure that Leslie will show us exactly how to write it since taking good recordings and observations are extremely important!
I am looking forward to this first field experience very much, and I am sure that this summer will give me many invaluable experiences for my future.