Under the Desert Stars

The moon on our first overnight in California

This month has been a great combination of honing research skills and gaining new experiences. In regard to skills, I have counted tens of thousands of seeds, created graphs and statistical analyses with Python, and, of course, spent plenty of time in the field. My two new major work experiences go hand in hand: overnight trips and live animal trapping. So far, I have spent the night out in the desert either for logistical reasons –too far to drive there and back in one day– or for trapping. It’s actually quite nice to work in the late evening; the sun is setting, so everything has a nice sunset hue, the temperatures are lower, and the desert itself is a little more active. Some of the more energetic evening wildlife I’ve seen are the bats in Utah, and the desert stink beetles (Eleodes sp.) all over the Mojave. These funny invertebrates walk around with their thoraxes in the air, ready to spray potential harassers. For sleep, I have elected both sleep inside our work truck, when it looked a little too cloudy for comfort, and under stars on clear nights. For those clear nights, I was taught to spread my tarp on flat even ground, without any rodent holes. The reason for this being that if you cover their holes accidentally, you will spend your night listening to the sound of constant escape attempts from these little critters. Speaking of little critters, these subterranean mammals can also be the bane of a research garden.

Stink Beetle with its thorax raised

Over the past month, I have both trapped alongside regular plant assessments, as well as on trips with the sole purpose of removing rodents. These critters, kangaroo rats and pocket mice specifically (in the Heteromyidae family), can really tear up our precious plant specimens. They can chew off leaf tips, or even uproot entire plants. Despite our perimeter fence that surrounds the entire garden and even continues fairly deeply below the surface, sometimes these cuddly pests sneak inside. Luckily, we can deal with them humanely. At night we set rectangular traps with openings that shut when passed through by hungry rodents. We bait these boxes with birdseed, and in the morning we collect them, releasing any intruders far away from the garden. The “k-rats” and pocket mice are very cute, and hop away after release with surprising speed.

In terms of just living out here in Vegas, I have continued to see a lot of amazing scenery and wildlife! There’s plenty of amazing sights within the city at wetland parks, and out in recreational areas like Red Rock and the Spring Mountains. Below are some of the neat stuff I’ve been lucky enough to see!

Next month, beyond continuing field work, we begin our effort to plant even more Joshua Trees for research, so I plan to have a lot to talk about with that! Thanks for reading, see ya next month.

Mojave Desert at sunset

First Month in the Mojave!

Adult Joshua Tree in Red Rock Canyon

It’s been one month since I moved to Las Vegas to work with the US Geological Survey, and I’ve already seen and done so much! I have just about completed two rounds of field work. We travel across the Mojave every three weeks, visiting four “common gardens” in three states. The project I am mostly focused on is called the Joshua Tree Genome Project, and on these trips we inspect hundreds of Joshua Tree seedlings. These gardens vary in terms of climate and soil, but no matter what, it’s still very hot! I learned very quickly that working in extreme heat, even in the early morning, requires serious preparation and management. I wear long sleeves and a big sun hat, and hydrate very frequently. We also have to watch our salt intake to make sure we aren’t displacing electrolytes too quickly. That said, it is super cool to work in an environment so starkly different than my humid and forested home state of Virginia. One other aspect of field work that is a very new experience to me would have to be watering. We tow a giant water tank trailer to our gardens, and use an engine and fire hose to shower the seedlings with a lot of water. Its certainly a little more involved than using a garden hose, especially when the wind blows the water right back at you and soaks you completely! Next week I finish this round of fieldwork, which will entail sleeping overnight in the field, so that we can water and work in the cooler evening and morning.

Watering the seedlings

Outside of fieldwork, I have spent quite a lot of time with Joshua Tree seeds. This past month, I have counted thousands of seeds, both to give us an idea of our inventory, and to partition off seeds for future projects. Now that I have finished with the genome project seeds, I have been fiddling around with Python, both with the seed count data and the field data. My third realm of work would be greenhouse clean-up. Not necessarily as exciting as field work, but it is a nice break from data entry, and we get to repot Joshua Tree seedings, which is pretty cool! Overall, I’m glad I’ve been able to work a variety of duties, gaining experience in both office-work and field-work. Eventually, I will also be working in the lab, which I definitely look forward to.

Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) seeds being sorted

One last thing to mention is the nature around here in Nevada! Coming from Virginia, the only lizards I was accustomed to seeing were skinks, but out here, there is a myriad of cool reptiles! I’m also lucky enough to live near a wetland preserve, where I have seen a variety of new birds! As well, I have seen so many cool desert and mountain flora, including cacti and adult Joshua Trees! Recently, I have learned that there are several endemic species living in the Spring Mountains, just outside Vegas, including the very cute Palmer’s Chipmunks!

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

Moving forward, I am excited to continue with field work, begin lab work, and start to really analyze our data! Of course, I also look forward to exploring more of the Mojave and its amazing wildlife!

Palmer’s Chipmunk (Neotamias palmeri)