Hello! Michele here checking in for her final CLM blog for the Joshua Tree Genome Project (JTGP) from the City that Built the Hoover Dam.
Interning at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center has been a blessing. The past month has been a crucial time spent entering, organizing, and cleaning up the data we have collected over the past 6 months. We’ve been chipping away at this during the entire internship, but since we are all off to other adventures at the end of the week, we need to create a master spreadsheet for every Joshua Tree we have data attached to, along with explanations of our processes and organization. Let’s just say, I think all of our excel skills went from lowly merchant level, up to lord status. Note, I did not promote us to kings and queens because we still have yet to master pivot tables.
Seeing how the project progresses in the future, after we are gone, will be exciting to catch-up on later during our conservation careers.
This internship has taught me the trial and error that goes along with ecological research, and I am grateful to learn how to tackle and overcome these hurdles. Life in the desert has been all about adapting. Adapting to living in extreme heat, adapting to life with 3 other interns that I will be forever grateful for, adapting to a new position as a CLM intern, and adapting to the plot-twists that our Joshua Tree seedlings threw at us. All in all I wouldn’t change a thing.
Michele here from the City that Built the Hoover Dam. That is Boulder City, NV if you did not know that fun fact.
This week the Joshua Tree Genome Project team was greeted by a break from the desert heat. A high of 81℉??? What a delight. At 10PM I felt a chill in the air for the first time since I arrived in the desert. For a group of interns that are accustomed to fall breezes and leaves turning blazes of orange and red, we were ecstatic to see some weather that even sort of resembled a “fall” before a swift return to 100 degrees awaits us.
Aside from the cool weather, this week the interns split into two teams. Two of us went into the desert to help monitor a restoration project and two of us continued working at the greenhouse taking care of the Joshua Tree seedlings. I was on the greenhouse team. Along with continuing to collect data on the growth of the Joshua Trees, our task for the week seemed simple at first. Our goal is to plant new seeds for the Joshua Trees that had died after transplanting the seedlings into the crates, but then we took a closer look at how many needed reseeding. Lets just say, we planned for 3,200 trees in our crates and we need to reseed nearly half that number. Nonetheless, we took on the task and persevered through the maze of tracking down each seedling that needing replacement, preparing plant bands for reseeding, finding the corresponding maternal lines to reseed, and of course planting the seeds. This time around, we would plant the seeds directly into the plant bands and we would plant two seeds in hopes of increasing our chances of having a healthy tree from all of the maternal lines needed. By the very end of the week, we had reached our goal, and our crates were FULL of seeds.
To say that all of our plants were dying, however, is far from the truth and quite the negative perspective. The trees that are healthy, are absolutely thriving! We are starting to have a little forest of Joshua Tree seedlings. They are beginning to have as many as five leaves on them! It is amazing to see them grow from the first signs of life, as at the first stages they could be easily confused for a blade of grass. Now they are beginning to look a bit more like multiple blades of grass! I know, how thrilling! But for the life of a Joshua Tree Genome Project intern, it really is incredible.
Next week the team is switching spots, which means I get to go out into the field! I am excited for my first true adventure out into the desert. Usually the field work I have done in the past has been venturing out into forests or prairies, so I am excited to see the contrast the desert will provide. One of my true joys is venturing far into natural landscapes that are well off the beaten path. Having the opportunity to experience places that many others have not is such a blessing. I am excited to see the native plants, walk through the dust, and gaze up at the stars at night.
This project is in collaboration with a handful of academic partners from all over the States and our mentors here in Nevada are among the Principle Investigators because they were some of the first scientists to ever investigate the life cycle, reproduction, demography, and the effects of climate change on Joshua Trees!
So, Why the JTGP?:
JTs are an icon of the Mojave, provide food for a large range of desert organisms, and have an incredible relationship with their obligate moth pollinators. Both organisms have a long co-evolutionary history together which is known to result in JT population differentiation. Given the changes in climate that are projected for the Mojave and surrounding areas, the JT is now also going to be facing selection based on abiotic factors. Therefore, the JT Genome Project was created with the goal of examining the JT’s local adaptation to climate, with the purpose of exploring the primary source of selection across populations (climate [abiotic] vs. pollinator driven population differentiation [biotic]). This will be done by identify ecophysiological traits that determine seedling tolerance to climate change and the genes that structure these traits (Project Proposal, 2020). Crazy cool! It is a multi-year study and we have the good fortune of being here right at the start. Oh, and of course, this project also involves sequencing, for the first time, the JT genome.
Our role as CLM interns:
Here at the USGS, we will handle all logistical and practical matters related to the establishment and monitoring of the JTs. This means planting and growing more than 3,000 JTs in our local greenhouse which will then be replanted at four different common garden sites throughout the Mojave. These four sites represent both the extremes and norms of climate existing across the Mojave. We will then have the opportunity to collect preliminary data and even do some experimental work. These common garden JTs will be the subjects in genetic analyses and physiological assessments that will be occurring in later years of the study. The work of the USGS and our role as CLM interns is paramount to the establishment and future success of this amazing project.
Kicking it off:
This week (among orientations and wrapping up paperwork) we worked on counting and cleaning JT seed collected from a multitude of populations and individuals. This counting and sorting of seed is necessary for the next step: planting!
Counting seed was a great opportunity to see the range of populations we will be working with and the number of individual trees that are a part of this study. We are so excited to start planting and working in the greenhouse next week-those 3,000 JTs are calling us!
From the bustle of the Chicago suburbs to the quiet, slow-paced town of Needles, CA, my first weeks of the CLM internship have been a period of great adjustment. I’m glad to finally be away from the fast-paced days of Gurnee summers that are choked by traffic from the Six Flags amusement park and the mall. Though not much goes on in close proximity to my residence, I enjoy my work with the Needles field office greatly. My adviser Tom Stewart has been very helpful with my adjustment to the extreme temperatures and with navigating the region. I am only beginning to get used to the temperatures that exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a sunny, summer day. A strategy to combat the summer heat has been starting work early. My field work is done before the afternoon hours.
What I love about the field work is the many lizards I can see dashing across the rocky terrain, the Joshua trees that I had only seen in photographs and the dry climate. I don’t mind warm weather, but extreme humidity has always bothered me. Though it is not work-related, I also love the cheapness of produce at some stores in the region. I have bragged to friends and family about the affordability of avocados, grapes and strawberries. The only scary part of the work is the threat of rattlesnake bites. Though I have yet to hear that fear-inducing rattle, I have made myself a promise to not listen to an iPod while collecting so that I do not foolishly stumble across an angry rattlesnake.
As far as work goes, most of my time thus far has been spent collecting seeds for SOS from key plant species such as white bursage, creosote, indian ricegrass, big galleta and more. Proper and efficient seed collection from desert plants is a new skill that I am developing. Luckily I spent a great deal of time with flora and fauna identification in college; thus, my understanding of desert wildlife is rapidly expanding. I hope that my seed collecting can help to preserve plant species that are at risk due to pests, grazing animals, invasive species, pollution and other causes. Some seeds are extremely easy to collect (white bursage) but some can be very time-consuming (creosote). I have noticed that my first days of seed collection were awkward and confusing. Since my most recent field work, I can confidently say that my skills are improving.
I am also using GPS to mark good locations for seed collection as well as animals that are spotted. I found two desert tortoises (endangered species) on the same morning on my way to a desert spring. Some employees at the office say that they have only seen one tortoise after years of working in the field! Photographs of anything that catches my eye are taken at my leisure.
I am on the verge of working with water source management, bat surveys and other projects in the near future. Until then, I will see you fellow interns at the Grand Canyon.