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)

The end of the JTGP era (at least for the four of us)

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.

Thank you Mojave desert, thank you JTGP.

Happy and adventurous trails,

Michele

A lovely send-off picture of myself and a Joshua Tree that is only a little bit larger than our seedlings (please reference past blogs for size of Joshua Tree seedlings. Hint: they are small).

We are having a CRATE time.

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.

The crates are prepped and labeled for reseeding. Intern Nick is seeding away!

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.

A thriving Joshua Tree seedling
Joshua Tree seeds; some say they look like watermelon seeds. What do you think?
A little ‘forest’ of Joshua Tree seedlings

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.

Until next time, happy trails!

Michele

The Joshua Tree Genome Project

Hi all! This is Olivia. I am part of a 4 person intern team here on the Mojave Desert, NV working with the USGS on the Joshua Tree Genome Project.

(Check the JTGP out here: http://joshuatreegenome.org)

The mighty Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)
PC: LAD

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.

Fruit of a Joshua Tree

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!

An opened JT fruit-some aren’t is this nice of a condition. Predation by the moth larvae and other grub is common.
Myself (left) and my co-intern Michele (right) working on seed cleaning and counting!

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!

The black seeds are mature and full while the white/tan ones have been aborted and are empty. Some fruits had 500+ seeds while others only had 20!

Until next time,
Olivia T.

Oh Mohave

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.

Kudos.

– Eric Clifton