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

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).

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.

Life vs. Un-life

The first detailed description of the Mojave Desert before I encounter on the CLM Internship:

p186
“… over the pass and into the Mojave Desert, a burned and burning desert even this late in the year, its hills like piles of black cinders in the distance, and the rutted floor sucked dry by the hungry sun. … The Mojave is a bit desert and a frightening one. it’s as through nature tested a man for endurance and constancy to prove whether he was good enough to get to California. The shimmering dry heat made visions of water on the flat plain. And even when you drive at high speed, the hills that mark the boundaries recede before you.”

Thank you Steinbeck for that bleak description of the Mojave Desert. But then he goes on about the mysterious aspects of the desert:

p192
” The desert, being an unwanted place, might well be the last stand of life against unlife. For in the rich and moist and wanted areas of the world, life pyramids against itself adn in its confusion has finally allied itself with the enemy non-life. And what the scorching, searing, freezing, poisoning weapons of non-life have failed to do may be accomplished to the end of its destruction and extinction by the tactics of survival gone sour. If the most versatile of living forms, the human, now fights for survival as it always has, it can eliminate not only itself but all other life. And if that should transpire, unwanted places like the desert might be the harsh mother of repopulation. For the inhabitants of the desert are well trained and well armed against desolation. Even our own misguided species might re-emerge from the desert. The lone man and his sun-toughened wife who cling to the shade in an unfruitful and uncoveted place might, with their brothers in arms- the coyote, the jackrabbit, the horned toad, the rattlesnake, together with a host of armored insects- these trained and tested fragments of life might well be the last hope of life against non-life. The desert has mothered magic things before this.”

For the whole chapter he writes about the desert in Travels with Charley. It was this northern girl’s first introduction to the desert. Sure, I have heard about deserts before on nature shows and in old west movies, but to know I will be there for the next five months, working in the desert… I have heard about the curious beauty of the desert, and those who inhabit it. Now I get to see it first hand for myself, and decide what I think of it. I have been told that every biologist should see the desert sometime in their lives to witness flora and fauna living in an extreme environment, and for me it is one of the first things I am doing on my way to becoming a biologist. Check that off the to do list. And as for the desolate absence of water and the searing heat I say… bring it on.