Des(s)ert

As a child growing up I was subject to weekly spelling tests. The efficacy of these tests is questionable based solely upon the amount of red lines on my screen at this very moment, however there were at least two words I never forgot to spell. Those words, of course, are desert and dessert. The trick I was taught to remember the number S’s in each word was that “you always want 2 desserts, but 1 desert is more than enough”. Thus, the letter s appears twice in the word “dessert” and only once in the word “desert”. This trick has served me well, that is until now because I have seen the desert and I would have to disagree on the notion that one desert is more than enough. Last month I had the pleasure to spend two full weeks working “in the field” in the Mojave expanse. In this paper I will argue that the spelling of the word “desert” be permanently changed to dessert so that the number of S’s reflect the beauty, and value of this incredible place.

Exhibit A: A dramatic sunrise over a Yucca (Y. brevifolia, Y. schidigera) and Blackbush (Coleogyne ramosissima) dominated landscape

I would like to predicate my arguments by explaining the reason the JTGP team found ourselves working in the desert in September. We were enlisted to help the USGS with an ongoing project working on repopulating burnt areas of the desert with Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia), Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), and Burro-weed (Ambrosia dumosa). This project is a long-term restoration project spanning many years and hundreds of plots across southern Nevada. The project is aimed not only to restore burnt areas’ vegetation, but also to document survivorship of young plants in the wild of these three species and to help contribute to the limited knowledge available to science on these matters. Over the two weeks we spent in the field we had the good fortune of visiting 5 distinct sites across the region to collect data on the survivorship of the outplants.

A typical day in the field consists of waking up at 0530 Hours for some sunrise shenanigans. My co-intern, Michele Beadle, and I shared coffee and breakfast every morning from the back of the government owned pick-up we called “home base”. After finishing up breakfast, we would load coordinates for our first plots of the day and then head off into solitude. Following gps coordinates we would then walk around and attempt to find hundreds of metal tags that correspond with individual plants, and then record the health of said plant in our PDA’s (Personal Digital Assistant). We carried out this task until the clock struck 1800 Hours, at which our team all returned from their individual plots to home base for dinner. Shortly after dinner we would go to sleep, and then repeat this the next day. While this doesn’t necessarily sound like the most thrilling schedule in the world, it is not the schedule that makes the day, but instead it is the experiences that you fill that schedule with.

Now that we have augmented the situation, and schedule we operated under during our time in the desert, we can begin to explore the exciting aspects of our experience. The first thing that needs to be noted is the breath taking landscapes. Having come from the deciduous forests of the Northeast I can comfortably say I have never seen anything like I have seen in the desert. The strange shapes and vibrant colors of a sunset over the Mojave are absolutely captivating and I have a newfound appreciation and curiosity for what I was predisposed to disregard! Traveling to every new site was an exciting proposition yielding unique landscapes, geologic structures and plant communities. I originally thought that our sites would look more alike to each other than different, but I was wrong, and I am so glad that I was.

Next I would like to mention the wildlife seen. We found a pretty impressive array of desert creatures to our delight (and surprise sometimes). Some cases in which wildlife sightings were great included our twilight observations of Great-Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus), our multiple distanced sightings of beautiful Mojave Green Rattlesnakes (Crotalus scutulatus), and the evidence of Loggerhead Shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus) marked by lizards impaled on Yucca leaves. Less positive (yet still interesting) observations would include co-intern, Josh Poland’s experience with Desert Hairy Scorpions (Hadrurus arizonensis) crawling onto him at night, and my personal experience of being jumped by a tarantula (Aphonopelma chalcodes) whilst sticking my hand into a hole in the name of science.

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Exhibit B : An unlucky lizard impaled by a Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus)

Lastly, but not least importantly, I would like to say that the desert is a fantastic place to learn how to change a tire! On the second to last day of our tenure we found ourselves on top of a hill with three inflated tires, and one tire that had been impaled by stout branch. As we all sat outside the vehicle staring at the task ahead, our supervisor posed the question “who has never changed a tire before?”. Without hesitation Michele and I raised our hands in excitement. After about and hour or so of exploring the laws of thrust and leverage we had successfully changed the tire of our truck! This might be completely subjective, but I would like to say that learning how to change a tire was the cherry on top to the entire desert experience.

Exhibit C : Michele Beadle valiantly posing beside the tire she would soon change

All in all I would like to say that jokes aside I would implore everyone to give the desert a shot because it is more than a barren wasteland devoid of life and happiness. With the correct planning and attitude it can be one of the most interesting landscapes in the world and a place worth protecting and studying. Our time in the desert was a great change of pace from the endless world of datasheets and Joshua Tree seeds we’ve found ourselves in at the City that built the Hoover Dam. Currently we are all back home continuing our work growing plants from seed for our common garden experiment, but each of us will remember and cherish our stints working as desert ecologists last month. And I, for one, will be looking forward to my second des(s)ert experience!

P.S. The desert is also the best place to pose for an absolutely killer profile picture, just so you know….

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.