Maria Alejandra Muñoz

Maria Alejandra Muñoz

Friday, 07 June 2019 17:46

Finding Tortoises in the Desert

Joshua Tree encompasses two deserts: the Mojave Desert and the Sonoran Desert. The Mojave Desert is, of course, characterized by its endemic Joshua Trees and desert bushes, such as Creosotebush. Distinctive wildlife include the Chuckwalla (large! lizard!) and the Mojave Rattlesnake. Topping the list with greatest plant diversity of any desert on the planet, the Sonoran Desert cozies up next to the Mojave within the park. The Sonoran section of the park is characterized by its extreme unforgiving heat, as it lies in the lower altitudes of the park. Given its extreme conditions, it’s surprising to find that this ecosystem can sustain over 500 species of plants. All of this diversity, however, is not present in the park. The most iconic parts of the Sonoran may be in Arizona, where the Saguaro cactus is its most noticeable feature. Still, it is incredible to stand in the Pinto Basin where, in the afternoon, it can reach up to 120 degrees (F). It's a wonder anything can survive these harsh conditions at all. Then you see a lizard scurry through fine sediment, a Jack-Rabbit bounding away, and if you’re lucky, a Desert Tortoise lying in some shade.

The Desert Tortoise doesn’t seem to have a preference for either desert, they are found all over the park and our tagged tortoises are distributed well in both regions. Prime tortoise habitat is found by the park roads, not because they like roads, but because both roads and tortoises are looking for the same thing: easy crossings through mountains. Because of this, the population of tortoises in the park has been threatened as they fall victim to road killings as well as habitat loss. In order to understand more about it’s ecology and how conserve the species, the park has had a long running (15 years) tortoise tracking program. Currently there are 15 tortoises who have had a transmitter placed on the front of their shell. The transmitter has an antenna that, through battery power, is constantly sending out a signal. The antenna is taped down around the front of the shell (nearest the head) so that it doesn’t get in the way of tortoise behavior, i.e getting stuck on branches or affecting mating. That is important to note, since many tracking projects may receive ethical scrutiny to ensure researchers are not adversely affecting their study species. I spent two days this week getting to know the home ranges of each our tortoises. Where are they usually found? Where are its burrows? To my surprise, some of these tortoises seem to be climbing through huge rock piles and have been found on top of mountains (at least what would be mountains to them)! We use a receiver to listen to Boop boop boop’s (on a metronome) emitting from the tortoises’ antenna to track and get a visual on them. Most of the work requires wandering through a territory trying to follow the loudest, highest pitched boop that will lead us in the right direction. On my first experience tracking I walked right past my tortoise! I realized after noticing that the boops behind me were suddenly louder than the ones in front of me. On another tracking adventure, we found the tortoise underneath the rock we had been standing on the whole time trying to get a stronger signal! We felt silly, however apparently, this is a common occurrence. We just need to get a keener tortoise eye! By getting a visual on these tortoises we can track things like: the health of the tortoise, interesting behaviors, their territory ranges, whether or not they seem to stay away from the roads and what they might be eating. I’m really excited to dig more into the data and see what the last 15 years have taught the park and the world about these amazing creatures!

Wednesday, 29 May 2019 02:43

How did you get here?

The summer I turned 22, I drove across the country. I saw the green rolling hills of Appalachia, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the American Desert all for the first time in the span of two weeks. Oh man, what a sight! How I could be so lucky to spend time looking for the next beautiful thing to see, the next landscape to take my breath away, the anticipation of what I would see over the next ridge. I used National Parks to immerse myself in these worlds. I hopped from park to park and everywhere I went I looked at those park rangers with envy. They were living the dream! I would look at their patches and I begged for their attention - “How did you get here?”

“How do I get there?”

Apply they said, but competition is fierce. I’d leave every park looking back hoping for a miracle to make me stay and wear that grey and green. That patch would be a symbol of my success!

Today is one year later. Today I woke up to a hazy sunrise in the desert. Today I met my boss and I learned my responsibilities and goals for this summer. She encouraged me to ask questions, she encouraged me to be outspoken. When I saw something I wanted to learn, ask to be taught. She showed me photos, videos, maps, and data sets of the project she’s been working on the past 15 years: the longest radio telemetry project on desert tortoises in the US (and anywhere). A project that I would begin contributing to very soon. Today I sat down in front of Joshua Tree National Park’s entire upper level management team and introduced myself as the new wildlife intern. Today I was asked, “How did you get here?”

Wednesday, 15 May 2019 14:32

Maria Alejandra Muñoz

My name is Alejandra Muñoz, and I am a recent graduate from Tufts University with a degree in Biology and Environmental Studies. I was born in Colombia and raised in Florida, so I have benefited from both a warm and loving culture at home to endless opportunities in this country. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to follow my passions throughout college, studying wildlife ecology in Boston and around the world. I want to take what I’ve learned and give back to underserved communities through exposure to nature and all it has to offer. I am passionate about conservation, latinx and immigrant issues, LGBTQ issues, and seeing as many beautiful things I can in this short life.