Maria Alejandra Muñoz

Maria Alejandra Muñoz

Thursday, 01 August 2019 18:23

Last Day in The Field

Yesterday was my last field day at Joshua Tree National Park and it did not disappoint! I spent about seven hours in the park and each hour was different than the one before it. 

Early in the morning I took off with a JOTR Wildlife Technician, Kristen Lalumiere, to meet with two Archeological Technicians. Already, the day seemed promising. I love getting involved with work from the other branches and I especially love seeing park staff out in the field doing what they do best. The Arch Techs, during a survey, found some roosting bats and we came along to take some data on them. The bats, miraculously to me, were roosting in a flake - a very skinny tight crevice- on the face of a boulder. Bats have largely been recorded in abandoned mines and very rarely have been found out in Joshua Tree Rock Piles. Kristen identified them to be Mexican Free Tail Bats; this is the first time this species has ever been officially recorded in the park! 

After a lot of excitement and pictures I had to be on my way to complete my tasks for the day. Casually, before we leave we see a pair of coyotes sauntering off into the desert. I set off on my own into the Pinto Basin, a huge stretch of untouched desert and the least popular place in the park due to its scorching temperatures. But hey, I had a smile on my face, AC blasting, and amazing views to keep me company. I tracked my last desert tortoise Sawahkit, named by a group of tribal workers and means ‘tortoise’ in their indigenous language. Sawahkit is my favorite. This tortoise has somehow descended a canyon and then ascended to the other side of the canyon, climbed a ridge, and sat down under some rocks. It blows my mind every time I track him. I always shake my head while I struggle to climb out of this canyon,  astonished that this tortoise must’ve been a better rock climber than me. 

For the rest of the day, I traverse the entire southern end of the park checking and maintaining pitfall traps that were installed in the 90’s. Pitfall traps are an assortment of buckets buried beneath the ground. There is fencing running in between each bucket so when an animal runs into the fencing they are basically corralled to have to run by the bucket to get past the fence. They fall into the bucket, unable to get out. Sounds cruel, but worry not! The lids are taken off the buckets at dusk and checked immediately at dawn to prevent any fatalities or injuries. The park has been using this data to assess  mammal biodiversity (rodents) and some reptile biodiversity as part of an ongoing project recording the effects of climate change in different parts of the park. My most memorable check was at the southernmost pitfall trap. To get to it I had to cross a gigantic wash, there must’ve been a lot of water running through this area a long time ago so it’s very flat and the sand is compact. As I’m walking across I noticed a pair of ears on the ground. Have you ever seen a jackrabbit? If you have, you know that they have an unmistakably large pair of ears. They actually use their large ears as a way to stay cool - they radiate off any excess heat from them! These ears  were laying on the ground next to me and I followed them up to a head - and nothing else. If you’re squeamish, stop reading. Something had eaten the rest of the rabbit and left just the head behind! Either that or I interrupted whatever was about to eat the head and I was not about to stick around and find out so after a quick picture I hightailed out of there! 

Not bad for a day in the desert. 

Monday, 29 July 2019 22:30

Stewardship at Joshua Tree National Park

Stewardship is the intersection between three key principles: Understand, Assess, and Apply. These principles are an approach to applying resource management. Imagine being in charge of all resources (cultural, wildlife, vegetation, and physical sciences) in an area of nearly 800 thousand acres that is all of Joshua Tree National Park. That person here at Joshua Tree National Park, Jane Rodgers, is nothing short of amazing. Here’s what she taught me: First, you must understand what lies within your boundaries. Here we have a park full of historical artifacts (native artifacts, mines, and rancher artifacts) that spell out a rich history of the area. The Sonoran desert is the world's most diverse desert in terms of plant life, supporting a surprising amount of wildlife. Desert oases are scattered throughout the park, hinting at the origin of the name 29 palms, the town hugging the northern side of the park and where I’ve called home for the past two months. Next, assess what you’ve understood to be within your boundary. It may be difficult to check in with every rock, every living plant or animal species, so instead maybe you pick an indicator species or specific representative areas within the park. Are birds nesting? Are plants reproducing? How has rainfall changed in different areas of the park? Are artifacts being preserved? Use strategic science such as climate change studies, visitor use studies, and long term monitoring of resources to continually assess the state of resources within the park. Once that is done you can apply management strategies such as the preservation of historic artifacts (signs around pictographs and closing mines), and restoration of natural habitats (replanting over social trails). Managing a natural area such as a park or refuge has always peaked my interest and hearing Jane speak about how she does it for such an expansive, diverse, and popular area really changed my perspective on stewardship and what I want my role to be in conservation. I’d be lucky to do anything as great as what goes on here at Joshua Tree!

Monday, 29 July 2019 21:18

Plant Blindness

The past couple of weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of tracking tortoises with one of the park’s volunteers, Tom. Tom is retired from a long career in the forest service and he is an amazing naturalist. Being out in the field with a naturalist is an incomparable experience. The knowledge I get to soak from them! It’s the closest I feel to being back at school. Sure, I’m learning these new skills and how to conduct field work but arguably the time I’m learning the most is in between tasks when I get to ask questions about what I see around me. I mean, how often do you get to be in a wild landscape, have a question, and be with someone who actually knows the answer? Tom’s knowledge is pretty much specialized in plants, so I’m mostly trying to soak up his plant knowledge as much as possible. Easier said than done.

Two years ago, I learned about something called “plant blindness.” My whole life plants have always just been green, tall or short, they all had the same leaves and some might even have flowers. Essentially, they were all the same to me - I was blind to actual plant characteristics. I’ve been battling this blindness ever since. During my junior year of college, I started learning how to identify plants but everytime I do, it goes in one ear and right out the other. I struggle to remember a single plant I’ve learned the past two years. This summer, I have to keep trying. I will finally cure my plant blindness! 

As we walked through the desert, Tom and I “botanize.” He tells me about the plants we are passing. He goes into detail about their scientific name, their family, and some of their living strategies but as long as I can at least hold on to their common name I know I’m making some progress. I spend the rest of the walk pointing out the same plants over and over again repeating their name: “Creosote, Mojave Aster, Buckwheat, Foxtail Cactus, Silver Cholla, Ocotillo,” praying that repetition will be my cure. I’ve only had the pleasure of being out with Tom a couple times but since then I’ve created a list, and a journal with “detailed” (I’m not an artist) drawings of plants so I can leave here and forever cherish the desert plants I’ve enjoyed so much. 

My favorite so far, is the Mojave Aster. Part of the sunflower family, it has a beautiful purple flower with yellow center. Interestingly, the aster closes its petals at night. There’s many interesting theories as to why some plants close their flower petals at night, they might be conserving their pollen for the day time when their pollinators are most active. It is not known exactly why the aster closes its but here’s the best part: bees will land in the flower right before the petals close securing a safe place to spend the night. Think about that. Bees spending the night in flowers! It’s such a precious thought I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of our hike. Go enjoy some plants, take a closer look at them, and wonder just how interconnected they might be to the environment around them. 

Thursday, 04 July 2019 01:55

Looking at the bigger picture

The Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) is a beautiful desert plant with radiant yellow flowers. It grows in almost a bush-like bunch so it’s a breath-taking assortment of yellow and green. I see them every time I go out Tortoise tracking. Although, right now, in the middle of summer, they’re all dead. But I can imagine how amazing it looked in the spring. During one of my hikes with our volunteer Tom, I learned a little bit more about how the Brittlebush fits into the greater ecosystem around it. How the plant I walk by every single day, serves a larger purpose. 

The Brittlebush produces a sap-like substance called pitch from their stem. This pitch was used by the Spanish actually as an incense! There something else, however, that has been using the pitch to their favor. Meet the Yellow-bellied Bee Assassin. Listen, I did not make that name up. The Yellow-bellied Bee Assassin is an insect, with a yellow belly, that sits on leaves and ambushes its prey - bees- killing them with venom. Like other insects, the Bee Assassin ovideposits its eggs on plant material. Having their eggs hang out on a leaf or bark is really vulnerable! Interestingly, the female Bee Assassin has been observed with this sticky area of plant resin on her abdomen. It’s been noted that the female will apply this resin to her eggs, deterring predators. Of course, as a scientist, you need hard evidence before coming to such a conclusion. That must be exactly what researchers from UC Riverside thought when they decided to collect and conduct trails on the Bee Assassin to answer this question once and for all. I love science for this reason, especially ecological science. Something perplexes you out in the field - make an experiment to answer your question! 

Researchers collected Bee Assassins from Anza Borrego State Park (not too far from Joshua Tree) and conducted trails to identify the resin on the female’s abdomen, and to confirm if that resin deterred predators (ants). First, they identified the resin to be pitch from Brittlebush! The coolest part is how they figured out the function of the resin. The researchers had a box of ants where they introduced 3 different types of prey at different times, so they had a total of three experiments. First, they introduced eggs of the Bee Assassin, some coated in resin and some coated with a control substance. Then they introduced two different prey insects, fruit flies and cockroaches, also some with the resin and others without. In the end they found that the ants overwhelmingly preferred the eggs and insects without any resin on them. In some cases, they completely ignored the prey coated in resin! So, at least for now, it is confirmed that the brittlebush pitch is not only good for incense but also protects insect eggs from ants. Brittlebush is not only aesthetically pleasing to us, but most likely integral to the bug community here in Joshua Tree. It’s amazing to pick something I see everyday and fit it into the bigger picture. I can’t wait to continue to learn! 

En route to some bee monitoring field work, I got to spend some time with my boss on a lengthy drive through the park. Joshua Trees and granite boulders slide across the landscape, and I decide to take advantage of this time to ask him questions about the National Park Service and what role he plays. As a scientist, I’m interested to know what kind of research he does - I even asked him what kind of project he would do if he had unlimited funds. His response surprised me. Not a lot of research gets to go on at National Parks, at least not as much as some people might think. Wildlife is only a tiny sliver in an entire system mostly dedicated to visitor recreation. Only a small number of projects get funding, and not all project proposals get approved. This begs the question:  What kind of research should be conducted in National Parks?

As Chief of Wildlife, my boss gets a lot of project proposals that come to his desk. These are proposals for scientific research to be conducted in the park from universities and other organizations. There are actually a lot of different opinions on what kind of research should be done within the park. What kind of research should be prioritized? What role do National Parks have in scientific research? These are questions I honestly never considered until now! In my opinion, ecological research has an inherent value all by itself - the act of inquisition and discovery can justify most research. I have always viewed National Parks to be an incredible resource for the scientific community - a place where researchers can go and study species in their natural habitats and (hopefully) pristine environments. Not all would agree with me. As I spend more time here, I’ve come to see that the main mission of the National Parks system is mainly visitor use and recreation. So when a project proposal is on your desk you might ask: How will a study on beetles benefit the visitors? How will it benefit the park? Of course, there’s an argument for both sides. There are some who might not view any value in beetle research since it does not directly benefit visitation use and those in my boss’ seat across the country might deny that proposal. Most funded insect studies are most likely those on pests (especially agricultural pests), and our only interests seems to be on those that affect humans. As climate change and species extinctions become the cornerstone issue of my generation, how do we go about giving value to our wildlife without any ties to human beings? Answering that question will be something we will continue to struggle with. While I can't answer it now, I amazed to be here under my boss' mentorship and I hope to spend the rest of my career trying to answer it. 

 

“Wildlife and its habitat cannot speak so we must and we will.” - Teddy Roosevelt 

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.