Native American Heritage Month

November is Native American Heritage Month, a time devoted to celebrating the traditions, cultures, and contributions of Native Americans. NPS joins the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum each year to hold events, lectures, concerts, webinars, and more, all honoring Native Americans. WNPA applauds this initiative and takes part by bringing attention to Native American events throughout the year.

Navajo Code Talkers and cousins Pfc. Preston Toledo (left) and Pfc. Frank Toledo relay orders in Navajo over a field radio (courtesy of National Archives, photo no. 127-MN-57875).

Code Talkers

Thousands of brave Native American men and women have served this country: more than 12,000 in World War I (when Native Americans were still not considered US citizens), an estimated 44,000 in World War II, an estimated 10,000 in the Korean War, and more than 42,000 during the Vietnam War. What many don’t know is how vital Native Americans were to our communication during these wars.

Code Talkers were first used in WWI, when Choctaw soldiers transmitted messages in their native language, making them indecipherable to the Germans. Later, as WWII escalated, Native Americans from 16 tribes were recruited to become Code Talkers. These Code Talkers transmitted crucial battlefield communications in their native language (a Type Two Code) or in a special word-to-letter code (a Type One Code). Navajo was the primary code language, with over 400 Navajo men serving as Code Talkers. Navajo has very complex grammar and was almost never spoken by nonnatives; it is estimated that, when WWII began, fewer than 30 non-Navajo could understand it. Further encoding this language by establishing the Type One word-to-letter system (the Navajo word for “cat” meant C, the word for “dog” meant D, and so on) made it incredibly secure. The Navajo Type One Code is the most well-known, but Comanches, Hopis, and Meskwakis also made their own Type One Codes for their languages.

The Code Talker program came to an end during the Vietnam War. The program was kept highly secret. It was not until 1968 that its existence became declassified information. Years later, in 2000, the United States passed legislation to award Navajo Code Talkers the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2008, the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008 was signed into law, honoring all Native Americans who served as Code Talkers in WWI and WWII.

Hubbell Trading Post is located on the Navajo Nation.

Focus on Hubbell Trading Post

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, a living trading post in Ganado, Arizona, is a unique place. First purchased by John Lorenzo Hubbell in 1878, Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest continuously operating trading post in the American Southwest, with groceries, dry goods, and handwoven Navajo rugs for sale.

Trade was a very important part of Navajo life in the late 1800s. In 1864 “the Long Walk of the Navajo” began, with thousands of Navajo forced to walk more than 300 miles from their traditional lands to an internment camp called Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The 40-square-mile camp was overcrowded; as many as 10,000 men, women, and children were held there, and conditions were exceedingly poor. During the four years the Navajo were held at Bosque Redondo, thousands died from diseases, starvation, and exposure to the elements.

The Navajo Treaty was signed on June 1, 1868, allowing the Navajo to return to a portion of their land. On June 18, 1868, the Navajo began their walk home. Upon their arrival, they found their way of life destroyed: their cattle dead, their fields decimated. Trade with men such as John Lorenzo Hubbell was one of the only ways to survive.

The Hubbell family continued to run the post until the 1960s, and the act designating it as a National Park Site was signed into law in 1965. Western National Parks Association is proud to have operated Hubbell Trading Post since 1967, keeping this important part of history alive and continuing to support hundreds of artists and craftspeople.

Hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho were killed in the Sand Creek Massacre (courtesy of NPS Photo).

Sand Creek Massacre

The Sand Creek Massacre is a dark spot on the country’s history, but one that should not be ignored. On November 29, 1864, 675 men of the Colorado US Volunteer Cavalry led by US Army Colonel John Chivington attacked an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho, slaughtering many of the men, women, and children there. Well over half of the approximately 230 killed were women and children. The site of this attack is now Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.

Black Kettle, the most prominent Cheyenne leader in the village, had advocated for peace treaties in the past. It is said he raised the American flag and a white flag over the encampment as soldiers attacked, but this call for peace was ignored. Black Kettle escaped the massacre, but many other chiefs and the majority of Black Kettle’s people did not. George Bent, a surviving member of Black Kettle’s clan, said, “Black Kettle’s band, the clan he was in charge of, ‘Wu-ta-pi-u,’ were nearly all killed at Chivington’s Massacre at Sand Creek in 1864. Only few men were left.”

Black Kettle continued to push for peace, signing the Little Arkansas Treaty in 1865 and the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867. He was shot and killed by US soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer in the Battle of the Washita on November 27, 1868, almost four years to the day after the Sand Creek Massacre. The site of the Battle of the Washita, Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, is also an NPS park.

Both of these parks are deeply important sites which hold our nation accountable for past transgressions against Native Americans. “Not all of our country’s past has been virtuous,” said Sand Creek’s acting chief of interpretation, Rick Wallner. “We must remember the times we have acted contrary to our national ideals of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The enabling legislation for Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site even states one of the purposes of the site is to ‘assist in minimizing the chances of similar incidents in the future.’ At Sand Creek, visitors can reflect on this tragic event and join in the hope such an incident never happens again.”

Do you know any fourth graders? Do they have their Annual 4th Grade Pass yet? This pass, available to US students in the fourth grade (or its homeschool equivalent), lets kids visit more than 2,000 Federally-managed recreation areas, including national parks, for free. It’s valid for one school year and the following summer, so the 2017­–2018 pass will expire on August 31, 2018. Aimed at getting kids into nature at a time when they are primed for making connections with the world around them, this initiative encourages kids to become the future stewards of our public lands. This fee waiver, which also applies to occupants of the car with the fourth grader (hello, family trip!), makes visiting public lands a possibility for numerous children who may not have been able to afford such an experience otherwise. If you or someone you know is interested in this pass, more information can be found on the Every Kid Outdoors website.

While visiting a park, some children take part in the free NPS Junior Ranger program. After completing an educational activity booklet, kids are sworn in by a park ranger and welcomed to the NPS “family” with a certificate and badge. Many children make it a mission to collect as many Junior Ranger badges as they can! Read more about the Junior Ranger program.

WNPA provides financial aid to parks to assist with the costs of running Junior Ranger programs, such as printing booklets, ordering badges, and designing activities, ensuring children can explore, learn about, and protect national parks. This year, WNPA participated in #GivingTuesday, a global day of charitable giving following Thanksgiving. We’re happy to announce we raised over $2,500 to benefit Junior Ranger programs! James E. Cook, executive director of WNPA, says, “Our yearlong fundraising campaign is still ongoing, and we have a goal of raising $80,000 to serve 80,000 Junior Rangers. The Junior Ranger program provides important park connections to children, the next generation of public land stewards.” To donate now, please visit our donation page.

February is Black History Month, a month to celebrate “the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” as President Gerald Ford said in 1976. Black History Month was recognized across the country that year as part of the United States Bicentennial. Today Black History Month continues to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of black Americans and also recognize important events in black history. Several NPS sites preserve areas and buildings that are sites of importance to black history.

Fort Davis National Historic Site served as regimental headquarters for all four regiments of the Buffalo Soldiers (courtesy of Jeffrey M. Frank, Shutterstock).

Fort Davis

During the Civil War, more than 180,000 African Americans were volunteers in cavalry, artillery, and infantry units of the Union army, but they were not allowed to enlist as soldiers. After the war, Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act of 1866 to create six new regiments composed entirely of African American soldiers: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry. The 38th and 39th Infantry were later consolidated and renamed the 24th Infantry, and the 40th and 41st Infantry later became the 25th Infantry. These regiments came to be known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” It’s unknown exactly how or why the soldiers earned this moniker, but one theory is that the Plains Indians who came into contact with the African American soldiers gave them the nickname because of the similarity between the dark, curly hair of the soldiers and that of buffalo.

Fort Davis, located in West Texas, has the distinction of serving as regimental headquarters for all four regiments of the Buffalo Soldiers. Beginning in 1867 with the 9th Cavalry, Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at Fort Davis for almost 20 years until the 10th Cavalry left in 1885. The Buffalo Soldiers played an important part during the years of the American Indian Wars, protecting the area from attacks and escorting US mail deliveries. They also laid roads, mapped vast swaths of land in the US Southwest, and constructed hundreds of miles of telegraph lines.

The US Army was officially desegregated in 1951, nearly one hundred years after the first Buffalo Soldiers served. Today, their legacy and importance in the history of the armed forces is preserved at Fort Davis National Historic Site.

Descendants of Nicodemus settlers visiting the Nicodemus National Historic Site Visitor Center (courtesy of NPS Photo).


Nicodemus National Historic Site in Nicodemus,Kansas preserves the only remaining town established by African Americans during Reconstruction. The town of Nicodemus was established in 1877, one of many small agrarian communities founded in the latter half of the 1800s. Nicodemus was intended to be a black community in the Midwest, a free city away from the tension of Reconstruction in the South. When 350 black settlers from Lexington, Kentucky arrived in northern Kansas in September 1877, not all were pleased with the scene that awaited them. Instead of the woods and mountains of their former home, they found only the emptiness of the Great Plains. Some immediately returned home, but over time Nicodemus grew, with four more waves of settlers coming after the initial group. Businesses were established, including a hotel and two stores, and three churches were built. Though life could be hard in the small town, residents of Nicodemus persisted. It was the promise of freedom that propelled them forward. Today, the site is preserved to honor the strength of character and determined perseverance of its settlers.

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The Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site commemorates the landmark Supreme Court case of the same name (courtesy of Midwest National Parks, Flickr).

Brown v. Board of Education

The famous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case ended racial segregation in American public schools in 1954. Today, the legacy of the pivotal decision is preserved at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. Though manythink of this court case as one little girl suing to attend an all-white school, in reality it was five different court cases from Kansas, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Virginia, and South Carolina. These cases combined into one case named Oliver Brown et al. v. The Board of Education of Topeka and involved dozens of plaintiffs from multiple schools in the five locations. This case overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, which upheld the constitutionality of “separate but equal” public schools. In Brown, the Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This ruling was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, which fought for equal rights for black Americans. Today, the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site remains one of the most crucial landmarks dedicated to protecting and preserving African American history.

You may have heard “half the park is after dark,” a slogan from a line of posters created by astronomer and educator Tyler Nordgren. Now the saying rings true as the unofficial motto of the NPS “Night Skies” program.

Many of our national parks are protected from the light pollution of bustling cities by their relative isolation, giving visitors unprecedented views of the night sky. The International Dark-Sky Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting dark skies and keeping light pollution at bay so present and future generations can enjoy the stars. The association recognizes lands across the world that possess exceptional night sky views and “a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” In order to be designated as International Dark Sky Parks, these lands must use approved outdoor lighting that does not contribute to light pollution and also offer dark sky viewing programs for visitors.

NPS takes the protection of dark night skies seriously, recognizing that these nightscapes represent another facet of preserving nature untouched by man. Twenty-seven NPS units have earned the honor of being recognized as Dark Sky Parks, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Great Basin National Park, Capulin Volcano National Monument, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. These parks and many others offer night sky programming for visitors, such as stargazing, night hikes, and ranger-led interpretive programs about the wonders of the night sky. There is also a Junior Ranger Night Explorer program where children between the ages of five and 12 learn about astronomy, nocturnal wildlife, and light pollution. Dark Sky Week was created in 2003 by Jennifer Barlow, a high school student. It has grown to be a worldwide event. Every April during the week of the new moon, people around the world turn off unnecessary lighting to temporarily reduce light pollution. During Dark Sky Week (or any time of the year), a visit to a Dark Sky Park is a very special experience.

Great Basin National Park is one of 27 NPS sites designated as Dark Sky Parks (courtesy of NPS)

Long-term research by NPS staff and other scientists suggests that, since the 1990s, a punishing drought has severely hampered the germination of saguaro seeds and growth of young plants into healthy adults.

Looking like a jumbo dill pickle with spines, the small saguaro was barely visible under a shrubby palo verde tree. Maria DelVecchio, WNPA’s senior marketing manager, spotted it and stopped midstride. Squatting beside it for a closer look, she called over her shoulder, “Found a baby.” Her fellow volunteers on the WNPA Saguaro Census team flashed thumbs-up. With Jesús Duenas, a Saguaro National Park intern, leading them,they converged on the small cactus. While one of her teammates wove a numbered pin flag through the spines and another read its Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, Maria unfolded a wooden ruler and measured its height. “Ten-point-two centimeters.” Jesús recorded the data on a field form. As the rest of the group moved on, Maria took a minute to estimate the saguaro’s age. Ten-point-two centimeters. Four inches. About 15 years old. She thought about how lucky this little plant was to be alive.

A Saguaro’s Story

This junior saguaro’s story started with one seed in 40 million—the number that an adult may produce in its lifetime. Its parent was a Carnegiea gigantea, one of the enormous elders of the Sonoran Desert that are found nowhere else on Earth and for whose protection Saguaro NP was established. This adult cactus may still be standing tall in another part of the park.

On a July day 15 years ago, perhaps a white-winged dove stuffed itself on the succulent red fruit produced by one of the creamy white flowers that had dotted the parent saguaro’s arms. The dove may eventually have come to rest on a shrubby palo verde tree. It excreted the seeds, some of which fell to the ground. One seed germinated. The tiny plant was given a leg up by its “nurse” tree: shade, protection from predators, a little extra water that gathered in the depression at the tree’s base. For over a dozen years, the young saguaro dodged ecological bullets in the form of thirsty pack rats and mule deer, scorching summers and winter freezes, failed monsoon rains. It survived to become the hidden treasure that Maria and her colleagues recorded on the 2020 NPS Saguaro Census.

Few seeds—or young saguaros—are so fortunate. Long-term research by NPS staff and other scientists suggests that, since the 1990s, a punishing drought has severely hampered the germination of saguaro seeds and the growth of young plants into healthy adults. Because they are growing in a national park, these youngsters are shielded from some threats to which saguaros outside the park succumb. For example, they are protected from cattle grazing and indiscriminate cutting of nurse trees, such as palo verde and mesquite. But they cannot escape the consequences of the long drought and extreme weather events, which may be exacerbated by climate change. Likewise, they are vulnerable to region-wide, human-induced pressures like groundwater pumping in metropolitan Tucson.

To make matters worse, some ecological changes form a tangled net that amplifies the danger for saguaros struggling toward adulthood. For example, buffelgrass—

a large, invasive bunchgrass introduced into the US Southwest as cattle forage—appears to compete directly with young saguaros for space, water, nutrients, and shade. But buffelgrass poses an additional, less direct threat: wildfires. A desert floor covered with buffelgrass is a tinderbox that can explode into rapid, searing flames that destroy saguaros and other native plants. Buffelgrass, on the other hand, bounces back, stronger than ever. To add insult to injury, the establishment of this grass profits from rising ambient temperatures, which also increase the risk of drought and intense fire.

Knowledge is power. To adapt their management practices to these changing conditions on the landscape, NPS staff must know how the saguaro population is responding. Are the adults holding steady in the face of widespread threats? How many young individuals are surviving, and how quickly are they growing? These are the kinds of questions that the Saguaro Census at Saguaro NP was designed to answer.

In 1990, NPS scientists began this census to coincide with the US Census of human populations. A major component of the census is to count and measure saguaros on 45 randomly located plots spread across the park’s two districts: the Rincon Mountain District and the Tucson Mountain District (known to many visitors as “Saguaro East” and “Saguaro West,” respectively). Each plot has an area of 200 by 200 meters. By taking repeated “snapshots” of the number and size of individual saguaros in a particular plot, investigators can compare data on growth and survival within age classes across the years.

From the beginning, park staff knew that they could not accomplish such a massive field effort alone. One of their strategies has been to train and deploy dedicated interns, who work with science advisers and saguaro experts to create the study design and to record data in the census plots. WNPA, among other organizations, has contributed toward funding of the research, especially the participation of interns. In doing so, WNPA has supported perhaps the most important function of interns: the training and oversight of citizen scientists—volunteer teams that are crucial to the success of the census fieldwork.

Park biologist Don Swann, a principal investigator and one of the founders of the Saguaro Census, described the role of these volunteers: “Citizen science greatly expands our capacity to gather basic knowledge and understand changes in the park’s biodiversity. It has the added benefit of giving visitors, students, and others an opportunity to learn about and appreciate these complex ecosystems in a close-up, hands-on way.”

A Citizen Scientist’s Story

The story of a citizen scientist may start with a different kind of seed. When she was a teenager, Maria intended to study biology and was considering becoming a forest ranger. Professional life has taken her elsewhere, but Maria still loves wild places. Every Sunday, she makes a point of hiking in the desert and mountains around her hometown of Tucson.

Maria had been WNPA’s senior marketing manager for less than a month when word spread through the main office in Tucson about a volunteer opportunity at Saguaro NP. Park staff needed a team of citizen scientists to complete the 2020 census of Plot 28, in the Tucson Mountain District. Although WNPA staff had volunteered for other efforts to support the park, they had never before fielded a Saguaro Census team. In short order, like-minded colleagues decided to take up the challenge, and early on a warm, sunny January morning, Maria and 11 teammates headed out to Plot 28.

Once on the ground, interns divided the WNPA team into groups of three to five people. An expert from Saguaro NP accompanied each group, guided their work, and recorded the data that they collected. Maria’s group started walking off-trail along a defined swath of desert, marked with flagging. Whenever they saw a saguaro within the boundary of their swath, they stopped to pin-flag it, record a GPS location, and measure it, as they did for the little 15-year-old that Maria found under the nurse tree. Height measurements were relatively straightforward for the smaller plants—team members could use the folding ruler. But for saguaros taller than 4 meters (about 13 feet), two teammates had to measure height by looking through clinometers and then comparing their results for accuracy. These handheld optical devices measure angles that can then be converted to heights. The technique may sound like simple geometry, but according to one of Maria’s teammates, WNPA publishing manager Sara Maher,

“Using the clinometers took some getting used to, but once we got the hang of it, it was really cool seeing how tall the saguaros actually are.”

For these big saguaros, the team also recorded the number of stems (arms), the number of cavities (many of which were nest holes used by birds), and any visible damage or rot.

After the first pass through each swath of the census plot, the survey groups switched paths to do a second sweep. The focus of this second pass was to find the smaller saguaros that might have been missed on the first trip through. As the day went on, teammates entered into friendly competition. Points were scored for recording the tallest and the smallest. Points were lost for mistaking a hedgehog cactus (which can look very similar) for a young saguaro. Finding the most “babies” was a major goal of the game. One tiny saguaro, almost inaccessible in a thicket and nearly invisible to most team members, was named Christine in honor of its discoverer, WNPA’s chief financial officer Christine Horvath.

Finally, all the saguaros in Plot 28 were accounted for, and the team made one last pass to collect the pin flags, as well as the flagging that marked the plot boundaries. At the end of six hours in the field, one of Maria’s teammates, graphic designer Brad Sutton, was not tired but energized. For him, the experience was a throwback to his days on staff at Joshua Tree National Park, where he valued time spent in the field with resource experts “I’ll never forget the experience of being a part of the Saguaro Census,” he said. “I’ll always have that special connection to the park.” Maria agreed: “I can never look at a saguaro the same way again.”

Like other groups that have participated in the census, the WNPA team was able to see the results of their efforts soon afterward. The NPS interns and investigators quickly compile the data for each plot and post displays and summaries on the census website, along with photographs of the team members in action. Maria and her teammates learned that they had counted and measured more than 150 saguaros in their section of Plot 28. When their data were combined with those from the survey of the rest of the plot, the total count was 539 saguaros in an area of slightly less than 10 acres. Thirty-three of those individuals were as short as or shorter than Maria’s 15-year-old. Good news—in 1990, only 393 saguaros were counted in Plot 28. Both the higher count and the distribution of young saguaros among age classes in 2020 suggest that these cacti are surviving and growing.

The big-picture results are encouraging, too. Analysis of the data from the 2010 census showed a 65 percent increase, since 1990, in the number of saguaros recorded across all 45 plots in the two districts. Mathematical estimates placed the total population for the park at nearly two million. Don Swann emphasized the value of continuing this research in 2020 and beyond: “We’re concerned about the future of saguaros in the park because, in general, we have seen far fewer young saguaros surviving in the past 25 years than we saw during the period from the 1960s through the early 1990s. However, we’re not alarmed, because saguaros are a long-lived plant, very resistant to drought, and capable of reproducing for over 100 years. Continuing the Saguaro Census will allow us to keep an eye on how the population is doing in the long term.”

For centuries, saguaros have been an integral element of the deep cultural traditions of the Tohono O’odham, whose annual harvest of saguaro fruits continues in Saguaro NP to this day. With the Saguaro Census, citizen scientists of all ages and cultures can be part of a different kind of harvest: the gathering of information that NPS staff could never gather alone. Browse the Saguaro Census 2020 website, and you’ll see high-school-age faces (some serious, some smiling) among the team photos. Like Maria’s little saguaro, these young scientists are a source of hope for the future of Saguaro NP’s beloved giants.

By Jennifer Shopland

The sun rises over the Rincon Mountains east of Tucson, Arizona, beaming hues of orange, pink and purple into the sky. Warmth pours into the desert valley below. Plants and animals meet another scorching day with no clouds in sight. Too many successive rainless days could mean a drought is imminent.

Life in the Sonoran Desert has adapted to the annual rhythm of pounding summer storms and humming winter rains. Extended periods of drought, exacerbated by climate change, are devastating even to the saguaro cactuses that are adapted to live in arid habitats.

The Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, is the only place in the world where these towering cactuses (Carnegiea gigantea) grow. Lying just east and west of Tucson, the two units of Saguaro National Park protect these giants, which are the largest cactuses in the United States. These slow growers can live up to 200 years and reach 70 feet in height, according to the park.

Western National Parks Association and Friends of Saguaro National Park are supporting research that monitors the health of the park’s namesake cactus. One project seeks to better understand why living under or near desert nurse trees can aid the saguaros’ survival. “Nurse plants can be thought of as an umbrella protecting the young saguaros from drying out on hot summer days and from freezing on cold winter nights,” said Cecil Schwalbe, an ecologist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey.

This research adds to evidence that young saguaros also receive a “water benefit” from their nurse trees.

Slow-and-steady growth

Statuesque saguaros are the living monuments of Saguaro National Park, which was established as Saguaro National Monument in 1933 to protect a forest of these giant cactuses east of Tucson. The monument was expanded in 1961 to include 25 square miles west of Tucson, and in 1994 the U.S. Congress elevated its status to a national park.

The saguaros’ arms stretch up to the sky in yoga poses. Their fleshy, ribbed green skin is covered in menacing inch-long black spikes. Spongy material below the skin can expand to store water when there is plenty, then contract as the cactus absorbs the water.

The roots of a saguaro have adapted to catch as much water as possible during a rainstorm. “The tallest saguaros only have a taproot about 1 meter (3 feet) deep, but roots close to the surface are extensive,” said Daniel Winkler, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who conducted much of the new saguaro research. A network of shallow surface roots can soak up rainwater faster than a deep taproot can.

White flowers on top of a saguaro’s trunk and on the tips of its arms attract nectar-feeding bats, birds and insects. Pollinated flowers produce thousands of tiny black seeds inside bright red fruit. The fruit provides food for birds, bats, tortoises, javelinas, coyotes and humans. The seeds travel unharmed through the digestive system of animals and onto the ground in excrement.

While an adult saguaro can survive harsh conditions, its offspring often struggle to establish themselves. There are two notable periods of saguaro decline in recent history. From the 1930s through the 1960s the decline was thought to be caused by heavy cattle grazing and extensive tree clearing. The current decline is attributed to climate change, which has lengthened drought periods. Young saguaros are extremely sensitive to drought.

Saguaros growing under desert trees, such as mesquites, ironwoods and paloverdes, tend to thrive. Thorns covering the trees’ branches prevent cattle from trampling young saguaros. The trees also moderate the heat and cold fluctuations of day and night in the desert.

Temperature and moisture are poorly understood factors that help determine the fate of young saguaros. Scientists wanted to learn more about which sources of water are the most important for their growth.

New research at Saguaro National Park

The goal of this new research was to learn more about how a young saguaro benefits from growing under or near a nurse tree. The hypothesis was that the deep-rooted tree might inadvertently “share” the water that it lifts from deep below the ground.

Researchers set up soil moisture sensors and collected samples of groundwater and rainwater, as well as root tissues from saguaros and their nurse trees. The water samples were studied at the atomic level. A single molecule of water is usually two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. A tiny fraction of water has a deuterium atom in place of a hydrogen atom and is commonly known as “heavy water.” Deuterium has an extra neutron that adds measurable mass.

The fraction of deuterium present in groundwater and rainwater is different, so the researchers could determine which type of water a young saguaro used at different times of the year. Winter’s gentle precipitation soaks deep into the soil because of lower plant transpiration and evaporation and is tapped by trees with deep roots. Scientists had thought that the shallow-rooted saguaros only take up water from the quick, powerful summer rains, which run off quickly.

The study revealed that saguaros use water year-round. By comparing the samples collected, the researchers learned that young saguaros likely access the deep groundwater that nurse trees draw to the surface. The sharing of water occurs when the trees’ shallow surface roots “sweat” during the hot, dry months.

Understanding saguaro growth patterns will help park biologists and managers make informed decisions that will protect young cactuses in the face of higher temperatures and prolonged drought. Understanding the potential importance of nurse trees to young saguaros’ survival will promote land management practices that lower the rate of tree clearing.

“I want the resources of the park to be available for future generations,” said Don Swann, a park biologist who took part in this research project.

Scientists have researched the saguaro for more than 100 years, but they still have much to learn. “Studying the saguaro cactus is the ultimate challenge because they have such a long lifespan,” Winkler said. “They outlive humans.”

By Alyssa Ellsworth, graduate student of chemistry and science communication at the University of Arizona

Just miles from the site where the U.S. military detonated the first atomic bomb, scores of species entirely new to science are fluttering out of the dunes.

When Eric Metzler goes hunting, he packs the big guns: clothespins, tent stakes, a white sheet and a jolt of electricity. The setup doesn’t look like much by daylight. The sheet flaps like laundry in the desert wind. An extension cord swings haphazardly from a portable light.

But when darkness falls, the blue light casts an enchanted glow across the whole assemblage, and the animals Metzler seeks come circling close. “We know almost nothing about moths,” Metzler says as night closes in around his hand-built apparatus. “That’s why I’m here.”

“If you want to know what’s going on on Earth, you have to look at insects,” Metzler says.

Hearing this from an entomologist, one might chalk it off as a biased claim. But in this case, coming from a researcher who has discovered dozens of new species of moths over the last decade, the statement packs some weight. Metzler is a moth collector, and he is also an educator, an award-winning authority on regional biogeography, a former government executive at the state level, an inductee into the Ohio Natural Resources Hall of Fame and a collaborative researcher who brings together human communities across political and demographic lines.

Being well-versed in policy as well as entomology makes him “street smart,” says Pat Metzler, his wife and collection assistant of 50 years. Eric Metzler knows how to read insect populations as litmus tests for broader ecosystem health and shifts in climate. In short, when he speaks, we might all do well to listen.

A discovery like no other

Metzler has been a life-long lepidopterist—an enthusiast of moths and butterflies—and throughout his life he has leveraged this work to protect fragile places and promote citizen science. But in his third attempt at retirement, or his “third career,” as he calls it, he has stumbled across a discovery that may well become his greatest life’s work: the discovery of more than 50 new moth species in White Sands National Monument, New Mexico.

When Metzler first applied for a permit to study moths in White Sands, his goal was humble. In 2007 he chose a small study plot 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) long and 100 meters (about 325 feet) wide, with the intention of obtaining a general inventory of the moths within the national monument while gradually widening the transect out toward the boundaries of White Sands. The Western National Parks Association has helped to fund his work since 2008.

Within a year, Metzler had already discovered five moth species entirely new to science. At this point, the National Park Service stepped in and encouraged him to refocus his attention on finding new species.

For the last ten years, this has been Metzler’s project. He’s still working on that first small transect. “I’m never going to leave it,” he says. “Every year I find more species new to science. It’s just phenomenal. They just keep crawling out of the underbrush.”

An island of diversity

The stunning number of new species that Metzler has discovered may have to do with how little attention we devote to moths in general. Much more is known about the flashier but less diverse butterflies, which Metzler argues are simply “moths in fancy dress.”

But White Sands National Monument is also a rich and bewilderingly understudied site. The park has a striking military legacy: In 1945 the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range (now part of White Sands Missile Range) saw the first atomic bomb test. White Sands also has a long history of recreation. Since its designation as a national monument in 1933, it has seen countless tourists come to sled down the fine-grained white dunes that make it famous.

However, it wasn’t until 2005 that the park came onto the map as a biological hot spot. That year, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, published a groundbreaking study on lizards that had developed white skin to match the white dunes of the park.

White Sands National Monument is part of the largest gypsum dune system in the world, and the pale sand and a high water table make a perfect laboratory for diversity and evolution for more than just lizards. Metzler describes it as an “island” akin to the Galápagos, and this comparison is apt in many ways. Surrounded by desert rather than by sea, the living communities within the dunes have had time in isolation to adapt and thrive.

The mineral content of those drifting gypsum dunes and the moisture just beneath them have provided a platform for evolution to “build new species,” says David L. Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut and author of the Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Because of this, he says, White Sands is globally special: “You won’t find another place that’s only 20 square miles with over 40 species unique to it.”

More than skin deep

How does Metzler go about finding those unique species? He begins by setting black light traps that attract and funnel night-flying insects into a bucket. He usually knows immediately when he has found something new, but he brings the moths back to his home laboratory to sort them carefully. Unfamiliar moths are arranged on a spreading board, where their bodies are held in place by tiny pins. Under a powerful microscope, Metzler looks for clues that will tell him which family each moth might belong to: delicate hairs on the eyes, little tibial claws on the forefeet.

The real identification work requires dissection. Moth species can be identified by extraordinarily specialized genitalia—no two are alike from species to species. Metzler dissects the moths and removes the tiny genitalia, which are translucent and reddish when laid out on glass slides.

To read one of Metzler’s many journal articles about new species involves leafing through pages of photos of these almost sculptural organs, lined with folds and fibers, thin enough to allow the light from the microscope to illuminate them like lanterns. If Metzler finds genitalia that he’s never seen before, he sends off samples for mitochondrial DNA testing in order to confirm his discovery. In this way, Metzler has catalogued 650 species of moths in White Sands National Monument, 50 of which are entirely new to science, “all but five of which occur no place else on Earth,” he says.

No man is an island

Eric Metzler broke his arm recently (disappointingly, it was not from a moth attack). In his home laboratory, his wife, Pat, leans over the table, her silvery curls falling across her face as she contributes some ambidextrous help in bottling up moth legs to send off for DNA analysis. Metzler is quick to acknowledge how lucky he is to have had his wife’s support throughout his moth-hunting career.

He is quick, also, to acknowledge the support he’s had from other entomologists. “Nobody knows everything,” he says. “We can only move forward if we share.”

Several of his species are named in honor of fellow moth collectors. White Sands may be an island in a sea of desert, but Eric Metzler is not.

When asked about his importance in the world of entomology, Metzler is humble. His long-time colleague John Wilson, a former Audubon Society naturalist, says that not many people outside the world of moth specialists know about Metzler’s extraordinary work. He’s “sort of invisible.”

Wilson describes Metzler like the moths he hunts. In the biological world, an animal that can go undetected is called a cryptic species. Entomologists like Metzler, Wilson suggests, “are cryptic species.”

Yet for all his humility and lack of fanfare, Metzler has made waves, not just in taxonomy—describing more than 50 new species over a span of ten years is a remarkable scientific achievement—but also in the realms of conservation and outreach. At a time when national monuments are under fire from the federal government, Eric Metzler’s work has shown the value of protected spaces. Most of the species he has discovered are endemic—that is, found nowhere else in the world outside of White Sands. This makes the monument unique on this planet and—should it disappear—irreplaceable.

Metzler’s work in White Sands National Monument has also helped “create an important scientific bridge” between amateurs and professionals, says David Wagner. “Ten years ago, citizen science was only coming on board, but Eric had already built that bridge two or three decades ago.”

In addition to encouraging amateur collection and youth involvement in science, Metzler brought entomology—and White Sands—to the world stage in 2015, when he gave the Western National Parks Association the naming rights to one of his new moth species as a thank you for the support and funding he’s received from them over the years. WNPA put the naming of the species up for auction on eBay, garnering international news coverage. The winner named the moth after his mother.

All told, at a time when federal wildlands face an uncertain future, Metzler’s work has reinforced the global importance of national parks and monuments. “Cryptic species” though he may be, Metzler’s radius of influence is wide.

A taxonomy of loss

Every year, Metzler makes a pilgrimage to different museums and institutions to explore their behind-the-scenes collections of unidentified moths and confirm whether he has found species that occur elsewhere. It is not uncommon, he says, for institutions to place more effort on collecting animals and filing them away than on actually identifying them. Our planet is in the midst of what scientists are calling the Sixth Great Extinction, and many taxonomists are interested in collecting specimens while a species can still be found and waiting to document them at a later time.

This is Metzler’s undertaking, too. His home office is stacked high with cabinets full of pinned specimens from White Sands and elsewhere that will take a lifetime to identify. Many of these moths may be extinct within the span of that lifetime. It is a strange balance to seek as a scientist—to ride the thrill of discovery while also sitting with the knowledge that these new species might be slated for history books rather than field guides.

Of his astonishing new species discoveries, Metzler says, “This is going to be the documentation of what we lost.”

By Hannah Hindley

The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is an endangered New World vulture and the largest bird in North America. In the 1980s, the entire population of California condors was reduced to 22 birds. With the assistance of captive breeding programs, the condor was brought back from the brink of extinction. Captive-bred birds have been reintroduced to California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California. There were more than 230 condors in the wild in 2013, but the bird’s recovery has been sluggish.

The extremely slow reproductive rate, usually one egg per clutch, and the fact that females don’t nest every year, prevents condor numbers from booming. Young condors are dependent upon their parents for as much as a year and can take 6 to 8 years to mature.

The Impact of Lead on Condor Reproduction

In addition to a slow reproductive rate, the condor’s susceptibility to lead poisoning caused by ingesting lead ammunition fragments, is a major impediment to establishing a viable wild population. Lead impairs the stress response, and elevated stress is known to interfere with avian reproduction.

In 2010, the Peregrine Fund reported that 72 percent of condors captured in Arizona had lead in their blood. Of this number, 34 birds were treated by chelation, a technique for removing heavy metals from the blood. To mitigate lead poisoning in reintroduced condors, each bird is recaptured two times a year and tested for blood lead levels. If a condor tests high for lead, a chelation treatment is warranted.

Research Progress

In 2014, Western National Parks Association awarded a grant to scientists from the University of California Santa Cruz to help fund a study of the stress response in chronically lead-exposed condors and the associated effects on reproductive success. This study is being conducted under the auspices of the condor program at Pinnacles National Park in central California where park officials are currently managing about 25 free-flying condors.

Graduate student Zeka Kuspa, working under the supervision of UC Santa Cruz Professor Donald Smith, along with toxicologist and Adjunct Professor Myra Finkelstein, is examining condor fecal samples for elevated stress hormones in captive condors over a 24-hour period following a routine capture and handling event. After establishing a baseline for stress hormones in the fecal samples of the recaptured birds, the scientists will compare their findings to stress hormone data from condors with high-lead blood levels.

The data collected by these scientists will increase our understanding of the effect of ingested lead on the stress response and reproductive success of this magnificent, endangered bird.

In September 2014, Kuspa presented her preliminary findings at a joint meeting of the American Ornithologists Union, the Cooper Ornithological Society, and the Society of Canadian Ornithologists. We look forward to the final report on this project.

By Susan Swanberg, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona

Emma steps out often but stays close to home.

After almost drowning, Ward kept a low profile for 12 years.

King Tut likes to strut and has been spotted many times over the past several years.

This trio, along with another 180 Gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum), have been identified through a citizen science project conducted in the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park, east of Tucson, Arizona. Funded by Western National Parks Association, this study supports conservation efforts for the Gila monster through natural history and genetic studies. The project’s researchers also see citizen involvement as a key factor, since it fosters appreciation for science and protection of the park.

These iconic Sonoran Desert lizards can provide a thrilling, and potentially bucket list, sight for park visitors. The only venomous lizards found in the United States, Gila monsters spend about 90 percent of their time underground and live about 20 years. The distinctive patterns on the beaded skin of adults are akin to human fingerprints, providing a method for unique identification.

The researchers capitalized on visitor interest in Gila monsters by requesting photographs. Using an app, citizen scientists upload their photos, along with the time and location of each sighting. Alternatively, they email or snail-mail them to the researchers. Trained volunteers pore over the photos, using the beaded patterns to identify individual animals.

Citizen scientists have contributed over 350 photographs. With the addition of staff and archived photos, researchers have reviewed more than 500 photos to identify 183 individual Gila monsters.

Photos help the researchers collect data about the lizards’ home range. The homebody Emma, for example, was spotted seven times during 2013 and 2014, but all her photo shoots occurred within 100 yards of each other.

The reclusive Gila monster Ward was photographed in 2001 but not again until 2013 —12 years after his rescue. In 2001 Mike Ward, a park biotechnician, saved his namesake from death in one of the park’s natural pools or tinajas. These rock depressions store water but can trap an animal when the water level recedes.

King Tut, on the other hand, seeks the limelight. Several photos of him adorn an office bulletin board at Saguaro National Park headquarters.

The scientists leading this study—Don E. Swann, a biologist at Saguaro National Park, and Kevin E. Bonine, a faculty member at the University of Arizona—have been collaborating on Gila monster research since 2008. Both strive to engage the public in science. “Ideally, science in a national park runs that whole spectrum from participation to peer-reviewed published results,” Swann said.

Swann has engaged volunteers, including citizen scientists, in park activities and research for years. He pairs people with positions that are rewarding for both the volunteer and the science. Students match Gila monster photos, hikers measure the height of saguaros and a retired physicist runs laboratory tests to assess water quality.

“Science is very important for protecting the resources in our national parks in the long run,” Swann said. “But I also think the greatest value of science in national parks is the fact that it answers the questions of visitors and that it instills an appreciation for the park by having a deeper knowledge of the resources.”

When people become more engaged with their surroundings, they are more likely to support measures to protect an area, Bonine said. “Part of my goal for the increased awareness and understanding has to do with mitigating the effects of urbanization.” With houses and roads expanding into the homeland of Gila monsters in the Rincon Mountains, the lizards may face threats to their survival.

To support conservation efforts for Gila monsters, the researchers collected and analyzed DNA from 100 animals. They concluded that the Gila monster population at Saguaro National Park is genetically robust, according to a paper published in Amphibia-Reptilia. With a sufficiently large breeding population, the lizards maintain a crucial diversity in their genetic makeup. These results showed the benefit of protection by both the park and state laws.

While Gila monsters are seldom seen, they are not rare, Bonine said. Their reclusive nature makes them an exciting find during a hike. So when Emma, Ward or King Tut venture out next for a stroll, citizen scientists may be on the alert, enjoying the rare sight and advancing science.

For more information on the Gila monster project at Saguaro National Park or to send in your Gila monster photographs, go to

By Chris Stidley

Kevin Bonine, one of the lead researchers on the project and a faculty member at the University of Arizona, displays a Gila monster. Courtesy of the National Park Servic, Tom Uhlman.

It was mid-October, and it was still hot in the Sonoran Desert. The land was beyond parched. The creosote leaves looked crispy, as if they hadn’t had a good drink of water in ages.

The leafcutter ants Atta mexicana, however, seemed to be doing fine in the dry conditions. It was too warm for foraging, but the occasional soldier—large, formidable, almost three quarters of an inch long—patrolled the tunnel entrances to their nests.

A. mexicana are found from El Salvador to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southwestern Arizona, on the border with Mexico. A. mexicana are “living on the edge of their range at Organ Pipe,” said Dr. Alex Mintzer, the researcher studying these leafcutter ants in the monument. His work is funded by the Western National Parks Association.

A. mexicana live at the mercy of their unforgiving desert environment, a place where rain seldom falls. The desert shrubs and trees that the ants rely on are stretched to their limit, relying on the water they had saved during the limited summer monsoons.

But “the ants are pretty adaptable,” Mintzer said. They live along desert washes, leaving their massive nests in the cooler hours to collect leaves to cultivate the fungus that is necessary for their survival.

Leafcutter ants construct deep nests with intricate tunnels and chambers, where they take the leaves from creosotes and palo verde trees and chew them into a paste on which they grow the fungus. Each caste in the ant colony has a role. Some workers cultivate the fungus gardens, while others tend to the young and remove waste. The foragers cut leaves and carry the fragments back to the nest. The soldiers defend the colony from intruders.

All these castes work together to maintain the colony. While there are many workers, foragers and soldiers, there is only one queen. For the colony to survive, the queen must be kept healthy. She will produce the next generation of reproductive males and females, which will swarm with the coming of the monsoons and leave the nest to start new colonies.

Counting ants

First noticed at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the 1940s, leafcutter ants have been surveyed regularly over the last 30 years. The first census took place in 1985, followed by surveys in 1996, 2005-2006 and 2015-2016. The information gathered during these censuses provides scientists with important insights into the biology of A. mexicana.

During each census survey, Mintzer and his assistants walked along 11 large arroyo channel systems. These arroyo systems were originally selected in 1985 based on National Park Service aerial imagery that showed good potential desert riparian habitat. In the most recent survey, Mintzer used this aerial imagery and GPS to navigate the arroyos where the ants live. He noted nest locations using GPS and recorded them in the monument’s mapping database.

Mintzer determined each colony’s age by the condition of the nest. Based on previous surveys, colonies are estimated to have life spans of 10 to 20 years. Younger nests can be identified by the sharply defined mounds of dirt the ants remove while excavating tunnels. Older nests have eroded dirt mounds with large dumps of fungal waste, which resemble dry coffee grounds, outside the entrances.

Even though these ants live at the northern edge of their range, they are thriving. Mintzer counted a whopping 83 nest sites throughout the southern area of Organ Pipe Cactus—a dramatic increase over the 25 active colonies identified in the 2005-2006 survey.

The colonies, while adaptable, do fluctuate in number. The original 1985 survey revealed only 38 active nest sites. The 1996 recensus located 46 nest sites.

Ants vs. the world

A. mexicana live in a high traffic area for smugglers, migrants and Border Patrol agents. The ants seek shelter along larger desert washes under ironwoods, mesquites and palo verdes, as do the humans in the area.

Their nests keep the ants relatively safe and undisturbed. “The ant nests are so deeply situated that you’d have to have high explosives and quite a desire to do something to destroy one of them,” Mintzer said. In fact, the underground nests are thought to be as voluminous as an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Although the ants might be immune to human activities, they are affected by climate and predators. Their 2005-2006 slump might have been influenced by climate. In subsequent years a possible decrease in predators, such as lizards and birds, may have allowed the ants to flourish.

Research findings suggest that climate, including precipitation levels and patterns, is the determining factor in the increase (or decrease) of A. mexicana nesting sites. “Like most desert organisms, they don’t reproduce well every year,” Mintzer said. “They wait for the good years, and then a lot of reproduction happens, and in many years their reproduction is probably mediocre.”

In these years with heavy monsoon storms, the winged adults (alates) emerge en masse from the nest entrances, forming giant swarms in the early morning. The heavy rains signal that it is the right time for the winged ants to leave their nest to search for other winged ants. These swarms of reproductive males and females hope to encounter other individuals from unrelated colonies with which to mate. The reproductive females, if successful, will mate and find a suitable location under trees and shrubs to dig burrows and become foundress queens of their own new colonies. The males die shortly after they (hopefully) mate.

In recent years the ants have had great reproductive success because of good monsoon seasons. “The population is in great shape right now,” Mintzer said. But “if climate change accelerates and you get the extended droughts of the sort that were thought to drive the Anasazi out of the pueblos, then the forecast for the ants becomes grim.”

Atta mexicana as ambassadors

Mintzer is bringing attention to the leafcutter ants by sharing his research findings with the staff at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. In fact, interpreter Sardius Stalker didn’t have a clue about Atta mexicana until he met Mintzer’s research team. “Their caring about what it is they’re studying comes over to us, and we get to share that [with the public],” Stalker said.

Observing A. mexicana might even change some people’s minds about ants. “My philosophy on any ant was ‘These darn ants,’” said Stalker, stomping his foot on the ground. “Then I met these researchers and I met Atta mexicana, and I suddenly became fascinated with ants. They are neat creatures. These guys are peaceful farmers…. If you accidently step on and kill a few, they don’t swarm and attack you. They keep on workin’.”

Visitors are captivated by the ants. “We discovered a pathway that they created where they were foraging,” Stalker said. “Suddenly I had people my age running around like 8- to 10-year-olds looking for ants.”

If the climate changes and dry conditions persist, however, future visitors to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument might miss out on observing a fascinating part of the Sonoran Desert.

By Naomi Pier

About 300,000 years ago, during the last big Ice Age, a small red creature traversed the deep snow of what is now the Rocky Mountains. Furry paws, a thick coat and a knack for survival helped the red fox thrive in the glacial environment.

The adaptable descendants of these first native foxes still live in the mountains of western North America. In fact, red foxes are among the most widely distributed land carnivores in the world, spanning most of the Northern Hemisphere, as well as parts of Australia and northern Africa.

But a group of red foxes in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is particularly special. Preston Alden, a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, is discovering just how important these red foxes are: They belong to a distinct lineage native to western North America, but they may be disappearing faster than you can say “quick brown fox.” Before Alden conducted this Western National Parks Association-funded study, not much was known about these foxes.

Red foxes are divided into distinctive subspecies. Today, most of the foxes that live at low elevations in western North America are invasive subspecies that were released or escaped from fur farms and spread across the country like wildfire. Some of the few remaining native subspecies in North America live in the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains, and Great Basin mountain ranges.

Because of their abundance, Alden said, “The non-native red foxes aren’t really that special, but those found at high elevation have a lot of adaptations that make them unique.” They sport a dark red or even silver/black coat, which helps them blend into their surroundings. Snowshoe-like paws prevent them from sinking into deep snow, and extra fur keeps them warm in cold, snowy habitats. These adaptations make Great Basin National Park, with its high peaks and long winters, prime territory for cold-loving native red foxes.

Alden had a strong hunch that the park’s red foxes weren’t your average fur farm escapees, so he set out to figure out where the foxes came from.

He wasn’t disappointed.

Alden spent three summers scouring the high reaches of the park for DNA samples of hair and scat. He collected 11 usable samples. “Sometimes that would be on old dirt roads, sometimes trails, and then when I would get up into habitat that I knew was good montane red fox habitat from previous work that I did with the Sierra Nevada red fox, I would spread out and search places like alpine meadows and around lakes above 9,000 feet,” he said.

Alden then analyzed two types of DNA in each sample. The mitochondria, which are the powerhouse of the cell, contain their own tiny piece of DNA. Mitochondrial DNA gives a good snapshot of a fox’s family tree because it is inherited only from the mother’s side and mutates at a much slower rate than the DNA in the nucleus of the cell, or nuclear DNA. Because the mitochondrial DNA conserves its form from generation to generation, scientists can identify the ancestry of a fox for many generations.

Nuclear DNA, on the other hand, provides a much more recent picture, such as what other group of foxes is most closely related to those in Great Basin National Park. Both types of DNA were used to figure out whether natives or hybrids are living in the park.

After comparing the samples collected in the park to those from across western North America, Alden concluded that the Great Basin residents were closely related to those first native foxes hundreds of thousands of years ago, not relatives of the invasive fur-farmed foxes. A follow-up study discovered at least 11 native red foxes living in Great Basin National Park.

That number might not seem like a lot, but any evidence of native red foxes is important. Like many organisms facing habitat loss because of climate change and human expansion, their numbers are plummeting. Add the threat of non-native red foxes, and you end up with one big mess. Alden’s research is vital for the management and conservation of a charismatic but rare animal.

By Nina Kolodij

Imagine a world without bats—a world overrun with biting insects, a world where plants that rely upon bat pollinators might disappear.  Debbie Buecher, a Tucson bat biologist, is trying to prevent that scenario from becoming a reality. Buecher studies bat cave microclimates, examining whether conditions are ripe for the spread of Pseudogymnoascus destructans (formerly known as Geomyces destructans), the fungal pathogen that causes White Nose Syndrome (WNS) in bats. WNS has hit the little brown bats of the genus Myotis, one of the most common bats in North America, particularly hard.

What is White Nose Syndrome?

WNS is named for the sometimes visible, fuzzy, white fungal growth on a bat’s muzzle, ears, or wings. In the absence of visible fungal growth, a characteristic microscopic pattern of eroded skin is diagnostic of the disease. The behavior of affected bats is sometimes abnormal, including daytime flight during hibernation season. Many infected bats suffer severe emaciation prior to death, caused by loss of stored fat reserves.

Since the emergence of WNS, bat colonies in the eastern United States have been decimated. According to Buecher, the mortality for little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) suffering with WNS is often greater than 95 percent.

Studying Bat Cave Microclimates

The fungus that causes WNS is cold-loving and thrives in high (nearly saturated) humidity,  just the conditions often found in bat hibernacula, the caves and abandoned mines where bats hibernate. Buecher’s research, funded in part by Western National Parks Association, examines the microclimate in bat hibernacula in New Mexico, including lava caves in New Mexico’s El Malpais National Monument. Buecher’s research will help biologists assess whether conditions within bat caves in the western United States are favorable for the fungus.

To collect data on the temperature and humidity, Buecher deployed small data loggers in the bat caves under study.

The results showed that in one section of an El Malpais bat cave, the temperature was appropriate for the fungus, but the relative humidity was low. In another section of the cave, neither the temperature nor the relative humidity was optimal for the fungus. Other caves in New Mexico harbored conditions amenable to the fungus.

The data Buecher collected will be used to model the microclimate conditions preferred by hibernating bats in New Mexico. This in turn will allow resource agencies such as the BLM and National Park Service to focus their efforts on monitoring and decontaminating caves where conditions are optimal for the fungus, thereby providing our bats with a fighting chance against this devastating disease.

By Susan Swanberg, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Arizona