A Living Laboratory

Students and Faculty Explore a Changing Landscape at the Desert Studies Center

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Looking at sediment core samples drawn from a dry lake in the Mojave Desert, Matthew Kirby and his students study the effects of climate change over thousands of years.

"I tell my students that 15,000 years ago, you would have needed a boat to get from here to Las Vegas," says the associate professor of geological sciences. "Many of the lakes we study are dry, but they have lessons for us today. We look at the history of the region, analyze changes that have occurred and, based on what's relevant, make predictions for the future."

For many years, Cal State Fullerton professors have taken their students to the California State University's Desert Studies Center in Zzyzx to research climate change, astronomy, archaeology and paleontology, and other fields of study. The center is one of the world's few desert research facilities.

"People often misjudge the desert environment," says David Bowman, professor of geological sciences and interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Much of the desert, he explains, is sensitive. "You have the fragile desert pavement, lake beds, habitat … We study the desert to see how human activity impacts this environment."

"We receive visitors from around the world," says William Presch, director of the Desert Studies Center. "Of course, we get lots of students but we also host artists, archaeologists, climatologists, geologists, biologists and many others. To us, the desert is a living laboratory — an outside classroom."

  • Ed Knell, associate professor of anthropology1. Ed Knell, associate professor of anthropology, studies flakes of rock from ancient Native American quarries to reconstruct past living environments. 2. Students coming to Zzyzx will study how desert plants are adapted to the harsh environment. 3. A chuckwalla emerges from his felsite rock hiding spot.
  • Richard Saldana '14 (B.A. anthropology)1. Richard Saldana '14 (B.A. anthropology) records location information on quarry sites. 2. Biology major Chizoba Chugbo takes field notes on lizard habitats. 3. The rising sun bathes Lake Tuendae in light.
  • Christopher Tracy, assistant professor of biological scienceChristopher Tracy, assistant professor of biological science, shares with his research group thermal readings of a desert holly plant.
  • Ancient Native American petroglyphs dot the landscapeAncient Native American petroglyphs dot the landscape, remnants of a civilization that inhabited the area thousands of years earlier.
  • The sun rises over the Cowhole Mountains.The sun rises over the Cowhole Mountains. Students and researchers often wake before dawn to study flora and fauna during the cooler hours, when certain organisms are more active.
  • Students are silhouetted against the desert landscapeStudents are silhouetted against the desert landscape as they look for the perfect site to conduct their research.
  • Students Explore HillsStudents explore the hills around Zzyzx with black lights, collecting data on the local scorpions that glow in the light.
  • Students return to the main ZzyzxStudents return to the main Zzyzx facility after a day of research.
  • Stars stream over the Zzyzx palm farmsStars stream over the Zzyzx palm farms in this long exposure. Zzyzx’s dark skies make it a prime spot for astronomical research.
  • A full moon sets over Lake TuendaeA full moon sets over Lake Tuendae, home to the endangered Mohave tui chub.
Collage of desert1 Collage of researchers2 Group of researchers3 petroglyph4 sunrise5 desert students6 night study7 building8 dusk desert9 lake desert10


Learning From Life

Like Kirby, Edward Knell and his students also study the dry lake beds, but with a different mission. The associate professor of anthropology looks for evidence of early ancestors' ways of life. Based on stone fragments and other artifacts, Knell can reconstruct how people, as early as 13,000 years ago, made and used stone tools and how and where they settled around pluvial Lake Mojave. The Desert Studies Center is near the southern end of this ancient lake, which would fill with water when precipitation was much higher than today. He also can document early migration patterns.

"Where there is water, there are people," Knell explains. "Not only do people drink the water, but animals came to the lakes to drink and, in turn, became a food source for humans. As lakes dried out, the human inhabitants moved on. We often study what they left behind for clues to how they lived, what they ate and where they traveled."

Darren Sandquist, professor of biological science, has his students studying the biology of the desert.

"Living things in the desert need to be tough," he laughs. "Often they are living on the edge of catastrophe because of the conditions — and we see them adapt. It's great for the students because they've read about these life forms in class. Now they get to see them firsthand. It's hard to replicate that sense of realism in the classroom. When you go into the field, you achieve a greater understanding of what's happening."

Sandquist's students study desert ecology, plant physiology and how different organisms — both plant and animal — meet the challenges of this often harsh and hot environment. In fact, students often go out early in the morning and then later in the evening, when temperatures are cooler and when more animals and reptiles may be active.

"We use black lights to look for scorpions at night when they're active," he states. "We see their habitat and temperature preferences. We have a species list, and we try to find the things we've studied — not just scorpions, but also desert tortoises, rattlesnakes, creosote bushes and desert holly. We also see mutualism in the desert. For example, the yucca plant and the yucca moth need each other. Where you find one, you'll find the other."

Biological science student Miguel Morales studied ants on a recent class trip to Zzyzx. "The class breaks into groups to study different organisms," he explains. "Some watched lizards, others studied birds, others analyzed plants. My group watched ants to see how they interact with other species, survive in the desert and work together. We'd see an ant and follow its trail.

"Being in the desert helps reinforce the lessons we learned in class," adds Morales. "For example, birds follow ants because they may lead them to a carcass that is edible. You don't always think of how species interact under harsh conditions, but this experience makes it much clearer."

All these activities help solidify knowledge for students by reinforcing classroom instruction. The fact that the center is a self-sufficient research facility means that many long-term studies have noted that lizards that were once thought to have disappeared from the area returned four years ago. New insects have moved in. Researchers have spotted 270 species of birds — up from 180 species more than 15 years ago.

So what does this mean? Climate change. "You often find the first warning signs of climate change in the desert," says Bowman.

"We are now seeing grackles out here — and we never saw them before," adds Presch. "We suspect they're migrating further north from Mexico. If they are coming this far, that could suggest that it's getting too warm for them farther south. Or it could be because of changes in rainfall. With the lizards, they may have lost the insects they needed to eat. With the return of these insects, their population grew once again. With climate change, deserts, ice sheets and coral reefs are most affected. That's why the desert is such an important source of information."

Even wind and dust are studied. "When wind storms blow across the desert, they can create dust clouds," says Bowman. "A dust cam watches the movement. Often plants can be buried or their roots can be exposed. The dryer the desert, the more sand that moves."

"The desert is sort of the canary in the coal mine," Presch explains. "And we have many ways of monitoring these changes. Not many places can offer long-term studies. We've been here for 40 years, and the center is a flagship institution for the future."

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