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Leapin’ Lizards! Researcher Devotes Life to Studying Desert Reptiles

Titan Jason Wallace Is New Station Manager at Desert Studies Center
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Since childhood, alumnus Jason Wallace has chased lizards in the Mojave National Preserve. His fascination for creepy-crawly creatures like western banded geckos, desert iguanas and Mojave fringe-toed lizards began with family trips to the eastern Mojave Desert.

Later, as a Cal State Fullerton science student, his trips to the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx for class field trips, and then for graduate research, opened his eyes to a career as a defender of desert animal and plant life.

“What fascinates me about the desert is that it is a very difficult place to live. It is a land of extremes, and yet it is full of life. If you pay close enough attention you will observe the anatomical variation, physiological adaptation, the modified behavior, or even a combination of these factors that allow desert species not only to survive, but to thrive,” he said.

Today, Wallace lives and works at the Desert Studies Center, an off-the-grid research and educational outpost — located about 60 miles northeast of Barstow in the Mojave National Preserve. Last fall, the researcher in herpetology, vertebrate biology and desert ecology stepped into the role of station manager of the center, operated by the California State University’s California Desert Studies Consortium. The consortium includes seven CSU campuses, including CSUF, which provides administrative oversight.

After Wallace earned a bachelor’s degree in biological science in 1999 and a master’s degree in biology in 2004, he started his career in 2007 at the Desert Studies Center as the first site manager steward.

In addition to his current full-time duties running the center, Wallace’s research examines reptiles living in four distinct habitat areas. It’s an ongoing study he started in 2008 based on his master’s thesis, which focused on the habitats of desert reptiles.

“Reptiles are key critical components of desert ecosystems, serving as both predator and prey,” Wallace said.

His long-term study focuses on the effects of seasonal and environmental conditions on the abundance, diversity and habitat preference of the desert reptiles residing in the eastern Mojave Desert.

“The goal is to monitor these populations long-term to determine any significant changes over time,” Wallace pointed out. “Long-term data sets are important for further understanding of reptile community dynamics. They are necessary for the effective management of land and resources and helpful for making more informed decisions to ultimately assist in the maintenance of biodiversity.”

Wallace so far has observed that reptiles are able to minimize direct competition between species by way of habitat preference.

“Desert reptiles are for the most part utilizing the same insect food resources but avoid direct competition with other species by utilizing different parts of the environment. Some prefer a very sandy habitat, while others a rocky location or wide-open gravel wash.”

As station manager, Wallace lives on site year-round and takes time off periodically to visit his house in nearby Boulder City, Nevada, and to shop for groceries and supplies. He also serves as a board member of the Organization of Biological Field Stations, which represents research and field stations across the U.S. and out of the country.

With up to 3,000 college students and researchers visiting the Desert Studies Center each year, Wallace is responsible for all aspects of the facility’s day-to-day operations. These include managing guest services and lodging, giving guided tours and lectures, and overseeing the self-contained power and water systems.

Collared Lizard

This Great Basin collared lizard is distinguished by two black collars around its neck. 

“This is definitely a dream job. Summers can be brutal but other seasons can be pretty amazing,” Wallace shared. “I love that I get to interact with students and researchers from all over the world.

“To truly appreciate the desert environment, you have to feel the hot sun on your back, the dry wind in your face, and taste the salt on your lips. The Desert Studies Center makes the desert environment approachable and accessible to those individuals who may not ever take it upon themselves to visit on their own.”