By Rachael Merkt
The desert has been described as barren, desolate, and lacking the necessary requirements to support life.
However, for those who know where to look, even the surface of the rocks are teeming with living organisms.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has expanded to include many diverse fields of study, and one of these is the Wildlife Science program.
The degree includes courses that give students opportunities to apply their skills.
Wildlife Science sophomore Jacquelynn Rollins said, “Hands-on experience is vital to my major because it not only gets my ahead in terms of internships but it also helps me narrow down what I want to do with my degree after college.”
Recently, students in the program’s Ecology class were given the opportunity to have such an experience.
From Nov. 3-5, 2017, students visited Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, Anza-Borrego State Park, the Salton Sea, and Joshua Tree National Park.
The trip was focused on the importance of water in the desert; the primary lesson involved the path and use of the Colorado River in Arizona and California. Wildlife Science Program Chair Dr. Catherine Benson said, “The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the Southwestern US.
It is an extremely valuable ecological and economic resource for the region, as it brings a large volume of water from its highlands in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains through some of the most arid regions in the US. Dams and irrigation projects along the river have largely supported the development of the Southwestern US and today, they divert water as far as Los Angeles and Tucson.”
Throughout the trip, the students applied what they had been learning in class to their daily activities.
“Being out in the areas I was learning about enhanced my ability to understand the different levels of ecology,” said Rollins, adding that, “It showed me the different biomes in Arizona and how diverse this ecosystem is.”
Students began their trip by visiting Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, where they were able to see the wildlife management of migratory and resident bird species in Arizona who lost habitat due to channelization of the Colorado.
Cibola is a unique refuge that partners with farmers to allow agricultural production within the boundary of the refuge with the exception that some of the crop is left for the wildlife.
The most famous of the refuge’s inhabitants is the sandhill crane, the southern population of which is quite rare.
After learning about the importance of agricultural and conservation cooperation, students continued to Anza Borrego, the largest state park in California.
The park, which is named for its population of peninsular bighorn sheep, contains hikes displaying the many hidden beauties of the desert.
Dr. Benson said, “The Colorado River has also been a powerful force in shaping the landscape of the region, as is evident in the Glamis Dunes and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.”
While in the park, students hiked to a California fan palm oasis. The palm oasis is one of the most important habitats of the desert, containing a high density of life in a small area.
While in the oasis, the students could see firsthand why water defines a desert. “My favorite thing was getting to hold a frog inside of the palm oasis.
It was crazy just being in such a tropical place in the middle of the desert,” said Rollins, who was able to show a small California tree frog to an eager couple visiting the park.
The final day of the trip took students to California’s Salton Sea to learn about the importance of proper irrigation management and to see the disastrous effects that improper water management can cause.
“We have a real impact on our environment and I think it’s important for students of Ecology to see the type of disastrous situations we can get ourselves into when we mismanage our natural resources,” said Benson.
There was no lesson to be given to the students as they walked along the mineral encrusted bone covered shore—the sight was a lesson in its own.
“It was amazing yet awful at the same time,” said Rollins, adding that, “I was amazed by how much damage people had done to one ecosystem in only 100 years.”
Before heading home, the students made one last stop at Joshua Tree National Park to see Joshua trees, a member of the yucca family.
Removing students from the classroom environment and giving them hands-on experience is the best way to inspire them and build them to be better scientists.
The students formed bonds that cannot be created while listening to a lecture and furthered their love of their field of study.
Dr. Benson said, “Generally speaking, the field is the real world for an ecologist, and knowing how to hike, navigate, camp, and identify plants and animals is all part of the job.” Not only did the students build valuable skills, but they learned how to appreciate the incredible importance of the desert landscape.