3 Parks: 1 Partnership

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, along with Organ Pipe National Monument and Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, are teaming up on a unique conservation and education project (funded by a grant from the National Park Service). The three organizations are uniting to help ensure species survival of Sonoyta Pupfish (formally known as Quitobaquito Pupfish) and the Sonoyta Mud Turtle.  Actions include researching and monitoring these species, surveying invasive species, enhancing off-site facilities for maintaining assurance populations, and educating the public on this important cause.

While the partnership is new, the Desert Museum’s support of the pupfish and mud turtles isn’t. When the Quitobaquito pond started inexplicably draining, the Herpetology Department took on refugia populations in 2007 to ensure species survival if the pond completely dried up. The Museum houses 30 turtles and more than 1,000 pupfish. Threats to the populations include habitat loss and destruction, potential wildfires, and introduced species.

Care and maintenance of these assurance populations is not only time and resource consuming but also incredibly important. This project exemplifies the Desert Museum’s mission to help conserve species in a concrete way. Currently the population of pupfish in the Quitobaquito pond is estimated at 10,000 individuals and the turtle population is stable, though low, with only a few hundred surviving.

Desert Museum staff and docents visited Quitobaquito this week in order to fully understand, and thus appreciate, the environmental challenges these delicate species are facing. An ecologist for the park, Peter Holm, led the group around the pond explaining the continuing challenges of keeping it stocked and healthy. In the last couple decades the water level has been dropping- without an obvious culprit. The pond was relined, a trench replaced, a diaphragm wall installed- all to little effect. An iconic cottonwood tree which grew next to the pond was removed as it was blamed for being a water hog. Cottonwoods lose water to evapotranspiration, and the pond was in short water supply. Right now the pond is stable, though that stability comes with the cost of constant vigilance.

Currently, the park regularly works to remove debris and encroaching plant life. Without this intervention the pond- the home of the pupfish and mud turtle- would be overrun with silt and vegetation and their populations are estimated to only be a tenth of what they are now.

Surrounding the oasis on all sides is an incredibly arid landscape. Desiccated salt brush, wolfberry and grey thorn dominate the shrubbery while screwbean mesquites hang in there despite yellowed and drooping leaves. Organ Pipe cactus and rotted saguaros pepper the landscape. All this is a stark contrast to the oasis itself. Lush greenery lines the edge of the water. Sedges poke up from the murky shore and each tip hosts a delicate blue damselfly or larger flame skimmer. Dapples in the water suggest feeding fish. Coots chatter and chase each other and once in while a mud turtle makes an exciting appearance and swims to the surface to replenish its air supply.

Turning south from the pond the traffic of a Mexican highway rushes by. It is easily seen through a fence- the international border. This in itself is a reminder of the fragility and complications ecological difficulties face when paired with cultural and geopolitical challenges.

Regardless of these challenges, the three organizations have united to increase efforts to save the pupfish and mud turtles. Conservation efforts will be paired with educational initiatives in the form of field guides, interpretive signage, and visits to local schools. Educators from each site will work together to create bilingual resources that each park can use. Youth from each location will be lending a hand through work days and interpretation as well. A united front on both sides of the border will help ensure healthy populations of these resilient cold blooded creatures.

At the end of the tour Holm, the park ecologist, inspects a narrow feeder spring- no more than 6 inches wide. After reaching under small rocks and algae he finds the prize: a hatchling mud turtle. The quarter-sized reptile rightfully earns appreciated gasps and squeals. It’s a darn cute creature and its presence signifies something even greater: the population is growing.

Written by Catherine Bartlett, ASDM Education Specialist 


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