Desert Museum Science: Knowledge from Nature for People

A Day in the Life of Desert Museum Science

Victoria, an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, checks the lesions on her grass samples every day.  She’s testing the selectivity of a natural herbicide for invasive buffelgrass. Buzz, a retired entomologist and Museum volunteer, spends several hours each week staring down a microscope, looking at minute details of native bees to sort them by genus. Isabella, a senior at Sunnyside High School, removes a leg from a tiny native bee for DNA barcoding. A team of ecosystem modelers, ecologists and botanists analyzes 40 years of blooming data to uncover the effects of climate change on our native plants. Ya-Ching, a Geographic Information System analyst at the Desert Museum overlays maps of fire intensity and grass cover to help determine the role of buffelgrass in the Bighorn fire.

These are just a few of the activities happening on a typical day in the world of Desert Museum science. For 70 years, the Desert Museum has been helping people understand and appreciate their environment and their multiple roles in it. Museum scientists, curators and their community collaborators have helped to provide the foundation of natural history knowledge that underpins conservation management decisions today, as it has in the past. See “Science Challenge” below to learn how you can participate and support this work!

A Science and Conservation Legacy

San Esteban chuckwalla lizard, endemic to San Esteban Island in the Gulf of California. The Desert Museum keeps an assurance population of San Esteban chuckwallas, and have bred 400+ lizards over the years. Photo by Shannan Marty.

The Museum’s science and research has provided a key pillar supporting conservation of ecosystems throughout the Sonoran Desert, including the first protection of an island in the Gulf of California (Isla Rasa) in 1964, the establishment of a reserve for Tropical Deciduous Forest (Monte Mojino) near Alamos, Sonora in 1996, the adoption of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan in Pima County in 1998, the establishment of Ironwood Forest National Monument in 2000, and scientific support for the founding of the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center in 2008. Learn more about the long history of science and conservation at the Desert Museum here.

Today and Tomorrow

Today, we are building upon the natural history discoveries of Desert Museum scientists and their collaborators to develop a deeper understanding of interconnected natural and social systems. The Museum’s science and collections teams continue to work at the nexus of invasive species, pollinators, endangered species, and native and heritage foods by applying field studies, ecological modeling, genetic analysis, and husbandry research, and collaborating with social scientists to provide support for future decisions that impact biodiversity, the provisioning of nature services, and human well-being.

Invasive Species

Invasive species are a threat to biodiversity throughout the Sonoran Desert, as in much of the world. The Museum currently focuses on the science and management of invasive weeds, primarily buffelgrass, which currently has the greatest potential to transform our saguaro-palo verde forests into fire-prone grasslands, endangering biodiversity and human health and property. Building upon the Museum’s history of ecological research—we aim to develop a holistic approach to maintaining ecosystem function by understanding vegetation dynamics at the landscape scale under a regime of changing climate and introduced species. We are currently invested in research to better understand the impact of fire on saguaro mortality, to develop a bioherbicide that’s selective for buffelgrass, and to understand how the actions and interactions among social actors (e.g., HOAs, government agencies, volunteer orgs, etc.) influence the buffelgrass invasion. We will continue to work with partners at the University of Arizona and regional land managers to develop sustainable approaches for maintaining and restoring desert landscapes that continue to support biodiversity and mitigate the threat of fire for plants, wildlife, and people.

Experiments suggest that radicinin, an herbicide derived from a fungal pathogen of buffelgrass, causes more damage to buffelgrass and fountaingrass than to native species. Preliminary experiments with a synthetic version of this compound has similar effects.

Protecting Pollinators

The Sonoran Desert is one of the most bee-diverse regions in the world! Photo: Diadasia diminuta by Courtney Christie.

About one out of every three bites of food we eat relies on a pollinator to help produce it. The Museum’s current work in this area is focused on understanding the diversity and ecology of native bees. This region is one of the most bee-diverse in the world, with more than 700-800 species, yet we know very little about the needs and habits of these preeminent pollinators. Building on the Museum’s history of pollinator research and education, we will continue working with colleagues at the University of Arizona and the Tucson Bee Collaborative to understand the current status of native bees, factors that affect their diversity and abundance, and actions that can help to conserve their populations and functions in our ecosystem. These efforts rely on a team of volunteer scientists to sample, pin, label and identify every specimen, resulting in a collection of nearly 20,000 bees, which will be used for decades to answer ecological and conservation questions.

Moreover, we continue to grow the educational component of this effort by offering college and high school students authentic research experiences. By DNA barcoding bee specimens, students are documenting and publishing new species in the Barcode of Life Database (BOLD), which helps them see themselves as scientists. Hundreds of additional community scientists are documenting native bees via photography and the Tucson Bee Collaborative iNaturalist Project. The Museum also participates in networks to monitor and conserve monarch butterflies at the national and state level, with monarch tagging and public education.

Endangered Species

The Desert Museum works with State, Federal and Tribal agencies in both the U.S. and Mexico to help conserve threatened and endangered species from the Sonoran Desert region. The Museum’s research in this area focuses on husbandry of aquatic species, although staff also participate in field surveys, reintroductions and research with several non-aquatic species as well. The Museum holds populations of fish, amphibians, reptiles and plants for the purposes of salvage, assurance and propagation. Knowledge developed at the Museum has led to the first successful breeding of several aquatic species, including, most recently, the Sonoyta mud turtle and Mexican garter snake. Species held at the Museum, and the knowledge developed about their care, contribute directly to the survival of the following animals: Sonoyta mud turtle, Longfin dace, Gila topminnow, Sonoran Desert tortoise, Yaqui catfish, Sonora chub, and Tarahumara frog, and plants: Kearney’s bluestar, Huachuca water umbel, Pima pineapple cactus and Nichols Turk’s head cactus. The Museum also participates in Arizona Game and Fish’s Tortoise Adoption Program, involving citizens in saving this species.

Foods for a Hotter, Drier World

Jesús García demonstrating the many varieties of prickly pear found in the Sonoran Desert region to the avid listeners in the annual Prickly Pear Harvesting and Ethnobotany class.

Building on a long history of ethnobotanical research, teaching, and outreach, (including the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project) the Museum aims to establish a research program to understand and conserve the wild relatives of modern-day crops and expand the regional food system to include arid-adapted native foods. Native and other arid-adapted plants are an important hedge against the effects of climate change in the Sonoran Desert and other arid regions. They can provide low-cost, low-maintenance food supplies for households and local producers as well as genetic material to adapt future large-scale agriculture to a changing climate. Valuable partners will include Native Seeds/Search, Mission Garden, UArizona, Tucson City of Gastronomy, Borderlands Restoration and other groups that are working in this area.

Partnering for Success and Sustainability

In each of the four focal areas, the Museum partners with university researchers, conservation practitioners, land managers, and community members to answer questions and solve problems we face today, and prepare for the challenges of the future. The Museum is unique in its explicit linkage of science to public engagement—which is as important as scientific knowledge for successful conservation programs. The Museum’s science team engages creatively with Museum artists, educators and interpreters—including its 200 docents—to develop messaging for exhibits and programs, as well as opportunities for public participation, such as community science, pollinator and native-foods gardening, biodiversity surveys, buffelgrass pulls, and native-foods cooking classes. With its legacy of research on and interpretation of Sonoran Desert natural history in a setting that invites hands-on inquiry and connection, the Museum is poised to partner with academic, conservation, management, policy, and community organizations to make an enormous positive impact on the ecological and human systems of the region.

Science Challenge

It is with extreme pleasure that we announce an anonymous foundation dedicated to the advancement of science has gifted a $1.6 million grant to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, to support our work in Conservation Education and Science of the Sonoran Desert region!

The same foundation has also presented the Museum with a $1 million challenge, in which they have pledged to match all gifts in support of Conservation Education and Science from other donors, up to the total amount of $1 million!  

You can contribute by donating here.

Other ways to get involved:

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alan Conrad says:

    In 2010-2012, I made 2 spring trips to explore the deserts of Southern Arizona. I’ve longed to return every spring since, but circumstances have blocked me. This spring this post is a wonderful antidote to that.


    1. desertmuseum says:

      Hi Alan,

      The Spring is a wonderful time to visit this region! We hope that circumstances change in the coming years and you get to make another trip to explore the Sonoran Desert. Thanks for being a part of our online community!

      Liked by 1 person

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