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Vision Quest 2016: Science in the Storm

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

The Amargosa toad

The suburban sprawl of Las Vegas became less finished, less dense and more expansive, and more under construction, as we drove north in a tunnel of freeway, surrounded by noise-barrier walls, with the newly snow-covered peaks of the Spring Mountains and Sheep Range closing in at west and east. The Paiute reservation went by in a flash, then the military and prison complexes began, first the artillery and bombing range with its mock Mideastern villages, then the drone base and the prisons for women and juveniles.

After the long drive to Beatty, we checked into our motel and stopped for an early dinner of Mexican food at an outdoor table by the highway, next to a group of retiree Harley hogsters and their wives. In the dusk, Jef drove us up the road to the Spicer Ranch, which the current patriarch is developing into a private mountain bike resort. Wonderful news for me, because I’d love to see these adrenaline-fueled machines outlawed from public lands.

Jef had raved about this new-age rancher who rode bikes everywhere, but Dave Spicer turned out to be a mellow, friendly guy. His ranch compound stretched all around, consisting of the usual meandering dirt roads, abandoned equipment, vacant houses and ruined sheds, and half-finished dams, ponds, and corrals. The ranch was sited here by his ancestors because massive springs drain from the slopes back of the compound, out of an area of colorful badlands, to vivid reedy marshes along the highway. As darkness fell, we tried to follow his directions to where we might find endangered Amargosa toads around irrigated meadows and ponds.

Jef parked in a grove of trees and we fanned out, quickly spotting toads. I helped gather them, and we added each to a ziploc bag which was marked, either “out of water” or with the temperature of the water where it was found, taken on the spot with a digital probe. We each accumulated toad-filled bags in our left hands, until we had a dozen or so. When Jef occasionally encountered a big invasive bullfrog, he’d grab it and sling it hard against a rock; bullfrogs prey on smaller native frogs and toads. Wind was blowing hard when we started, with lightning and thunder over the mountains, and the low, heavy clouds began to spit rain.

When we returned to the vehicle, wind and rain were lashing the little SUV, which Jef and Anthony began efficiently turning into a field lab. I sat in the back holding the metal clipboard of data sheets. As Jef and Anthony sterilized a forceps and scissors and Anthony prepared the individual glass culture plates, Jef handed me paper packs of wooden-stemmed sterile cotton swabs, numbering the plastic caps of glass sample vials and returning them to their rack which he likewise passed back to me. Then they both sterilized their hands and put on sterile rubber gloves.

For each bagged toad, Jef would remove it from its bag, announce its number, measure its length in millimeters, determine the sex and read off the bag data, all of which I would quickly note on the data form. Then I would rush to tear open the end of a swab package, handing it to Jef tip forward, and he would begin to swab the toad. Meanwhile I’d pull a vial out of the rack and struggle to twist the cap open, holding it up for Jef to insert the swab, then carefully return it to the rack. Then Jef would hold the toad legs-first toward Anthony, who would clip off a tiny bit of webbing between the toes as a DNA sample, dropping it onto a culture plate. In the process, Anthony would sometimes recognize toads he’d caught before, on previous trips.

Back in the lab on campus, Anthony would test all the samples for the spreading chytrid fungus, which is considered “the most significant threat to the world’s montane amphibian populations”, allegedly contributing to mass extinction. But field research generally raises more questions than it answers. Jef, Anthony, and other scientists haven’t even been able to figure out the mortality rate – how many animals infected by the fungus actually die.

After Jef restored the specimen to its bag and set the bag outside the vehicle, he and Anthony would remove their gloves, sterilize their hands and equipment, put on fresh gloves, and start with the next bagged toad, all in the confined space of the front seat, with everything they needed stashed precariously on the sloping dashboard or between their feet on the floor, the doors propped open for extra maneuverability, and weather gusting in from outside.

When all the toads were sampled and all the data were entered, Jef and Anthony would clean up and pack up, while in the back seat, I donned sterile gloves and lifted each vial out of its rack, snapping the wooden swab off so its tip remained inside and screwing the caps back on, changing gloves after each vial. Then we moved to a different location, collected more toads, and resumed the lab work, with the wind and rain hitting harder each time, and the night falling colder.

At our final location, along the Amargosa River south of Beatty, I caught a chill in my legs – I hadn’t dressed for the wind – and my body temperature dropped so I had to quit and return to the vehicle, where I sat hunched and shivering for about an hour, feeling sick, as they finished processing the last sample set with the doors cracked open and the rain and wind intruding. It was 1:30 am when we got back to the motel, and I fell asleep instantly.

We returned in the morning, and Jef pointed out that the entire riparian area had been bulldozed free of invasive tamarisk. There was no tamarisk to be seen anywhere now in this sea of green at the base of multi-colored badlands. The tiny river flowed clear through a wetland of cattail, riparian grasses and coyote willows, shaded by young cottonwoods. I wondered why the ubiquitous seed stock of tamarisk hadn’t regenerated. Maybe they’d poisoned it chemically and replanted native vegetation. Quite an expensive, energy- and labor-intensive project, like all conservation, only possible in an affluent society.

After our rough night, we spread out in a leisurely, meandering search for chorus frogs, which Anthony would take back as samples for his broader study of the fungal infection. I was lucky to find the first specimen, a pretty green one. Admiring it through the ziploc bag, I wondered what its fate would be as a pawn of science, but my mind was too exhausted to dwell on it.

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