In the Fullness of Time

This blog will focus on my fall sabbatical, and the ecology, evolution, and conservation of endangered and rare species in the Death Valley / Owens Valley area of California. Two taxa that I am particularly interested in are the Inyo Mountain salamander, and desert pupfish in the genus Cyprinodon. I plan on exploring not only the science of these species (and others), but also their beauty.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Meetings Along the Way

On September 13 I stopped off at Oregon State University to talk with Dr. Fred Swanson of the US Geological Survey and Dr. Deanna Olson of the US Forest Service. Dr. Swanson is a geologist who has worked on teams studying ecosystem processes on Mount St. Helens, and at the Andrews Experimental Forest. The Andrews Experimental Forest is a LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) site on the western slope of the Oregon Cascades, and is a world-renowned center for research and education about the ecology and management of streams and temperate coniferous forests ( Dr. Swanson also has been instrumental in developing the Long Term Ecological Reflections, in which “writers visit sites in the forest to create an ongoing record of their reflections on the relation of people and forests changing together over time” ( An associated program is the Spring Creek Project, which is “dedicated to bringing together the wisdom of the environment sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the creative expressive power of the written word, to find new ways to understand and re-imagine our relation to the natural world.”

Near the end of my salamander and pupfish explorations I will be spending a week or more as a visiting scholar at the Andrews Experimental Forest, where I will have the opportunity to consider my sabbatical experiences, and begin the process of transforming them into a book. I also want to search for the Oregon slender salamander (Batrachoseps wrighti). Seeing a close relative of the Inyo Mountains slender salamander (B. campi) in wet forest habitat more typical of salamanders will allow me to appreciate more fully the wonderful uniqueness and tenacity of salamanders that have survived in desert habitats for millions of years. Because Dr. Olson studies effects of forest management practices on salamanders, I wanted to talk with her about the basic ecology of Oregon salamanders, and how I might best find them in November.  They are not easy to find, and I will not have a good search image, so any information will help in my search.  
On the fifteenth I traveled from my sister’s home outside Sacramento to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at the University of California, Berkeley, to meet with Dr. David Wake. Dr. Wake is an expert on salamander systematics and ecology and has published 365 technical papers (I am only about 330 papers behind). Dr. Wake and I talked for several hours about slender salamanders, and I came away from our meeting with a better understanding of the genus Batrachoseps, and an unpublished report that will help me locate B. campi populations in the field. Although Dr. Wake is an emeritus professor, he still has a very active research program, some of which is focused on reasons for recent declines in salamander populations. Recent evidence suggests that a chytrid fungus is having a major impact on salamanders, much as it has affected many frog species.  Recently, a team of researchers revisited an elevational transect in the mountains of western Guatemala that Dr. Wake had sampled in the 1970s; they found that terrestrial salamander species once present in the thousands had completely disappeared.

Joseph Grinnell
The MVZ was founded by Joseph Grinnell in 1908. Grinnell and his students were very active researchers and teachers, and trained many of the preeminent vertebrate zoologists of the twentieth century. Grinnell was the first person to use the term “niche” in an ecological context, and developed the field notebook style that I use, and teach to my students. Field notebooks from generations of MVZ biologists are housed at the Museum, and are accessible at These volumes are used by current researchers to study phenomena such as faunal change in Yosemite National Park over the last one hundred years ( Seeing copies of Grinnell’s field notebooks, and how they are being used today, made me determined to insist that my students (especially graduate students) cultivate the ability to take good field notes, in the manner of generations of MVZ biologists.
I was raised in the Bay Area, but had not seen the Berkeley campus since 1969, at the height of Vietnam-era protests. Berkeley has changed (no more ragged street vendors selling illicit drugs), and there were fewer signs of political activism, but in other ways the campus seemed much the same. UCB is still a sprawling, vibrant, and intense place, with a swirling mass of students, professors, and whacked-out street prophets streaming along the paths. And as I walked through groves of eucalyptus and oak on a warm and sunny afternoon, the rich scents and memories of my youth came flooding back. Proust was right; memory is entrained by many things, but smell takes us back, so strongly, into our deep history.

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