Thursday, April 10, 2014

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Another locality we visited on our field trip to Arizona was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. True to its name, it has myriad exhibits on the animals, plants, geology, and culture of the Sonoran Desert and associated regions. Unlike what one usually associates with museums, however, the majority of its displays are set outdoors and its animals are living specimens rather than taxidermied mounts. In this respect, it is really more like a zoo crossed with a botanical garden. This also means that the exhibits are set within the very environment that the museum showcases.

Naturally, the zoological components draw the most attention.

Not all of the museum exhibits are outdoors. It does have a small aquarium near the entrance, exhibiting animals from local freshwater ecosystems and the Gulf of California (which the local rivers drain into). Have a moray eel.

Some seahorses.

Nice group of garden eels.

Arizona being the hummingbird hotspot it is (by US standards, rivaled among states only by Texas), it's probably of little surprise that the hummingbird aviary here is one of its major attractions. They have at least seven species exhibited here. Some of them were nesting when we visited, although I didn't get good photos of them doing that. Here is a broad-billed hummingbird to the right, but the one on the left is tougher to call. Broad-tailed?

The Life Underground exhibit takes one... underground, showing how many animals avoid the heat of day by sheltering in burrows, not to mention allowing visitors to experience for themselves the effectiveness of this strategy. As one might expect, these displays were quite dark, so they were not conducive for photography. There were some interesting critters though. This is a kangaroo rat. Though I don't remember which species it represents, desert kangaroo rats are well known for being able to survive without drinking water, being able to subsist entirely on metabolic water.

A spotted skunk.

A ringtail. Wild individuals of these small (but rather predatory) raccoon cousins have been sighted at Chiricahua National Monument on a previous iteration of this field trip.

A glossy snake.

Many of the non-hummingbird avifauna were kept in another walkthrough aviary, though I got the impression that it was more Dove Central than anything. Here is a white-winged dove. I did see (but not satisfactorily photograph) a few other birds in there, however, including a pyrrhuloxia.

Some Inca doves, much smaller than what many of us (accustomed to mourning doves and rock pigeons) expect for doves.

A fossil tortoise shell that apparently had been trodden on by a camel.

A living desert tortoise.

A female bighorn sheep.

A coati. It only ventured into view for a few moments, so this was all I saw of it. Coatis have also been seen in the wild at Chiricahua National Monument on previous versions of this trip, but not this time.

A river otter. Underwater viewing was available for this as well as the beaver display (which I did not get photos of due to crowding around the viewing window).

Being set in the midst of the Sonoran Desert, wild birds are plentiful at the museum. I was trying to see as much of the museum as I could within our allotted time, so I probably did not see as many birds as I would have had I taken a more leisurely pace. (For instance, Dr. Merck and some of my peers saw a wild roadrunner on the trip while I had missed it entirely.) This is a wild cactus wren.

Birds weren't the only wildlife out and about. Here is a rock squirrel. We saw many of these at multiple locations over the course of our field trip.

Coincidentally, it was sitting on top of an exhibit housing fellow ground squirrels, prairie dogs.

A great blue heron. This individual had been rescued after it was injured by a bald eagle attack as a juvenile.

Models of the soil ecosystem at various scales.

A statue depicting some grasshopper mice.

A wild spiny-tailed iguana. They are not native to this region. I am not familiar with the story of how they ended up here, but somehow they haven't spread beyond the museum grounds.

An American kestrel, our smallest falcon.

A model of the forelimb of Sonorasaurus.

Circling back to the entrance, I visited the museum's reptile and amphibian house. It was fairly crowded in there so I only got pictures of a small sample of exhibits. This is a (captive) spiny-tailed iguana.

A San Esteban chuckwalla.

An Arizona black rattlesnake.

A speckled rattlesnake.

Some juvenile chuckwallas.

A vine snake.

Not a bad explanation here.

Some Sonoran green toads (left) and spadefoot (right).

The time for us to rally for the museum's raptor free flight show (more on that below) was approaching, so I headed out towards our rendezvous point. To get there, one had to venture onto what is called the Desert Loop Trail, which is meant to provide a desert hiking experience. There are exhibits situated at various points along the trail as well, including Life on the Rocks, which does quite a good job at simulating the natural settings in which its inhabitants are likely to be found in the wild. There are viewing windows set into crevices in the rocks where arthropods and reptiles live, for instance. It's one of those exhibits that make you work to find the animals, which are always fun. I did not quite have enough time to do much of that here, but I did see this band-tailed pigeon.

There were a large number of what I think are leopard frogs in the stream below.

Continuing onward, I reached Cat Canyon, a quartet of displays containing medium-sized mammals with viewing opportunities from both the sides and from above. Despite its name, not all the animals here were cats. This is a gray fox.

A North American porcupine.

Next up was the raptor free flight show. Viewers stand against three parallel metal railings while raptors are flown above and around them, showcasing some of the birds' natural behaviors. The showrunners rotate several species of raptors for this demonstration, so one never knows exactly what to expect. (On a past iteration of this field trip, they got to see them bring out a roadrunner!) This time, they had a barn owl up first, flying from one perch to the next.

They had a peregrine falcon next, which eschewed perching and did several laps around us in typical falcon style. It flew much too quickly for my camera to catch.

For their grand finale they brought out a group of Harris's hawks, presenting some of their social behaviors and ability to land safely on top of saguaro cacti.

It is difficult to do the flight demonstration justice in words, but suffice it to say that I found it quite spectacular, and the running commentary was informative without being overwhelming for general audiences. For what it's worth, I certainly recommend it.

On our way back out, I passed by a lizard exhibit just outside the main entrance that I hadn't seen when we'd first arrived, so I took the chance to take a quick photo.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Petrified Forest National Park

Took a ten-day field trip to Arizona in late March. We went all over the place, from the Grand Canyon (in the northern part of the state) to Chiricahua National Monument (in the southeast), but there were a few localities in particular that may be of interest to the readership here.

After camping for two nights in the Grand Canyon, we headed down to Petrified Forest National Park, famous for its Triassic fossils. Not only did we visit the site, we were also given a behind-the-scenes tour of the lab and collections by curator and preparator Matt Smith.

A phytosaur snout in the lab.

It's difficult to tell, but these are remains of Revueltosaurus. Without spilling too much, they have discovered some really interesting things about this animal here. Stay tuned!

Look at this aetosaur skull. Look at it! Amazing specimen.

Being a National Park, Petrified Forest is not only about fossils. Here are specimens of some local wildlife, wood warblers and a spotted skunk, from the collections.

A phytosaur skeletal mount, probably one of the few (if any) depicted in a swimming position. Of note are the bite marks at the end of the snout. Smith emphasized how characteristics like these really drove home the point that fossils are not just lithified bones, not just dusty specimens to slap taxonomic labels on, but the remains of once-living individuals, each with its own life story.

Especially memorable was Smith's description of a fossil weasel skull that he had once prepared. He discussed how, as he worked on the specimen, he gradually uncovered many surprising characteristics that it possessed.

Heavily worn teeth. No cranial sutures at all. Plenty of arthritis.

This weasel may have been small enough to hold in one hand, but it evidently lived to a ripe old age.

Not just a specimen. An individual.

I confess, as fascinating as I found the tour, I had had some concerns that it would not resonate as well with my peers. Smith had used a number of technical terms in parts of the tour that were likely unfamiliar to most of them and potentially daunting. (Not all of us on the trip were geology students, let alone paleo-savvy.) Overhearing several conversations afterward, however, I discovered that my reservations were naive and moot. Not only had many of my fellow students learned a lot about paleontological work, some of them considered the tour to be the highlight of our field trip up to this point. I was glad.

After the tour, we continued on towards the southern end of the park. Along the way, we stopped to have a look at the Chinle Formation and its paleosols.

We had hoped to visit the Rainbow Forest Museum at the other end of the park, but, alas, it was closed by the time we got there. We were still able to take a short walk just outside it, giving us good looks of the petrified trees that gave the park its name (and its National Park status).

A cholla cactus. Had we gone to Saguaro National Park during our trip (as had been planned, but ended up being cancelled at the last minute), we would have seen a lot more of these. As things stood though, we were able to observe this one at a safe distance.