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Field Research

The Conservation Status of the Southern Western Pond Turtle in the Mojave River in the Mojave Desert:
Turtles in the desert are a rare and special thing mostly confined to major perennial river systems like the Colorado River. But there is an exception. The Mojave River once traversed the western Mojave Desert isolated from any other drainage system. During cooler moister times 40,000 years ago, it drained into a large enclosed basin, but over that last 10,000 years the river has mostly dried up as our current day Mojave Desert was formed. The western pond turtle is a rare but widespread turtle found mostly to the west of the Cascade-Sierra crest, except for a few disjunct populations. One of these disjunct populations has lived isolated in the Mojave River of the Mojave Desert perhaps for more than 10,000 years, from a time when Columbian mammoths and saber-toothed cats wandered southern California. Little is known of this population and there are very few turtles left. They are rare and maybe very special.

Since 1998, US Geological Survey herpetologist Jeff Lovich has been trying to determine how many, or if any, are left in the few water traces left of the Mojave River. In 2016, The Living Desert partnered with Jeff, the Bureau of Land Management and California Department of Fish and Wildlife to answer the questions: “Are there any pond turtles left?” “In the millennia since they have been separated from other pond turtles are they now different?” “Are the few remaining turtles left in the Mojave River survivors of a human-assisted transport sometime from the more recent past?”

Sarah Greely, The Living Desert’s Desert Tortoise Conservation Coordinator, headed up TLD’s contribution to the field activities under the leadership of Jeff Lovich and Shelly Puffer of the USGS. In April 2017, the field crew found relatively good conditions at the pools in Afton Canyon after the good winter rains, but no turtles. They feared that the Afton Canyon turtles were extinct. In a repeat effort in May, Eureka! One very good looking mature female. There is hope. In July, the pools had mostly vanished and no turtles were found in Afton Canyon, but multiple turtles were discovered in the upper reaches of the Mojave River above Hesperia and three more turtles latter in the summer. Tissue samples from all turtles were collected for genetic analysis to hopefully answer the question of just how special these turtles are.

Winter Radio Tracking for Mojave River Western Pond Turtles:
Over the past year (2016-2017), The Living Desert has supported and partnered with Jeff Lovich, Ph.D. of USGS and his staff in conducting research on the Mojave River population of western pond turtle (WPT). Previous research results collected and analyzed by Jeff indicated that populations at the Camp Cady Wildlife Area and the Afton Canyon Area of Critical Environmental Concern were perilously small (Lovich and Meyer. 2002. Journal of Zoology 256:537-545). Beginning in 2017, The Living Desert, BLM and CDFW contributed funding to further support efforts to: 1) Find remaining turtles and quantify population size, and 2) Collect and analyze DNA samples from captured individuals to determine the uniqueness or lack thereof of Mojave River turtles.

In May 2017, USGS and Living Desert staff successfully captured a mature female turtle in the Afton Canyon Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Jeff’s team marked this individual and was able to collect a tail snip for DNA analysis. Latter in summer 2017, both USGS and Living Desert staff returned to the field to continue to search for turtles in the Mojave River. Multiple turtles were successfully captured in the upper reaches of the Mojave River above Hesperia. These turtles were marked and tail snips were collected for DNA analysis.

Little is known about the brumation behavior of the Mojave River population of WPTs. In an effort to better understand how individuals of this population survive the winter, Jeff Lovich (USGS) and The Living Desert will be attempting to capture and mount radios on six individual turtles in the Mojave River. Emphasis of these efforts will be placed on Afton Canyon of Critical Environmental Concern.

TLD has allocated funding for TLDS’s Sarah Greely for the monitoring of radio tagged turtles in the Mojave River to gain information on how these turtles are surviving and using the available habitat through the winter months. We hope to answer the following questions:
1. Where do these turtles brumate in the winter? What defines an ideal site for brumation?
2. Do these turtles move during brumation/winter? What events are associated with any recorded movements?
3. How long do these turtles brumate? When do they emerge from brumation?
Specific tasks proposed include:
1. Track and collect waypoints on each radio tagged turtle using radio telemetry and a handheld GPS unit twice a month from September 2017 through April 2017
2. Analyze and summarize data collected into a report that will be presented to TLD staff

Giraffe Conservation Foundation’s Conserving Namibia’s Desert-Dwelling Angolan Giraffe
In The Living Desert is a financial supporter of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in the conservation of Namibia’s desert-dwelling giraffe. This conservation initiative is the first long-term ecological monitoring effort on the desert-dwelling Angolan giraffe in northwestern Namibia. The program collects, collates and disseminates information – both popular and scientific. This information is useful locally and internationally for government, NGOs, communal conservancies and other interested partners to help with the conservation and management of Angolan giraffe. Surprisingly, this program is one of the first ever long-term ecological monitoring efforts of giraffe in Africa. As part of a larger Namibian countrywide program, GCF works closely with communal conservancies in order to develop the first-ever Giraffe Conservation Status Assessment (Country Profile) in Namibia. This document provides an important baseline to inform the development of the first-ever National Giraffe Conservation Strategy for Namibia, a potential future initiative of the Namibian Ministry of Environment & Tourism (MET). Furthermore, the invaluable data obtained from this work is fed back to local communities and communal conservancies as well as into the first-ever formal IUCN RedList assessment of Angolan giraffe in collaboration with the IUCN SSC Giraffe & Okapi Specialist Group.

Namibia’s northwest is one of the last remaining wildernesses on the continent and home to a plethora of desert-adapted wildlife including elephant, black rhino, lion, leopard, cheetah, mountain zebra, oryx, springbok, and of course, giraffe. Giraffe roam widely in the region and evidence of their long-term existence can be found in the rock engravings by the indigenous San people.

Giraffe occur throughout the northern river catchments of the twelve major westerly flowing ephemeral river systems that occupy the hyper- to semi-arid areas of western Namibia. Many of the ephemeral rivers end in the Namib Desert within the Skeleton Coast Park. Seasonal rainfall in these catchments is the major driving force behind their occasional flow, and when strong enough, results in the rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. The study region covers a minimum of 7,500km² ecologically linked as wildlife migrates between the catchments. The riparian woodlands of the catchment areas are the main source of life for all larger mammals of the region, from wildlife to domestic stock, as well as humans. The area predominantly comprises communal farmland, although it extends into protected areas in the extreme west of the Hoanib and Khumib Rivers. No fences restrict the free movement of wildlife between communal farmland and the protected Skeleton Coast Park.

Monitoring the endangered Least Bell’s Vireo at The Living Desert:
In 2017 The Living Desert partnered with the San Diego Natural History Museum to conduct surveys and nest monitoring of the endangered Least Bell’s Vireo, Vireo bellii pusillus, at The Living Desert. Three breeding pairs were monitored in 2017 with successful breeding on all three territories. The males from each pair were color banded by the USGS in order to gather more particular information on desert-nesting Least Bell’s vireos.

This research is in support of the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan/Natural Community Conservation Plan which includes monitoring of vireos in seven other locations in the Coachella Valley.

Black-footed Cat Field Research in South Africa:
In 2017 The Living Desert financially supported the Black-footed Cat Working Group in its filed research on black-footed cats in South Africa. This group is only force in Africa for the conservation of Africa’s rarest cat. They aim to conserve this rare cat species by furthering awareness and conducting multidisciplinary research on the species’ biology.

SnapShot Safari at Kenya’s Olare Orok Conservancy:
In 2017 The Living Desert partnered with the University of Minnesota’s African Lion Center to set up a network of camera trap grids in in Olare Orok Conservancy in Kenya to provide continuous monitoring of animal population sizes and trends of all the larger (>10 kg) animal species at the site.

Once classified and validated, the camera-trap data will be made available for scientific and educational purposes throughout the world. The African Lion Center has already developed teaching modules for undergraduate courses in American universities which are being modify for use in several African languages. The Center also maintains online blogs and talk pages that engage our volunteers who want to learn more about African wildlife and conservation.

Snapshot Safari will enable researchers to closely examine questions of species coexistence, competition, trophic interactions, and other ecological relationships across a variety of habitat types, community compositions, and management strategies. The results will contribute to the development and refinement of important methods to conserve some of the most beloved species and ecosystems on our planet.

How do mating signals mediate social and reproductive interactions in a hybrid zone?
In 2015 The Living Desert hosted a doctoral student from the University of Colorado studying the natural hybrid zone in the Santa Rosa Mountains between cismontane California quail and the desert living Gambel’s quail. His project looked at the genetics, mating signals and social structure of this population. He trapped quail from the Santa Rosa Mountain ridge to the desert floor. On TLD grounds he found no evidence of hybridization of our desert Gambel’s quail with the cismontane California quail.

Jaguar Conservation Field Research:
Although they have disappeared from chunks of their range, jaguars live in a variety of habitats from desert to mountains to tropical rainforest between the US and Paraguay. In 2011 and 2013, The Living Desert supported A Public/Private Partnership to Understand and Conserve Jaguar Habitat in Yucatán. Managed by PRONATURA Península de Yucatán and working with local landowners, this project has conducted an automatic camera survey of the jaguar population near the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve since 2004 – accomplishing the first-ever estimate of regional jaguar population density. In 2009 another site was established near the Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve to begin a similar study with the long-range goal of creating a bio-corridor between them along the northern Caribbean coast of the peninsula. Along with other wildlife, jaguars and people have already benefited from this project.

As jaguar habitat fragments, little is known about jaguar populations and how these populations are connected. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, The Living Desert tried to solve this mystery by annually supporting researchers from the Institute of Neotropical Conservation at Southern Illinois University in a project titled “Jaguars in Panama: Estimates of Density, Habitat Connectivity, and Conflicts with Humans.” This project is also supported by our partners from the Parque Municipal Summit in Panama City, the Asociación Panamericana para la Conservación and the Patronato Parque Summit.

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