Sci Sun: Wetland Wizards   Leave a comment

Wildlife don’t ask for much. Just give them a safe place to protect their young, a dependable source of food and water, a predictable environment, and left more or less to themselves most species will do just fine, thank you very much. Yet deep in the Mojave Desert, where sand and gravel and rock extend for miles; where rain is unknown most of the year, but for a few weeks flash floods obliterate all in their paths; and an average temperature is in the three digits; by any measure life is hard. Yet in this environment which appears desolate and barren by human standards, even a water-loving rodent has made its home for hundreds, or thousands of years. But is it possible time may be running out for this hearty desert dweller?

The Amargosa Vole (Microtus californicus scirpensis) is a tiny mammal, not unlike many other tiny mammals, but one that has taken on very big job; because these little guys are an indicator species of an entire, unique, and exceedingly rare environment that we are in critical danger of losing forever. In the desert just east of Death Valley National park is found the 200 mile-long Amargosa River, relatively short by river standards yet incredibly important as one of the very few sources of fresh, flowing, perennial spring-fed rivers in the southwestern United States (only about a hundred years ago, similar springs fed a year-round water source in what is today Las Vegas. Today the ever-expanding golf courses and non-native palm trees and musical fountains are using a lot more water than what those little springs could have produced).

During the Pleistocene Epoch, as recently as 15,000 years ago, this entire region that we might label ‘barren’ desert was favored with a temperate climate, the land filled with plants, wildlife, flowing rivers, marshes and lakes nearly 100 miles long and 600 feet deep. Times change and now the only riparian environment (ecological zone along the edge of a running stream or river) remaining are the few acres of wetlands associated with the Amargosa and the narrow ribbon of life living in the rivers’ shadow, considered one of the most important (although little popularized) rivers in the Southwest. There are many songs and stories that feature the Rio Grande, or the mighty Colorado, but no one has written any lyrics that rhyme with ‘Amargosa’. Yet this is home to over 200 species of birds, both full-year residents and migratory (although not the ‘snow birds’ that travel from New York to the southwest every winter); unique amphibians; unknown numbers of insects and plants; three species of fish and snail that are found in no other location on earth; and is a vital water source for animals for hundreds of miles who depend upon the constantly-running river. All living a hard and tenuous life, but perhaps most of all the Vole with a total population that has teetered over the past few years, wavering from about two hundred to, at its lowest, less than three dozen individuals. Scientists estimate an 85% chance the Amargosa Vole could be extinct in the next 5 years.

“Oh sure it's cool to wear a little radio backpack, but I'm really bummed that they never give headphones that fit.”

“Oh sure it’s cool to wear a little radio backpack, but I’m really bummed that they never give headphones that fit.”

This tiny mammal is so endangered, one extraordinarily harsh summer – or a series of dry, hot years – could force the entire species into extinction. There are many other types of vole – over 100 species have been documented and Amargosa is actually considered a subspecies of the far more common California Vole; but it’s not only who he is that makes the desert vole special – it’s where he lives. Sheltered by a dense cover of water-loving plants, the entire Amargosa ecosystem is showing signs of stress due to climate warming; water diversion for agriculture (maybe placing those fields of crops in the middle of the desert wasn’t such a good idea) and for nearby towns; and desert ‘activities’ like four-wheeling and trash dumping. While 80% of the Amargosa basin is on protected land, the remainder is privately owned and open to anyone.

Last summer scientists, researchers and friends-of-the-river collected 20 five-week old voles– ten males and ten females, who due to drought conditions may not have survived the year – and placed them in a reconstruction of their marsh home for protection and study. Not much is known about the lives of the Amargosa Vole, but these twenty seem to enjoy their new surroundings as four babies have been born and scientists are hopeful as more is learned (and more babies are born!), a better understanding of all species depending on the Amargosa can be understood, and actions taken to protect and conserve not only this little rodent, that’s not unlike many other rodents – but also his home, that is the only one of its kind.

So A.Vole seems to have become the spokes-vole for an entire watershed and all species that share this rare environment. (Not to be confused with Voldermort, who really doesn’t care about helping anyone). And while our little vole friend might not actually be a wizard, if he could help save an entire ecosystem, that’s pretty magical.



Michonne Says: Marmots know songs about rivers and rocks and the sky and lots of other things, but they are whistling songs and I don’t think they have any words Men can understand. But it’s easy to find words that match ‘Amargosa’: “I like the river in the desert that men call the Amargosa, I like it because it brings fresh water much close-a”. See, it’s easy.

Posted March 1, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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