Not Empty, Not Barren: Why You Shouldn't Diss the Desert

Not exactly the surface of the moon: Mojave Desert swallowtail butterfly | Chris Clarke photo

"This is like finding the Amazon rainforest in the middle of the Mojave Desert." That's what NASA scientist Paula Bontempi said of a remarkable discovery regarding phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean. It turns out phytoplankton -- tiny little single-celled plants that live in seawater -- have been growing under sea ice far more readily than the researchers thought. Bontempi had to pick a metaphor to suggest a profusion of life where one might expect no life at all, and guess what she chose to illustrate "no life at all"? The Mojave Desert.

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For those of us who're familiar with the Mojave Desert, Bontempi's choice of image is both incongruous and depressingly familiar. The Mojave has long stood in, in the public mind, for barrenness, an impression reinforced by generations of forbidding location shots in westerns and other films. Quite a few "Twilight Zone" episodes used the Mojave as locations for filming episodes set on lifeless asteroids. One episode has astronauts crash-land in a location so lifeless they assume it's a desolate asteroid, but which turns out in fact to be the Mojave Desert.

As I've mentioned here before, it sometimes seems like everyone from casino operators to environmentalists reinforces the impression that there's nothing alive in the Mojave. And as I've also mentioned here before, that impression couldn't be further from the truth. The amazing bloom of phytoplankton Bontempi likened to a tropical rainforest lives in an ecosystem that is actually, as far as we know, orders of magnitude less biologically diverse than the Mojave she (I assume innocently) dismissed as barren.

I spoke recently to a meeting of the San Gabriel Mountains chapter of the California Native Plant Society and we discussed a recent study in which researchers did a plant census on a 360-square-meter piece of the Mojave -- less than 4,000 square feet, smaller than your average Southern California lawn. The scientists censusing this plot found 20 species of shrubs growing there. That's not counting annual or perennial plants, mosses or lichens or ephemeral bellyflowers. It's a degree of biodiversity it would be hard to match anywhere else in California. Old growth redwood forests don't hold that many shrub species per square foot. Nor do coastal bluffs, or the profuse shrublands fringing Sierra Nevada meadows. Even in Los Angeles' Runyon Canyon, filled with exotic shrub species escaped from Hollywood Hills gardens and living cheek-by-jowl with a few beleaguered natives, you'd be hard-pressed to find a that much shrub diversity.

Admittedly, most people aren't as impressed by shrubs as yours truly. But consider this: the Mojave's long-lived shrubs are essentially the bedrock of the ecosystem. Plants are the base of the food chain: they take air and sunlight and turn it into food for other organisms. And while there are lots of plants in the Mojave other than shrubs, throughout most of the desert the shrubs are what's there 24/7, making food and creating habitat even during the baking peak of summer.

Where you have plant diversity, animal diversity follows. As documented in this issue of the Mojave National Preserve's Science Newsletter (PDF), the Preserve is a hotspot of insect diversity, home to some species found nowhere else in the world. Other parts of the Mojave could likely make similar claims: scientists just haven't gotten to them. Diverse insect faunas tend to promote diversity in the animals that eat insects -- though some larger animals (especially birds) are generalists, eating whatever they find that isn't poisonous, other animals specialize in particular kinds of insects. (Horned lizards are an example here: they eat ants, and only certain kinds of ants.) The more we explore the Mojave, the more species we find of lizards, snakes, arachnids, and even larger animals like mammals.

In fact, even in the parts of the Mojave Desert that seem truly barren even to experienced desert hands, the desert's dry lakes, hold a surprising amount of life hidden there, biding time between wet winters.

So the Mojave is full of diverse life, and the idiomatic use of the place to mean "sterile" is unfair. What's the big deal?

This is:

That's Shot Fizeau, detonated in the Nevada portion of the Mojave in September 1957, and an extreme example of what we do to landscapes we deem worthless. We run it over with our vehicles. We decide to dump our waste there, from trash to sewage to even more unthinkable things. We deem it the appropriate place to build gigantic new industrial power generation facilities.

All of which would be harder to justify if we started to think of the desert as having value, as being a fragile, diverse, valuable and irreplaceable part of the American landscape. Using the Mojave Desert as a rhetorical synonym for "lifeless" only makes that mental shift harder.

So, NASA, for that casual disrespecting of the Mojave, here's a friendly raspberry from a guy who is otherwise a big fan. I recognize that from space it's easier to gauge the biological productivity of phytoplankton than it is to measure the biodiversity of the Mojave Desert, but there are other, more intimate ways to get to know a landscape. For instance: I happen to know you folks know how to get a probe here. Just a thought.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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