Laci M. Gerhart Barley

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Monster Quest 2016

For the past decade, a group of herpetologists from across the country have gotten together every summer to hunt herps in an event colloquially termed ‘Herp Quest.’ The exact location and quested herp varies from year to year, though generally focusing on rare herps in the desert southwest. For the past several years, Herp Quest has been held in the Kingston Mountains of the Mojave Desert in California in search of a California Gila Monster. Gila monsters are found in northwestern Mexico, Arizona, and southern Nevada, and although their range extends a bit into southeastern California, they are only rarely found there. The difficulty in finding a gila monster is compounded by the fact that they spend the vast majority of their lives in underground burrows, only occasionally coming to the surface to feed and mate. This is perhaps why the group has not yet been successful…

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from left: Becky Chong, Bob Thomson, Levi Gray, Brittney White, Amber Wright, Kyle Edwards, Anthony Barley, me, Ian Wang

In addition to hunting monsters, there is also an ongoing research project between Bob Thomson and Amber Wright at UH-Mānoa and Greg Pauly at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Folks associated with this project are spending ~2 weeks  traversing a handful of sampling locations throughout the Mojave collecting various lizards and surveying lizard populations. Consequently, this year’s Monster Quest was held near Kingston Peak, just north of the Mojave National Preserve, which is the one of the team’s sampling locations.

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View from our campsite near Kingston Peak

Monster Quest, then, is a conglomeration of actual scientific research, ‘freestyle monstering’ (which sounds like a mash-up of the Monster Mash and the Thriller dances, but is actually just wandering around looking for gila monsters), general herping (same as ‘monstering’ but just looking for any herp), and campfire camaraderie fueled by bourbon.

We found all sorts of awesome animals. Some of the ones pictured below were formally collected (killed and preserved for current research and long-term museum collections), others were tissue-sampled (a small clip of the tail is taken and preserved), and others were just admired, photographed, and released.

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For me, not being a herpetologist and never having been to a herp quest, there were a lot of new experiences. I’ve done my share of field collecting, but it functions in a fundamentally different way when you’re collecting plants. Most of these animals were caught with a noose (a short loop of string on a telescoping fishing pole), or (for the larger ones) simply grabbed by hand. I am terrible at both of these methods. I hesitate, my hand-eye-coordination is poor, and I feel bad for molesting the animals. Consequently, I relegated myself mostly to photographing 😀

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Becky (left) and Levi (right) coordinate on noose-ing a whiptail

The good news is, I had a fabulous time getting comfortable holding the animals. If you’ve ever worked with live animals, you know there are right ways and wrong ways to hold living things that don’t really want to be held. You want to make sure they are stabilized and safe without injuring them or yourself. You also want to take a cheesing photo with them because they are so cute and adorable.

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I wouldn’t say I was ever afraid of snakes, per se; however, I am definitely not super comfortable around them. And (prior to this trip) I would have said I could never hold a snake without my holding its head so I’m sure to not to be bit. That, however, was before I met the sweetest and most snuggly gopher snake (photos above). I held that snake for over an hour, and she curled up in my arms, laid her head on my shoulder, curled around my neck, and even gave me little snake kisses (which I maintain was not ‘testing my tastiness’ as others suggested :-D). I absolutely fell in love with her and named her Snakey McSlithers. Gopher snakes are not part of the research project, so she fortunately was released back to her home after our snuggles. A couple of the herpers on the trip, Adam Clause and his undergraduate student Ben Thesing, set up some professional shots of many of our animals (complete with lighting set-up and arranged backgrounds – it was impressive), and I plan to get in touch with them to get myself a quality photo of Miss McSlithers.

Don’t worry, we didn’t *only* see herps. Despite its reputation as a desolate wasteland, the desert ecosystem is very much alive. We saw a variety of desert birds, mammals, insects, and plants. The packrats were a bit annoying considering they ate all our tents (not a joke – one ate a hole in a tent and then camped out there until the tent’s owner returned to sleep).  I really wanted a good picture of a jackrabbit. I had a desert ecosystem pop-up book as a little girl, and I loved the page about jackrabbits (yes, I was a nerd even then). Jackrabbits are, however, quite difficult to photograph, unless you prefer your shots blurry and of mostly back legs. Ian also found a tarantula hawk wasp, which are beautiful and super cool – gravid females sting and paralyze a tarantula, then lay an egg on it and bury it in a burrow; the wasp larva then feeds on the (still living) tarantula until it pupates into an adult and burrows out of the spider’s abdomen. Remarkably vicious, considering adult tarantula hawks eat nectar.

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While I was playing with snakes and photographing flora and fauna and having a refreshing Bud Light Lime after freestyle monstering, the actual science was happening. Greg Pauly led the crew to prepare the samples we collected during the day. Prepping involves recording all the data on the animals (species, sex, weight, length, collection location, etc), humanely euthanizing the animal (in the same way the veterinarian does for a pet), surgically removing the liver (for DNA analysis), and injecting formalin to ‘set’ the animal into a hardened pose for long-term curation. The photos below show the collected animals at various stages of this process.

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In addition, Bob, Amber, Greg, and Anthony performed transect surveys of lizard populations. At each of their sampling locations in the Mojave, the group performs three transects. A transect is just a straight line across the landscape along which you take data. Often, this is just counting the numbers of different organisms or species you see. In the photos below, you can see the four align themselves along a particular direction, spread out, and walk some distance (I don’t remember how far), documenting the herps they see along the way. This is the least invasive data collection, and provides population estimates across space and (when repeated every year) through time. Each of the researchers carries a GPS unit while walking the transect – Amber uses these to make really cool color-coded maps of all the transects performed each year.

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On Sunday, we drove back to Las Vegas. The research team will continue on to the other field locations, but the rest of us flew back home for our own jobs 🙂 On the way, we stopped to see a unique rock art installation, called Seven Magic Mountains. Kyle gets full credit for bringing this little bit of culture to Herp Quest.

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You can see the full photo collection of the trip at the Thomson Lap Flickr Stream.

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