Science and Innovation

Earth Notes: Blackbrush

Mar 7, 2012

What can a small, inconspicuous shrub tell us about climate change in the Southwest? That’s the question researchers are asking about blackbrush.

Most people don’t take a second glance at this compact, slow-growing shrub bristling with spiny, gray-black branches. Yet it grows across several million acres in the Mojave Desert and up onto the Colorado Plateau, sometimes in nearly pure stands. You can see extensive swaths in Arches and Canyonlands, and over the Tonto Plateau in Grand Canyon.

In a cold, high-elevation Colorado valley, a food renaissance is taking place. The Mountain Roots Food Project aims to create a resilient local food system through which a diverse community can learn, participate—and be fed.

Earth Notes: Eddie McKee

Feb 22, 2012
NPS photo by Ensor. Grand Canyon National Park #5988.

The Grand Canyon has always attracted people who fall deeply in love with the landscape and its lessons. One of those who made the place his life’s work was Edwin Dinwiddie McKee.

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1906, McKee was influenced by his scoutmaster Francois Matthes, an early Grand Canyon mapmaker. A summer paleontology internship at the canyon was all it took to ignite young Eddie’s life-long love affair with geology.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes (artist, 1874-1927) / Bird Lore, 1926

From rodents to bats, many mammals that live in cold climates make it through the lean days of winter by hibernating without food. They find a safe place to rest, lower their body temperature and breathing rate, and wait for milder conditions. Most birds that rely on an insect diet, on the other hand, head south.

But the open mesas and canyons of the American Southwest are home to an odd exception. It’s the common poorwill, a highly camouflaged insect-eater no more than seven inches long.

Over the past hundred years, people have introduced dozens of non-native fish species into the Colorado River and its tributaries. During that time, populations of native fish species have dropped, in some cases dramatically. It’s easy to guess at the causes of native species decline, like predation and competition for food. But it’s far more difficult to prove.

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