A Dose of Desert

You wake early in the morning, the sun already casting shadows on mountainous piles of sand, revealing the tracks of creatures big and small. Temperatures are expected to reach upward of 100 degrees later in the day.

That’s life in the Mojave.  

This spring, 14 Castleton University students enrolled in the Natural History of the Mojave Desert course, taught by Professors Brad Coupe and Christine Palmer, which covered a mixture of geology, biology, and ecology. The course culminates in a 10-day trip to primitive areas of the Mojave ­– an arid rain-shadow desert – where students spent their time hiking through awe-inspiring landscapes, scouting for animals and plants, and participating in long-term research projects by collecting data in the field.  

Coupe led the first trip to the driest desert in North America in 2005, and has taken students an additional seven times as part of the biennial course. He has a personal connection with the region, performing his own fieldwork and research on rattlesnakes there. Palmer, a biology professor, has accompanied him on the past two trips.

“Once we were out there in the desert, it was much easier to talk about adaptations, challenges, organisms, and more, since we were completely immersed in it. This is where the magic happens,” she said. “Science is truly a hands-on field, and the best way to learn is to do it, to be surrounded by it.”

The Granite Mountain Research Station provides basic accommodations during the trip, furthering accentuating the differences between Vermont’s green mountains and life in the Mojave.

“The Mojave is so incredibly different from Vermont that it really helps you to see your surroundings in a new way. Here we take trees, water, and shade for granted. The Mojave, in particular has an impressive amount of diversity and once you train your eyes to see the natural world, you’ll never look at it the same way. In the desert, the adaptations for survival are much more stark so it provides a great place to train your eye and bring back what you learned to your own home,” Palmer said.

This is the type of learning that can’t be offered in a classroom setting.

“The best way to learn is to really get out there. The world is an incredibly diverse place, and it is hard to fully grasp that until you are actually there, breathing the different air, seeing the diverse landscape around you,” she said. “Nothing can substitute being there in person, experiencing it yourself.”