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Posted: Thursday, May 1, 2003 11:00 pm

Christy Hastings will never again walk by a mesquite tree with the same ho-hum attitude.

Not since she learned of all the things that are probably going on in that mesquite tree during the 33rd annual four-day Institute of Desert Ecology conducted by the Tucson Audubon Society at Catalina State Park April 24-27.

"There's so much going on it's mind boggling," said Hastings, a docent from Prescott and one of about 60 people attending the catered campout. Take the beetle perched so solidly on a branch when all of a sudden it seems to lose its footing and crash to the ground.

It was just as the beetle planned, however, taking advantage of his hard shell to land safely and escape the bird above it preparing for a beetle meal.

The focus of the four-day series of lectures by experts in the fields of entomology, geology, herpetology, mammals and birds and plants was on how climate and landscape interact to produce patterns of vegetation for animals and plants.

For Hastings it offered eye-opening lessons not only about where one is likely to find examples of the desert's vast range of species, but when, where and why they appear. A certain caterpillar, as an example, might make its appearance at only certain times of the day because it's the only time the plant it feeds on comes out, University of Arizona entomologist Carl Olson explained during a lecture to about a dozen visitors, one of several lectures going on at the same time under various ramadas.

The visitors learned too of the myriad ways in which every species adapts to the challenges and opportunities the desert landscape presents in an environment of drastic changes in temperature and soil conditions.

Chris Hilleary, a high school environmental science teacher from Albuquerque, was particularly intrigued by the lessons of avoidance to be learned from desert life.

"Creatures in nature teach us what we want our children to do," Hilleary observed. "They avoid the things that are bad for you to maintain their own survival."

It was a lesson he intended to convey to his high school class.

Lounging beneath a mesquite tree during a lunchtime break, Hilleary said the greatest thing he's gotten from the conference is a deeper appreciation for the complexity and mosaic of desert life. Added to that, "who could not like the idea of catered camping," he said.

From wakeup calls beginning as early as 5 a.m. to well into the night as they trekked after owls and bats or tracked the stars the visitors, divided into five groups, drank in all the information they could absorb from the six main institute faculty members and a supporting staff of nine other instructors.

Experts in one field, such as former zoology professor Ed Moll, come to become experts in another, bird lovers such as Hastings, knowledgeable enough to identify many of the 150 species seen within Catalina State Park's borders, come back to get a better understanding of what their calls mean, while visitors from areas in a certain mountain range come to learn why the Santa Catalinas developed in a different way from the mountain ranges they grew up in.

Like the desert itself, participants seem to have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of their surroundings. Some have been coming to the conference for more than 25 years, others have started out as mere participants to become frequent lecturers, continuing a perpetual cycle of desert lovers exploring nature's mysterious, ever changing panorama.

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