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Project Lab 

June 20, 2014

Track ‘em down!

I recently returned with some coworkers from 3 weeks of field work in Desert National Wildlife Refuge, 25 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. We were surveying the small mammals (rodents, bats, and other mammals that are generally less than 1 foot long) that live in the refuge, as it had not been thoroughly surveyed in the past. We used traps that catch the animal alive, which allowed us to decide which animals to release and which to keep for the Academy’s mammalogy collection. The majority of my field experience involves birds (like this), so it was fun to try my hand at mammals. However, today I’m not going to talk about the fine details of mammal trapping; instead, I want to test your mammal identification skills. Specifically, mammal track identification.


The desert is a great place to look for tracks because the soft sand holds them well. My colleagues and I had fun finding these tracks and trying to figure out which animals were recently nearby. It’s also a great way to figure out where to set your traps if you’re targeting specific types of animals.


So let’s get started! On our first day we were working in soft sand dunes, where we found some of the best tracks:

photo 1

You can clearly see small sets of feet in the center of the photo, with a small line at the very back. The front feet look to be smaller than the back feet, which have a large heel. Can you guess what it might be?

photo 2

This photo shows tracks from the same species, but with longer brushy lines dragged throughout. Any ideas? Think of a small mammal with larger back feet than front (for its strong back legs) and a tail that would make those lines in the sand. It’s…

photo 3

a kangaroo rat! The Merriam’s kangaroo rat (Dipodomys merriami) was the most common kangaroo rat species we found throughout the refuge. Kangaroo rats live up to their name by hopping around on their back feet, though they do walk around on all fours as well. They’re not related to kangaroos, but are rodents like other rats and mice.


The next set of tracks comes from the gravel paths that wound around one of our campsites. I noticed that these paths were used as a highway of sorts for a particular animal. It might be difficult to guess by the photo, but take a look:

photo 4

These tracks, like those from the kangaroo rat, are also from an animal with large back feet and smaller front feet (good for hopping!) It’s…

photo 5

a Black-tailed jackrabbit! We saw quite a few of these around this campsite. Since we were camping at an established site, the jackrabbits knew that having people around meant finding good food. They chewed up one of our cardboard boxes and chewed on a few wooden boxes we had. I also woke up to one chewing through one of my tent guy lines. It was hard for me to get annoyed with such a cute animal, though.


Around this same campground, there were lots of tracks of the largest mammal I saw on this trip:

photo 6

It’s hard to see the definition in the gravel, so I’ve outlined the shape for you here.

photo 7

Those definitely look like hooves to me. Any guesses on the species? It’s…

photo 8

a mule deer! I saw a few of these walking towards me down a trail – it took them a while to notice me, but then took off immediately.


As a parting shot, here’s a photo of some very cool lizard tracks. I’m no herpetologist so I don’t know the exact species, but I love that the tail drags a line between the footprints.

photo 9

Next time you’re out walking around, take a look for mammal tracks! You might be surprised at the diversity you can find.


Laura Wilkinson

Curatorial Assistant

Ornithology & Mammalogy

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 10:00 am

June 4, 2014

Thoughts of Spring and Easter Eggs

Springtime is winding down in California!  The days have been getting longer and warmer, the rains came at last and turned the hills green, and the flowers began blooming. Spring, as welcome as it is, is a special time because it is so ephemeral. In only a few short months, maybe even weeks, the green grasses turn brown, the flowers go to seed, and summer begins. As I walk the fire trails of Mount Tamalpais every morning with my dog, I have watched the new grass sprout and rapidly grow. Although there are many species of grasses in California, the vast majority of them are not native species. When the Spanish explorers first came to California in the mid 1700’s, they brought their sheep, goats and cattle with them. These animals in turn brought along their native European annual grasses, as seeds stuck to their coats and in their droppings. By the mid 1800s, expanded populations of cattle killed off the native annual bunch grasses, which were susceptible to their heavy grazing, leaving the rapid growing annual grasses to dominate the landscape, as they do still today. Two of these grasses have fallen under the lens at the project lab this month. One is big quaking grass, also known as rattlesnake grass, Briza maxima. The cone-shaped inflorescence resembles the rattle of its namesake, and after it dries out a bit it will make a faint rattling sound as it is blown about by the gentlest of breezes. Often a subject of nature photographers, this macro view shows a beauty otherwise not seen.

Rattlesnake Grass


Also featured is the bristly dogtail grass, Cynosurus echinatus. This grass has become naturalized over much of the United States.

Dogtooth Grass

Spring is also associated with Easter, the holiday that celebrates the return of life after the long winter. Fertility, fecundity, resurrection; these are all aspects that Easter focuses on. The egg is often used as a symbol of these qualities, but I thought I would add an entomologists twist: beetles. Of all the animal life on the planet, there are more species of beetle than any other. In fact, nearly a third of all described species of animals are beetles, with weevils (snout beetles) being the largest sub-set of beetles. As my parting shot, I offer you a view of one of the “Easter Egg Weevils”, Pachyrhynchus kotoensis.

Pachyrhynchus kotoensis_Lat

Enjoy your last few weeks of Spring!


Until next time,

Vic Smith

Imaging Specialist

Filed under: Uncategorized — project_lab @ 9:00 am

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