Guardian Angels: Rovers Protecting Baby Desert TortoisesMarch 3 2013
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Since Last We Spoke
It has been a busy time for Hardshell Labs in the last few months and now I want to pick up the thread with Open Explorer. The biggest news was the successful Kickstarter campaign we ran in September and October to fund the Guardian Angel Rover. What I learned was that there are a whole lot of people willing to help with advice and legal tender. It was a deeply gratifying experience to receive the support we did.
In the middle of the campaign we ran the first full field test of the rover. Alisa Opar, articles editor of Audubon Magazine and photographer Tom Fowlkes spent three days with me exploring the use of the tools that Hardshell is developing and the rover was the star of the show.
In posts to come I want to talk about the whole range of projects Hardshell is working on as we create tools and techniques to help people of the Screen Age to connect with their planet. It is an exciting journey and we want you on board so stay tuned. In the meantime, here is a picture to show you where we are.
That's the title of this series henceforth. Your job- find the critter or critters in a picture I post. This time you are on a boulder slope in the central Mojave desert. You are laboring up the grade amidst angular blocks of rock and you are searching.
Let the group know what you find and where it is in the photo. In a week I will reveal the star of the show, if no one finds it. These are going to get harder and harder as you get better at the search. A few days ago, in another location in a very different habitat, I found the ultimate "Where's Wildo?". But for now, search the rocks and let us know what you find.
The Clone and the Drone
It may not have the majesty of a sequoia or the obvious age of a bristlecone pine but you are looking at one of the oldest organisms on the planet. This ring of shrubs, certainly one of the few to bear a name, is known as King Clone and is the largest known clonal ring of the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata). Researchers working in the 70s calculated the rate of growth of the ring at .7 mm per year and extrapolated from its size and from dating wood in its center, that this ring of genetically identical shrubs, a subdivided individual, is about 11,700 years old. King Clone was old at the dawn of agriculture. It has continued its slow spread through the entirety of the rise of our civilization. Year in, year out, through drought and freeze and windstorm, it has persisted. King Clone is a marvelously successful Earthling.
In the center of the ring you see a shadow, cast by the drone from which I took this picture. Frustrated by my inability to capture an image of this creature I enjoy visiting, I launched a device that was unthinkable ten years ago- an inexpensive remotely piloted flying camera. We humans hurtle along, spreading, with our machines, across the globe and out into the solar system and beyond, breathless with our own inventiveness.
King Clone is an excellent Earthling, witness to epic changes in a harsh and temperamental part of the world. This is an organism whose mettle has been tested time and again. I wonder about the drone makers (and pilots), all busy heads and hands. Do we possess the flexibility and grit that have seen King Clone through the ages, long enough to have its picture taken by a flying camera?
Our Big Idea
We have an odd tendency in this culture to argue over the ownership of ideas, to claim them. Most ideas seem to me to be Lego-like rearrangements of those ideas that preceded them. Occasionally some Einstein comes along and blows convention out of the water with a brand new thought but even Albert was building on the work of those who went before. An idea for helping wake our sleepwalking civilization flashed into my head a couple of years ago. As soon as it did I started telling others and they started contributing to it, making it stronger, more flexible, more feasible, more exciting. There are way too many of you to thank for the help you've rendered but you know who you are. We are trying to do something new and valuable for this world of ours. Watching the rover come to life I see the work of many minds and hands and hearts. To all of you, thank you. On we go!
During the cold winter months from November to April, desert Tortoises hibernate.
Females begin and end hibernating earlier than male tortoises and juveniles generally wake up before the adults. Imagine, several weeks run rampant with juvies.
Tortoise activity depends on temperature. While they can survive freezing temps, they are only active when the sun warms the surface up to about 70-90 degrees F.
They like to wake up late in the morning, and spend most of their day under shelter. A day of heavy activity may see a tortoise travel a whopping 200 meters.
Hack-a-thon n. a gathering of a group of innovators, usually for an extended time and aided by various caffeine products and pizza pies, for the purpose of modifying existing devices with a goal of invention or the refinement of inventions
If New York is the city that never sleeps the Bay Area is the region that never stops making stuff up. It's like they forgot to design in an off switch. In the last week I have been hanging out in Berkeley at Open ROV, where they are designing revolutionary exploration submersibles. They're helping Hardshell develop a tortoise observation and protection rover. Yesterday I visited the Auto Desk lab at Pier 9 to get some tortoise shells scanned for 3D printing of raven lures and the day before that I was talking to my friends at Ballistic UAV, creators of Game of Drones. They are ensconced at Highway 1, a business incubator, in San Francisco and we're discussing conservation applications of their copters. I'm on the BART right now to go meet Andrea Barrica, entrepreneur-in-residence with 500 Start-ups. Being around this many people doing this many things that have never been possible before is both exhilarating and exhausting. I feel like Alice just after she fell down the rabbit hole. I love my visits here but I'm ready to go walk in the desert. I need the space to just digest the possibilities. The future has quite a future.
A Businessman Takes a Walk
The freneticism of the world of business must occasionally be bucked. It is easy to be lulled into a pattern of manic pursuit of practical goals. Last week I drove from San Bernardino to Berkeley immediately after a two and a half hour LA traffic slog that followed right on the heels of a weekend in New York, which was preceded by field tests in the Mojave and another big weekend meeting, this one the Desert Tortoise Council Symposium in Las Vegas.
Cruising along California Highway 395 I looked out on a verdant west Mojave landscape, greener than I've seen it in a long, long time. Here and there were bright slashes of yellow – acres of tiny goldfields flowers in their millions and bigger Coreopsis daisies. It had rained the day before and the desert was fresh and bursting with life. The calm voice of my inner tortoise counseled a walk while the little taskmaster tapped his watch impatiently and urged me down the highway and on to the next thing.
Taking the advice of the tortoise, I turned off Bakersfield bound Highway 58 and onto a small side road. On those rare occasions when the Mojave is sweet it is sweet indeed. Soon I was strolling barefoot in pillowy soil with the perfume of innumerable flowers filling my head. It was a perfect late morning in early spring, breeze light and the sun warming, not broiling. And soon after that, on my belly, nose a few inches above a golden multitude, I took this photo.
Glad I chose the brake over the accelerator.
Dances With Rattlesnakes
In Alaska, where I live most of the time, the megafauna is what you watch out for: bears, of course, but moose can be just as dangerous. You don't want to surprise these animals, especially moms with babies. A walk in a dense willow thicket is a matter of strick auditory monitoring, listening for the crashing of a quarter or half ton of maternal instinct in the brush.
The hazards of a walk in the desert are of quite a different type and heading the list are snakes with noisemakers. Zen masters whack their charges with sticks when, sitting in zazen, they nod off. Rattlesnakes, camouflaged and venomous teachers, can dole out a stiffer penalty for any lapse in focus. I search for signs of tortoise but always remain alert for serpents. This requirement adds spice to my morning walks. These be-weaponed snakes are mostly nocturnal but a pleasant morning may conceal a coiled sidewinder or a sunning Mojave rattlesnake.
The break the desert walker gets is that the snake gives fair warning with that maraca on its tail. It depends primarily on its camouflage. I have no idea how many I have strolled right past but am sure the number is large. However, a rattler will announce its presence loudly when it feels that it is in imminent danger of being detected. When one suddenly does so this reporter sometimes finds himself airborne, propelled there by his internal machinery of survival, a system that bypasses the cerebral cortex.
I love these honest creatures and I love the requirement they impose: careful and constant assessment when I move through their homeland. Were I able to idle along listening to the hypnotic monologue of the little narrator in my head I would miss much that is amazing. Watching out for rattlesnakes leads me to many precious and non-venomous discoveries and for that I am in their debt.
Here is a story of the most amazing encounter I have had with one of these creatures, a Mojave rattlesnake that turned the tables on me: tortoisetimebook.com/trust-game-0
Respect but fear not these snakes. Please walk in the desert for I assure you that the drive to the place you walk is a hundred times more dangerous than the stroll you will take. Enjoy the attention you must pay.
The Tao of Poo
Tortoise poo has much to teach us, Grasshopper, if only we will pay close attention. Let us delve into the mysteries of this reptilian nether realm.
Is there a tortoise here?
If we find the unmistakable old stogie shapes seen in the photo we know that tortoises are in the area. Tortoise scat is an important sign, especially in areas lacking burrows. Numbers of scat can be compared between areas to help generate estimates of relative tortoise densities.
How long ago was it here?
The photo shows a time series with a fresh, dark pellet on the left and an old, nearly decomposed turd on the right. They emerge from the animal moist and bearing a glossy coating. Over time this layer flakes off and the scat dries and starts to fade. In its bleached old age it flakes apart and returns to enrich the soil.
What was on the menu?
If it's coarse perennial grass the thick fibers, as seen here, will align on the long axis of the scat. Annual wildflowers result in much finer grain. Botanists can take them apart and generate a species list based on undigested plant parts. Sometimes the scat will be partially or completely composed of soil. Tortoises love to orally mine mineral rich deposits, especially for calcium. This gives new meaning to the term “roughage”. And sometimes we see bits of bright plastic in there – an indication of the dangers of mistaking petrochemical products for natural food.
Is this a favored burrow?
Often when we look down a burrow we see many scat in the tunnel. This tells us that this is a frequently used shelter.
How big is this tortoise?
Naturally, turds scale. Finding an itty-bitty tortoise scat, a perfect miniature of the adult version, is exciting because it means there is likely an itty-bitty tortoise somewhere nearby. Many a successful hunt of a juvenile tortoise has started with the discovery of these products of digestion.
What direction was it going?
I kid you not, turds are arrows telling you where the critter was headed when nature called. (Note: I could have used a fitting scatalogical verb instead of “kid” but I spared you, Dear Reader. You're welcome.) Look again at the photo- each one has a blunt end and a pointy one. The sharp bit was last out and points the way. I have caught tortoises by paying heed to this detail when finding a “freshie”.
And a personal note: I love tortoise turds. They tell me my favorite animal is around and some of what its life is like. But there is something else: they smell great! One of my rituals is to crack open the first fresh scat of the season and take a deep whiff of its wonderfully sweet, hay-like scent. Despite our visual bias we humans are creatures of scent emotionally. All the wonderful times I've had in the desert come flooding over me as I inhale essence of tortuga. Ahhhhhh...
Hide and Seek
Let's play a game. We field biologists depend mightily on what we call “search images”. Nothing mysterious here, everyone uses them, it's just that we name the ability to pick a specific object out of a visually chaotic background. It's no different from looking for car keys on a messy table or recognizing a friend's face in a crowd. A search image is a filter.
When I am in the field I continuously run the video feed from my eyes through a number of these filters. Number one is the tortoise filter. I am unconsciously looking for the curve of a tortoise shell, the particular gloss of a shell, the dark blob that suggests a burrow, the old stogie look of a tortoise turd (they tell us a lot by the way) and many other indicators of the presence of my shell bearing friends. I guess #2 would be the Mojave rattlesnake search image. I do a lot of work in the range of the Mojave rattlesnake. Very bad idea to get bitten by one of these and they are often out when tortoises are active so I have a lot of incentive for pulling snake-like objects out of the scene through which I move. There are hundreds of others of these images in my head. They are the principal tools of my trade.
When we get the Guardian Angel rover out in the field our operators will have the chance to develop their own sets of search images and when it comes to the Crowd Sourced Conservation games we are creating the winners will likely be those folks with the best search images.
So let's practice. Look at the attached photo and find the tortoise. I am giving you a big clue by specifying the object of the search. If you find it post a comment here specifying its location. First one to find it gets a set of reptile notecards from yours truly.
Every so often I will post a photo like this and ask you to find the critter. This one is easy, by the way. Have fun searching.
A Tale of Sex and Combat
Some stories just don't fit into a 350-500 word blog post format. Nature can't be shoehorned into soundbites. I will be posting these stories periodically, and providing a link here for those of you who want to take a deeper look into the lives of tortoises, my history with them, the weird world of the desert and some of the thinking behind Crowd Sourced Conservation.
The first such story is up at this link: tortoisetimebook.com/ladys-choice
It is a tale of a tortoise love triangle with some very unexpected behavior on the part of the protagonist, a stud male who bore the number 29. He was part of a study I assisted on in the early 2000s at a plot in the central Mojave. This tortoise, who I trailed for five days, blew apart my preconceptions and showed me a glimpse of the complexity of tortoise society and the interactions between its members.
Climber – An Homage
This is a famous photo among people who work with desert tortoises. It says much, not only about the character of desert tortoises but about their relationship with modern humanity. I never met this tortoise but I wish I had.
Let's take this photo apart and learn what we can. The tortoise is a female: she has a flat plastron (the underside of her shell that is showing); a short tail, long rear claws, and a short, straight “gular horn” (the projection beneath her chin). Her well worn scutes (the plates that make up the shell) are nearly lacking growth rings. It takes many years of crawling in and out of burrows to wear those rings off. She has lived a long life as a free, wild animal. Now she is confined to a tiny pen, provided with an artificial burrow to shelter from the elements. She has probably paced the fence line repeatedly, searching for an escape and decided there is only one way out.
Her position is not an accident. It is, I think, the product of a deep desire for freedom on the part of a resourceful and tenacious animal. Think about what she has done to get where she is. First, she has hoisted herself from the horizontal plane and, probably for the first time in her decades long life, achieved a vertical stance. Hooking her claws onto the hogwire fencing she has climbed more than a body length off the ground. To understand, go find a 12' high fence and, using your fancy grippy little fingers and toes, climb on up to the top. Then do it with a 50lb. pack on your back to simulate her weight distribution. She has somehow figured out how to advance up this surface in a highly coordinated fashion all the time avoiding losing her tenuous grip and tumbling backwards. It took many small moves to climb that high.
Why? She wants to get out of that cramped pen. She wants to go home. She is willing to try something utterly foreign to do so. This is the act of a brave heart.
Why is she in the pen, one of many at the site? She is a “translocatee”, held here before being transferred to some other piece of habitat. Some people somewhere for some reason have decided that the land that has been her home for the last half century or so should be used a different way. Given her druthers she would certainly return home but that is now out of the question. So she will soon be exploring a new piece of land, learning where rainwater pools and the best food grows, digging herself some new burrows, meeting unknown tortoises.
It will not be an easy time but I think this particular tortoise will do alright.
The View from the Guardian Angel
I have a lot of reasons to be excited by the prospect of fielding the Guardian Angel. There is conservation: the effects of accompanying tortoises full time are likely to greatly increase the survival odds of the tortoises involved. I love the idea of bringing the tortoise to many others of my species. I want assist in a charm offensive and help to present my favorite animal to the world. And there is the potential to adapt the rover for many wildlife observation uses. It is going to be great fun to alter the gizmo for these other purposes. But above all I simply want to use the machine myself. The rover will give me a chance to see tortoises in a brand new way. Let me enumerate:
No fear - The rover will quickly be accepted as unthreatening by tortoises. Our early tests have already demonstrated this fact. Being able to watch tortoises without disturbing them will be good for the tortoises and great for the observers.
Close-up, low down view – We will watch tortoises from the point of view they see each other. The low camera angle will give us much more information about the animal's mood and intentions. Watching a tortoise look at the world is an illuminating view and one that is very difficult to achieve from any distance.
Health assessment – An important part of our work as tortoise field workers is to assess the health of tortoises. Many maladies that face the animals show in the condition of their eyes and noses and the tissues surrounding them as well as the state of the plates that make up the shell. Damage to shells from predators is another important health indicator. The problem we often face is that when we disturb a tortoise we can get short term swellings to eye tissue that muddies the health picture. Being able to examine an undisturbed tortoise from up close will avoid some of these problems.
Food choices – Undisturbed tortoises will also feel free to eat on camera and this will yield very valuable information on dietary choices. We should be able to identify food plants to the species level and thus construct an accurate picture of tortoise diet.
Ring-side seat – OK, it's not just about science. Tortoise fights are really entertaining and the rover will give us a ring-side seat to battles between males.
Courtship and beyond – And along those lines the rover will give us a very good view of tortoises in love. Tortoise love is pretty funny. I'll leave it at that.
How does a tortoise spend its time and where does it go? - Following a tortoise around day after day will give us a longer term picture of the patterns of their lives. This is both fascinating and extremely valuable both scientifically and for conservation.
For all these reasons I can't wait to drive a Guardian Angel.
Why There Are So Many Ravens (And Why I Care)
Standing in the bed of the Mojave River I feel like an extra in The Birds. In the soft light of a desert sunset 3000 ravens swirl above. The agitated mass fills the air with alarm calls. Wielding a small laser pointer, to whose light ravens are exquisitely sensitive, my friend Matt and I have put them to flight. We witness a Hitchcockian scene.
Math Lesson 1:
Modern humans transform landscapes. It's really a quite simple set of equations when considering raven numbers:
The Mojave Desert
Hot + Dry + Flat + Shadeless + Food Poor = Very Low Numbers of Ravens
Since 1940 (these changes have increased in area and intensity over time)
Greatly Increased Availability of Water (irrigated cropland, sewage treatment ponds, lawns, parks, golf courses with water hazards, ponds, canals, pools)
Greatly Increased Supply of Nesting Sites and Hunting Perches (powerline towers, tall buildings, radio antennas and cell phone towers, highway signs and billboards)
Greatly Increased Availability of Shade (planted trees, buildings, intentional shade structures)
A Cornucopia (dumpsters, roadkills, landfills, fruit and nut crops, livestock food troughs, pet food bowls, intentional feeding by raven fanciers, a million other opportunities)
Vastly Increased Numbers of Ravens (1000% increase between 1975 and 1995 alone)
And so we are awash in highly intelligent, highly opportunistic flying omnivores.
Fair question. I'll give you a personal answer. I have spent my professional life with animals whose ancestry stretches back past the Pleistocene, back through the rest of the Cenozoic, back through the cataclysm that snuffed the dinosaurs and all the glorious giant reptiles of the Cretaceous and the Jurassic, all the way back to somewhere around 230 million years ago, deep in the Triassic Age. They are creatures exquisitely refined by surviving on an unpredictable planet.
I don't know how they've done it but desert tortoises, simply by being themselves, have quieted me and slowed me down. They have shown me what it is to be a competent Earthling, living is harmony with their life support system and succeeding by paying very close attention it. I believe in the core of my being that they have lessons to teach us humans if we will but pay attention. If we allow them to slip into oblivion we will have lost any chance to learn these lessons. And they are charmers. I have seen dozens of people fall in love on encountering their first tortoise. I believe the world is a richer and more interesting place with desert tortoises in it.
Ravens love to eat baby tortoises and some have even learned to kill adult tortoises. In the course of my career I have collected hundreds of carcasses of tortoises killed by ravens and watched as the number of juvenile tortoises has declined. In the last two 60-day studies I did in the west Mojave I found zero juveniles but found many tiny carcasses with holes pecked in them.
Math Lesson 2:
More Ravens = Fewer Tortoises
On a red planet about 140 million miles away from Earth Curiosity roams around and beams information and visual images back to us. Drivers here direct a vehicle on a sphere that is a tiny dot in the night sky. As much as I love the project I think we put the gizmo on the wrong spinning ball. There is a planet much more mysterious and interesting than Mars and essential to our well being. You are standing on it.
Our goal in the next few months is to field test a series of remotely controlled rovers on Planet Earth and to begin observing Earthlings with them. The Earthling I know best is the desert tortoise, having spent much of the last 35 years living among them and learning from them. I have seen thousands of them but my observational equipment has been perched about 1.5 meters off the ground and contained in a vehicle that evokes fear in my subjects. I have missed a lot of insights into tortoise life as a result of their understandable caution when confronted by me, a human being.
We'll start with captive tortoises roaming a three acre pen we built at the Lewis Center for Education Research, a charter school in Apple Valley, CA. I can't wait to observe my favorite animals navigating their lives from a tortoise-level perspective. The rover we are creating will have some distinct advantages over the standard field biologist package: pan-tilt-zoom cameras at tortoise level will provide us extreme close-up views, the vehicles will be small enough to avoid frightening the animals and will quickly be accepted as unimportant by our subjects. We will see them at ease in their environment. Remotely controlled, they will allow us to record tortoise behavior from a distance and to share the experience with a potentially huge community of collaborators.
The desert tortoise hurtles toward extinction, a victim of its collision with modern human civilization. We can use the latest tools to study this ancient Earthling, to learn how we can help it remain among us. I can't think of a more exciting prospect or a better way to spend my time. And tortoises are only the beginning. There is a glorious planet, right at our feet, chock full of mysteries and waiting to be explored, if we will but turn our attention to it. Let's bring Curiosity home!
I have spent large chunks of 35 years living in the deserts of the Southwest studying desert tortoises. These long and immersive experiences have provided me a unique view of the world of this ancient reptile. Time and again they have surprised me, forcing me to drop my assumptions and have displayed amazing subtlety and astounding toughness. My job has essentially been to document the decline of the tortoise as it slides toward extinction. As such I have spent much time examining the threats the species faces as it collides with modern human civilization. The proliferation of common ravens, opportunistic birds that are avid predators of tortoises and who take full advantage of resources supplied by humans, stands out as a major threat that is manageable.
I decided a few years ago to shift from passively witnessing the decline of the desert tortoise to developing ways to intervene and stop the slide. A range of new tools has become available that promise us unprecedented ways to observe tortoises and their predators and, beyond that, ways to actively prevent the excessive predation that is imperiling the species. These new tools include internet controlled vehicles and cameras, lasers and tracking devices for full time monitoring. Using the desert tortoise as a starting point my goal is to involve large numbers of people, via the internet, to help create an entirely new form of participatory environmentalism. This is a truly exciting time in conservation and I am thrilled to be part of it.