Biology Reference
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der with the heft of a zucchini, its marbled copper and brown pattern recognizable from
previous years. In two days we'd seen twenty species of herps, and Monday's lecture
felt more like a gathering of friendly conspirators than the usual classroom scene. Word
on the street was that our second trip would be even better, the pièce de résistance of
the course.
In early May we'd load up on a Thursday afternoon and caravan south through the
Central Valley, over Tehachapi Pass and into the Mohave. My plan was to stop after dark
on a sandy two-track, miles from the nearest paved road and just outside the Bureau
of Land Management's Desert Tortoise Natural Area; my troops would thus wake up
without a clue as to what awaited them, smelling creosote bush and listening to horned
larks. The sun's heat prevented remaining in the sack much past dawn, and answering
nature's call revealed flowers everywhere, along with abundant flies and other insects
that lizards eat. After yogurt and cereal I hustled everyone to pack up and hunt herps,
but first we assembled for a minilecture about tying dental floss lizard nooses on fishing
poles. I also instructed students on grasping lizards by a thigh instead of the abdomen,
so the little reptiles neither struggled free nor were injured by squeezing.
That first morning was spent walking through open scrub. Students discovered tiger
whiptails jerkily foraging among the scruffy plants and were astonished as zebra-tailed
lizards zoomed off on hind legs—“like miniature dinosaurs!”—then paused, wagging
their namesakes. Inevitably someone expressed delight at the soft, spiny skin of a desert
horned lizard, picked up while it fed on an ant column or basked atop a sandy road
berm. We snuck up on courting desert tortoises, once sitting just yards from a mating
pair, the male grunting with each rhythmic thrust as grass-green liquid dribbled from
his nostrils. We puzzled over a long-nosed leopard lizard's bulging sides, realizing she
wasn't gravid when gaping jaws disclosed the hind end of a whiptail in her throat. And
often as not, strolling toward the vans for sandwiches and juice, we were electrified by
the defensive outburst of a yard-long Mohave rattlesnake.
Following lunch we drove a hundred miles east to Pisgah Lava Flow. My first few
years at Berkeley, the class camped there, enduring howling windstorms and grit-laced
pancakes; thereafter a stopover still allowed us to match wits with herps on a volcan-
ic substrate. Within minutes students spotted little sooty-black side-blotched lizards,
whereas foot-long Great Basin collared lizards are so well camouflaged and wary that,
despite thorough scanning with binoculars for telltale heads on the lava spires, they
were rarely detected. Long-tailed brush lizards look like creosote bush bark; although
Stebbins's Field Guide advised slowly searching individual branches, 5 we managed to
locate these late-afternoon sunbathers by high-grading for well-lit, leafless patches on
the west side of bushes. Each trip somebody spooked a chuckwalla; rather than destroy
its crevice lair with a crowbar, I'd rely on another Stebbins trick to examine it more
closely: drape a dark shirt over the crack, tickle from below with a twig—“like a snake's
tongue,” as Bob told me—and when the big lizard moves up into fake safety, grab it!
Friday through Sunday my gaggle of naturalists camped in the Granite Mountains,
fifty miles northeast of Pisgah. We caught desert night lizards under Joshua tree logs, af-
terward carefully replacing the tiny reptiles and their shelters. Peering under boulders
the size of cars, we discovered southwestern speckled rattlesnakes, including a two-
pounder that had eaten a desert cottontail. One morning as I savored scrambled eggs
with salsa fresca, a student ambled up, said she had “something nice,” and pulled a
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