Fieldwork!

I recently got back from doing some fieldwork in northern Mexico. It was my first international travel since the start of the pandemic, so it was much needed. It was so exciting to be able to get back into the field, my last trip to Mexico was ~2 years ago!

We were collecting whiptail lizards for our NSF grant, and spent most of our time in Coahuila and Chihauhua. I have not spent very much time in northern Mexico, so there were many neat aspects of the trip I was excited about in addition to the lizards, including learning more about the food and culture in these regions. Coahuila and Nuevo Leon were entirely new states for me!

I flew into and out of Mexico City in order to meet up with our collaborators from UNAM for the fieldwork. In this case, Bob and I met up with Daniel (graduate student) and Max (recently finished undergrad, and hopefully a soon to be graduate student). Rather than drive all the way to northern Mexico in one day, we split up the drive, and went first to central San Luis Potosi to collect some Aspidoscelis scalaris from the region. This part of the Mexican Plateau is particularly striking due to the massive and spectacular Yucca forests in some areas. I didn’t get a great photo unfortunately (not taking enough photos always ends up being one of my bigger regrets when I get back from field trips). As someone whose early experiences with Yucca trees were mostly confined to Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert, it’s just incredible how tall, large, and densely packed the Yucca filifera forests are in this region.

Tree Yucca

After we sampled in SLP, we continued our drive north to Nuevo Leon and then Coahuila. There, we got to visit one of the neatest places I’d heard about in northern Mexico: the Cuatrocienegas Basin. The area is an official nature reserve due to the unique, extensive springs and geological features in the area that host an enormous variety of endemic species. We didn’t get to see the endemic turtles there since our time was very limited, but we did see some of the endemic fish. I did not realize there were endemics from so many different groups, including a pupfish, cavefish, and cichlid!

Field team in Cuatro Ciénegas

In northern Mexico, we were able to collect four different types of whiptails: 2 different species in the gularis complex, two species in the inornatus species complex, Aspidoscelis marmoratus, and even a unisexual species: A. tesseletus.

Little striped whiptail
Marbled whiptail

We stayed in a couple different Pueblo Magicos (or ‘Magic Towns’), including Parras de la Fuente, apparently known as la cuna del vino of Mexico (or ‘ the cradle of wine’). It was an interesting town that was surprisingly focused on wine tasting and wine tourism. Being from CA, I of course had to compare the wines, I tried a couple that were pretty good. But more importantly, I had some excellent food. Northern Mexico is supposed to be known for their meat, so we’d been looking forward to that. In Parras, I think I had the best pastor burrito of my life at a restaurant. We also had some really incredible arrachera (skirt steak) at a steakhouse in Chihuahua.

Perhaps the best pastor burrito ever ; )

We were able to herp in some pretty amazing desert habitats in northern Mexico. In parts of Coahuila and Chihuahua, we weren’t all that far from Big Bend, which I’ve never been to, but heard cool things about. It was remarkable how lush the desert was too, it was clearly raining a lot in different areas, though it only impacted our herping one day. I think we hit the timing just right, which was great, having not spent much time in northern Mexico, I didn’t know what the weather would be like, I was worried about it being too hot, but it wasn’t bad.  Really my only complaint came down to one species of cactus in that desert that seemed to hide itself near many other bushes in the desert (I think it was a Christmas Cholla). Even in an ecosystem known for spiny plants, this guy was a beast because he gets you in two different ways. They have really large spines that are of course painful when you run into them while chasing after a lizard. But they also have really small, hair like spines that got through my pants and into my legs. They tend to stick into you as clusters, and because they are so small, it’s hard to get them all out. I had a couple frustrating nights trying to sleep with several small, seemingly invisible spines poking into me, even after I’d spent time trying to remove them all.

Spiny cholla

Overall, it was an excellent trip, and we had a great field crew. Daniel and Max are both awesome at catching lizards, easy going, and great at explaining the nuances of Mexican culture. It was so fun to get back into the field, I can’t wait for the next trip!


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