Surveying California’s Mojave Desert – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Surveying California’s Mojave Desert

Deep in California’s Mojave Desert, Professor of Biology James Ryan recently set out on a scientific excursion to survey the vertebrate biodiversity found in a remote area of the vast southwestern landscape.

Working with volunteers from Blueprint Earth, a nonprofit dedicated to cataloging small portions of the Earth’s environments, Ryan designed and implemented a survey that’s being used to identify mammals, birds and reptiles in a one-square-kilometer area of the Mojave National Preserve. His work is contributing to a large-scale effort by Blueprint Earth called Mission Mojave 2014 that aims to record all of the living and non-living components that comprise that ecosystem.

“Surveys are the first step to understanding what’s there,” Ryan says. “What’s rare about this project is that scientists with different types of expertise are working at the same site at the same time.”

Ryan says that unlike surveys that focus on only one aspect of an environment, Blueprint Earth is unique in that it collects different types of information and data across a range of interest areas in order to get a comprehensive framework of a specified location. For Mission Mojave, it meant cataloging the site with guidance from hydrologists, atmospheric scientists, plant biologists, geologists and others to provide a complete snapshot of what’s happening in that ecosystem. “There’s an ample opportunity for new discoveries with this kind of focused approach,” he says.

Ryan, who was contacted by Blueprint Earth for his expertise, led a team of student researchers from the University of California system who helped with identifying and recording information about the vertebrate. An expert on mammals, Ryan has extensive experience in biodiversity surveying, including as a team leader with the Ghana Coastal Wetlands Management Project, and in Madagascar, where he helped to establish one of the first national parks.

Ryan says the survey project could have a significant impact on understanding the complexities of the environment. He says, for example, that the information could potentially be used to aid scientists if a restorative effort was needed after changes to the environment due to human influence such as mining.

For Ryan, the initial results of the survey were intriguing, showing that there is an abundance of vertebrate life in what otherwise appears to be a bleak, arid landscape. During the project, Ryan says the team recorded both large and small mammals, including canyon mice, desert wood rats, wild burrows, coyotes, big horn sheep and an array of other vertebrates. During the spring, for example, Ryan says scientists will be able to see a range of migratory birds.

He says the next step of the project will be to bring in other experts to continue the surveying during other times of the year. Ryan says the project is also seeking volunteers and that it could be a perfect opportunity for students or alums to gain fieldwork experience.

“It’s a remote environment that takes a bit of effort to reach, but this project was a lot of fun,” Ryan says. “It was enjoyable working with the students, just as it is working with the students at HWS.”

Ryan joined the HWS faculty in 1987. He is the author of several books and many publications, including the text, Mammology, which is now in its 5th edition. Ryan’s research focuses on mammalian biodiversity and conservation of African small mammals. He worked for several years in the rainforest of Madagascar surveying small mammal communities and primates. He also served as team leader for the Ghana Coastal Wetlands Management Project which established a series of long-term biodiversity monitoring sites in Ghana, West Africa. In 2001, he studied the rare hero shrew in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of Southern Uganda on a National Geographic Grant.

Currently, Ryan is involved in a new project with Assistant Professor of Biology Bradley Cosentino studying the effects of major highways on gene flow in muskrat populations at the nearby Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. He also recently collaborated with Dr. Jeremy Cushman ’96, president of the Hobart Alumni Council, on “iAnatomy,” an eBook comprised of 20 case-based, interactive exercises that reinforce human anatomy and physiology concepts while engaging readers with the clinical relevance of anatomical details.

Ryan earned his Ph.D. from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst; an M.S. from The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and a B.A. from The State University of New York at Oswego.

For those interested in volunteering with Mission Mojave or would like more information, visit: