USGS WERC Ecology Research Update: March 2016

Science Center Objects

USGS Western Ecological Research Center newsletters are posted on our blog. Check back for a rundown of new research and events on ecology and wildlife science in California and Nevada. 

USGS Western Ecological Research Center newsletters are posted regularly on our blog. Check back for a rundown of new research and events on ecology and wildlife science in California, Nevada and the Pacific West. To add your name to our email subscription list, please contact

Download the current issue 4.16 (PDF | 1.374)



A close-up photo of the Federally threatened Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard.
A photo of the Federally threatened Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, CA. Photo credit: Andrew Thompson, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA.

Drought and Land Development Making Life in the Desert Even Harder for Threatened Lizard
The federally threatened Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard is a remarkable animal that grows six to nine inches long. Its wedge-shaped nose helps it burrow beneath the sand when the desert heat becomes too intense, its specialized nostrils filter out bothersome sand particles, and the elongated scales on its toes allow it to “swim” across the dunes. Amy Vandergast conducted a study on the genetic health of Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard populations in desert regions of the Coachella Valley in Riverside County, CA, before and after a severe drought between the late 1990s and early 2000s. Writer John Platt highlights her findings in an entry for Scientific American’s “Extinction Countdown” blog. Drought and habitat fragmentation from urban development and renewable energy structures, like the wind turbines in the photo above, have diminished the lizard’s genetic diversity across the remaining 5-16% of its original habitat. Lower genetic diversity can mean higher numbers of harmful mutations in a population, and ultimately, a greater risk of extinction.



Vandergast, AGDA Wood, AR Thompson, M Fisher, CW Barrows, TJ Grant. 2015. Drifting to oblivion? Rapid genetic differentiation in an endangered lizard following habitat fragmentation and droughtDiversity and Distributions. doi:10.1111/ddi.12398

Mack, JSKH Berry, DM Miller, AS Carlson. 2015. Factors affecting the thermal environment of Agassiz’s Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) cover sites in the central Mojave Desert during periods of temperature extremesJournal of Herpetology 49(3): 405-414. doi:10.1670/13-080

Sanders, JL, AG Jaramillo, JE Ashford, SW Feist, KD Lafferty, ML Kent. 2015. Two myxozoans from the urinary tract of topsmelt, Atherinops affinisJournal of Parasitology 101 (5): 577-586. doi:10.1645/15-726

Ryan, SJ, A McNally, LR Johnson, EA Mordecai, T Ben-Horin, K Paaijmans, KD Lafferty. 2015. Mapping physiological suitability limits for malaria in Africa under climate changeVector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases 15(12). doi:10.1089/vbz.2015.1822

Raimondi, P, LJ Jurgens, MT Tinker. 2015. Evaluating potential conservation conflicts between two listed species: sea otters and black abaloneEcology96(11): 3102-3108. doi:10.1890/15-0158.1

Klicka, LB, BE Kus, PO Title, KJ Burns. 2015. Conservation genomics reveals multiple evolutionary units within Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii)Conservation Genetics. doi:10.1007/s10592-015-0796-z

van Mantgem EFJE Keeley, M Witter. 2015. Faunal responses to fire in chaparral and sage scrub in California, USA. Fire Ecology 11(3): 128-148. doi:10.4996/fireecology.1103128

Ackerman, JTCA Hartman, CA Eagles-Smith, MP Herzog, J Davis, G Ichikawa, A Bonnema. 2015. Estimating mercury exposure of piscivorous birds and sport fish using prey fish monitoringEnvironmental Science and Technology 49: 13596-13604. doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b02691

Coates, PSBE BrusseeRL HothemKH HoweML Casazza, JM Eadie. 2015. The effects of heterospecifics and climatic conditions on incubation behavior within a mixed-species colonyJournal of Avian Biology. doi:10.1111/jav.00900

Berger-Tal, O, DT Blumstein, S Carroll, RN Fisher, SL Mesnick, MA Owen, D Saltz, CC St. Claire, RR Swaisgood. 2015. A systematic survey of the integration of behavior into wildlife conservation and managementConservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.12654



Joe Fleskes Awarded Research Appreciation Plaque
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Refuges, and Partners for Fish & Wildlife have presented Joe Fleskes with a plaque in appreciation of his waterfowl research in Southern Oregon-Northeastern California (SONEC). The research program provides results that have spotlighted the SONEC region’s importance to migrating waterfowl and served as the scientific basis for new habitat conservation programs.

Student Trainee Wins "Best Student Presentation" Award at Desert Tortoise Symposium
Christina Aiello won the “Best Student Presentation” award at this year’s Desert Tortoise Symposium in Las Vegas, NV. She investigates the behavior of threatened desert tortoises to predict their risk of spreading upper respiratory tract diseases.



Feb. 1-5, 2016 (Annapolis, MD)
WERC water bird specialists presented research at the 7th North American Duck Symposium and Workshop.

Feb. 10-13, 2016 (Oahu, HI)
WERC scientists and volunteers presented at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group.

Feb. 19-21, 2016 (Las Vegas, NV)
The 41st Desert Tortoise Council Annual Symposium featured research from WERC scientists.

Feb. 22-26, 2016 (Pomona, CA)
WERC scientists attended The Wildlife Society’s Western Section Annual Meeting.

Feb. 23-26, 2016 (Salt Lake City, UT)
Pete Coates and Matt Brooks presented at the Sagebrush Ecosystems Conservation Conference in Salt Lake City, UT.

Mar. 7-10, 2016 (Newport Beach, CA)
Mike Casazza will present the results of a study that tracked more than 200 endangered Ridgway’s rails across San Francisco Bay at the 27th Vertebrate Pest Conference.

Mar. 19, 2016 (Joshua Tree National Park, CA)
Kristin Berry is co-teaching a “Desert Tortoise Conservation Biology” class at Copper Mountain College.


Climate Change is Leaving Native Plants Behind (Climate Central)
Nate Stephenson is quoted in a news piece that explains how native California plants might not shift boundaries quickly enough to keep up with warming temperatures.

Mercury Said to Put Northern California Water Bird in Danger (Napa Valley Register, San Jose Mercury News, The Sacramento Bee)
An online article describes reproductive risks that mercury poses to Western and Clark’s grebes living in popular Lake Berryessa. The results stem from a study with lead author Josh Ackerman.

Elkhorn Slough is Booming with Baby Otters (The Santa Cruz Sentinel)
The Santa Cruz Sentinel quoted Tim Tinker on the healthy sea otter population in Elkhorn Slough, CA. The thriving group includes 13 fuzzy pups and has helped boost the health of the slough ecosystem by consuming crabs that would normally target algae-eating snails, the slough clean-up crew.

Mistletoe is a Parasitic, Explosive Plant that Maybe You Shouldn’t Stand Underneath (Atlas Obscura)
Writer Andy Wright composed an online article all about mistletoe, that parasitic plant that can propel its seeds up to 60 miles per hour. Todd Esque is quoted on mistletoe’s importance to wildlife like beetles and birds.


This newsletter is produced as a service to USGS WERC staff, colleagues, partners and the interested public. To add your email address to the mailing list or to report errors/suggestions, please contact Download the current issue (4.16).