Lessons from Travels: Great Basin Ecology

by Carl Strang

A November conference in 2003 gave me the opportunity to take some extra time off, rent a car, and tour central Nevada. Previous Lessons from Travels posts have highlighted the Lehman Cave and Extraterrestrial Aliens aspects of that trip. Today’s focus is on the ecology of the Great Basin. This is an area where the crust of the Earth stretched thin, as though pulled from its eastern and western edges. It occupies much of Nevada, and extends south. The stretching produced a series of north-south cracks, or faults. Alternate wide blocks dropped down to produce low basins, and the areas between them thrust upward to produce narrow mountain ranges. The spacing of these ranges and basins is rhythmic and regular.

The low areas are flat and dominated by sagebrush, but there are plenty of other plants and animals to lend diversity to this desert.

The low areas are flat and dominated by sagebrush, but there are plenty of other plants and animals to lend diversity to this desert.

Higher mountains bounding the west edge of the Great Basin draw most of the moisture from the prevailing westerlies. The little remaining rain falls mostly on the ranges and evaporates, or soaks into the ground long before it can flow to the centers of the desert plains.

Here is a typical view of one of the many ranges that divide the basins. The dominant trees are singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah junipers.

Here is a typical view of one of the many ranges that divide the basins. The dominant trees are singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah junipers.

This landscape is not monotonous. There are abundant unique features sprinkling it. Sand Mountain is one example.

This enormous isolated dune is composed of sand blown up from a source 40 miles away. It stopped traveling when it hit a bight in one of the ranges.

This enormous isolated dune is composed of sand blown up from a source 40 miles away. It stopped traveling when it hit a bight in one of the ranges.

The thinning of the crust produced volcanic activity in places.

Core of an ancient volcano, dark with basalt.

Core of an ancient volcano, dark with basalt.

There are occasional badlands areas as well, where weakly cemented stone has eroded into beautiful shapes.

Cathedral Gorge badlands

Cathedral Gorge badlands

People have lived in this region for thousands of years, and left their mark in many areas.

Grimes Point petroglyphs

Grimes Point petroglyphs

Wildlife is diverse, as well, in the region.

Mule deer in the mountains

Mule deer in the mountains

I took a hike on the Pole Creek Trail, in Big Basin National Park.

The scene from my turn-around point

The scene from my turn-around point

On the way back down I found where a bobcat had stepped in my tracks.

The feline had passed within the hour.

The feline had passed within the hour.

The mountain chickadee is one of the delightful upland birds.

The mountain chickadee is one of the delightful upland birds.

The basins have their own array of wildlife.

Pronghorns occur in scattered small groups.

Pronghorns occur in scattered small groups.

It was still warm enough for a snake and other reptiles to be active in southern Nevada.

Striped whipsnake at Kershaw State Park

Striped whipsnake at Kershaw State Park

From its geology to its distinctive ecology, the Great Basin provides no end of contrasts that, upon reflection, help to define our own home region.

P.S. This is the 1000th post of this blog.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Sara Rall said,

    February 27, 2013 at 6:37 am

    Congratulations on #1000!

    I’ve only just found your blog, but am really enjoying it. This post in particular was very interesting and I learned a lot. The bobcat track is particularly cool, though I’d have been a bit freaked out, I think.

    • natureinquiries said,

      February 27, 2013 at 6:43 am

      Thanks, Sara,
      I still have not seen a bobcat in the field, and my main thought at the time was a calculation of whether I could follow the tracks. It was late in the day, in fairly difficult terrain, so I reluctantly had to continue down toward the parking lot.
      Regards,
      Carl


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: