Tones of Our Sonoran Desert Home

Tones Of Our Sonoran Desert Home; A Contemporary Photographic Baseline of Ecological Communities in The Sonoran Desert & Cordilleran Sky Islands.

This integrated art and ecology project aims to carefully document the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert in the context of space and time. The nuanced ecological communities, or “ecotones,” of our diverse desert environment are like patches in a great quilt that comprises the fabric of our biosphere. Understanding ecotones allows us to build a bigger picture of the ecosystem, just as the lines of a sketch can help an artist create a mural. The colors and shapes of this “painting,” however, are the plants, animals, geology, and the various bio-physical conditions that enable living communities to flourish.

By composing an extensive photographic record of the flora, and some of the fauna, in at least five of these distinct ecotones, while tracking spatial and temporal metadata, I aim to compose a beautiful and scientifically useful visual baseline of our endangered landscapes that will be first made available via Adobe Portfolio. I also aim to have an installation and photographic art show. What is more, in its final stages, I am confident that this digital catalog will be useful to ecologists, conservation practitioners, and anyone seeking to understand the Sonoran Desert and its “Sky Island” mountain ranges – one of the most spectacular and biodiverse regions on Earth and one that is facing compounding threats, from urban sprawl to open-pit-mining.

Eventually, I hope to pursue graduate studies that involve integrating ecological education, user experience design, data visualization, and multi-media design and to collaborate with other naturalist photographers undertaking similar work, and with businesses like iNaturalist and eBirder, to build interactive educational software that aids ecologists of all ages and experience levels to understand whole ecosystems, including in the context of climate change, habitat loss, biodiversity loss, invasive species, and other key variables.

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In the Sonoran Desert, as in any living biome, distinct communities of flora and fauna are scattered across a varied landscape, limited by bio-physical variables like temperature, precipitation, nutrient availability, and competition for resources. Independently, and through diverse forms of symbiosis, species must carve out their ecological niche for posterity. If the environment is stable, they will form stable ecological communities, or “ecotones” that reveal areas of environmental change across space and time.

Ecotones are often easily recognizable to local people, especially to the Indigenous people who have coevolved with them for thousands of years, but for newcomers like me, noticing them can be the first sign that one is developing a true “sense of place.” In the Sonoran Desert ecotones include the low desert; high desert; grasslands; oak forests; alpine evergreen forests; and sub-arctic plains where wind and snow make for sparse vegetation.

But in the Sonoran Desert, as in most other biomes across the globe, the environment is no longer stable, and unprecedented changes are occurring as the result of climate change, the human population boom, diseases, destruction of habitat, introduced species, and other compounding pressures. This is not to say that variability in our ecosystem is something new, but the rate and speed at which changes are occurring is indeed without precedent. By taking cores from trees, ice, and other sediments, careful science has provided us with a clear picture of major changes to the Earth long before human history began, and our current shifts are significant on a geological time scale of millions of years.

As these pressures degrade our ecosystem, and the diversity and abundance of life becomes ever smaller, nature’s distinct and beautiful ecotones also become ever more faded. So, like a priceless painting that we would work to restore in the name of preserving our culture and economic investments, we must now protect and restore our ecotones, which together comprise nothing less than humanity’s habitat and life support system. Simply and soberly put, the loss of ecotones is a forewarning of the sort of total ecological collapse that has turned 90% of the Caribbean’s coral reefs into slimy beds of algae ushering an alternate stable state from which recovery becomes all but impossible.