Creatures of Scorpion Bay, Baja
This armoured, marine, dinoflagellate species is responsible for “red tides” as well as bioluminescence in warm coastal waters. They are easily visible under 1000x magnification and produce light as a stress response to surface tension and acidity. The luminescence of L. polydrum follows a circadian rhythm, peaking at night, and is a model organism for studying clocks in single cells.
"On some nights we sat on dunes and watched the waves glow every time they hit the shore. We threw rocks into the water so the waves would light up like tiny explosions."
-Kaitlyn Kraybill-Voth, course participant, Illustrator and Science Journalist
Bioluminescent Algae (Lingulodinium polydrum)
Cardon Cactus (Pachycereus pringlei)
Cardons are the tallest cactus species in the entire world. The largest recorded height reigns at 63 feet and their fleshy trunk can store over a ton of water. They have a unique symbiotic relationship with bacterial and fungal colonies that allow their shallow roots to grow on bare rock. The bacteria fix nitrogen from the air and break down the rock to produce nutrients. Cardons even package symbiotic bacteria in its seeds
“Cardons are the redwood of the desert, they are humongous. We had the opportunity to see cardons during the day and at night, all sorts of sizes. It’s just really cool in the desert where there is no water and not much, and you have these giant cardons around with wildlife on top of it and around it.”
-Lyra Wallace, volunteer, conservationist
The Sipuncula or peanut worms are a phylum of 320 described species of bilaterally symmetrical, unsegmented marine worms. While most burrow into sand and mud, others live in rock crevices or in empty shells. Some even bore into rock. Sipuncula translates to "little tube or siphon.”
Peanut Worm (Sipuncula)
“The organism I was most excited about was the sipunculan worm that we found in the tide pools because it reminded me of my undergraduate zoology class and professor. He was a really good teacher and I hadn’t thought about it in so long.”
-Sarah Crews, instructor, Arachnologist (California Academy of Sciences)
Purple Sea Star (Pisaster ochraceus segnis)
Pisaster ochraceus segnis is a subspecies of the purple sea star. It is a keystone species found in the warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean. Pisaster is considered an important indicator for the health of the intertidal zone.
“I think tide pools are a great place to literally get your feet wet and explore. You see all these little fiddler crabs, some brittle stars with their wonky arms, purple sea stars, so much more. When we went tide pooling it was so cool to see all these marine invertebrates up close in the wild rather than in a touch tank.”
-Sarah Gold, course participant, science educator
Tailless Whip Scorpion (Amblypygid)
Amblypygi is an ancient order of arachnids commonly called whip spiders and tailless whip scorpions. The name amblypygid translates to “blunt rump” and refers to the lack of a tail. They have remarkably complex sensory receptors, that run through their thin elongate legs and can extend several times the length of their bodies.
“My favorite species that I saw is the amblypygid because they’re so interesting and fascinating. I always wanted to see one in the wild, and I finally got to see one which was really exciting.”
Tiffany Bozic, volunteer, artist
Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysididae)
Like their namesake, the cuckoo bird, these gorgeous iridescent wasps are parasitic and lay their eggs in the nests of other species (bees and wasps). Given that they depend on trickery and camouflage to out maneuver their hosts, one might expect them to be drab. Scientists have not yet figured out the function their bright color serves, but they do know the beautiful color is produced by light refracting through open spaces between six layers of exoskeleton cuticle.
“My favorite organism was this blue bee that is sometimes called a cuckoo wasp. I’ve never seen bees other colors than yellow, and this one was a really beautiful electric blue. Blue is my favorite color, so that was my favorite organism we found on this trip.”
-Katya Arce, volunteer, musician
Gobies are fish from the family Gobiidae which is one of the largest fish families. Most of them are relatively small, usually less than 10 cm in length, and the family actually includes some of the smallest vertebrates in the world. Generally, they are benthic bottom dwellers and often live in temperate, brackish environments.
"The organisms I was most excited about to see here were the fish. We went to a few freshwater locations that were nearby and I was really excited to see the goby because they varied in size and in color depending on where we went. It was really interesting to see how they evolved through time with regards to their environment."
-Perla Ponce, course participant, Biology student
Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus)
Goby fish (Gobiidae)
Tilapia are a group of Cichlid fish that inhabit shallow streams, ponds, rivers, and lakes. Historically they’ve been important to artisanal fishing in Africa, but are now found all over the world as a result of aquaculture and aquaponic systems. They are effective colonizers and can be devastating for native fish species.
"The organism I was most excited about was the Tilapia. Even though it was not native to this region, at first when we were fishing, I was not sure what it was. I just saw a big fish, so it was exciting to finally capture it after trying really hard. I was curious how they made it all the way here in the first place because they’re originally from Africa."
Jairo Arroyave, instructor, Ichthyologist (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México)
The Pacific gopher snake is a large nonvenomous colubrid snake native to the Pacific coast of the United States. Many people mistake gopher snakes for rattlesnakes - both have splotchy dark markings on their backs, yellow or brownish coloration and large heads. They will also hiss loudly, vibrate their tails, and flatten their heads when threatened. This is a type of mimicry gopher snakes use to ward off potential predators.
“My favorite animal I saw on this trip was the Baja Cape Gopher Snake. I had one as a pet, but it was very cool to see one in the wild. They're a very special gopher snake that don’t look like gopher snakes from anywhere else.”
Justin Mojgani, course participant, naturalist
Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis vertebrates)
Bipes is the only two armed amphisbaenid still alive on earth today. Amphisbaenids are a group of (mostly) legless scaled reptiles that are characterized by their long, worm-like bodies, rudimentary eyes, and reduction or loss of limbs. Even though many look like snakes, they are are more closely related to modern day lizards.
"This is a real “life-er” for me to find. Coming to Baja, a big part of it was thinking about Bipes, wondering how I’m going to find a Bipes, if I’m ever going to see a Bipes… so this was a dream come true this morning to find this thing.”
-Sara Ruane, instructor, Herpetologist (Rutgers University)
Mexican Mole Lizard (Bipes biporus)
Coast Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma coronatum)
While these lizards may look like a chunk of decomposed granite, when a predator gets too close, they will run very fast and then abruptly stop and stand still. They will proceed to shoot high pressure streams of blood out of its eyes which as a tendency to distract their pursuer. The coast horned lizard is currently listed as a Federal Special Concern species (FSC) and a California Special Concern species (DFG-CSC).
“My favorite organism on this trip was the horned lizard because first of all we found it dead, so we were able to teach students how to do a traditional museum preparation on it. Also I had been seeing it a lot the week before but hadn’t been able to catch it.”
-Eric Stiner, co-founder & organizer, Islands & Seas
Turkey vultures have an extraordinary sense of smell. They have been known to be able to smell carrion (decaying flesh) from over a mile away. The turkey vulture has the largest olfactory (smelling) system of all birds.
"I like the turkey vultures because I love their silhouette when they fly; they have such an impressive wingspan and distinctive shape. They're such an interesting part of the ecosystem-- scavengers that feed on decaying organisms, and it felt very ominous when they circled overhead.
-Ashley Saur, course participant, illustrator, (University of San Jose)
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
These hawks are the most social of all North American raptors and are often found in groups, cooperatively attending nests and hunting together as a team. They are like wolves of the avian world. When hunting, they often collectively surround their prey, flush it for another to catch, or take turns leading the chase.
“The organism I was most excited about was Harris’s Hawk which we saw as we were driving on the road past Cadeje. We saw one on the top of a cactus. It was really good looking and it took off and flew to meet a partner and the two of them took off soaring. I think it’s a life bird for me, I don’t think I’ve seen that one before.”
-Jack Dumbacher, instructor, Ornithologist (California Academy of Sciences)
Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
While the porpoise we found washed up on a beach near camp was in a state of decay beyond identification, it shared the waters with the most endangered marine mammal on earth, the Vaquita porpoise. Endemic to Baja, fewer than 30 Vaquita individuals remain on the planet today.
“One of the most amazing things on this trip was a partially decayed porpoise on the beach. Afterwards, Jack Dumbacher set a camera trap on it in the desert. The camera got around 4000 pictures of vultures. It was really cool seeing what they do with a giant piece of ocean kill.
-Isabella Kirkland, course participant, artist
The American badger is an avid fossorial carnivore. It preys on pocket gophers, ground squirrels, moles, marmots, prairie dogs, woodrats, kangaroo rats, deer mice, voles, rattlesnakes, ground nesting birds, burrowing owls, lizards, amphibians, carrion, fish, skunks, insects, and a few plant foods. It often digs underground to pursue prey into their dens, and sometimes even plugs tunnel entrances with objects.
“The animal I was most excited about seeing was a badger that scurried across the road one night when we were driving back. When I first saw it, it was running away from the car. It has such a weird little gait, and I had never seen a badger in person before. It’s also not the animal you think of when you think of going to the desert. It took me a minute to realize what it was.”
-Lauren Esposito, co-founder & organizer, Islands & Seas
American Badger (Taxidea taxus)
When diving deep, sea lions slow their heart rates to allow them to remain underwater for nearly ten minutes before surfacing to breathe. This ability gives them an edge in the pursuit of the fish, squid, and shellfish that make up their primary diet.
“We rock climbed downwards to see a colony of probably eighty sea lions. By a river, we saw a lion carcass that was totally decayed, only bones remained. It still had its whiskers and they were a really hard material, like a guitar string.”
Marina Violette, course participant, naturalist