Opuntia basillaris flower opening/closing (March 2015)

In March of 2015, Peggy Fiedler, Kathleen Wong, and Lobsang Wangdu (UCNRS UCOP) visited the Granite Mountains in search of unique footage for their 50th Anniversary film highlighting the various reserves. In addition to some great landscape and wildflower photos (see below), Lobsang set up a time-lapse photo shoot (every 5 seconds, 7-9 am) on a robust specimen of Opuntia basillaris (beavertail cactus). He captured several flowers opening and closing, including two buds opening for the first time.  See the video here: https://goo.gl/photos/DGFtMMJ6FwpxUQTy8.

Racetrack Playa Mystery Solved (August 2014)

The Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park has puzzled scientists and tourists alike for decades. Anyone who has been to this location can attest to the mysterious nature of the lakebed. The Racetrack is a large dry lake that is surrounded by rocky slopes, from which loose rocks eventually find their way onto the playa. Behind these rocks, some weighing as much as 700 lbs, are long trails entrenched into the flat muddy surface (Figure 1). These trails are often synchronized among many rocks for hundreds of meters and they can sporadically make high angle turns or even reverse in direction. Scientists have been trying to figure out the forces that cause these movements since the 1940’s, but never has the movement of the rocks been understood or directly observed – until recently.
Figure 1. Mysterious trails left behind rocks on Racetrack Playa. Photo by James Norris.

A few years ago, cousins Richard D. Norris and James M. Norris sat on the deck of their cabin here in the Granite Mountains and schemed up a plan to catch this movement on video. They first established a weather station (on loan from the Center) at the Racetrack, which allowed them to record wind speed at 1-second intervals, along with temperature, insolation, and rainfall at the playa. They also outfitted 15 non-native rocks with motion-activated GPS units (Figure 2), once activated the units recorded continuously. These GPS units were custom-built by J. Norris and his engineering partner, Jib Ray. The combination of these instruments allowed the team to record the timing of rock motion, their velocities, and the meteorological conditions required for such an event. The Norris cousins, Jib, and a crowd of friends and relatives formed the “Slithering Stones Research Initiative” and waited for their plan to work.
Figure 2. One of 15 rocks outfitted with a motion-activated GPS unit (metal disc in center of rock). Photo by James Norris.

In late November of 2013 the playa received 5.64 cm of precipitation in the form of rain and snow (Figure 3). The snow depth was recorded by time-lapse cameras set up separately by Ralph D. Lorenz (The Johns Hopkins University) ???and Brian Jackson (Boise State University), who later joined the “Slithering Stones” team to write up the combined observations. The shallow pond (maximum depth ~10 cm) lasted until early February of 2014, and it also created the conditions under which the first-ever recorded observations of rock movement occurred. On December 20th, 2013, the Norris’ observed firsthand (and recorded on film) more than 60 rocks moving across the playa (Figure 4). Over the winter their automated instruments recorded multiple events when rocks moved >200 meters, thus providing enough data to upend previous theories for movement, such as hurricane-force winds, dust devils, slick algal films, or thick ice sheets. Instead, their data indicates that rock movement occurs under light winds (3-5 meters/second) when very thin (3-6 mm) panels of floating ice start moving across the lake. The ice sheets can push multiple rocks at low speeds (2-5 meters/minute) along trajectories determined by the direction and speed of the wind and flowing water under the ice.
Figure 3. Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park after a winter storm left a shallow lake for nearly 3 months between November 2013 and February 2014. Examples of synchronized tracks found behind stones are shown. Photo by James Norris.
 Figure 4. Richard Norris standing on playa next to one of the GPS-rocks that moved during the winter of 2013. Photo Theresa Norris.

This incredible discovery was published in the journal PLOS ONE on August 27th, 2014. Within days, news of the solved mystery behind the sliding rocks of the Racetrack Playa became very popular in the media – as witnessed by the numerous stories published by NPR, NBC, National Geographic, LA Times, Associated Press, Science Daily, and the list goes on (learn more at: http://www.racetrackplaya.org/).

Wilber (Bill) Mayhew 1920-2014

In September 2014 we lost the last of the co-founders for the UC Natural Reserve System (NRS), Wilbur (Bill) W. Mayhew.  Professor Mayhew, along with Mildred Mathias and Kenneth Norris, possessed the incredible foresight and enthusiasm necessary to convince the UC Regents to form the Natural Land and Water Reserve System (as the NRS was then known) in 1965.  These professors were true visionaries and leaders in the protection of California’s unique ecosystems.  In the face of high real estate values and the burgeoning urbanization of natural areas, they actively pursued acquisition of important natural areas throughout the state for the sole purpose of preserving lands for teaching and research.  Today the NRS has 39 reserves and encompasses over 750,000 acres of unique habitat.  In particular, Bill Mayhew was responsible for acquiring 16 reserves, served as faculty  manager for Boyd Deep Canyon for over 25 years, and was the Campus Director for all UC Riverside NRS reserves (including the GMDRC) for 36 years.  

Bill Mayhew was also a founding faculty member at UC Riverside in the Department of Zoology.  Over the course of his career he touched the lives of literally thousands of students, brought nature to their finger tips, and instilled a sense of appreciation for the natural world.  In fact, he started bringing his Terrestrial Vertebrates class to the Granite Mountains as early as the 1950’s, and this class is considered the longest standing class to use this reserve (it has since been taught by Marlene Zuk, John Rotenberry, and now Christopher Clark).  Mayhew was apparently a stalwart field biologist, full of natural history facts and life-changing opportunities for young minds.  He was also known for his uncanny, yet noteworthy, sayings while in the field, familiarly called “Mayhewisms”.  A few of our favorites are below.

Along with Bob and Ken Norris, he played a significant role in the development of the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center in 1978, for which we will always be grateful. Bill Mayhew will always hold a very special place in the heart of the NRS.

An oral history interview is available online.  Obituaries for Wilbur Mayhew can be found here: UCR TodayUCNRS

Just a few (of hundreds!) Mayhewisms:

“Noose ’em and goose ’em!”  (refers to catching lizards and taking rectal temperatures)
“Here I am dingledorkin’ around.”
“We’re beatin’ the hell out of nature, but remember that nature bats last.”
“Optimists believe that we’re living in the best possible world.  Pessimists fear this is so.”
“We’re off like a herd of turtles!”
“Big as life and twice as natural.”
“Nothin’s stoppin’ you but fear and good sense.”
“Some of us have it, some have to send off for it.”
“Excuse me while I do some osmo-regulating.”
“Be prepared to have your teeth sharpened!”  (in reference to blowing sand)
“I have a hitch in my get-along.”
“That’il larn ya, darn ya!”
“Ain’t Nature wunnerful”
“That’s a catastrostrope!”  (calamity)
“Crazy as a coot.”
“How are you?  I’m finer than frog hair.”
“I told him how the rabbit ate the carrot!”  (told him off)
“You are just in time to be too late.”
“I have never before seen so many things I can do without.”

Strong winds hit Granite Cove May 2014

During May 2014 the Granite Mountains experienced an unforgettable windstorm of tornadic proportions. Perhaps the most remarkable part of this event was not the 80+ mph gusts that violently ripped apart fences, a greenhouse, and several roof tops, but rather the duration of the event. For a period of 12 hours, we sustained wind speeds above 45 mph.

A tribute to Marilyn Sweeney

It is with sadness that we report the passing of Marilyn Sweeney on May 10th, 2013.  Marilyn was a generous philanthropist, mainly supporting activities and ventures involving music and the fine arts.  She was known for her contagious smile and genuine nature and will be remembered fondly for her generosity and spirit.

In honor of a major donation made by Jack and Marilyn Sweeney in 1994, the Granite Mountains Reserve was renamed the Jack and Marilyn Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center.  The endowment entrusted to the Center in their name has provided a means to cover some of the core operating costs for the reserve, as the UC-provided operating budget has always failed to meet the needs of even fundamental costs such as maintaining photovoltaic systems and providing propane to heat the facilities.  Without the generosity of these two individuals the reserve would be sorely lacking in the most basic of services.

Dr. Robert M. Norris, 1921-2012

Nephew Dick Norris serving birthday cake to Bob Norris at his 90th birthday celebration at the Granite Mountains.

It is with regret that we share such sad news, Dr. Robert M. Norris passed away on August 31st, 2012.  He died peacefully while surrounded by his family at his home in Santa Barbara, CA.  Bob was 91 years old when he died, he was still very lucid and fairly active for his age.  He lived a long and rich life, touching the lives of many as a teacher, mentor, father, and grandfather.

The UC Natural Reserve System, and in particular the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, are forever indebted to his stalwart efforts in establishing the reserve system.  He was one of several insightful individuals back in the 1960’s that recognized the value in setting aside land and facilities for the purpose of research and teaching.  He was a geology professor for over 50 years at UC Santa Barbara, however his depth of knowledge across many disciplines made him a true naturalist.

Bob Norris at the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center 25th Anniversary celebration.

In particular, he was keenly interested in the desert landscape and his love for the Granite Mountains was unparalleled. This was to the benefit of many, as he was so influential in the establishment of this reserve which now hosts over 170 active research projects and hundreds of students annually.  In 2003, at the 25th Anniversary celebration for the Center, we dedicated the Robert M. Norris Interpretive Trail in honor of his enthusiastic support for the Granite Mountains Desert Research Center.  He was one of the “founding fathers” of this reserve, and he will missed.

A celebration of Bob’s life for his many friends, colleagues and students is planned for early 2013. For more details, please visit: www.bobnorris.org




Santa Barbara Independent obituary: http://www.independent.com/obits/2012/sep/11/dr-robert-norris/

LA Times obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/LATimes/obituary.aspx?n=Robert-Norris&pid=159850284

Assistant director on Car Talk

Upon returning to the Center after a trip to Baja in January 2005, Assistant Directors Megan and Jan discovered that heavy rains had caused extensive flooding throughout portions of Granite Cove, including the parking area near their house resulting in their Toyota Corolla being buried in sand. 

After many hours of washing silt, sand, rocks, and branches out of the interior and engine, the car still wouldn’t start. Interestingly, when Jan attempted to start the car he noticed air being sucked into the muffler and being blown out of the air intake in the engine – seemingly the engine was running backwards! It took a call to Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Hosts of Car Talk from National Public Radio to solve the mystery. Their prognosis: The timing belt had shifted 180 degrees, causing the exhaust valves to open when the intake valves should be opening and vice versa. Two hours later Jan had the timing belt replaced and the car running. Jan and Megan are still using the car and have driven it over 30,000 miles since the flood.