Binational Plant Distribution in Baja California: Exploring San Quintín with Terra Peninsular

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By Sarai Alvarez, Elizabeth Barajas, Martha Cortez, Mario Galvan, Julia Gomez, Dariana Nieves / Undergraduate students at San Diego State University

Photos by Sarai Alvarez, Julia Gomez, Kyle Gunther, Dariana Nieves, Alex McElwee-Adame, and Dr. Lluvia Flores-Renteria

The plant diversity in Baja California is dominated by lots of different endemic plants, which sparked our curiosity. We are a group of undergraduate students from San Diego State University (SDSU), each studying a unique binational plant and its distribution in California and Baja California.

As part of a summer research internship, we took a trip to Mexico with Dr. Lluvia Flores-Renteria, Dr. Sula Vanderplank, and three graduate students with the goal of familiarizing ourselves with the native plants of the region.

We spent a week traveling to different parts of Baja California, including Ensenada, Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, Bahía de Los Ángeles, and San Quintín.

This trip provided us with the opportunity to collect samples to use for DNA extractions and to track the location of each sample. Knowing the coordinates of where our plant was found will help us determine the region and type of vegetation where our plants grow. We also learned about conservation projects involving plants and animals by interacting with park rangers and other students involved in research.

The last day of our trip was spent in San Quintín at the Punta Mazo Nature Reserve with the non-profit organization Terra Peninsular. Our group had the privilege of meeting the incredible people working at the reserve. The staff, consisting of Jorge Andrade (Adaptive Management Coordinator), Enrique Alfaro (San Quintín Field and Operations Officer), Bryan Gerardo (Community Manager), among others, and the college students, Carolina, Ali, Montse and Sophia from the University of the Americas Puebla (UDLAP, for its acronym in Spanish), and Carlos from the Autonomous University of Baja California in Ensenada (UABC, for its acronym in Spanish) received our team with excitement, introduced us to the flora and fauna of the region, and allowed us to stay in El Refugio.

After introducing both groups, we walked in the area surrounding the Sudoeste volcano and Dr. Vanderplank talked about the endemic plants of the San Quintín region. We learned that the surrounding vegetation consists of 73 species, 16 of which are endemic to the region. Acmispon distichus is endemic to the sandy dunes of San Quintín. Acmispon distichus is part of the Fabaceae family and is characterized by its yellow petals.

Acmispon distichus is endemic to the sandy dunes of San Quintín.

As we continued to walk towards the head of the volcano we noticed large green to white succulents. It presence captivated our attention because of its shape and color. The succulent seemed to have a chalky color and texture as well as some arm like projections growing from the base. Anthony’s Liveforever, or Dudleya anthonyi, is another endemic species restricted to the San Quintín volcanic fields. Dr. Vanderplank explained that the arm like structures were not in fact arms but elongated stalks that held red flowers.

Anthony’s Liveforever, or Dudleya anthonyi, is another endemic species restricted to the San Quintín volcanic fields.

Throughout the entire hike we noticed the presence of a one largely populated plant. The plant has red to pink glands making it appears as though it was made of glass. Mesembryanthemum crystallinum is invasive to the Punta Mazo Nature Reserve and was introduced from Africa. Although Mesembryanthemum crystallinum creates colorful scenery, it is unhealthy for the nearby vegetation. When we returned from our walk, we all shared stories and experiences during dinner.

Mesembryanthemum crystallinum is invasive to the Punta Mazo Nature Reserve and was introduced from Africa.

At night, the group had the privilege to set traps for mammals in an effort to catch the San Quintín kangaroo rat (Dipodomys gravipes), which was believed to be extinct until recently and is currently part of a conservation project, but we didn’t succeed in finding any. Setting the traps consisted of placing the traps just outside evident entrances to burrows with oatmeal as bait. The oatmeal was disbursed inside the trap as well on the outside to create a path into the trap.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to check the traps. Surprisingly, we found that most of the traps were successful in capturing mammals. We were filled with excitement to see what was residing inside the traps. Not only did we capture kangaroo rats (Dipodomys simulans), but we also found deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) and pocket mice (Chaetodipus arenarius).

The deer mice were visibly aggressive while the pocket mice were more concerned with storing the oatmeal in their outer cheek pockets. We were allowed to hold the kangaroo rats and learned how to take measurements such as length and weight. Once all necessary measurements were taken, we let them go and watched them hop away back into their environment.

In addition, we found a baby kangaroo rat (Dipodomys simulans) outside of its burrow shivering from the cold. We collectively decided it was best for the mammal to warm it up and put it back where we found it so it could make its way back home. It’s interesting how we were the ones capturing the mammals, yet we were the ones captured and captivated by their beauty.

We found a baby kangaroo rat outside of its burrow shivering from the cold.

The time spent in San Quintín was really fun and informative. We would like to thank Terra Peninsular for welcoming us and letting us work with them. We enjoyed learning about the conservation projects involving plants and animals while interacting with the park rangers and exchanging experiences with the students involved in research. We hope to get the chance to go back and follow up on how their research on the kangaroo rats is going.

We would also like to thank the USDA – National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), HSI program, for funding this summer internship and providing us with the opportunity to explore and learn about the different regions of Baja California. And a special thanks to all of those who were there with us, gave us the opportunity to learn more about their research, and who made this trip memorable.