Class offers amateurs chance to study Joshua tree reproduction

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere who is more interested in Joshua tree reproduction than Chris Smith.

The evolutionary biologist from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., has spent the past nine years studying the highly specialized bond between the plant and the tiny moth that pollinates it in a lonesome valley 140 miles north of Las Vegas.

Now he is inviting amateur scientists and desert lovers to join him in his outdoor laboratory for a crash course in his work.

Smith will hold a three-day class in late March on the pollination biology of Joshua trees in Nevada’s Tikaboo Valley, the only known spot where the eastern and western varieties of Joshua tree live side by side.

For $210 plus food and lodging, students will get to walk the valley east of Rachel with Smith, learn about evolution and serve as "citizen scientists" by collecting data that will help with ongoing research.

"This is a great way for people who live in the Mojave to learn more about the biology of the iconic species of the Mojave Desert," Smith said.

Simply put, the Joshua tree would not exist without a plain-looking moth about the length of a pencil eraser, and the moth would not exist without the tree.

Each spring, yucca moths emerge from the ground to mate and lay eggs in the flowers of Joshua trees in Nevada, California and Arizona.

But unlike bees and other insects that inadvertently spread pollen from flower to flower, these moths appear to deliberately pollinate Joshua trees so that the plants will produce seeds that eventually will feed their caterpillars when they hatch.

Smith is studying how natural selection is involved in shaping this tight relationship between the plant and the insect.

Until recently, his work was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation. Now he is seeking financing from National Geographic and other sources.

Smith said that the class won’t pay for his research but that adding an educational outreach component could help him secure a new grant.

The course is being offered, appropriately enough, through the nonprofit association for Joshua Tree National Park in California.

Kevin Wong is program coordinator for the Desert Institute, the educational outreach arm of the 50-year-old Joshua Tree National Park Association.

Wong said this is the institute’s first course outside California, so it seemed appropriate to pick one about the plant that gives the national park its name.

"This was too easy a match," Wong said.

The class will be held March 22-25. The deadline to register is Feb. 22.

Space is limited to 15 people.

Smith said four have already signed up, and at least six are needed for the class to proceed.

Those who sign up should be ready to hike three to four miles each day and work outside.

Smith said people can either camp out in Tikaboo Valley or stay at a hotel in nearby Alamo.

He said the class is perfect for "amateur naturalists," retirees with an interest in the desert, or anyone who wants the chance to "contribute to authentic scientific research."

Specifically, class members will help map the distribution of eastern and western Joshua trees in Tikaboo Valley and chart the differences and similarities between the two varieties and their hybrids.

This isn’t busy work, Smith said.

It’s useful data he might not have had the time or the resources to collect himself.

"Free labor is great," he said with a chuckle.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at or 702-383-0350.

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