Studying Desert Water

Biological Technicians performing a frog survey at Rincon Creek
Biological Technicians performing a frog survey at Rincon Creek

NPS Photo/DJackson

If you want to study water, you do not go to the Amazon or to Seattle. You come here, to the driest land. Nowhere else is it drawn to such a point. In the desert, water is unedited, perfect. ~Craig Childs, The Secret Knowledge of Water

Park Staff and other experts study many aspects of the park's rare waters including the quality, chemistry, insects, plants, groundwater, and flow patterns. Some of these projects are long term monitoring and other short term research studies but each one sheds new light on the hydrologic cycle at the park. Check out a few of the studies that are happening at the park right now!

Frog Surveys

Each spring and fall for the last twenty years members of the resource management team have walked up drainages in the park, stopping and sitting quietly at select tinajas. The deep, calm pools are perfect habitat for the lowland leopard frogs, a sensitive species. Park staff record the number of adults, tadpoles and egg masses they see in the pool before continuing to the next pool in the drainage. The surveys are an important tool to gauge the health of frog populations in the park and to understand the impact of events like drought and wildfire on the species.

Isotope Studies

Although we know that all the water in the park comes from the mountains in the form of rain and snow it can be difficult to know how long the water takes to travel across the mountain front. We use isotopes - different masses of the same atom - to get a clearer picture of the water's origin and movement in the park. Water is collected from locations across the park like springs and tinajas and send to labs for testing. At the lab scientists look at the amount of oxygen, tritium and sulphur isotopes to determine the age of the water and if it fell during the summer or winter. These studies are important because they help the park make decisions about how to protect the watershed and the effect drought or wildfire might have on the springs.

Local school group helping park staff with dragonfly survey.
Local school group helping park staff with dragonfly survey.

NPS Photo/DJackson

Dragonfly Mercury Project

Citizen scientist in Saguaro National Park are joining citizen scientists across the nation in the Dragonfly Mercury Project to assess mercury levels in the park.

Mercury is a pollutant that can have serve impacts on human and wildlife health. The main human source of mercury in remote parks is coal burning power plants. The plants release mercury into the air whcih is eventually deposited on the landscape. Dragonfly larvae are good indicators of mercury in the food web because they live for a long time in the water as larvae and they are predatory, accumulating mercury from the other insects they eat. They are also an important source of food for birds and fish and so can indicate larger trends in the food chain. Citizen scientists at Saguaro National Park use dip nets to collect dragonfly larvae from tinajas, springs and creeks. The samples are analyzed and the data becomes part of a larger data set from parks across the country so scientists can understand larger trends in the landscape.

Learn more about the dragonfly mercury project.

Last updated: January 11, 2017

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