Taking Steps Along the Grand Staircase, Part 1

WARNING! This post contains incredibly suggestive geology terms. Your breathing may become rapid and blood vessels may become engorged. You know, like ‘veins’? They are created by a processes like “open space filling” and can become “engorged” through repeated hydraulic fracturing— Oh no I’ve done it already!!!! too sexy for my chert!



Here we have some igneous ejecta, or ejaculate matter, that was exploded into the sky when the San Francisco Peaks were active. This rock landed in the little colorado river on the Navajo Rez

In the months since I have last considered posting on this site I have been up to some ol’ fashioned explorin’ and adventurin’. With our home in Flagstaff, AZ as a starting point, we have made several trips to the national parks that compose the Grand Staircase: Bryce Canyon NP, Zion NP, and Grand Canyon NP. The top of the staircase is Bryce Canyon and contains the youngest rocks. The layer of rock that composes the bottom of its canyon forms the top layer of Zion Canyon. The bottom layer of Zion Canyon forms the topmost layer of the Grand Canyon, whose bottom has some of the oldest rock found on earth.

Let us begin our journey at the youngest formation, Bryce Canyon National Park, in Utah.

view from the southern lookouts

Bryce Canyon

The spectacular pinnacles that make up the majority of Bryce’s formations are called hoodoos. Lets discuss the “orogenesis” of Bryce Canyon. (I guess you should take your clothes off ‘cuz we’re havin an orogeny!) Before the Colorado Plateau was created by tectonic uplift, there was an inland sea that covered a large portion of north america, known as the Cretaceous Seaway (not very creative, Geologists…). During this time sediments were deposited into the water and formed sedimentary rocks such as sandstone and siltstone. After a period of tectonic uplift in the Cenozoic era the seaway retreated, exposing the sedimentary stone. Subsequently wind, ice, and rain eroded the rock into the hoodoos we see today.

Thors Hammer on the left

We had time to go hike through the formations and so we gladly descended into the shelter of the hoodoo voodoo magic. According to the internets, Anasazi inhabited the area thousands of years ago, and not much is known about their culture in the region. But during the European colonization of North America the Paiute Indians lived in the surrounding areas. Here is the Pauite creation myth for Bryce Canyon:

Before there were any Indians the Legend People, To-when-an-ung-wa, lived in that place. Because they were bad, Coyote turned them all into rocks. You can see them in that place now — some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others. You can see their faces with paint on, just as they were before they became rocks.

The name of that place is Agka-ku-wass-a-wits (red painted faces).

-Source: “Indian Dick. Recorded in 1936.”

Some of the hoodoos do indeed look like frozen giants with red painted faces. It seems the natives regarded this place with some trepidation, as the resting place of evil men damned by the wrathful Coyote.

after we got out of the wind and the sun came out, it was pretty nice in there. more trees than I expected.
totally habituated to humans

Stellars Jay

Wandering through the labyrinth of sandstone, we began to wonder why this particular pattern of erosion happens only in a few places in the world. The specific recipe of environmental variables that has to come together over millions of years to create hoodoos must indeed be rare. I’ve seen smaller hoodoos in a few other places, such as Yellowstone National Park and a few areas near Bryce in Utah, but is there any place with structures as numerous and concentrated as these? There was a interpretive sign near one of the lookout points describing Bryce Canyon’s discovery by one of the first non-native Americans, a group of Mormons (don’t forget, this is UTAH). A man named Ebenezer Bryce and his family built a cabin nearby and owned the land containing the canyon. When asked about the spectacular formations, all he had to say about it was “it’s a heck of a place to lose a cow.” There you have it folks. Cautious reverence to detached annoyance.

The park has other attractions beyond the amphitheater including this humongous natural arch. yay wooww.

natural bridge

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praying mantis navigating an alien landscape

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Cochise County

The name of the small county in the southeast corner of Arizona stimulates much contemplation and wonder for me. As a teenager I began the archetypical coming-of-age saga known as “trying to figure out who I am as a person”. Part of my ancestry is Cherokee, and i went through a long phase in my life spent in fascination with Native American history and culture. This preoccupation was revitalized by interactions with my grandparents in Oklahoma (of which my grandfather still spoke fluent Cherokee). Furthermore, as I grew up in Maine with my father I was instructed about the spiritual lessons offered by nature and I began to see the connections to the native cultures I read about in books. One of my favorite and most angering books of the time was “Once They Moved Like the Wind”, by David Roberts. It detailed the final era of the free Chiricahua Apaches, led by infamous warriors like Geronimo and Cochise. There was a time when I became filled with anger and I began dreaming of “going Native”, but thankfully I awoke from those illusions and returned to my center.

So as I explored Cochise County and became more intimate with the landscape, I began to recognize place names from the wild tales of the west. The Dragoon Mountains to the northwest contained the Cochise Stronghold, the place from which the undefeated chief launched raids upon all. His body is buried somewhere up there, and the location will never be known. Skeleton Canyon to the northeast is where Geronimo surrendered for the last time. A stone monument stands near the road that goes up the canyon, an inadequate tribute to the end of a warrior’s fight for freedom.

Nearby Douglas stands the town of Tombstone, a one-street tourist trap whose livelihood depends on our fascination with the gunfight at the OK Corral and the cowboy’s life. Mostly it’s just lame.

Thankfully though this land is beautiful. I end my time here with a few last photographs of the incredible life that thrives in the desert.

Texas Horned Lizard

Horned Lizards are just sooo cool. Also known as horny toads (a moniker handed down by the idiots of yore who couldn’t distinguish a toad from a lizard), they subsist almost entirely on ants. Their droppings are little black pellets composed of the exoskeletons of harvester ants, completely dry.

kingbird and soaptree yucca, dancing in the wind at sunset

Kingbirds are everywhere. This Western Kingbird (i think…), shared this valley with Tropical and Cassin’s Kingbirds. All are difficult to distinguish by sight.

The Roadrunner, running on my roof!

I love roadrunners. I am just impressed by any animal that hunts rattlesnakes. If you have a recording of a rattlesnake rattling, you can lure the roadrunner in to investigate.

Face to face with a Black Tailed Rattlesnake

Yes, I get this close to rattlesnakes.

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Guess what i’ve been doing!

Hello virtual cyber-readers! I have been busy at work with the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Flagstaff helping them to analyze some herptile data that they collected about 20 years ago. Here is a picture of my typical day:


I was very surprised to find myself opening Zar’s Biostatistical Analysis textbook again, especially after the stress of my stats class in university. I mean, I had a professor who only gave oral exams so you can imagine the trauma my classmates and I experienced as he smirked at our inarticulate ramblings about statistics.

My study involves reptiles and amphibians in the Sky Islands of southeast AZ, and my boss wants to do some non-metric dimensional scaling, a type of ordination. What the hell is that, you may ask? Well, I’ll tell you when I figure it out. All I recalled from my Habitat relations class was a 3-D diagram of a squirrel’s preferred habitat. Maybe that was niche.

It’s like grad school, but in high speed, and I don’t get a degree at the end.

In the mean time though, I have had some grand adventures, and I will be posting more soon. If anything, you will at least get to look at some neat pictures.

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Mojave Rattlesnakes get PIT-tagged and probed

We wrangled up ourselves a Mojave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus).


Mojave rattlers are very aggressive. This one got venom everywhere!


Being dedicated and fearless insane biologists, we went ahead and decided that handling it, probing it, and stabbing it would be the best course of action.

Mojaves are renowned for their aggressive and defensive nature, and this individual did not disappoint. She bit everything she could get her fangs on. All these photographs of the snake striking are testament only to her high frequency of strikes and not to my photographic ability.

After using a tape measure to measure the snakes snout-vent length and tail length we used an appropriately sized metal probe to determine the sex of the individual. For those of you who are either perverse or scientifically inclined, or both, the general technique for using a cloacal probe to determine a snake’s sex is to insert the probe beneath the anal scale towards the tail. Counterintuitively, if the probe goes in, it signifies a male, and if it does not go in, it is a female.

This is because male snakes are gifted contortionists with their reproductive organs. Squamates, which include lizards and snakes, have paired reproductive organs called hemipenes (hemipenis for the singular). Emasculating, right? Well, turns out that they can even turn their double-barreled organs inside out when they do not need them by inverting them into their body cavity. THAT means that when I insert the cloacal probe to determine the sex of the individual, a male snake will have plenty of room in his inside-out penises while the female will not.

we did it for science.

We determined this snake to be female (Another sign is the condition of her rattles. Males tend to have more damaged rattles due to their increased time spent searching for the relatively sedentary females.) Instead of cuddling, our next task was to stab her with a big needle before abandoning her unceremoniously by the side of the road.

Passive Integrated Transponder injection

The PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag gives the animal a unique number that we can use to track the individual over time if we catch it again. It differs from active transponders in that it does not have its own power source that emits a signal to be detected by a receiver. Animals with such active transponders can be tracked from miles away in some cases, or even by satellite. Instead the PIT has a tiny chip surrounded by copper wire. A specialized scanner uses magnets to create current in the copper wire that causes the chip to emit a weak signal, which enables the individual to be identified only after being captured. yay.

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Cloacal Popping, baby

I was lucky enough to be able to work with a Sonoran coralsnake (Micruroides euryxanthus) that was caught in our trap arrays in Leslie Canyon. Coralsnakes are members of the Elapid snake family, which also includes such famous serpents as cobras and mambas. Elapids are distinguished from other snake families by having ‘proteroglyphous’ fangs. This is a high-falootin scientific term for having fangs that are short, fixed, and placed in the front of the dentary bone. They are usually hollow, but sometimes they can be slightly modified, such as the Spitting Cobra, in which the venom duct opens in the front of the tooth. The more commonly known rattlesnakes have ‘solenoglyphous’ fangs, which means they have long hollow teeth that fold back when not in use.

Coral snakes may not be as deadly as their feared brethren, but they do possess a nuerotoxic venom that can render one quite ill. I once read on a restaurant menu in Bisbee that the first death of the Civil War was caused by a coral snake bite. Whether or not one should consider random accidents as casualties of war, people can die from coral snakes. (though I suppose it would count as a casualty of war if one soldier threw the snake at another soldier) (also, I am not sure if one should trust information on a menu when it doesn’t cite its reference.)

So it was with this in mind that my coworker and I began measuring the snake late at night after dinner, and for those of you who don’t know, if it is hot and I don’t have to be anywhere, the shirt comes off. Notice the farmer’s tan.

The thing about the private bits of reptiles is that they have one exterior opening for all the crazy things that go on down there. Coral snakes add one more cloacal ability to the mix by being able to make noise with their junk. When in distress they can force air out from their cloaca in little squeaky-popping sounds, I felt thoroughly disturbed by this discovery.

Edit: I think this post deserves a nice money shot of the cloaca in question:

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