Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hiking Angels Landing

I woke up early, packed up my tent, and drove the short distance from my dispersed campsite to Springdale, Utah. With my daypack on my back, and my trek poles in my hands, I boarded a Zion National Park shuttle bus and rode into Zion Canyon. "Stop Number 6, The Grotto." I got off the bus, filled my water, adjusted my poles, and started off down the trail. As the tall Fremont Cottonwoods gave way, and the view opened up, my eyes gazed upon the towering sandstone cathedral, so appropriately named Angels Landing, before me. What in the world did I get myself into.

Angels Landing Zion National Park
Angels Landing is a large rock formation cut from the massive layer of Navajo Sandstone by the Virgin River. It is just one of the many features in the iconic Zion Canyon in southwestern Utah. I hiked the famous trail back in mid-July during my Arizona-to-Ohio roadtrip. This post is essentially just a pictorial journey up to the top with some fun facts and tips thrown in.

Soaring 1,488 feet above the canyon floor, Angels Landing received its appropriate name when Frederick Fisher, who was exploring the canyon with 3 others back in 1916, gazed upon the formation and claimed "Only an angel could land on it." Back then, there wasn't a trail leading to the top. Ascending Angels Landing was an incredibly difficult task and required a lot of rock climbing, and the first recorded ascent was in 1923 by park ranger Harold Russell. Although this was the first recorded ascent, it doesn't mean this was the first time someone ever got to the top. If anyone had previously, their name is lost to history.

Angels Landing Trail
We humans have an insatiable urge to get on top of tall and hard to reach places, and Angels Landing is no exception. In 1926, Walter Ruesch, the park superintendent at the time, began a project to build a trail that would reach the top, allowing the visitors to the relatively-new Zion National Park to make the trek up this formidable formation. Upon completion, the trail came in at 2.4 miles from the start point to the top of Angels Landing (4.8 miles round trip). The trail starts at the Grotto Trailhead, crosses the Virgin River, and begins a gently ascending path along the canyon floor toward the wall. Upon hitting the canyon wall, a series of winding paved switchbacks (pictured above) begin. This is where the hike really kicks in.

Refrigerator Canyon Zion
After the first set of switchbacks, the trail rewards you with a slight respite. The trail levels out as you make your way through a much smaller side canyon called Refrigerator Canyon. The name fits quite well; the temperature in the shady canyon is much, much cooler than the exposed parts of the trail. This cool canyon offers a lower-elevation foothold for the Rocky Mountain Douglas-Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca). Typically, Douglas-Firs begin to appear around 6,000 feet above sea level in Utah, yet this canyon is about 1,000 feet lower than that. Nevertheless, the cooler temperatures allow the persistence of this cooler-weather pine.

Walter's Wiggles

The refreshing break of Refrigerator Canyon ends all too soon. The trail quickly arrives at the bottom of the infamous Walter's Wiggles, a section of 21 tight and steep switchbacks. The photo above shows only 9 of the 21 switchbacks, just to give you an idea. Check out this link to see a photo of the entire section. Back and forth and back and forth you go, slowly gaining more and more elevation. This section of the trail is named after Walter Ruesch, who I mentioned a bit earlier. The creation of this section of trail allowed for hikers to reach Scout Lookout without having to climb the sandstone cliffside.

Angels Landing Zion National Park
As you round the 21st switchback of Walter's Wiggles, you come to a flat, sandy area called Scout Landing. This is an area where most people take a long breather and decide whether or not to make the final push up Angels Landing. The paved trail ends here, and the remaining 500 vertical feet of your 1,488 foot climb towers in the distance. For many people, Scout Landing is far enough. I passed several people who turned around at this part of the trail. I don't blame them; looking at the final half mile of the trail made me seriously consider turning back. It looked terrifying. I knew that I would never forgive myself if I didn't finish the trail after coming this far, so I took a deep breath, calmed my nerves, and started toward the trail. And I'm so glad I did, as the trail looks much more difficult and scarier than it really is. A word of caution: Many people like to leave their backpacks at Scout Landing before climbing up. DO NOT DO THIS. There are Rock Squirrels all over Scout Landing, and they know that humans keep food in their packs. These squirrels will chew holes into unattended packs, leaving a nice surprise for returning hikers. I passed one unattended pack with a squirrel-butt sticking out of a nice two-inch hole. Don't let that be your pack.

Angels Landing Trail
The final leg of the trail, up the actual Angels Landing formation, starts at...this. And yes, this is as steep as it looks. After arriving at this point, I couldn't help but utter "...seriously?" Thankfully, this was probably the most difficult part to navigate. This is the beginning of "the chains" portion of the trail. From here on up, chains were installed to help hikers make their way up more safely. These chains might offer more of a sense of safety than actual safety, however. A good rule of advice I read is that if you feel you couldn't make the hike without the chains, you probably shouldn't attempt this section.

Angels Landing TrailThe Angels Landing Trail is infamous in the hiking world, and the photo above shows why. That's the trail on the left. And that's a 1,000-some foot drop, right next to the trail. There's little room for error on much of this last section, as sheer cliffsides are often only a few feet away. Add dozens of people going up and down, crowding the already narrow trail, and say hello to your adrenaline rush. The section of trail pictured above is the narrowest section in the hike. But just how narrow is it?

Angels Landing Trail
It's this narrow. This is a photo of me standing right on that section pictured previously. The trail is maybe 2/2.5 feet wide at most. On either side of me is a ~1,000 foot cliff. The National Park Service stresses that you shouldn't attempt this trail if you're afraid of heights, and this is exactly why. If you aren't at least comfortable with this, this trail isn't for you. You have to pay close attention to every step you take, and that becomes hard if you're overwhelmed with fear.

Angels Landing Trail
I took the final half mile of the trail very, very slowly. The trail can be really busy at times, and you often have to stop at a safe area and wait for groups of people to pass you either going up or down. Most of the trail is only one-person wide, so there's a lot of this stopping and starting. This is definitely not a trail to do if you're in a hurry. You can see from the photo above that the last half mile isn't actually a hike, but a rock scramble. Rock scrambling is a method of navigating up or down steep rocky terrain using both your feet and hands. It's the non-technical middle ground between hiking and rock climbing.

Top of Angels Landing

After 2 grueling hours and 1,488 feet in vertical elevation gain later, I stepped onto the summit of Angels Landing. It was one of the most rewarding feelings I've ever felt. Squirrels and chipmunks scampered around the exhausted hikers and stunted trees. Two Peregrine Falcons, which nest on the cliffsides, darted through the air. A lone California Condor soared by on a rising thermal. 

Zion Canyon
The hike was all worth it. The views of Zion Canyon from 1,488 feet above the mighty Virgin River were astounding. This is the view from looking down the canyon.

Start of The Narrows Zion National Park

Angels Landing is relatively far-up the wider portion of Zion Canyon. This is the view looking up the canyon. The Narrows, another incredibly famous hike, begins where the canyon walls pinch together near the center of the photo.

Big Bend Zion National Park
Looking down toward The Organ from Angels Landing.
From atop Angels Landing, you are rewarded with a bird's-eye view of the Big Bend. Here the Virgin River lazily winds around a small rock formation named The Organ. On the other side of the river, you can see where Echo Canyon (another side canyon) joins the main Zion Canyon. The confluence of Echo and Zion Canyons is the trailhead for 3 popular hikes: Weeping Rock, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point.

Kyle from Ohio
Of course, you have to get the obligatory photo of yourself while atop Angels Landing. This was personally the hardest hike I've ever done (so far), but I'm so glad I did it.

Here are a few personal tips for those considering hiking Angels Landing someday:
  • Take plenty of water, and DRINK it. I knew I was going to need a lot of water, and even then I still became stupidly dehydrated. By the time I got back to Scout Landing, and the adrenaline wore off, I realized I had pretty bad heat exhaustion. It got pretty serious before I got back to the shuttle bus. You need way more electrolytes and water than you think you do. 
  • I highly suggest using trekking poles for the paved portion of the trail. They really help take the strain off of your legs (especially your knees while heading back down). HOWEVER, if you do use trekking poles, make sure that you can safely store them on/in your pack while doing the chains sections of Angels Landing; you'll want both hands free for this part. Using trekking poles during the last half mile adds unnecessary risk.  
  • Use very small steps when hiking uphill to save energy. People tend to take large steps when going uphill, but this utilizes more energy as your muscles must perform more work. Big steps equal quicker exhaustion and soreness. Take it slow, and take it small.
  • There is absolutely NO shame in turning around at ANY POINT during the trail. If you feel like you can't continue, turn around. Don't risk your life. More than 5 people have died on this trail in the past few decades. This isn't a trail to mess around on. 
Thanks for reading this long post! At least there were lots of photos!

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch

Beginning in late June, the prevailing winds in the American Southwest change directions. Warm, moist tropical air from the Gulf of California suddenly finds itself being pulled into the dry Arizona landscape. With this influx of warm, moist air, the North American Monsoon begins. Storms pop up all over Arizona and the rest of the Southwest, but this rain doesn't come in the form of widespread and gentle storm fronts as it often does in Ohio. Instead, isolated, but intense, thunderstorms with torrential rainfall form around the region, dotting the landscape. On one typical July day during the summer field season, the dorms at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in Southeast Arizona were surrounded by these monsoon thunderstorms.

Tarantulas in Arizona
The monsoon storms are a welcomed event for those living in the hot Sonoran Desert and semi-desert grasslands. Rain means a short respite from the soaring temperatures. But for a male tarantula, the rain means love is in the air. The monsoons signal the start of the mating season for the tarantulas in Arizona, and males begin an epic quest to find females. Males throw all caution to the wind and spend all the waking hours of the day wandering in search for a female tarantula's burrow. Since the females tend to stay in their burrow unless driven out by starvation or by a predator, it comes down to the males to seek them out. And that brings us to this male that we found hanging out on the dormitory at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch.

Tarantulas United States
Meet the...uh... I'll be honest, I'm not sure what this species is.  Dr. Chris Hamilton, the author of the paper I discuss below, reached out to me and identified this as Aphonopelma chalcodes, the Desert Blonde Tarantula. The location (SE Arizona), habitat (semi-desert grassland), and golden carapace all help key this individual out to A. chalcodes. The Desert Blonde Tarantula is a tarantula in the genus Aphonopelma. Aphonopelma is one of the 100+ genera of spiders in the tarantula family (Theraphosida), and all of the native tarantulas in the United States belong to this genus. Although it is easy to get a tarantula in the western US down to genus, getting an individual down to the species level can be very difficult. In fact, no one is really sure how many species of Aphonopelma tarantulas are in the US, mainly because the Aphonopelma genus is (well, used to be) a complete taxonomic mess. But why though?

Okay, it’s time to delve into some science. What is a species? Although it seems like a simple question, it turns out it’s quite difficult to define what a “species” is, and it’s even more difficult to have the majority of biologists agree with a single definition. Most people have been taught that a species is a group of animals which can freely reproduce with each other. This is not really correct however, as many different species can hybridize with each other. The concept of a species is more complex than that. So then, what is a species? Well, there’s a lot of different concepts. In fact, there’s more than two dozen species concepts, and a list of the 26 most common ones throughout recent history can be seen here. Nowadays, most biologists define a species using the Unified Species Concept. This concept defines a species as a separately evolving metapopulation lineage. This definition isn’t as confusing as it may sound, and if you want to read all about it, please see Kevin de Queiroz’s 2007 paper at this link. I won't get into the details of the Unified Species Concept, but just know that our changing definition of a species has resulted in some problems when it comes to classifying animals.

Tarantula Facts
Historically, animals were classified into species according to differences in morphological (or physical) characteristics. Aphonopelma tarantulas were one such group of animals. They proved quite a challenge though. As it turns out, many Aphonopelma tarantulas look very, very similar. Classification based on morphological characteristics became difficult, and the genus descended into a taxonomic chaos. Then everything changed when it became possible to look at the genetics of an organism. Being able to see how closely related or diverged one organism’s DNA is to another revolutionized the field of systematics (the field of classifying animals). With this new approach, scientists began classifying species based on their DNA. This approach uncovered an interesting secret. Scientists were finding that some animals which looked exactly the same (and therefore were thought to be the same species) actually had very different DNA. Thus the concept of a “cryptic species” arose. A cryptic species is one which looks exactly like another species, but in reality is a completely different one. A non-tarantula example of this would be the Northern and Southern Ravine Salamanders, which were previously thought to be a single species as they look exactly the same, but DNA analysis in 1999 revealed two separate species.

Tarantula face

Of course, scientists decided to re-evaluate the Aphonopelma genus using a genetic approach. Maybe this would reveal some truth in the current taxonomic mess that was Aphonopelma. I want to stress that doing something such as revising an entire wide-ranging genus is a tremendous undertaking. First, genetic work is expensive. Second, you would need DNA samples from hundreds and hundreds of individuals in order to get a representative view of the evolutionary relationships, as tarantulas are so wide-ranging (they span throughout the south from the Mississippi River west to the Pacific Ocean). Getting enough samples is not only expensive due to the traveling necessary, but is also incredibly time intensive.

And this is exactly the undertaking that Chris Hamilton, Brent Hendrixson, and Jason Bond took on. This team of scientists from Auburn University and Millsaps College just published (Feb. 2016) a massive revision of the Aphonopelma genus. In this study, they combined the relatively new genetic methods of classification with the classical morphological and ecological methods in order to “delimit” the species within the genus. This integrative approach is much more effective and thorough than simply using any one technique alone. Before this study, there were 55 Aphonopelma tarantula species described in the US. This study found that there were actually only 29 true species. Only 15 of the 55 originally described species were supported by their findings. In addition, they described 14 new cryptic species. The rest of the originally described species were found to be either unsupported or a case of a single species getting named twice or more by separate scientists.

However, the authors pointed out that this is only the start. Although they sampled 1000+ tarantula individuals from a wide range of localities, there are probably many more species out there that they simply didn’t come across. Between incredibly remote and rough terrain, and the difficulty of finding individuals in the wild, it is probably nearly impossible to completely sample every species in the US. There are surely more species out there, but many of those are likely to be highly localized or in hard to access localities. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend reading the first several pages of this giant study (which comes in at a staggering 340 pages). The paper can be found at this link

Holding a tarantula

I think it's safe to say that a lot of people probably fear tarantulas. They're big, they're fuzzy, and, gasp, they're spiders. Now, I love spiders, but I can understand the fear. Though, as with many animals, much of that fear is rooted in misunderstanding. Tarantulas in the United States aren't dangerous. None of the American species have dangerous venom. A bite from one is equivalent to a bee sting. It's not going to feel pleasant, but it's nothing to freak out about either. American tarantulas rarely bite though. A more common line of defense in the Aphonopelma tarantulas is their use of urticating hairs. These tarantulas have species bristles on their abdomen that, when the tarantula feels threatened, can be "thrown" off with their legs. The tarantula will throw these bristles toward the threat, where they will embed themselves in the skin. These bristles then cause irritation to a varying degree, depending on the species. This irritation is essentially just an uncomfortable burning sensation. It's similar to the kind of reaction you would get from touching Stinging Nettle. Even so, American tarantulas are pretty docile. It really takes some harassing for them to defend themselves, and that level of harassment should never even happen. If you leave a tarantula alone, they pose literally no threat to you at all.  

Aphonopelma chalcodes
This is one of my favorite photos from the summer. I had set up a simple white backdrop in the lab for photoshoots with the lizards, and we decided to put the tarantula in it. He was a good sport for me and allowed a few shots before wandering off the backdrop and onto the table. I know not everyone will agree with me, but I think they're magnificent creatures. Finally seeing a tarantula in the wild has fulfilled a wish I've had since I was a very small child.


This post ended up being a lot longer than what I had planned, but my intent on identifying this tarantula to species took me down the systematic rabbit hole. This post is a bit more science-heavy than usual, but hopefully I explained the concepts well! If you have any questions, or want a more in-depth explanation of something discussed, feel free to drop me a comment below! Thanks for reading! I would also like to thank Dr. Chris Hamilton for identifying this individual to species.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Night falls over the semi-desert grassland outside of Elgin, Arizona. The Mustang Mountains rise above the acres of dry grass like a silent shadow. Common Poorwills, Common Nighthawks, and Elf Owls call out from the dark among the chirping of crickets. Nestled in the grasses, another creature slowly explores the land looking for a meal. His journey brings him to a gravel driveway...

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Arizona
This gravel driveway sits right outside of the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch dormitories. As he slowly slithers across the driveway, an unsuspecting field tech out on a night walk stumbles across the beautiful 4.5 foot long Western Diamonback Rattlesnake. The field tech runs back to the dorm, yells "SNAKE," and suddenly the horde of herp-loving techs and researchers scramble out of the dorm and toward the (probably confused) rattlesnake. This individual wasn't the first Diamondback of the field season; in fact, it was actually the 3rd individual that visited the dormitory!

Rattlesnake defense position
The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, is a species of venomous rattlesnake which ranges throughout the American Southwest from southern California to western Arkansas. A rather generalist when it comes to habitat preference, it can be found in a wide variety of places. They utilize habitats such as coastal plains, deserts, prairies, pine-oak forests, rocky hillsides, and more. They're a large species of snake, both in length and girth. Adults average between 3 and 5 feet long, with the occasional individual reaching upwards of 7 feet. You will often see images floating around the internet with people holding dead (yet giant looking) rattlesnakes. Oftentimes the captions will say it was a 10 foot, or 15 foot, or some other ridiculously-long rattlesnake. Those are all hoaxes which utilize the forced perspective camera trick. The record Western Diamondback Rattlesnake length is 92.5 inches, or 7.7 feet. For more info on these fictional giant rattlesnakes you see on Facebook and the like, check out David Steen's blog post on the "giant killed rattlesnakes."

Rattlesnake rattle

Of course, the name “rattlesnake” stems from the characteristic rattle at the end of the tail. This rattle is made of keratin, the same material that makes up our fingernails and toenails. The rattle consists of several overlapping hollow parts that when pulled against each other produce a dry rattling noise. To watch the individual pictured rattle, check out this video I took. As a general rule, snakes only want to bite as a last resort when they feel as if their life is directly threatened. When a rattlesnake feels threatened by a human, it will typically go through a series of actions. First, if it feels the threat level is low, a rattlesnake will simply sit still or try to escape the immediate area unnoticed. If a person continues to stay in the area, or moves closer to the snake, the rattlesnake will often begin to rattle (but not always). This rattling serves as a warning to potential predators and threats. By announcing that it is there to the threat, the rattlesnake is essentially saying "I see you, you see me, I'm letting you know that I am dangerous. Leave me alone and I will leave you alone." If the threat continues, however, the rattlesnake might resort to biting.

Bites by venomous snakes are extremely rare, however, and most bites that do occur happen when someone is either harassing the snake (e.g. trying to kill it) or if they accidentally step on it. Although bites by venomous snakes are serious, they're rarely deadly. In fact, of the 7,000-8,000 Americans who get bit by venomous snakes a year, less than 1% of those victims die. To put this in perspective, 9 times more Americans die each year from lightning strikes than snake bites. All in all, the fear of venomous snakes most Americans have is incredibly overplayed, and I think that is very important to point out. Snakes are not nearly as scary as what people think. Given respect and appropriate distance, rattlesnakes pose no threat.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Unless you're a rodent, that is. If you were, then this is definitely not the face you would want to be staring down. Western Diamondbacks have been recorded preying on a wide variety of animals, from birds to reptiles to insects and more. However, mammals make up the vast majority of their diet. And when it comes to mammal prey, Western Diamondbacks love rodents. Oftentimes a Diamondback will position itself along a rodent path and wait for an unsuspecting mouse or packrat to scamper by. One lightning-fast strike later and the Western Diamondback has a nice meal.

Rattlesnake in the wild

It is always a pleasure seeing a snake of any species in the wild, but it's a wonderful day when you see any sort of rattlesnake. I've wanted to see a diamondback rattlesnake (either Eastern or Western, I'm not picky) for years now, and I was ecstatic to see as many as I did over the summer. There's just something magnificent about these beautiful, but sadly misunderstood, creatures.