Saving Joshua Tree's Desert Species

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

Joshua trees can live for hundreds of years in one of the most extreme climates in the US: the Mojave Desert. However, these trees, and the plants and animals that share their habitat, are now threatened by climate change. Scientists predict that if temperatures rise at the expected rate, this iconic tree will disappear from 90% of its current range in California’s Joshua Tree National Park by the end of the century.

The effects of climate change not only include rising temperatures, but also wildfires, severe storms, and persistent droughts. These changes could dramatically alter desert climates that depend on a delicate balance of resources (Diffenbaugh et al. 2008). In order to conserve the plant and animal species in Joshua Tree National Park, it is critical for scientists to understand how this ecosystem will respond to climate change. To do this, researchers need long-term monitoring data that describes the habitats and populations of certain species. This type of monitoring requires the help of Earthwatch volunteers over multiple years to build a dataset that will provide valuable insight into the changes taking place (Barrows et al. 2005).

Research Aims

Our overall goal is to inform our climate change models that show the impact of local climatic shifts on threatened species. We are focused on the transitional areas between the Mojave and Sonoran desert landscapes (Ricketts et al. 1999). This project will require empirical data to test our models and document how sensitive species are actually responding to climate change. Volunteers will be essential to this data collection process, which will ultimately improve the models.

With the help of Earthwatch, this project will also create a climate change-monitoring framework that can be maintained through a citizen science network. The ultimate goal is to capture the changing character of biodiversity spanning the transitional Desert zones within the park. The results from this study will not only improve our climate models, but will also inform management strategies aimed at stemming climate- related losses of biodiversity (Barrows and Allen 2007; Barrows 2013; Mori et al. 2013; Bertelsmeier et al. 2013; Bellard et al. 2013). Volunteers will play a key role in contributing to this long- term database that will span decades and cover species composition and abundance at multiple monitoring stations throughout the park.

Moreover, the knowledge volunteers take away from this project is equally important to helping protect endangered species and conserving sensitive habitats. This is a unique opportunity to gain insight from local scientists to increase your own understanding of how science and data collected on the ground is used to advise management decisions.

How You Will Help

You’ll be able to participate in ongoing research to assess the impact of climate change across the Colorado and Mojave Deserts that will include a variety of data collection methods, which do not require prior knowledge or training; we will train you in all the necessary skills. From novice to experienced naturalists, everyone can participate fully and help us record and interpret our findings. Our goal is to use the data to gain insights to the status of larger ecosystems, including vegetation (woody plants) and reptiles.

Reptile Surveys

You will help monitor the effects of climate change on reptiles (mostly lizards and tortoises) that are indigenous in the Park. There are over 20 species of lizards found in the park; examples include desert iguanas, common chuckwallas, desert horned lizards, Blainville’s (coast) horned lizards, desert spiny lizards, western fence lizards, yucca night lizards, and the threatened desert tortoise. Birds (such as burrowing owls, Scott’s orioles, and Pinyon jays) and mammals (mule deer and bighorn sheep, for example) that are spotted will also be recorded. Working with Project Lead, Dr. Cameron Barrows, you will participate in walking surveys across the varied desert habitats found within the park.

Assist with Vegetation Plots

Within a series of larger plots that span the habitats of the park, volunteers will, working closely with Dr. Lynn Sweet and other field team leads, survey smaller, 25x2 meter vegetation plots in detail to monitor the abundance and condition of plants ranging from iconic Joshua trees, ironwood trees, ocotillo, junipers, palo verde trees, jojoba, and pinyon pines to blackbrush, brittle bush and cat-claw acacia. These detailed data will allow researchers to assess growth rates and other vegetation changes when the same plots are measured again in future years. We will also work on a walking demographic sweep of some of the larger study species within the plots in order to study the populations of these scarcer individuals. Scientists will use and demonstrate the use of GPS units and other scientific equipment.

Life in the Field

Upon arrival, you’ll receive a safety briefing and a presentation on local history, conservation priorities for Joshua Tree National Park, local examples of global issues, the goals of the project, and a framework for all the project’s key protocols. When we begin our fieldwork, project staff will introduce and demonstrate each new task; we’ll work with you until you’re comfortable with any new activities. We will also supervise to ensure data quality. On the last day before departure, we will give a presentation on our findings-to-date and lead a discussion of possible solutions to conservation issues. In general, research days will include up to eight hours per day in the field.


Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding. Because of the broad range of elevations within the Park and research plots throughout that gradient, we will select sites to ensure that we are working in a comfortable temperature whether you are here in early March, late April, or November.

Each morning, you will make breakfast and prepare a packed lunch before we go over the general schedule for the day to outline what you should bring into the field and when we anticipate returning to the accommodations. The morning hours (while temperatures are cooler) will be dedicated to fieldwork and data collection (reading plot data, counting and measuring plants, surveying for lizards). Around noon, we will enjoy our lunches and take a short break out in the field. Afternoons we will continue field data collection although the schedule will vary according to weather conditions and research needs. After a long day of fieldwork and data collection, we will all return to the accommodations for free time before the group dinner, which you may help prepare and clean up. Then, we will convene for a group dinner and evening wrap up of the day’s events. On several evenings, we will have an evening guest, presentation, or activity. A more detailed schedule will be posted at the accommodations at the beginning of the expedition.

  • Day 1: Arrival
    • Arrive at the rendezvous airport and meet project staff
    • Travel to accommodations at the Dr. Luckie Study Center
    • Unpack and settle in before project overview and safety briefing
    • Group dinner
  • Day 2: Training and Introduction to Fieldwork
    • Learn how to work safely in a desert environment ecosystem
    • Introduction to the research and general field sampling techniques in the field. Practice Protocols and begin surveys, working closely with project staff.
  • Days 3–6: Research
    • Drive through the park to field sites to work at various plots. Over the week this may include stops (walks or observations points) to orient visitors to various Park habitats.
    • Collect data using field guides to record woody plants in vegetation plots
    • Conduct surveys for larger reptiles and tortoises. Look for birds and other mammals as well.
    • On the final night, dinner will be provided by a local restaurant, either delivered, or eaten out, in association with the final research presentation This meal will be included in the contribution cost.
    • On the final evening, debrief and discuss how the data collected can be used to better preserve and manage the Park.
  • Day 7: Departure
    • Program close and depart for the airport

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


You will be staying at the Dr. Luckie Study Center, a historic house in a scenic rocky cove that is now a research station in Joshua Tree National Park, at approximately 2,700 elevation. There is one large single-sex room that can sleep six and is bunk style. There are three smaller rooms that sleep two people—2 bedrooms with 2 twins and a master bedroom with a queen bed. Rooms will be split by gender, but it might be possible to accommodate couples depending on availability and the makeup of the team. Single room requests cannot be guaranteed and will be granted depending on availability. The study center has electricity, refrigerators, and potable running water. All lodging facilities are climate-controlled. Bedding is not provided, so please bring your own bath towel(s), toiletries, and sleeping bag.

*Note: quiet hours are between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


All lodging facilities have hot water showers and conventional toilets. A laundry machine (liquid detergent only) and dryer is also available at no cost.


You are welcome to bring electrical equipment. All lodging facilities have standard US electrical outlets.


There is no Wi-Fi available at the accommodations. Cell service can usually be found at or within walking distance of the accommodations. There is no reliable cell phone coverage inside Joshua Tree National Park. Please note that personal communication with outsiders is not always possible while participating in an expedition. Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only.


Research will take place in many different sites within Joshua Tree National Park. Elevation ranges from 600–5700 feet, and volunteers should expect varying terrain types and steepness. For any given site, volunteers can expect to drive between 10 minutes to 1.5 hours to reach each location. Distances will vary depending on the team and research needs.


Research staff will shop for all food for the volunteers. Volunteers will prepare their own breakfasts and field lunches. Staff will lead the individual teams each night for dinner and all volunteers should expect to help with meal preparation and clean up. Please be sure to note all food allergies and dietary restrictions on your paperwork, as it is difficult to accommodate them after meals have been planned and food brought to the site. A local restaurant will provide the final dinner.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Cereal, fruit, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, coffee, tea
  • Lunch: Sandwiches, chips and fruit (packed lunches for the field)
  • Dinner: Tacos, spaghetti, baked potatoes, soups/ stews, pizza, casseroles, barbecue and salads (typical American fare), desserts. Salads and dressings will be available as sides.
  • Snacks: Fruit, chips, nuts, pretzels, granola bars, etc.
  • Beverages: Water (okay to drink from the tap), iced tea and different juices. Electrolyte tablets/powder will be provided.

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms. This project can cater to vegetarian and lactose-free diets. Vegan and gluten free diets cannot readily be accommodated. It is very difficult to accommodate updates and changes to food requirements after the expedition has begun.

Project Conditions

Joshua Tree National Park is at the transition between Colorado and Mojave deserts. In low elevation areas, there will be wide-open expanses of creosote shrub with ocotillo and teddy bear cholla gardens. In the higher elevation areas, there will be awe-inspiring geological formations, inhabited by pinyon and juniper woodlands and Joshua tree forests. In mesic areas, there are California fan palm oases and dry wash woodlands alongside riparian areas. During wet years, wildflower displays may be possible.


For weather and region-specific information, please visit and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Participate in all group field activities during preparation and work hours that begin as early as 7:00 a.m. and conclude by 4:00 p.m.
  • Enjoy being outdoors most of the day in variable weather, in the potential presence of wild animals and insects, and plant pollen/allergens
  • Tolerate temperatures above 90°F in dry heat
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team
  • Traverse flat and steep hiking trails in desert conditions and over loose soil and rocks on and off trail across flat and steep terrain between three and five miles per day
  • Traverse flat and steep areas of the desert (off trail)
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as lunch, water, and some small field equipment
  • Sit upright in a 6–12 passenger vehicle over bumpy dirt roads

Health and Safety


While in the field, the scientists will carry portable two-way radios and each will carry a cell phone for emergency communication when near cell phone service (in town, at accommodations).

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


We will travel on public roads in a quiet area with few traffic issues, but risks inherent in road travel still apply. We’ll take some gravel roads throughout the park. Vehicles are maintained to US standards. All volunteers will have a seat belt and must use it whenever the vehicle is in motion. A roadside assistance service will be called if a vehicle breaks down.


You will hike up to several miles a day along designated trails and transects, and some terrain may be difficult to traverse. Most sections will be flat hiking, while other areas will be steep and strenuous. You may take your time with any sections of challenging terrain, and staff will closely supervise volunteers traversing any difficult hazards. Take particular care to avoid stepping on any animals that may be present, especially snakes. The Earthwatch scientists will highlight hazard snakes and will let you know how to walk with appropriate caution when introducing you to the field site. There are also thorny plants throughout the desert, so thick hiking pants and appropriate footwear are essential.

Getting Lost

Staff will count team members at frequent intervals, and will caution you against going off alone.

Please inform project staff if you need a moment away from the team. Volunteers will work in groups of at least two at all times. The scientists take great care to know, at all times, where each volunteer is working, so that volunteers can be located quickly and expediently.


We will cover appropriate responses to wildlife encounters in the introductory briefing. Do not approach or handle any wildlife. Though spotting dangerous animals is uncommon, always pay attention to your surroundings, especially for venomous snakes.

Personal Security

California is a generally safe region for travelers; however, do not leave valuables unattended in public areas.

Distance from Medical Care

Due to the relative remoteness of the site, it can take up to one hour to reach the nearest hospital. Those with severe or chronic conditions that may require immediate medical care (e.g., heart problems, severe allergies that can result in anaphylactic shock, etc.) should carefully consider their participation in this project and discuss with their doctors the implications of the distance of the hospital from the project site.


In dry and hot desert environments, dehydration is a common risk. Volunteers will be advised to have three 1 liter water bottles (or two 1.5 liter bottles) on them at all times. Project staff will have available a large water cooler at the vehicle to be used for refills. Staff will instruct the team to take regular water breaks throughout the day to avoid dehydration. **Note: While drinking alcohol is allowed after fieldwork in the evenings, staff will check the weather forecast for the following day, and if temperatures are expected to exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, then drinking will not be permitted as a precaution to prevent dehydration.

Heavy Rain

While very rare, sudden rain or thunderstorms are possible, and the field staff will instruct volunteers for best practices in the field. Protocols will vary depending on the elevation, amount of rainfall, and severity of the storm, but generally we try to avoid working in the rain for safety reasons. Staff will advise on safety protocols depending on the situation.

Travel Planning


Palm Springs International Airport, Palm Springs, CA

Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.

Please contact Earthwatch for specific instructions if you will be driving to this project.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website:

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


  • Sweet, L. C., T. Green, J. Heintz, N. Frakes, N. Graver, J. Rangitsch, J. Rodgers, S. Heacox, C. W. Barrows. Congruence between Future Distribution Models and Empirical Data for an Iconic Species at Joshua Tree National Park. Ecosphere. 10(6): Article e02763
  • Barrows, C.W., J. Hoines, K.D. Fleming, M.S. Vamstad, M.L. Murphy-Mariscal, K. Lalumiere, and M. Harding. 2014. Designing a sustainable monitoring framework for assessing impacts of climate change at Joshua Tree National Park, USA. Biodiversity and Conservation 23:3263-3285.
  • Barrows, C.W., and M.L. Murphy-Mariscal. 2012. Modeling impacts of climate change on Joshua trees at their southern boundary: how scale impacts predictions. Biological Conservation. 152:29–36
  • Barrows, C.W. 2011. Sensitivity to climate change for two reptiles at the Mojave-Sonoran Desert interface. Journal of Arid Environments. 75:629-635.
  • Barrows et al. A framework for monitoring multiple species conservation plans. Journal of Wildlife Management. 69: 1333-1345.
  • Barrows, C.W. and M.F. Allen. 2007. Biological monitoring and bridging the gap between land management and science. Natural Areas Journal. 27: 194-197.
  • Barrows, C.W. 2013. An Ecosystem Approach to Defining Conservation Boundaries: Concepts and a Case Study. Natural Areas Journal. 33:344-347.
  • Bellard et al. 2013. Will climate change promote future invasions? Global Change Biology. 19:3740-3748.
  • Bertelsmeier et al. 2013. Increase in quantity and quality of suitable areas for invasive species as climate changes. Conservation Biology. 27: 1458-1467.
  • Diffenbaugh et al. 2008. Climate change hotspots in the U.S. Geophysical Research Letters. 35:L16709.
  • Mori et al. 2013. Reframing ecosystem management in the era of climate change: Issues and knowledge from forests. Biological Conservation. 165: 115-127.
  • Ricketts et al. 1999. Terrestrial ecoregions of North America: a conservation assessment. Island Press, Washington, D.C.