Science and Innovation

Few sounds in nature are as instantly recognizable and terrifying as the sudden rattle of a pit viper. No matter how often you’ve heard it, it’s a sound that sends a jolt of adrenaline and raises the hair on the back of the neck.

But look closely, because maybe what you’re hearing isn’t a rattlesnake at all.

It might instead be a close mimic, a gopher snake. With their speckled, earth-tone appearance, these common snakes look something like rattlesnakes, but they aren’t dangerous. In fact, they are highly beneficial and eat large numbers of rodents.

Those who have bloodied hands or arms on the inch-long thorns of a Russian olive, or dulled a chainsaw on its dense wood, know that it takes determination and brute force to clear away these tough nonnative trees. Since 2000, this formidable task has been underway along the Escalante River in southern Utah.

Introduced in the 1940s to combat soil erosion, Russian olives took to the Colorado Plateau with gusto. They have crowded out native willows and cottonwoods, forming virtually impenetrable thickets along hundreds of miles of washes and river bottoms.

Trees grace our sidewalks, house birds, feed squirrels, and furnish wood for everything from campfires to fences. And the oxygen plants emit allows us to live on Earth in the first place. But now tree huggers have a new way to assess the benefits our leafy companions provide.

In spring farmers and gardeners feel that irresistible pull to get their hands in the dirt.

If you share that urge, a program exists to satisfy it almost anywhere you go. It’s called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or “WWOOF” for short, and it links willing hands with farms that host volunteer workers.

Many parts of the Colorado Plateau are covered with distinctive soil crusts. Scientists are learning more about how they aid ecosystems—especially by providing good places for plants to grow.

Soil crusts rely on tiny organisms called cyanobacteria that are good at colonizing bare soil. In cold regions, frost heaving can give a dark, pinnacled appearance to soil covered with cyanobacteria. And that complicated micro-topography is key to what comes next.

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