Isn’t a desert just sand and rocks?


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

Did you know a 10-year old saguaro is no bigger than your thumb? And that, in order to germinate, a saguaro needs to experience two distinct 1-inch rainfalls within a two-week period? These giant cactuses, a defining plant of the southwest, can live to be 200 years old. This is just one example of a Sonoran Desert plant for which little-known facts are being captured and shared by the work of Mo Walters, clinical associate professor, and her research team at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Walters received a grant from the Arizona Game and Fish Department to develop teaching tools and refine Sonoran Desert content for a field guide in the Encyclopedia of Life, a free online resource documenting the 1.9 million species known to science. Learn more about the grant that funded this project.  

“The desert is actually the second most diverse biome on the planet,” she said. “The Sonoran Desert is the most diverse desert in the world. It has two rainy seasons contributing to its uniqueness. We have many endemic [found only in this desert] plants and animals. Our work on this project is making all of these facts available to teachers and to the public, and it is very far-reaching now that we’ve completed the project. This work will never truly be complete, though, as new facts and photos can be added to the resource at any time.”

Walters’ research team consisted of 10 teacher candidates, all college students studying to become educators, who collaborated with international experts to gather and refine material describing the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. The facts are presented like baseball cards in a template found on the EOL website. Anyone can go to the website, join for free and access an enormous array of information.

Her students each developed their own discovery box of teaching tools to use when they teach students in their own classrooms. The boxes include desert handbooks, games, magnifying lenses, curriculum resources, posters and children’s story books with a desert theme. She said these resources about the Sonoran Desert will not only be useful teaching tools, but will also increase understanding and appreciation of the plants and animals in the area.

“Throughout most of history, humans evolved and lived in intimate contact with nature,” Walters said. “Over time, and especially in recent times of economic development, natural boundaries have shrunk. This leads to a disconnection to the natural world. For example, many people do not understand the importance of pollination to our food supply. One thing that occurred during our research was students learned about bats and their role in pollination. Night-blooming cactus flowers attract bats, which are naturally drawn to the color, as they seek food. This is part of a large, important process.”

She also said students were excited to learn about Gila monsters, natives of the Sonoran Desert and among the most venomous lizards. Students were surprised to learn roadrunners make their large nests in cactus plants, and adult birds rarely fly since they can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour when running.

She went on to say the EOL provides information on food webs and relationships of species. Some students had a fear of snakes, but the collection of information and the process of writing content for the website and the field guide showed them the significance of these animals and reduced fears. Walters said, “If not for snakes, we would be overrun with rodents, and that can cause a much greater problem than a snake, which just wants to be left alone.”  

The field guide includes suggestions on how to use technology and hands-on approaches with students as they learn about the Sonoran Desert. “We give them ideas on how to use cameras and iPads and how to take advantage of opportunities to contact scientists and specialists in the field to ask questions.”

Walters said that in Phoenix, there are many places to learn more about the Sonoran Desert, in addition to joining the EOL. She suggests visiting Boyce Thompson Arboretum or the Desert Botanical Garden to see and experience plants and animals of the desert.