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Desert Studies Center

Education and Research


Research and Educational Opportunities

The facilities of the Desert Studies Center, and the surrounding diverse habitats, geology, landscape features, and history, provide abundant opportunities to conduct research or engage in field instruction.  We often hear from field scientists, instructors and graduate students alike, that field experiences during their pre-graduate education were instrumental in choosing their post-graduate or career paths.  And from students, we hear how instructive a field experience can be in supplementing their class-work, and how it often helps them understand, in a more comprehensive way, the subjects they are studying.  The Desert Studies Center’s core mission is to support these important activities that enrich our understanding of the Mojave Desert and other arid lands.

Natural and Cultural Resources

The eastern Mojave Desert is a region of complex topography and geology, lying in the southern Great Basin geophysical province.  This results in a rich flora and fauna, distributed among several life zones and communities, in a landscape of rugged mountains, alluvial fans and bajadas, sand dunes, volcanic fields, pediment domes, drainage systems and playas.  Although the Mojave is North America’s smallest desert, it is it’s most diverse, owing to it’s shared species alliances with the Colorado/Sonoran deserts to the south and east, and the Great Basin Desert to the north.

Researchers and educators in the Earth Sciences will find opportunities to study and provide field instruction in structural geology, petrology, paleontology, mineralogy, volcanism, geomorphology, pedology and climatology.  Those working in the Life Sciences can find opportunities to study organismal ecology and physiology, community structure, ecological relationships and processes across multiple scales, and conservation biology.  Archaeologists, Anthropologists, and Historians will find diverse cultural resources, from pre-historic lithic artifacts and quarries, petroglyphs, Native American habitation sites and footpaths, to the remnants of mule trails, wagon roads, military posts, and sites reflecting the areas mining and ranching past.  The Manager is familiar with the area to help with any questions you may have about details, such as accessibility or regulatory issues.

Educational Support

Most of our guests are engaged in educational activities, with students applying their formal classroom studies to a real world “outdoor classroom”.  From architecture to zoology, classes come from many institutions, and from as far away as Hong Kong and Great Britain to engage in hands-on study.  While at the DSC, educational groups have access to our teaching facilities (classroom and laboratory), and their related equipment.  Both have space for about 30 individuals, and can be equipped with video projectors (35mm also available), screens, audio equipment and video players, flat screen monitors, white boards and flip charts.  A copier/scanner is available, and the facility has WiFi throughout.  A reference library is open to guests, with reference volumes, research publications, theses, reports, field guides, and an assortment of maps and satellite images.

Conducting Research

Research at the DSC ranges widely, from NASA scientists studying landscape features and microorganisms directed towards Martian exploration, to undergraduates conducting their first field research on ant foraging.  Although most research is conducted by graduate students or faculty in academia, many projects are conducted by government agency scientists, and those from various other institutions and organizations.  A laboratory is available if desired (see below).  Those intending on conducting research while at he DSC must read our research guidelines, and submit an Application for Research  for approval, before work begins.


The Laboratory has large working tables and counter tops, sinks, several light tables, two large architectural-type inclining tables, a fume hood, and flammables and refrigerated storage.  Balances include analytical, top loading and triple beam.  A gravity oven, incubator, spectrophotometer, and an assortment lab supplies, glassware and related equipment (including Buchner filtration) are available. Optical equipment include a 100-2,000X microscope with phase contrast and oil immersion, three petro-graphic microscopes, 12 binocular “dissection” scopes (with light sources), various hand lenses, a 12-48X field scope and tripod, and 10”, 11” and 18” reflecting astronomical telescopes.  Water sampling and analysis equipment, a hydraulic rock breaker, and soil sieves with a stack shaker are also available.  If you intend on using the Laboratory or its equipment for other than classroom space, you must contact the Manager to discuss activities planned and availability of equipment, during your planning phase.

Field Assets at the DSC

A variety of field gear, such as insect lights, traps and nets, small mammal live-traps (Hava-Hart and Sherman), ultraviolet “scorpion” flashlights, measurement  tapes and a rolling distance recorder are available.  Two wildlife cameras can be used, by prior arrangement, to capture time-based or motion activated images.

Within walking distance of the Center’s buildings are habitats ranging from saline playa, to alluvial fans and drainages, to rocky slopes, with subsequent vegetation changes associated with soil and moisture conditions (from salt marshes along the shore of Soda Lake to Creosote Bush Scrub on the adjoining ridges and slopes, with a halophytic plant zone in-between).  There are shoreline features of Pleistocene Lake Mojave, including beach deposits and wave-cut features, along which can be found archaeological sites such as petroglyphs, lithic quarries, and mesquite bean processing sites.  Historical features nearby include rock inscriptions from 1859, remnants of the old wagon road, Tidewater & Tonopah railroad, and salt mining operations of the early 1900’s.   Rocks present locally are Triassic metavolcanic rocks and Miocene granites, with a few outcrops of Permian limestone (including Limestone Hill, around which the Center’s buildings are clustered, and which features fossil stromatolite deposits and a Calcicolous Scrub plant community).

Aquatic habitats at the Center include West Pond, Lake Tuendae and MC Spring (the latter two with endangered Mojave Tui Chub minnows).  Clusters of mesquite trees occur in various places, and together with the horticultural plantings of Tamarisk trees, fan and date palms provide good habitat for over 250 species of birds throughout the year.  A short walk/drive south of the field-station is a pit-fall trap-line grid, with five rows of 26 5-gallon bucket traps ascending an alluvial fan.   This grid begins in halophytic vegetation adjacent to the playa, and upwards onto a sandy psammophytic plant community at the base of the alluvial fan, with soils getting coarser and drainages more incised up-slope.  The grid area provides a good place for studying soil/plant relationships, and, for those properly permitted, use of the pit-fall traps to sample reptiles and invertebrates, as well rodent live-traps for sampling Kangaroo Rats, pocket and deer mice, and maybe a woodrat or rare gopher.  All intended educational field activities in and around the DSC must be discussed with the Manager during your planning phase, to assure compliance with applicable regulations and policies, and the appropriateness of such activities in and around the DSC.

Judith Presch Desert Research Scholarship

Open to: Undergraduate (one award) Graduate (one award) students pursuing research in the Mojave Desert. Named in memory of Judith A. Presch, Human Resource Specialist, California State University, Fullerton and Desert Studies Center Supporter. Awarded annually to one undergraduate and one graduate student working through the Desert Studies Center, Zzyzx, California. Successful applicants may also have all fees waived for use of the Desert Studies Center facilities for one year. Applications will be reviewed and evaluated by the Research Award Committee of the California Desert Studies Consortium. Awards will be announced in November. For additional information and application contact the Desert Studies Office at California State University, Fullerton.