Now closed, a gypsum mine operated in the valley for 27 years, changing the landscape and altering critical habitat. The scientists say without further protection and community support, the endemic life that depends on a healthy ecosystem is in grave danger of disappearing forever.
Art as a conservation strategy
On this trip, professor Elser and a crew of undergraduate and graduate students work in a different fashion as they trade their researcher hats for those of filmmakers. They are creating a short, artistic documentary to highlight what’s happening in the valley in terms of the history of the planet and the area’s evolutionary history.
“Ancient peoples arrived 10,000 years ago. We see their cave paintings and signs of life,” said Elser. “But just 100 years ago, modernity hits and has especially accelerated in the last 50 years.
“It’s that collision I’m interested in — how people cope with it or don’t, and what it means for the future. The decisions we make now, the decisions the people of this town make, and the decisions the people in Mexico City make about this location, determine the future of life here that took billions of years of evolutionary history to produce,” he added.
Created as part of a National Science Foundation research grant, the film will be presented in both Spanish and English and shown to audiences in Mexico and the U.S. Written by Elser and titled “The Long Alchemy of Becoming,” it chronicles the history of the universe as told through the valley’s evolution. The hope is that local students will see the valley in a new light, as something to be protected and studied.
Samantha Davis, a student with the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, shot and edited the film.
“After I studied abroad, I really wanted my thesis to be something international, and I was very excited when this opportunity came up because this is exactly what I wanted to do,” said Davis, also a student with Barrett, The Honors College. “The Chihuahuan desert is so beautiful, it’s easy to get great shots. And, with this new technology, I can add time lapses to the movie and the drone shots will be fantastic,” she shared.
Jorge Ramos, a graduate student with ASU’s Environmental Life Sciences program, also joined the film team. Ramos, a fifth-year doctoral candidate and a wetland ecosystem ecologist, was in charge of piloting a quad-copter video camera over the rugged landscapes.
“I got to learn how to use new technology and fly a quad-copter (pictured left) to get images for the movie. But, I think this new kind of technology is actually going to be crucial to understanding landscapes like this during our research,” said Ramos. “Other than losing the electronic connection with the quad-copter a couple of times, the shoot went very well.”
Undergraduate journalism major Josh Burton also made the trek. “ASU has proven to me once again that there is plenty of adventure to be had, and not to take it for granted,” he said. “This has been a real challenge for me as a videographer and photographer, but I’ve also come to see a new culture. I’ve spoken Spanish and gotten to interact with a huge range of people.”
The next generation
As Elser and Souza wrap up their latest research project and begin to process a huge amount of data collected over several years, another element comes into focus.
“We’re doing everything we can to educate the kids from kindergarten to high school to change their view on the ecosystem,” said Souza. “I truly believe that we can have it all. We can have water conservation through new technology, and we can have the pools. We’re working on something called Biotech for Conservation where the genetic resources of the microbial communities can work for the people who live here in order to change the way they produce food.”
Elser has high hopes that these critical collaborations have set the stage for future successes.
“You’d think Minckley and his Mexican collaborators were the first generation, describing the species and establishing the protected areas here,” said Elser. “Valeria and I are the second generation, furthering the science and preparing the third generation — Valeria’s students, and students like Jorge at ASU. I really hope the fourth generation of scientists will be from Cuatro Ciénegas itself, discovering the science of the valley through the high school programs that Valeria has established and that we’ve been helping with.
“There are many things we don’t know that are yet to be discovered, that I hope the kids in Cuatro Ciénegas will discover someday, things that could make a difference in medicine or agriculture or other areas where we need more knowledge.”