Take cue from wildlife for summer survival - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Take cue from wildlife for summer survival

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Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009 8:00 pm | Updated: 2:23 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

If you're in need of inspiration for ways to not only survive, but also to enjoy summer in the Valley, look no further than our local wildlife.

The wildlife that inhabit our Sonoran Desert environment have a variety of adaptations that help them deal with hot summer temperatures.

For example, the black-tailed jackrabbit has oversized ears packed with blood vessels that allow convective cooling to mediate its body temperature, especially when it rests in a shady area.

During the summer months, many Sonoran Desert animals are crepuscular, which means they are primarily active around dawn and dusk, the cooler parts of the day. Gila monsters, desert tortoises and a variety of snakes fit this description, which explains why you'd rarely spot these animals midday at this time of year.

To reduce water loss, spadefoot toads use the "spades" on their feet to burrow down into moist soil. A spadefoot toad may remain in its burrow for months to retain moisture and keep cool, finally emerging to breed and feed when summer monsoons rain down on the parched desert surface.

Similarly, Gila monsters may spend up to 98 percent of their lives underground to escape the desert heat.

Cool tips from wildlife

We humans would do well to learn from the adaptations and behaviors of our local wildlife.

There's no need to avoid the outdoors and spend the entire summer trapped in an air-conditioned bubble! Get outside and explore, but do so in a safe manner.

Here are some wildlife-inspired tips for enjoying nature during summer in the desert:

Stay hydrated. You may not be able to burrow deep into the desert soil, but you can make sure you carry lots of water, including extra water for others in your group or other people you may encounter along the trail. Also, remember to drink lots of water both before and after a hike. Experienced desert explorers keep cold water stashed in their vehicle to enjoy after a hike; this way, there's no need to worry about rationing the water you carry. You can also enhance your water with electrolyte powder, which can be purchased at most outdoor and grocery stores. For the best results, carefully follow the instructions on the package.

Be crepuscular or nocturnal. Avoid hiking, biking, swimming and other strenuous outdoor activities during midday. Do as the animals do and focus your activities around dawn and dusk. Better yet, go outside at night! Starry skies and increased animal activity can make exploring the desert at night an especially exciting experience. Carry a flashlight or wear a headlamp, and try to time your explorations with the full or near-full moon when possible.

Take advantage of shade. Like a jackrabbit, your body can cool itself more efficiently while resting in shade. Seek out hikes that offer natural shade, which may be in the form of trees, cliff walls or large boulders. If you can't find a shady trail, bring your own shade! A wide-brimmed hat is a great idea, but an umbrella is even better, especially when hiking with infants or children. Of course, always wear and carry sunscreen any time you are outside, even if you only plan to be out for a short period of time.

Dress light. Wear light-colored clothing that will reflect the sun's light rather than absorb it. Although it may seem counterintuitive, long-sleeved shirts and long pants can actually keep you cooler than short sleeves and shorts. As a bonus, long sleeves and pants offer protection from spiny desert plants.

Travel light. Don't carry unnecessary equipment, but do make sure you have the necessities, such as water, snacks, flashlight, map, compass and first-aid gear. Use products made from lightweight materials, and seek out items that serve multiple purposes. For example, a small mirror can double as a signaling device and as a way to illuminate and explore desert holes.

Migrate north (or south)! When all else fails, you can just head for the mountains and forests of the Mogollon Rim or one of southern Arizona's "sky islands."

Environmental Education Center

Throughout the month of August, the Environmental Education Center offers a variety of programs designed to teach the public ways to stay safe in the outdoors.

On Wednesday, we present "Desert Safety for Kids," a fun outdoor scavenger hunt that teaches youth basic desert survival skills. Those interested in learning how to accurately and safely find their way in the outdoors can take "Land Navigation With a Map and Compass" on Aug. 8. Find your inner "Survivorman" by learning to build a fire using only a wooden bow-drill at the "Fire by Friction" class on Aug. 15. Avid desert hikers and campers won't want to miss "Water - How to Find It in the Desert" on Aug. 22. Kids and their parents can learn to use a GPS unit on Aug. 29 at the "Introduction to Geocaching" class.

Matt Dawson is the assistant naturalist at the Chandler Environmental Education Center. He can be reached at Matthew.Dawson@chandleraz.gov. This week, his column runs in place of the Chandler recreation column by Liam O'Mahony, information specialist with the Chandler Community Services Department. O'Mahony's column is published Sundays in the Chandler Tribune.

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