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Studying the Undiscovered in Sonora, Mexico – MDE Cajón Bonito

On Wednesday, April 26, a motley group of scientists, university students, photographers, park service professionals, and staff came trudging back to reality. We had just spent 5 days documenting the undiscovered, exploring the unknown, and building lasting friendships with folks on the other side of the border.

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High elevation grasslands of Cajón Bonito

This was our first Madrean Discovery Expedition of 2017, and arguably the most successful to date. It took place in Cajon Bonito, Sonora – just below the U.S.- Mexico border – on a property managed by the Cuenca Los Ojos Foundation. Since buying the land, the owners of Cuenca Los Ojos have largely restored the previously barren and overgrazed grassland into a thriving riparian (river) area.  Huge cottonwoods, oaks, junipers, willows and mesquite trees shade the multitude of plants, grasses, and critters that live within the flourishing ecosystem. Endangered fish swim comfortably through the running creeks, whose muddy banks host puma, bear, and raccoon tracks. Brightly colored trogons and orioles zoom over the blooming slot canyons, in which snakes, lizards and rare (and extremely venomous) Gila monsters can be spotted peeking out.

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One of the three Gila monsters we found on the expedition.

Led by the talented Tom Van Devender and Ana Lilia Reina, scientists from every niche field enthusiastically shared their expertise, and Sonoran university students proudly presented their research on the Sky Islands. New friendships and cross-cultural collaborations flourished throughout the day and into the night, whether searching for scorpions with a black light, analyzing moth species attracted to a white light, or sitting at the dinner table (long after the rice and beans are gone) engrossed in a discussion over how to best conserve this unique ecosystem.

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A friendly catfish found in the nearby creek.

With the new information we have on birds, insects, reptiles, mammals, grasses, flowering plants, and trees of the Cajón, these unique, high-elevation grasslands have a higher chance of survival. When we know what exists, we can educate, advocate, and conserve. And when we meet new people who are passionate about natural history and the Sky Islands, relationships flourish and our community gets that much stronger. So much so, that two of the participants even got engaged!


Our wonderful group on the last day!


By Claire Kaufman, Environmental and Sustainability Program Manager