(July 5, 2021)—The first animal I saw in the wilds of New Mexico was a scorpion. We were on our first day of excavation in our unit, and we were digging a trench along a known South wall of Room 454, all the way down to the bottom cimientos (base rocks of the adobe architecture of the region). I was digging from above, and another team member was digging from within the trench itself, just wide enough for one person to move around in comfortably. As we removed a stone using our shovels, a white scorpion seemingly popped into existence, tail arched over its body, ready for a fight.
In the following days, I saw plenty of animals we don’t typically see even in zoos back on the East Coast: mule deer, lizards, a roadrunner, a near-miss with a Great Horned Owl on an evening car trip back to camp, and a skunk charging at myself and another student as we attempted to take our lunch break on site. These feature prominently in my mind.
This program is the first time I’ve seen a desert in person. As a zooarchaeologist and paleobiologist in-training, I am always interested in the environment and fauna in the regions I find myself in. Because I had limited experience with the region previously, I have made it my mission to not only see the extant (living, modern) fauna, but also to look into the fauna that would have been present during the Salado era. To this end, I popped into a local bookstore, where the owner introduced me to a wonderful book that describes the folk mammology of the region. I have learned a great deal from it, but learning about fauna in a book and experiencing it firsthand are very different—it’s like watching sports rather than playing them.
My friends back East have owned bearded dragons before, and I am comfortable with them. Still, seeing a juvenile “beardie” out in the desert after it got caught in one of our screens was a new experience. The little guy seemed alright and was released after a little tour of our site (you may see his picture below). Even though bearded dragons aren’t on the list of natural reptile inhabitants of the Chihuahuan Desert, this juxtaposition of my experiences with them illustrates my point: that seeing these creatures in documentaries, zoos, domestic situations, or in textbook pictures are never really the same as getting to see them out in nature.
My most recent experience, although not unusual in other environments and places in the United States, was with a baby cottontail rabbit. In the middle of camp, on a late night working on my outreach project for the Archaeology Fair, I heard a sound to my left. When my light shone on the perpetrator, I realized it was a sweet little baby cottontail. It did seem a bit confused—well, I was, too—and we simply watched one another for a few minutes before I continued to my tent.
I look forward to experiencing more of New Mexico and Arizona’s wildlife for the remainder of my stay. My list of local fauna I would love to see includes javelina, elk, burrowing owls, coatimundi, ocelot, and kangaroo rats.