Community Nature Study Series

The Community Nature Study Series is offered Tuesdays and Thursdays in January and February. Classes are based in our indoor classroom in the James Learning Center and include a hands-on lab and/or field component. The number of participants per class is limited to ensure low student-teacher ratio.

Join us for this 10-class series on Arizona’s incredible natural history, where ten experts from around the state bring their expertise to the Highlands Center with interactive, 3-hour presentations.

$25 per class, or $225 for the whole series. Each registration link below will have an option to register for some or all of class series.

January 21 – Bat Diversity in the Neotropics and Arizona

José g. Martínez-fonseca, NAU

Bats are one of the most common animals portrayed in media and lore throughout the centuries. What is so special about this critter, and why are there so many different species? The first presenter of our 2020 Community Nature Study Series will answer that and so much more! There are 28 species of bats in Arizona alone, making our home a hotspot of bat diversity. Echolocation, diet, and unique behaviors are all important parts of each species’ story. Come to this talk, and bats might just become your favorite animal!

January 23 – Life in Stone: The Long and Extraordinary History of Life in Our Backyard

Christa Sadler, Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute

The Colorado Plateau region is one of the finest earth science laboratories in the world, and paleontological discoveries that are being made here are answering questions, solving mysteries, and making connections that help us understand the history of life worldwide. This presentation begins in our region over a billion years ago, following the story of life from the earliest single-celled bacteria to the abundance and diversity of life that we see today. An extensive collection of real and cast fossils will be on hand for participants to explore.

January 28 – Biomimicry: Tapping into Nature’s Genius for Sustainable Solutions

Lily Urmann, ASU

Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of life’s genius, and offers a new perspective for a sustainable and regenerative future by asking the question: what lessons can we learn from the natural world? By observing organisms that have managed to survive in harsh environments like the desert, we can create more efficient and low-impact designs and technologies that work for instead of against life. Biomimicry is studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell, or a bird beak that inspires an efficient fast-speed train. The compelling core of this new field is that nature has already solved many of the challenges we are currently facing: energy use, food production, climate control, non-toxic chemistry, transportation, and more. Ultimately, biomimicry acknowledges that “life creates conditions conducive to life”, and we aim to integrate these lessons learned in our built world to be better neighbors on this planet. We share our world with over 30 million elder strategists and mentors. We will begin this hands-on workshop by first exploring successful strategies from our local ecosystem: and start asking questions such as “How does nature store water, build resilient structures, or protect itself?”. Participants will learn to tune into the genius of nature through careful observation techniques and dive deeper into the realm of bio-inspired design. This workshop will guide you through the biomimicry process: identifying organism function and strategy, synthesizing design principles, and brainstorming applications for how we might learn from these time-tested solutions.

January 30 – Communication and evolution of Sceloporus lizards in North America

Julio Rivera, ASU

Sceloporus lizards, also known as fence or spiny lizards, are native to North America and are known for their bright blue bellies that they use to communicate with other lizards. But, sometimes a species loses its blue patches, how then can a lizard with no color communicate with other lizards? This program will focus on answering questions like how do lizards communicate when a trait has disappears and how does this shift in communication reflect on their skull shape.

February 4 – Exploring Environmental DNA: A New Tool for Ecological Monitoring

Catherina Benson, Hillary Eaton and Matthew Valente, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

During this Nature Studies Presentation, you will be introduced to environmental DNA (eDNA) and its use as a tool for ecological studies. All organisms, from bacteria to humans, leave a genetic fingerprint in their environment, and researchers can detect these signals using modern molecular biology techniques. In this program, we will explore work from the ERAU Conservation Genetics and Wildlife Forensics Lab, as well as case studies in eDNA, ranging from its use in tracking insect pollinators to invasive species! Activities will include a DIY DNA extraction using your own cells and an exercise in eDNA metabarcoding, an exciting new technique that can be used to identify entire groups of organisms. We hope to see you there!

February 6 – Evolution of the North American Monsoon

Dr. Dorothea Ivanova, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Have you ever wished you could predict the onset of these intense desert rainstorms? Embry-Riddle professor Dorothea Ivanova brings us a presentation on a very Arizona-relevant aspect of climate science: monsoons! Dr. Ivanova will lead you through computational research that has changed the way we view weather. These climate systems are not limited to local cause-and-effect, but are a reflection of what is happening all over the world – land and sea.

February 11 – Where the Wild Birds Are: Avian Biogeography in Arizona’s Changing Climate

Eric Hough, Maricopa County Parks

Would you like to learn more about where to find birds in Arizona? Then this workshop is for you! We will learn about the diverse vegetation zones that provide habitat for Arizona’s birds through interactive exercises and a bird walk around the center’s grounds, as well as learn about how climate change has already been affecting bird distribution in our state and the predicted changes yet to come.

February 13 – Hotter and drier: How will trees respond to more extreme and frequent drought?

Drew Peltier, NAU

Trees drive global climate, and drive the structure and function of forest ecosystems. As climate warms and dries, droughts are happening more frequently and they are also more extreme, being both hotter and drier. This new climate regime is pushing trees towards the limits of their physiological tolerance, and we have observed widespread, regional tree mortality events across the western US in numerous tree species over the past two decades. Despite this, our understanding of tree mortality remains somewhat limited. Trees are large, long-lived, complex organisms that do not often die. They also can store and rely on sugar reserves for decades to stay alive, and so determining the cause of mortality is very difficult. In this Community Nature Series presentation, Drew will talk about a large precipitation manipulation experiment in New Mexico designed to help us learn how trees die under drought. This work is in collaboration with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Oklahoma State University, and the University of New Mexico and will help us learn more about how water stress, carbon starvation, and beetle attack interact to influence tree mortality under drought. Participants will learn about the impacts of drought and tree growth, and the physiological processes that drive tree mortality.

February 18 – Cattle impacts on protected rivers in the Mogollon Highlands

Joe Trudeau, Center for Biological Diversity

Since 2017 the Center for Biological Diversity has surveyed nearly 400 miles of streams on US Forest Service lands in the Verde and Upper Gila Watersheds in Arizona and New Mexico for the presence of livestock grazing. These streams – including the Verde, Gila, San Francisco, Blue, Fossil Creek and others – provide critical habitats for a number of threated or endangered riparian and aquatic dependent species, such as yellow-billed cuckoo, southwestern willow flycatcher, narrow-headed gartersnake, and loach minnow. We documented significant and chronic livestock grazing on 75% of surveyed river miles, despite Forest Service claims that these streams are protected from livestock grazing. Livestock producers, the Forest Service, and other agencies are failing to abide by past legal and administrative decisions. This negligence threatens the viability of rare desert fish, amphibians, and birds – and detracts from the enjoyment of our public lands and waters. Come learn what the Center is doing to protect these habitats, and how you can get involved.

February 20 – A Day in The Life of Bark Beetles

Sneha Vissa, NAU

This workshop will explore the biology and ecology of bark beetles, with an emphasis on bark beetles native to the southwest United States. We will learn about the life cycle of bark beetles, how to identify different bark beetles (from beetle specimens and from tree barks), and how to diagnose the signs and symptoms of bark beetle attacks. We will also explore the micro-organismal community associated with bark beetles and the roles they play in making beetles tick. Finally, this workshop will also touch on the effect of a changing climate on bark beetles and what we might expect from beetle outbreaks and forest health in the years to come.

Past Programs

2019’s Community Nature Study Series offered a wide range of topics from caves and black holes to rainforests! 
Stay tuned for our 2020 line-up.

March 5th – Severe & Hazardous Weather in Northern Arizona 

Dr. Curtis James, Professor of Meteorology, Embry-Riddle

In this workshop, participants will learn about atmospheric moisture and how rising air produces clouds and precipitation. Using hands-on demonstrations and visualizations, you will learn how the air becomes unstable and leads to thunderstorm development. You will also gain exposure to various online meteorological sources to help you observe and predict thunderstorms and anticipate their occurrence based on the profile of temperature, moisture, and wind in the atmosphere. Finally, you will learn what causes the hazardous weather conditions associated with thunderstorms in northern Arizona.

February 19 – Ants & Plants: Community Dynamics and Interactions

Kyle Gray & Jean-Philippe Solves, ASU

Ants and plants are often considered as separate entities, but there is a whole universe of interactions between them. These interactions are sometimes a vital part of community dynamics (pests, bodyguards, seed dispersal, etc), and can be as diverse as the groups they involve. This program will start with an introduction to the ecology and evolution of ant-plant interactions, followed by an hour long guided hike around the Highlands Center to look at ant and plant communities, and will conclude with a close look at various local ants and plants under microscopes.  

Class is full. Please call to be added to the waitlist.

February 14 – In Living Color: The Amazing World of Butterflies

Ron Rutowski, Professor Emeritus, Organismal, Integrative, and Systems Biology, ASU

“Nature always wears the color of the spirit.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ever wonder how butterflies are so iridescent and colorful?  Or why they have so many different patterns and variations? This program will explore multiple aspects of the diversity of color and pattern in butterflies.  After a brief introduction covering the basic biology of butterflies, participants will look at specimens in greater depth with microscopes. Given that the many of the bright colors of butterflies are signals for other butterflies, the final phase of the program will explore the structure and performance of their eyes.

January 22 – Have You Touched a Rain Forest Today?

Dr. David Pearson, Research Professor, ASU

The rain forest seems so far away from the deserts of Arizona, but it is in our lives every day. Learn about the products that you use that come from the rain forest and what your impact is on this delicate ecosystem. Dr. David Pearson is a Research Professor in the School of Life Sciences at ASU whose current research concentrates on birds and tiger beetles as bioindicators for conservation efforts in tropical lowland rain forests around the world.

January 24 – Climate Change & Solutions

Dr. Tom Whitham, Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research, NAU

Climate change is happening.  The question is how the natural world will respond and what can we do to address its impact?  Dr. Tom Whitham and NAU’s Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA) are researching genetic-based solutions that can be applied at the local level.  Come to this workshop to learn more about how genetics enable certain plants to adapt to environmental changes and how this information can be incorporated into management practices.  

January 29 – Arthropods: Communities in Soil

Derek Uhey, Entomologist and Photographer, NAU

Insects are the most diverse and abundant organisms on the planet! Through macrophotography, specimen viewing, and live insect handling, participants will get a sense of the enormous insect world around us and learn to identify some common local species. This knowledge will help you identify both beneficial and potentially harmful insects in the area, and understand their roles in the ecosystem.

January 31 – Prescott Water Sources & Conservation

Leslie Graser, Water Resource Manager, City of Prescott

Do you know where your water comes from and how it gets to your home? Come to this interactive workshop with City of Prescott Water Resource Manager, Leslie Graser, to learn more about the allocation of water resources here in Yavapai County. We can all renew our understanding of ways to use water efficiently for the benefit of those here now, the flora and fauna, and those generations yet to come.

February 5 – Black Holes: Into the Abyss

Dr. David Cole, Principal Lecturer of Physics & Astronomy, NAU

This workshop will cover everything you want to know about Black Holes but were afraid to ask! It will start slowly and help you develop a basic understanding of a black hole’s size, energy, radiating power, and lifetime. Dr. David Cole will also share stories about meeting Stephen Hawking and discuss what mortals like us can understand about his work on black holes.

February 7 – Tree Stories-Reading the Rings

Dr. Kiona Ogle, Professor of Informatics and Ecology, NAU

In this workshop, Dr. Ogle will provide hands-on opportunities to look at the internal wood structure of trees and learn how climate can impact annual tree growth for 100’s of years.Tree rings can be used to understand climate variability, fire dynamics, settlement dates of indigenous people, and pest or pathogen outbreaks. Most of the workshop will be devoted to hands-on activities that allow participants to compare growth patterns of multiple tree species and to relate local tree growth to regional climate phenomena such as El Nino-La Nina cycles or multi-year droughts.

February 12 – Grand Canyon Cave Ecology

Dr. Jut Wynne, Dept of Biological Sciences, Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research, NAU

Jut has studied cave ecosystems in the greater Grand Canyon Region for nearly a decade.  In this workshop, he will discuss how animals adapt to and use the cave environment, provide examples of cave-adapted arthropods from the North Rim, and cover some of the factors driving cave biological diversity in northern Arizona. He will also discuss some of the current efforts to protect and conserve caves in one of the world’s most rugged and unforgiving landscapes, the greater Grand Canyon region.