Santa Monica Mountains and Conejo Open Space

Photo of Woolly Blue Curls blooming in partly shaded sun on a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains
Blooming in partly shaded sun on a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains

Video: In the Terroir – 2018

Last summer I participated in a trail running challenge that involved completing 15 climb “segments” at various spots throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. My process was to run/walk each climb segment to as fast as I could, then slow it down to explore what was living on the trail. I took photographs and “live” clips (three second videos made up of several still frames) with my phone’s camera. My subjects were primarily endemic plants. The project allowed me to get a great workout, become familiar with many trails I had never set foot on previously and continue learning about the many plants and animals that make up a branch of the tree of life: the California chaparral and woodlands ecoregion.

After the Woolsey Fire burned 88% of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, I returned to the photos I took during those hikes and trail runs to remind myself of where I had encountered certain plants and shrubs and trees before the fire blew through.

I decided to put together a video including some of the photographs and short “live” clips of plants and animals observed while running and hiking trails in the Santa Monica Mountains and also within the locally managed Conejo Open Space between February – December 2018.

All photos, except one, were taken prior to the Woolsey Fire. The exception is a photo of what is probably a Coast Live Oak. The photo is from December 2018, soon after the Lang Ranch Open Space (a part of the Conejo Open Space) reopened. As the sun set, the tree was illuminated by light. Like many others in the area, this tree was swept over by the fire. But I think it may survive. The leaves are dead, but the large branches and the trunk appear to be intact and strong. Quite a few other oaks in the area are charred black down to the base of the trunk.

The presence of a dead Kangaroo rat probably deserves some explanation. In April of last year I came across the recently deceased critter during an early morning hike with my sister in the Lang Ranch Open Space.

I don’t know what killed the Kangaroo rat: A rattlesnake? An owl or other raptor that flew away upon sensing our approach? An unlucky encounter with a mountain bike wheel? Errant poison? I saw no visible signs of injury.

My husband asked me: “Why are you putting a photo of a dead animal in your video?” I had already asked myself the same question and was having some difficulty coming to a decision on whether to include it or not. Should I leave the photo out to avoid offending someone because the creature was 1) dead, or 2) a rat?

My decision was to include. Because all living things die. Because the Kangaroo Rat is a wild rat that is endemic to the Pacific West that is rarely seen by the frequent hiker, much less folks who do not spend time in wild places. Several species of Dipodomys live in the California chaparral and woodlands ecoregion where they disperse seeds, renew the soil with their burrow excavations and provide a food source for predators.

The Kangaroo rat did not travel from the Old to the New World on wooden ships. It is neither capable of nor interested in living among the shadows cast by our species, in pillaging our citrus trees, surviving in the sewer or running around on roofs.

Instead, the Kangaroo rat evolved with countless other plants and animals to live in a very specific habitat. It does not spend much time above ground and is primarily nocturnal, especially during hot days. Its underground burrow has separate areas for food storage, living and sleeping. It is in the habit of grooming and keeping its living space tidy.

The rat in the video was probably on its way to store some seeds in its burrow or in another cache spot, as its cheek pouches appear to be full.

Now for what may be the most surprising detail: The Kangaroo rat is a biped. Like it namesake on a distant continent it does not use its forelimbs to travel. In fact, it can hop more than six feet at a time on its hinds legs!

By S. Felton

S. Felton is a writer, photographer and amateur naturalist.

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