Biology 5455 Desert Ecology Field Course
Fall Semester 2023

Biology 5455 (University of Utah)
Desert Ecology Field Course

 3 credits (counts as an L1 lab course)

2023 Field Course Video 

Weekly meetings throughout autumn semester
(Mondays 3:00 – 4:20pm), together with a
9-day field trip to southern Arizona & New Mexico (October 7-15, 2023)

Professor: Dale Clayton 

Course Fee: $350.00

1. Sowell, John.  2001.  Desert ecology: An introduction to life in the arid southwest. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. 
2.  Course manual, with readings & course details (provided at the first course meeting).

Students must apply for this course. Application must be emailed to by Monday April 3rd, 2023 and consists of 2 parts:

1. Half Page statement explaining why you want to take this course and how you think it will help you in the future. (Include your email address).

2. Unofficial Transcript

Those selected will be notified by email no later than Wednesday April 5th.

Course Overview:

The purpose of this course is to provide you with nine days of complete immersion in desert field ecology, preceded by lectures and discussions introducing Desert Ecology.  You will be introduced to concepts and methods used by ecologists to understand the diversity of species found in deserts, which are among the most diverse habitats in the world (which many people find surprising).   Following the field portion of the course you will learn how to collate and analyze field data, and how to prepare a journal article and give an oral research presentation.

On the way back from Arizona this year we will detour to Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico) during a total eclipse of the sun on October 14th for a once in a lifetime experience!


The focal study groups are birds and plants, but we will also study other groups.  We will do rough estimates of plant diversity and look at the influence of plants on bird diversity.  We will explore how this relationship changes with elevation (and latitude).  Most of the course will take place in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, AZ.  We will compare the diversity of bird and plant communities at elevations ranging from the desert floor (3200 feet elevation) up to 7000 feet in the adjacent mountains.   Although birds and plants are relatively easy groups to study during a course of this kind, the general concepts and approaches we use can be applied to virtually any group of organisms.  No previous background in ornithology or botany is required to take this course.  Weekly lectures and exercises prior to the field portion of the course will provide introductions to bird and plant identification.

During this course we will drive a total of 2,000 miles over a period of 9 days in small, 6 passenger minivans. This is an intense course, meaning that we will cover a lot of material in a short period of time. But it is also an interesting course and one that most people find to be a lot of fun.  It is likely to differ from any course you have taken before.  You will probably not get as much sleep as you would like.