PSR Visit

Indeed - Death Valley is a Unique Place

April 2006

    Not too long ago a visitor to Death Valley Talk asked what was so unique about Death Valley. The answer to that is of course, everything there is unique and that inadequate descriptor extends far beyond the physical environs of what we now term Death Valley National Park.

    An outstanding example of what is unique about Death Valley is that during the recent unusually wet winter a discovery was made of a previously unknown insect. A team of biologists from an eastern university, looking for animal life in the spring when all of the flowers were blooming so profusely, unwittingly made the discovery. It was supposed to be kept secret until an in depth investigation of the situation could be completed and an appropriate dissertation written for a scientific journal, but apparently someone else has not been entirely ethical and rumors probably will circulate. The story developed roughly as follows.

    Tiny red welts that appeared around the ankles and lower legs of members of the team during the first evening after a day of exploring the flower fields initiated this event. Since they itched furiously, lotion was applied to the tiny red welts but it had little effect. First thoughts were of Chigger bites, but then the team realized that Chigger bites take 12 hours to appear. None of the team observed anything during the day that could have caused the welts. None believed that contact with the flowers or stems could have caused the problem. While one or two of the team could have some sort of an allergy to a few of the unusual Death Valley plants, it was unlikely that the entire group would have the same problem.

     The next day the flower field explorations continued and team members closely watched their feet and legs. This time they saw that an insect, which occasionally landed on their legs caused the tiny red welts. They managed to capture a few even though they only stayed on their legs for a few minutes at most. The team was able to place a few in some vials they had with them. The insects were difficult to see on human skin because they were very light in color, about 0.5 inch in diameter and jumped away soon after making a bite. Now the team was sure the culprits were sand flees, but that turned out to not be the case.

     Once back in their Furnace Creek Ranch rooms, the team looked at the insects under magnifying glasses and found that the insect looked exactly like a wood tick, except that it had two longer legs in the rear that resembled miniature grasshopper legs. Also the color of the insect was of a light cream color rather than the dark usual gray or black color of the common wood tick.

     The team found that this tiny pest had not previously been reported or identified in any scientific journal. Nor had the early white visitors to the area reported any trouble with the insect, so apparently they had no knowledge of the bug either. That was fortunate for them since they had no effective means of eradication. It is peculiar though that the Native Americans who inhabited the area apparently did not know of this bug. Perhaps they just endured the irritations and got on with survival. The existence of this pest has only come to light after the recent historically heavy rainfall in the area, which suggests that it has a hibernation capability similar to the flowering plants of Death Valley. This is an obnoxious and voracious insect to be avoided if at all possible. Visitors to the area who are not aware of this problem should be alerted to the situation and be cautious because they can easily fall victim to the bites of this insect. The red welts persist for about 10 days and itch intensely. Of course the team has no way of knowing if this unique tick carries the sometimes-fatal Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

     Little is known of the life cycle or life span of the critter, however it is suspected that it has some relationship to the wet-dry cycles of Death Valley in some way that is similar to the beautiful flowers found in the area, which respond to infrequent heavy rain. No doubt the extremely long dry periods between the extraordinary wet cycles has contributed to the lack of knowledge about the insect. Some have compared it to the Kissing Bug found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but it is much smaller than that truly odd insect. Perhaps the most unique trait of this insect is that once awakened by wet conditions, is its persistence in attacking warm-blooded animals. The research team used a couple of standard insect repellants, but they were not effective. The only certain way of disposing of the insect is to use a pair of pliers to crush the tick’s hard shell or smash it between two rocks. While its bites only produce a small spot that continuously itches, enough of the bites can cause an irritating rash and there is no known antidote, except perhaps some slight relief given by lotions. Since this tick is unique in that it leaps some distance onto its victims, it is best to wear shoes with tops above the ankle and wrap the lower leg with something such as elastic bandage material, which the pests cannot bite through. Then a thorough inspection should be made when finished looking around the flower fields to make certain that there are none still clinging to any clothing.

     Presumably, if it has ever been noted before, the rare appearance of this insect has not caused enough trouble to cause recognition or even merit a thorough scientific investigation, so it will probably continue to plague the unknowing. It is likely that should someone have had the misfortune to encounter this pest they probably assumed sand fleas, allergies or something like that caused their problems.

     The discovery team has given this tick the temporary name of Dermacenter Volvitare Horribilis, which may or may not become official until sometime after the dissertation is published.

     A number of previously unknown animals have recently been discovered in the mountains of the Islands of Southeast Asia and now the same has occurred in the United States. The Death Valley area continues to be the most unique place in the United States for innumerable reasons.

Copyright 2006