Dispatches from Xinjiang Province: trade-offs between field work and risk

Visual displays of Phrynocephalus axillaris
Visual displays of Phrynocephalus axillaris

Burrow of Phrynocephalus axillaris
Burrow of Phrynocephalus axillaris

Working in south of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is said to be risky. In general, Xinjiang is a nice place to live and visit, especially the northern part where cotton and fruit is plentiful. Nevertheless, southern Xinjiang is said to be little dangerous. In particular, the Kashi region which borders with some middle Asian countries and is traditionally a hotspot for terrorist activity. Killings and arson are the nightmares of local people and policemen. Thus, to do research in southern Xinjiang requires lots of courage (or stupidity). As a result, we restricted our activity to the north, which is a lot safer although while we were in the field there were attacks on police stations in a few small towns!
This years’ work is an important part of a big project we started last year on the evolution of dynamic visual signals in the lizard genus Phrynocephalus. Three Phrynocephalus species, including P.axillaris, P. forsythii and P. versicolor were on our hit list. All these species belong to different clades. Interestingly, P .forsythii’s ancestor lived in a high elevation area, but this species now lives at low elevation.The Takelama Gan Desert and Gobi Desert provide natural habitat for these species. Seeing the animals in the wild is always exciting for us and enables us to better understand their life history and also helps us come up with research questions for the future.

Four projects werecompleted during this field trip. First, we measured irradiance in the Tukai desert, near Huocheng, Yili city. This work will be used to study the flap signal function of Phrynocephalus mystaceus by Martin. Then, we collected the male-male and male courtship signals of P. axillaris near Ruoqiang, Bayingguole Mongalia Autonomous Region. This site was orignially planned for P. forsythii, but there was no longer any habitat as a result of local agriculture development when we arrived. We only found some remnant sand dunes, interspersed within large areas of cotton and jujube land. Luckily we found P.axillaris in some nearby gravel desert. To quickly collect data, we decided to do trials on P. axillaris in Ruoqiang. After Ruoqiang, we drove back to Yuli, where we had previously seen a few P. forsythii when we visited the week before. Our plan was to focus on P. forsythii in the field time we had left, but the risky conditions in Xinjiang stood in our way. We were not allowed to stay in Yuli because of local regulations that prevented westerners from staying over-night in the city because of so-called risks. And as it happened, we arrived on 5 July, which is the anniversary of a previous uprising that killed a lot of people. Our only option was to stay 47 km away in Kuerle if we wanted to work on P. forsythii. Given the commute to our field site and the level of security and general interference that we would have to put up with, we decided against it!.Therefore, we decided to drop P. forsythii for the moment and instead, to work on P. versicolor. The P. versicolor work was finished in Hami, which is 890 km away from Yuli through G314 and G30. Overall, we had an excellent field trip that involved a huge amount of driving (4380 km) and seeing some amazing lizards in the wild.

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