Natural Environment Reference


A large scavenger bird that subsists on the flesh of dead animals, also known as carrion, and occasionally small living mammals it takes down as prey. The most common buzzard in the Southwest is the turkey vulture, which is easily recognized by its long wings, distinctive flight feathers, and bald red head. The wings of all buzzards are set at an angle, known as a dihedral, to its body, which allows buzzards to fly in tight circles high above the ground as they look for food. They have black and brown plumage and a bald red head. As buzzards eat decaying flesh their bald heads protect them from getting covered in putrescent flesh which can have a viscous consistency. Buzzards have specially functioning immune systems that allow them to eat dead flesh and not get sick.


One of the most common wetland plants, cattails (or Typha) are reeds with tall, narrow leaves that can reach up to 10 feet in height. The plant's name is a reference to its unique-looking flowering spike, which turn into elongated fluffy seed heads in autumn. Native Americans all over the continent used cattail seeds and roots as food and medicine sources and the plant's stalks and leaves as weaving materials. A native plant of the Southwest, cattail's symbolism among Navajo and Pueblo peoples is usually related to water and rain.


Sinkholes, also known as cenotes in Spanish, occur naturally when water slowly dissolves bedrock (usually limestone or gypsum, which erode easily) until the ground collapses and a hole is created. Because rock erosion first happens underground, leaving a top layer intact, the collapse of that layer often happens quite suddenly. Water can tend to collect in the hole, thereby creating even more of a hazard for the unaware. Sinkholes can be found all over the world and vary greatly in size, ranging from a few feet to hundreds or more feet in diameter, and from 1 to 100 or more feet deep.


An organism that forms as a thin layer of fungal and algal substance on soil, rocks, and trees. A lichen is a symbiotic life form in which algae lives inside the filaments of a fungus, and the two grow and reproduce in a mutually beneficial existence. Lichens can be found in every part of the world, but are especially abundant in dry climates such as semi-arid zones and arctic tundra. There is a large number of classified lichens that grow in a variety of shapes and colors.


A tall, water-loving shrub indigenous to Asia and the Mediterranean, tamarisk, also known colloquially as salt cedar, was introduced to U.S. Southwest waterways to assist in stabilization and erosion control at the turn of the twentieth century. As a non-native species with no biological controls naturally present to inhibit its proliferation, tamarisk quickly became an invasive species, overtaking waterways, choking out native plant species and consuming the water it was supposed to help conserve. Because tamarisk is now considered an ecological threat to the already fragile hydrological systems of the southwestern deserts of the U.S., municipal, state, regional, and federal task forces invest time and money on teams of "tammywhackers," who work to manually remove tamarisk from the riverbanks to which they were introduced in the late 19th century.


A prolonged period of atypical dry weather conditions with little or no rain that finds fuel moistures, water tables, aquifers, and surface waterways low to dry. Droughts can severely affect agriculture as well as natural ecosystems. In much of the arid areas of the U.S. Southwest, drought is a regular and common concern.


The rhythm or beat of a sequence of sounds, for example in spoken language.


Natural vegetation consisting of small bushes, other small diameter wood plants, and bunch grasses. Brush can consist as its own vegetation type, but it often presents as a transitional zone between open grasslands and enclosed arboreal canopies. Brush habitats can be found in various arid climates and deserts, and are common in the Southwestern parts of the U.S.

flood plain

An area that is prone to seasonal flooding. Flood plains vary in size and usually follow lower parts of valleys through which a primary water source flows. Because of seasonal flooding, flood plains are known for their highly fertile soil deposits as well as the danger to life and property associated with flooding. In the Southwest, for example, as riverine areas, like the Rio Grande, were permanently settled, usually by European settlers, the risks of flooding to human-made improvements to the landscape, like bridges, roads, and neighborhoods, were thought to outweigh the benefits of a freely-flowing river that occasionally traveled beyond its own banks. Therefore, engineered structures, such as levees, dams, catchments, and canals, were built to attempt to regulate the flow of rivers as well as to contain flooding. This benefited those who developed permanently static life ways along rivers, but it also served as a detriment to the vitality of the ecosystems, including those of the rivers themselves, that relied on annual flooding to recharge their systems with nutrients and moisture.


Fine sand or soil that is deposited as sediment after being carried by water, for example a river or a creek.


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