The history of the Joshua tree, threats new and old

Aug 25 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

And the LORD said unto Joshua, Stretch out the spear that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thine hand. And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had in his hand toward the city.

And the ambush arose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand: and they entered into the city, and took it, and hasted and set the city on fire.

And when the men of Ai looked behind them, they saw, and, behold, the smoke of the city ascended up to heaven, and they had no power to flee this way or that way: and the people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon the pursuers.

And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city, and that the smoke of the city ascended, then they turned again, and slew the men of Ai.

And the other issued out of the city against them; so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side: and they smote them, so that they let none of them remain or escape.

And the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua.

And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword.

And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai.

For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai.

Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for a prey unto themselves, according unto the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua.

And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it a heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day.

And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcass down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.

-Joshua 8: 18 - 29

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen Captain John C. Frémont first beheld the Joshua tree, he saw not what the Mormons are purported to have seen in its limbs: the spear-tip of Joshua in its sharp leaves, bent and raised at the enemies of God, relentlessly held aloft until the inhabitants of Ai were slain, stones of the city were heaped the scattered desert rocks and their king was dangled from the upper reaches of a tree perhaps not so different than the giant yucca itself. Frémont noted only “their stiff and ungraceful forms” and declared the Joshua tree “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom.” His contempt was mild compared to the violent myth behind the honorific given by the Latter Day Saints.

When a pack mule toppled over a cliff, Frémont lost his botanical collection, including the information gathered regarding the Joshua tree. The yucca was finally described by modern science in 1871 after samples were collected during a War Department railroad survey of the Southwest.

Of course, Native Americans knew and made use of Yucca brevifolia for centuries before the colonials encroached. Its more fibrous matter was woven into baskets and shoes, and its seed-filled pods were broken open and eaten. The seeds are actually large berries.

Shasta ground sloth & crow

Nothrotheriops shastensis

Another inhabitant of the Southwest was fond of, perhaps even dependent on, the edible parts of the Joshua tree. The fruits, flower stalks and leaves of the yucca have been found in the ancient, “poorly digested” dung of the Shasta ground sloth, Nothrotheriops shastensis, the smaller cousin of the more famous ground sloths, Megatherium sp. The fossil record reveals a much larger distribution of the Joshua tree in the Pleistocene, and scientists suspect that these megaherbivores (and perhaps others like them) were responsible for its dispersal during that period. The Shasta ground sloths disappear from the fossil record around the end of the Pleistocene, which happens coincide with growing populations of humans and a cooling climate, possible factors that led to its extinction. At the dawn of the Holocene (~11,700 ya), amid a very rapid warming period, the southern reaches of the Joshua tree's distribution were significantly reduced.

The Joshua tree never recolonized the historical extent of its distribution. With the ground sloth missing from its adapted dispersal methods, it relies on rhizomes and seed-caching rodents for expansion. Holocene migration rates have been demonstrated to be significantly lower than in the Pleistocene, a maximum estimate of 2 m/yr. With the threat of the effects of climate change looming again, and the Joshua tree's ability to disperse already impaired, concerns about its future have sparked new studies looking at how another warming period will affect the organism.

By the end of this century, suitable habitat for the Joshua tree could be reduced to only 10 percent of its current range, again impacting the southern stands most severely, but this time with a far more limited capacity for distribution. Most likely we'll see similar effects on the animals that depend on Y. brevifolia like the Yucca moth and Xantusia vigilis, the Desert night lizard.

While these models are predicting steep declines, it's important to note that a large portion of these future sustainable population areas are on federal lands. According to Cole et al.:

96% (739 km2 out of 772 km2) of the area predicted to allow survival of current stands, and 91% (378 km2 out of 414 km2) of the area predicted within the range of natural migration are on Federal lands which are not expected to be at risk of development or urbanization. Further, 83% of the areas predicted as potential relocation sites (17,909 km2 out of 21,578 km2) occur on Federal lands.

Obviously, this is good news. If we see these predicted extremes, such a massive reduction of stands, relocation will most certainly be integral to saving the Joshua tree, and the less red tape to cut through, the better.

It's interesting that most of the summaries of the natural and cultural history of the Joshua tree do not actually detail the Biblical story of Joshua at Ai. They mention the prophet and a general notion of gesticulation or a raising of arms to the sky, not the hand of a warlord gripping a divine incitement to slaughter. Some accounts claim that the limbs of the Joshua tree waved the Mormons on, like beacons in the desert. Referencing Mormon history, the conflicts, deception and blood spilled, the ugly results of that journey, the Joshua tree seems more of a sinister portent than a curious waymark.

A note: Chris has written extensively on the Joshua tree. Anyone interested in learning more should head over to his blog.

Cole, K., Ironside, K., Eischeid, J., Garfin, G., Duffy, P., & Toney, C. (2010). Past and ongoing shifts in Joshua tree support future modeled range contraction Ecological Applications DOI: 10.1890/09-1800.1

15 responses so far

  • It seems that the Joshua tree may be headed for extinction like so many other plants and animals already have. I see no examples of creative evolution acting to produce replacements for the many species of plants and animals that have become extinct especially in historical times when man has so drastically altered the environment. This has led me to propose that the current biota is the climax of a planned evolution, a biota that will not be replaced as its members continue to rapidly decline. In short I have postulated that -

    "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."

    I have a thread, "Evolution is finished," dedicated to this proposition on my weblog. I welcome comments there which have yet to appear. Apparently the notion of a planned evolution is not particularly popular even as all tangible evidence pleads for exactly that conclusion.

  • theshortearedowl says:

    Hello Dr. Davison.

    The climax of a planned evolution would look very similar to a peak of biodiversity before a mass extinction, whether or not biodiversity then recovered to greater levels, no?

    • theshortearedowl whoever that is. Why is it necessary to use an alias?

      If there was ever a time to expect an environmentally regulated evolution to take place, it is right now as man is so drastically altering that environment. It simply isn't happening. All I see is extinction in very large numbers. I believe that the reason evolution has ceased is because a "Plan" has been fully realized with the arrival of the present biota, including Homo sapiens, in my estimation the goal all along.

      The notion of a Plan, a word he capitalized, originated with Robert Broom, one of my most treasured sources.

      I am aware that my proposition is anathema to the atheist Darwinian mindset. Nevertheless, I am grateful that I have been able to present my thesis at Scientopia, an opportunity I have been denied at most internet forums which purport to discuss the great unsolved mystery of our origins. I ask only that my messages not be deleted and I am happy to defend them here or anywhere.

      "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."

      • theshortearedowl says:

        It's not an alias, it's an identifier. If this were a chance meeting in real life in a cafe, I wouldn't necessarily give you my phone number, or even my full name; why should I on the internet?

        Mostly all we see is extinction, because that is how natural selection operates. This drastic of a change in environment (due to the sum of man's activities - climate change, habitat destruction and fragmentation, overharvesting, etc. etc.) is going to produce global mass extinction.

        But there are already signs of species doing far better due to man's efforts than they ever would have by themselves - rats and mice; weeds such as giant bindweed, casuarina, kudzu; cockroaches, houseflies... There will be a dramatic loss in biodiversity; but when it is done, whatever is left standing will take over, and diversify. It may not be a world we want to live in, or even can live in; but it will still be a world full of life.

        At least, this is what has happened with every other mass extinction.

        In terms of Homo sapiens being the culmination of the 'Plan' - why humans? Why not ants, or whales? And even if so, why destroy it all now?

        • theshortearedowl says:

          Sorry jeremy. I'll stop now.

          Dr. Davison, if you wish, start a new post on your blog and we can continue this discussion there.

          • jeremy says:

            No apologies needed. You weren't the derailer, and even then, it is the internet; all to be expected.

            Thanks for commenting.

          • theshortearedowl

            I already have threads challenging every aspect of the Darwinian model on my website. Any0ne who chooses to challenge me is welcome to do so on my website. Feel free to "continue this discussion there," something no one has yet volunteered to do. Look over my weblog. I am sure you will find plenty to respond to. I look forward to your participation. It will be a first. Participation requires registration.



  • jeremy says:

    Hi John. I'm willing to bet you're usually banned from sites not necessarily because you criticize evolution, but because you have a very specific axe to grind which frequently comes off like you're not commenting on topic but attempting to drive home a marginally related point. This post is not directly about evolution, but about the impaired modes of dispersal of an organism in a warming climate, a plant that has meant so much to so many people culturally, and you're broaching very broad questions about demonstrable evolution in very short periods of time geologically speaking.

    You're looking for willing opponents and you're right, the majority of us are unwilling to engage because it's old hat, the same old circles. I can count the number of people I've banned in the past five years on one hand and have no intention to change that, but do try to stay on topic. It's not a threat, just a request from someone very bored with the "debate" in general.

    On your site you say:

    Scientopia is fun. With no registration, one can say what he wants but for how much longer? I doubt this policy will be allowed to persist. The Darwinians who dominate this “conglomerate” are much too insecure to allow their ideology to be openly and freely criticized. I predict that they will ignore their adversaries for as long as possible and then banish them from their proceedings, just as Mark Chu-Carroll has already banished me...

    The “Darwinista” here are still in the first phase of pretending their critics do not exist. I am confident that will not last.

    A couple of things:

    -I am not your adversary. I don't consider you mine.

    -When you spit words like "Darwinian" and "Darwinista" as insults, it's hard to take you seriously. At this site, it's not a worldview, it's a biological process. It has nothing to do with ideology.

    -This comment makes it sound like you're trolling, testing the boundaries. Thing is, I appreciate good trolling, but I know that's not how you want to come off.

    Bottom line is, you can comment all you want here until it's spam, but don't expect to be engaged if you're not commenting on topic. I won't be one to feed your persecution complex.

    At this point, I've probably fed too much.

    EDIT: One more thing: I will ban you if you post another comment criticizing another commenter's pseudonym or any other direct personal attacks. Stay on topic, please.

  • Jeremy,

    Darwinism has everything to do with ideology. It is the only acceptable hypothesis acceptable to the congenital athesit. I have several posts on my log but no one wants to challenge me there. That is why I take my thesis eslewhere looking for someone with the courage to confront me. Like all my distinguished anti-darwinian predecessors I too am ignored or worse denigrated or ridiculed as some of them were too. The simple truth is that Darwinism has persisted by ignoring the devastatations to its precepts levied by such distinguished scientists as Richard B. Goldschmidt, Pierre Grasse, Otto Schindewolf, Robert Broom, William Bateson and especially Leo S. Berg, in my estimation the greatest evolutionist of all time. Referring to both phylogeny (evolution) and ontogeny (development) -

    "Neither in the one nor in the other is there room for chance."
    Nomogenesis, page 134.

    I promise not to refer to anonymity here again but I suspect I will be banished anyway. There is always an excuse to banish those who question the Great God Chance, the foundation of the Darwinian model.

    "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."

  • A point of clarification.

    I do not criticize evolution. I am a convinced evolutionist as were every one of my sources on whose work mine is built. I criticize, as they all did, the Darwinian interpretation of phylogenesis, a process in which none of us felt there was a role for chance or for natural selection.

  • Jeff says:

    Derailing aside, I was under the impression that the dispersal by megafauna hypothesis is nearly unsupported and mostly ignored by those who study Joshua trees. That said, I think it's pretty obvious that without human assistance in dispersal, the trees are going to be hurt very badly by anthropogenic climate change.

  • jeremy says:

    As Cole et al. are among those studying Joshua trees, I would say that, at the very least, they and the other researchers cited in the article are not ignoring that hypothesis. Do you have a link backing the contradictory supposition Jeff?

  • jeremy

    I do not have a persecution complex and it is an insult to suggest that I do. I have an alternative to the Darwinian hypothesis, the most tested and failed notion in the history of science. I have presented that alternative here and elsewhere to be ignored, insulted and usually banished. The important pont is that I have been able to present my thesis here and at other scientopia blogs. Since I am not evoking acceptable responses, I see not reason to continue here. I only ask that my messages not be deleted.

  • There is nothing to debate in science and very little even to discuss. There is only discovery and the acceptance of those discoveries by receptive minds of which there have always been far too few. Debate is for "debating teams" and the internet already has far too many.

  • jeremy

    Since I have now voiced my disappoval of anonymity elsewhere on scientopia, I think it is only proper that you should banish me from futher commentary here. I am not interested in communicating on a blog for which even the host of the blog must hide his identity. I trust my earlier comments will remain which is all that matters to me in any event.

    "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."