Mars Desert Research Station Crew 282 – Martian Biology III – Final Report
Crew 282 – Martian Biology III, was the latest iteration of the Mars Society’s Martian Biology program, a special project conceived of by Dr. Shannon Rupert, the Society’s Senior Director of Analog Research. From June 4-10, 2023, the crew, consisting of botanist Paul Sokoloff, entomologist Jacopo Razzauti, and historian Jordan Bimm, sampled vascular plants, mosses, lichens, and insects at sites spanning three counties in the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) exploration area, while collecting information critical to our historical understanding of Martian analog research. Joined by MDRS Assistant Director Sergii Iakymov, this non-simulation crew surveyed sites at near the station (the Fremont River, Muddy Creek, and “Cowboy Corner), as well as locations further afield – at Salt Wash, and for the first time in the Martian Biology program,
the biomes of the Henry Mountains.
Botany – Paul Sokoloff
Over the course of four collecting days, Crew 282 collected 126 vascular plant, moss, and lichen specimens from 12 localities around MDRS. These specimens voucher the biodiversity of the area; the flattened plants and preserved flora we have gathered provide physical proof that each species was found growing at a particular place and time. A complete set of these specimens will be deposited in the National Herbarium of Canada (CAN) at the Canadian Museum of Nature, and a duplicate set will be deposited at the Utah Valley University Herbarium. Once these specimens are identified down to the species level (or, in certain cases, to subspecies or variety), these biodiversity data will be combined with the 22 new species records collected by Martian Biology II (Crew 243) as we draft a forthcoming floristic manuscript for the station.
As this year marked the Martian Biology program’s first foray into the Henry Mountains, we intensely botanized the three sites we stopped at in this range, documenting taxa in Juniper scrubland, Pine forests, and alpine scree. These biomes are markedly different from the deserts immediately surrounding MDRS. The gravelly verges on the approach to the Henrys were brightened by sprays of Boreal Sweetvetch (Hedysarum boreale) and Utah Penstemon (Penstemon utahensis). Lower elevations and sheltered sites were dominated by numerous tree species like Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Pinyon Pine (Pinus sp.), Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii), and Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis). The herbaceous understory of these elevated forests featured Alpine/Arctic taxa like Cinquefoils (Potentilla sp.), and Fairy Candelabra (Androsace septentrionalis) as well as numerous species of Sedge (Carex sp.) and Milkvetch (Astragalus sp.).
While previous Martian Biology crews have intensely collected the desert regions surrounding the station, Crew 282 was still able to document new taxa for the station. These include Iodine Bush (Allenrolfea occidentalis) at Salt Wash and Muddy Creek, Nakedstem Sunray (Enceliopsis nudicaulis) at Salt Wash and “Hab Ridge” above MDRS, and several species of grass (Poaceae) and Milkvetch (Astragalus sp.) awaiting final identification in the lab.
Entomology – Jacopo Razzauti
The ecological survey of mosquito species conducted near the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) involved two main methods of collection: direct collection of mosquitoes at all life stages and the deployment of a novel mosquito trap design.
In the direct collection method, mosquitoes at different life stages, including larvae, pupae, and adults, were collected on-site using nets and aspirators. These specimens were then taken back to the station, where they were prepared and cataloged for identification. In cases where larvae and pupae were collected, they were reared in the Science Dome at MDRS, and the adults were cataloged after they emerged.
The second method involved the deployment of a custom-made mosquito trap at various sites, specifically at Salt Wash and near Hanksville on the banks of the Fremont River. This trap was designed to attract gravid female mosquitoes using geosmin, a compound found in the peel of beetroot that serves as an oviposition attractant for various mosquito species. The trap does not require energy, CO2, or dry ice to attract mosquitoes, making it well-suited for trapping mosquitoes in the desert. Beetroot juice-containing traps were left at the sites for 2-3 days before collecting the water.
The combination of these two collection methods allowed for the cataloging of various mosquito species. The survey demonstrated that mosquitoes in the MDRS vicinity can adapt to a wide range of habitats, including the alpine forests of the Henry Mountains and the dry desert areas surrounding the research station.
Despite the challenging conditions in the desert, mosquitoes have evolved to exploit any available resources to survive in southeast Utah. Larvae were found in water tanks used for cattle, drying ponds, and slowly running streams. Interestingly, the majority of mosquitoes were collected near human settlements, indicating their anthropophilic nature in this region. This suggests that mosquitoes in the area rely on human presence for their blood meals, as well as access to sporadic water sources for development.
Astrobiology in Action – Jordan Bimm
I joined Crew 282 as a historian of science studying simulations of Martian Biology. “Astrobiology in Action” is a study conducted at MDRS to support my current research project Putting Mars in a Jar. This book-length monograph examines scientific attempts to mimic Mars on Earth, from tiny laboratory experiments in the 1950s to vast human-scaled analog sites, like MDRS and FMARS. I designed the study with the idea that, in addition to normal archival research, immersing myself in present-day astrobiology and analog research culture would greatly enhance my thinking and writing on the topic. To structure this approach, I decided to use a sociological method called participant observation in which a researcher joins the types of people they study (in my case biologists interested in space science) in performing their day-to-day research activities to understand how they perceive the world, their work, and its meaning. This study was conducted as a member of Crew 243 (“Martian Biology II”, June 2022) and continued now on Crew 282. It has provided me with practical working knowledge about remote field science and analog research as well as a chance to reflect on how scientists draw parallels between Earth and Mars in the context of biology and ecology. On both missions I worked with Paul Sokoloff to increase my understanding of lichen biology, one of his areas of expertise, at each of our field sites and in the Science Dome. This .directly informs my historical research because in the 1950s the scientific consensus about life on Mars was that it was likely to be lichens, which can tolerate low pressure and low temperature environments. This ongoing study has deepened my understanding of field ecology and analogs of Mars and its possible biology. I hope to continue this participant observation work on future Martian Biology missions as the program progresses.
Looking ahead, we see enormous potential in the Martian Biology program to continue documenting the biodiversity of the deserts surrounding MDRS and at sites of interest to the Mars Society across southeast Utah. With each crew, we continue to document species that inform us about the state of the site as a Martian planetary analog and as a unique ecosystem on Earth. We look forward to expanding this program to include taxonomic groups not yet surveyed at MDRS, and to apply the techniques and lessons learned at the station to other analog sites, such as the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station in Devon Island, Nunavut.