September 22, 2019 - Comments Off on Furthering My Respect for Historical Knowledge in Baja California, Mexico

Furthering My Respect for Historical Knowledge in Baja California, Mexico

September 29, 2019

The group on a morning hike in the desert. Photo: Dr. Nick Jacobsen.

From July 3 to 11, 2019, I traveled to Baja, California, Mexico with 18 other first year students in Miami University’s Project Dragonfly program, our two professors, and staff from Rancho San Gregorio.

Our goals were to:

  1. learn about inquiry driven science, field methods, community-based conservation, and the ecology of Baja;
  2. sleep under the stars in the desert and by the sea; and
  3. form new partnerships in our graduate adventure.

We stayed in the desert at the remote Rancho San Gregario for the first several days, where we learned about the land from Raphael, Lalo, and Alex. We hiked in the desert, studied the plant life, and conducted line transects and quadrats in the unrelenting heat. Then, we moved west to the Vermilion Sea Station, where our classroom overlooked bright blue water filled with marine animals. Here, we ventured into the water by boat, and snorkeled with whale sharks, sea lions, and stingrays.

The experience was unforgettable. For me, these nine days deepened my respect for the historical knowledge that indigenous peoples, scientists, and animals have developed over generations.

Learning the Ranch’s History through Medicinal Plants and Storytelling

Raphael tells us about growing up on the ranch, and how he became a sought-after doctor in the region using medicinal plants.

Raphael grew up learning about medicinal plants and going to traditional healers. He had seen traditional medicines work around Rancho San Gregario. When he left the ranch to go to university in hopes of becoming a doctor, he was surprised at the disconnect between modern medicine and indigenous healing methods. Upon returning, Raphael became known as a talented traditional healer, and people from all over the region lined up to be treated.

He showed us plants that were used to treat cancer, inflammation, fever, and cholesterol. I thought, "Does this longstanding traditional knowledge inform modern techniques?". Winkelman (1986) studied 22 plants in Baja used by indigenous healers to treat human ailments. Most of the plants he studied did contain the key substances in drugs now used to treat the ailments. However, at the time of Winkelman's research, he stated that, "all of the plants lacked [previous] clinical assessments" to scientifically link the plant to the treatment.

Without respect and reverence for the historical knowledge of indigenous peoples, are we continuously reinventing the wheel?

Experimenting with Scientific Field Methods in the Desert and Sea

When looking forward to Baja, I was most excited to learn scientific field methods. In my work, I often read scientific journals and examine studies to find research that informs lemur conservation. But until now, my physical experience with field methods was nonexistent.

We learned line transects, quadrats, and social science surveys in the desert of Rancho San Gregario. In a line transect, you form a line through an area and measure a distance on each side of the line. Then, you measure abundance by counting occurrences of a trait or species on each side of the line (Scott et al., 1994). Learning by doing can be so much more powerful than reading about these methods in a book. We learned how to implement these field methods and solved issues as they arose.

Because science should be replicable, it is important to use trusted methods. Consistency is key. Learning these methods deepened my respect for the scientists that have come before me.  

Witnessing Dolphin Feeding Frenzies

While staying at the Vermilion Sea Institute, we ventured into the sea each day. The marine wildlife is like nothing I had ever experienced. We witnessed dolphin feeding frenzies, where hundreds of dolphins swim in a line a few dolphins wide, leaping out of the water as they swim. Many dolphins swim in a circle, herding fish up to the top of the water for easier catching (Reynoso, 1991). While the dolphins were feeding, birds dive head first into the water to catch the leftovers. It was quite a sight!

It's amazing how animals have learned these feeding techniques, passing their methods from generation to generation. Watching animal behaviors deepens my respect for them and their animal culture.

Beautiful Baja

Spending nine days in Baja, Mexico was the perfect way to start my graduate adventure with Project Dragonfly. The sights and educational experiences were matched by learning about my new colleagues. It was striking how we all came into the program with different skills and experiences.

We all bring ourselves to enhance the collective — open to respecting each other's knowledge and learning from each other.


Reynoso, J. P. G. (1991). Group behavior of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) during prey capture. Anales del Instituto de Biología. Serie Zoología62(2), 253-262.

Scott, N. J., Crump, M. L., Zimmerman, B. L., Jaeger, R. G., Inger, R. F., Corn, P. S., ... & Alford, R. A. (1994). Standard techniques for inventory and monitoring. Measuring and monitoring biological diversity. Standard methods for amphibians/Heyer, W. Ronald.

Winkelman, M. (1986). Frequently used medicinal plants in Baja California Norte. Journal of ethnopharmacology18(2), 109-131.

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