MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. --
When the staff of the Archeology and Paleontology Curation Center began creating a series of outdoor gardens to showcase plants native to the Combat Center, they had no idea a cheeky little girl named Mabel and her family would take over.
D’Anne Albers, a cultural resource specialist who has helped build the gardens since coming to work for the Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs directorate as a contractor in 2010, first noticed Mabel in 2012. The tiny, round-tailed ground squirrel stood out in the four-legged crowd that initially took up residence in the Tortoise Garden burrows built for Thelma and Louise, a pair of captive desert tortoises who periodically come to the curation center so visitors can see the threatened species up close.
“I named her Mabel because Thelma and Louise had such old-fashioned names,” Albers recalled, noting that Mabel — the only one member her clan with a name — was as curious about people as they were about her.
“She was just so cute. She started coming when I would call her,” Albers said. In short order, Mabel moved from the Tortoise Garden to the more spacious Ethno-botanical Garden, entertaining Albers and others with her antics as she grew to adulthood.
Round-tails reach reproductive maturity at 325 days old, and Mabel had her first litter in 2013. Now a grandmother, she and her offspring both welcomed litters earlier this year. While no definitive information exists on the average life expectancy for the species, an online database on animal longevity noted that one wild-born round-tail lived 8.9 years in captivity. If Mabel survives such natural predators as coyotes, snakes and hawks — all of which visit the gardens on occasion — she could spend years living at the site, people-watching and raising several more generations of young squirrels.
A stroll through the gardens, built using grant funds starting in 2009, offer curation center visitors an insight into how ecosystems work.
The Nectar Garden draws bees, butterflies and moths, the Tortoise Garden showcases plants favored by the desert tortoise, and the Ethno-botanical Garden features plants that Indian tribes living in the area thousands of years ago used for food, clothing and medicine. Additional garden areas showcase various native plants.
In addition to Mabel and her brood, a variety of reptiles, birds and insects keep the place hopping.
Behind the facility, a large storm-water retention pond offers more chances to see wildlife. A ¾-mile walking/running trail encircling the waterway makes it easy for all ages and fitness levels to enjoy and explore.
“Every day, you can see different birds at the pond,” Albers said, noting that numerous winged species fly over the Combat Center and surrounding areas during their annual migrations. Among the recent winged visitors was a group of about 20 white-faced ibis, medium-sized wading birds that spent several days feeding on insects in the pond’s marshy area.
NREA is in the process of creating new Informational signs to be placed along the track, featuring none other than Mabel, who will impart fun facts and information on the plants and animals visitors may see as they make their way along the trail. Also in the works is a flier with a map of the gardens and pond.
The curation center gardens and pond walking trail are open to anyone with installation access. For more information, call (760) 830-1196 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.