Five minutes with John Little


John Little is not one to flaunt his doctorate. He humbly serves Greenhaven Neighborhood Church in Sacramento, California, on the board of trustees and as facilities manager and volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service. His career as a botanist and environmental scientist, however, has earned him recognition in Marquis Who’s Who Top Scientists and placed him at the podium at scientific conferences. Before he sold his environmental consulting business last year, one of his last projects was to make a count of Joshua trees in California’s Mojave Desert.

Why count Joshua trees?

Scores of solar energy projects are currently in the planning stage or being constructed throughout the Mojave Desert. Thousands of Joshua trees have been lost from previous projects. The California Fish and Game Commission determined that Joshua trees needed legal protection. Solar companies are now required to document the number of trees affected so their loss can be fully compensated.

How did you conduct the count?

We surveyed over 4,400 acres for three projects and recorded a total of 7,996 Joshua trees. The team walked parallel transects 50 feet apart. When you come to a tree you GPS it, take photos from two different angles and record in your logbook its estimated height.

What were some of the challenges of surveying the 4,400 acres?

Our team of four worked six days a week for six weeks, averaging 10 hours a day. The project areas are located where there’s lots of wind and wind-blown sand. Walkie-talkies are needed to maintain communication between team members. You have to be careful not to step on a Mojave green rattlesnake.

Did you make any interesting discoveries?

Yes, a couple of things. There’s a lizard that occurs only on Joshua trees. It hides under the bark and its color blends in with the trunk. They’re very secretive, but I had read up on them and spotted one. There are also scores of bird species that use Joshua trees for nesting. The tips of their tough, fibrous leaves are needle-like. Where leaves overlap, a bird can make a nest inside and predators can’t reach it.

As a Christian scientist what do you bring to the scientific community?

I bring the alternative viewpoint that life didn’t evolve from a primordial blob of goo. Everything was created by God for a purpose. The closer scientists look at organisms or natural communities, the more we realize just how complex things are and how they interconnect in very complex ways. A tree has no brain, yet knows when and how to produce leaves, flowers, and fruits. If a branch breaks, the tree knows how to repair the wound.


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