What would the Great Basin look like if we replaced our vegetation with communities of different species that were also adapted to our temperate desert climate? In a way, that’s what this recent field trip to Northwestern China was about.
I was part of a team of scientists from UNR and Brigham Young University who travelled to Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang province to survey plant communities and meet colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography and the Xinjiang Agricultural University. We would like to use the similarities in climate, vegetation structure, and topography to study how plants colonize and (sometimes) become invasive when they are introduced to new ranges. It turns out that many of our old “friends”, such as salt cedar (Tamarix spp.) and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) are native to Xinjiang. However, there they are not nearly as abundant there and sometimes are even species of conservation concern in China! This is probably surprising to anyone who’s seen cheatgrass and salt cedar transform so much of our landscapes in the American West — and it certainly raises the question “why?”. At the same time, we from the States are also contributing new and sometimes invasive species to the flora of Xinjiang.
Covering 1/6th the area of China and larger than the state of Alaska, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is an extremely diverse region, with mountains over 5000m and valleys well below sea level. It has many endemic species, some of the largest ungulate populations in Asia, and is the home of the worlds only truly wild (as opposed to feral) horse: Przewalski’s wild horse. Xinjiang also has many ethnic minority cultures within Chinese society and, in most places, Turkic languages rather than Mandarin, predominate. As much as we were fascinated by the landscapes, flora, and fauna of Xinjiang, it may be the new friendships with Chinese colleagues and rich cultures (and food!) of Xinjiang that left some of the most enduring impressions on us!
Be sure to check out the BestofXinjiang2010 photo album.