Casting Light on Iranian Deserts

Closely watched by their guides and military escort, harried biologists survey the wild things that survive there

Sand dunes in the Rig-e Jenn in the Dasht-e Kavir
Sand dunes in the Rig-e Jenn in the Dasht-e Kavir Wikimedia Commons

As herpetologists Ted Papenfuss and Bob Macey circle desert brush in which they have cornered a lizard, they are watched diligently by a man in military green hefting a machine gun. The scientists are part of the first team of American biologists sanctioned to do research in Iran in two decades. During a six-week expedition in the deserts of southeastern Iran, the scientists are escorted under very tight security and at times conduct their studies in the vicinity of drug-smuggling kidnappers or the fractious Afghan border. On the American team is a young woman who has to abide by the Muslim dress code of concealing attire, regardless of the oppressive heat or the constraints the garments pose in field collecting.

Despite these hassles, the Americans, from the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley, and Washington University in St. Louis, work amicably alongside Iranian scientists and students, exchanging information and collecting numerous specimens, including sun spiders, geckos and rodents.

Traveling in a large entourage of scientists and security, as well as assistants to arrange food and shelter, makes it difficult to meet ordinary Iranian citizens, but when such encounters occur, our writer, who is the entomologist on the trip, reports that the Americans are met with great kindness and an open curiosity about the United States.

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