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October 22, 2014

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In predicting spring, groundhogs have nothing on Mojave Max

Grade-school students spend Groundhog Day learning about desert they live in

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

Meteorologist Nate Tannenbaum and Mojave Max ask questions of students during the Mojave Max Emergence Contest assembly Tuesday morning at Kitty Ward Elementary School.

Mojave Max

Fourth-grade students raise their hands in excitement as Mojave Max calls on them to answer quiz questions during the Mojave Max Emergence Contest assembly Tuesday morning at Kitty Ward Elementary School. Launch slideshow »

Though Mojave Max hasn’t yet stirred, about 180 fourth-graders got together Tuesday to learn more about the 19-year-old desert tortoise, the West’s equivalent to Punxsutawney Phil.

Max is Nevada’s harbinger of spring.

When he wakes from his brumation — a lighter form of hibernation — and emerges from his burrow, it signals the end of winter.

Unlike Phil, whose prediction of the end of winter is based on whether he sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, Max “just comes out when it’s time to get up,” said Mary Jo Rugwell, District Manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Southern Nevada.

Like many reptiles, Max brumates to survive cold desert winters. Reptiles are cold-blooded, so they use external surroundings to regulate their body temperature.

Nathan Tannenbaum, a meteorologist who spoke about weather at the assembly at Kitty Ward Elementary School in Las Vegas, said Mojave Max is far more accurate than the groundhog at predicting spring’s arrival.

“We’re not trying to unemploy the groundhog,” he said. “But the tortoise wakes when it’s springtime. None of this shadow nonsense.”

The goal of the assembly was to educate students about the desert they live in.

“A lot of people look at the desert and say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing there,’” Rugwell said. “In fact, it’s a very vibrant ecosystem. It is teeming with life.”

Joyce King, the host of the event, pointed out that Max is a threatened species, “which means if we don’t take care of him, he’ll disappear.”

Max currently resides at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, a center run by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the San Diego Zoo, Rugwell said. Max will be moved to Red Rock Canyon this Spring when a visitors center there is completed.

Clark County students can go online at www.mojavemax.com to guess the month, day and time — down to the minute — that Max will emerge.

The student who guesses the closest to the actual time will receive a backpack with a digital camera and a laptop computer. The winner’s class will win a pizza party and a field trip to Red Rock Canyon, where Max is moving this Spring.

The school also gets to keep the Mojave Max trophy for the year, and the student’s teacher wins a laptop computer.

Max emerges from his burrow when his internal clock, rising external temperatures and longer daylight hours dictate him to do so, said Fran Byers, Mojave Max Education Project program director.

The earliest he has come out was Feb. 14 and the latest was April 14, she said. Over the past 10 years, he has emerged in March half of the time.

Meanwhile, Phil, who resides in Punxsutawney, Penn., saw his shadow yesterday, indicating another six weeks of winter there.

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