Darkness cloaked the desert, pierced only by a canopy of stars that provided a glittering backdrop for 20 college students treading cautiously over the cracked, dry landscape. But a soft hiss stopped them in their tracks.
Mudassar Haq heard the rattlesnake and shouted to alert the others as classmate Thomas Parker shined a flashlight on a large sidewinder slithering away under a tuft of salt grass.
"I immediately knew what it was, that's something you don't think twice about," said Haq, 20, a Cal State Fullerton junior. "My instinct was to run."
But neither student did. Their calm response allowed for an unexpectedly close look at a staple of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. "This is an unusual treat," Fullerton associate biology professor William Hoese told the group. "We're going to give it room."
The biology students were spending a recent weekend with 40 classmates and two professors at Cal State's Desert Studies Center, a 1,200-acre field station in the Mojave that is one of the world's few desert research facilities.