Las Vegas Sun

July 20, 2017

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Mojave Max:

Students learn about desert alternative to Punxsutawney Phil

Competition to guess when tortoise will emerge from his burrow begins


Aida Ahmed

Students at Gwendolyn Woolley Elementary School in North Las Vegas get a lesson about Mojave Max, the desert tortoise that predicts when spring starts in the valley.

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 »

While millions of people across the country heard about Punxsutawney Phil casting a shadow Thursday and forecasting six more weeks of winter, students at one Clark County elementary school learned about a different weather-predicting creature.

Kindergarteners to second-graders at Gwendolyn Woolley Elementary School in North Las Vegas got a lesson about what’s considered a more “desert-accurate” approach to Groundhog Day: Mojave Max.

Although the tortoise still is asleep in his burrow at Red Rock National Conservation Area, Mojave Max is considered the desert’s groundhog, predicting spring’s start for most of Nevada, California, Utah and Arizona.

Unlike Pennsylvania’s famed groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, who is pulled from his burrow and predicts the start of spring based on whether he can see his shadow, Mojave Max heralds the beginning of spring with his first appearance after a winter of hibernation.

“We’re not into dissing the groundhog, but we think Max is a better prognosticator for us,” said local weather forecaster Nate Tannenbaum. “He doesn’t even come out until it’s spring.”

Tannenbaum, who presented a lesson in the unique desert climate to students at the morning assembly, said Mojave Max has come out as early as Feb. 14 and as late as April 14 in years past.

“Technically, the season called spring begins in the third week of March,” said Tannenbaum.

But Max, a 23-year-old tortoise, comes out when “springlike weather” begins to show in the valley.

The Mojave Max Education Program — sponsored by Clark County in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, the Clark County School District and the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association — throws a competition every year, open to all Clark County students, to see who can guess when Mojave Max will awaken and leave his burrow.

In the 13 years of the program, three students have guessed the exact time, down to the minute, that Max emerged. Winners receive T-shirts, medals, a trophy, a pizza party and a field trip to Red Rock National Conservation Area for their entire class.

Christina Gibson, spokeswoman for the county’s Desert Conservation Program, said the contest is a fun way to teach children about desert wildlife.

“In having friendly rivalry, we can get more interest, more excitement. We want kids here to say, ‘We have Max,’ like other communities have Punxsutawney Phil,” Gibson said. “Whatever your environmental species is, we want to encourage you to pay attention to your weather indicators. It doesn’t do us a lot of good if it’s going to be winter back there if we’re going to have an early spring out here.”

First-grader Enrique Fuentes, who is excited to guess in this year’s competition, has his eyes on the winner’s medal.

Last year Max emerged during the afternoon of March 29.

Fuentes’ guess?

“March,” he predicted.

The Mojave Max Watch takes place between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily at Red Rock National Conservation Area visitor’s center.

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