By Erin Hallissy
Getting his Facts Straight
Phil Leitner grew up in Montana on a cattle ranch, and loves the wide open spaces of the West. But after he graduated from Saint Mary's in 1957 and later from UCLA, where he received his master's and Ph.D. in biology, he spent a lot of time inside caves.
For 25 years Leitner studied bats, going into the underground caverns in places like the Sierra Nevada, Lake Shasta, Redding and various deserts. His fieldwork also took him into mines and old buildings, the kinds of places inhabited by the flying mammals.
After he returned to Saint Mary's to teach in 1962, he even used the attic in Galileo Hall for bats — he built a flight cage for them amid the junk then stored on the third floor.
Students helped Leitner with his research, and after Leitner became dean of the School of Science in 1984, he decided to formalize students' joint research efforts with faculty by helping start the school's summer research program.
"At that point, it seemed like it would be a good thing to have a real program," Leitner recalls. "It was a way of giving our students opportunities that they should be able to get at a small college."
By that time, Leitner had already shifted his own research interests from bats to squirrels. Not just any squirrel — the Mohave ground squirrel.
Leitner learned about the squirrel while working in the late 1980s as a consultant for companies interested in developing geothermal energy in the desert.
"I realized there was this little-known species there," Leitner says. Not only was the desert-dwelling critter unique to the area, California lists it as an endangered species.
Leitner and various students returned again and again to the Mojave Desert to find out more about the squirrel and to come up with a conservation plan for the species. They looked at its habitat, its reproductive life and how it was affected by weather and climate.
"Because they live in this very harsh environment, they spend half the year asleep in the ground," Leitner explains. From summer to mid-February, the squirrels enter their deep burrows underground, smoothing the sand above so the coyotes can't interrupt their hibernation. When it is time to mate in the spring, the male squirrels wait for the females to come out. Leitner has spent a lot of time patiently watching them.
"A lot of my work is in the eastern Sierra," he says. "It can be windy, cold, sand blowing. I really find that harsh weather to be exhilarating. And it also gets really hot, but you get used to it."
Leitner, who retired as dean in 1992 and now teaches just one Jan Term class on global warming, is still studying the squirrels, which are a bit more well-known these days. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has supported building solar-power farms in the desert that could harm the squirrel's habitat. Schwarzenegger appeared on "the Tonight Show" earlier this year and drew laughs complaining about the ground squirrels holding up projects.
"He's really funny, but he has all the facts wrong," Leitner says with a smile.