Vince Pinto stands in a creek while describing the importance of water in this region. Screen capture from “Biodiversity in the Heart of the Sky Islands”

Biodiversity in the Heart of the Sky Islands,” a new documentary film from naturalist, wildlife biologist, and PRT columnist Vincent Pinto and filmmaker/videographer Michele Gisser, premiered last month at a sold-out Tin Shed Theatre. The 84-minute film, which included many of Pinto’s stunning photographs taken over the years, captivated the audience. 

As “Biodiversity” opens, Pinto wanders among saguaros in a cactus-intensive area while disproving the notion that the Southern Arizona desert lands are stark and inhospitable. Instead, the 43 Sky Island mountain ranges form a layered tapestry of different habitats hosting world-class biodiversity.

After more than three decades of exploration and photography, Pinto’s knowledge of local creatures and ecosystems is encyclopedic. He shares the wonders of his world with his spectacular photos, and videos, and beautiful drone footage by Gisser. Viewers of this film get to be up-close and personal with species like elegant trogon, green kingfisher, rare white pelicans, super-organized red ants, spiny lizards, snakes of many patterns, and the elusive and dramatic Gila monster. The drone segments quickly pull your awareness back from the scales, fur, and feathers to the landscape as a larger whole, then the focus zooms in again. 

For each place and creature, he unfolds stories of habitat, behavior, anatomy, tracks predation, lifespan, reproduction, and co-evolution – in a word, the basics of ecology. Biodiversity, Pinto believes, “is like a jigsaw puzzle, where all the pieces are connected, but you can only see some of the pieces, and not others. There are many species not yet identified – we know only about a quarter of the more than eight million species on earth, and, ironically, it now looks like many will go extinct before we can identify them.”

No Sonoran desert movie could fail to mention water, and it’s a frequent theme as the movie progresses from creature to creature and place to place. In a perennial stretch of Harshaw Creek, Pinto dips his net into a small pool that initially looks like a scummy puddle. Poured into a tray and studied, the myriad life forms include water boatmen, water scorpions, and little fish called longfin dace. Nearby, Pinto finds a canyon tree frog, a delicate, superbly camouflaged amphibian. Pinto calls the frog “a canary in the coal mine,” a good indicator of water quality and ecosystem health. 

Wandering in the ower stretches of Sonoita Creek as it approaches the Santa Cruz River, Pinto reveals a landscape becoming less biologically diverse as it experiences overuse, overdevelopment, and long-term drought.

After the screening, Pinto elaborated on some areas of action that could make a difference. Having seen the regenerative and preservation effects created by biosphere reserves in other countries such as Botswana and France, Pinto said, “the Sky Islands certainly qualify for that kind of protection, but we lack the political will.” For the changes needed for long-term survival, he continued, “we lack the education, the connection to nature, and the humility.” He added, “environmental education shouldn’t just be one module in one school year but should be part of every year in school.” 

Biodiversity in the Heart of the Sky Islands” was produced by Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA). An encore screening at the Tin Shed Theater is scheduled for April 14 at 6p.m.; click here to purchase tickets.