Monday, June 23, 2014

Help get Jessica some new legs!

Texas Tech Fire Ecology Lab MS student, Nick Goforth, and his fiancee, Jessica Smith have endured huge challenges in their young relationship.  In 2013, Jessica survived a blood infection that cost her both legs and parts of five fingers.   Nick has kept me up to date on Jessica's progress toward recovery.  One of the things that impresses me most is her attitude and approach to this process.  She has persevered and endured extreme trauma and come out on the other side with a sunny disposition and positive outlook.  

Jessica graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a B.S. in Biology.  She has always dreamed of attending graduate school for a degree in marine biology.  In order to meet the demands of a field-based program, she needs prosthetic legs with smart ankles that will respond to terrain.  These prosthetics cost upwards of $50,000 and are not covered by insurance.  

Click here to read more about Jessica's story.

And now, click here to donate toward her new legs.  Every little bit helps!

Nick and Jessica at home (C) Nick Goforth 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Guest Blog: I don’t think we’re in Texas anymore

The following is a guest blog by MS student Rachel Granberg.  Rachel is currently working in central Texas on a horned lizard habitat suitability project.  

As I was wrapping up my second week in the field today, I stumbled upon two Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) just across the tall game fence.  The mating pair seemed curious at my presence, often stepping closer to get a better look at my ATV.   As I quietly snapped pictures, a common eland (Taurotragus oryx) approached, obviously looking for handouts.  Within an hour, a herd of 6 impala (Aepyceros melampus) wandered onto the same patch of grass.

The native range of the Grevy’s zebra once covered much of the Horn of Africa.  They are now restricted to small areas within Kenya and Ethiopia.

For readers not familiar with African ungulates, this particular species of zebra is listed as endangered with the IUCN.  With approximately 750 mature individuals left in the wild, the range of this species is restricted to the Horn of Africa (Moehlman et al. 2013).  Although current population trends suggest growth in Kenya and Ethiopia (Mwasi and Mwengi 2007), human-related impacts (largely the effects of agriculture and grazing on water sources) remain a huge issue in the conservation of this species (Moehlman et al. 2013).
The presence of endangered, exotic game species is not unique to this particular ranch in Texas.  Texas is globally renowned for its high fence game ranches hosting collections of outlandish species that would never coexist in the wild.  In fact, the Grevyi’s zebra I found were not nearly as lucrative as the addax, dama gazelle, and the scimitar horned oryx which all are now legally hunted on Texas game ranches without permitting under the Endangered Species Act. 

 A mating pair of endangered Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) in habitat quite unlike their native savanna.

There are many arguments for (ex: conservation of the species is successful on these ranches) and against (ex: this isn’t true conservation if we are raising them like cattle) exotic game ranches.  Neither camps have considered the effects of high fence ranches (not just exotic ranches) on habitat connectivity or genetic structure of native species.  While conservation of endangered species matters, so does providing optimal habitat for our native endangered species here in Texas.  Too often, these high fence ranches provide no brush management and exclude fire (a natural form of disturbance in this ecosystem) from their management regime.  Without much public land to rely on, species such as the Texas horned lizard (don’t forget bobwhite quail, black-capped vireo, and golden-cheeked warbler) need sound land management on private parcels in order to persist.
Something that these big game ranchers fail to realize is that the little guys, such as birds and reptiles, often indicate overall health of the ecosystem.  The ranch I observed earlier today was nearly devoid of forbs and grasses because Ashe juniper had grown into a dense, monotypic stand (thanks to lack of fire).  The animals were probably so curious about my ATV because they need to be supplementally fed, thrown bales of alfalfa off the bed of a pickup.  In a healthy ecosystem, there would be ample forage for these animals to survive (along with our vulnerable native species) without supplemental feeding.
            With the manual thinning of juniper, followed by a few prescribed burns, this ranch would provide ideal habitat for the bobwhite quail and Texas horned lizards that occur on neighboring parcels.  Just because this ranch specializes in exotic game, doesn’t mean it can’t support native species.

The difference in rangeland health is dramatic between these two parcels.  On the right, light grazing and prescribed fire have created suitable habitat for the Texas horned lizard and bobwhite quail.  To the left, over grazing along the fire perimeter is a stark contrast.  Lack of fire on this ranch has allowed Ashe juniper to form dense thickets, disallowing the establishment of grasses and forbs required by these African grazers

Miller, C. L. 2006. The price-size relationship: Analyzing fragmentation of rural land in Texas.  Thesis,  Texas A&M University, College Station, USA.
Moehlman, P.D., Rubenstein, D.I. & Kebede, F. 2013. Equus grevyi. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. <>. Downloaded on 31 May 2014.

Mwasi, S. and Mwangi, E. 2007. Proceedings of the National Grevy’s Zebra Conservation Strategy Workshop 11-14 April 2007. KWS Training Institute, Naivasha, Kenya.

What's New in the Lab?

The summer field season is in full swing and a lot has been happening!

Anna Meyer and her crew have deployed to central Texas to collect harvester and fire ants.

Rachel Granberg is hard at work at Camp Bowie collecting vegetation and Texas horned lizard data.

Nick Goforth has returned to the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico to continue his bat research.

Clara Frasconi-Wendt and Tabea Malinowski are nearing the end of their degrees and are both putting the finishing touches on their MS theses.  Tabea defends on 23 June, and Clara will be defending in July.

Vidhur Sohini graduated in May with a BS in Biology.  He is off to Texas Tech University's School of Medicine to pursue an MD.  On behalf of the entire lab, congratulations to him!

I recently taught a two week field entomology course in Junction, Texas.  The students were wonderful and enthusiastic.  Plus, I got to spend my time catching insects!  I am spending the majority of the rest of my summer in Lubbock, working on grant proposals and publications.

I am also pleased to introduce our newest lab member, Britt Smith.  Britt recently completed an MS at Oklahoma State University and will be working on a PhD in the lab.  His interests include rangeland insects, grazing ecology, and, of course, fire ecology.  I'm excited to have him on board!  Expect more updates as he gets settled.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Burn season continues!

March has been a fire-filled month in the lab.  We have assisted on several prescribed burns in the Texas Panhandle with a variety of agencies.  In particular, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Lubbock Lake Landmark, and several fire departments have been gracious teachers, strong leaders, and great examples for the students.  These professionals probably don't realize the huge impact that they make when they take the time to teach, train, and educate my students.

We've burned about 1500 acres since I last posted, so here are a few more photos from the season:

A 900 acre prescribed burn at the Matador WMA as seen from space (Photo courtesy of Derrick Holdstock and the National Weather Service)

Juniper bush torching near the fire line on a 300 acre prescribed burn at the Matador WMA

Cameron Ward, Colton Laws, Ryan Tedford, Heather Williams, and Kristen Linnier getting ready to head out to a 40 acre prescribed burn at the Matador WMA

Tumbleweeds ignite on a 95 acre prescribed fire at Lubbock Lake Landmark.  This property is within Lubbock city limits and posed unique challenges as a result.

Flowers completely unburned during a prescribed burn at the Matador WMA.  This never ceases to amaze me.

Smoked in on the south line at the OX Pasture Burn

Greg Pavur lights strips of fire at Lubbock Lake Landmark.  Photo credit:  Anton Gereau

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Prescribed Burn at the Matador WMA

This semester, I have been teaching Prescribed Burning to thirty enthusiastic and wonderful students. They have been completing training in line with NWCG Type 2 Wildland Firefighter standards, pack testing, and doing field exercises to prepare for future careers in fire.

Derrick Holdstock, Texas Parks and Wildlife Region 1 Fire Coordinator, invited us to attend a prescribed burn at the Matador WMA near Paducah, TX last week.  We burned two forty acre research plots in beautiful weather.

Needless to say, the students were thrilled with this opportunity and obviously took away lots of lessons and invaluable experience.  Below are a few photos from the day's events:

Anton Gereau, Preston Kleman, Neil Estes, Heather Williams, William Knox, Glenn Greanya, and Brad Barker

TPWD employee building black on the back fire line

Neil Estes surveys the fire

Heather Williams prepares for ignition operations

Head fire 

Post burn

Neil Estes and Heather Williams mop-up a smoking tree

Thursday, February 27, 2014

February Update

It has been a while since I have written a lab update.

The Spring 2014 semester has been hectic!  I am teaching the Prescribed Burning course and Environmental Science as a Social Pursuit course, both for the first time.  Prescribed Burning has been a real joy to teach-- I have a wonderful class of curious and enthusiastic students.  Hopefully, I'll be able to report on the burn season soon (if the weather behaves!).

Tabea and Clara both defended their thesis proposals this winter and are gearing up for their spring and summer field seasons.  Congratulations to both!

We've had lots of recent and upcoming conference travel, as well:

I just got back from the Entomological Society of America Southwest Branch meeting in San Antonio where I presented in the Ants of Texas Symposium.  The Ants of Texas working group includes eight super cool ant biologists and myself.  Our eventual goal is a catalog of Texas ants.  I also met some up and coming graduate students doing some really great work!  You can read more about the symposium on my other blog, here.

This spring, I am heading back to San Antonio to give a lecture to the Southwest Cattle Raisers Association about prescribed burning safety and fire ecology.

Nick Goforth and I will also be heading to the Valles Caldera National Preserve for their "All Hands" meeting to prepare for his summer field season.  Nick will be presenting his bat research at this meeting.

Vidhur Sohini and Cody Fell were both awarded CALUE travel grants from Texas Tech University, so they will be heading to the Southwestern Association of Naturalists meeting in Stillwater in April to present their poster on ant limb length and thermal physiology.

All for now, but check back soon for more exciting updates!!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Joys and Challenges of Fieldwork

The following is a guest blog by Nick Goforth.  Nick is an MS student in the Verble Fire Ecology Lab.  You can also read more about his work on his blog, here.

This past summer I was able to spend 5 months in beautiful New Mexico conducting research at the Valles Caldera National Preserve on the effects of wildfires on bats.  This experience was one of my most exciting and amazing adventures, but did not come without its challenges and obstacles.  From the Thompson Ridge wildfire starting within a few hours of my arrival, prompting a redesign of my study and a temporary loss of access to study sites,

to impassable roads caused by washouts and mud/rock slides as a result of the fire scarred landscape and ‘monsoon’ season, difficult daily hikes to survey sites, plenty of flat tires, and an eye injury while conducting vegetation surveys made for an eventful field season.

These hurdles failed, however, in comparison to the time I got to spend and the sights I got to see in this beautiful area, the amazing people I met, and the wildlife I saw and interacted with.

Crawfish boil © Aviv Karasov-Olson 2013

In terms of data collection, this field season was very successful.  Over approximately 75 nights, roughly 29,932 files containing bat calls were recorded.  Therefore, a large portion of my life over the next semester will be dedicated to identifying these recordings to down to species or phonic group, if possible.  Below is a graph illustrating the number of recorded files containing bat calls that were recorded per night during 2013.  Once the recordings are identified down to species or phonic group statistical analyses will be performed to determine if significant differences exist between treatments.

LC = Las Conchas wildfire, TR = Thompson Ridge wildfire, UC = unchanged © Nick Goforth 2014
For next field season, I plan to return to the Valles Caldera to continue collecting bat acoustic data, re-conduct vegetation surveys, and to mist net bats to add calls to my call reference library to assist me in identifying the bat species recorded.  Again, I would like to thank Dr. Robin Verble-Pearson for this opportunity and Joseph Powell and Amanda Winters for their assistance in the field.  I hope that they will be able to join me again in the field next season.  

I was also fortunate enough to be able to travel to San Jose, Costa Rica in August to attend the 2013 joint meeting of the International Bat Research Conference (IBRC) and the North American Symposium on Bat Research (NASBR).  This conference was the largest bat conference to date with approximately 650 attendees from 50 different countries.  While at this conference I was able to enjoy several presentations on bat research being conducted around the globe, meet many bat scientists from around the world, and go on a rainforest tour at Tirimbina Biological Reserve, where I was able to see some amazing flora and fauna, including two tent-roosting bat species.

Several people from Texas Tech University in attendance at IBRC/NASBR ©

I look forward to the North American Symposium on Bat Research (NASBR) next year in Albany, NY.