Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Insect Soup

The following is a guest post by Ph.D. student, Britt Smith.  Britt joined the Fire Ecology Lab in June 2014 and has been working on the effects of fire on quail and quail food items.  Below, he shares a story about his project.

Hello! I’m excited to write my first post for the Verble Fire Ecology Lab blog. I am a new PhD. Student in the lab. I am originally from Missouri and completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri – Kansas City with a B.S. in Environmental Science. After that, I spent two years working at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources where I worked on surveillance and sampling for chronic wasting disease in white-tailed deer populations in southwest Wisconsin, and on a large scale grassland conservation project known as the Southwest Wisconsin Grassland and Stream Conservation Area. I left Wisconsin to pursue my Master’s degree at Oklahoma State University where I explored a pasture management technique known as patch-burn grazing, and it’s influence on vegetation and wildlife species. I arrived at Texas Tech this summer, and am examining the influence of fire on arthropod communities in the rolling plains, and particularly arthropods that are important for northern bobwhite quail chicks and breeding females. My research interests focus around the restoration of the historic disturbance regimes of fire and grazing to influence vegetation structure and wildlife utilization of grassland ecosystems.

example elf a pitfall trap just before collecting (C) Britt Smith 2014
This summer I started sampling arthropods in burned and unburned areas in the Texas rolling plains. To sample arthropods I used pitfall traps, which is a plastic cup buried flush with the ground and filled with a solution of water and propylene glycol (pet friendly antifreeze). After about a week, arthropods that have fallen into, and subsequently drowned, are collected and stored in plastic bags. I then take these arthropods back to the lab for processing.

a plastic whirl-pac bag containing collected arthropod specimens (C) Britt Smith 2014
Once back at the lab, these insects are placed into a container and the large arthropods are sorted from the smaller. I call this liquid concoction “insect soup”. While it’s probably chemically safe to eat, I wouldn’t. I then identify the large insects. In the picture below one can see two click beetles, one dung beetle, and two roaches.

arthropods collected and simmering in the "insect soup" (C) Britt Smith 2014

Next, I look into the soup through a dissecting microscope, which gives a large field of view. I then proceed to identify and count individuals of each taxa in the soup. For most insects this is no problem, but for springtails, which can have hundreds of individuals, I estimate by counting individuals in a quarter section of the soup and multiplying by 4.

view through the dissecting scope to identify small arthropods (C) Britt Smith 2014
Taxa and individuals are recorded and then entered into a database and ready for analysis. The soup is transferred to a plastic bag, where it is stored in case something goes awry.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Busy and Eventful Year

The following is a guest blog post by M.S. student, Nick Goforth.  You can also follow Nick on his own blog.

The second year of my Master’s is quickly coming to an end and it has been a very eventful one!  I have completed all of my required classes, wrapped up my second season of fieldwork, got married, and am in the process of buying a house in Lubbock with my new wife.  And in the middle of all that, I’ve been working through a mountain of data!! 

Me and my new wife, Jessica Goforth, at our September wedding.

This year I got to spend two more months in the beautiful Jemez Mountains of wonderful New Mexico conducting acoustic surveys and mist netting bats.  Luckily, we didn’t have another fire this year, so it was a pretty good field season!  We also caught a lot more bats this year!  Here are the overall bat activity levels from 2013 and 2014.  These activity levels were determined using six Wildlife Acoustic SM2Bat+ recorders.  We observed a shift in activity levels between treatments from 2013 to 2014.

Fig. 1 Overall bat activity levels in 2013 on the Valles Caldera National Preserve (Sites: LC=Las Conchas Wildfire (2011), TR=Thompson Ridge Wildfire (2013), UB=Unburned Forests).

Fig. 2 Overall bat activity levels in 2014 on the Valles Caldera National Preserve (Sites: LC=Las Conchas Wildfire (2011), TR=Thompson Ridge Wildfire (2013), UB=Unburned Forests).

In 2013 bats were more active at the Las Conchas study sites, but became more active at the Thompson Ridge study sites in 2014.  This change is hypothesized to be caused by an influx of insects due to the growth of flowering plants and burned trees and an increased availability of roost sites following the Thompson Ridge Wildfire.  I am currently working to determine how burn severity and forest type affects bat activity levels.
Thompson Ridge study site in 2013

Thompson Ridge study site in 2014.

After graduating in May of 2015, I plan to stay at Tech Tech to pursue my doctorate, also working with bats and wildfire.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


A couple of big news items from the lab:

Rachel Granberg successfully defended her M.S. thesis on Texas horned lizard home ranges, habitats, and habitat suitability.  She will officially graduate in December 2014.  Congratulations, Rachel!

M.S. student, Nick Goforth, recently wed his lovely fiancĂ©e, Jessica Smith.  You may remember Nick and Jessica from an earlier blog post about her journey to get better prosthetic legs for field work.  Click here to donate to that fundraiser.

Mr. and Mrs. Nick Goforth, photo stolen from Nick Goforth's Facebook page 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Guest Blog: Academics Isn't a Spring, Its a Marathon

The following is a guest blog post by Anna Meyer.  All opinions expressed are hers.

When I started my Master’s Degree, I had this unfounded notion that things would go quickly.  Two years seemed short.  Perhaps due to the short, intense nature of undergrad classes where you rocket from beginning to end in a few hazy months of tear soaked assignments and bleary eyed exams, I assumed graduate school would be similar (I was young, idealistic, and stupid).  I thought I could crank out a fast proposal, crank out a fast methods section, and crank out a fast field season before popping out some speedy statistics and blowing out of here in record time.

Now, almost finished with my degree, I’ve had the profound epiphany that you cannot sprint through an advanced degree.  You need to walk-jog through it.  Sometimes you crawl through it.  But trying to fly through your masters like a go-cart powered by adrenaline, coffee and jet fuel is unfeasible. 

This may be off-putting to many people.  A year of our lives, especially in our younger years, is a long time (two years is literally a tenth of my life so far).  Putting in two to three years for a Master’s and up to seven for a PhD can feel like signing on for some modern form of indentured servitude.  Additionally, there is no good way to rush through these and regain years of your life.  So, for you undergrads who want a fast and easy advanced degree, I’m going to stomp on your hopes and dreams: it’s not like that.  It will never be like that.

Truthfully, you need to be in for the long haul, through some arduous and will-destroying situations.  You may lie on the floor of your office/lab/both at 3 am in the morning, trying to finish something at a high powered microscope but desperate for fifteen minutes of sleep.  You may spend 36 straight hours tracking down the last version of a rare manuscript that you NEED to cite for your thesis but is only available in an old book of microfilm that you have to track down deep in the archives of Ecuadorian CSIRO and have shipped to you (via the slower cousin of Pony Express judging by the month it takes to arrive).  You may sit in interminable streams of water in a dripping tent at midnight in your waterlogged sleeping bag after four straight days of rain and be ready to head back out the next day to collect data.  Your relationships will likely fail in the face of your overarching affair with science (but not necessarily!  Have hope!  You’ll find someone someday! It’s statistically probable!).  You may not get enough data, your data may be lost, and you may have to rearrange your methods. 

It would be easy to quit here, right?  It would be easy, and even within your rights to give up.  You’re probably making less than the average fast food worker.  But that’s where being a grad student comes in.  You hang on through all of this, you re-enter your data, you rearrange your methods.  But you mostly just learn to plow through every imaginable situation you can possibly tolerate, and then write a thesis. Which is also not easy.  Writing isn’t just cranking out stream of consciousness thoughts like James Joyce’s Ulysses.  You cite everything you read (Meyer, unpublished data).  You come up with extremely intricate outlines like you’re making the world’s most elaborate house of cards. Sometimes you wait a year on a year on a colleague to summarize a bit of data for a paper that you thought you would have submitted nine months ago, and then Reviewer 1 takes two months to tell you that your article needs major revisions. But day by day, you find (and claw, and sob) your way through and then you finally emerge, blinking in the bright light of not-your-lab and holding a diploma and a nicely bound document of your finished research.  Congrats!  Now go apply for your next degree, you motivated Master of Science, you.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Back to School 2014!

Its the first official week of classes at Texas Tech this week!  Undergraduate students have returned from internships and summer vacations.  Graduate students have returned from field sites.  Everything generally feels back to normal.

It has been an exciting summer for our lab!

Tabea Malinowski completed her MS thesis on thermal profiles and predators of Texas horned lizards and graduated at the beginning of August.  Congratulations, Tabea!  For now, Tabea has returned home to Germany, but she is pursuing Ph.D. programs to continue her education.

Tabea looking excited next to her PowerPoint presentation during her defense

Clara Frasconi-Wendt also successfully defended her MS thesis on thermal physiology and behavior in fire ants and harvester ants.  Though she's all finished up, she won't officially graduate until December.  Clara has also returned to Germany to finish the remaining portion of her Arid Lands Studies program.  I can't believe I didn't get a photo of Clara at her defense!  She did such a great job!

Bradley Barker, former prescribed burning student, took a position on a burn crew with The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas this fall.  We wish him all the best as he starts his career as a wildland firefighter!

At the end of July, the Texas Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Unit celebrated its 25th year in Lubbock with a poster session and meeting.  This was a great opportunity for NRM students to showcase their work and meet successful professionals from Texas Parks and Wildlife, the United States Geological Survey, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies across the state.  Three students from our lab presented their work-- Rachel Granberg, Nick Goforth, and Clara Frasconi-Wendt.

Rachel Granberg discusses her poster with Dr. Richard Stevens

Clara Frasconi-Wendt's poster 

Nick Goforth's poster

In addition, I have been fortunate enough to have some time to see the awesome research other graduate students and land managers have been doing in Texas.  Here's a photo of Tabea at Lubbock Lake Landmark.  We spent a few hours looking at sites there were burned this year and cruising for lizards.  Matt McEwen was gracious  enough to be our host.

Tabea holding a Texas horned lizard at Lubbock Lake Landmark

Kristen Linner, an M.S. student in Dr. Clint Boal's lab let me and Seth Pearson tag along on a juvenile kestrel banding trip at Reese Air Force Base.  Kristen's thesis work centers on how wind energy and land use changes influence kestrel and other avian populations.

Juvenile male and female kestrels at Reese Air Force Base (Photo credit:  Kristen Linner)

Theo Sumnicht, a doctoral candidate from the University of Utah, invited me along for some ant collecting in central Texas.  We spent the day in Brown County at the Muse Wildlife Management Area.  After he processed and identified specimens (the real legwork of any ant collecting trip), we were pleasantly surprised to discover that our trip had produced several new county records.  Theo's travels elsewhere in the state also yielded several new collection records.

Theo Sumnicht at the Muse Wildlife Management Area during a collecting trip

This semester, I'm teaching Fire Ecology and Management and Environmental Science as a Social Pursuit.  Rachel is working toward a December graduation, and Anna and Nick are finishing data analysis in preparation for May 2015 graduation dates.  Vanessa Torres is back working as an Undergraduate Research Fellow in the laboratory, and Britt Smith has his hands full with lots of insect samples that he collected at Texas ranches during his summer field season.

Here's looking forward to an exciting Fall 2014 semester!

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. <www.iucnredlist.org>. 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.